February 23, 2023 - Town hall on Russia's war in Ukraine

By Kathleen Magramo, Tara Subramaniam, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Leinz Vales, Maureen Chowdhury, Tori B. Powell and Amir Vera, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, February 24, 2023
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1:50 p.m. ET, February 23, 2023

It could take more than a year for the US Army to deliver Abrams tanks to Ukraine, official says

From CNN's Haley Britzky

It could take more than a year for the US Army to deliver M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said Thursday, and plans are still being drawn up on how they will be delivered — and when.

“We’re looking at what’s the fastest way we can get the tanks to the Ukrainians,” Wormuth said during a Defense Writers Group event. “It’s not going to be a matter of weeks, I will say that. None of the options that we’re exploring are weeks or two months. There are longer timelines involved. But I think there are options that are less than two years, less than a year and a half. But again we have to look at the pros and cons of each of them.”  

“I think it’s still to be determined as to whether tanks could get there by the end of the year,” she said. 

Among the options being presented to US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are building tanks “from scratch,” Wormuth said. Typically, however, the Army modernizes existing tank variants instead of building them from scratch. 

She also said that they are looking at options that would include “countries that we’ve sold tanks to previously,” which could “presumably get tanks to the Ukrainians more quickly but might disrupt relations with important allies.” 

More on the tanks timeline: Since the US announced M1 Abrams tanks would be provided to Ukraine alongside other tanks from partner nations, US officials have cautioned that the timeline of getting them there could be substantial. 

And it’s not just about the tanks themselves; as Wormuth pointed out on Thursday, it’s also about the support will also include recovery vehicles, ammunition, and the training for Ukrainian troops that comes along with them. 

12:47 p.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Analysis: Wagner group chief's feud with Putin’s generals explodes into the open with gruesome PR campaign

From CNN's Nathan Hodge

Editor’s Note: Warning: This story contains graphic imagery.

It has to count as one of the strangest PR campaigns in memory: using a pile of corpses to make your case to the powers that be.

That's what Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, appears to have done this week in an unusual public appeal for ammunition for his fighters in Ukraine. And in the process, he has cast a harsh light on his open feud with Russia's military leadership on the eve of the anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

On Wednesday, Prigozhin posted a picture on Telegram showing the bodies of several dozen slain Wagner fighters, piled unceremoniously in a courtyard. Alongside that shocking photo, he posted the image of a formal request from Wagner for more ammunition, pointing the finger of blame squarely at the Russian Ministry of Defense for squandering one of those lives. 

"This is one of the gathering places of the dead," Prigozhin said. "These are the guys who died yesterday due to the so-called 'shell starvation' [by the Russian MOD]. There should have been five times fewer of them. So mothers, wives and children will get their bodies."

Apparently, the message got through to someone. In a message and voice note Thursday, Prigozhin said a shipment of ammunition was now on its way to his forces. 

“Today at 6 am (local time, 11 a.m. ET) it was reported that shipment of ammunition begins,” he said. “Most likely, the train has started moving … we are told that the main papers have already been signed.”

What was the rationale behind this ghoulish spectacle? Prigozhin already has a reputation for callousness and cruelty: Late last year, around the New Year’s holiday, he visited a morgue stacked with the body bags of dead Wagner soldiers, many of whom had been recruited from prisons with a promise of amnesty.

“Their contracts are over,” he deadpanned. “They’re going home.”

But Prigozhin’s latest stunt appeared to raise the ante in the oligarch’s confrontation with Russia’s defense establishment, and with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Read more here.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Vasco Cotovio and Radina Gigova contributed reporting to this post.

11:50 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Ukrainian officials report series of explosions in Russian-occupied Mariupol, a hub for Moscow's forces 

From CNN's Tim Lister, Maria Kostenko and Mariya Knight 

Ukrainian officials say there have been further explosions in the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, a supply hub and rear base for Moscow's forces.

Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, said there had been three explosions Thursday.

The official, who is not in Mariupol himself but maintains contacts there, said two strikes had hit the area of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works. "The Armed Forces of Ukraine are surgically precisely hitting the bases of the occupiers," he said on Telegram.

"There is a third explosion, it was a hit near the airport. Again. We are finishing the job," he added.

The adviser also said Russian aircraft had been flying over the city at several points on Thursday. According to social media video and unofficial accounts, there have been several explosions around the city over the past two nights.

It's unclear what has caused the explosions and how many may be air defenses operating. Mariupol is beyond the range of Western-provided rockets systems and howitzers operated by the Ukrainian armed forces.

The city is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the nearest Ukrainian front line positions, which would be just beyond the range of M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) provided to Ukraine. 

Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for the Ukrainian military in the south, said only that "at this stage, we can only state that remoteness is a very relative concept. What is considered so remote that it is unreachable is not always so. The direction of Mariupol is no longer absolutely unreachable for us."

Ukrainian media have suggested that the military may have deployed a new locally-produced rocket system with greater range.

More on Russia's presence in Mariupol: There has been an extensive build up of Russian forces in and around Mariupol since November, according to Ukrainian officials and geolocated social media video.

In November, Andriushchenko posted a video and comment saying that "Russia continues to build up military personnel in Mariupol area. At least 30 trucks with manpower are moving through Mariupol daily." CNN cannot verify that number. 

This week, Andriushchenko reported that the "movement of military equipment towards Manhush/Berdiansk has resumed. A column of at least 7 trucks with ammo was recorded moving through Mariupol towards Manhush."

Why Mariupol is important to Moscow: Analysts say the supply routes from Mariupol to the west and north are essential to the Russians to hold defensive lines in neighboring Zaporizhzhia region against any Ukrainian counteroffensive.

11:18 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

NATO chief: Alliance has seen signs that China may be planning to send arms to Russia to help its war effort

From CNN's Eve Brennan in London

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attends a news conference on the day of NATO defense ministers' meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 15.
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attends a news conference on the day of NATO defense ministers' meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 15. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)

NATO has seen "signs" that China is “considering and may be planning” to send arms to Russia to help in its war in Ukraine, the alliance’s chief Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday.  

"We haven't seen any supplies of lethal aid from China to Russia, but we have seen signs that they are considering and may be planning for that, and that's the reason why the United States and other allies have been very clear warning against that,” Stoltenberg said.  

“And China should of course not support Russia's illegal war, a blatant violation of international law,” he added.  

The NATO chief said China is a member of the United Nations Security Council and Russia's war against Ukraine is a violation of the UN Charter.

“The basic principle of that charter is to respect the integrity of other nations and not to march in and invade another country with hundreds of thousands of troops and of course, China should not be part of that,” he said.  

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington is concerned that China is considering providing “lethal support” to Russia’s war in Ukraine.  

Following a meeting with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Blinken said: “I warned China against providing materiel support to Russia.”

5:33 p.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Finland will send 3 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine 

From CNN’s Alex Hardie in London 

Finland will send three Leopard 2 mine clearing tanks to Ukraine, the Finnish defense ministry announced in a statement Thursday.

A mine clearing Leopard 2 tank is an adaptation designed for that purpose.

The tanks are part of Finland’s 13th package of defense support for Ukraine, which is worth over 160 million euros (approximately $170 million), the statement said.

Training on using and maintaining the tanks will also be included, it said. 

The Finnish defense ministry would not provide more detailed information on the aid’s delivery schedule “for operational reasons.”

“Friday 24 February marks the one-year anniversary of the start of Russia’s war of aggression, and Ukraine continues to need support in its defense. We will send more defense materiel and participate in the Leopard cooperation together with our partners,” Finnish Defense Minister Mikko Savola said in the statement. 

Correction: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect US dollar figure.

10:25 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Ukraine says almost all of its peacetime budget is being spent on its army 

From CNN's Olga Voitovych in Kyiv

Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal laying flowers at the graves of Ukrainian soldiers at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine on February 22.
Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal laying flowers at the graves of Ukrainian soldiers at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine on February 22. (Pavlo Palamarchuk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Ukrainian government is spending almost its entire peacetime budget on the army, according to Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

“The state budget deficit last year amounted to about $31 billion. We received these funds from our partners. Mostly from the EU, G7, and the US, and from international financial institutions, including the IMF [International Monetary Fund]," Shmyhal told journalists in Kyiv Thursday.

"Today we spend almost the entire peacetime budget of the country on the Army," Shmyhal said. "At the same time, the social and humanitarian component is financed with the support of our partners, and Ukraine is very grateful for this help."

Shmyhal thanked the European Commission for providing about $18 billion of macro-financial support for 2023. He said the United States will provide Ukraine with more than $10 billion, "and other G7 countries are also providing direct budget support."

He said Ukraine had completed the revision of the monitoring program with the IMF "and have come up with a large four-year program."

Shmyhal estimated Ukraine would need an additional $17 billion to promote what he described as "rapid recovery," after Ukraine's GDP declined some 30% in 2022.

He set out the government's priorities as firstly, "the restoration of the energy sector. Without it, it is impossible to talk about other social or humanitarian projects."

"The second is humanitarian demining...We need to demine 174,000 square kilometers (more than 67,181 square miles).

The prime minister said the third priority is to restore critical infrastructure and damaged housing, and the fourth is to promote economic recovery. 

"Due to the full-scale invasion, Ukrainians have lost more than 3 million jobs. Large extractive and metalworking enterprises in eastern Ukraine have been destroyed or occupied. That is why the Government is focusing on the development of microbusinesses, small and medium-sized enterprises," he added.

