March 18, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Sophie Tanno, Adrienne Vogt, Tori B. Powell and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 2204 GMT (0604 HKT) March 18, 2023
15 Posts
Sort byDropdown arrow
5:20 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Ukraine vows to expel Russia from all occupied territories on anniversary of Crimea annexation

From CNN's Olga Voitovych in Kyiv and Lauren Kent in London

Russian soldiers patrol the area surrounding the Ukrainian military unit in Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, Crimea, on March 20, 2014.
Russian soldiers patrol the area surrounding the Ukrainian military unit in Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, Crimea, on March 20, 2014. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine's Foreign Affairs Ministry marked the anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea on Saturday, saying the peninsula has been "suffering" under the Kremlin for nine years and calling for Russia to leave all occupied Ukrainian territories.

In 2014, Russia invaded the Black Sea peninsula and completed its annexation within days, holding a referendum that was slammed by Ukraine and most of the world as illegitimate.

"For nine years in a row, the Crimean peninsula has been suffering under the criminal regime of the Kremlin, which has turned it into a military outpost, a zone of unfreedom and harassment, aggression and terror against everything and everyone who has found the courage to resist and defend their democratic rights and values," according to the Ukrainian statement. 

The ministry also condemned the so-called referendums held last year in the occupied portions of Ukraine's Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions. That process has also been denounced by Kyiv and Western governments as violating international law.

"Both in 2014 and in 2022, the referendum theater has no consequences for the administrative-territorial structure and internationally recognized borders of Ukraine," the statement said. "The liberation of all other temporarily occupied territories will also happen. It is only a matter of time."

The ministry thanked Ukraine's global allies for helping it move toward regaining territory, including in Crimea, and said Ukraine will make every effort to punish Russia and its leadership.

In Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended an event Saturday in the peninsula's largest city, Sevastopol, to mark the anniversary.

12:44 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Analysis: Wagner boss' recruitment drive comes as the Moscow establishment tries to ice him out

Analysis by CNN's Tim Lister

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the combative boss of Russia’s Wagner private military group, on Saturday announced a push to expand his ranks by 30,000 fighters by mid-May.

The recruitment drive comes at a time when Moscow's establishment seems content to watch Prigozhin struggle, rather than see his influence in the Kremlin grow.

Wagner placed a bet on its mercenaries raising the Russian flag in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, but its efforts there have come at a considerable cost to the company's ranks.

Prigozhin spent heavily on recruiting as many as 40,000 prisoners to throw into the fight, but after months of grinding battle and staggering losses, he is struggling to replenish Wagner’s ranks.

The Wagner head accuses Russia’s Defense Ministry of trying to strangle his force, and many analysts think his suspicions are well-founded — that Russia’s military establishment is using the Bakhmut “meat-grinder” to cut him down to size or eliminate him as a political force altogether.

At the weekend, Prigozhin acknowledged that the battle in Bakhmut was “difficult, very difficult, with the enemy fighting for each meter.”

In another video message, Prigozhin said: “We need the military to shield the approaches (to Bakhmut). If they manage to do so, everything will be okay. If not, then Wagner will be encircled together with the Ukrainians inside Bakhmut.”

Just as Prigozhin most needs the support of regular Russian forces and a reliable flow of munitions, neither appears available.

Wagner has made incremental gains around Bakhmut and now holds the eastern part of the city. But it seems unable to generate enough force to expel Ukrainian forces from the rest of Bakhmut. And its fighters are spread thin as they push northwest and southwest beyond the city.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank assesses that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu “is likely seizing the opportunity to deliberately expend both elite and convict Wagner forces in Bakhmut in an effort to weaken Prigozhin and derail his ambitions for greater influence in the Kremlin.”

Read the full analysis here.

1:14 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Turkish President Erdogan announces extension of Ukraine Black Sea grain deal 

From CNN's Yusuf Gezer in Istanbul and Lauren Kent in London 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a press conference on March 17.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a press conference on March 17. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced an extension of the Black Sea grain deal Saturday, but he did not specify a new expiration date.

