January 31, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Charlotte Banks, Jack Guy, Adrienne Vogt, Mike Hayes and Leinz Vales, CNN

Updated 12:23 a.m. ET, February 1, 2023
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12:22 a.m. ET, January 31, 2023

Putin's former speechwriter says a military coup is becoming a possibility in Russia

From CNN's Mitchell McCluskey

A military coup is becoming a possibility in Russia as the war in Ukraine continues, President Vladimir Putin’s former speechwriter said Monday.

Speaking to CNN’s Erin Burnett, speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said that as Russian losses mount in Ukraine and the country experiences hardship brought by Western sanctions, Russians will look for someone to blame.

"The Russian economy is deteriorating. The war is lost. There are more and more dead bodies returning to Russia, so Russians will be coming across more difficulties and they'll be trying to find explanation why this is happening, looking around to the political process and they'll be answering themselves: 'Well, this is because our country is governed by an old tyrant, an old dictator,'" Gallyamov said, referring to Putin.

“At this moment, I think a military coup will become possible.”

That moment may come in the next 12 months, he said.

“So in one year when the political situation changes and there's a really hated unpopular president at the head of the country and the war is really unpopular, and they need to shed blood for this, at this moment, a coup becomes a real possibility,” he added.

Gallyamov also said he believes Putin may cancel presidential elections scheduled to be held in March 2024.

“Judging by his actions, when he is escalating on something without necessity, he might really cancel the elections. Without victory over Ukraine, he'll face difficulty with the Russians. Russians don't need him if he's not strong. He might really declare the martial law and cancel the elections,” Gallyamov said.
1:31 p.m. ET, January 31, 2023

"They shot them in front of everyone": Former Wagner commander describes frontline brutality

From CNN's Muhammad Darwish, Katharina Krebs and Tara John

Andrei Medvedev talks to CNN’s Anderson Cooper from Norway’s capital Oslo, where he is seeking asylum.
Andrei Medvedev talks to CNN’s Anderson Cooper from Norway’s capital Oslo, where he is seeking asylum. (CNN)

A former Wagner mercenary says the brutality he witnessed in Ukraine ultimately pushed him to defect, in an exclusive CNN interview on Monday.

Wagner fighters were often sent into battle with little direction, and the company’s treatment of reluctant recruits was ruthless, Andrei Medvedev told CNN’s Anderson Cooper from Norway’s capital Oslo, where he is seeking asylum after crossing that country’s arctic border from Russia.

“They would round up those who did not want to fight and shoot them in front of newcomers,” he alleges. “They brought two prisoners who refused to go fight and they shot them in front of everyone and buried them right in the trenches that were dug by the trainees.”

CNN has not been able to independently verify his account and Wagner has not replied to a request for comment.

The 26-year-old, who says he previously served in the Russian military, joined Wagner as a volunteer. He crossed into Ukraine less than 10 days after signing his contract in July 2021, serving near Bakhmut, the frontline city in the Donetsk region. The mercenary group has emerged as a key player in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Medvedev said he reported directly to the group’s founders, Dmitry Utkin and Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.

He refers to Prigozhin as “the devil.” If he was a Russian hero, he would have taken a gun and run with the soldiers,” Medvedev said.

Prigozhin responded Tuesday to CNN's request for comment in a statement that was largely sarcastic in tone via his press service. He called the news organization an "open enemy" before insisting Wagner is an "exemplary military organization that complies with all the necessary laws and rules of modern wars."

Read more:

7:51 p.m. ET, January 30, 2023

White House defends decision not to send fighter jets to Ukraine

From CNN's DJ Judd

White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby on Monday defended the Biden administration’s decision not to send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, pointing instead to the aid the US is providing, including Abrams tanks.

“What I can tell you is that there's a lot of capability that is being sent, and will be sent in the coming weeks and months," Kirby told CNN. “The kinds of capabilities that we know will be critical to helping Ukrainians again in the fighting now in the wintertime, as well as the kind of fighting that we expect that they're going to be doing in the spring.”  

Kirby said he believes the decision,announced last week, to send Abrams tanks to the region wasn’t one that was made too late, even amid reports of Russia gaining territory in eastern Ukraine.

“The decision on the tanks — and it wasn't just the US, it was the Germans as well, and the Brits before that — was really designed to help Ukraine get ahead of the fighting that we think ... everybody's going to see come spring,” he said. “So, this was actually one of those cases where we are trying to forecast the kinds of needs that Ukraine is going to require when the weather turns better — and we can expect that the Russians will try to go on the offensive then.”

Some background: President Joe Biden answered, "No," when asked by a reporter whether he would send the jets to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has sought fighter jets to help sustain his war effort against Russia. Biden has consistently said the planes aren't on the table, even as he has given aid in other areas.

7:50 p.m. ET, January 30, 2023

Russian couple arrested for anti-war conversation in restaurant, monitoring group says

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova

A married couple in the southwestern Russian city of Krasnodar was arrested Sunday for professing anti-war sentiments during a private conversation in a restaurant, according to the independent Russian monitoring group OVD-Info.

OVD-Info told CNN that Aleksey Ovchinnikov was sentenced to 15 days in prison for petty hooliganism and his wife, Olesya Ovchinnikova, received a 1,000 rubles ($14) fine.

Olesya Ovchinnikova is also facing charges for discrediting the Russian army, according to reporting from local media 93.RU, citing her lawyer.

CNN has sought comment from the couple’s lawyer. The restaurant where the incident is said to have taken place, “Na Drovoh,” would not comment to CNN.

