February 19, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Sophie Tanno, Matt Meyer, Mike Hayes and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 12:04 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023
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1:25 p.m. ET, February 19, 2023

Ukraine is in critical need of ammunition, EU's top diplomat says 

From CNN's Mia Alberti and Sugam Pokharel

Ukrainian soldiers load ammunition on the frontline near Vuhledar, Ukraine on February 14.
Ukrainian soldiers load ammunition on the frontline near Vuhledar, Ukraine on February 14. (Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The European Union's top diplomat warned Sunday that Ukraine's available ammunition is critically low, and Europe needs to solve the shortage quickly.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that allies have been taking up too much time with decisions on battle tanks for Ukraine, while the ammunition situation grew dire.

"Don’t confuse the short-term objectives with the medium terms purposes. Short-term, very short-term, more ammunitions to Ukraine," Borrell said, during a speech at the Munich Security Conference.

Borrell said the ammunition issue needed to be addressed in "a matter of weeks.”   

"The Ukrainians have a lot of applause and not enough ammunitions. That’s the paradox. They need to get less applause and better supplied with arms," Borrell said, of Kyiv's global reception.

"The Ukrainians are fighting, paying the highest price with their lives, but this war happens on European soil, affects us and has a global impact around the world, which also affects our security,” he continued.  

He said EU has been slow in providing military aid to Ukraine and that future deliveries cannot be done by joint procurements, which he argued are too time-consuming: "We have to use what we have, what the member states have."

Some background: CNN reported last week that Ukraine is burning through ammunition faster than the US and NATO can produce it.

The US and its allies have already sent nearly $50 billion in aid and equipment to Ukraine’s military over the past year.

Yet NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that the “current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production,” which is putting “our defense industries under strain.”

Much of that strain is being shouldered by American defense contractors. Even as the US embarks on an historic effort to re-arm, there are questions about whether it’ll be enough. As Ukraine prepares for a much-anticipated spring offensive in the coming weeks, the US is still years away from reaching its expected level of increased weapons production.

CNN's Haley Britzky and Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.

2:03 p.m. ET, February 19, 2023

US Sen. Graham calls on US to start training Ukrainians on F-16s immediately

From CNN’s Aaron Pellish

A US Air Force F-16 fighter jet flies at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas in 2022. 
A US Air Force F-16 fighter jet flies at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas in 2022.  (Larry MacDougal/MDOL/AP/File)

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called on the Biden administration to begin training Ukrainian pilots to operate F-16 fighter jets “today,” in order to provide Ukraine with the planes as soon as possible.

The South Carolina senator said in an interview with ABC on Sunday that US lawmakers attending the Munich Security Conference were in “virtually unanimous belief” that the US should provide F-16 training, and that he believes President Joe Biden’s decision on the issue is “imminent.”

Graham urged the Biden administration to not be cautious or fearful of aggravating Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying “don’t worry about provoking Putin, worry about beating him.” 

Graham also called on the administration to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism following Vice President Kamala Harris’ remarks in Munich declaring Russia has committed crimes against humanity.

“You have to have actions consistent with that statement,” Graham said. 

The senator said Harris’ comments in Germany were particularly poignant given the historical context. 

“We're talking about the vice president of the United States declaring that Russia is involved in crimes against humanity — in Germany of all places, you know, echoes of World War II," Graham said. "How can you say that — and she is correct — and not give the victim of the crime against humanity the defensive weapons they need to stop the crime?”

On China's support for Russia: Graham said he was concerned with the US intelligence assessment that China is considering providing deadly weapons to Russia for its war effort.

He said “that would change everything, forever." 

“If you jump on the Putin train now, you're dumber than dirt. It would be like buying a ticket on the Titanic after you saw the movie. Don't do this,” Graham said. “The most catastrophic thing that could happen to US-China relationship, in my opinion, is for China to, to give lethal weapons to Putin.”
11:17 a.m. ET, February 19, 2023

Chechen leader aligned with Putin says he wants to create his own private military company similar to Wagner

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova 

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Sunday that he is “seriously” planning to create his own private military company (PMC), inspired by the Russian mercenary Wagner Group.

“Already now we can confidently say that the Wagner has proved its effectiveness in military terms and has drawn a line under the talk about the need for PMCs,” the Chechen leader said in a Telegram post

Kadyrov already has a private army often referred to as Kadyrovtsy, who are fighting for Russia in Ukraine. 

Kadyrov and Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin have been publicly critical of Russian commanders for military failures in Ukraine.

Some background: While the Wagner Group has played a key role in Putin's invasion of Ukraine, it has come at a steep cost to human life. The US government estimates Wagner has suffered more than 30,000 casualties, including roughly 9,000 fighters killed, during the conflict.

The group has relied heavily on convicts to fill out its ranks. "That doesn't show any signs of abating," a US National Security Council spokesperson said Friday, though Prigozhin claimed last week that he will no longer recruit from prisons.

