August 24, 2023 Russia-Ukraine, Prigozhin news

By Helen Regan, Peter Wilkinson, Josh Berlinger, Adrienne Vogt, Matt Meyer and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, August 25, 2023
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7:55 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Ukraine carries out a series of ambitious raids against Russian positions on the Crimean coast

From CNN's Tim Lister

We're learning more about the Ukrainian raid in the Crimean village of Mayak, and it appears it was part of one of Ukrainian forces' most complex and ambitious operations to date against Russian military facilities on the Crimean Peninsula.

The operation involved Ukrainian special forces landing on the western shore of Crimea, near the settlements of Olenivka and Mayak, to attack Russian units, destroy Kremlin materiel and raise the Ukrainian flag.

Ukraine's Defense Intelligence Directorate said it carried out the attack in a joint operation with the Ukrainian Navy. The directorate released several videos purporting to show Ukrainian inflatables close to the Crimean coast in the darkness.

There's been no word from the Russian-appointed authorities in Crimea on the attacks.

The area targeted by Kyiv contains extensive Russian air defenses and missile sites, including advanced systems. Mayak is said to be home to a Russian radio engineering regiment and sophisticated radar.

It is the second time in two days that Ukrainian forces have targeted Russian weaponry in the area. Kyiv said Wednesday its forces had destroyed an S-400 missile defense battery in the area.

Reports from social media: Unofficial Russian social media accounts have spoken of firing near a campsite at Cape Tarkhankut -- the westernmost point in Crimea -- before dawn on Thursday. One channel said the first shooting broke out shortly before 4 a.m.

"When people woke up and came out of the houses and tents to the beach, they saw two rubber boats not far from the shore. There were 10 unidentified men in them. One of them fired at the camping site," according to the channel SHOT on the messaging app Telegram.

A prominent Russian military blog, Wargonzo, reported that, "according to some sources, a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group landed in the area of Cape Tarkhankut, shelled the camping on the seashore and fled in the direction of Odesa."

A Telegram channel associated with a military unit of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic also reported the clashes. It said that four Ukrainian boats were destroyed near Cape Tarkhankut and 15 to 20 people were killed.

7:02 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Days before plane crash, Prigozhin's desert video suggested Wagner was refocusing its efforts on Africa

From CNN's Tim Lister and Gianluca Mezzofiore 

Yevgeny Prigozhin gives an address in a desert area at an unknown location, in this still image taken from video possibly shot in Africa and published August 21.
Yevgeny Prigozhin gives an address in a desert area at an unknown location, in this still image taken from video possibly shot in Africa and published August 21. Courtesy PMC Wagner/Telegram/Reuters

Days before the plane crash that is reported to have killed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner boss appears to have made a quick trip to Mali, where his private military company operates in support of government forces against jihadist groups.

The one-day visit appears to have been a further indication that Prigozhin and Wagner were engaged in a sharp pivot away from Ukraine and toward focusing on activities in Africa.

Flight-tracking data shows an Ilyushin-76 aircraft of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry left Moscow late last week and flew via Damascus to Bamako, the capital of Mali, arriving there on Saturday. A day later, the plane flew back to Russia via the same route, arriving at Zhukovsky Airport outside Moscow on Monday.

Soon after the Ilyushin-76 completed its trip, video emerged of Prigozhin speaking in desert surroundings. Analysts with the open source group All Eyes On Wagner have noted that in the background as he speaks, there is a pick-up truck commonly used by the Malian military.

An apparently confident Prigozhin says that "Wagner PMC is conducting RPD (reconnaissance and search operations), making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa -- even freer. Justice and happiness for the African peoples. Let's make it a nightmare for ISIS, al Qaeda and other thugs. We are hiring real bogatyrs (ancient Slavic warriors) and continue to fulfill the tasks that were set before us and that we promised we would handle."

CNN has been unable to confirm whether Prigozhin traveled on the Ilyushin-76 or when the video was shot -- but it appears to be recent.

