Putin replaces top general in Ukraine; defiant Kyiv says Russia doesn't control war hot spot Soledar
This was CNBC's live blog tracking developments on the war in Ukraine. See here for the latest updates.
There are conflicting reports about whether the strategically important town of Soledar in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine has been captured by Russian forces.
On Tuesday, the head of the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, which has been fighting in the area around Soledar and Bakhmut for months, claimed that his fighters had taken "control of the entire territory of Soledar" while urban warfare was continuing.
Soledar is known for its salt mines, and capturing the town would give Russian forces an advantageous location from which to launch more assaults on nearby Bakhmut, capturing which is seen as a key goal for Russia as it looks to seize full control of the eastern Donetsk region.
Ukraine is being tight-lipped about Soledar's fate, with one official claiming yesterday that the town was only "semi-surrounded" and another saying that Ukrainian forces were holding out as fighting continued.
Putin's new commander likely to be greeted with 'extreme displeasure' by some pro-war Russians
Vladimir Putin has put the overall head of the Russian military in direct command of the Ukraine war, but the appointment probably will not sit well with some quarters in Russia, according to an intelligence assessment released late Wednesday.
Valery Gerasimov will take direct responsibility for executing the so-called "special operation" in Ukraine, Russia's Defense Ministry announced Wednesday.
Gerasimov had served as chief of the General Staff, or head of Russia's armed forces. Pro-war elements in Russia widely blame Gerasimov for their military's inept performance in the war.
The move to put him in charge "is likely to be greeted with extreme displeasure by the Russian ultra-nationalist and military blogger community, who have increasingly blamed Gerasimov for the poor execution of the war," Britain's Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence update.
Gerasimov replaces General Sergei Surovikin, who took operational command of the war only three months ago.
In contrast to Gerasimov, Surovikin has been praised by ultra-nationalists for his "more realistic" approach, the U.K. ministry said. He had previously led Russian forces in Syria and oversaw the brutally indiscriminate bombardment of Aleppo.
Surovikin will now report to Gerasimov.
As deputy commander in Ukraine, Surovikin's "authority and influence is almost certainly hugely reduced," the UK ministry said.
— Ted Kemp
Russia's deputy prime minister says it's had no problems selling oil despite sanctions
Russian oil producers have had no difficulties in securing export deals despite Western sanctions and price caps, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak told a televised online government meeting on Wednesday.
"We've been in constant contact with the companies, the contract making for February has been completed, and on the whole, the companies are not saying they have problems as of today," Novak told the meeting led by President Vladimir Putin.
Russian oil production has so far shown resilience in the face of the sanctions, imposed after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, and of the price caps, introduced by Western countries last month.
Putin last month signed a decree that banned the supply of crude oil and oil products from Feb. 1 for five months to nations that abide by the cap.
Novak said the main problem for Russian oil was a high discount to international benchmarks as well as rising freight costs.
U.S. Defense Secretary Austin and Chairman Milley will host Ukraine Defense Contact Group next week
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley will head to Germany next week for another meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.
The Ukraine Defense Contact group, a coalition of nearly 50 countries supporting Ukraine's military needs, has met several times since it was formed in April.
Among the topics to be discussed at Ramstein Air Base will be Ukraine's desire for main battle tanks and modern fighter jets for its fight against Russia.
"When it comes to the kinds of capabilities that we provide them, we'll continue to have that conversation with them, with our international allies and our partners, and we'll take a variety of considerations into account," Pentagon press secretary U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said announcing the trip.
— Amanda Macias
Top Russian military officer put in charge of Ukraine action
Russia's top military officer was put in charge of troops fighting in Ukraine, a move that appears to reflect the Kremlin's dissatisfaction with the current leadership and flaws in the military's performance.
Russia's Defense Ministry said that Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, was named the new commander of the unified group of forces in Ukraine.
The previous commander, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, was demoted to become Gerasimov's deputy along with two other generals.
The reshuffle, which was formally ordered by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, clearly came on Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval, signaling that he still has trust in his top military leaders who have faced broad criticism for the troops' performance in the conflict.
It also suggests a recognition of flaws in carrying out what Putin called "the special military operation" in Ukraine.
While announcing Gerasimov's appointment, the Defense Ministry said it was aimed at improving coordination between various forces fighting in Ukraine.
