August 31, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Chris Lau, Sana Noor Haq, Ed Upright, Leinz Vales, Adrienne Vogt, Elise Hammond, Maureen Chowdhury and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 12:03 a.m. ET, September 1, 2023
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3:38 p.m. ET, August 31, 2023

Russian military hackers target Ukrainian soldiers’ mobile devices to steal battle plans, US and allies say

From CNN's Sean Lyngaas

Russian military hackers have targeted Ukrainian soldiers’ mobile devices in a bid to steal sensitive battlefield information that could aid the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, the US and its allies warned Thursday.

The new advisory from the US and its “Five Eyes” allies — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom — corroborates a report from Ukraine’s SBU security service that found the Russian hackers sought to infiltrate the Android tablets that the Ukrainian military used for “planning and performing combat missions.”

The Russian hackers’ malicious code was designed to steal data sent from soldiers’ mobile devices to the Starlink satellite system made by billionaire Elon Musk’s company, according to the SBU. Starlink satellites have been crucial to Ukraine’s battlefield communications, CNN previously reported.

The news shows how the struggle to control sensitive military data in cyberspace has been a key front in Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine.

It’s unclear just how successful the hacking effort was. Ukraine’s SBU security service claimed to have “blocked” some of the hacking attempts but also conceded that the Russians had “captured” the tablets on the battlefield and planted malicious software on them.

“Mobile malware is particularly insidious because it can give intelligence services the physical locations of targets,” said John Hultquist, chief analyst at security firm Mandiant, which is owned by Google. That capability, Hultquist told CNN, can be “extremely effective on the battlefield.”

The hacking campaign comes amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has been a slow, grinding fight to push Russian forces back. US officials have expressed private concerns that Ukraine has been unable to make any substantial breakthroughs in months of fighting.

The hacking campaign “illustrates how Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine continues to play out in cyberspace,” Paul Chichester, director of operations at the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, said in a statement.

Click here for more details on the hacking

CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis contributed to this report.

2:55 p.m. ET, August 31, 2023

Ukraine calls on Turkey to thwart Russia's attempts to establish alternative grain routes 

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva and Radina Gigova

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that any consideration of supporting Russian grain exports in the Black Sea without resuming exports from Ukrainian ports would bolster Moscow's "sense of impunity" and "deal a severe blow to international obligations and international law."

"In this context, we expect that Turkey, which has repeatedly affirmed its inviolable position regarding the preservation and strict observance of international law, along with other involved parties, will use their authority to thwart Russia's attempts to violate international obligations and blackmail the world with new food crises," the ministry said in a statement. 

The statement comes as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan are holding talks in Moscow about grain shipments.

On Thursday, Lavrov said the two had discussed Moscow's initiative to organize deliveries of Russian grain to Turkey at a reduced price to be processed at Turkish facilities, and then shipped to the "most needy countries in the world." 

"After withdrawing from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the Russian Federation commenced systematic missile attacks against the infrastructure of Ukrainian ports and grain storage facilities," the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said, accusing Russia of purposefully trying to reduce the availability of Ukrainian grain on global markets and increase food prices "for their own benefit." 

Ukraine remains interested in reviving the Black Sea Grain Initiative that Russia pulled out and is also "actively pursuing the launch of alternate routes," it said.

2:46 p.m. ET, August 31, 2023

Ukrainian forces appear to be making slow progress in southeastern parts of the country

From CNN's Tim Lister, Olga Voitovych and Sana Noor Haq

Ukrainian forces said they had penetrated the “first line” of Russian strongholds in the Zaporizhzhia region, in a sign that Kyiv is edging closer to Moscow’s sprawling network of fortified trenches along the southern front.

The Ukrainian military claimed Thursday that its units had advanced toward two villages to the south and east of Robotyne, a village in Zaporizhzhia that Kyiv secured last week amid a grueling counteroffensive that is yielding incremental gains.

Testimonies reviewed by CNN shed light on the numerous challenges for Ukrainian troops trying to break through a dense system of Russian minefields, antitank obstacles and widespread tunnels in parts of southern and eastern Ukraine.

News of the latest progress comes against the backdrop of reports that US and Western allies had noted the slow pace of the counteroffensive. CNN reported earlier this month that the US had been receiving increasingly “sobering updates.”

Russian military bloggers reported increased activity near the village of Verbove, in southeastern Ukraine, but said Moscow’s forces were resisting Ukrainian advances.

On Monday, satellite imagery of the village of Solodka Balka — 7 kilometers (4 miles) south of Robotyne — showed steel-reinforced communications trenches, vehicle shelters and “dragon’s teeth” fortifications aimed at obstructing Ukrainian advances.

Kyiv has expanded its units toward the strategic town of Tokmak in recent weeks, a logistic center for Russian forces with a railhead through which resupply is carried out and depots for fuel and ammunition are situated.

Combat has ramped up toward the northern outskirts of Novoprokopivka – a small rural settlement about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) south of Robotyne and close to a line of Russian fortifications in Zaporizhzhia, according to the 46th Brigade, which is fighting in the area.

