February 1, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Sophie Tanno, Hannah Strange, Tara Subramaniam, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Leinz Vales and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 1:28 a.m. ET, February 2, 2023
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12:22 a.m. ET, February 1, 2023

Russia increases joint military drills with Belarus

From CNN's Jonny Hallam, Josh Pennington, Tim Lister and Nick Paton Walsh 

Russia and Belarus are conducting a further week of joint military drills, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday, the latest sign of cooperation between the neighboring allies amid Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

"During the week, military representatives from the two countries will practice joint planning of the use of troops based on the prior experience of armed conflicts in recent years," the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said the aim of the training is to improve the compatibility of the two militaries and is part of preparation for the joint Union Shield 2023 exercises the two countries will hold in Russia in September.

The announcement of the new drills comes as Russian and Belarussian aviation combat units continue to conduct training missions during joint flight and tactical exercises of the air forces of the two countries.

The exercises are being held at the Ruzhansky training grounds in Belarus about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of the Ukrainian border.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed a plan to set up joint military training centers with Belarus, according to Agence France-Presse.

In a decree published Tuesday, Putin tasked the defense and foreign ministers to conduct talks with Belarus and sign an agreement to establish the facilities, AFP reported.

The document did not specify where they would be based.

Some context: An announcement by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in October that his country and Russia would form a joint regional force and carry out exercises set off alarm bells in Kyiv.

The last time Belarus and Russia forces held joint exercises, in February last year, many of those Russian forces went on to cross the Ukrainian border in their ill-fated drive towards the capital.

But Western officials speaking to media on background this week have expressed doubt that Russia could launch an offensive from Belarus in the coming months. 

The Russian troops' presence would, however, prompt Ukraine into stationing its troops in that direction to "offset that potential risk," the officials said, even though they stressed it is "hugely unlikely" that Belarus "will be an axis of advance in the next several months.”

7:51 p.m. ET, January 31, 2023

After getting tanks, Ukraine escalates public pressure over F-16 fighter jets

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand and Alex Marquardt

Top Ukrainian officials have in recent days escalated their public lobbying campaign for US-made F-16 fighter jets, arguing they need them urgently to defend against Russian missile and drone attacks.

But that push is being met with skepticism by US and allied officials who say the jets would be impractical, both because they require considerable training and because Russia has extensive anti-aircraft systems that could easily shoot them down.

More puzzling to US officials is why Ukraine has made such a public show of asking for F-16s, when in private the jets are rarely mentioned atop Ukraine’s wish list of weapons.

In private conversations US officials at the Pentagon and the White House have had with Ukrainians over the last several months, fighter jets have not ranked highly on the country’s list of priorities, officials said. Instead, Ukraine has been much more focused on long-range missiles — which the US is reluctant to hand over — as well as more ammunition, air defenses and tanks, which are now on their way after a dramatic public debate among NATO allies.

The Europeans have had a similar experience. French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Monday that while “nothing is off-limits in principle,” neither the Netherlands nor France had received any official requests from Ukraine to send the fighter jets.

Read the full story:

11:24 p.m. ET, January 31, 2023

Russian troops are turning Bakhmut into "a total ruin," Ukrainian regional military chief says

From CNN's Stephanie Halasz

A man walks through the rubble of a building destroyed by shelling in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on January 29.
A man walks through the rubble of a building destroyed by shelling in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on January 29. (Marek M. Berezowski/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Russian troops are pummeling the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut into what the Donetsk region military administration head Pavlo Kyrylenko called a “total ruin.” 

Two people were killed Tuesday, including a child, Kyrylenko said on Telegram. Four civilians were wounded, he added. 

“Russians are levelling Bakhmut to the ground, killing everyone they can reach. We are carefully documenting all war crimes. They will be held accountable for everything!,” he wrote on Telegram.

CNN reported in January that the US and Western officials are urging Ukraine to shift its focus from the brutal, months-long fight in the Bakhmut and prioritize instead a potential offensive in the south, using a different style of fighting that takes advantage of the billions of dollars in new military hardware recently committed by Western allies.