"Raising the level of leadership of the special military operation is linked to the expansion of the scale of the tasks being fulfilled as part of it and the need to organize closer interaction between branches of the military and to increase the quality of supplies and the efficiency of directing groups of forces," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
— Associated Press
White House declines to say if U.S. will equip Ukraine with main battle tanks
The White House declined to say whether the U.S. would specifically provide Ukraine with main battle tanks.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at a daily briefing that President Joe Biden reaffirmed U.S. support in Kyiv's fight, adding that Washington "will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes."
She declined to elaborate on the makeup of additional U.S. security assistance packages.
Last week, Washington announced its largest package since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began nearly a year ago.
The upcoming military aid package, the 29th such tranche, brings U.S. commitment to Ukraine's fight to about $24.9 billion since the beginning of the Biden administration.
New to this aid package are 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, armored tracked vehicles manufactured by U.S. defense firm BAE Systems. Bradleys are typically equipped with a rotating turret, mounted 25mm gun and TOW anti-tank missiles. The U.S. will provide 500 TOW anti-tank missiles and 250,000 rounds of ammunition for use with the Bradleys.
— Amanda Macias
Ships carrying Ukrainian agricultural products halted due to bad weather for the third straight day
Ships carrying grains and other crops were stuck at Ukrainian ports for a third day in a row due to bad weather, the organization overseeing those shipments said.
The group said that six ships are expected to sail on Thursday.
More than 16.9 million metric tons of agricultural products have left the three Ukrainian ports so far under the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative was brokered in July among Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, and eased Russia's naval blockade.
— Amanda Macias
Russia agrees to bring home two cosmonauts and American astronaut from ISS following coolant leak
Russia said it would launch a Soyuz rocket next month to bring home two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut from the International Space Station following a coolant leak last month, according to a Reuters report.
According to the report, the crew will return to Earth on a Soyuz MS-23 capsule.
Four months after launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin announced it was leaving the joint space program in 2024.
The space station is overseen by the space agencies of Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada.
— Amanda Macias
Poland and Lithuania pledge support for Ukraine's ascension into NATO and the EU
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a joint declaration alongside Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda and Polish President Andrzej Duda that outlines several areas of cooperation between their countries.
The document reaffirms support from the two nation's of Kyiv's ascension into the NATO alliance as well as the European Union.
Additionally, the declaration also notes the intention of Lithuania and Poland to continue providing military, humanitarian and other support to Ukraine in its war against Russia.
— Amanda Macias
'There will be no World War III,' Zelenskyy says in surprise Golden Globes speech
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the audience at the 80th Golden Globe awards Tuesday night that his country will stop Russia's invasion but warned that there are "still battles and tears ahead."
"There will be no World War III, this is not a trilogy. Ukraine will stop Russian aggression on our land," Zelenskyy said in a video address to the audience gathered at the famed Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California.
Zelenskyy also thanked the support his war-weary country has experienced from partners and allies around the world.
— Amanda Macias
U.S. Army delivers tanks and vehicles in Europe to beef up NATO frontier
U.S. Army vehicles, including tanks, are brought ashore in the Netherlands as a military unit is transported to Poland and Lithuania as part of a NATO mission to reinforce the alliance's eastern flank after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Vlissingen, Netherlands.
— Piroschka Van De Wouw | Reuters
'We must be ready' at the border with Belarus, Zelenskyy says
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended a coordination meeting in Lviv on the current security situation in the northwest of the country.
Zelenskyy was briefed on the operational situation on the border with Belarus, as well as hearing details about "counter-subversive measures" in northwestern regions.
"The main topic is the security situation in the north-western regions of Ukraine," Zelenskyy said on his Telegram channel, according to comments translated by NBC News. "We discussed state border protection, the operational situation on the border with the Republic of Belarus, and counter-subversive measures in these territories."
"We understand that apart from powerful statements, we do not see anything powerful there, but nevertheless we must be ready both at the border and in the regions," he said.
Throughout the war, Kyiv has been wary about military activities within Belarus and near its border with Ukraine given that Minsk, Russia's ally, allowed its territory to be a staging ground for the invasion of Ukraine's northern regions at the start of the war.
Despite joint military drills with Russia, and the formation of a joint fighting force, Minsk insists it has no plans to enter the war as an active participant on Russia's side.
