March 17, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

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

Updated 9:58 p.m. ET, March 17, 2023
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11:15 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

White House says it has "deep concerns" about Chinese attempts at brokering peace in Ukraine

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby speaks at the White House in Washington, DC, on February 27.
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby speaks at the White House in Washington, DC, on February 27. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House is seeking to preempt attempts by China to frame next week’s meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin as a peacemaking mission, suggesting any framework offered by Beijing would be "be one sided and reflect only the Russian perspective.”

John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said a proposal from China could include some type of ceasefire, which he said would merely be a way for Russia to regroup before launching a reprisal. “A ceasefire now is effectively the ratification of Russian conquest,” he said.

“Russia would be free to use a ceasefire to only further entrench their positions in Ukraine to rebuild, refit and refresh their forces so that they can restart attacks on Ukraine at a time of their choosing,” Kirby added.

China has sought to present itself as a neutral peace broker for the war in Ukraine, including releasing a paper calling for a political settlement, but US officials have viewed such proposals with deep skepticism. “We do not believe that this is a step towards a just and endurable peace,” Kirby said.

Meanwhile, the US remains concerned that China may be considering providing Russia with lethal military assistance, but hasn't "seen any indication, any confirmation" that such a decision has been made, Kirby said.

The US has been encouraging Xi to hold a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to hear the "Ukrainian side as well," and President Joe Biden also remains open to a phone call with Xi, but there is currently no active planning to set up such a conversation, Kirby said.

11:24 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

Turkey agrees to start process for Finland's NATO membership, Erdogan says

From CNN's Amy Cassidy and Yusuf Gezer

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto hold a joint news conference at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on March 17.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto hold a joint news conference at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on March 17. (Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Turkey has decided to start the process of ratifying Finland's accession to NATO, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a news conference in Ankara Friday.

"We have decided to start the parliamentary ratification process of Finland's NATO Accession Protocol," Erdogan said.

Finland — along with Sweden — both announced their intention to join NATO in May, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused a sudden shift in attitudes toward joining the bloc.

Erdogan said he believes NATO "will become even stronger through Finland's membership" and "will play a more efficient role in preserving global security and stability."

"With the completion of the ratification process, our relationships with Finland will be fortified on the grounds of NATO Alliance," he said.

10:31 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

Ukraine says Russia has built up defenses in Crimea

From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych

Ukrainian intelligence says Russia has created a powerful defensive grouping in the annexed territory of Crimea.

Vadym Skibitskyi, deputy head of Defense Intelligence of Ukraine's Ministry of Defense, said the "Russians have created a defense group on the temporarily occupied Crimean peninsula and are preparing for defensive actions."

"The infrastructure on the temporarily occupied peninsula is maintained in combat readiness. A powerful land and aviation component is deployed in Crimea. For example, there are about 90 combat aircrafts and 60 combat helicopters," Skibitskyi said.

"A defense group has been created, which is taking measures to equip fortifications and the defense line," he told Ukrainian television.

Remember: Ukraine has frequently said that it intends to reclaim all Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea, which was annexed by Russia after a so-called referendum in 2014 that was slammed by Ukraine and most of the world as illegitimate. Troops, dubbed “little green men,” had poured over the border from Russia into the peninsula ahead of the annexation.

Meanwhile, satellite imagery has shown the creation of extensive trench systems in the region. 

"They are preparing for defensive actions on the territory of the peninsula," said Skibitskyi, and "have chosen the most dangerous areas where a sea landing operation may be conducted, and now they are preparing defensive lines there."

12:48 p.m. ET, March 17, 2023

Russian defense minister presents awards to pilots involved in drone incident

From CNN's Tim Lister and Anna Chernova

US Air Force MQ-9 camera footage shows the Russian Su-27 intercept of the US drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday.
US Air Force MQ-9 camera footage shows the Russian Su-27 intercept of the US drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday. (US European Command)

Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu has presented state awards to the pilots of the combat aircraft involved in the incident Tuesday over the Black Sea that led to the downing of a US military drone into the water.

The Russian Defense Ministry said that the pilots of the Su-27 aircraft had "prevented the violation by the American MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle of the borders of the area of ​​the temporary regime for the use of airspace, established for the purpose of conducting a special military operation," Russia's term for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

The ministry said that "in order to identify the intruder, fighters from the air defense forces on duty were dispatched."

"As a result of sharp maneuvering ... the MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle went into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface," the ministry said on Telegram. "The Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle and returned safely to their base airfield."

Footage released by the US military on Thursday shows the Russian fighter jets rapidly approaching the drone, pouring fuel on it, and appearing to damage the drone’s propeller. The US was forced to take the drone down over the Black Sea after the impact made it effectively inoperable, officials said. 

Watch here:

9:56 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

Putin and Xi will discuss Ukraine and agree to deepen relations during talks next week, Putin adviser says

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova and Lindsay Isaac

Russia and China are planning to strengthen relations and agree to a plan for developing further economic cooperation — with military cooperation also on the table — when the leaders of the two countries meet next week in Moscow. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping will sign documents attesting to the closer ties and also plan to discuss the war in Ukraine, according to Putin’s adviser on international relations, Yuri Ushakov.

In an interview with Russian state media TASS, Ushakov said “Moscow highly appreciates the balanced position of the Chinese leadership.” 

Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, as well as the head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Dmitry Shugaev, will take part in the discussions around “military-technical cooperation,” Ushakov said. 

“Russia and China are satisfied with the highest level of relations that continue to develop, Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow will give them a new impetus,” he added.

The leaders will each publish articles in Russian and Chinese media respectively to “express their assessments of relations” between the nations following the talks. Xi’s visit is expected to be straightforward with “no additional protocol,” according to TASS.

9:26 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

US officials will watch Xi-Putin meeting closely as China weighs sending weapons to Russia

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

American officials say they will be watching intently for signs that China is moving forward with providing weapons to Russia during next week’s summit between Chinese President Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The summit itself did not come as a surprise to the White House since there have been reports such a meeting could occur for weeks. Still, there remain deep concerns the “no limits” partnership Xi and Putin have cemented during previous meetings could deepen during face-to-face talks.

So far, officials have said there hasn’t been any indication that Beijing has made a final decision to assist Moscow’s war efforts with lethal aid. But they have been considering it, according to American officials, who have been monitoring intelligence on a day-to-day basis for indications that Xi is going forward.

Next week’s meeting could provide a venue for such an announcement.

“It's something that we will watch for,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said this week. “Obviously, Russia has its own interests in trying to pull other countries into this conflict if it can, but our position is the same whether or not they meet.”

The concern among US officials is not that Chinese weapons would help Russia land a decisive win in Ukraine. Instead, the worry is that lethal aid from Beijing could prolong the conflict, which US officials believe favors Putin.

A drawn-out war could also benefit China if American resources and attention are consumed in Ukraine, instead of in Asia, where Beijing has become increasingly assertive militarily.

Meanwhile, US officials say they are working to get Xi on the telephone with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, believing that hearing directly from him could prove useful.

"We think that it's important that China has the perspective of Ukraine," Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told CNN. "Clearly, Russia's motivations are nefarious. They illegally invaded and have occupied Ukraine. We hope that President Xi and the Chinese government would be able to have the benefit of understanding what exactly the impact of their support to Russia is having.”

CNN's Natasha Bertrand contributed reporting to this post.

9:07 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

UN report says Russia's atrocities in Ukraine may be war crimes and crimes against humanity

From CNN's Tim Lister

Chair of the Independent international commission of inquiry on Ukraine Erik Mose, center, and Commission's members Jasminka Dzumhur, left, and Pablo de Greiff attend a news conference to present the report containing their latest findings in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 16.
Chair of the Independent international commission of inquiry on Ukraine Erik Mose, center, and Commission's members Jasminka Dzumhur, left, and Pablo de Greiff attend a news conference to present the report containing their latest findings in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 16. (Fabrice Coffrine/AFP/Getty Images)

The independent UN human rights commission released a report on Thursday that concluded Russia committed abuses and atrocities that likely amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"The Commission has concluded that Russian armed forces have carried out attacks with explosive weapons in populated areas with an apparent disregard for civilian harm and suffering," it said, adding that the country's attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and authorities' use of torture "may amount to crimes against humanity."

While the bulk of the evidence gathered concerned the conduct of Russian forces, the commission said it had also documented "a small number of violations committed by Ukrainian armed forces, including likely indiscriminate attacks and two incidents that qualify as war crimes."

The report's findings include:

  • Russian authorities have committed unlawful transfers and deportations of civilians, including children, and of other protected persons within Ukraine or to the Russian Federation, respectively.
  • Russian authorities violated their obligation under international humanitarian law to facilitate in every possibly way the reunion of families dispersed as a result of the armed conflict.
  • Russian authorities have committed torture and cruel or inhuman treatment.
  • Some members of Russian armed forces committed the war crime of rape and sexual violence — which can amount to torture — in areas they controlled.
  • The commission has generally found that Russian armed forces launched or likely launched "indiscriminate" attacks that used weapons that struck both military and civilian objects without distinction. "The multiple examples of such attacks and the failure to take feasible precautions show a pattern of disregard on the part of Russian armed forces for the requirement to minimize civilian harm," the report said.
  • Patterns of willful killings, unlawful confinement, torture, rape, and unlawful transfers of detainees in Russian-controlled Ukrainian areas.

