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U.S. designates Russia paramilitary firm Wagner as 'criminal' group; Russia says relations with U.S. are at an all-time low

This was CNBC's live blog covering updates on the war in Ukraine on Friday, Jan. 20.

Defense ministers of NATO and its allies held a high-stakes meeting Friday at Germany's Ramstein air base to make the decision on whether to send Germany's Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, something Kyiv has been pleading for for months.

Berlin could single-handedly veto the move, since the Leopard tanks, even if sent by other European armies that use them, as are a German re-export. It has deferred its decision instead despite mounting calls, saying it could not yet say when a decision could be made.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, wary of provoking Russia, has come under intense criticism for his reluctance to send more heavy weaponry to Ukraine as it fights to push back Russian forces.

Meanwhile, investigations continue into the cause of a helicopter crash near Kyiv on Wednesday that killed the country's interior minister and several of his colleagues. Russia's Federal Security Service said on Thursday that it opened a criminal case against a U.S. citizen on suspicion of espionage.

In the U.S., officials said they were sending another $2.5 billion in military weapons to Ukraine.

Three ships leave Ukrainian ports under Black Sea Grain Initiative

Ships, including those carrying grain from Ukraine and awaiting inspections, are seen anchored off the Istanbul coastline on November 02, 2022 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Chris Mcgrath | Getty Images

Three vessels carrying 128,600 metric tons of grain and other food products have left Ukrainian ports, the organization overseeing the export of agricultural products from the country said.

The ships are destined for Spain, China and India and are carrying wheat, corn, barley and sunflower oil.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered in July among Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, eased Russia's naval blockade and saw three key Ukrainian ports reopen.

So far, more than 667 ships have sailed from Ukrainian ports.

— Amanda Macias

UN brings critical aid to hard-to-reach areas of Soledar

Destroyed buildings in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on Nov. 20, 2022.
Diego Herrera Carcedo/ | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The United Nations said that a three-truck convoy brought critical aid, including hygiene kits, food, medicine, bedding and shelter kits to more than 800 families in the besieged city of Soledar.

"As we all know, recent fighting in and around Soledar has caused massive destruction and left those who remain there in dire need of humanitarian assistance," wrote Saviano Abreu, spokesperson for the UN humanitarian office in Ukraine, in a statement to NBC News.

Abreu said that more humanitarian convoys are expected in the days ahead.

— Amanda Macias

UNESCO seeks to prevent trafficking of looted Ukrainian art

A Russian soldier patrols the Mariupol drama theatre, hit March 16 by an airstrike, on April 12, 2022 in Mariupol, as Russian troops intensify a campaign to take the strategic port city. Editor's note: This picture was taken during a trip organized by the Russian military.
Alexander Nemenov | AFP | Getty Images

The United Nations cultural organization is training law enforcement and judiciary officials from countries on Ukraine's western borders, seeking to prevent the trafficking of looted cultural objects from Ukraine amid Russia's war against its neighbor.

UNESCO partnered with Poland's Culture Ministry to hold three days of workshops in Warsaw this week for the officials from Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova. Representatives from Ukraine also attended the training that began on Wednesday.

The aim is for the officials to be able to identify and prevent any artistic treasures looted in Ukraine from crossing their borders.

Krista Pikkat, UNESCO's director of culture and emergencies, said that more than 230 cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed in Ukraine since Russia invaded the country.

She said that UNESCO is working to document lost cultural objects, among them treasures from museums and archaeological sites.

— Associated Press

IAEA chief meets with Zelenskyy over security concerns at multiple nuclear power plants

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) speaks to journalists after the IAEA's Board of Governors meeting at the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria on November 16, 2022.
Joe Klamar | AFP | Getty Images

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to share an update about the nuclear watchdog's work at various nuclear power plants across the war-torn country.

Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told Zelenskyy he wants to set up a security protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Europe's largest nuclear power plant. He said Russians have repeatedly fired upon the plant in recent months.

"This major nuclear power plant continues to face daily dangers. Our team there continues to hear explosions close to the site, including two on Thursday," Grossi said in a press release.

