January 26, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Jack Guy, Ed Upright, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Leinz Vales, Maureen Chowdhury and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 12:37 a.m. ET, January 27, 2023
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3:43 p.m. ET, January 26, 2023

US will send the more modern and lethal version of the Abrams tank to Ukraine, Pentagon says 

From CNN's Haley Britzky

US-owned M1A2 Abrams tanks in Germany.
US-owned M1A2 Abrams tanks in Germany. (Daniel Karmann/picture alliance/Getty Images)

The US will send the M1A2 Abrams tank to Ukraine, which has significantly upgraded capabilities compared to the earlier M1A1 model.

Deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh confirmed Thursday that the M1A2 would be the version of the Abrams provided to the Ukrainians. She said that the US does not “have these tanks available in excess in our US stocks,” and it will take “months to transfer” the tanks to Ukraine.

The M1A2 is a significant upgrade from the older M1A1, mostly due to the fact that the A2 runs on a digital system, as opposed to the analog system of the A1.

It’s “the difference between a plug-in phone – a rotary phone – and that iPhone you’ve got in your hand,” explained retired Army Gen. Robert Abrams, the former commander of US Forces Korea, whose father was the namesake for the 70-ton tank.

US officials announced this week that 31 Abrams tanks would be sent to Ukraine after days of back and forth between the US and its allies. Officials had not yet disclosed which tank variant they would choose, and Army acquisitions chief Doug Bush told reporters on Tuesday that the decision was still being deliberated.

More on the tanks: US President Joe Biden said from the White House on Wednesday that the tanks would “enhance Ukraine’s capacity to defend its territory and achieve its strategic objectives.”

In addition to the digital change with the A2, the newer version of the tank is “significantly” more lethal than the A1, Abrams said. It includes a commander’s independent thermal viewer. Whereas before, only the gunner had a thermal site, now the tank commander has one as well, allowing them to help scan for and identify targets. The digital system also allows the tank crew to run their own onboard diagnostics, Abrams said, instead of waiting for mechanics to run tests to determine any issues that arise.

When it comes down to it, Abrams said, the M1A2 is “far superior in lethality and survivability and mobility” to anything that Russia has on the battlefield.

It’s unclear which variant of the A2 tank, of which there are three, will be chosen. Singh declined to say during the Pentagon briefing Thursday, and Bush declined to say Wednesday.

Bush added that concerns over logistics and maintenance for each variant – which had frequently been cited as a reason the US was hesitant to send the Abrams at all – would not weigh heavily on the decision.

He also explained that the Army does not produce brand new tanks from scratch and has instead been modifying existing older models. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy or fast necessarily," he added, but they don't currently have to be built from scratch.

CNN's Michael Conte contributed reporting to this post.

3:26 p.m. ET, January 26, 2023

CNN team in Ukraine witnesses continued heavy fighting around Bakhmut

From CNN's Vasco Cotovio

Ukrainian soldiers fire a tank near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on January 26.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a tank near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on January 26. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

Heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces continues around Bakhmut in the east, a CNN team on the ground witnessed. 

CNN saw intense indirect fire from Ukrainian positions on the hillsides west of Bakhmut, with most of the fire apparently directed against Russian units to the south and north of the city.

Units from Russia's mercenary organization Wagner Group are reported to be trying to advance from both flanks, in an effort to encircle the city where 6,000 civilians remain.

Bakhmut remains a major focal point of the conflict, with the Ukrainian president and his staff paying special attention to the situation at the front. 

“President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy held a regular meeting of the Staff of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief on Thursday,” his office said in a statement on Thursday. “The participants heard reports from the commanders of the operational directions on the current situation at the front, and discussed the situation in the Bakhmut sector in detail.”
1:32 p.m. ET, January 26, 2023

Council of Europe calls for special tribunal to probe Russia and Belarus’ "crime of aggression" in Ukraine

From CNN's Amy Cassidy 

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has voted unanimously to demand the creation of a special international tribunal to prosecute Russian and Belarusian political and military leaders “for the crime of aggression in Ukraine,” according to a statement published Thursday.

