July 21, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Sophie Tanno, Adrienne Vogt, Leinz Vales, Matt Meyer and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT) July 24, 2023
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7:54 p.m. ET, July 21, 2023

US intelligence officials see no reason to doubt Putin's claim that he has nuclear weapons in Belarus

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand

Putin speaks at the SPIEF 2023 St.Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 16, in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Putin speaks at the SPIEF 2023 St.Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 16, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Contributor/Getty Images/FILE

US intelligence officials have no reason to doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he has moved a batch of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, senior officials with a division of the US Defense Department said Friday.

Putin said last month at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that “the first (Russian) nuclear warheads were delivered to the territory of Belarus,” adding that they were placed there for “deterrence.” 

Russia has about 4,477 deployed and reserve nuclear warheads, including around 1,900 tactical nuclear weapons, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

It is not clear how much of that arsenal Putin intends to move, and Western officials have never publicly confirmed that any weapons have been transferred to Belarus.  

But senior officials with the US Defense Intelligence Agency told a small group of reporters Friday that analysts have “no reason to doubt” Putin’s claims about the transfer.

The officials would not disclose why they believe that. They acknowledged that the weapons are difficult for the US intelligence community to track, even through satellite imagery.

What we know so far: US and Western officials told CNN earlier this month that it did not appear Belarus had finished upgrading the necessary storage facilities to house tactical nuclear weapons, and that available satellite imagery had not shown any signs of the kind of preparations and security that would be standard at a Russian nuclear facility. 

Other sources told CNN, however, that there are various facilities in Belarus, dating back to the Soviet era, that could feasibly house some of the weapons. 

Asked last week whether he had seen signs that Russia had moved the weapons, UK Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace told CNN that the UK had “seen signs of this progressing,” and noted that Putin “doesn’t always lie.” When pressed, however, Wallace also declined to elaborate on the signs he had seen.

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller similarly declined to answer questions earlier this month about where the weapons actually are located.

What role is Belarus playing? Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko said last month that in the face of aggression, he would show “no hesitation” in using the Russian tactical nuclear weapons stationed on his country's soil.

But the senior DIA officials said they do not believe Lukashenko would have any control over the arsenal. It would most likely be entirely controlled by Russia, the official said. 

They also said that DIA does not believe the movement of the weapons to Belarus would alter the global nuclear landscape or increase the risk of a nuclear incident, because they would be in storage rather than forward deployed, and because they will be controlled by Russian forces.

Miller said the US has “not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture nor any indication Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.”

6:28 p.m. ET, July 21, 2023

It's past midnight in Kyiv. Here's what you should know

From CNN staff

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenky says his country’s counteroffensive is progressing slower than anticipated because the operation started later than initially expected. 

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the West is disappointed with the results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Since it began in June, the fighting has proved tougher than some anticipated, with progress being measured in hundreds of meters as opposed to tens of kilometers.

Here's what else you should know:

  • Grain deal developments: Zelensky says he “coordinated efforts” on restoring the Black Sea grain deal in a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And Turkey will “not hesitate” to take the initiative needed to prevent the “harmful effects” of Russia pulling out of the Black Sea grain deal, Erdogan said Friday, according to Turkish state media. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said the option of having Turkey escort grain ships through the Black Sea is not a viable alternative to the collapse of the grain deal.
  • Odesa strikes: A total of 21 people have been injured by Russian strikes on the southern port city of Odesa over the past five days, the head of the regional military administration, Oleh Kiper, said on Friday.
  • German support for Poland: Germany has pledged to support its NATO ally Poland in defending its eastern flank in case of a potential attack from Wagner fighters in neighboring Belarus.
  • Russia's crackdown on challengers: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin should be worried about his safety, pointing to the history of mysterious deaths of Kremlin challengers. In the latest example of Moscow's crackdown on dissent, a prominent Russian military blogger who has been critical of Putin was arrested in Moscow, according to Russian state media and a Telegram message attributed to his wife. He has been remanded in custody until September 18 by a judge at the Meshchansky District Court in Moscow, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Friday. 
  • On the ground: Two children were killed by Russian artillery in the village of Druzhba in the eastern Donetsk region Friday, according to a regional official.