Wagner has often used Russian air force airlift like the Ilyushin-76 to resupply its mercenary units in Africa, specifically in Libya, Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic. Russian air force planes have continued to shuttle back and forth to African countries where Wagner has a presence despite the short-lived mutiny led by Prigozhin in Russia at the end of June

There is evidence that Wagner operations have continued in both Mali and the Central African Republic since then, even as Wagner fighters relocated to Belarus and were forced to give up their heavy weaponry

Jihadi groups in Mali claim to have killed a number of Russians in recent clashes. The al Qaeda-aligned group JNIM claimed late last week that its fighters clashed with Malian soldiers "and militants from the Russian PMC Wagner group between Timbuktu and Ber."

Prigozhin had suggested that Wagner was also ready to intercede in Niger following the coup there last month.

6:31 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Witness describes what he saw as Prigozhin's plane fell from the sky

From Joshua Berlinger

The wreckage of a plane is seen at the crash site in Tver region, Russia, on August 24.
The wreckage of a plane is seen at the crash site in Tver region, Russia, on August 24. Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

Vitaly Stepenok, a 72-year-old resident of the village of Kuzhenkino, shared with Reuters his account of what happened when the plane believed to be carrying Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin fell from the sky.

Stepenok said he first heard a loud bang and was afraid the plane would land on houses in Kuzhenkino, which lies roughly midway between the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

"Usually, if an explosion happens on the ground then you get an echo, but it was just a bang and I looked up and saw white smoke," Stepenok told Reuters.
"One wing flew off in one direction and the fuselage went like that," he said, gesturing with his arms to show how the plane headed down towards the ground. "And then it glided down on one wing. It didn't nose-dive, it was gliding."

After the crash, Stepenok said he jumped on his bike and arrived at the scene in 20 minutes.

"Everything was on fire. People were walking around. They dragged someone out, their remains," he said.

5:43 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Ukraine says its forces carried out a raid on the Crimean coast

From CNN's Olga Voitovych and Tim Lister

Ukrainian forces carried out what Kyiv called a special operation in the annexed Crimean Peninsula, a government spokesman said Thursday. What exactly happened remains unclear.

Andrii Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine's Directorate of Intelligence, said the agency partnered with Ukraine's Navy to carry out the operation. Yusov said authorities would not be disclosing all the details surrounding the mission -- only that it was a success, there were no Ukrainian casualties and that there were losses on the enemy's side.

While Yusov declined to offer details, accounts on social media help paint a picture of what happened. According to a channel called "Krym Realii" on the messaging app Telegram, explosions were heard near the village of Mayak on Cape Tarkhankut at about 5 a.m. Other unofficial social media accounts spoke of hearing gunfire near a campsite on the Crimean coast. One said that people had seen two rubber boats close to the shore.

Russian forces are believed to have stationed missiles at various locations on Crimea's west coast that have been used to target Odesa, a nearby Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea, and other locations.

What's happening in Crimea: Ukrainian forces have, in recent weeks, stepped up their operations targeting Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russian forces in 2014 in violation of international law, using missiles and sea drones to hit Kremlin targets there.

In an interview with CNN last month, Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Kyiv would continue carrying out attacks on Crimea and the Kerch Bridge that connects it to the Russian mainland.

Ukraine's military said Wednesday that it had “completely destroyed” a Russian missile system in a village on the same cape where the Thursday special operation took place.

5:37 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

The bodies of those killed in Wednesday's plane crash have arrived at a nearby forensic center

From CNN's Anna Chernova and Tim Lister 

Vans said to be carrying the bodies of those who were on board the plane that crashed Wednesday were seen on Russian media arriving at the Tver Regional Bureau of Forensic Medical Examination.

The same black vans had been seen at the crash site earlier on Thursday.

Eight bodies were found at the crash site, Russian media reported on Wednesday. Wagner chief Yevegeny Prigozhin was listed as one of the passengers on board the downed plane.

Russian authorities have said efforts will be made to confirm the identity of the victims at the Tver morgue. 

6:21 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

A Russian ultra-nationalist described Prigozhin as a hero after his presumed death

From CNN's Anna Chernova and Tim Lister

Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group's pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24.
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group's pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24. Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

A prominent figure among Russia's ultra-nationalist community, Alexander Dugin, spoke of Yevgeny Prigozhin as a "hero" following reports of the Wagner chief's presumed death.

