July 15, 2023 Russia-Ukraine war news

By Joshua Berlinger, Thom Poole, Adrienne Vogt and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 8:45 p.m. ET, July 15, 2023
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9:08 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Analysis: Why Vladimir Putin said the Wagner mercenary group does not exist

Analysis by CNN's Nathan Hodge

Now you see Wagner, now you don’t.

Weeks after an armed uprising by the Russian mercenary group Wagner revealed cracks in Russia’s system of one-man rule, the Kremlin has been on a PR offensive. The message is simple: "Russian President Vladimir Putin is firmly in control, now please move along."

In an interview Thursday with the Russian business daily newspaper Kommersant, Putin described a three-hour meeting with Wagner commanders, including the group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, just days after the private military company (PMC) made its abortive march on Moscow last month.

Putin put a positive spin on the meeting, but made a curious admission.

“Wagner PMC does not exist,” Putin said when asked if Wagner would be kept on as a fighting unit. “We do not have a law for private military organizations. It simply does not exist.”

Putin, who is a trained lawyer, reiterated the point during the interview: “There is no such legal entity,” he said.

Technically, Putin is correct. Article 359 of Russia’s Criminal Code outlaws mercenary activity. The law states that “recruitment, training, financing or other material support of a mercenary, as well as their participation in an armed conflict or military operations” carries heavy criminal penalties.

Putin went on to explain in the interview that the State Duma — Russia’s parliament — should consider legislation to legalize PMCs, conceding, “It’s not an easy question.”

This legalistic answer, however, raises more questions than answers. If Wagner was technically an illegal entity all this time, who authorized its use? Who trained and equipped them? And who signed off on their budget?

The issue is about more than Putin’s cavalier approach to the rule of law. It also serves as a reminder that Putin is the pioneer of a post-truth world.

Read more about the rift between the Kremlin and Wagner here:

8:27 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

South Korea's president is making a surprise visit to Ukraine

From CNN's Irene Nasser in Hong Kong and Yoonjung Seo in Seoul, South Korea

Yoon Suk Yeol, President of South Korea, attends a meeting of the North Atlantic Council during a NATO leaders summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12, 2023.
Yoon Suk Yeol, President of South Korea, attends a meeting of the North Atlantic Council during a NATO leaders summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12, 2023. Ints Kalnins/Reuters

South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol made a surprise visit to Ukraine on Saturday for talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, a senior aide for Yoon said in a statement.

Yoon visited the site of the massacre at Bucha before heading to Irpin, a civilian residential area near the capital of Kyiv that has been subject to large-scale missile attacks, the statement said. Yoon also plans to lay a wreath at a war memorial and then hold a meeting with Zelensky.

The visit comes after Yoon attended the NATO summit in Lithuania this week and traveled to Poland for an official visit.

What Seoul is giving Kyiv: South Korea has repeatedly maintained its stance not to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine since Russia's invasion. However, Yoon's government has provided non-lethal aid, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense told CNN on Monday.

8:23 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Zelensky: Russia “investing everything” to stop Ukrainian forces in south and east

From CNN’s Mariya Knight, Yulia Kesaieva and Ivana Kottasová

A view of an explosion of a drone in the city during a Russian drone strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 13, 2023.
A view of an explosion of a drone in the city during a Russian drone strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 13, 2023. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia is applying its maximum efforts to stop Ukraine’s advance as Kyiv pushes ahead with its summer counteroffensive.

“The Russian forces on our southern and eastern lands are investing everything they can to stop our warriors. And every thousand meters of advance, every success of each of our combat brigades deserves gratitude,” Zelensky said in his nightly address on Friday. "Our full focus is on the front line."

Despite Zelensky's positive spin, Ukraine's western allies have expressed concern that Ukraine's forces have not been able to push Russian troops back at a quicker rate.

The front lines in southern and eastern Ukraine have not moved much over the past months, giving Russian troops plenty of time to dig in and prepare for a counteroffensive.

Russian strikes target Zaporizhzhia: The southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia saw several buildings damaged overnight Friday into Saturday as a result of Russian strikes, a local Ukrainian military official said.

The official added that one 62-year-old man was wounded.

As Zelensky alluded to in his comments, the south is a key focus of Ukraine's campaign.