Read more about the fighting in southeastern Ukraine

2:07 p.m. ET, August 31, 2023

Demands by Poland and Baltic states for Wagner fighters to leave Belarus are unreasonable, Lukashenko says 

From CNN's Radina Gigova in London 

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko speaks as he meets with foreign media at his residence, the Independence Palace, in the capital Minsk on July 6, 2023.
Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko speaks as he meets with foreign media at his residence, the Independence Palace, in the capital Minsk on July 6, 2023. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Demands by the leadership of Poland and the Baltic states for the withdrawal of Wagner Group mercenaries from Belarus are "unreasonable and stupid," President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday.  

"They justify their actions by some threats that allegedly originate from Belarus' territory," the Belarusian president said during a Security Council meeting, according to state news agency BelTA. “They went as far as to demand their immediate withdrawal from Belarus. At the same time, they themselves are increasing military budgets, amassing large military formations at our border," he said.

Lukashenko added that Poland and the Baltic states should not have "a single foreign military officer or soldier on their territory. "Only in this case they have the right to protest against the presence of the military from other countries here," Lukashenko said, according to BelTa. "Otherwise, these are unreasonable and stupid demands."

Lukashenko condemned the decision by Poland in April to suspend its Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty obligations in relation to Belarus. “This is already a dangerous step, and we should keep reminding Poland's leadership about this – so that their decisions won't come back to hurt them,” he said.  

However, Lukashenko said Belarus is ready to restore good relations with its neighbors but lamented the lack of willingness on their part. 

Lukashenko’s latest comments come as the security situation in the region has become increasingly tense, due to the presence of Wagner fighters in Belarus, following the group's short-lived rebellion in Russia. 

On Monday, Poland and the Baltic states pledged to shut their borders with Belarus if a “critical incident” occurs, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński said. 

Earlier in August, Poland announced it would move around 10,000 troops to its border with Belarus, while Lithuania said it would temporarily suspend operations at two checkpoints at the border due to concerns over Wagner. 

In July, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the situation along the eastern border has now become "even more dangerous," as more than 100 Wagner fighters had moved closer to a strategic stretch of Polish territory lying between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

He also said Wagner mercenaries may try to pose as migrants in order to cross from Belarus into Poland, in an effort to destabilize NATO's eastern flank. 

12:02 p.m. ET, August 31, 2023

Russia waiting for "guarantees" on Black Sea grain deal before rejoining, foreign minister says

From CNN's Darya Tarasova

A tractor works the field on a private farm in Zhurivka, Kyiv region, Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.
A tractor works the field on a private farm in Zhurivka, Kyiv region, Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023. Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that Russia is ready to return to the Black Sea Grain Initiative as soon as what Moscow claims to be promises become concrete guarantees.

Russia withdrew from the initiative in July, nearly a year after it was brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to guarantee safe passage of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea and help facilitate Russian exports of grain and fertilizer.

Russia has persistently complained that benefits due under the agreement never materialized.

Speaking in Moscow after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, Lavrov said that "we conveyed to our Turkish partners our understanding of what needs to be done in the West, first of all, to restore the viability of this initiative."

"There is still not a single guarantee in this (proposal); there is only a promise to try faster and try more actively, and everything comes down to the fact that the West is hindering the solution of problems that impede more active export of Russian grain and Russian fertilizers," Lavrov said.

"President (Vladimir) Putin has repeatedly, officially and clearly said that as soon as measures are taken — not on negotiations on the Russian part of the Black Sea package, but measures to solve all those problems that have remained unfulfilled, despite the promises of the UN secretary general, whose efforts we appreciate — but as soon as the talks turn into a concrete decision on the same day, we are ready to resume the Ukrainian part of the grain package," Lavrov said. 

"I can only confirm that as soon as there are not promises, but guarantees — with a concrete result that can be put into practice tomorrow — the implementation of this package will resume in full," he added.

The Russian foreign minister said he and Fidan had also discussed Putin's initiative to organize "deliveries of up to a million tonnes of Russian grain to Turkey at a reduced price for processing at Turkish enterprises and shipment to the most needy countries in the world." Lavrov said Qatar was prepared to help finance the initiative.

More context on the grain deal: The Black Sea initiative has been significant in stabilizing global food markets since the war started in February last year, particularly for poorer countries relying more heavily on grain supplies from the region.

Before the war, Ukraine was the fifth-largest wheat exporter globally, accounting for 10% of exports, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Ukraine is also among the world’s top three exporters of barley, maize and rapeseed oil, according to Gro Intelligence, an agricultural data firm.

The deal had allowed for the export of almost 33 million metric tons of food through Ukrainian ports, according to UN data.

CNN's Anna Cooban contributed reporting to this post.

10:31 a.m. ET, August 31, 2023

US ambassador to UN slams Russia on last day of Security Council monthly presidency

From CNN’s Richard Roth

Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks after a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the war in Ukraine, on August 24, at United Nations headquarters in New York.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks after a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the war in Ukraine, on August 24, at United Nations headquarters in New York. John Minchillo/AP

On her last day as United Nations Security Council president, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Russia "did their best (but) they failed" in disrupting goals in August during the US rotation. 

