Our live coverage of the plane crash and Russia's war in Ukraine has moved here.
Russian air defenses destroyed 42 Ukrainian drones over the Crimean Peninsula early Friday, the Russian Ministry of Defense said on Telegram.
Nine of the drones were shot down and 33 others were jammed by electronic warfare equipment and crashed without reaching their targets, the ministry said.
“Overnight, an attempt by the Kyiv regime to carry out terrorist attacks using unmanned aerial vehicles on Russian Federation territory has been thwarted,” the ministry’s Telegram post read.
Meanwhile, the defense ministry also claimed Ukraine had launched an upgraded S-200 air defense complex missile that was detected and shot down by Russian forces over the Kaluga region southwest of Moscow.
Ukraine has not yet commented.
Some context: Ukraine carried out what appears to be one of Kyiv's most complex and ambitious operations to date against Russian military facilities in Crimea on Thursday, involving Ukrainian special forces landing on the western shore of the peninsula to attack Russian units.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly vowed to restore Kyiv's rule in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014 in violation of international law. In recent weeks, Ukraine has stepped up drone attacks in the area, including the bridges linking the peninsula to mainland Russia.
The operation involved Ukrainian special forces landing on the western shore of Crimea to attack Russian units, destroy Kremlin materiel and raise the Ukrainian flag.
The Ukrainian military claims at least 30 Russians were killed in the seaborne raid. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said there were no casualties reported among the Ukrainians.
While there has been no word from Russian-appointed authorities in Crimea on the attack, Russian military bloggers have raised questions about the inability of coastal defenses to detect and repel such operations.
Here's the latest headlines from Russia's war in Ukraine:
- US F-16 training: The US will host training for Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets later this year, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder confirmed Thursday. Flying training in Arizona will follow English-language training in Texas, Ryder said, which is critical for pilots learning to operate the fourth-generation American jets. It is not yet clear how long it will take to train the pilots, who have previously flown Soviet-era MiG and Sukhoi fighters.
- Norway pledges jets: Norway will donate F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, the country’s prime minister said Thursday. Norway is the third European country, along with Denmark and the Netherlands, to pledge the jets to Ukraine. Oslo had announced plans to support the training of Ukrainian personnel on F-16s in May.
- Sanctions over forcible transfer of children: The US State Department rolled out new sanctions Thursday targeting more than a dozen individuals and entities involved in the forcible transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children. The US has already sanctioned President Vladimir Putin’s children's commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for being involved in the deportation of Ukrainian children. Last month, Lvova-Belova said 700,000 Ukrainian children have been taken to Russia since the beginning of the war.
- WSJ reporter detention: The Wall Street Journal said Thursday that the decision by a Moscow court to extend the pre-trial detention of its journalist Evan Gershkovich by another three months was "deeply disappointing." Gershkovich’s lawyers will appeal the court’s decision, the paper said. Gershkovich has been detained in Russia since March following his arrest on charges that he, the WSJ and the US government vehemently deny.
- Ukraine says it helped defection: A helicopter pilot with the Russian military flew his Mi-8 and unsuspecting crew members into Ukraine after carefully coordinating the defection with Kyiv, according to a top Ukrainian intelligence official. "We were able to create conditions to get his whole family out undetected," said Kyrylo Budanov, the head of intelligence for the Ukrainian defense ministry. CNN has not confirmed whether the defection did take place, as described. Some unofficial accounts out of Russia align with the Ukrainian intelligence narrative, while others differ.
Ryder also said the Pentagon “doesn’t have any information to indicate right now” that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
Prigozhin, the head of Russian mercenary group Wagner, was listed as a passenger on the manifest of the private Embraer jet that went down. So too was Dmitriy Utkin, a key Wagner figure, and Valeriy Chekalov, a senior aide to Prigozhin.
Ten people in total were on board the aircraft, all of whom were killed when it went down en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Here's what else you need to know about the crash:
- Putin's breaks silence: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Prigozhin was a "talented man" who "made serious mistakes," in his first remarks since the crash. Putin also said he sends his condolences to "the families of all the victims; this is always a tragedy." Russia's Investigative Committee is probing the crash, he added.
- Speculation builds: Russians CNN spoke to openly speculated about the cause of the crash, including whether Putin brought down the jet as retribution for Prigozhin's failed mutiny in June. No evidence has been presented that points to the Kremlin's or Russian security services' involvement in the crash. The cause of the incident is unknown and Russian authorities have launched a criminal investigation.
