March 16, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Jack Guy, Ed Upright, Aditi Sangal, Leinz Vales, Adrienne Vogt, Matt Meyer, Elise Hammond and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 1:20 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023
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3:30 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

UN reiterates Black Sea grain deal states 120-day extension, while Russia says it only agreed to 60 days

From CNN's Richard Roth at the United Nations and Sugam Pokharel

Ahead of the Black Sea grain agreement expiring this weekend, the United Nations emphasized that the deal states it would be extended for 120 days — even though Russia said it agreed to a 60-day extension of the deal after negotiations in Geneva on Monday.  

The Black Sea Grain Initiative is an agreement between Ukraine and Russia, brokered by the UN and Turkey, that was established in July 2022 to guarantee safe passage for ships carrying grain and oilseeds — some of Ukraine's most important exports.   

“The agreement is public, it’s an open document. It foresees a rollover of 120 days,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.  

Russian state-run news agency RIA, citing Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, reported on Monday that Russia and the UN had agreed to a 60-day extension of the grain deal after the negotiations in Geneva.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that the addition of 60 days was a “goodwill gesture” on Russia's part when asked by reporters why the deal had not been extended by 120 days.  

When asked Thursday about the difference in the duration of the extension between Russian and the UN versions, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that it may be a display of “UN’s incompetence.”  

Dujarric responded to Zakharova’s remark, saying, “I was just stating and reading a line from the agreement, which talks about the fact that the agreement foresees a renewal for 120 days.”  

The spokesperson stressed that the UN doesn't direct the talks or terms to the deal. The Russian Federation, Ukraine and Turkey are the parties involved in the agreement, with the UN as a witness, Dujarric said.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters on Wednesday that Ankara hopes to resolve the issue in a positive way “as soon as possible,” according to Turkish state media Anadolu. 

“We started negotiations with the idea of extending the grain corridor for another 120 days in line with the initial version of the agreement. Our friends with the Russian and Ukrainian sides held talks at the technical level. We also continue our talks at the ministerial level,” he said.  

2:36 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

US believes Russia has recovered some small pieces of debris from downed drone, US official says

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand and Oren Liebermann

The US believes Russia has recovered some debris in the Black Sea from the downed US surveillance drone, a US official familiar with the matter told CNN. The official described the recovered wreckage as pieces of fiberglass or small bits of the MQ-9 Reaper drone. 

CNN reported on Wednesday that Russia had reached the location where the US surveillance drone went down in the Black Sea, approximately 70-80 miles southwest of Crimea.

But the Biden administration downplayed the significance of the drone wreckage or the potential to glean any sensitive intelligence from the remains of the aircraft. 

“We made it impossible for them to be able to glean anything of intelligence value off the remnants of that drone, whatever remnants there might be on the surface of the water,” John Kirby, the National Security Council strategic communications coordinator, told CNN on Wednesday. 

After the collision between the US drone and the Russian fighter jets early Tuesday morning, the drone operators took steps to erase the sensitive software of the drone before it fell into the Black Sea, according to US officials.

“Whatever's left … that's floating will probably be flight control surfaces, that kind of thing. Probably nothing of real intrinsic value to them in terms of terms of reengineering or anything like that,” Kirby said.

The drone landed in water that may be nearly a mile deep, Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley said at a press conference on Wednesday. 

“That's US property and, and we'll, we'll leave it that at this point, but it probably broke up. There's probably not a lot to recover, frankly,” he said.

1:50 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Zelensky and UK's Sunak discuss situation at the front lines, Ukrainian president says

From CNN's Olga Voitovych in Kyiv

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday about the latest at the front lines around the eastern city of Bakhmut, Zelensky said in a post on his official Twitter account.

"As always, we have concrete results in increasing defense and economic support for Ukraine. Appreciate UK's unwavering position," he added. 

1:45 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Analysis: Drone video highlights risks of a direct US-Russia confrontation

Analysis by Stephen Collinson

The stunning aerial video of a Russian jet buzzing and then apparently hitting a US drone over the Black Sea vividly shows how the war in Ukraine could spin out of control.

Clearly, the showdown, which has resulted in angry rhetoric between Washington and Moscow but nothing more, would have been far worse if the US Reaper drone had been a manned aircraft.

The fact a drone was involved has allowed both sides to calibrate their language to avoid an escalation, but the reverberations of the incident are still likely to have prolonged consequences.

The US and its allies are pumping billions of dollars of ammunition and sophisticated arms into Ukraine to be used against Russian forces, prompting worries that a miscalculation or incident could cause direct clashes between Russian and NATO assets.

And one of the most alarming aspects of the drone downing is that it took place in international airspace – not over Russian territory or the battlefield – and thus underscores how US and Russian forces could come into contact even outside the war zone.

Senior Russian defense officials approved the harassment of the drone, CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Kylie Atwood reported Wednesday, citing two US officials familiar with intelligence on the incident.

So it’s plausible this escalation was a deliberate decision to send some kind of message to the US, or to try to deter US intelligence gathering near Ukraine.

Russia has complained that the US drone infringed its self-declared air rules over the Black Sea. But this is a risible position, given its own huge violation of international law with an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state.