3:25 p.m. ET, July 21, 2023

Zelensky says he "coordinated efforts" on restoring grain deal in phone conversation with Turkey's Erdogan

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva

Men bag grain to sell at Dawanau International Market in Kano Nigeria, Friday, July 14, 2023. By halting a landmark deal that allowed Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a risky gamble that could badly damage Moscow's relations with many of its partners that have remained neutral or even supportive of the Kremlin amid the war in Ukraine. 
Men bag grain to sell at Dawanau International Market in Kano Nigeria, Friday, July 14, 2023. By halting a landmark deal that allowed Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a risky gamble that could badly damage Moscow's relations with many of its partners that have remained neutral or even supportive of the Kremlin amid the war in Ukraine.  Sunday Alamba/AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says he “coordinated efforts” on restoring the Black Sea grain deal in a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Due to Russia's actions, the world is once again on the brink of a food crisis," Zelensky wrote on Twitter Friday. “A total of 400 million people in many countries of Africa and Asia are at risk of starvation. Together, we must avert a global food crisis."

Zelensky said he thanked his Turkish counterpart "for the fruitful meeting" held in Istanbul earlier this month as well as for Turkey's "principled position regarding [Ukraine’s] NATO membership."

The Ukrainian leader also said he requested Erdogan’s assistance with prisoner-of-war swaps and discussed his peace plan.

3:13 p.m. ET, July 21, 2023

Zelensky says Ukraine must neutralize the Crimean bridge that was target of recent attack

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio in London

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that the Kerch Bridge connecting Russia to Crimea serves as a lifeline for Moscow's invasion and must be neutralized.

“The Crimean bridge, this is not just a logistical road, this is the road used to feed the war with ammunition, and this is being done on a daily basis,” Zelensky told the Aspen Security Forum, where he appeared by video.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 in a move that Ukraine, its allies and various international bodies condemned as illegal. Zelensky characterized the bridge as an extension of that Russian offense, calling it "an enemy facility built outside the law, outside international laws and all applicable norms."

“So understandably this is our objective," he continued. "Any target that is bringing war, not peace, must be neutralized." 

The Ukrainian president also reiterated his government’s objective is to “reclaim the whole of the Crimea.”

“It's our sovereign territory, an unalienable part of our nation,” he said.

More background: Ukraine has claimed responsibility for an attack that killed two people and wounded a third on the Crimean bridge earlier this week.

The nearly 12-mile crossing is the longest in Europe and holds huge strategic and symbolic importance for Moscow.

Monday’s attack was the second on the bridge since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, after a fuel tanker exploded while crossing it in October.

A source in Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) told CNN the most recent attack was a joint operation of the SBU and Ukraine’s naval forces. And earlier this month, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister made what appeared to be the clearest admission yet that Ukrainian forces were also responsible for the October attack.

2:21 p.m. ET, July 21, 2023

Ukraine's Zelensky says slower pace of counteroffensive due to later-than-expected start

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio in London

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol during a joint statement, Saturday, July 15, 2023, in Kyiv, Ukraine. 
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listens to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol during a joint statement, Saturday, July 15, 2023, in Kyiv, Ukraine.  Jae C. Hong/AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenky says his country’s counteroffensive is progressing slower than anticipated because the operation started later than initially expected. 

“We did have plans to start it in spring, but we didn't, because frankly, we had not enough munitions and armaments and not enough properly trained brigades — I mean, properly trained in these weapons,” Zelensky told the Aspen Security Forum via video on Friday. “Because we started a bit late, it can be said — and it’s the truth, shared by all experts — that it provided Russia was the time to mine all our land and build several lines of defense.”

“Definitely they had a bit more time than they needed; because of that, they built all of those lines. And really, they had a lot of mines on our fields. Because of that, a slower pace of our counteroffensive actions,” Zelensky said. 

The Ukrainian president said despite the difficulties, his country was making progress. 

“We didn't want to lose our people, our personnel and our servicemen, we didn't want to lose equipment and because of that, they were quite careful about the offensive actions,” he said. “I would say that we are approaching a moment when relevant actions can gain pace because we are already going through some mine locations and we are demining these areas.”

1:27 p.m. ET, July 21, 2023

Ukraine says 2 children were killed by Russian shelling in Donetsk region

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva and Vasco Cotovio

Two children were killed by Russian artillery in the village of Druzhba in the eastern Donetsk region Friday, according to a regional official.

“At about 3 p.m., the Russians shelled the village with artillery — one of the shells hit the yard where the children were staying — a 10-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl,” the head of the Donetsk region military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, wrote on his Telegram channel. “They were brother and sister.”

“In addition, an elderly woman was wounded in the same village during the shelling — she was taken to hospital,” he added.

Kyrylenko called on residents to evacuate to areas further from the front line, especially if they have small children.

