March 7, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Jack Guy, Adrienne Vogt, Leinz Vales, Mike Hayes and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, March 8, 2023
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4:00 p.m. ET, March 7, 2023

Ukrainian government denies involvement in Nord Stream leaks

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand and Kostan Nechyporenko

A senior Ukrainian official denied any involvement from the Ukrainian government in the Nord Stream pipeline leaks in late September 2022, which Western leaders have said were likely the result of sabotage.

"Although I enjoy collecting amusing conspiracy theories about [Ukrainian] government, I have to say: [Ukraine] has nothing to do with the Baltic Sea mishap and has no information about ‘pro-[Ukraine] sabotage groups,'" Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote Tuesday on Twitter

“What happened to the Nord Stream pipelines? 'They sank,' as they say in [the Russian Federation] itself...,” Podolyak added.

Podolyak’s remarks follow a report from The New York Times, which said new intelligence suggests that a “pro-Ukrainian group” carried out an attack on the Russian-owned Nord Stream pipelines that left them badly damaged last year. 

A source familiar with the intelligence told CNN that the assessment was not made with high confidence and is not the predominant view of the intelligence community, and the US has not yet identified a culprit. There is a section of the intelligence community, however, that believes pro-Ukrainian actors would have had the motive to sabotage the pipelines because of how Russia was weaponizing them against Ukraine and Europe. The pipelines bypassed Ukraine, and the Russians had threatened to cut off all gas to Europe in response to European sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. 

The intelligence community has no evidence, however, that Ukrainian leaders — including Zelensky — had any knowledge of or involvement in the pipeline sabotage, the source said.

2:41 p.m. ET, March 7, 2023

Putin discussed volunteer battalions with Russian-installed governor of Zaporizhzhia, state media reports

From CNN's Katharina Krebs

Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting on Tuesday with Yevgeny Balitsky, the Russian-installed acting governor of the Zaporizhzhia region — which was declared annexed by Putin in September 2022 — where they discussed security issues and a volunteer battalion, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“Various issues related to the development of the Zaporizhzhia region, the functioning of the economy of business entities, and other aspects of the socio-economic situation were discussed,” Peskov told Russian state news agency TASS.

Peskov also said that “Balitsky raised the issue of the status of the Sudoplatov Volunteer Battalion with the President.”

In an interview with the Crimea 24 TV channel on Monday, Balitsky said the “unresolved issue” of the status of volunteer battalions makes it difficult for them to receive weapons.

Some background on Russia's claims of annexed regions: In late September 2022, Putin announced Russia would seize nearly a fifth of Ukraine, including the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. The move followed so-called referendums in the regions that were universally dismissed as “shams” by Ukraine and Western nations.

1:00 p.m. ET, March 7, 2023

Exclusive: Zelensky warns of "open road" through Ukraine’s east if Russia captures Bakhmut

From CNN's  Rob Picheta

(CNN)
(CNN)

Russian troops will have “open road” to capture key cities in eastern Ukraine if they seize control of Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an interview with CNN, as he defended his decision to keep Ukrainian forces in the besieged city.

“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky said, insisting that Kyiv’s military brass is united in prolonging its defense of the city after weeks of Russian attacks left it on the cusp of falling to Moscow’s troops.

“We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an exclusive interview from Kyiv. “That’s why our guys are standing there.”

A weeks-long assault from Wagner mercenary troops, which has picked up pace in recent days, has forced thousands from the city and decimated its infrastructure. But Ukrainian troops have also mounted a dogged defense of the area, stalling Russia’s progress.

Zelensky said his motivations to keep the city are “so different” to Russia’s objectives. “We understand what Russia wants to achieve there. Russia needs at least some victory – a small victory – even by ruining everything in Bakhmut, just killing every civilian there,” Zelensky said.

He said that if Russia is able to “put their little flag” on top of Bakhmut, it would help “mobilize their society in order to create this idea they’re such a powerful army.”

Read more here and watch the interview below.

12:31 p.m. ET, March 7, 2023

Ukraine says its forces continue to repel Russian attacks on Bakhmut

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio and Kostan Nechyporenko

A Ukrainian serviceman carries a shell for firing towards Russian positions outside the town of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 5.
A Ukrainian serviceman carries a shell for firing towards Russian positions outside the town of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 5. (Anna Kudriavtseva/Reuters)

Ukrainian forces have continued to repel Russian attacks on the battered city of Bakhmut, the military’s General Staff said in a situation update Tuesday.