4:33 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

US is “very close” to a decision on providing guided missiles to Ukraine, Zelensky aide says

From CNN's Andrew Carey

An early version of an Army Tactical Missile System is tested on December 14, 2021, at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
An early version of an Army Tactical Missile System is tested on December 14, 2021, at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. John Hamilton/White Sands Missile Range Public Affairs 

One of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s most senior aides has expressed optimism Kyiv might soon be adding Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMs) to its arsenal of weapons. The US-manufactured guided missile has a range of up to 300 kilometers (about 186 miles).

Andriy Yermak told journalists in Kyiv he believed the Biden administration was “very close” to making a decision on approving the transfer of the missiles to Ukraine, though he stressed that a final decision had not yet been made.

Ukrainian leaders have had ATACMs close to the top of their wish list since the early months of the war. The missiles’ longer range would bring more Russian targets into view, including some in occupied Crimea, as well as in Russia itself, a fact that has worried the US.

Key among the Russian targets Ukraine is looking to hit are ammunition dumps and fuel depots, as well as buildings housing Russian soldiers far behind the frontlines.

In recent months, Ukraine has stepped up these strikes in what are described as shaping operations, aimed at disrupting and degrading enemy supply lines ahead of ground offensives. Reports suggest Ukraine has begun to make effective use of Storm Shadow missiles, which were donated by the UK in May and have a range of about 250 kilometers (155 miles).

Yermak’s comments follow a report in The New York Times that described a “quiet debate” inside the Biden administration over whether to send the missiles to Ukraine, thereby reversing the US position that Ukraine does not need them.

8:24 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Russia charges Ukrainian citizen with murder of Russian commander

From CNN's Josh Pennington

Sergei Denisenko has been charged with the "premeditated murder" of Stanislav Rzhitsky and illegal arms trafficking, the Russian Investigative Committee said in a statement Friday.

Denisenko, a Ukrainian citizen, was detained earlier this week in connection with the murder of Rzhitsky, a former submarine commander in Russia's Black Sea fleet. Rzhitsky was killed early Monday morning as he was running through a park in Krasnodar.

Russia's Investigative Committee previously posted a video showing the suspect, who they have now named as Denisenko, being walked through the scene of the murder. It is not clear whether Denisenko was under duress as he spoke at the scene, in a Krasnodar park.

8:24 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

South Africa should follow international law if Putin visits, ICC's chief prosecutor says

From CNN's Radina Gigova in London 

International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan speaks during a UN Security Council meeting at the United Nations headquarters on July 13, in New York City.
International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan speaks during a UN Security Council meeting at the United Nations headquarters on July 13, in New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

South Africa should do "the right thing" and follow international law if Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the BRICS bloc summit in Johannesburg next month in person, International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan told CNN on Friday. 

The term BRIC was coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001 to describe the rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The BRIC bloc had its first summit in 2009 in Russia, and South Africa joined in 2010.

Some background: ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin and Russia’s children's rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova in March over the war crime of unlawful deportation of children. Russia – like the US, Ukraine and China – is not a member of the ICC.

As the court does not conduct trials in absentia, Putin would either have to be handed over by Moscow or arrested outside of Russia. Most countries on Earth – 123 of them – are parties to the treaty, and the ICC statute states that all state parties have the legal obligation to cooperate with the court. It means that they’re obliged to execute arrest warrants.

However, South Africa — the host for this year's BRICS summit — has issued diplomatic immunity to all officials attending a summit in August, meaning Putin might be able to travel to the country despite the ICC warrant for his arrest.

South African officials insist that this is standard protocol and it may not override the ICC arrest warrant. South Africa has not received any confirmation as to whether Putin would attend the summit, according to Naledi Pandor, South Africa's Minister for International Relations.

"South Africa has felt a crime against humanity for decades, the crime of apartheid, I don't think they need lessons from me," he said. "They are voluntarily a state party to the ICC, they know what the law is, and I think they would do the right thing. And we will assess what actually happens at the BRICS summit and respond accordingly," Khan, the ICC prosecutor, told CNN.

"I am a prosecutor, I need to be prudent and prepared for different scenarios with the tools I have available," he added. "South Africa, and I've said it before, and I mean it, is a respective state party. Whenever I look at South Africa, I recall the greatness of the great Mandela. And I think all South Africans will look to him, not to me, about what would the great Nelson Mandela do."

4:26 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Putin has proposed a potential new Wagner commander. Here's what we know

From CNN's Lauren Kent, Pierre Bairin and Uliana Pavlova

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Future Technologies Forum in Moscow on July 13.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Future Technologies Forum in Moscow on July 13. Alexander Kazakov/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed to Wagner fighters that a senior mercenary named Andrey Troshev now command the private military group, according to comments the Russian leader made to the Kommersant newspaper that were published Friday.

