August 17, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Sophie Tanno, Ed Upright, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Maureen Chowdhury, Elise Hammond and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, August 18, 2023
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2:18 p.m. ET, August 17, 2023

Belarus would use nuclear weapons only to respond to aggression, president says

From CNN's Radina Gigova in London

Belarus would immediately respond to aggression if provoked, including by using nuclear weapons, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said in an interview on Thursday, according to state news outlet BelTa. 

“There can be only one threat: aggression against our country. If aggression against our country is launched from the side of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, we will immediately respond with everything we have," he said. "NATO stands behind Poland, Lithuania, Latvia. We certainly understand that the forces are incomparable."

Lukashenko reiterated that “the nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus will definitely not be used unless we face aggression."

"If only an act of aggression is committed against us, an attack against Belarus, we will not tarry, wait and the rest. We will use the entire arsenal of our weapons for deterrence. Why? Belarus is not Russia. Belarus cannot observe and wait for something. There is a great distance between Brest (a city in southwestern Belarus) and Vladivostok (a city in far eastern Russia), but our territory can be captured within a month and there will be nothing left," he said. 

Lukashenko said that he has publicly approved plans in case of aggression, but he would not specify the contents. "We didn't bring nuclear weapons here in order to scare someone. Yes, nuclear weapons represent a strong deterring factor. But these are tactical nuclear weapons, not strategic ones. This is why we will use them immediately once aggression is launched against us," he added. 

Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and said that Moscow would also construct a special storage facility for the weapons.

The Belarusian president also said Thursday his country would not get directly involved in Russia's war in Ukraine, unless Ukrainians cross the border.

“If you, Ukrainians, do not cross our border, we will never get involved in this war, in this hot war," Lukashenko said in the interview. "Yet, we will keep helping Russia — they are our ally," he added, saying that over 50 countries are helping Ukraine "with coordination, training, ammunition, weapons, and so on" but "only Belarus is openly helping Russia.” 

He called claims that Putin is pushing him to get involved in the war "complete nonsense."

For context: Belarus helped Russia launch its initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, allowing the Kremlin’s troops to enter Ukraine from the north.

3:25 p.m. ET, August 17, 2023

Belarus' president says Ukraine war was avoidable and that Minsk should be involved in peace talks

From CNN's Radina Gigova

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks in Minsk, Belarus, on February 16.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks in Minsk, Belarus, on February 16. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

The war in Ukraine was avoidable, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said in an interview on Thursday, according to Belarus state news outlet BelTa.  

"The war was avoidable,” he said. “At any point in time. It can be stopped now and it could have been avoided then."

Lukashenko said he was "familiar with all the issues" regarding Ukraine and Russia because at one point he liaised between former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Lukashenko is a longtime ally of Putin. Belarus, which is west of Russia on Ukraine’s long northern border, helped Russia launch its initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, allowing the Kremlin’s troops to enter Ukraine from the north.

Lukashenko said in the interview that Belarus should be involved in peace talks about Ukraine.

"We border on Ukraine. We are 'co-aggressors'" in the eyes of the West, Lukashenko said. "Of course, we have our interests there, and our position should be heard. I believe that Belarus should be involved in the negotiation process."

Lukashenko said he thinks Belarus' participation in peace talks would be positive.

As for the current state of affairs in Moscow, the Belarusian president said claims that the Wagner Group's short-lived rebellion weakened Putin are "total nonsense."

Lukashenko said he allowed the private military group into his country to "quell this mutiny," and that Russia's leader had emerged from the ordeal stronger.

“As for Putin's overthrow that (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky and his supporters desire, they may try. Let them try. If they don't have enough problems as it is, they will get even more problems. Nobody will overthrow Putin today,” Lukashenko said. 
1:03 p.m. ET, August 17, 2023

German army trains "highly motivated" Ukrainian soldiers on Leopard tanks near Berlin

From CNN’s Catherine Nicholls in London

German Lieutenant General Andreas Marlow stands in front of a Leopard 1A5 battle tank as he speaks to the press in Klietz, Germany, on Thursday.
German Lieutenant General Andreas Marlow stands in front of a Leopard 1A5 battle tank as he speaks to the press in Klietz, Germany, on Thursday. Annegret Hilse/Reuters

Germany’s army trained Ukrainian troops on Leopard 1 battle tanks Thursday in the eastern German town of Klietz, just outside Berlin. 

The Ukrainian army needs to train more soldiers after many have either been wounded or killed during the fight against Russia's invasion, German Lt. Gen. Andreas Marlow told reporters at the training site.

"I think the most important concern for Ukraine is the training of officers, because it's obvious that the professional soldiers have been at war for a year and a half now,” Marlow said. “Many have been killed or wounded, and now they need supplies, including leaders and sub-leaders. And there is quite a demand for that."

The Ukrainian soldiers are "highly motivated," said Marco Maulbecker, a German armed forces commander and trainer.

