May 21, 2023 Russia-Ukraine war news (2023)

5:59 p.m. ET, May 21, 2023

Exclusive: Paul Whelan voices confidence in the US effort toward securing his release by Russia

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Paul Whelan, an American who the United States says iswrongfully detained in Russia, told CNN on Sunday that he feels confident his case is a priority for the US government but wishes it could be resolved faster.

“I remain positive and confident on a daily basis that the wheels are turning. I just wish they would turn a little bit more quickly,” said Whelan, who called CNN exclusively from his prison camp in remote Mordovia.

Whelan said he does harbor concerns that he could be left behind again – particularly after the Russians detained American journalistEvan Gershkovich, a move the US has also said was unjustified.

“That’s an extreme worry for me and my family,” he said. The US was unable to secure Whelan’s release in prisoner swaps that brought home two other detained Americans last year: Trevor Reed in April andBrittney Grinerin December.

The detentions have raised fears that Moscow could use detainees as pawns in the geopolitics surrounding the war in Ukraine.

Whelan said Sunday he has more confidence in the US efforts to get him home than he did when he spoke to CNN in December following Griner’s release.

“I have been told that I won’t be left behind, and I have been told that although Evan’s case is a priority, mine is also a priority, and people are cognizant of the fact that this is having an extremely negative impact on me and my family. And I’m told that the government is working tirelessly to get me out of here and to get me home so they can then focus effort on Evan and his case,” Whelan said.

Read more here.

4:22 p.m. ET, May 21, 2023

Wagner forces will leave the front lines in coming days, private military chief says

From CNN's Mariya Knight

The chief of the Wagner private military group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said Sunday that his forces will leave the front line in eastern Ukraine on May 25 after "capturing all the territories they promised to capture, to the last square centimeter."

Prigozhin said he is handing over his positions to the Russian Ministry of Defense after Wagner forces leave.

There has been no immediate public response from the defense ministry.

"We, as I said yesterday, are handing over our positions to the (Russian) Ministry of Defense and on the 25th we are leaving the combat zone,"the Wagner head said in an audio message on his Press Service Telegram page. "Therefore, all the tasks that will continue to be carried out are carried out by the brave units of the Ministry of Defense, and we go out to the field camps."

"From June 1, not a single Wagner PMC fighter will be at the forefront until we go through reorganization and equipment and training," Prigozhin added.

He also dismissed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's insistence that the city of Bakhmut is not fully occupied by Russia as of Sunday.

"There is not a single Ukrainian soldier in Bakhmut," Wagner's chief claimed. "And this is why we stopped taking any more POWs."

Keep in mind: Prigozhin has previously made brash or misleading statements about the war and his mercenaries' role in it —and occasionally backtracked on them. He is also known to speak sarcastically.

More on Bakhmut: Prigozhin's announcement comes one day after Russia declared victory in the long-contested eastern city. The mercenary group says it has seized complete control of the city after many months of fighting led by Prigozhin's forces.

Ukraine, meanwhile, claims it is holding on to a small area in the western part of the city —and that its progress in areas surrounding the city has left it in a strong position.

Read more on the claims and counterclaims in Bakhmut here.

1:53 p.m. ET, May 21, 2023

Ukrainian women break gender norms, taking on dangerous jobs during the fight against Russia

From CNN'sNic Robertson,AnneClaire Stapleton, andDavid Von Blohn

As their country fights to repel Russia’s forces,Ukrainianwomen are taking on roles and responsibilities previously unavailable to them, often in challenging and dangerouscircumstances.

Thousands of Ukrainian men left their jobs to join the military and defend the country afterRussia invaded almost 16 months ago. In their absence, Ukrainian women are stepping up.

Ukrainian law previously forbade women from holding jobs deemed too dangerous: underground mining, forging hot metals and operating heavy machinery, for example.

But when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law after Russia invaded, thereby suspending the country’s existing laws, Ukrainian women went to work.

Women have historically played a crucial role in the workforce during wartime, taking on jobs and responsibilities traditionally held by men – as happened during both World Wars.

Breaking gender norms is challenging, but these women are paving the way for greater equality and, they hope, empowering themselves and future generations.

Read their stories in detail here.

4:02 p.m. ET, May 21, 2023

Ukrainian army commander visits troops on front line near Bakhmut

From CNN's Svitlana Vlasova

Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, visited troops on the front line near the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut.

Syrskyi "thanked and honored" the fighters in half a dozen brigades "who are destroying the enemy every day,”he said in a Telegram post Sunday. He did not specify exactly when he made the trip.

The commander said Ukraine remains on the defensive in the city of Bakhmut, but said his troops are making progress on the city's flanks.

“Despite the fact that we now control the outskirts of the city, the importance of its defense remains. In the future, this will provide us with opportunities to enter the city when the operational situation at the front changes,” he added.

Remember: While Russia and the Wagner private military company have declared victory in Bakhmut, Ukraine claims it is holding on to a small area in the western part of the city —and that its progress in areas surrounding the city has left it in a strong position.

Read more on the claims and counterclaims in Bakhmut here.

6:36 p.m. ET, May 21, 2023

Here's what we know about the situation in Bakhmut

Since Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed Saturday that his forces had completely seized the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, there have been claims and counterclaims from both sides.

While CNN cannot independently verify battlefield accounts, here's what the wartime officials are saying:

  • Zelensky's denial: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says his soldiers are still in Bakhmut, despite what Prigozhin says. "Bakhmut is not occupied by Russian Federation as of today. There are no two or three interpretations of those words," he said while attending the G7 in Japan on Sunday.
  • A small foothold: The commander of Ukraine's army acknowledged the area his fighters still claim within city limits is "insignificant." The territory is located on the city's westernmost edge, according to the country's deputy defense minister.
  • Advances on the outskirts: However, the same two officials said Ukraine has made significant progress in the Bakhmut suburbs and other areas immediately outside the city. The commander, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, said his troops have advanced along the city’s flanks and are now approaching the “tactical encirclement” of Bakhmut.
  • Putin's congratulations: Russian President VladimirPutin, meanwhile, hailed Wagner for the "completion of the operation to liberate" Bakhmut. The Ministry of Defense in Moscow echoed the president's praise, declaring victory in the city.
  • Bakhmut's significance: Bakhmut is located in the northeastern portion of Ukraine's Donetsk region, about 13 miles from the Luhansk region, and has long been a target for Russian forces. If confirmed, Russia's capture of Bakhmut would mark the country’s first major gain in months, but experts say the city’s symbolism always outweighed its strategic importance.
11:15 a.m. ET, May 21, 2023

Zelensky tells Japan's prime minister that "now is a crucial moment for the fate of peace in Ukraine"

From CNN's Sarah Dean

May 21, 2023 Russia-Ukraine war news (1)

Ukrainian PresidentVolodymyr Zelensky told Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that now is a critical moment to secure peace for his country, during a meeting Sunday at the G7 summit.

“Now is a crucial moment for the fate of peace in Ukraine and for the future of the rules-based world order. It is extremely important that the world has the opportunity to hear Ukraine's voice in Hiroshima,” Zelensky said, according to a readout of the meeting.

Zelensky also praised Kishida's leadership in rallying international support for Ukraine and thanked him for the financial assistance the country has provided.

The Ukrainian president also met with US President Joe Biden during the summit in Hiroshima. Biden announced a new aid package for the country Sunday.

12:54 p.m. ET, May 21, 2023

Ukraine no longer holds a significant portion of Bakhmut, top general says, but fighters surround the city

From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Allegra Goodwin

May 21, 2023 Russia-Ukraine war news (2)

Ukraine's military does not control much of the eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukraine's army commander said Sunday, but its units are holding on to positions surrounding the city.

“Despite the fact that we now control an insignificant part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense remains. It gives us the opportunity to enter the city in case the situation changes, and this will certainly happen,” Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, said in a statement shared by Ukraine's military media center.

Syrskyi said his troops have been advancing along the city’s flanks and are now approaching the “tactical encirclement” of Bakhmut. “This will allow us to control all high-rise buildings occupied by the enemy and gradually destroy them,” he said.

“We are continuing our defense. The situation is difficult but under control,” Syrskyi continued.

Some background: The chief of the Russian private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed Saturday that his forces had taken complete control of the city.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Kyiv officials have insisted Russia does not entirely occupy Bakhmut, saying Ukraine's military is holding on to a small area on the city's westernmost edge.

CNN cannot independently verify battlefield developments.

In reports from the front leading up to Wagner's claim Saturday, Ukraine's military had focused on progress made in areas immediately surrounding the city, while Wagner forces had said they were consolidating territory closer to the city center.

10:17 a.m. ET, May 21, 2023

Zelensky says he would like Japan and South Korea to send lethal weapons

From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Allegra Goodwin

May 21, 2023 Russia-Ukraine war news (3)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saidhe would like Japan and South Korea to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine but he understands "there are legislative and constitutional difficulties."

He said regarding diplomatic pressure on Russia and certain formats of diplomatic resolution of the war in Ukraine “the key is respect for the UN Charter and international law."

“Russia has no chance for any diplomatic paths as long as its troops are on our territory in violation of our territorial integrity and sovereignty,” he told a news conference at the G7 summit in Japan.
“We all understand that no one will have anything to do with Russia as long as its troops are on the territory of Ukraine.”

Zelensky made the comments as part of a series of in-person appealsto fellow leaders gathered in Japan to remain united against Russian aggression.

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