The deal, which was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey last July to guarantee safe passage for ships carrying vital grain exports from Ukraine, had been set to expire today.

"As a result of our negotiations with both parties, we extended the agreement period," Erdogan said at an event in Turkey's Çanakkale province.

"This agreement, which has provided the shipment of 25 million tons of grain to the world markets with more than 800 ships to date, is of vital importance for the stability of the global food supply," Erdogan added. "I would like to thank the Russian and Ukrainian parties and the UN secretary general for their efforts to extend the agreement once again.”

The United Nations praised the extension in a statement.

"We remain strongly committed to both agreements and we urge all sides to redouble their efforts to implement them fully," said Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the UN secretary-general.

Some context: The agreement comes after Russia said Monday it had agreed to a 60-day extension of the deal, while the UN emphasized on Thursday that the deal stated it would be extended for 120 days — not 60.

Why the grain deal is important: Ukraine and Russia are both significant suppliers of food to the world. Ukraine – known as one of the globe’s breadbaskets — normally supplies about 45 million metric tons of grain to the global market every year and is the world’s top exporter of sunflower oil. Together with Russia, it accounted for about one-quarter of global wheat exports in 2019.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the price of food was already at its highest level in a decade due to scrambled supply chains from the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme weather events.

In 2022, the number of people grappling with acute food insecurity — meaning their access to food was so restricted that it threatened their lives and livelihoods — shot up to 345 million from 135 million in 2019.

CNN's Julia Horowitz contributed reporting to this post.

11:25 a.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Senior Ukrainian and US officials discuss military aid in call

From CNN’s Kostan Nechyporenko

Top officials from Kyiv and Washington held a video conference to discuss the “urgent needs” of the Ukrainian military and the current situation on the battlefield, according to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley were all on the call, which was held on Saturday local time, Yermak said in a Telegram post.

They were joined by their Ukrainian counterparts, including Yermak, Armed Forces Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and other senior military commanders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also joined at the end of the conversation, Yermak said.

“We briefed our allies in detail on the current situation at the front, the battles in the most difficult areas, and the urgent needs of the Ukrainian army,” the Ukrainian official wrote.

Ukraine stressed the need for more equipment, weapons, ammunition and other aid for the battlefield, Yermak said. 

10:08 a.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Zelensky imposes sanctions on hundreds, including Syrian President Assad

From CNN’s Kostan Nechyporenko and Duarte Mendonca

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree Saturday to sanction hundreds of individuals, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to a Ukrainian government statement.

The decree, which approved a proposal by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, imposes sanctions primarily on Russian citizens and legal entities. But the list also includes other prominent names such as Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal аl-Mekdad and Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces of Iran Mohammad Bagheri.

The statement added that the sanctions — which order a halt on trading operations and restrict or completely ban shipping resources, flying or otherwise traveling through Ukraine — will be imposed for 10 years. 

This week, Assad met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in his first visit to Russia since the Ukraine invasion, he said.

Assad —who was able to remain in power because of Russia’s longstanding military support — reiterated his loyalty to Putin and his support for the war in Ukraine on Wednesday. 

CNN’s Mostafa Salem in Abu Dhabi contributed reporting to this post.

9:41 a.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Putin arrives in Crimea for 9-year anniversary of declared annexation

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Crimea's largest city, Sevastopol, Saturday for the nine-year anniversary of Russia's declared annexation of the peninsula. 

In Crimea, Putin is expected to participate in the opening of a cultural-historical monument, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. 

About Crimea: In 2014, thousands of Russian-speaking troops — dubbed “little green men” and later acknowledged by Moscow to be Russian soldiers — poured into the Crimean peninsula. Within days, Russia completed its annexation in a referendum that was slammed by Ukraine and most of the world as illegitimate.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to retake Crimea from Russia.