Grossi said he would continue "intensive consultations" with both Ukrainian and Russian parties to create a protection zone around the nuclear power plant.

— Amanda Macias

Blinken speaks with Swedish and Finnish counterparts about NATO ascension

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds a press conference during a meeting of the NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs, joined by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Finland, Sweden and Ukraine, as well as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, at the Palace of the Parliament of Romania in Bucharest, on November 30, 2022.
Andrei Pungovschi | AFP | Getty Images

Secretary Antony Blinken held two separate phone calls with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts to reaffirm U.S. support for their NATO membership.

"The secretary reaffirmed U.S. support for Sweden and Finland's NATO accession and the importance of remaining allies quickly ratifying their accession," the State Department wrote in a readout following the calls.

Earlier in the week, Blinken met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to discuss Ankara's concerns about adding Sweden and Finland to the world's most powerful military alliance.

In May, Sweden and Finland began the formal process of applying to NATO. All 30 members of the alliance have to ratify the countries' entry into the group. In August, U.S. President Joe Biden signed ratification documents following a 95-1 Senate vote to bring Finland and Sweden into NATO.

— Amanda Macias

Russian forces are concentrating their efforts in eastern cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, Ukraine's military says

Ukrainian soldiers outside the strategic city of Bakhmut on Jan. 18, 2023, in Bakhmut, Ukraine.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Ukraine's military said that Russian troops are concentrating their efforts in the eastern cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the Donetsk region. There is also heavy fighting in Kharkiv and Kherson regions, according to an NBC News translation of the Ukrainian military update.

Yaroslav Yanushevych, the regional head of Kherson, said that the area has been hit with Russian shelling more than 90 times over the past 24 hours. One civilian was killed and another three were injured, according to an NBC News translation.

Ukraine's military said that over the past 24 hours, Russian forces have launched approximately 23 air strikes and another 80 rocket attacks against Ukrainian targets.

— Amanda Macias

US slaps sanctions on Russia's 'criminal' private military company Wagner Group

White House National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby (not pictured) presents images that allege railcar movement between Russia and North Korea during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2023.
Leah Millis | Reuters

The United States is formally designating Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, as a "significant transnational criminal organization," accusing the paramilitary group of helping Russia skirt sanctions in President Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Kirby said U.S. intelligence estimates indicate the Wagner Group has at least 50,000 personnel in Ukraine, most of them recruited for the fight from Russian prisons.

"Our message to any company that is considering providing support to Wagner is simply this, Wagner is a criminal organization that is continuing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses," Kirby added.

White House National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby (not pictured) presents images that allege railcar movement between Russia and North Korea during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2023. 
Leah Millis | Reuters

Kirby also slammed North Korean weapon deliveries to Russia used by Wagner, including infantry rockets and missiles. CNBC wasn't able to immediately reach Wagner group.

— Amanda Macias

Russia says relations with U.S. at an all-time low

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his press conference at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit on September 16, 2022, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Getty Images

Russia said on Friday that relations with the United States were at an all-time low, dismissing the idea the two sides could turn things around halfway through U.S. President Joe Biden's term in office.

"Bilateral relations are probably at their lowest point historically, unfortunately," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

"There is no hope for improvement in the foreseeable future," he said.

While there have been occasional diplomatic successes, including prisoner swaps involving U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed and basketball star Brittney Griner, high-level contact has been scarce.

U.S.-Russia talks on resuming inspections under the New START nuclear arms limitation treaty were called off at the last minute in November, while the Kremlin has played down the idea of face-to-face talks between Biden and President Vladimir Putin, who last met in person in Geneva in June 2021.

"The past two years have been, despite initial timid hopes related to Geneva ... very bad for bilateral relations," Peskov said.

— Reuters

U.S. DOD secretary says no decision made on tanks for Ukraine

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin gives an opening statement prior to the start of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Ramstein-Miesenbach, southwestern Germany on January 20, 2023.
Andre Pain | AFP | Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that his German counterpart has not yet made a decision on whether to provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

In recent weeks, Kyiv has reached an impasse with Berlin over its resistance of contributing German-made Leopard 2 tanks to the fight.