- More details on passengers: Investigative group the Dossier Center revealed more information about some of those reportedly onboard the private jet and their connection to Prigozhin. Valeriy Chekalov, it said, was one of the Wagner boss' deputies who oversaw all of Prigozhin's "civilian" projects overseas.
- Zelensky hints: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine had nothing to do with the crash, "but I think everyone realizes who has." He added Thursday that he has no comments regarding the fate of Prigozhin. "The Russian government, including Prigozhin and his mercenaries, have brought us so many deaths that I can't say anything good about these non-humans," he said.
- Plane images: The fuselage of the plane believed to be carrying Prigozhin was largely intact when the aircraft crashed into the ground Wednesday, according to images shared exclusively with CNN. A synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image taken by Umbra Lab showed the crash site is oval shaped and mostly contains the fuselage.
- Forensic investigation: Vans said to be carrying the bodies of those who were on board the plane were seen on Russian media arriving at the Tver Regional Bureau of Forensic Medical Examination. Eight bodies were found at the crash site, Russian media reported. Russian authorities have said efforts will be made to confirm the identity of the victims at the Tver morgue.
No evidence has been presented that points to the involvement of the Kremlin or Russian security services in the crash that apparently killed Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin
The cause of the crash is unknown and Russian authorities have launched a criminal investigation.
What is known, however, is that the bombastic mercenary boss — once one of Russia's most powerful oligarchs and a member of Vladimir Putin’s trusted inner circle — appears to have joined an ever-growing list of high-profile Russians who have fallen from the President’s good graces and died in mysterious circumstances.
- Boris Nemtsov: A vocal Kremlin critic who was a deputy prime minister in the late 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin, Nemtsov was shot dead in February 2015 as he walked with his girlfriend in central Moscow.
- Boris Berezovsky: A a colorful character and once powerful Russian businessman who fell out with the Kremlin and fled to England. He also accused Russia of trying to assassinate him. Berezovsky was found dead on the bathroom floor of his UK home in 2013 with a noose around his neck. British police said at the time that there were no signs of struggle and suggested the oligarch had taken his own life.
- Alexander Perepilichnyy: A financier who provided evidence of alleged fraud against Russian tax officials. He died suddenly in 2012 aged 44 while jogging back to his home southwest of London. It first appeared he had died of natural causes. But in 2015, plant toxicology experts told a coroner’s court that traces of a rare plant poison — gelsemium — were found in his stomach.
- Sergei Magnitsky: The Russian lawyer died in a Russian prison in 2009. He helped uncover a $230 million tax fraud and evidence that Russian government officials were involved in carrying it out, and then covering it up. Soon after, Magnitsky was arrested on separate tax fraud charges. He died a year later, while still in pre-trial detention.
- Alexander Litvinenko: A British inquiry determined Litvinenko, a former Russian agent turned Kremlin critic, had been poisoned at a London hotel bar in 2006 by two Russian agents who spiked his green tea with the highly radioactive polonium-210. Litvinenko always asserted that Putin and the Kremlin were responsible.
- Anna Politkovskaya: A vocal critic of Russia’s war in Chechnya, she was gunned down in the entrance of her Moscow apartment in October 2006. In 2014, a Moscow court sentenced five men to prison for the killing.
Read the full story.
US President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Thursday to “congratulate him on Ukraine's Independence Day and commemorate eighteen months since Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine,” the White House said in a readout of the call.
August 24 marks the anniversary of Ukraine's 1991 declaration that it would break with the Soviet Union.
“President Biden reiterated the U.S. commitment to support Ukraine's defense against Russian aggression for as long as it takes, and to hold Russia accountable for its actions,” the White House wrote. “President Biden and President Zelenskyy discussed the commencement of training of Ukrainian fighter pilots and assurance of expedited approval for other nations to transfer their F-16s to Ukraine upon completion of training to increase Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.”
Biden “expressed his admiration for the bravery and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people fighting for their freedom and their secure future,” on behalf of the American people, according to the readout.
Biden also tweeted about the call, writing: “May today be a reminder that the forces of darkness and dominion will never extinguish the flame of liberty that lives in the heart of free people everywhere.”
A helicopter pilot with the Russian military flew his Mi-8 and unsuspecting crew members into Ukraine after carefully coordinating the defection with Kyiv, according to a top Ukrainian intelligence official.