10:02 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Bakhmut area remains the "most difficult" situation as Russia's strategic goals have not changed, Ukraine says

From CNN's Olga Voitovych and Radina Gigova 

Ukrainian soldiers look towards Russian positions while atop an anti-aircraft gun on February 14 near Bakhmut, Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers look towards Russian positions while atop an anti-aircraft gun on February 14 near Bakhmut, Ukraine. (John Moore/Getty Images)

On the front lines in Ukraine, the situation in the direction of the eastern city of Bakhmut remains "the most difficult" as Russian forces still try to encircle the city, said Oleksii Hromov, deputy chief of the general staff’s main operational directorate.

The largest part of Russia's artillery units are concentrated in the Bakhmut area, he said Thursday at a news conference, reiterating that intense fighting has been underway since seven months. "Since the beginning of February, there have been more than 380 combat engagements with the enemy," Hromov added.

He detailed what Russia may be hoping to achieve in launching a potential new offensive:

  • Disrupt Ukraine's preparation of its defense forces for military operations
  • Disrupt allies' supply of weapons to Ukraine
  • Protect the land corridor to the occupied Crimea

However, Russia's shortage of resources, like ammunition for artillery systems, will significantly limit Moscow's ability to achieve significant operational success, Hromov noted.

Meanwhile, CNN geolocated a video which shows that Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military company Wagner, is at a location close to Bakhmut, where hundreds of his group's fighters have been involved in combat.

CNN's Maria Kostenko and Denis Lapin contributed reporting to this post.

8:40 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Crimean bridge damaged in October explosion now fully open for traffic, Russian official says

From CNN's Radina Gigova in London

Construction crews work on the bridge connecting the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula across the Kerch Strait, on February 14.
Construction crews work on the bridge connecting the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula across the Kerch Strait, on February 14. (Reuters)

The Kerch Bridge, which connects Russian-occupied Crimea to the Russian mainland, has been fully open to car traffic in all lanes more than a month ahead of schedule, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin announced on Thursday, according to state news agency TASS.

Remember: Parts of the bridge were damaged as a result of an explosion that occurred on October 8, 2022. The exact cause of the bridge blast remains unclear. Russian officials have said a truck stuffed with explosives went off, damaging two spans of the bridge’s motorway section and causing fire to fuel carriages of a train traveling to the Krasnodar region. Four people were killed, according to TASS.

Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the explosion, but days later, Russia launched a wave of missile strikes on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.

All lanes for car traffic on the bridge are fully open 39 days ahead of schedule, according to Khusnullin. Meanwhile, the restoration of the railway part of the bridge is scheduled to be finished in July 2023. Restoration of other parts of the bridge will be completed before July 1, according to TASS.

The bridge holds huge strategic and symbolic importance for Russia, which built the 19-kilometer-long (about 12 miles) bridge after Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. 

8:37 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Ukraine braces for potential Russian strikes on anniversary of invasion

From CNN's Jack Guy, Radina Gigova, Olga Voitovych and Maria Kostenko 

People walk past metal anti-tank barriers known as "hedgehogs" at Independence Square, on February 2, in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine.
People walk past metal anti-tank barriers known as "hedgehogs" at Independence Square, on February 2, in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine. (Roman Pilipey/Getty Images)

Security measures have been implemented across Ukraine in the face of potential Russian attacks on Friday, which marks exactly one year since the start of Moscow's invasion.

School classes have moved online, working from home is being encouraged and security patrols have been stepped up in order to minimize the potential impact of Russian strikes.

Ukrainian schools have been advised to hold classes online "as a precautionary measure," Education Minister Serhiy Shkarlet said in a statement Tuesday.

In Kyiv, a special security protocol has been developed for all educational facilities. Pupils are taking classes online from February 22-24 in the city and the wider Kyiv region, according to the regional military administration.

The decision was made "due to the increased threat of enemy shelling and potential provocative actions on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine," it said.

And additional safety measures will also be implemented in the Kherson region in northeast Ukraine, the regional military administration said in a statement Wednesday.

Most public offices and businesses will work remotely, with the exception of critical infrastructure facilities, it said.

The distribution of humanitarian aid and cash payments at post offices will be limited, and law enforcement officers will intensify patrols in places where crowds could gather, the administration said.

However so-called invincibility points, where people can charge their devices and warm up, will work around the clock, it added.

City mayor Ihor Terekhov said it is difficult to predict what Russian forces will do tomorrow.

"A lot of people now ask: what will happen? I cannot say what will happen, because it depends on our opponent, our enemy," Terekhov said in a video address.

"Nobody understands what is in his head, nobody knows."