Regardless, the footage of the high-speed airborne clash shows that as long as the Ukraine war goes on — and the West is involved, even indirectly — the possibility for escalation that expands the conflict disastrously will constantly exist.

It will take careful management in both Washington and Moscow to lower the risk.

Read more here.

1:41 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Open lines of communication between US and Russia critical after drone incident, Russian official says

From CNN's Radina Gigova

It's important to keep the lines of communication between Washington and Moscow open following Tuesday's drone incident, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a news conference Thursday, according to state news agency TASS. 

"We believe it’s important to leave the communication lines open, and that’s what we are doing," she said.

Zakharova reiterated that Russia is not seeking a confrontation and stands for pragmatic cooperation in the interests of the people of both countries.

"That said, we are capable of protecting these interests," Zakharova added. 

Some background: Moscow and Washington have been in contact through military and diplomatic channels following the incident.

US officials and their Russian counterparts have been in an open dispute over what led to the downing of a US drone over the Black Sea. The US has maintained that Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the drone before clipping its propeller and forcing it to be flown down; Russians have denied that there was physical contact between a Russian jet and US drone.  

1:39 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

US may never know intent of Russian pilot who struck drone, official says

From CNN's Allie Malloy

In this screengrab from video, a Russian Su-27 approaches to the rear of the U.S. Air Force MQ-9.
In this screengrab from video, a Russian Su-27 approaches to the rear of the U.S. Air Force MQ-9. (US Air Force)

Regardless of the intent of the Russian fighter jet that forced the downing of a US drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday, it was "intentional harassment," according to John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council.

"We can’t get between the ears of the Russian pilot and know what the intent was there in terms of striking the drone. It’s just – I don’t know that we’ll ever know. What we do know, and what is clearly evident, is this was intentional harassment. It was intentional dumping of fuel to try to disrupt the flight profile … and it was intentionally aggressive," Kirby said.

Kirby added that the pilot shouldn't have been in the same airspace as the drone in the first place.

"The drone was acting in accordance with international law doing absolutely nothing wrong," he said.  

Pressed on whether the US will actively investigate the intent of the pilot, Kirby simply said that “we’re not going on a fact-finding mission.” 

Kirby said there were no conversations that he was aware of between US officials and Russian counterparts since the video was released Thursday morning.

“We’re not tracking any outreach either way since the release of the video and frankly ... I wouldn’t be surprised if there was none. The video is pretty darn conclusive about what happened and it absolutely just decimates the Russian lie,” he added.
1:38 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Ukrainian and Latvian prime ministers meet in Kyiv 

From CNN's Radina Gigova in London 

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal met with his Latvian counterpart Krisjanis Karins in Kyiv on Thursday, Shmyhal said in a post on his official Twitter account. 

"Ukraine and Latvia will develop new logistics routes. We discussed strengthening trade and economic ties and the restoration of Ukraine," Shmyhal said

"Appreciate Latvia's support on the road to EU membership and NATO," he added. 

A delegation from Estonia is also in Kyiv on Thursday, according to a statement released by the Ukrainian presidency. 

Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Ihor Zhovkva met with Estonia's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Kyllike Sillaste-Elling, according to the statement. Some of the topics they discussed included military aid, reconstruction efforts and a Ukraine peace formula, according to the statement.

6:20 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Poland's decision to send jets to Ukraine won't prompt Biden to send F-16s, White House says

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

Poland's decision to send Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine is a "sovereign decision" that won't spur President Joe Biden to send US F-16 aircraft, according to the White House.

Biden has said shipments of US fighter jets aren't in the cards at the moment, though he hasn't ruled it out entirely.

The pledge from Poland to send four jets, which is a step beyond other allies’ commitments, doesn't alter that decision-making, said John Kirby, a top official at the US National Security Council.

"It doesn’t change our calculus with respect to F-16s," he said.

"These are sovereign decisions for any country to make and we respect those sovereign decisions," he said, adding later, "They get to determine not only what they’re going to give but how they’re going to characterize it."

Kirby declined to endorse the decision, saying he didn't think it was the US' place "to characterize Poland's decision one way or another."

12:50 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Russia has stepped up its presence of ships in the Black Sea, Ukrainian military says

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Olga Voitovych

Russia is increasing its presence in the Black Sea with a "rather atypical number of ships," Ukraine's military said Thursday.

The increased number of vessels, made up of 21 units, may be intended as "a demonstration of dominance at sea" after Tuesday's downing of a US drone by a Russian fighter jet, said a Facebook post from Ukraine's Operational Command South, a formation of the country's army.

The US has said it will take measures to ensure the drone won't fall into the wrong hands.

"It is also possible that the Russians themselves will conduct a search operation," the statement added. 

Threat to Ukraine: The military's post said Russia's increased presence in the Black Sea also means a greater threat of missile strikes on Ukraine.

Ukraine's military said the presence of five missile carriers in the Black Sea, including two underwater, "increases the missile threat enormously."

The vessels could be carrying as many as 32 Kalibr-type cruise missiles, the statement said.

"Do not ignore air raid alarms," the Operational Command South warned.

The formation also warned of Russia's growing Black Sea missile carrier presence in an earlier update, which was published Monday.