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Latest Developments in Ukraine: Dec. 23

A Ukrainian soldier throws bullet casings from an armored vehicle near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Dec. 22, 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier throws bullet casings from an armored vehicle near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Dec. 22, 2022.

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine.

The latest developments in Russia’s war on Ukraine. All times EST.

10:22 p.m.: Russian authorities in the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol have begun demolishing most of the city's drama theater, where Ukrainian authorities say hundreds died in an air bombardment in March, Reuters reported.

Video posted on both Ukrainian and Russian websites on Friday showed heavy equipment taking down much of the building, while leaving its front facade intact.

The bombing of the theater was part of a protracted Russian siege of Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov seen as critical to Russian supply lines between areas its forces control in southern and eastern Ukraine.

Civilians had taken refuge in the theater and large signs emblazoned simply with "Children" had been erected on either side of it. Ukrainian officials said at least 300 people were killed during the Russian bombing, though some estimates said the toll was higher.

Russia denied bombing the theater deliberately.

Mariupol held out for more than two months against Russian assaults which left most of its buildings in ruins.

8:50 p.m.:

8 p.m.: Berlin on Friday said the discovery of a German intelligence official suspected of working for Russia is "alarming," amid fears he had access to sensitive information from Western allies, Agence France-Presse reported.

The man — an employee of the BND foreign intelligence agency identified as Carsten L. — was arrested on suspicion of treason for allegedly passing state secrets to Russia, federal prosecutors announced Thursday.

The case comes at a time of heightened concerns across Europe about Russian espionage plots, after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine plunged ties with the West into the deep freeze.

Authorities have released little information about the case so far, saying doing so could hand Russia an advantage.

7:02 p.m.: U.S. nurse Jennifer Mullee is volunteering in Ukraine, near the Donetsk front line, triaging wounded Ukrainian soldiers.

Mullee worked as an emergency nurse in a hospital in Los Angeles until May, when she arrived in the eastern region.

As a member of the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, she's been helping to save Ukrainian lives there ever since.

"I miss my (two) daughters, but they understand and believe in the struggle of what's going on here in Ukraine and fully support me and know that I'm doing important work," she told Reuters inside the ambulance transporting the now stabilized soldier to hospital.

Deployed twice as a nurse and doctor in Afghanistan, Mullee comes from a military family.

None of her relatives have been wounded on active service, she says, a stark contrast to the "horrible destruction, and death, and injuries" she now experiences daily, and for which she lays the blame squarely at the Russian leader's door.

6:22 p.m.:

5:49 p.m.: North Korea on Friday denied a report in Japan that claimed it had sent arms to Russia by train last month, CNN reported.

"The Japanese media's false report that the DPRK offered munitions to Russia is the most absurd red herring, which is not worth any comment or interpretation," a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said according to state media.

Japanese outlet Tokyo Shimbun reported Thursday that North Korea delivered munitions by rail to Russia last month, citing an unnamed source familiar with the situation in the country.

Additional supplies and weapons are expected to be delivered from North Korea to Russia in the upcoming weeks, Tokyo Shimbun reported, citing its source.

4:56 p.m.:

4 p.m.: President Vladimir Putin on Friday told Russia's defense industry chiefs to up their game to ensure that the Russian army quickly got all the weapons, equipment and military hardware it needed to fight in Ukraine, Reuters reported.

Putin, who has cast Russia's war in Ukraine as part of an historic effort to push back against what he says is excessive Western influence over global affairs, made the comments during a visit to Tula, a center for arms manufacturing.

3:16 p.m.: People living in the once-thriving settlement of Velyka Novosilka in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region have endured almost 10 months of war. Located less than 2 kilometers from the front line, residents endure Russian shelling by huddling together in cellars, sharing a stove, and keeping each others' spirits up. As children, mothers, and the elderly hang on, they take in abandoned dogs and cats in a town they say has been "completely destroyed." Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has this report.

2:30 p.m.:

2:05 p.m.: U.S. lawmakers were expected to approve a $45 billion aid package for Ukraine on Friday, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy returned from Washington with the promise of Patriot missiles to help fend off Russia's invasion, Reuters reported.

The military and economic assistance, part of a huge government spending bill, follows U.S. aid worth around $50 billion sent to Ukraine this year as well sanctions imposed on Russia by the West that now include a cap on Russian oil prices.

1:35 p.m.:

1:10 p.m.: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Friday that Kyiv would boost its footprint in Africa next year by opening 10 new embassies and strengthening trade ties with the continent, according to Reuters.

Ukraine has been trying to rally African countries to its cause as it fights off Russia's full-scale invasion, in part by promoting a humanitarian grain initiative to help alleviate hunger in highly vulnerable countries.

Russia's blockade of Ukrainian agricultural exports through the Black Sea had sparked global grain and fertilizer shortages earlier this year, endangering millions, before a U.N.-brokered deal partially eased it in July.

"We are overhauling relations with dozens of African countries," Zelenskyy told a gathering of diplomats in Kyiv. "Next year we need to strengthen this."