"They're treating their recruits, largely convicts, as basically cannon fodder, throwing them into a literal meat grinder here, inhuman ways without a second thought," said John Kirby, the NSC official.

CNN's Sam Fossum contributed to this report.

2:00 p.m. ET, February 19, 2023

White House pushes back on congressional criticism of US funding for Ukraine

From CNN’s Sam Fossum

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House on February 13.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House on February 13. (Evan Vucci/AP/File)

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby pushed back Sunday against some members of Congress who have criticized the level of US funding for Ukraine. 

"There's been no blank checks. Every single item that we have sent into Ukraine has been done in full consultation with Congress, and we have really enjoyed terrific bipartisan support — bicameral and bipartisan — on Capitol for support for Ukraine. And we fully expect that that will continue," Kirby said on MSNBC.

Allegations against Russia: Kirby also weighed in on the crimes against humanity declaration against the Kremlin announced by Vice President Kamala Harris on Saturday.

"We hope (it) will galvanize the rest of the world to likewise continue to want to hold — and to support investigative efforts to hold — Russia accountable for the war crimes and the atrocities that they are conducting inside Ukraine," Kirby said on MSNBC. 

"That designation, crimes against humanity, demonstrates that we believe that this is a systematic effort by the Kremlin," he added.

Read more about the crimes against humanity designation and war crimes prosecution here

1:15 p.m. ET, February 19, 2023

US has concerns that China may provide Russia with "lethal support," Blinken says

From CNN’s Jasmine Wright

SSecretary of State Antony Blinken said the US has concerns over China’s support of Russia’s military, specifically that Beijing is considering supplying Moscow with deadly weapons.

CNN’s Natasha Bertrand reported on these concerns Saturday, citing US officials.

“We've been watching this very closely,” Blinken told CBS’ “Face The Nation” while in Munich, Germany. He said the US already has seen Chinese companies providing non-lethal support to Russia. 

“The concern that we have now is based on information we have that they're considering providing lethal support, and we've made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship,” Blinken said.

Blinken clarified that "lethal support" refers to weapons, among other items.

“There's a whole gamut of things that — that fit in that category, everything from ammunition to the weapons themselves,” he told CBS.

CNN reported Saturday there are signs that Beijing wants to “creep up to the line” of providing lethal military aid to Russia without getting caught, according to US officials, who would not describe in detail the intelligence guiding the US in that assessment.

In an interview with NBC Sunday, Blinken also declined to provide what evidence the US has, but said he believed it would be “out there soon.”

Officials shared the intelligence with allies and partners at the Munich Security Conference over the last several days.

Aid for Ukraine: On weapons and equipment the US plans to provide to Ukraine, Blinken would not say whether he expects a policy change to greenlight US fighter jets. Blinken said it was challenging to train Ukrainian fighters on unfamiliar equipment, but reiterated that the US continues to engage with Kyiv about what they need.

He said it would be critical to to prepare Ukraine for what Blinken predicts will be its own counteroffensive against Russia.

11:37 a.m. ET, February 19, 2023

Here's what you need to know about "crimes against humanity" and war crime prosecutions

From CNN's Zachary B. Wolf and Jasmine Wright

The US government declared Saturday that Russia has committed crimes against humanity in its invasion of Ukraine.

The declaration marks the strongest accusation yet from the US as it seeks to punish Moscow for its war of aggression.

The US government declared last March that members of the Russian armed forces had committed war crimes in Ukraine. President Joe Biden has gone as far as saying that atrocities at the hands of Moscow’s troops qualify as “genocide.”

While the latest crimes against humanity determination is significant, it remains largely symbolic for now. It does not immediately trigger any specific consequences, nor does it give the US the ability to prosecute Russians involved with perpetrating crimes.

However, it could provide international bodies, such as the International Criminal Court, with evidence to effectively try to prosecute those crimes.

Here's what you need to know about a few key facets of this story:

  • What is a war crime? The International Criminal Court has specific definitions for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. Read about them in this guide published by the ICC. Targeting civilian populations, violating the Geneva Conventions and targeting specific groups of people are among the potential Russian war crimes.
  • What is the International Criminal Court? Located in The Hague, Netherlands, and created by a treaty called the Rome Statute first brought before the United Nations, the International Criminal Court operates independently.
  • Who falls under the court's jurisdiction? Most countries on Earth – 123 of them – are parties to the treaty, but there are very large and notable exceptions. That's key for this story, as neither Russia or Ukraine — or for that matter, the US — are part of the agreement.
  • Then how can the ICC address these allegations? The court tries people, not countries, and focuses on those who hold the most responsibility: leaders and officials. While Ukraine is not a member of the court, it has previously accepted its jurisdiction. Accused Russian officials could theoretically be indicted by the court. However, the ICC does not conduct trials in absentia, so they would either have to be handed over by Russia or arrested outside of Russia. This seems unlikely.
  • So could it affect the conflict? An ICC investigation could affect the diplomatic space for negotiations, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other accused perpetrators not wanting to risk arrest if they travel outside the country. It could also weaken Putin's popularity at home, with Russians losing faith in his ability to lead.