Putin appears to have created a split between senior fighters from the mercenary group and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin — whose whereabouts are currently publicly unknown — at least in terms of the narrative emerging from his comments to Kommersant. The paper was reporting on a meeting held by the Russian president five days after Wagner's short-lived rebellion collapsed at the end of June – a meeting also attended by Prigozhin and several dozen senior Wagner combatants.

Responding to a question from Kommersant, Putin said Wagner "does not exist" under Russian law, adding that the Russian government needs to determine how to handle the organization legally.

According to the paper, Putin outlined a number of options for the future of Wagner mercenaries, including continuing to fight under their direct commander, a man going by the call sign "Sedoy," meaning "Gray Hair."

So who is "Gray Hair"? Sedoy is the call sign of Andrey Troshev, a retired Russian colonel and a founding member and executive director of the Wagner Group, according to sanctions documents published by the European Union and France. He has also been sanctioned by Ukraine.

Troshev served as the group's chief of staff for its previous operations in Syria, according to EU sanctions from December 2021.

"He was particularly involved in the area of Deir ez-Zor," sanctions documents state, referring to an eastern city where Wagner fighters have had direct encounters with the US military during the Syrian civil war. "As such, he provides a crucial contribution to (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad’s war effort and therefore supports and benefits from the Syrian regime."

United Kingdom sanctions from June 2022 also identify Troshev as a chief executive with the private military group who "has repressed the civilian population in Syria." 

Troshev is associated with top Wagner Group leaders, including founder Dmitriy Utkin, a former Russian GRU military intelligence officer, according to EU sanctions.

"Gray Hair" is a veteran of the wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan, for which he was awarded several medals, according to Russian media. 

Troshev was among those invited to a reception at the Kremlin in December 2016. A photograph, believed to be from that 2016 reception, emerged in Russian media and shows Putin alongside Troshev and Utkin, who are both wearing several medals. 

Troshev was born in April 1953 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the former Soviet Union, according to sanctions documents. 

CNN's Andrew Carey and Josh Pennington contributed reporting to this post.

4:25 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Number of Russian military personnel in Belarus has decreased, Ukraine says

From Yulia Kesaieva and Lauren Kent

The number of Russian military personnel in Belarus has greatly decreased, according to the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine on Friday. 

Ukraine recorded around 2,000 Russian military personnel stationed at Belarusian training grounds until recently, but at the moment "almost all Russian troops have been withdrawn from the territory of Belarus," said spokesperson for the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine Andrii Demchenko.

"However, we cannot rule out the possibility that in some time, as part of the rotation, regular units may be brought back to the territory of Belarus," Demchenko noted in a media briefing while emphasizing that the situation on the border with Belarus "remains fully under control."

Ukraine's Border Guard Service also said they have not observed "the organized deployment of Russian mercenaries" in the territory of Belarus.

However, that comment follows the Belarusian Defense Ministry announcing on Friday that Wagner private mercenary group fighters are training Belarusian fighters near the town of Osipovichi, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of the capital Minsk.

4:25 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Alleged Russian saboteur gets 10-year prison sentence for foiled plot to blow up Ukrainian infrastructure

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy and Olga Voitovych

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said an alleged Russian saboteur has been given a 10-year prison sentence for a foiled plot to blow up transportation infrastructure in the western Ukrainian region of Rivne, according to a statement on Friday. 

The SBU said a Ukrainian court found the person guilty of “committing crimes against the state security of Ukraine.” 

According to the SBU, the unnamed saboteur was preparing to blow up two transport infrastructure facilities in the Rivne region when he was detained by security service officers carrying out a “multistage operation” in February.

“The aggressor hoped to disrupt the supply of foreign weapons and ammunition to the defense forces on the eastern and southern fronts,” the statement said. The man conducted reconnaissance missions around the infrastructure facilities, hoping to plant explosives in the “most vulnerable” locations along transportation routes before his plan was foiled, it added.

Ukrainian investigators identified him as a former militant who fought against Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation in eastern Ukraine before Russia's full-scale invasion began.

The saboteur was a member of "terrorist groups" and the Russian military intelligence apparatus before the war, according to the SBU statement.

After the war broke out, the saboteur allegedly took an “active part” in fighting against Ukrainian troops in the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson before receiving “an assignment from a Russian GRU to covertly arrive in Rivne region to commit sabotage at transport infrastructure facilities.”