March 20, 2023 - Xi and Putin meet in Moscow as Russia's war in Ukraine continues

By Kathleen Magramo, Eliza Mackintosh, Aditi Sangal, Mike Hayes, Leinz Vales and Elise Hammond, CNN

Updated 12:03 a.m. ET, March 21, 2023
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1:36 p.m. ET, March 20, 2023

Xi visit to Moscow provides "diplomatic cover" for Russian crimes, Blinken says

From CNN's Michael Conte and Kylie Atwood

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a briefing on the 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the State Department in Washington, DC, on Monday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a briefing on the 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the State Department in Washington, DC, on Monday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow shows China’s intent to provide “diplomatic cover” for Russia's "atrocities committed in Ukraine" instead of condemning them.

“That President Xi is traveling to Russia days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Putin suggests that China feels no responsibility to hold the Kremlin accountable for the atrocities committed in Ukraine, and instead of even condemning them, it would rather provide diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit those very crimes,” said Blinken at a news conference at the State Department on the release of the 2022 Human Rights Report.

However, Blinken said that “elements” of China’s peace proposal for the war were in line with efforts the US would support. 

“China’s proposal includes elements that we have long supported, including ensuring nuclear safety, resolving the humanitarian crisis, protecting civilians and, indeed, the first element calls for upholding sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all counties,” said Blinken.

But he said any calls for a ceasefire “that does not include the removal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory would effectively be supporting the ratification of Russian conquest” as it would “allow President Putin to rest and refit his troops, and then restart the war at a time more advantageous to Russia.” 

“The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China or any other country, to freeze the war on its own terms,” said Blinken.
5:07 p.m. ET, March 20, 2023

Wagner chief claims his forces control 70% of Bakhmut as Ukraine says Russian mercenaries face heavy losses

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova

A view of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is seen on March 15.
A view of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is seen on March 15. (Roman Chop/AP)

The chief of Russia's Wagner private military group Yevgeny Prigozhin said Monday in an open letter to the Russian defense minister that Wagner forces control around 70% of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

A months-long battle continues in the city and earlier this month, Prigozhin acknowledged that the situation in Bakhmut was “difficult, very difficult, with the enemy fighting each other for each meter.”

"At the moment, Wagner units control around 70 percent of the city of Bakhmut and are continuing operations to complete the liberation of the city," Prigozin wrote Monday in the letter published on Telegram. 

Prigozhin asked Shoigu to take measures to prevent a potential upcoming offensive by Ukrainian troops in late March or early April, which Prigozhin said will cut off Wagner forces from Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. 

What Ukraine is saying: Prigozhin's comments come after Ukraine's military on Saturday claimed Wagner mercenaries have suffered “colossal losses” in the battle for Bahkmut and have had to seek reinforcements from Russian paratroopers.

“According to what we see Bakhmut will be the last battlefield for the infamous military actions of PMC Wagner because of this extensive offensive, where they ‘throw in’ all of their mercenaries and then the ex-prisoners,” Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the Eastern Grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said while speaking on national television. “Now we see that they are reinforced by units of the regular army. First of all, the airborne troops.” 

CNN is unable to independently verify Prigozhin's claims or Ukrainian claims of Russian casualties.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin announced on Saturday that he plans to recruit about 30,000 new fighters by mid-May, according to a voice message published on Telegram.

12:35 p.m. ET, March 20, 2023

18 European countries agree to jointly procure ammunition to aid Ukraine

From CNN's Chris Liakos

Seventeen EU member states and Norway have agreed to jointly procure ammunition to “aid Ukraine and replenish national stockpiles,” the European Defence Agency (EDA) said in a news release on Monday.

Earlier Monday, Estonia’s Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said that following a meeting in Brussels, European Union member states had agreed on the joint procurement of one million rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition for Ukraine.

“The project opens the way for EU Member States and Norway to proceed along two paths: a two-year, fast-track procedure for 155mm artillery rounds and a seven-year project to acquire multiple ammunition types,” the European Defence Agency said.

The 18 European nations include: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden and Norway.

The EDA said that this project “sends a clear message to industry and strengthens the EU’s support for Ukraine following Russia’s war of aggression,” adding that more countries have expressed intent to join the initiative.

“Today, we take a step forward. We are delivering on our promises to provide Ukraine with more artillery ammunition. With today’s signature, 18 countries have signed up to aggregate orders and place them together with the industry through the European Defence Agency. The Ukrainian authorities have been clear about their needs and this EDA project is part of the EU response. By procuring together through the EDA framework and mobilising financial support from the European Peace Facility, we will deliver to Ukraine more and faster. We are again breaking a taboo and unlocking the potential of EU cooperation in joint procurement,” EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said.

According to the EDA, the agency has been working since November of last year to identify critical shortfalls on three areas: ammunition, soldier systems and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) equipment.

This project provides a seven-year framework “to commonly procure multiple types and calibers of ammunition (5.56 mm to 155 mm) to replenish national stocks.”

12:20 p.m. ET, March 20, 2023

US State Department report highlights Russian government's war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine, Blinken says

From CNN's Kylie Atwood

The State Department’s human rights report this year highlights the war crimes and other atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine which have resulted in “massive death and destruction,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken writes in the report’s preface.