11:16 p.m. ET, January 31, 2023

Russia struggling to replace its losses in Ukraine ahead of possible spring offensive, Western officials say

From CNN's Nick Paton Walsh in London

Russia is unlikely to see strategic success in any potential offensive in Ukraine this spring due to limited support on force ratios, equipment and logistics, according to Western officials speaking to media on background.

These limitations might not prevent Russia “from trying to launch an offensive,” but their “ability to change the course of the conflict at the moment is constrained,” the officials said.

Moscow is struggling to replace its losses, the officials added.

“There are severe constraints to their ability to really backfill the losses that they have suffered in Ukraine, which is why you see them reach out to international partners to try to fill the gap," they said.

Russia and Ukraine were fundamentally in "a race" as to "who can maintain the supply of weapons,” they said.

Moscow's current offensive is more about “the existing manpower and equipment being deployed and redeployed locally. You're seeing people kind of taking offensive action, but I don't think you're seeing the beginning of the offensive in big strategic terms. It's unlikely that hundreds of thousands of mobilized reservists have been formed into cohesive formations capable of major offensive, maneuver operations,” the officials explained.

Belarus' role: Meanwhile, the officials expressed doubt in Russia using its neighboring ally Belarus to launch an offensive in the coming months. 

“Belarus is providing a useful training ground for Russian forces where they can outsource for training and then siphon them back round into the front line in Ukraine,” the officials said. “We do see Russian forces in Belarus. We don't see them deployed to the border, and at the moment, they don't have the kind of capability in the logistics to project and threaten Kyiv.”

But the Russian troops' presence would prompt Ukraine into stationing its troops in that direction to "offset that potential risk," the officials said, even though they stressed it is "hugely unlikely" that Belarus "will be an axis of advance in the next several months.”

7:43 p.m. ET, January 31, 2023

US says Russia is violating nuclear arms control treaty by not allowing inspections

Michael Callahan, Jennifer Hansler, Haley Britzky and Kylie Atwood

Russia is violating a key nuclear arms control agreement with the United States and continuing to refuse to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities, a State Department spokesperson said Tuesday.

“Russia is not complying with its obligation under the New START Treaty to facilitate inspection activities on its territory. Russia’s refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control,” the spokesperson said in statement.
“Russia has also failed to comply with the New START Treaty obligation to convene a session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission in accordance with the treaty-mandated timeline.”

The US announcement is likely to increase tensions with relations between the two countries in the doldrums as Moscow continues its war on Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber rattling during the war has alarmed the US and its allies.

In December, Putin warned of the “increasing” threat of nuclear war, and this month, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, threatened that Russia losing the war could “provoke the outbreak of a nuclear war.”

Read more here.

7:42 p.m. ET, January 31, 2023

Russian airborne units have joined Wagner fighters in Bakhmut, says former Azov commander

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Yulia Kesaieva

Russian airborne units have joined Wagner mercenary fighters in the battle for the key eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, according to Maksym Zhorin, a former co-commander of Ukraine's Azov regiment.

Zhorin is not fighting on the battlefield but is in contact with Ukrainian soldiers and helps with supplies. 

"Not only the Wagnerites are fighting in the Bakhmut sector on the Russian side," Zhorin said on his official Telegram channel Tuesday.

"Previously, the assaults were carried out first by convicts, followed by more 'elite' Wagner units, but now airborne units have also joined the fight," he said.

Zhorin described several differences between the Russian forces and Wagner troops.

"First of all, this is notable because of the use of their regular equipment. Wagner's troops are forced to advance on foot, while Russian paratroopers have armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, which they actively use," Zhorin said. 
"Another difference is that for some reason regular troops are less willing to die than Wagner's men. That is why they act a little more cautiously. But they are still dying, just not in such huge numbers."

CNN is unable to independently verify those claims. 

Other Ukrainian military commanders have echoed Zhorin's assessment in recent days, saying that regular Russian military troops are now assisting Wagner private military contractors in the fight for Bakhmut.