PACE, composed of members appointed by the national parliaments of the Council's 46 member states, proposes a tribunal in The Hague “to prosecute Russian and Belarusian political and military leaders who planned, prepared, initiated or executed Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.” 

PACE recommends policies for adoption, which are then submitted to national governments for action.

More background: The demand for an international tribunal echoes a similar call from UK lawmakers who last week expressed support for "the creation of a special tribunal with a limited focus on the crime of aggression" to complement the investigation being carried out by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into Russia's war crimes in Ukraine. 

The UN has defined aggression as "the use of armed force by a state against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.” 

“No other international criminal tribunal is competent to prosecute and punish the crime of aggression against Ukraine, the Assembly pointed out,” the PACE statement added. 

The ICC is unable to probe the crime of aggression unless the UN Security Council refers the matter to it, which is “highly implausible,” as Russia would likely use its status as a Security Council member to veto a referral. Russia was excluded from the Council of Europe — founded after World War II to uphold human rights — in March 2022 following its invasion of Ukraine.

In December, a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Bill Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, to call for creation of a special tribunal on the crime of aggression. Administration officials have neither committed to nor rejected the idea.

CNN's Niamh Kennedy and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this post.

2:36 p.m. ET, January 26, 2023

Canada pledges 4 Leopard tanks to Ukraine 

From CNN's Hira Humayun

Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand speaks to the press on January 20, in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany.
Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand speaks to the press on January 20, in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

Canada will be sending four Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand announced on Thursday.

The donation will provide soldiers with a tactical advantage due to their “excellent mobility, firepower, and survivability” and that they would allow Ukraine to retake even more of its territory, the defense minister added.

The tanks are combat-ready and will be deployed over the coming weeks, Anand said, adding that a number of Canadian Armed Forces members will be deployed to train Ukrainian soldiers with the skills they need to operate the equipment.

The defense minister also noted that the number of tanks pledged may increase "as we coordinate donation and sustainment plans with our allies,” and work together to pool ammunition and spare parts.

“Tanks are not easy to maintain but their sustainment will be essential to Ukraine’s overall success and victory," she said, pointing to the complexity of their operation.

Canada will discuss how to ensure "long term success of our donations,” with Germany, Finland, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands, she added.

Ukraine's defense minister thanked Canada for the commitment in a tweet.

“Thank you to my great friend & colleague Anita Anand who announced this decision today,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote. “Thank you to (Prime Minister) JustinTrudeau and all Canadian people."

12:57 p.m. ET, January 26, 2023

US State Department "looking for an appropriate candidate" for special envoy for Belarus, official says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

The US State Department is “looking for an appropriate candidate, a career candidate” to serve as special envoy for Belarus, an official said Thursday.

The United States no longer has a presence in Belarus after suspending operations at its embassy in Minsk shortly after the war in Ukraine broke out last February.

Former US envoy Julie Fisher departed her role in June 2022, and was blocked from serving as ambassador in Minsk by the Lukashenko regime.

Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for Political Affairs, said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the envoy job is a “complex one,” in part because you have to work out of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. 

“We have a very excellent Charge who is doing most of the on the ground contact work, but our Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia Karen Donfried has been meeting with Belarussians as has her deputy Robin Dunnigan at regular intervals to test whether there might be any openings there,” Nuland said in response to a question from Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

She added, “I would not say that we've had manifest success. But also working intensively with the Belarusian opposition and Madame (Sviatlana) Tsikhanouskaya and the secretary has seen her regularly. So we're continuing to work on this and I hope we'll have somebody to talk to you about in the not too distant future.”

11:45 a.m. ET, January 26, 2023

US auditors on the ground in Kyiv to ensure "no aid or weapons are diverted," official says

From CNN's Kylie Atwood and Michael Conte

The US has auditors in Kyiv this week alongside the World Bank and Deloitte consultants to ensure “that no aid or weapons are diverted,” according to State Department Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland.

“We continue to support essential reform and anti-corruption measures by the Ukrainian government across the country,” said Nuland at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Her comments come as Republican members of Congress have signaled a desire to conduct additional oversight efforts when it comes to US support for Ukraine. The administration has said that there are oversight efforts in place. 