Russia and Belarus are about to hold several weeks of joint aviation drills. On Wednesday, Belarus' defense ministry said that joint air defense forces had been reinforced, with new missile units moved into position, Reuters reported.
— Holly Ellyatt
Estonia tells Russia to reduce number of diplomats in Tallinn
Estonia has told Russia to reduce the number of diplomats at its embassy in Tallinn by February, the Baltic country's foreign ministry said on Wednesday.
It said in a statement Russia should lower the number of diplomats to eight, which equals the number of Estonian diplomats in Moscow.
The Russian embassy in Tallinn on its website lists 17 diplomats. Since the Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Estonia has already expelled three diplomats.
"In light of the fact that during the war of aggression, the staff of the Russian embassy is not engaged in advancing Estonian-Russian relations, it is our view that there are no grounds for the current size of the Russian embassy," the ministry said on Wednesday.
Kremlin cautious on Soledar capture claim, saying 'let's not rush'
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov appeared cautious to endorse claims by Russian mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin that the town of Soledar in Donetsk has come under the full control of his Wagner Group forces.
When asked by reporters to comment on Prigozhin's statement on Tuesday, in which he claimed that his Wagner fighters — a paramilitary group fighting alongside Russia's regular units — had taken "control of the entire territory of Soledar," Peskov advised caution.
"Wait, let's not rush, let's wait for official statements [by the Ministry of Defense]," Peskov said, according to comments translated by NBC News.
"Overall, there is a positive dynamic there, but success in the military operation will be achieved when we fulfill the goals set by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [Russian President Putin] for the special military operation."
"Although tactical successes are also very important. They come at a very high price, at the price of the fantastic heroism of our fighters, so this is another reason to be proud of our guys who do not regret their lives or their health to give us these tactical successes," Peskov said.
Ukraine disputes the claim that Soledar has been captured, with officials saying heavy fighting continues there. They also claim Russia has suffered immense losses pursuing its capture of Soledar and Bakhmut.
Soledar is known for its salt mines, and capturing the town would give Russian forces an advantageous location from which to launch more assaults on nearby Bakhmut, capturing which is seen as a key goal for Russia as it looks to seize full control of the eastern Donetsk region and wider Donbas. Putin has said the "liberation" of Donbas is a key goal of what Russia calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine.
— Holly Ellyatt
Russia's fossil fuel earnings fall in December as Western measures bite
Major Western measures targeting Russia's oil revenues are costing the Kremlin roughly 160 million euros ($171.8 million) per day, according to a new report, prompting Ukrainian officials and campaigners to call for policymakers to ratchet up the financial pressure on Moscow in order to help Kyiv prevail in the war.
A report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent Finnish think tank, found that Russia's earnings from fossil fuel exports fell 17% in December, slipping to their lowest level since President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February.
It comes just over one month after the European Union's ban on seaborne imports of Russian crude and the G-7's price cap came into force.
— Sam Meredith
'Soledar is not under the control' of Russian forces, Ukrainian official says
Ukraine is continuing to reject Russian claims that its forces have captured the Donetsk town of Soledar.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the eastern military command, told Ukrainian television Wednesday that "Soledar is not under the control of the Russian Federation. Heavy fighting is going on there now," he said, in comments translated by NBC News.
Cherevatyi claimed Russians had "carried out a special information operation" to promote the claim that Russian forces had already captured Soledar but said "this is not true."
"The situation there is difficult, but it is under the control of the state leadership of our armed forces. We are working on making management decisions that will allow us to stabilize the situation in the city and cause maximum damage to the enemy with minimal losses from our side," he added.
This morning, Ukraine's operational update said Soledar was among the settlements in Donetsk that were being shelled, while Reuters reported that from the outskirts of the town, plumes of smoke could be seen rising, describing the incoming artillery fires as "relentless."
CNBC was unable to immediately verify Cherevatyi's claim. On Tuesday, the head of the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, which has been fighting in the area around Soledar and Bakhmut for months, claimed that his fighters had taken "control of the entire territory of Soledar" while urban warfare was continuing.
Capturing Soledar would be a coup for Russia as it seeks to advance further and capture nearby Bakhmut. Ultimately, Russia wants to take full control of Donetsk and the wider Donbas region.