“The enemy continues its assaults in the Bakhmut direction,” it said. “They do not stop assaulting the city of Bakhmut. Our defenders repelled attacks in the areas of Ivanivske, Klishchiivka, and Bakhmut.”

According to the Ukrainian military, Russian forces continue to focus their offensive not just on Bakhmut but also on Kupiansk, Lyman, Avdiivka, and Shakhtarsk.

“During the day, the enemy launched 19 air strikes and one missile attack, as well as five attacks from multiple rocket launchers,” it also said.

12:17 p.m. ET, March 7, 2023

Moscow court sentences blogger to prison for discrediting Russian army 

From CNN's Katharina Krebs

Dmitry Ivanov speaks from inside an enclosure for defendants as he attends a court hearing in Moscow on Tuesday.
Dmitry Ivanov speaks from inside an enclosure for defendants as he attends a court hearing in Moscow on Tuesday. (Reuters)

Moscow court has sentenced Dmitry Ivanov, the author of the Protest MSU telegram channel to eight and a half years in prison, after convicting him of spreading fakes about the Russian army, the press service of the court told Russian state media RIA Novosti on Tuesday.

“According to the verdict of the Timiryazevsky District Court of Moscow, Dmitry Ivanov was found guilty of committing a crime under clause d, part 2, article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, and he was sentenced to 8 years and 6 months in prison, with punishment to be served in a correctional colony of general regime, with the deprivation of the right to engage in activities related to the administration of sites of electronic and information and telecommunication networks, including the Internet, for a period of 4 years,” the source said, as quoted by RIA.

Under the article on the dissemination of fakes about the Russian army based on political or other hatred, punishment is provided in the form of imprisonment for a term of 5 to 10 years. 

According to RIA, the prosecutor's office asked to sentence Ivanov to 9 years in prison.

“You must understand that Russia is not Putin. We didn't vote for him, and he didn't ask us about starting this war with our close neighbour. I know that tens of millions of people here in Russia are against this criminal war. Lots of us have friends and relatives in Ukraine, and we feel their pain,” said Ivanov during the court session, adding that “today is a dark moment of our history, but the darkest moment is always before the sunrise.”

Ivanov's lawyer Maria Eismont commented on the court's verdict in a video posted on the Prison MSU telegram channel, which was created in support of Dmitry Ivanov.

“A person got a sentence for the same term as people get for murder and other violent crimes just because he voiced an opinion different to the press release of the defense ministry. This is a horrible reality that we live in right now,” said Eismont.

In another video posted on the Telegram channel, Ivanov's mother, Elena Ivanova, expressed hope that her son will soon be freed.

"A person should not be imprisoned for his beliefs. This verdict will certainly be overturned. Sooner or later it will be overturned," she said, adding that "many share his position. He is not alone. We have a lot of people who support him."

RIA Novosti reported that the investigation found numerous posts were published on the Protest MSU Telegram channel, which spoke of alleged crimes committed by the Russian Armed Forces, including the murders of the civilian population of Ukraine. 

In March and April last year, the Protest MSU Telegram channel was actively reposting statements of the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and several Russian opposition figures condemning the war in Ukraine.

 

11:18 a.m. ET, March 7, 2023

NATO must decide on permanent military forces to protect Baltics, German defense minister says

From CNN’s Inke Kappeler in Berlin

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said on Tuesday that NATO, not Germany has to decide on permanent military forces to protect the Baltic countries.

"In the end, this is not so much a question of what Germany intends to do, but rather what NATO thinks is right and necessary,” Pistorius said during a joint news conference with his Lithuanian counterpart Arvydas Anusauskas.

“What does NATO say is the right thing to do militarily and in terms of deterrence and flexibility? A permanent brigade in the Baltic or several?” Pistorius said.

The German defense minister added the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and NATO were considering “flexible units to protect the entire eastern flank.” 

In the news conference, Anusauskas said Lithuania was looking for a “permanent presence of the German brigade in Lithuania” as the NATO defense line starts in Lithuania, he said, adding that the country was preparing the necessary infrastructure to host the German military.

Pistorius continued to say Germany plans the deployment of a “huge apparatus “consisting of 5,000 soldiers in this brigade plus civilian employees and family members. 