12:45 p.m.:

12:30 p.m.: North Korea fired two ballistic missiles toward the sea off its east coast on Friday, the South Korean military said, the latest in an unprecedented number of missile tests this year, Reuters reported.

Coming only days after two other missiles were launched and a day after allegations were made the country is shipping munitions to Russian forces in Ukraine, North Korea continued actions its neighbors say are destabilizing the region.

12:15 p.m.:

12:00 p.m.: To an outsider, it may seem an unlikely time for Ukraine to double down on the battle against corruption, as missiles rain down on cities and citizens fight for their lives, Reuters reported.

Nonetheless, anti-graft agencies have revived a years-old investigation into an official scheme they say led to electricity customers overpaying by more than $1 billion, plus a case that stalled in 2020 into the alleged theft of over $350 million in assets and funds from a state-controlled oil company.

They've launched new actions too, including this month the arrest in absentia of an ex-state bank boss over his suspected role in the embezzlement of $5 million. He denies wrongdoing.

"Every week, there are one or two big developments plus seven or eight smaller ones that are still important," said legal expert Vadym Valko, who monitors the work of anti-corruption authorities in Ukraine, which is fighting to rid itself of oligarchs and strengthen its vulnerable institutions.

11:45 a.m.:

11:20 a.m.: Canada on Friday condemned what it said were North Korean arms deliveries to Russia, saying Pyongyang's transaction with the private military company the Wagner Group "clearly violates international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions," Reuters reported.

"We will continue to work with international partners to address these developments and respond to further arms deliveries should they take place," Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in a statement.

10:50 a.m.:

10:10 a.m.: The Kremlin said on Friday that Russia had made significant progress towards "demilitarizing" Ukraine, one of the goals President Vladimir Putin declared when he launched his war against Kyiv 10 months ago, Reuters reported.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov offered the assessment of Russia's military progress when asked during a briefing about comments by Putin, who on Thursday said that Ukraine's defense potential was close to zero.

Ukraine's own defense potential - its military industrial complex - has been badly disrupted by Russian missile strikes.

But the West has poured tens of billions of dollars' worth of weapons into Ukraine and U.S. President Joe Biden this week promised a U.S. Patriot air defense system and pledged continued support.

Putin dismissed the Patriot system as "quite old" and said Russia would adapt to it.

9:55 a.m.: The top Russian-installed official in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region said on Friday that shelling of the Russian-controlled nuclear power plant there had "almost stopped," Reuters reported.

Speaking on Russian state television, Russian-installed regional governor Yevgeny Balitsky said that Russian troops would not leave the nuclear power station, and that it would never return to Ukrainian control.

The Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe's largest, was captured by Russian forces in March, soon after their invasion of Ukraine.

9:40 a.m.: The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, met with senior Russian government officials this week regarding a nuclear safety and security zone for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. On Friday the IAEA said that diplomatic efforts were making some progress.

9:20 a.m.: A St Petersburg politician has asked prosecutors to investigate Russian President Vladimir Putin for using the word "war" to describe the conflict in Ukraine, accusing the Kremlin chief of breaking his own law, Reuters reported.

Putin has for months described his invasion as a "special military operation". He signed laws in March that prescribe steep fines and jail terms for discrediting or spreading "deliberately false information" about the armed forces, putting people at risk of prosecution if they call the war by its name.

9:05 a.m.:

8:50 a.m.: Russia's ambassador to the United States on Friday compared the state of U.S.-Russia relations to an "ice age", and said that the risk of a clash between the two countries was "high," Reuters reported, quoting Russian state-owned news agency TASS.

TASS cited Anatoly Antonov as saying that it was hard to say when talks on strategic dialogue between the two sides could resume, but that talks on prisoner swaps had been "effective" and would continue.

U.S.-Russia ties have fallen to their lowest point in decades amid the fallout from Russia's military campaign in Ukraine, and the consequent imposition of Western sanctions.

Two prisoner swaps, in which U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed and basketball star Brittney Griner were freed by Russia in return for convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko and arms dealer Viktor Bout, were rare instances of successful U.S.-Russia diplomacy in 2022.

8:20 a.m.:

8:10 a.m.: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sounded another defiant note on his return to his nation’s capital Friday following his wartime visit to the United States, saying his forces are “working toward victory” even as Russia warned that there would be no end to the war until it achieved its military aims, The Associated Press reported.

Zelenskyy posted on his Telegram account that he’s in his Kyiv office following his U.S. trip that secured a new $1.8 billion military aid package, and pledged that “we’ll overcome everything.“ The Ukrainian president also thanked the Netherlands for pledging up to 2.5 billion euros ($2.65 billion) for 2023, to help pay for military equipment and rebuild critical infrastructure.

Zelenksyy’s return comes amid relentless Russian artillery, rocket and mortar fire as well as airstrikes on the eastern and southern fronts and elsewhere in Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the war would end at the negotiating table once the “special military operation“ achieves “the goals that the Russian Federation has set,” adding that “a significant headway has been made on demilitarization of Ukraine.”

7:55 a.m.:

7:40 a.m.: The top Russian-installed official in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region said on Friday that shelling of the Russian-controlled nuclear power plant there had "almost stopped," according to Reuters.

Speaking on Russian state television, Russian-installed regional governor Yevgeny Balitsky said that Russian troops would not leave the nuclear power station, and that it would never return to Ukrainian control.

The Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe's largest, was captured by Russian forces in March, soon after their invasion of Ukraine.

The plant remains near the frontlines, and has repeatedly come under fire in recent months, raising fears of a nuclear disaster. Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling the facility.

7:25 a.m.:

7:10 a.m.: An employee of Germany's foreign intelligence service has been arrested on suspicion of sharing state secrets that he obtained in the course of his professional activities with Russia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported, quoting federal prosecutors on December 22.

The arrest of the suspect, a German citizen identified as Carsten L., occurred in Berlin on December 21, and he has been ordered held in pretrial detention. "The accused is suspected of state treason," federal prosecutors said in a statement quoted by Reuters and German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

He shared the information, which is considered a state secret, with a Russian intelligence agency, the federal prosecutor said. The statement said police also raided his apartment and workplace as well as those of another person.

German authorities have warned of likely heightened Russian spying in light of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. It is unclear exactly what information Carsten L. passed on, but the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) said the incident took place this year.

6:50 a.m.: The cities of Bucha and Irpin in the Kyiv region were both heavily damaged during the brief but brutal occupation by Russian forces at the start of their invasion of Ukraine. Many houses were completely destroyed or in need of major repairs. But the Ukrainian government lacks the funds for widespread reconstruction, leaving many residents forced to restore their own homes. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has this report.

6:35 a.m.: At least five civilians were killed and 18 others were wounded in Russian attacks on eight regions in Ukraine’s south and east in the past 24 hours, The Associated Press reported, quoting the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office.

The Ukrainian military said Russian forces fired multiple rocket launchers “more than 70 times” across Ukrainian territory overnight, while fierce battles raged around the city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Bakhmut and Lyman in the neighboring Luhansk region as well as the front line between the Luhansk and Kharkiv regions bore the brunt of the Russian strikes, but didn’t specify to what degree.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said several blasts tore through factory buildings housing Russian troops in the occupied city of Tokmak in the southern Zaporizhzhia region late on Thursday, sparking a fire. The Center for Strategic Communications of the Armed Forces of Ukraine didn’t immediately report on casualties or who was behind the blasts.

Earlier Friday, the Ukrainian mayor of the southern city of Melitopol said that a car used by Russian occupation forces exploded, although it’s unclear if anyone was hurt. The reports came a day after a car bomb killed the Russia-appointed head of the village of Lyubymivka in the neighboring Kherson region, according to Russian and Ukrainian news reports.

6:20 a.m.:

6:05 a.m.: Pitched battles continue in the east of Ukraine, where Moscow's offensive has centered on the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in Donetsk, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Friday, citing Ukraine's General Staff.

Besides their incessant shelling of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in Donetsk, where the fiercest battles have been fought in recent months, Russians kept pounding military and civilian locations in three other eastern regions -- Sumy, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, the General Staff said, adding that Ukrainian forces repelled a total of 19 attacks over the past 24 hours.

It also said that because of the significant losses suffered, the Russian military had set up a field hospital in Berdyansk in the Zaporizhzhya region, where it has also converted several tourist resorts into quarters for military personnel.

In Moscow, Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov said the front line in Ukraine was stable, and that Russian forces had been focused on "completing the liberation" of Donetsk.

5:55 a.m.:

5:45 a.m.: In Ukraine's southern Azov Sea port city of Mariupol, which fell earlier this year following months of resistance by Ukrainian forces, Russian troops on December 22 started demolishing the famed Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported, quoting Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the city's mayor, on Telegram.

The theater, a historical monument which at the start of the Russian invasion had been converted into a bomb shelter for about 600 people, including many children, was repeatedly targeted by Russian air strikes despite being clearly marked as a refuge for civilians.

"The demolition is a clear attempt to hide forever the physical evidence of the largest simultaneous deliberate killing of Ukrainians by the Russians since the beginning of this phase of the war," Andryushchenko wrote, adding that only the front part of the theater had been left intact, apparently as a basis for future reconstruction.

5:20 a.m.: The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank, said in its latest Ukraine assessment that Russian forces continued to conduct limited counterattacks along the Kreminna-Svatove line and Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the Kreminna area. Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas. They're also increasing security measures in Kherson Oblast and Crimea out of fear of Ukrainian counteroffensive operations.

4:12 a.m.: The latest intelligence update from the U.K. defense ministry said that Russia plans to expand its military by about 30%, which would bring its total forces to 1.5 million.

According to Russia's defense ministry, the expansion will target northwest Russia, in response to the supposed threat from Finland and Sweden. Both countries recently joined NATO.

1:22 a.m.: Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right government backs Kyiv, on Thursday said she wanted to visit Ukraine early next year, Agence France-Presse reported.

Meloni has reaffirmed support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion, although her government includes the far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia parties.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Berlusconi have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

"I will call (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy to present my wishes and to organize this trip that I intend to make in the first months of next year," Meloni said during a program on Italian television.

Meloni's predecessor, Mario Draghi, visited Kyiv in June with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

12:02 a.m.:

Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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