Austin added that he did not have an announcement to make on if the U.S. would provide M1A1 Abrams tanks.

"I think this will be a really capable package that we put together. I really do believe that it will enable the Ukrainians to be successful going forward. So this is not dependent upon a single platform," Austin told reporters at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

— Amanda Macias

Austin and Milley discuss latest aid for Ukraine with 50 allies

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin gives an opening statement prior to the start of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Ramstein-Miesenbach, southwestern Germany on January 20, 2023.
Andre Pain | AFP | Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley hosted another meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Germany.

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.

— Amanda Macias

Latest U.S. security assistance package for Ukraine worth $2.5 billion

U.S. soldiers stand next to U.S. Army Stryker wheeled tanks at the Grafenwoehr training area.
Armin Weigel | picture alliance | Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the latest package of U.S. military equipment bound for Ukraine is valued at $2.5 billion and will help "meet Ukraine's most urgent battlefield needs."

"Our new package provides even more air defense capabilities to help Ukraine defend its cities and its skies, and that includes NASAMS munitions and eight Avenger air defense systems. This new assistance package also helps meet Ukraine's urgent need for armor and combat vehicles, so we're providing 59 more Bradleys, 90 Strykers, 53 MRAPS and 350 armored Humvees," Austin announced ahead of a meeting with the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Germany.

The latest security package, which does not include main battle tanks, brings the U.S. military commitment to Ukraine's fight to $26.7 billion.

— Amanda Macias

Germany holds out on decision to send its tanks to Ukraine despite mounting calls

Social Democrat (SPD) interior minister of the state of Lower Saxony Boris Pistorius is to serve as Germany's next defence minister, two sources told Reuters on Tuesday.
Florian Gaertner / Contributor / Getty Images

Western forces agreed during a key meeting in Germany to increase their military support for Ukraine, but Berlin wavered on further EU tank deliveries despite mounting calls from Kyiv and fellow allies.

"Today, we can all not yet say when a decision will be made about Leopard and what this decision will look like," German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said at the end of a meeting held at Germany's Ramstein Air Base held with several defense leaders from across the world, including U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

He stressed that he intends for Berlin to be prepared if and when a decision is taken on Leopard 2 tanks. He added that he on Friday instructed an inspection of the German Leopard 2 inventories, both in military and in domestic industry stocks, ahead of a prospective decision.

German leaders, wary of provoking Russia, have faced mounting criticism for their apparent reluctance to send Ukraine more powerful weapons.

Read the full story here.

— Sophie Kiderlin and Hannah Ward-Glenton

Zelenskyy says he expects 'strong decisions' from NATO's defense leaders

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expects "strong decisions" from defense chiefs of NATO member countries, who are meeting at Germany's Ramstein air base to reach a decision on whether to send powerful German Leopard tanks to Ukraine's army.

Speaking to the leaders via video link, Zelenskyy stressed that "we must act fast," saying that the Ukraine-Russia conflict is about "what kind of world we will live in" and that "the Kremlin must lose."

"You are strong people of powerful countries," he said to the audience. "I encourage you to make such decisions that can deprive Russian evil of any power. It is in your power to guarantee artillery and aircraft that will crush terror. It is in your power to make victory."

— Natasha Turak

U.S. defense secretary asks allies to 'dig deeper' for Ukraine support

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin attends a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the American military's Ramstein Air Base, near Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany, September 8, 2022.
Thilo Schmuelgen | Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged allies to "dig deeper" in their support for Ukraine, after Washington unveiled another $2.5 billion military aid package for the embattled country.

"This is a crucial moment. Russia is regrouping, recruiting and trying to re-equip," Austin said from the U.S. military's Ramstein air base in Germany. "This is not a moment to slow down. It's a time to dig deeper."

"But Ukrainian people are watching us," he added. "The Kremlin is watching us, and history is watching us. So we won't let up. And we won't waver in our determination to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia's imperial aggression."

