Ukraine war live updates: Blinken visits Kyiv to boost morale as Ukrainian forces battle Russian onslaught in northeast border region

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s surprise trip to Ukraine on Tuesday comes at what a senior U.S. official described as a “difficult moment” for Kyiv as its forces battle a new, large-scale Russian offensive in the northeast Kharkiv region.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has already claimed that its forces have “liberated” a handful of settlements near the border but fighting is at its hottest around the border town of Vovchansk.

Russia has claimed that its forces have entered the town but Ukraine disputes that, saying its troops are repelling attempts to seize it.

Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv Regional Military Administration, said Monday evening that the situation in the wider Kharkiv region was “difficult,” accusing Russia of attacking civilians and using them as human shields. He called on an estimated 200 people still left in Vovchansk to evacuate immediately.

“The enemy is trying to capture Vovchansk, but the Defense Forces are fighting back. Skirmishes continue on the northern outskirts of the city. In total, since the beginning of active hostilities, our fighters have destroyed more than 1,000 invaders,” he said. CNBC was unable to verify Syniehubov’s claims. Russia says it does not target civilians, although thousands of civilians have died over three years of war.

A member of Kharkiv Animal Rescue team with a phone in his hands examines a destroyed building on May 12, 2024 in Vovchansk, Ukraine. Residents are leaving the city due to the intensification of hostilities, meaning there are a huge number of abandoned pets. 

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Russia’s ultimate target in this new offensive is the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Syniehubov said battles are also ongoing for the village of Luk’yantsi, to the northeast of the regional capital.

“We record a slight advance of enemy troops, but our fighters are fighting intensively to hold this settlement,” he said.

“The enemy changed the tactics of mass offensives, as it was at the beginning of a full-scale invasion, to advancing in small groups. They move through forest strips, plantations, bushes,” he added.

— Holly Ellyatt

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kyiv Tuesday morning, having flown from the U.S. to Poland before taking a sleeper train from the Polish border to the Ukrainian capital.

This is Blinken’s fourth trip to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion and his first visit since the U.S. Congress finally approved the long anticipated $61 billion military aid package for Ukraine last month. The last time he visited was in September 2023.

High-profile visits of this kind by top U.S. officials often go unannounced beforehand for security reasons.

Blinken stepped off the train in Kyiv the early hours of Tuesday morning local time, and was greeted by the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink and the Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards his plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland before traveling to Poland and Ukraine, on May 12, 2024.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about to board a Ukrainian Railways train at Przemysl Glowny train station in Przemysl, Poland, en route to Kyiv, on May 13, 2024.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken works while traveling on a Ukraine Railways train to Kyiv on May 13, 2024, near Lviv, Ukraine.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget A. Brink after arriving by train at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi station on May 14, 2024, in Kyiv, Ukraine.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Kyiv Tuesday, with the visit designed to bolster Ukrainian morale as its forces battle a large-scale Russian offensive in the northeast border region of Kharkiv.

The visit to Kyiv, which was not announced beforehand, is the first by a top U.S. official since Congress passed a $61 billion military aid package for Ukraine in April, boosting the country’s chances of fighting Russian forces who have regained the initiative in recent months.

Blinken’s trip is meant to send a strong signal of reassurance to the Ukrainians during a “difficult moment” for the nation, a senior U.S. official told reporters ahead of Blinken’s arrival in Kyiv on train from Poland.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 1, 2024. 

Evelyn Hockstein | Afp | Getty Images

“It’s a tough fight. There is no question,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noting, however, that the U.S. has “a lot of confidence that the Ukrainians will increasingly be effective in pushing the Russians back as our assistance flows in both from the United States and other allies and partners.”

The official said U.S. military hardware, including artillery, air defense capabilities and long range ATACMS missiles, were already starting to arrive in Ukraine.

Blinken’s mission on this trip is to talk about how U.S. supplemental assistance will help shore up Ukraine’s defenses, the official added, and to discuss other steps the U.S. is taking to provide long-term assurance and commitment to their security.

Blinken is due to meet Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and will deliver an address that will focus on Ukraine’s “strategic success” in the war. The address is due to take place at 11:00 a.m. ET on Tuesday.

— Holly Ellyatt

Ukraine’s security services on Monday said they had prevented “terrorist attacks” by alleged Russian agents in Kyiv that were meant to take place on May 9.

Explosive devices were meant to be detonate in several locations in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, including shops, the country’s security services said in a Google-translated Telegram post.

“Improvised explosive devices were disguised in tea packages. They consisted of a timer, a detonator and plastic explosives with an incendiary mixture that was supposed to cause large-scale fires,” the post said. The explosives were meant to detonate during peak hours, it added.