Dugin shared an anecdote in which his daughter Darya -- who was killed in a bomb explosion in Moscow last summer -- described Prigozhin in glowing terms at the outset of the war.

"Prigozhin is so strong and confident, bold, sharp, that, for sure, no one prays for him. It doesn't even cross anyone's mind. Let's start praying for him...," Dugin recounted his daughter saying.

Dugin added on his Telegram channel: "If the diabolical enemy kills our heroes with precision, it means that we have heroes."

The Russian security services said that Dugina's assassination was the work of Ukrainian intelligence. A Ukrainian defense intelligence official told CNN shortly after her death that Kyiv had nothing to do with it, though the US intelligence community believes that the bombing was authorized by elements within the Ukrainian government, sources briefed on the information told CNN in October.

4:46 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

France says conditions under which Prigozhin plane crash occurred “remain unknown"

From Claudia Colliva in Paris

French government spokesperson Olivier Veran speaks at a news conference in Paris on July 26.
French government spokesperson Olivier Veran speaks at a news conference in Paris on July 26. Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

A French government spokesman said many details about the plane crash that is presumed to have killed Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin "remain unknown."

When asked by French television station France 2 if he was surprised by the news of the crash, Olivier Veran said:

“We still don't know the conditions under which this crash took place. We can have reasonable doubts.”

Veran added that Prigozhin was the man behind “Putin’s dirty work” and, if he is indeed dead, he would leave behind “a terrible mess” in large parts of the world. Veran said that Prigozhin's actions are “inseparable” from President Vladimir Putin’s politics. 

Veran also agreed with US President Joe Biden’s statement that “little happens in Russia that Putin is not behind,” saying that “on principle that is a truth we can establish.”

4:13 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Ukraine's military claims further gains on southern front

From CNN's Olga Voitovych

The Ukrainian military said its units have extended gains on the southern front in the Zaporizhzhia region and remain on the offensive around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces said Thursday that units had succeeded "in the direction of Novodanylivka and Novoprokopivka, consolidating their positions, inflicting artillery fire on the identified enemy targets, and conducting counter-battery operations."

Novoprokopivka is south of the village of Robotyne, which the Ukrainians said Wednesday they fully controlled. 

Meanwhile, the General Staff said "in the Bakhmut sector, the Defense Forces continue to conduct offensive actions south of the city of Bakhmut, consolidating their positions."

Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukrainian Land Forces, said he had been working with commanders north and northeast of Bakhmut.

The General Staff also claimed the Russians had continued to conduct "unsuccessful offensives" in the areas of Avdiivka, Mariinka and Novomykhailivka in the Donetsk region. 

"The enemy is suffering significant losses in personnel, weapons and equipment, is moving units and troops and actively using reserves," it said.

In the northeast: Ukrainian forces were also holding back Russian attempts to advance further north around Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region, as well as efforts to break through west of Svatove in neighboring Luhansk. In this area, the Ukrainians say the Russians have poured more forces into the battlefield. 

Altogether, the Russians launched 10 missile strikes and 57 airstrikes Wednesday, the General Staff said.

3:38 a.m. ET, August 24, 2023

Zelensky congratulates Ukrainians on country's Independence Day 

From CNN's Olga Voitovych and Akanksha Sharma

Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on August 23.
Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on August 23. Oleg Petrasyuk/Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky congratulated Ukrainians on Thursday as the war-torn country marks its 32nd Independence Day.

“A holiday of strong people. A holiday of people with dignity,” Zelensky said, according to a press release from the Presidential Office of Ukraine.

Calling “an independent Ukraine” what “we are fighting for,” Zelensky lauded the contributions from every citizen saying, “in a big war, there are no small deeds.”

He thanked all Ukrainians on the front lines along with the volunteers and families behind them. He also mourned the fallen soldiers, calling them “heroes who prevented us from losing Ukraine.”

Zelensky celebrated the “thousands of Ukrainian medics who save thousands of lives,” and the journalists, among others, who spread “the truth about Ukraine and this war in different languages.”

The president also assured Ukrainians “under occupation” who have “waited and will witness the return of Ukraine.”

August 24 marks the anniversary of Ukraine's 1991 declaration that it would break with the Soviet Union.