January 20, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Amy Woodyatt, Leinz Vales, Adrienne Vogt and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 8:41 p.m. ET, January 20, 2023
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7:39 p.m. ET, January 19, 2023

"They have us over a barrel": Inside the US and German standoff over sending tanks to Ukraine

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand, Kylie Atwood and Oren Liebermann

The Biden administration is stuck in a standoff with Germany over whether to send tanks to Ukraine ahead of a key meeting of Western defense leaders in Germany on Friday.

In recent days, German officials have indicated they won’t send their Leopard tanks to Ukraine, or allow any other country with the German-made tanks in their inventory to do so, unless the US also agrees to send its M1 Abrams tanks to Kyiv — something the Pentagon has said for months it has no intention of doing given the logistical costs of maintaining them.

“They have us over a barrel,” a senior Biden administration official told CNN Thursday, adding that the Germans are demanding tanks for tanks, and not budging on considering any other offers the US has made to spur Berlin to send the Leopards.

The tank standoff comes amid a much larger debate between the US and its European allies over whether to send increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine, including longer-range missiles that would allow Ukraine to hit targets as far as 200 miles away.

The UK, Poland, Finland and the Baltic states have all been pushing for NATO members to provide heavier equipment to Kyiv amid what they believe is a key inflection point in the war. Both Ukraine and Russia appear to be gearing up for new offensives and there are signs that Moscow could be preparing an additional troop mobilization.

Last week, the British added pressure to their Western allies when they announced they would send 14 of their Challenger tanks to Ukraine. But Germany and the US were still opposed to the idea of sending their own tanks as of Wednesday.

Read the full story here.

1:27 a.m. ET, January 20, 2023

CIA director briefed Zelensky on US expectations for Russia's battlefield planning, officials say

From CNN's Katie Bo Lillis, Natasha Bertrand and Kylie Atwood

Bill Burns during the Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Bill Burns during the Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Bill Clark/AP)

CIA Director Bill Burns briefed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv last week on the US’ expectations for Russia’s battlefield planning in the spring, according to a US official and two Ukrainian sources familiar with the meeting.

The secret meeting comes as US officials are closely monitoring a potential Russian offensive in the coming months — and in the midst of a fraught debate between the US and its European allies over whether to send increasingly sophisticated and long-range weaponry to Ukraine. Western defense leaders are scheduled to meet Friday to discuss further weapons shipments to Ukraine.

“Director Burns traveled to Kyiv where he met with Ukrainian intelligence counterparts as well as President Zelensky and reinforced our continued support for Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression,” a US official said in a statement.

The Washington Post first reported the meeting.

Burns, a veteran diplomat, has become a trusted interlocutor in Kyiv, and last week’s trip was not his first. He made two known back-to-back trips to Kyiv in October and November of last year, including one that took place amid a spate of Russian missile strikes across the country.

The winter months have seen brutal fighting on the front lines, particularly around the city of Bakhmut, but no major strategic gains by either side. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum on Wednesday, called it “not a stalemate but really a grinding conflict at this stage.”

Read more here.

12:05 a.m. ET, January 20, 2023

Pentagon says it doesn't make sense to provide M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine "at this moment"

From CNN's Haley Britzky

"It just doesn’t make sense” for the US to provide M1 Abrams tanks “at this moment," Sabrina Singh, deputy Pentagon press secretary, said Thursday after German officials said they will not provide tanks to Ukraine until the US decides to do so as well.

“As you know we’ve provided the Bradleys, we're seeing other nations step up and continue to provide equipment and material to Ukraine that they can,” Singh said.

"Ultimately this is Germany's decision. It's their sovereign decision on what security assistance they will provide. So we won't be able to speak to them but I think that we are certainly doing what we can to support Ukraine in what they need."

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is meeting with other allies on Friday in Germany during the eighth Ukraine Contact Group, where they will discuss what kind of equipment and weapons systems Ukraine may need in its fight against Russia. 

And while the issue of tanks is sure to come up, US officials have repeatedly said Germany can make its own decisions and the M1 Abrams’ maintenance and sustainment demands make it a difficult piece of equipment to provide to Kyiv. 

“[W]e're continuing to work with other partners and allies around the world to see what else can be provided to Ukraine and that's, that's the whole point of tomorrow's meeting,” Singh said Thursday.

Some context: There is growing pressure for Western allies to provide Ukraine with heavy battle tanks.

FrancePoland and the United Kingdom have pledged to soon send tanks for the Ukrainian military to use in its efforts to protect itself from Russia. Finland is considering following suit.

Germany has said it would transfer infantry fighting vehicles to Kyiv but is yet to commit to sending tanks. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has insisted that any such plan would need to be fully coordinated with the whole of the Western alliance, including the United States.

The Western allies are set to meet tomorrow at the US Ramstein air base in Germany to discuss further military aid for Kyiv.

7:55 p.m. ET, January 19, 2023

"Dramatic reduction" in Ukrainian staff at Zaporizhzhia plant, UN nuclear watchdog says

From CNN's Fred Pleitgen and Tim Lister in Kyiv

Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on April 27, 2022.
Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on April 27, 2022. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said there has been a "dramatic reduction" in the number of Ukrainian staff at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant since Russian forces occupied the facility and the nearby city in March 2022.

The UN nuclear watchdog chief said at a media briefing in Kyiv that "normally a facility like this has around 10,000 people working and now we are down to 3,000, more or less."

He added that the number was adequate in the current conditions, because the plant was operating at a low level. "But of course it is a matter of concern," he said.  

He said the handful of IAEA staff at the plant were fine and are able do their work correctly.

"Very worried": Grossi said despite difficulties throughout the conflict, Ukraine's nuclear energy system had proved resilient.

"The good side [is that] almost a year since the beginning of the conflict on a territory with a vast nuclear infrastructure we have had very difficult moments when facilities have been operating in emergency mode and we saw the resilience of the system," he said.

Even so, he explained the situation remained precarious and the IAEA was "very worried" about the Zaporizhzhia plant.

The plant has always been on the front line and on Thursday alone, there had been two major explosions in the vicinity of the facility, he said. 

"We know that a nuclear accident or an accident with serious radiological consequences is possible every day," he said, noting that a protection zone around the plant was indispensable.

"Crying wolf": Grossi said there was no sign Russia was attempting to link the plant to its own grid.  

Asked if Russia showed goodwill and cooperative spirit, Grossi said, "I have a professional engagement with them." He said Russia had to comply with safety standards that had been agreed by everybody, and he planned to visit Russia soon.

Grossi said he was concerned the international community would pay less attention to the situation. "I worry that this is becoming routine ... that people might be asking whether the IAEA was crying wolf," he said.

7:35 p.m. ET, January 19, 2023

Biden administration announces new $2.5 billion security aid package for Ukraine

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

The Pentagon announced a $2.5 billion Ukraine security package on Thursday, including for the first time Stryker armored vehicles and more Bradley fighting vehicles that could be used against any potential Russian offensive in Ukraine this spring.

The package, publicized one day before an international coalition meets in Germany to discuss more aid to Ukraine, is the second largest ever announced by the United States. The largest totaled more than $3 billion and was announced earlier this month.

The latest package includes 90 Stryker armored personnel carriers and 59 more Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. The previous package included 50 Bradleys — bringing the total given to more than 100.

The latest package also includes ammunition for the HIMARS rocket system that Ukraine has used to great effect against Russian weapons depots and command posts, as well as additional munitions and systems for aerial defense, which the Pentagon has identified as an ongoing priority.

The US has now committed $26.7 billion to Ukraine in security aid since the beginning of the war nearly a year ago.

Read more here.