Austin said that some 50 countries have helped Ukraine to defend itself, adding that the new U.S. package gives "even more air defense capabilities to help Ukraine defend its cities and its skies."

— Natasha Turak

Poland ready to take 'non-standard action' if Germany blocks export of tanks to Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda at a press conference after their talks in Kyiv on May 22, 2022.
Sergei Supinsky | Afp | Getty Images

Poland is ready to take "non-standard action" and send Ukraine two of its Leopard tanks if Germany opposes the move, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski said.

"I do not rule out that we are ready to take such a step," Jablonski was quoted by Reuters as telling a private radio station.

"At the moment we are trying to make Germany not only agree these tanks being sent by Poland or other countries, but also to do so themselves."

NATO allies are meeting at Germany's Ramstein air base for a crucial decision on whether to send German Leopard 2 tanks from various European armies to Ukraine, a move that requires Berlin's approval even for other countries because it is a German re-export.

Ukraine has long been pleading for the heavy weaponry it says is essential for pushing back against Russian forces, and its close ally Poland has echoed its calls. Germany has been slow to approve sending heavy weaponry to Ukraine for fear of provoking Russia.

"I think that if there is strong resistance, we will be ready to take even such non-standard action... but let's not anticipate the facts," Jablonski said.

— Natasha Turak

Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group could have as many as 50,000 fighters in Ukraine: UK

Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group now has tens of thousands of fighters deployed in Ukraine, Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its latest intelligence update.

The private military company formally registered as a legal entity in Russia just in December 2022, describing its core activity as "management consultancy," despite years of documented combat activities in parts of Africa, the Middle East and now Ukraine.

"Wagner almost certainly now commands up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign," Britain's Defense Ministry wrote in its update on Twitter.

"The registration likely aims to maximise Prigozhin's commercial gain and to further legitimise the increasingly high-profile organisation."

— Natasha Turak

NATO allies meeting in Germany to make decision on battle tanks for Kyiv

A Bundeswehr Leopard 2 A6 heavy tank.
Sean Gallup / Staff / Getty Images

Defense chiefs of NATO countries are meeting at Germany's Ramstein air base to discuss providing Ukraine with main battle tanks.

The decision is a long time coming, as Kyiv has been requesting tanks for months but Western allies have shown reluctance to oblige as they fear provoking Russia.

Germany has veto power to stop any effort by the 30-country alliance to send Kyiv its Leopard 2 tanks, which would be exported by armies in a number of NATO countries. German Chancellor Olaf Sholz has so far been reserved in his willingness to send certain powerful weaponry to Ukraine, drawing criticism from other supporters of the country.

— Natasha Turak

Ukraine's first lady calls on Davos to keep funding humanitarian support as war with Russia nears one-year mark

Ukraine's first lady Olena Zelenska attends a "Special Dialogue with CEO's" meeting during the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, January 18, 2023.
Arnd Wiegmann | Reuters

Ukraine's first lady called on businesses and politicians at Davos to keep funding humanitarian support for her war-weary country.

"First human, then capital. Humanity comes first. Values come first. And when we tell the world about protecting our country and rebuilding after hostilities, we mean, first of all, protecting people and restoring normal life for them as much as possible," Olena Zelenska said during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Zelenska was joined by Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and First Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Svyrydenko.

— Amanda Macias

State Department aware of unconfirmed reports of espionage case opened on U.S. citizen in Russia

A Russian flag flies next to the US embassy building in Moscow on December 7, 2021.
Alexander Nemenov | AFP | Getty Images

The State Department said it was aware of unconfirmed reports of an espionage investigation regarding a U.S. citizen in Russia.

"Generally, the Russian Federation does not abide by its obligations to provide timely notification, often detention of U.S. citizens in Russia," deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said during a daily press briefing when asked about the matter.

"Russian authorities also don't regularly inform the Embassy of the trials, sentencing or movement of U.S. citizens. We're looking into this matter and we'll continue to monitor," Patel said, adding that the U.S. embassy in Moscow was engaging with Russian authorities.

— Amanda Macias

Read CNBC's previous live coverage here: