January 12, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

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
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3:19 p.m. ET, January 12, 2023

Ukrainian soldier in Soledar describes dire situation: "We are just abandoned"

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv

A Ukrainian soldier in the contested eastern town of Soledar described a dire situation to CNN on Thursday evening, saying “we are just abandoned.”

CNN is not identifying the soldier for security reasons.

“We tried to withdraw ourselves, but the Orcs [Russians] are already there. If there is no order to withdraw today, we will most likely not have time to leave,” he told CNN over the phone. “We were told that we would be withdrawn. And now we аre just abandoned.”

He said that the soldiers had run out of food, were running low on water, and that they had wounded soldiers. He said that they still had some ammunition.

“The last evacuation was three days ago,” he said. “The order was to hold out to the very end. Judging by the sounds of the battle, our neighbors [other units] either withdrew or were ordered to withdraw. We were told to hold out.”

“We hold on as long as we can. But anyone can get tired and hit the limit eventually. It is impossible to hold on just on a high morale for so long.”

Wagner, the Russian private military company, has claimed to have captured all of Soledar. A video posted to Telegram Thursday and geolocated by CNN shows Wagner forces on the northern edge of the town.

Ukraine’s 46th Airmobile Brigade claimed Thursday that it was “conducting counterattacks” in the town.

“After several days of pulling back, we've even made a small advance,” the unit said on Telegram. “The railway station is ours. The mine is ours. We are waiting for support. Soledar is Ukraine.”

3:00 p.m. ET, January 12, 2023

Ukraine's deputy defense minister says Russia is stepping up "illegal integration" of occupied territory

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv

A Ukrainian official said Thursday that Russia is stepping up its “illegal integration” of occupied territory into Russia.

“They began to replace driver's licenses with Russian ones and issue Russian license plates with a numeric indication of the Russian region,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Telegram. “The occupiers announced that it will be prohibited to operate vehicles, including personal ones, without meeting these conditions, and in case of violation they can be seized.”

Maliar also claimed that Russian forces were forcibly evicting locals from homes in order to house military forces.

2:35 p.m. ET, January 12, 2023

Spain receives 225 Ukrainian troops for basic training and HAWK air defense training

From CNN's Al Goodman

Spain will receive 225 Ukrainian troops late on Thursday at an air force base near Madrid, including 20 who will get training on HAWK air defense systems to counter air attacks, Spain's Defense Ministry said in a statement. Spain is sending six of the HAWK air defense units to Ukraine. 

Most of the remaining troops, who are Ukrainian civilians without prior military experience, will get basic training, the defense ministry said. That will include training on treating people wounded in combat and on procedures against IEDs.

The training in Toledo, an hour south of Madrid, is a program designed to handle 400 Ukrainian troops rotating through every two months and is part of the European Union's military assistance mission for Ukraine, the ministry said.

It is the second group of Ukrainian troops to come to Spain for training after 64 troops came in November and December, the statement added.

Spain's Defense Minister will receive the 225 Ukrainian troops at Torrejón Air Base, according to the ministry. 

Other allies' actions: Polish President Andrzej Duda announced a plan to send Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine during a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Lviv 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.

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.”

Russia is trying to surround nearby Bakhmut using both Wagner private contractors and regular military personnel, Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, said on Telegram.

“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.

Over 500 civilians remain in Soledar, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional military administration.

Here's a look at before-and-after satellite images of the town:

A satellite view shows a school and buildings, in south Soledar, Ukraine, on August 1, 2022.
A satellite view shows a school and buildings, in south Soledar, Ukraine, on August 1, 2022. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

A satellite view shows a destroyed school and buildings in south Soledar, Ukraine, on January 10, 2023.
A satellite view shows a destroyed school and buildings in south Soledar, Ukraine, on January 10, 2023. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

A satellite view shows apartment buildings and homes, in Soledar, Ukraine, on August 1, 2022.
A satellite view shows apartment buildings and homes, in Soledar, Ukraine, on August 1, 2022. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

A satellite view shows destroyed apartment buildings and homes, in Soledar, Ukraine, on January 10, 2023.
A satellite view shows destroyed apartment buildings and homes, in Soledar, Ukraine, on January 10, 2023. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

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

Taylor Dudley, 35, of Lansing, Michigan, has been released.
Taylor Dudley, 35, of Lansing, Michigan, has been released. (Jonathan Franks)

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

Robert Habeck, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, gives a statement at the Green parliamentary group's executive board retreat in Berlin, Germany, on January 12.
Robert Habeck, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, gives a statement at the Green parliamentary group's executive board retreat in Berlin, Germany, on January 12. (Fabian Sommer/picture alliance/Getty Images)

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

Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov attends the international military-technical forum Army-2022 at Patriot Congress and Exhibition Centre in the Moscow region, Russia, on August 15.
Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov attends the international military-technical forum Army-2022 at Patriot Congress and Exhibition Centre in the Moscow region, Russia, on August 15. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

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.