“Once again, I urge parents of underage children to take their children out of the danger zone,” he wrote. “Children should not live near war. You are responsible for the safety of their lives, including in the eyes of the law.”

1:23 p.m. ET, July 21, 2023

Ukraine’s Zelensky will discuss Black Sea region with Turkey’s Erdogan following grain deal collapse

From Yulia Kesaieva and Vasco Cotovio

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wait before a working session on Ukraine at the NATO summit, in Vilnius on July 12, 2023.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wait before a working session on Ukraine at the NATO summit, in Vilnius on July 12, 2023. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says he will hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss grain-related issues, on Friday.

“Tonight I plan to hold talks with Turkish President Erdogan,” Zelensky said in his nightly address. “On the Black Sea region, food security, and other important topics.”

Zelensky also said he had convened a Supreme Commander-in-Chief Staff meeting to discuss Russian strikes on Ukrainian ports and promised a response. 

Erdogan said earlier today that Turkey will “not hesitate” to take the initiative needed to prevent the “harmful effects” of Russia pulling out of the deal, according to Turkish state media

The president hailed the grain deal as a “vital initiative” for humanity, outlining Turkey’s commitment to shoring up its future, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency.

Zelensky also said he had convened a Supreme Commander in Chief staff meeting to discuss Russian strikes on Ukrainian ports and promised a response. 

“If someone in Russia hopes that they will be able to make the Black Sea a space of arbitrariness and terrorism — they will not succeed,” he said. “We know how to defend ourselves, and we see the world's willingness to work together in the future — and more actively - to bring peace to this region.”

Speaking about Russian strikes not just on the port city of Odesa but other Ukrainian communities, Zelensky once again criticized Russia. 

“Only absolute evil can inflict such attacks. There will be a response,” he said. “In addition, there will be even more consolidation of the world for protection and joint action, even more energy for victory, even more desire for justice, fair punishment of Russia for all the crimes of this war.”

“And there will be such punishment,” he added.

CNN’s Niamh Kennedy contributed reporting to this post.

1:14 p.m. ET, July 21, 2023

Russian military blogger who called Putin a "bum" will be held in custody until September, state media reports

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio and Katharina Krebs

Well-known Russian military blogger and former official in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic Igor Girkin has been remanded in custody until September 18 by a judge at the Meshchansky District Court in Moscow, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported on Friday. 

Girkin, who also goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, has been openly critical of Russia’s military in Ukraine and even Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, calling the leader a "lowlife" and "cowardly bum."

Girkin had asked the judge to place him under house arrest, arguing he is not a flight risk and claiming he has a heart condition.

“Recently, I was diagnosed with angina pectoris of the 2nd degree, unfortunately I did not manage to get any certificates,” Girkin told the court in a statement, according to Russian outlets and audio leaked on social media. “But I take the necessary drugs daily. Therefore, naturally, I would like to ask for house arrest.”

The prosecution asked for Girkin to be remanded in custody, saying he was a flight risk and citing his connections to law enforcement agencies, Russian media also reported. In his statement to court, the prominent blogger argued he could not flee abroad.

“The investigator’s statement that I can hide abroad is frankly ridiculous, I am wanted by Interpol in most countries of the world, I have been sentenced by the Hague Tribunal to life imprisonment for a crime that I did not commit,” he said. 

Last year, a Dutch court found Girkin guilty of mass murder for his role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 — which resulted in the death of the aircraft’s 298 passengers — and he was sentenced in absentia to life in prison.

"I am by no means going to hide from the investigation and am ready to defend my rights in court," Girkin added. "I ask the court to take into account that I have been living permanently in Moscow for nine years and have never hidden from the Federal Security Service or other law enforcement agencies of Russia. That's all I wanted to say."

 

12:24 p.m. ET, July 21, 2023

US secretary of state says Prigozhin should be worried about safety, citing Russia's "open-windows policy"

From CNN's Kylie Atwood

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, not pictured, at the Department of State in Washington, DC, on July 20, 2023.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, not pictured, at the Department of State in Washington, DC, on July 20, 2023. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin should be worried about his safety, pointing to the history of mysterious deaths of Kremlin challengers. 

“If I were Mr. Prigozhin, I would remain very concerned. NATO has an open-door policy; Russia has an open-windows policy. And he needs to be very focused on that,” Blinken said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

Blinken added that it is difficult to know how weakened Russian President Vladimir Putin has been by Prigozhin’s short-lived rebellion last month, but he reiterated that there are “cracks” in Putin’s power. 

Regarding the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Blinken said that it is still relatively early days and he believes "they have what they need to be very successful."