The commission said that in the course of gathering evidence it visited 56 cities, towns and settlements and conducted several hundred interviews in person and remotely. It also "inspected sites of destruction, graves, places of detention and torture, as well as weapon remnants; and consulted documents, photographs, satellite imagery and videos."

12:48 p.m. ET, March 17, 2023

US surveillance drone operating over the Black Sea, flight tracking website shows

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

A US surveillance drone is operating over the Black Sea, according to data from FlightRadar24, a flight tracking website. 

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is seen flying at 52,000 feet over the southern Black Sea. Its flight track shows that it entered international airspace over the Black Sea from Romania and traversed from west to east. According to FlightRadar24 data, the flight track shows the drone operating in international airspace southeast of Crimea and west of the Russian coastal city of Sochi. 

Asked at a news conference Thursday when the US would fly drone missions again, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said, “I’m not going to get into talking about specific missions, routes, timelines of operations. I think Secretary [Lloyd] Austin was pretty clear that we’re going to continue to fly and operate in international airspace where international law allows, and that includes the Black Sea region.”

Some background: The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a spy drone capable of high-altitude, long-endurance missions with a suite of surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities. It has a wingspan of 130 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 32,000 pounds, making it far larger than the MQ-9 Reaper that went down on Tuesday. 

On Thursday, CNN reported that the US was conducting an assessment of drone operations over the Black Sea following a collision between a Russian fighter jet and a US spy drone that forced the drone down.

The US military was “taking a close look” at the drone’s routes and assessing how to better deconflict with the Russians, who have been regularly flying their fighter jets in and out of Crimea, officials said. The Pentagon has asked European Command to justify surveillance flights in the area going forward in part to assess risk, a senior US military official said.

The US military had not stopped the drone flights entirely amid the assessment. The military sent the same model of drone, an MQ-9 Reaper, on a mission in approximately the same area over the Black Sea shortly after the collision occurred in an effort to survey the crash site and monitor Russians looking for the debris. 

8:05 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

It's mid-afternoon in Kyiv. Here what you need to know

From CNN staff

If you're just joining us, here's everything you need to know on Friday's developments in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

  • Slovakia joins Poland in pledging fighter jets to Ukraine: They are the only two NATO countries that have granted Kyiv's repeated requests for aircraft in order to shore up its air defenses. Poland pledged four MiG-29 fighter jets and Slovakia will send 13. The Kremlin has brushed off Poland and Slovakia's donations of fighter jets to Ukraine, calling the equipment "old" and "unnecessary." 
  • China's president to meet Putin next week: Chinese leader Xi Jinping will visit Russia next week at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry. It will be Xi's first visit to Russia since Moscow's forces invaded Ukraine last year. The Kremlin confirmed the visit and said the two leaders would discuss "strategic cooperation." Earlier, Western officials raised concerns that China may be considering providing Russia with lethal military assistance, an accusation denied by Beijing.
  • A secret 10-year plan drawn up by Russia’s security service: A document obtained by a consortium of media outlets and reviewed by CNN appears to have been drawn up by the FSB shows detailed options to destabilize Moldova and thwart its tilt to the West — including supporting pro-Russian groups, utilizing the Orthodox Church and threatening to cut off supplies of natural gas. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: "We know nothing of the existence of such a plan."
  • Drone downing: The US is conducting an assessment of its drone operations in the Black Sea area, weighing the costs and benefits of the flights, several officials told CNN. The Pentagon plans to compare the potential intelligence value of a particular route versus the risk of escalation with Russia, they said. In the meantime, the US believes Russia has recovered some debris from the surveillance drone, an official familiar with the matter told CNN.
  • Wagner chief frustrated: Yevgeny Prigozhin repeated his complaints of inadequate munitions supplies from Russia on Thursday — yet another sign of the mercenary group's growing isolation from the Kremlin, with his fighters locked in fierce fighting for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin placed a bet on his mercenaries raising the Russian flag in Bakhmut, albeit at a considerable cost to the ranks of his force and probably to his own fortune. Many analysts think that Russia’s military establishment is using Bakhmut as a “meat-grinder” to cut his forces down or eliminate him as a political force altogether.