"We were able to find the right approach to the man," said Kyrylo Budanov, the head of intelligence for the Ukrainian defense ministry.
"We were able to create conditions to get his whole family out undetected, and eventually create the conditions so that he could take over this aircraft with a crew that did not know what was happening," Budanov said in an interview with Radio Liberty, which is set to air later this week.
The intelligence official says Budanov's unsuspecting crew members were killed upon arriving in Ukraine.
"Two more people were with him — a full crew of 3 persons in total. When they realized where they had landed, they tried to escape. Unfortunately, they were eliminated. We would prefer (to take) them alive, but it is what it is."
The pilot "feels great," the Ukrainian official said, and is weighing "two options" for his future after the defection. "He is leaning toward staying here," Budanov said.
The intelligence official said the approach could be replicated in the future.
"No one has done this before, but I hope we can now scale it up," he said.
CNN has not confirmed whether the defection did take place, as described.
Varying reports: Some unofficial accounts out of Russia align with the Ukrainian intelligence narrative, while others differ.
One unofficial Russian Telegram channel had reported that an Mi-8 helicopter flew into Ukraine and landed in the central region of Poltava by mistake.
Another said it had diverted to the Ukrainian town of Vovchansk, just across the Russian border in Kharkiv, which would be more likely than flying all the way to central Ukraine.
The Russian Telegram Voenniy Osvedomitel said that Ukrainian intelligence had lured the pilot to Ukrainian territory, and that the helicopter was carrying spare parts for Su-30SM and Su-27 fighters. It also reported the deaths of the other two crew members as they tried to escape.
Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov, who has well-established contacts in the defense ministry, said the Mi-8 had flown to a Ukrainian base. He reported that "the helicopter is fully intact and will be added to the Ukrainian Armed Forces after a detailed examination of its equipment."
An investigative group run by exiled Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky has published a report about the other passengers on board a private jet that crashed in Russia Wednesday, apparently killing Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
On Wednesday, the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency, citing the airline, released the names of everyone on board, including those of the pilots and a flight attendant. They are all believed dead.
In addition to Prigozhin, the passengers were listed as Sergey Propustin, Evgeniy Makaryan, Aleksandr Totmin, Valeriy Chekalov, Nikolay Matuseev and Dmitriy Utkin.
Utkin has been a trusted lieutenant of Prigozhin since the creation of the Wagner private military company, CNN earlier reported.
The investigative group, the Dossier Center, has now revealed more about some of the other passengers and their connection to the private military group:
Valeriy Chekalov: Chekalov was one of the Wagner boss' deputies who had worked with him since the early 2000s, the Dossier Center says. He oversaw all of Prigozhin's "civilian" projects abroad, including geological exploration, oil production and agriculture, as well as the company's logistics.
In July, the US State Department imposed sanctions on Chekalov for acting on Prigozhin's behalf, noting that he had "facilitated shipments of munitions to the Russian Federation."
Evgeniy Makaryan: Makaryan joined Wagner in March 2016, the Dossier Center reported. He was part of the fourth Wagner assault detachment in Syria, which came under fire from American aircraft near Khasham in February 2018.
CNN previously reported that Russia acknowledged suffering heavy casualties in an ill-fated operation against US-backed forces in Syria.
At the time, Moscow insisted the casualties were not Russian troops, saying “servicemen of the Russian Federation did not participate in any way” in the clash. It did not say what the Russians were doing there, but families of the victims say they were military contractors working for Wagner.
Nikolai Matusevich: While the Dossier Center said it could not find a Wagner official with a perfect match for the spelling listed by Russian officials — Nikolay Matuseev — they did find Matusevich, who has been with Wagner since January 2017 and also served in the fourth assault detachment in Syria.
Sergey Propustin: Propustin joined Wagner in March 2015 and fought in a company dubbed Kirill Tikhonovich, which was one of the Wagner group's combat units, according to the Dossier Center.
CNN has reached out to the Dossier Center for more information about their report and sourcing.
The US Defense Department believes that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in Wednesday’s airplane crash in Russia, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Thursday.
“I'm not going to go into the specifics of how we gather information other than again, our initial assessment, based on a variety of factors, is that he was likely killed,” Ryder said.
Ryder also said that the Pentagon “doesn’t have any information to indicate right now” that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
CNN reported earlier that US has not seen indications that a missile downed the aircraft.