Still looking for answers? Read a full analysis on war crimes prosecutions here.

1:14 p.m. ET, February 19, 2023

Two House Republicans call on President Biden to increase US military support for Ukraine

From CNN’s Aaron Pellish

Texas Rep. Mike McCaul and Ohio Rep. Mike Turner.
Texas Rep. Mike McCaul and Ohio Rep. Mike Turner. (Getty Images)

Two leading Republicans in the US House of Representatives called on President Joe Biden on Sunday to increase military support to Ukraine.

Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio and Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas said in a joint interview on CNN’s State of the Union that bipartisan support remains strong for the Ukraine war effort.

McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that hedging support for Ukraine could prolong the conflict with Russia, which could play to Moscow’s advantage and allow anti-Ukraine dissent to build. 

“The longer (Biden administration officials) drag this out, they play into Putin's hands. He wants this to be a long, protracted war, because he knows that potentially ... we could lose the will of the American people and therefore the Congress,” McCaul said.

When asked if he believes the US is considering sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, he replied, “I hope so,” adding: “I think the momentum is building for this to happen.”

Turner, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, also defended congressional support for Ukraine, despite some House Republicans co-signing a “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution calling for the US to cut off military and financial aid.

Turner equated the resolution to a letter from some House Democrats asking the White House to pursue diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine, a letter the signees retracted shortly after.

When CNN’s Pamela Brown parsed the differences between the retracted letter from Democrats and the Republican resolution to suspend funding to Ukraine altogether, Turner replied, “You can’t retract a letter from Putin hearing it.”

“You have a handful on both sides, both sides, Pamela, who have been cautious or who have said that they don’t support, or they want support to come to an end,” Turner said. “There are 435 members of Congress, there are probably 400 that are for continuing in this direction, in this path.” 
9:06 a.m. ET, February 19, 2023

Kremlin slams US diplomat over stating Crimea is a legitimate military target for Ukraine's forces

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Sunday accused the United States of being the “main provocateur" of global tensions, in response to remarks about targeting Crimea from a top US diplomat.

"(US Under Secretary of State Victoria) Nuland belongs to a very large camp of the most aggressive hawks in American politics. This is a point-of-view well-known to us. It once again emphasizes the depth of our differences. It once again emphasizes, probably, the role of the United States as the main provocateur of the international tension," Peskov said in an interview on the Russia-1 state-owned TV channel.  

Some context: Nuland said Friday that Washington supports Ukraine's strikes on military installations in Crimea, calling them "legitimate targets." 

Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is based at Sevastopol. The peninsula has acted as a launching pad for Moscow's invasion, with Russian troops pouring into Ukraine’s south from the annexed region.

It was forcibly seized by Russia in 2014 – soon after Ukrainian protesters helped topple pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych – when thousands of Russian special-operations troops wearing unmarked uniforms deployed around the peninsula in early March that year.

Two weeks later, Russia completed its annexation of Crimea in a referendum, slammed by Ukraine and most of the world as illegitimate, and at the time considered the biggest land-grab on Europe since World War II.

9:03 a.m. ET, February 19, 2023

Analysis: South Africa risks backlash for Russian naval exercises, but its history with Moscow runs deep

Analysis by CNN's David McKenzie

The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is docked in Durban, South Africa, on February 17 en route to scheduled naval exercises with the South African and Chinese navies.
The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is docked in Durban, South Africa, on February 17 en route to scheduled naval exercises with the South African and Chinese navies. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)

As the anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine approaches, a Russian warship armed with one of Moscow’s most powerful weapons pulled into a port on South Africa’s east coast this weekend.

The frigate Admiral Gorshkov — carrying hypersonic Zircon missiles, according to President Putin — has a “Z” and “V” crudely painted in white on its blackened smokestack, just like the Russian tanks and artillery pieces that rolled into Ukraine a year ago.

It is participating in a 10-day naval exercise in the Indian Ocean alongside South African and Chinese warships, war games that South Africa says have long been planned.

But the timing of the exercises has Western diplomats privately incensed and publicly critical, and they risk an embarrassing backlash for the government in Pretoria.

On the basis of realpolitik alone, freezing out Russia or, at the very least, postponing the naval exercises, may have seemed like a smarter choice.

Ukraine’s biggest supporters, the United States and countries in the European Union, are also big trade partners for South Africa.

European Union and US two-way trade with South Africa outstrips Russian economic ties many times over. And though Russia promises more trade deals, its battered economy is unlikely to provide the direct investment that South Africa desperately needs.

Read the full analysis here.