— Holly Ellyatt
Joint air force exercises between Russia and Belarus likely 'genuine,' UK says
A joint Russian-Belarusian tactical flight exercise to be held in the country from Jan. 16 until the start of February is likely to be a genuine drill, according to Britain's Ministry of Defense.
"The new deployment of Russian aircraft to Belarus is likely a genuine exercise, rather than a preparation for any additional offensive operations against Ukraine," the ministry said in its latest intelligence update on Twitter.
"Although Russia maintains a large number of forces in Belarus, they are mostly involved in training. They are unlikely to constitute a credible offensive force," it noted. There has been persistent speculation that Russia's ally Belarus could actively enter the war in Ukraine to fight alongside Russian forces, despite an insistence from the government in Minsk that it will not join the fighting.
The ministry noted how "amateur aircraft spotters noted the arrival of total of 12 Mi-8 support helicopters and Mi-24 and Ka-52 attack helicopters. With some appearing with 'Z' markings, the aircraft landed at Machulishchy Air Base near Minsk."
— Holly Ellyatt
Ukraine tight-lipped about Soledar's fate, says forces are holding out
Ukraine has not conceded defeat in Soledar in Donetsk, a town that Russia's mercenary paramilitary group, the Wagner Group, claims to now fully control.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not comment on the salt-mining town's fate in his nightly address Tuesday, only thanking Ukrainian forces who have been defending Soledar, saying:
"I thank everyone who helps us defend Ukraine and freedom, fights for independence and works to strengthen Ukraine! Today I'd like to pay special tribute to the warriors of the 46th separate airmobile brigade for their bravery and steadfastness in defending Soledar! Thank you, warriors!"
Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Oleksii Arestovych said Tuesday that Soledar was "semi-surrounded, if we look at open sources it looks like this: the western parts are [taken] by the enemy, but the center and northwest, and southwestern parts [of the city] are standing," in YouTube in comments translated by NBC News.
Elsewhere, Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Telegram Tuesday that fighting was continuing in Soledar.
"Heavy fighting is going on to hold Soledar. The enemy does not pay attention to the heavy losses of their personnel and continues an active assault. The approaches to our positions are simply strewn with the bodies of dead enemy fighters," Maliar said.
CNBC has asked Ukraine's defense ministry for comment.
— Holly Ellyatt
Paramilitary chief claims his fighters have taken complete control of Soledar
The head of the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, which is predominantly fighting in the area around Bakhmut in Donetsk, has claimed that his fighters have completely taken control of the strategically important salt mining town of Soledar.
"Units of the Wagner PMC [private military company] have taken control of the entire territory of Soledar. The city center has been surrounded, and urban warfare is under way. The number of prisoners will be announced tomorrow," Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner Group, said in a statement Tuesday released on Telegram and translated by Russian state news agency Tass, accompanied by an image of fighters in what could be an underground mine. The Wagner Group is a paramilitary group of mercenaries fighting alongside Russia's regular units.
Prigozhin has achieved a much higher-profile since Russia invaded Ukraine and his Wagner fighters joined in Russia's war effort. He previously denied links to the paramilitary group that he founded in 2014 in order to support pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Since admitting founding the group, however, he has been keen to capitalize on their relative successes on the battlefield. Yesterday, Prigozhin commented, "Once again, I want to emphasize that no units except for the fighters of the Wagner PMC took part in the assault on Soledar."
On Tuesday, Britain's Ministry of Defense said it believed that Russian and Wagner forces were likely in control of most of Soledar after "tactical advances" in the last four days. A Ukrainian official said yesterday that Russia had concentrated the best fighters from the Wagner Group in Soledar.
Ukraine's government has been largely tight-lipped about Soledar's fate, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy not commenting on the town's status in his nightly address and one official saying the city was only "semi-surrounded."
— Holly Ellyatt
Zelenskyy calls for 'new level of modern military equipment'
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked allies for their renewed commitment to give his country more weapons, but called for a "new level of modern military equipment."
"It is even more important now when Russia is gathering forces for another escalation," Zelenskyy said during a nightly address on his official Telegram channel.
Zelenskyy said that now was the "time for new powerful decisions, for new powerful support."
"The free world has everything necessary to stop Russian aggression and bring the terrorist state to a historic defeat and it is important not only for us, it is important for global democracy, for all those who value freedom," Zelenskyy added.