"They have to be. After all, if you want to learn the basic skills of the main battle tank, the instruction manual is a good 700 pages long. And you can see the motivation above all in the fact that they also deal with the system after duty and are really willing to learn the system in a really short time." 

Ukrainian soldiers also spoke to journalists at the training site. 

"The training is very important for us because we receive (new) tanks with technical (systems), and the soldiers have to learn to use this equipment," one service member said. “Therefore, it is very important for us, so that our soldiers can use it efficiently during battles."

"We are very motivated to fight for our home country and that's the best remedy against fear," the soldier added.
12:52 p.m. ET, August 17, 2023

After aide's controversial remark, NATO chief says only Ukraine can decide when to negotiate with Russia

From CNN’s James Frater and Niamh Kennedy

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a press conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a press conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12. Kacper Pempel/Reuters/FILE

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg stressed Thursday that it is up to Ukraine to decide when to come to the negotiating table, following controversial remarks made by the director of his office earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Stian Jenssen, the director of the Private Office of the NATO Secretary General, said during an event in Norway that ceding territory to Russia could be a way for Ukraine to achieve peace and join the alliance, according to Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang. 

The remarks sparked outrage among Ukrainian officials, including the adviser to the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Mykhailo Podolyak, who called the remarks "ridiculous," saying such a move would only encourage Moscow's "appalling indulgences." 

Speaking during a conference in Arendal, Norway, on Thursday, Stoltenberg maintained that if NATO allies want peace, "military support for Ukraine is the solution," according to Norwegian public broadcaster NRK. 

“What is important is that it is the Ukrainians themselves who must decide when they are willing to sit down at the negotiating table,” Stoltenberg said, according to NRK. 

Tension in the Baltic states: In his remarks Thursday, Stoltenberg also issued a warning that "great powers" such as Russia are not entitled to hold "spheres of interest," according to NRK.

"Small countries like Latvia and Lithuania cannot accept that (just) because they are small neighboring countries, then Russia shall rule over them," the NATO chief said.

Lithuania announced Wednesday that it would temporarily suspend operations at two checkpoints along its border with Belarus due to concerns about the presence of Wagner private military forces.

Wagner fighters are stationed in Belarus — a close ally of Russia — in the wake of their short-lived rebellion against the Kremlin. Their presence has raised tensions on NATO's eastern flank.

12:07 p.m. ET, August 17, 2023

Moscow court fines Google for failing to delete banned content about "special military operation" in Ukraine

From CNN's Radina Gigova in London 

A magistrate’s court in Moscow fined US tech giant Google 3 million ruble (about $31,800) Thursday for its failure to delete questionable information about what Russia calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine, as well as information that is banned in Russia, according to state news agency TASS. 

Google had been served with an official notification requiring it to delete videos from YouTube that included instructions for viewers on how to access false information about the "special military operation" and how to illegally enter guarded facilities, which would jeopardize a person’s life and health, according to TASS. 

Previously, the same court had repeatedly imposed fines on Google for administrative violations, including a 3 million ruble fine (about $31,800) in May for hosting videos on YouTube that promoted non-traditional sexual relations, defamed Russia’s armed forces, and contained instructions on the so-called illegal practice of "roofing" or climbing up tall structures to enter their roof premises, according to TASS. 

12:06 p.m. ET, August 17, 2023

Ukrainian prime minister calls for increased international pressure to restore grain deal

From Yulia Kesaieva

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 19.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 19. Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters/FILE

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal held a meeting with World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in Kyiv on Thursday, in which​ he called for increased international pressure to restore the Black Sea grain deal.

Shmyhal said in a social media post that he stressed that Ukraine is counting on WTO support in restoring agricultural exports. 

The prime minister also thanked the WTO for its political support and help with overcoming challenges posed by Russia, having described Russia​ as “provoking a global food crisis.”

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala also emphasized the importance of reopening​ the grain corridor, according to the Ukrainian government readout of the meeting.

Wheat grains are unloaded inside a storage facility in Zghurivka, Ukraine, on August 9.
Wheat grains are unloaded inside a storage facility in Zghurivka, Ukraine, on August 9. Viacheslav Musiienko/Reuters/FILE

Russia withdrew from the grain deal exactly one month ago. The agreement was brokered​ in July 2022 by the United Nations and Turkey in order to ensure safe passage for the ships exporting Ukrainian grain.

Shmyhal also used Thursday's meeting to express hope for WTO assistance in removing mines from Ukrainian land, according to the readout.

Kostan Nechyporenko contributed to this report.

10:47 a.m. ET, August 17, 2023

National Guard of Ukraine says its forces are repelling Russian counterattacks in Donetsk village

From Kostan Nechyporenko and Lauren Kent

The National Guard of Ukraine said on Thursday that its forces are entrenched near the village of Urozhaine in the eastern Donetsk region and repelling Russian attacks after retaking the area. 

"National Guard units have cleared and demined the liberated settlement. At the moment, they have consolidated their positions and are repelling counterattacks by enemy assault groups trying to regain their lost ground," one of the National Guard's deputy directors said in a televised statement on Thursday. 