"It is not an intention, it is our land. Crimea is our sea and our mountains. Give us your weapons and we will regain (what is) ours," Zelensky said in January when asked during a panel at the Davos forum if he intends to retake Crimea. 

Russia has blamed Ukraine for attacks in Crimea during the past year. A huge blast that damaged part of the bridge connecting the peninsula to Russia spurred heavy Russian strikes on Ukraine in October 2022.

2:02 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Turkey will make efforts to further extend Black Sea grain deal, foreign minister pledges

From CNN’s Yusuf Gezer in Istanbul and Allegra Goodwin in London 

Ships, including those carrying grain from Ukraine and awaiting inspections, are seen anchored off the Istanbul coastline November 2, 2022.
Ships, including those carrying grain from Ukraine and awaiting inspections, are seen anchored off the Istanbul coastline November 2, 2022. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Turkey will work to further extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which guarantees safe passage for ships carrying vital grain exports from Ukraine, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Saturday.

The deal is due to expire today, though an extension struck this week will allow shipments to continue for at least 60 days.

“Russia said it could be extended for a period of two months. … After this two-month period, we will continue our efforts to maintain the agreement,” Çavuşoğlu said during a news conference in Cairo. 

Russia on Monday said it had agreed to a 60-day extension of the deal, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov describing the move as a “goodwill gesture.” 

But on Thursday, the UN emphasized that the deal states it would be extended for 120 days rather than 60. “The agreement is public, it’s an open document. It foresees a rollover of 120 days,” UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said. 

1:11 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Wagner chief announces plans to recruit 30,000 fighters by mid-May

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova and Tim Lister 

egeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner private military group, announced Saturday that he plans to recruit about 30,000 new fighters by mid-May.

Prigozhin also claimed Wagner recruits about 500 to 800 people on average each day — and sometimes up to 1,200 per day.

“It is possible that this number of recruits may decrease after some time; however, by the middle of May, we plan that the number of fighters of the unit will increase by approximately 30,000,” Prigozhin said in an audio message published on Telegram

Last week, Prigozhin said Wagner had opened recruitment efforts in 42 cities in Russia. 

Wagner has focused its attention on recruiting mercenaries from sports clubs, boxing gyms and other gyms, as well as men who have previously completed six-month contracts and could be rehired. Wagner has also recruited a small number of foreign fighters.

CNN previously reported that Wagner said it stopped recruiting from prisons in January. The prison recruitment campaign was well-publicized and widespread, netting as many as 40,000 fighters for Wagner last year. 

But many of the private military group's recruits are believed to have been killed or wounded in heavy fighting around the eastern city of Bakhmut. 

1:59 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Analysis: Putin hopes to attain weapons in meeting with Chinese leader — he may find that's wishful thinking

From CNN's Jill Dougherty

Russian President Vladimir Putin with China's leader Xi Jinping during a bilateral meeting in Brazil in 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with China's leader Xi Jinping during a bilateral meeting in Brazil in 2019. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images/FILE)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited his international “best friend,” China’s leader Xi Jinping, to Moscow for a three-day state visit beginning Monday.

There’s sure to be plenty of glad-handing, champagne toasts, a major press conference and – behind closed doors – serious discussion.

For Xi, it’s a high-profile trip: his first state visit to any country since being appointed to an unprecedented third term in office. Kremlin officials say the two leaders will be signing “important documents” that will “deepen relations” and solidify economic cooperation. But for both men, this trip is much more than just another chapter in what they both describe as a “no limits” friendship.

For Putin, it’s a welcome show of support from his biggest ally after a year of military failure to attain his so-called goal of “de-Nazifying and de-militarizing” Ukraine. Putin’s army is burning through military hardware, ammunition – and men.

He has reached out to North Korea and Iran for weapons and drones, but getting more weapons, ammunition and perhaps drones from China would be a major victory for the Russian president.

However, that could be a hard sell.

Read the full analysis piece here.