This week the State Department said that they are “not aware that any US assistance was involved” in the corruption scandal within the Ukrainian government that led to the resignation of the nation’s deputy defense minister.

The auditor's arrival in Kyiv comes as US President Biden announced Wednesday he plans to send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine and the Pentagon unveiled last week a $2.5 billion Ukraine security package, including for the first time Stryker armored vehicles and more Bradley fighting vehicles.

11:23 a.m. ET, January 26, 2023

US ambassador to Russia has arrived in Moscow

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Lynne M. Tracy testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be Ambassador to the Russian Federation on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., November 30.
Lynne M. Tracy testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be Ambassador to the Russian Federation on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., November 30. (Sarah Silbiger/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

US Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy has arrived in Moscow, according to a tweet from the US Embassy. 

Tracy, who has previously served as the deputy chief of mission in Moscow, was overwhelmingly confirmed as ambassador in December.

Prior to her departure for Moscow, Tracy met with Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov. 

“We have been clear about our desire to maintain open channels of communication with Russia,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday, adding that these channels are used "to convey where we are on issues that are of the utmost priority to us,” including wrongfully detained American citizens and the costs of Russian escalation.

He noted that the US Embassy in Moscow is “under duress because of the pressure and the limitations that the Kremlin has imposed on it,” but the US is also able to communicate with the Russian Embassy in the US.

The ambassador's arrival comes a day after US President Biden announced he plans to send 31 Abrams tanks to Ukraine and as Russia launched another round of missile strikes against Kyiv.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday Moscow sees the delivery of modern Western battle tanks to Ukraine as “direct involvement” in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

10:52 a.m. ET, January 26, 2023

US designates Wagner Group as significant transnational criminal organization and sanctions its network

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

This general view shows the 'PMC Wagner Centre', in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 4.
This general view shows the 'PMC Wagner Centre', in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 4. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

The US Treasury Department on Thursday designated the Wagner Group, a Russian private mercenary organization heavily involved in the war in Ukraine, as a significant transnational criminal organization, and imposed a slew of sanctions on a transnational network that supports it.

The US Department of State concurrently announced a number of sanctions meant to “target a range of Wagner’s key infrastructure – including an aviation firm used by Wagner, a Wagner propaganda organization, and Wagner front companies,” according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Here are the actions taken by both US departments:

The State Department announced sanctions on the following:

  • Three individuals for their roles as heads of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, which has been reported to facilitate the recruitment of Russian prisoners into the Wagner Group.
  • A deputy prime minister who also serves as the Minister of Industry and Trade
  • The chairman of the Election Commission of the Rostov Region.
  • A network tied to an already-sanctioned Russian oligarch.
  • A financier to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The department also announced it will take steps to impose visa restrictions “on 531 members of the Russian Federation military" associated with the assault on Ukraine.

The Treasury Department announced sanctions on the following:

  • A number of individuals and companies tied to Moscow’s defense industrial complex.
  • Putin allies and their family members.
  • Two people involved with Russia’s attempts to annex parts of Ukraine.

The White House had previewed the significant transnational criminal organization designation and forthcoming sanctions against the Wagner group last week.

10:33 a.m. ET, January 26, 2023

Biden considering trip to Europe to mark one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, officials say

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand and Kevin Liptak

US President Joe Biden is considering making a trip to Europe around the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine next month, two senior administration officials tell CNN.

A trip is not yet confirmed, and details have yet to be finalized. But one of the officials said that one stop under consideration is Poland, a key NATO ally currently housing thousands of American troops that also serves as a hub for western weapons transfers to Ukraine. US service members are also training Ukrainian troops there. 

It is highly unlikely that Biden would travel to Ukraine as part of this trip, however, one of the officials said, given the ongoing security concerns.  

Some context: Biden's aides have been planning for several weeks on how they will mark the anniversary of the invasion, including potentially having the US president deliver a major address. They hope to emphasize the resilience of the Ukrainian people, noting that when the war began, many assumed Kyiv would fall within days.

NBC News first reported a trip to Europe was under consideration.