Russia "tried to obstruct the work of the council," she said, adding that "they are isolated in their obstruction."

"It is not the kind of behavior that any of us would expect from a permanent member of the council," she said.

She said she expects "intense pressure" on Russia to remove its troops from Ukraine during the high-level General Assembly week in mid-September.

The US envoy said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky "may be here," and Albania — the next country to hold the monthly council presidency — will host a council meeting on Ukraine during the week.

9:32 a.m. ET, August 31, 2023

UK defense giant BAE Systems agrees to form partnerships to produce weapons in Ukraine

From CNN's Tim Lister and Yulia Kesaieva

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, center left, meets with representatives of BAE Systems CEO Charles Woodburn, center right, in Kyiv, Ukraine on August 31.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, center left, meets with representatives of BAE Systems CEO Charles Woodburn, center right, in Kyiv, Ukraine on August 31. President of Ukraine

As Ukraine accelerates efforts to develop a sophisticated domestic weapons industry, it has welcomed the opening of an office in Kyiv by UK aerospace and weapons giant BAE Systems.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with BAE Systems CEO Charles Woodburn in Kyiv, telling him, "You are an example for other companies to develop their presence in Ukraine and develop weapons production."

"BAE Systems wants to be a reliable partner of Ukraine in the war for freedom and independence, as well as in building a strong, sustainable technological defense industry to effectively prevent future aggression attempts," Woodburn said.

Several cooperation agreements were signed to develop arms production in Ukraine in partnership with other domestic companies.

Ukrainian Minister of Strategic Industries Oleksandr Kamyshin, whose role includes building a defense industrial base, said BAE's commitment would help "build the future of the Ukrainian defense industry. Together with the company, we will be able to localize the production of advanced weapons."

One project will be the joint production in Ukraine of BAE's L119 light howitzer.

Ukraine has recently announced steps toward producing more of its own artillery munitions and has a rapidly expanding local drone industry.

Some background: BAE Systems (BAESF), Europe’s largest defense contractor by revenue, logged record orders worth £37 billion ($44 billion) last year, though the majority were related to programs predating the war.

CNN's Anna Cooban contributed reporting to this post.

11:40 a.m. ET, August 31, 2023

It's mid-afternoon in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

From CNN staff

Russian air defenses repelled drones flying toward Moscow and the southwest Bryansk region bordering Ukraine Thursday, according to officials. Kyiv appears to be again intensifying aerial attacks on Russian territory amid grueling battles on the ground.

Here are the latest developments:

  • Drone attacks: Russian air defenses destroyed a drone flying near Moscow Thursday morning, the city's mayor said. Further south, a local governor said Russian forces shot down three drones over Bryansk. On Wednesday, Russia was hit by the biggest drone assault on its territory since launching its full-scale war on Ukraine last year.
  • Sabotage claims: Russian authorities in Bryansk said they had thwarted a Ukrainian sabotage operation, killing two of the alleged saboteurs and detaining five others, according to a local official Wednesday. Ukrainian officials have declined to comment on the claims, branding them "the fantasies of the Russian special services."
  • Counteroffensive gains: Ukrainian forces are making gradual progress in their counteroffensive against Russian defense lines in southeastern regions of the country, according to official Ukrainian accounts and Russian military bloggers. Kyiv claimed its forces are making incremental advances in the Zaporizhzhia regions near two villages to the south and east of Robotyne, which its forces took last week.
  • Elections in occupied regions: Ukrainian authorities have urged citizens in occupied areas of Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Luhansk not to vote in upcoming elections planned by Russian-appointed officials, adding they should "leave the region" if possible. It comes a year after Russian forces staged illegal referendums in the same four regions.

Here's the latest map of control:

7:47 a.m. ET, August 31, 2023

Ukraine urges people in occupied areas to avoid voting in local elections planned by Russians

From CNN's Olga Voitovych

Ukrainian authorities have urged citizens in occupied areas not to vote in upcoming elections planned by Russian-appointed officials, adding they should "leave the region" if possible.

"Russians have started holding 'elections' to pseudo-local councils and 'legislative bodies' in the temporarily occupied territories," Ukraine's National Resistance Center (NRC), an official agency, said on Thursday.

Occupation authorities were planning "early voting" in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions through September 8 at people's homes, the NRC added. The voting will begin in Kherson and Luhansk on September 2.

We urge Ukrainians not to open their doors to the occupiers and, if possible, to leave the region or their homes for the period of 'early voting.'"

Voting will then take place at polling stations between September 8 and 10. "The Russians need this long scheme to hide the turnout and the lack of interest of the locals in the 'expression of will,'" the NRC said.

The NRC also alleged that "election commission members" accompanied by Russian soldiers are going around Ukrainians' homes to identify those willing to vote, which happened in referendums last year on the status of the occupied regions in Ukraine universally dismissed as sham by Ukrainian and Western leaders.