“The commitment to the eastern flank is more important now than it has been since the end of the Cold War,“ Pistorius said.

Some more context: Germany has been present in Lithuania since the occupation of Crimea in 2014 to secure the eastern flank in Lithuania. At present 1,400 German soldiers are stationed in the Baltic country.

10:51 a.m. ET, March 7, 2023

Ukraine and Russia exchanges more than 100 prisoners of war in latest swap

From CNN's Anna Chernova and Kostan Nechyoirenko

Ukraine and Russia have exchanged prisoners of war in another swap, announced by both sides on Tuesday.

Moscow said it had been able to return 90 servicemen from territory controlled by Kyiv, whereas Ukraine said it had been able to bring back 130 of its soldiers from Russian captivity.

“Another prisoner swap — we managed to bring home 130 of our people — 126 men and 4 women,” the Ukrainian President’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak posted on Telegram on Thursday. “Among them — 87 defenders of Mariupol, 71 of whom are from Azovstal. We are also returning those taken prisoner in the area of Bakhmut and Soledar — 35 people in total from the Donetsk direction.” 

“Most of the people we are returning today are seriously injured. As President Volodymyr Zelensky says, the state must take care of each of them. Each of our heroes should feel that the state cares about them,” he added.

Russia's Ministry of Defense also said the soldiers it was able to exchange for were in “mortal danger” and said they’d be flown to Moscow for treatment. 

“As a result of the negotiation process, 90 Russian servicemen who were in mortal danger have been returned from the territory controlled by the Kyiv regime,” it said in a statement on Tuesday. “Airplanes of the military transport aviation of the Russian Aerospace Forces will transport the released servicemen to Moscow for treatment and rehabilitation at medical institutions of the Russian Defense Ministry.”

“All those released are being provided with the necessary medical and psychological assistance,” it added.

10:03 a.m. ET, March 7, 2023

Ukrainians say heavy Russian attacks continue in Luhansk region

From CNN's Kostan Nechyporenko

While most attention is focused on the battle for the city of Bakhmut, fierce battles continue a short distance to the north, according to Ukrainian officials.

Serhiy Hayday, head of the Luhansk region military administration, says the situation "is difficult [in the Luhansk region] but controlled by the Defense Forces of Ukraine."

He said on Ukrainian television that "the most difficult areas are Bilohorivka and Kreminna" where there were constant assaults and shelling by Russian troops. 

"They are trying to push out our defenders to reach Stelmakhivka, Nevske, and recapture these settlements."

Stelmakhivka and Nevske are villages on the borders of the Luhansk and Kharkiv regions that were recaptured by Ukrainian forces in September.

"When they [the Russians] lose personnel and their hardware is damaged, they take time to "recover" for about a day, replenish their supplies, and then go on the offensive again," Hayday said.

"There's more shelling now. We can clearly see that they have been given ammunition and supplies recently. That's why the number of attacks with 'heavy' artillery and tank attacks has increased."

Hayday said the Russians were regularly changing their tactics. "There were small groups; there were offensives with up to three companies of exclusively infantry; there was an offensive using "armor" with up to two companies supported by "heavy" hardware."

In that way, the Russians were constantly trying to test the strength of Ukrainian defenses, he said.

9:31 a.m. ET, March 7, 2023

Fewer than 4,000 civilians remain in embattled city of Bakhmut, according to Ukrainian official

From Olga Voitovych in Kyiv and CNN’s Vasco Cotovio

A local resident walks on an empty street in the front line city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 3.
A local resident walks on an empty street in the front line city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 3. (Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters)

Nearly 4,000 civilians remain inside the battered eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the country’s Vice Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Tuesday.

“As of today, less than 4,000 people remain in Bakhmut. Speaking of children, about 38 children, as far as we know, remain in Bakhmut,” Vereshchuk said in a televised address. “More than 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut, that is, 95% were evacuated. As for children, there were 12,000 of them.”

Vereshchuck said Ukrainian workers were still working to evacuate the remainder of the population but the current situation makes their jobs even more difficult. 

“We have special evacuation teams, who help, and armored vehicles. But people often stay in basements, leaving no information about their whereabouts,” she said. “This makes evacuation much more difficult.”

“Bakhmut has been destroyed in terms of infrastructure and housing. Almost 80% of the houses have been damaged. Social infrastructure is not functioning,” she said.