Kyiv said Wednesday that Ukrainian forces had retaken the village, after days of punishing battles as part of its counteroffensive against Russia.

Russian forces inside Urozhaine had been in a precarious situation for some time, especially since Ukraine took the neighboring village of Staromaiorske roughly two weeks ago. Russian soldiers and well-connected military bloggers had hinted it was a matter of time until Urozhaine would fall too, given that Ukrainian forces had since been able to attack it from several sides.

CNN's Kostan Nechyporenko and Alex Stambaugh contributed reporting to this post.

9:42 a.m. ET, August 17, 2023

Ukraine’s counteroffensive gradually moving forward with the help of cluster bombs

From CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, Florence Davey-Attlee, Kostyantin Gak and Brice Lâiné

Ukrainian soldiers stand with Ukrainian flag in Urozhaine, Donetsk Region, Ukraine, in this screen grab obtained from a handout video released on August 16.
Ukrainian soldiers stand with Ukrainian flag in Urozhaine, Donetsk Region, Ukraine, in this screen grab obtained from a handout video released on August 16. Ukrainian Armed Forces/Reuters

Ukrainian marines have advanced for the second time in two weeks on the southeastern frontlines, towards the key port city of Mariupol, with the recapture of the village of Urozhaine appearing to have been partially aided by the Ukrainian use of controversial cluster munitions.

Drone footage of the intense fight for the village has emerged in which dozens of Russian troops can be seen fleeing to the village’s south. They are apparently shelled as they flee, at times by what seem to be cluster munitions, two arms experts who reviewed videos of the incidents said. The experts did not want to be identified discussing a sensitive issue.

Dykyi, the callsign of an assault company commander, said of the Russian rout: “Very many died, especially when they started to run.”

The videos show dozens of Russian troops running along an open road, seemingly forced to use the asphalt as the adjacent fields and treelines had been mined. Dykyi said. The Russians also gathered in large numbers in houses which were then hit by artillery.

“Lots of them died there,” Dykyi said, adding that mortars and tanks were used in the rout. He would not comment on the use of cluster munitions.

The drone videos also showed a Ukrainian tank charging alone at Russian positions, firing, and dragging behind it a cable on which were attached mine-clearing explosives. The charges detonate when the tank turns away from the clashes, ensuring the clear advance of the next units through minefields that have caused significant losses.

The supply of cluster munitions to the Ukrainian military was preceded by great ethical debate inside the Biden administration, US officials have said. While brutally effective against infantry on open ground, the weapons scatter small droplet explosives that often fail to detonate and can be a residual hazard to civilians for decades to come.

More than 100 countries have banned the use of cluster weapons via treaty, though the Ukraine, Russia and the United States are not signatories to that international treaty.

The US military says the models they are supplying Ukraine have an improved “dud” rate in which only 2.5% of them fail to detonate on dispersal – a claim that is viewed skeptically by critics. By comparison, Russian cluster weapons, also said to be in use during their invasion of Ukraine, are claimed by Western officials to have a dud rate of 30%.

The Ukrainian military has confirmed the US weapons are in use on the frontlines, but declined to offer details. CNN was unable to confirm the devices identified by experts as likely cluster munitions in the videos from Urozhaine were US-supplied weapons. Ukraine is thought to have produced several similar devices domestically that could be in use on the frontlines.

Read more about Ukraine's counteroffensive.

9:28 a.m. ET, August 17, 2023

Russian general reportedly dismissed for failings in Ukraine dies from "long illness" at age 58

From CNN's Ivana Kottasova, Darya Tarasova and Lauren Kent in London

An official portrait of Russian Army General Gennady Zhidko.
An official portrait of Russian Army General Gennady Zhidko.

A Russian general who reportedly served as the top military commander for Ukraine last year died on Wednesday, according to Russian state media.

Army Gen. Gennady Zhidko died “after a long illness” on Wednesday, according to the state news agency TASS. He was 58, TASS reported.

Zhidko served as Russia’s Eastern Military District commander between May and October last year. He was reportedly the overall theater commander in Ukraine during Moscow’s offensive against Lysychansk and Severodonetsk in the summer of 2022.

Zhidko’s death was first announced on Telegram by the governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk territory, Mikhail Degtyarev, who said, “I was lucky to know this man, very attentive to the needs of a simple soldier and very demanding to the service. It is these commanders who are called commanders.”

No official announcement of Zhidko’s death has been released. Zhidko’s biography published on TASS does not mention his time serving as commander in Ukraine.

He reportedly took over the leadership of Russian forces in Ukraine some after Moscow abandoned its botched attempt to take over Kyiv last spring, the investigative group Conflict Intelligence Team reported in May 2022.

The appointment was never officially confirmed, but in June 2022, Zhidko was seen sitting next to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during the minister’s visit to forces involved in the war in Ukraine, an event that appeared to confirm Zhidko’s elevation to the top role.

Read more about Zhidko's role here.