Explosives were allegedly also meant to be installed in a car that was to be parked near a popular cafe, the security services said.

Ukrainian security services used counter-intelligence to identify the man behind the planned attack, they said in another Telegram post.

“He personally gave instructions to the recruited agents and even recorded video instructions for installing an explosive device in one of the stores of the same chain in the Moscow region,” the post said.

The alleged Russian agent had also planned an attack that was meant to take place in February, which was also thwarted by Ukrainian security services, they said.

Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General on Monday said two people had been detained regarding the attempted attacks. One was charged with treason and attempted sabotage, while the other was charged with “an unfinished attempt to commit a terrorist act,” the office said in a Google-translated Telegram post, adding that investigations were ongoing.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

— Sophie Kiderlin

Russia has had “partial success” in Ukraine’s Lukyantsi, a village near the city of Kharkiv where Russia launched a new offensive in recent days, according to the Ukrainian military.

“In the Kharkiv direction, the enemy does not stop offensive actions,” the Ukrainian Telegram account for General Staff of the Armed Forces said in a post on Monday, according to a Google-translation.

The update said 11 attacks had already been carried out and two “combat clashes” were underway.

Russia had “partial success” in Lukyantsi, but was prevented from advancing, the military said, adding that Ukrainian forces were carrying out counterattacks. CNBC could not independently verify the developments on the ground.

Earlier in the day, Kharkiv regional head Oleh Syniehubov said Russia was attacking in small groups in an attempt to stretch the front line, Reuters reported.

— Sophie Kiderlin

The changes Russian President Vladimir Putin has made to the country’s government suggest that Russia will try to “scale the war,” Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said in a post on Telegram on Monday.

“Russia is finally isolating itself and will try to scale the war, expand its formats, while simultaneously reconfiguring the economy to function in acute/deficit formats, which one way or another can ensure a sharp increase in the military component,” he said, according to a Google translation of his post.

The reshuffle indicates that Russia is, among other things, moving towards “military ‘communism'” to ensure there are enough resources for a never-ending war, aiming to curb corruption in its army, and that the influence of “traditional clans” is being redistributed.

— Sophie Kiderlin

Russia said its forces had improved their tactical position near four settlements in the northeastern Kharkiv region Monday while Ukraine said it had deployed reserves to the area, where Russia launched a new offensive last week.

Russian forces have “improved the tactical situation and delivered strikes at [Ukrainian] manpower and hardware” close to Vesele, Neskuchne, Vovchansk and Lyptsi, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said Monday according to a translated Telegram post.

The ministry said Sunday that its forces have seized nine villages in Kharkiv region at the weekend after launching a new offensive in the region.

The General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in an update Monday that “the operational situation remains complex and dynamically changing” in the Kharkiv region.

The Kharkiv coordination volunteer center, together with the national police and emergency services, is conducting an evacuation from the pro-front city on the border with Russia on May 12, 2024 in Vovchansk Kharkiv Region, Ukraine.

Libkos | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Combat operations are underway in several areas, the General Staff said, noting that Russian forces were conducting assault operations in a number of directions.

 Fighting is going on for the border town of Vovchansk, Ukraine’s military said, stating that Russia had used “significant forces to attack the city in the composition of up to 5 battalions … At present, the enemy has tactical success,” it added.

“Measures are planned for the destruction of the enemy, which has wedged itself into our defence.”

Reserves are being deployed to stabilize the situation, Ukraine said, but it added that one of its main priorities “is the preservation of the lives of our soldiers.”

CNBC was unable to verify the battlefield reports.

— Holly Ellyatt

Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov attends a joint press conference with Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Mali, Abdoulaye Diop (not pictured), following their talks in Moscow, Russia, 28 February 2024.

Maxim Shipenkov | Reuters

If Western countries want to resolve the Ukrainian war on the battlefield, then Moscow is ready for it, acting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday.

Speaking during talks in the Federation Council (the upper house of Russia’s parliament) on his reappointment to the post of foreign minister amid an ongoing government reshuffle, Lavrov said “it’s their right, if they want to be on the battlefield, they will be on the battlefield,” news agency RIA Novosti said.

Lavrov was dismissive of a forthcoming peace summit on Ukraine that will be held in Switzerland in mid-June, and which Russia is not attending, likening the event to “a reprimand for a schoolchild.”

Russia has not been invited to the summit but had already signaled it would not attend even if it was welcome to. It has said a peace summit without it is futile.

Russia’s leadership has repeatedly warned of the possibility of a direct confrontation between Moscow and the West, threatening that World War III could erupt if Ukraine’s Western allies send ground troops into the country.

— Holly Ellyatt

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