By Rhea Mogul, Jack Guy, Ed Upright, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Matt Meyer and Leinz Vales, CNN
Updated 12:59 a.m. ET, January 13, 2023
11:50 a.m. ET, January 12, 2023
Ukrainian military says it is conducting counterattacks in Soledar
From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv
The Ukrainian military said Thursday that it was conducting counterattacks in Soledar, the eastern town that has been the subject of intense Russian bombardment.
“After several days of pulling back, we've even made a small advance,” Ukraine's 46th Airmobile Brigade said on Telegram. “The railway station is ours. The mine is ours. We are waiting for support. Soledar is Ukraine.”
“Our soldiers bravely hold their positions and inflict numerous losses on the enemy,” she said.
Why Soledar is important to Russia: The town of Soledar, located in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, has been a target for Russian forces since last May.
With a pre-war population of about 10,000, it has little strategic value in itself, but is a waypoint in the Russians’ attritional slog westward. Moscow has struggled for months to attack Bakhmut from the east. Were it to capture Soledar, Russian forces would at least be able to approach the city from a different path.
10:36 a.m. ET, January 12, 2023
Before-and-after images of Soledar show utter devastation of strategic town
From CNN's staff
As Ukrainian officials say "fierce battles" continue to rage in Soledar, a key town in eastern Ukraine, satellite images show just how much destruction has been inflicted on the area since summer.
Russian forces are “suffering heavy losses” in their attempt to take Soledar, according to Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Mailar. On Tuesday, the Wagner mercenary group claimed it had taken complete control of the town, but Ukraine refutes that claim. Russian forces have fought hard to take Soledar, but more battles remain, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.
Here's a look at before-and-after satellite images of the town:
Why Russia wants to capture Soledar: The Russian armed forces have had nothing to celebrate since the beginning of July, and they've had to retreat in both Kharkiv to the north and Kherson in southern Ukraine.
The capture of Soledar, despite its now-ruined state, would therefore be rare progress. But it would be symbolic rather than substantive. The Institute for the Study of War says control of Soledar “will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication into Bakhmut,” the larger prize.
10:29 a.m. ET, January 12, 2023
Top pro-Kremlin military blogger says Russian commander replacement designed to "stop blurring responsibility"
From CNN's Mick Krever
A top pro-Kremlin military blogger suggested Thursday that the appointment of a new commander for Russia’s so-called "special military operation" in Ukraine was a canny move designed to “stop blurring responsibility” for the war effort, and prevent the Russian General Staff from blaming “the generals in the field.”
Semyon Pegov, who blogs under the alias WarGonzo, was personally awarded by President Vladimir Putin with the “Order of Courage” on Dec. 20.
The appointment of Valery Gerasimov as commander of the war effort means that Russia’s General Staff will no longer be able to say “it was the generals in the field who failed,” Pegov opined on his Telegram channel. “It is an obvious step to stop blurring responsibility for certain episodes related to the Special Military Operation.”
The fact that Gerasimov is chief of the General Staff of the Army means that “the General Staff is now one of those ‘generals in the field,’” Pegov said.
“The situation in which this or that local victory has a thousand fathers, and a defeat has the one who is blamed for it, no longer works. The General Staff is now directly and uncompromisingly responsible for absolutely everything," he added.
Pegov also said that he did not believe that Sergei Surovikin’s move from commander to deputy commander represented a demotion, but rather a move to better insulate him from politics.
“Strictly speaking he was subordinated to Gerasimov anyway and had to agree his every move with the General Staff. Now ‘General Armageddon’ [Surovikin] is still in the center of decision-making, but in a much less vulnerable staff position. His authority in the troops is still at a high level, and the commanders and soldiers in the trenches still believe in him and trust him, and are ready to follow him further," he said.
More on Russia's former commander in Ukraine: Surovikin, who had been appointed to the role on Oct. 8, 2022, and was in charge of Russian forces during their retreat from large swaths of Ukraine’s Kherson region.
10:18 a.m. ET, January 12, 2023
First on CNN: US Navy veteran released from Russian custody after being detained for nearly 1 year
From CNN's Natasha Bertrand
An American Navy veteran who has been detained in Russia for nearly a year was released from Russian custody on Thursday, his family's spokesperson told CNN, after months of negotiations spearheaded by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Taylor Dudley, 35, of Lansing, Michigan, was detained by Russian border patrol police in April 2022 after crossing from Poland into Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania. He was in Poland attending a music festival, and it is not clear why he crossed the border.
Dudley's detention — which the US government had not deemed as "wrongful," or based on arbitrary and discriminatory motivations — had not been widely publicized before Thursday because his family wanted the negotiations for his release to remain private.
The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit founded by Richardson, spearheaded the negotiations, family spokesperson Jonathan Franks told CNN. The former governor and diplomat has long worked to free Americans detained abroad, and his center played a role in securing the release of Trevor Reed, a US citizen and former Marine who had been wrongfully detained in Russia, last summer.
The Steve Menzies Global Foundation and the US Embassy also helped to secure Dudley's release, the spokesperson said.
"Earlier today, Russian authorities released American Citizen Taylor Dudley, a 35-year-old Navy veteran, across the Polish border to Gov. Bill Richardson, his team, and a representative from the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, a release the Richardson Center worked on diligently and quietly for more than 6 months with significant assistance from the Steve Menzies Global Foundation, from Hostage U.S., and from the James Foley Foundation. The family will be forever grateful for the work of all three.”
"The past 9 months have been difficult ones for the family and they ask the media to respect their privacy and give them the space to welcome Taylor home," he added.
In a separate statement to CNN, Richardson said Dudley had been released at the Russia-Poland Bagrationovsk-Bezledy border crossing on Thursday, after nearly a year of negotiations. He also acknowledged the involvement of the State Department and the US Embassies in Moscow and Warsaw in helping to secure Dudley’s release.
“After six months of intensive work, it's great to see this release of Taylor Dudley happen,” Richardson told CNN by phone on Thursday. “We worked it hard in Moscow and Kaliningrad and first raised it during our meetings with Russian officials on Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed.”
Several US citizens remain detained in Russia, including former US Marine Paul Whelan, who is designated as wrongfully detained. He was arrested in Russia in December 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. In 2022, the US proposed trading Whelan and American basketball star Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout, but Russia only agreed to release Griner.
CNN's Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.
9:52 a.m. ET, January 12, 2023
German official suggests country won't stand in the way of Poland sending German-made tanks to Ukraine
From CNN’s Nadine Schmidt in Berlin and Mick Krever in London
A day after Poland’s president expressed his intention to send German-manufactured battle tanks to Ukraine, Germany’s vice chancellor has suggested that his country will not block the weapons transfer.
“Germany should not stand in the way of other countries taking decisions to support Ukraine, independent of which decisions Germany takes,” Robert Habeck said on the sidelines of a Greens Party meeting in Berlin.
It would be the first time a Western-made tank has been sent to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Because the Leopard tank is German-manufactured, its re-export would typically need the approval of the German government.
Steffen Hebestreit, spokesperson for the German federal government, said Wednesday that he was “not aware of any specific inquiries” from foreign governments about re-exporting Leopard tanks.
Polish President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday cautioned during a news conference in Lviv, Ukraine, that “a whole range of formal requirements, approvals and so on must also be met.”
The German government has also come under pressure from Ukrainian officials to itself export battle tanks to Ukraine. German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht on Thursday did not rule out that possibility.
“In the times in which we live – in which we are facing many great challenges in the face of a war in Europe – we are well-advised to always adapt to the respective situation,” Lambrecht said. “There is no decision in the federal government to hand over battle tanks."
Nonetheless, she said that they would “not rule anything out” and that Germany would make decisions “together with its allies.”
Other allies' actions: The British government is working with partners to discuss how to go "further and faster" in supporting Ukraine, including the provision of tanks, according to the prime minister's spokesperson on Wednesday.
And Ukrainian troops are set to begin training on the Patriot missile system in the United States as soon as next week, the Pentagon announced on Tuesday.
9:35 a.m. ET, January 12, 2023
Top Ukrainian military official says new Russian commander appointment shows war not going to plan for Moscow
From CNN's Olga Voitovych in Kyiv
A top Ukrainian military official said Thursday that Russia’s appointment of a new military commander shows that its war in Ukraine is not going to plan.
“Since the first days of the war, we have been observing the periodic changes in the leadership of the armed forces of the occupying country,” Oleksii Hromov, deputy chief of the General Staff’s main operational directorate, said during a press briefing. “If everything was in order, the personnel changes would not take place with such frequency.”
“The latest personnel changes, first of all, indicate that there is a need to combine the management system and the command and control system of the troops in their ranks. Not everything works out the way they want. How it will be further — we will see.”
More on the appointment: Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Wednesday that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, would become the overall commander of the campaign, with the current commander, Sergey Surovikin, becoming one of his three deputies.Surovikin was only appointed as the overall commander of what the Kremlin euphemistically calls the “Special Military Operation” in October.
CNN's Tim Lister contributed reporting to this post.
9:11 a.m. ET, January 12, 2023
Ukraine's General Staff won't discuss percentage of Ukrainian control over Soledar
From CNN's Olga Voitovych and Seb Shukla
Oleksii Hromov, the deputy chief of Ukraine's General Staff’s main operational directorate, declined to discuss percentages when referring to Ukrainian control of the eastern town of Soledar.
Hromov said “regarding Soledar. There are fierce battles. It is inappropriate to estimate in percentage terms what part of the city we control, what part of the city the enemy is trying to control. Battles are going on, fierce battles.”
During recent days, there has been conflicting language about who controls the Donetsk town as battles over the area continue to unfold.
The comments from Hromov may hint at the difficult situation facing Ukrainian forces in the city, especially as Wagner forces say they control the center of the city and the Russian Armed Forces have blockaded the southern and northern routes of the town.
On Wednesday, a soldier fighting in Soledar told CNN “during these days everything will be determined for the city. Because we are being trapped, they want to encircle us,” suggesting a shrinking of territory in Ukrainian control.
The importance of Soledar: The Russian armed forces have had nothing to celebrate since the beginning of July, and have had to retreat in both Kharkiv to the north and Kherson in southern Ukraine.
The capture of Soledar, despite its now-ruined state, would therefore be rare progress. But it would be symbolic rather than substantive. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) says control of Soledar “will not necessarily allow Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication into Bakhmut,” the larger prize.
CNN's Rob Picheta and Tim Lister contributed reporting to this post.
8:58 a.m. ET, January 12, 2023
Kremlin claims it doesn't have information on UK nationals reportedly missing in eastern Ukraine
From CNN's Seb Shukla, Mick Krever, Anna Chernova and Eve Brennan
The Kremlin said Thursday it "does not have information" on the two UK nationals reportedly missing in Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
“We know from media reports that we are talking about British citizens who were militants, took part in the hostilities with weapons in their hands. It appears that documents were found on the battlefield,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in a routine conference call with reporters.
The families of both men, Andrew Bagshaw and Christopher Parry, say the two had gone to Ukraine to work as humanitarian volunteers. CNN has seen no evidence they participated in hostilities in Ukraine.
Peskov also said he is not aware if the British side sought help from Moscow but added “If there is a request for assistance [in finding the bodies and getting them to the UK], of course, it will be considered.”
On Thursday a Downing St spokesperson said "the reports we have had today are deeply concerning. They have been reported by the Wagner Group as the source of that, so I would urge caution in reporting that until any such claims are verified.”
Key developments in the case: On Wednesday, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin posted a claim on his Telegram feed that his private military company Wagner found a body of one of the two missing Britons. In the post, Prigozhin’s press service said that they received a call to their hotline on Jan. 8 asking for help finding the two men.
“Today [Wednesday], one of those was found, along with documents for both," the post claimed.
A subsequent post on the same Telegram channel published photos appearing to show two passports with the names of the missing Britons.
On Jan. 9, Ukrainian police reported that they were searching for Bagshaw and Parry. Ukrainian police noted that the two Britons “left Kramatorsk for Soledar" — the scene of intense recent fighting — "and contact with them was lost."
8:39 a.m. ET, January 12, 2023
Russia's top ground forces commander arrives in Belarus to inspect joint forces, officials say
From CNN's Radina Gigova
The Russian Defense Ministry commission, headed by the Commander-in-Chief of Russia's ground forces Oleg Salyukov, has arrived in Belarus to inspect the Russian units of the joint forces, the Belarus Defense Ministry said in a statement Thursday.
"The military units and subunits of the Russian component of the regional grouping of forces located at the training grounds of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus were inspected," the statement reads.
"In the course of the work, the quality of combat coordination classes was checked and an assessment was made of their readiness to fulfill their intended tasks in the interests of ensuring the military security of the Union State," reads the statement.
Salyukov is one of the three deputies of Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who has been appointed as the overall commander of what the Kremlin euphemistically calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The Belarus Defense Ministry declared Wednesday that the joint air defense forces of Belarus and Russia have been reinforced, according to the ministry’s press service.
More on Russia-Belarus relations: Some Russian forces are based in Belarus and used its territory in the initial invasion of Ukraine in February. But President Alexander Lukashenko has gone to some lengths to ensure that Belarus troops do not become involved in Russia's "special military operation."
In December, Ukraine warned it does "not rule out" a "deliberate provocation" from Russia after Belarus said that the wreckage of a Ukrainian missile landed on its territory.
CNN’s Eve Brennan contributed reporting to this post.