— Amanda Macias
Ukraine estimates staggering reconstruction costs nearly one year into war with Russia
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said the reconstruction of Ukraine is expected to cost an estimated 110 billion hryvnia, or roughly $2.9 billion.
"The scale of destruction is enormous," Shmyhal said on his official Telegram channel.
He added that the "Ukraine Recovery Program will become the largest reconstruction project since the Second World War. We have already identified four key sources of its funding."
— Amanda Macias
Best fighters from 'Wagner Group' in war hotspot Soledar, official says
The best fighters from Russia's paramilitary group, known as the Wagner Group, have been deployed to fight in Soledar in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have made tactical gains in recent days.
Serhiy Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine's eastern forces, told local TV channel 24 that Russian forces were deploying their best Wagner fighters at Soledar, which had been struck 86 times by artillery over the past 24 hours.
Russia is believed to see the capture of Soledar as a step toward its bigger target, that of capturing Bakhmut in Donetsk where fighting has been intense for months.
Cherevaty said Russia was using World War I-style tactics, throwing large numbers of men into battle and absorbing heavy losses.
The Wagner Group is a private military company whose forces are fighting alongside Russia's standard military units. Wagner fighters have been privately recruited and the group is estimated to be around 50,000-men strong. Many of the servicemen have been recruited from Russian prisons having been offered the chance to fight in Ukraine in return for pardons. Some Wagner fighters have reportedly already received pardons having fulfilled their military contracts.
"This is basically not a 21st-century war," Cherevaty said, according to comments on Youtube translated by NBC News.
"Currently, the hottest spot in the Bakhmut direction is Soledar. There are fierce battles now, and the enemy has concentrated there the best units of the ... 'Wagner' group [there], which are supported by the regular armed forces of the Russian Federation. Fierce battles are ongoing there. The enemy is trying to seize this Ukrainian city at any cost," he said.
On Tuesday alone, Cherevaty said that 86 instances of shelling had been recorded around Soledar and surrounding settlements. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday night that hardly any walls were left standing in Soledar and that Russian corpses covered the landscape.
"What did Russia want to gain there? Everything is completely destroyed, there is almost no life left. And thousands of their people were lost: the whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes," Zelenskyy said.
— Holly Ellyatt
Russia risks becoming a failed state by 2033, experts say
Russia, as we know it, may not survive the coming decade and risks becoming a failed state as it pursues its costly war in Ukraine, according to a survey of global strategists and analysts.
The Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security polled 167 global strategists and practitioners last fall on the biggest prospective drivers of geopolitical, societal, economic, technological and environmental change.
One of the poll's most surprising takeaways, according to the American think tank, was that respondents pointed to a potential Russian collapse over the next decade.
This was "suggesting that the Kremlin's war against Ukraine could precipitate hugely consequential upheaval in a great power with the largest nuclear-weapons arsenal on the planet," the Atlantic Council noted.
Russian and Wagner forces make 'tactical advances' in Soledar, UK says
In the last four days, Russian forces and their colleagues in the Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group have made "tactical advances" into the small Donbas town of Soledar, according to the latest intelligence update from Britain's Ministry of Defense.
Soledar is around 6 miles north of Bakhmut, the capture of which likely continues to be Russia's "main immediate operational objective," the ministry noted.
Despite recent advances into Soledar and "increased pressure" on nearby target Bakhmut, the ministry said "Russia is unlikely to envelop the town imminently because Ukrainian forces maintain stable defensive lines in depth and control over supply routes."
The ministry noted that "Russia's Soledar axis is highly likely an effort to envelop Bakhmut from the north, and to disrupt Ukrainian lines of communication."
"Part of the fighting has focused on entrances to the 200km-long disused salt mine tunnels which run underneath the district. Both sides are likely concerned that they could be used for infiltration behind their lines."
On Monday night, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that while Russian forces "have now concentrated their greatest efforts on Soledar, the result of this difficult and long battle will be the liberation of our entire Donbas."
He conceded, however, that the fighting was "extremely difficult" around Soledar, a place where he said there were barely any walls left standing.
"Due to the resilience of our warriors there, in Soledar, we have gained additional time and additional power for Ukraine," he said in his nightly address.
"And what did Russia want to gain there? Everything is completely destroyed, there is almost no life left. And thousands of their people were lost: the whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes."
— Holly Ellyatt