Crackdown on anti-war sentiments: OVD-Info said at least 61 cases related to expressing anti-war views were initiated in Russia in 2022 on the charges of justification of terrorism on the internet, with 26 leading to sentencing so far.

In another notable case, 19-year-old Olesya Krivtsova was charged over social media posts that authorities say discredit the Russian army and justify terrorism. She posted an Instagram story about the explosion on the Crimean bridge in October that also criticized Russia for invading Ukraine, according to Russian officials.

3:25 a.m. ET, January 31, 2023

Biden says he won't send F16 jets to Ukraine

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to the media after his arrival to the White House in Washington, U.S., on January 30.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to the media after his arrival to the White House in Washington, U.S., on January 30. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

US President Joe Biden said Monday he wouldn't send American fighter jets to Ukraine, even as the United States ramps up military assistance in the form of artillery and tanks. 

"No," Biden said when asked by a reporter whether he would send F16 jets to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has sought fighter jets to help sustain his war effort against Russia. Biden has consistently said the planes aren't on the table, even as he has given aid in other areas.

Last week, for example, Biden announced he would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, despite top US officials saying previously the heavy-duty vehicles were a poor fit for the country's military.

Speaking on the White House South Lawn, Biden also said he wasn't sure whether he would visit Europe next month for the first anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine.

In response to a separate question, Biden said he was planning to visit Poland, but wasn't sure when.

CNN reported last week the White House was exploring the possibility of a Biden visit to Europe to mark 12 months since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Some background: Ukrainian leaders have renewed their appeals for Western fighter jets. “I sent a wish list card to Santa Claus last year, and fighter jets also [were] including in this wish list,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told CNN last week.

US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby acknowledged Friday that Zelensky had asked for fighter jets. “We are constantly talking to the Ukrainians about their needs, and want to make sure that we’re doing the best we can to meet them — and if we can’t, that some of our allies and partners can,” Kirby said.

7:41 p.m. ET, January 30, 2023

Hidden in the forest, Ukraine's drone operators are crucial to the eastern battle

From CNN's Tim Lister, Frederik Pleitgen and Konstantin Hak near Kreminna, Ukraine

The pine forests near the city of Kreminna have become one of the hottest combat zones in the war in eastern Ukraine. Almost every weapon seems to be at work here, artillery, howitzers, tanks and mortars. But perhaps the most important is the smallest: The reconnaissance drone.

Ukrainian and Russian forces have been fighting here for nearly two months. If the Ukrainians can break through Russian lines and reach Kreminna, they can disrupt Russian supply routes.

But it’s a much tougher proposition than it was at the end of last year. Russia’s defensive lines have been reinforced with heavy weapons and long-range artillery.

CNN accompanied two Ukrainian drone operators from the Dnipro-1 battalion deep into the forest to see how they operate. The journey was along tracks of soft sand amid a thin canopy of pine trees, through an eerie landscape dotted with streams and bogs.

Read the full story here.

7:45 p.m. ET, January 30, 2023

France and Australia announce joint production of artillery shells for Ukraine

From CNN's Pierre Bairin and Marguerite Lacroix

France and Australia said Monday they would collaborate on a multi-million dollar project to produce “several thousand” artillery shells for Ukraine.

The announcement came as foreign and defense ministers of both countries met in Paris.

“Several thousand 155-millimeter shells are going to be manufactured in common, with an unprecedented partnership between Australia and France,” French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu told a news conference.

Lecornu said French arms company Nexter would partner with Australian companies, which would provide the powder for the shells.

“This forms part of the ongoing level of support that both France and Australia is providing Ukraine to make sure that Ukraine is able to stay in this conflict and be able to see it concluded on its own terms,” Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said.

Neither minister would specify quantities beyond “several thousand” artillery shells but they indicated this would be a long-term collaboration.

More on artillery to Ukraine: CNN reported in early January that the United States had moved some of the 300,000 155-millimeter shells the US and Israel agreed would be transferred to Ukraine. In November, a US official told CNN the US intended to buy 100,000 rounds of artillery ammunition from South Korean arms manufacturers to provide to Kyiv.

7:57 p.m. ET, January 30, 2023

Bakhmut has been "a living hell" as paratroopers replace Wagner fighters, Ukrainian commander says

From CNN's Kostan Nechyporenko and Radina Gigova

The "constant" fighting in and around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has been "a living hell" as Russian forces try to take control of the Kostiantynivka-Bakhmut highway, a Ukrainian commander said in an interview on Ukrainian television Monday.  

"Because for five or six months, near Bakhmut has been a living hell. The enemy is constantly attacking. And we can observe more about how the weather is changing, which, by the way, has a great impact on the combat capability, morale, and living conditions of each soldier," said Volodymyr Nazarenko, deputy commander of the "Svoboda" battalion of the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade of Ukraine's National Guard.

He said he couldn't say for certain whether Russian forces are making a full-scale offensive and whether their tactics have changed, but that it seems Wagner fighters have been replaced by Russian paratroopers. 

Nazarenko went on to say the Ukrainian fighters "are doing an incredible job" and are "real heroes."

"The enemy is trying to take control of the Kostiantynivka-Bakhmut highway. They are not successful in it. Our fighters are doing their best: The Armed Forces and the National Guard are doing an incredible job; they are real heroes. And the enemy is suffering huge, huge losses," he said.

CNN has not been able to independently verify the claims about the losses. 

"What we see is that Wagner is almost completely destroyed. They have now been replaced by paratroopers, who also suffer losses almost every day, not only in manpower but also in armored vehicles," he added.