“There were credible reports of summary execution, torture, rape, indiscriminate attacks, and attacks deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure by Russia’s forces in Ukraine, all of which constitute war crimes. The Russian government engaged in the forced deportation of civilians from Ukraine to Russia, often following a harsh and abusive “filtration” process, and there were numerous reports of forced deportations and adoptions of children from Ukraine,” the report says.

The report comes just days after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia. It says that “thousands” of Ukrainians have been subject to forced deportation to Russia.

Russia’s authoritarian political system is “dominated by President Vladimir Putin,” the report says. But it does not draw specific connections between Putin and the war crimes committed in Ukraine.  

The report highlights the Kremlin’s efforts to shut down dissent, specifically highlighting the government’s severe suppression of free expression and media,” use of “excessive force and other harsh tactics” to detain antiwar protestors, and specific efforts to penalize students who voiced opposition to the war. 

“According to human rights organizations, hundreds of university students were expelled during the year for their political views. For example, on March 9, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reportedly ordered Saint Petersburg State University to expel 13 students who participated in antiwar protests,” the report says.

The report says that Russian law enforcement officers used “torture, including sleep deprivation, as a form of punishment against detained opposition and human rights activists, journalists, and critics of government policies.”


12:18 p.m. ET, March 20, 2023

Ukrainian soldier says eastern town of Avdiivka "hard to control" as Russian forces try to push in

From CNN's Maria Kostenko in Kyiv

A Ukrainian police officer takes cover in front of a burning building that was hit in a Russian airstrike in Avdiivka, Ukraine, on March 17.
A Ukrainian police officer takes cover in front of a burning building that was hit in a Russian airstrike in Avdiivka, Ukraine, on March 17. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

The situation in the town of Avdiivka, located north of the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, is “really difficult and hard to control,” Special Forces soldier Maj. Maksym Morozov told Ukrainian television on Monday.

Morozov, who is in the Avdiivka area, said Russian forces are “advancing despite huge losses” and are “pushing from both sides,” meaning the north and the south of the town.

“The situation in Avdiivka is getting more serious. The enemy is exchanging their massive losses for meters of our land. They are using enormous amounts of ammunition, striking both (our) positions and the city; there is a huge number of rocket strikes, air strikes, artillery (shelling),” he said.

“They are gaining success because they are attacking in waves — first there goes the ‘cannon fodder’ and then professionals are going behind them, the special forces who are trying to strike our firing lines," he said.  

“Russians are using various tactics — night infantry attacks, armoured groups supported by a tank or aviation, rocket strikes. Our armed forces are bravely repelling the attacks,” Morozov added.

Meanwhile, Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, said Monday that “the enemy offensive is ongoing in several directions,” noting offensive action in Bilohorivka, Avdiivka, Vuhledar and Mariinka. She said the Ukrainian army is “making progress in certain areas.”

Some background: There are about 2,000 civilians remaining in Avdiivka, according to Ukrainian officials. Several children had been evacuated, and over the past three weeks alone, 150 people had left the town, Vitaliy Barabash, head of the Avdiivka Civil-Military Administration, told local TV channel Espresso.

CNN's Svitlana Vlasova and Tim Lister contributed reporting to this post.

7:28 p.m. ET, March 20, 2023

US announces another $350 million in security assistance for Ukraine

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand

The Biden administration has authorized an additional $350 million in security aid for Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Monday.

The Presidential Drawdown includes “more ammunition for U.S.-provided HIMARS and howitzers that Ukraine is using to defend itself, as well as ammunition for Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, HARM missiles, anti-tank weapons, riverine boats, and other equipment,” Blinken said in a statement.

Drawdown packages are pulled directly from US weapons stocks and can be shipped quickly to Ukraine. 

Blinken on Monday reiterated that the US will stand with Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”

“Russia alone could end its war today,” he said. “Until Russia does, we will stand united with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

More context: The last Presidential Drawdown of US equipment for Ukraine was announced earlier this month, and was valued at $400 million. That package included, for the first time, Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges, a system used to launch bridges to cross trenches and narrow water obstacles.

The US has committed more than $32 billion in Presidential Drawdown funds to aid Ukraine since Russia's full-scale invasion began more than one year ago.

10:52 a.m. ET, March 20, 2023

EU members agree to provide ammunition for Ukraine, Estonian defense minister says

From Inke Kappeler in Berlin, Svitlana Vlasova in Kyiv, Sarah Dean in London and Xiaofei Xu in Paris

Estonia's Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur speaks with the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign and defense ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, on March 20.
Estonia's Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur speaks with the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign and defense ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, on March 20. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

European Union member states have agreed on the joint procurement of one million rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition for Ukraine, Estonia’s Defense Minister said Monday.

Following a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels, Hanno Pevkur tweeted that “political consensus had been reached – 1 million rounds of 155mm to Ukraine."

As the war stretches into its second year, Ukraine is burning through ammunition faster than the US and NATO can currently produce it.

Speaking after the meeting in Brussels, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said he was confident ammunition production can be increased quickly.

Pistorius said he will be awaiting offers from ammunition manufacturers until the end of March, noting the importance of speed when it comes to supplying Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the meeting “the highest priority need is artillery ammunition. It is not only about the quantity, but also about the speed of delivery. The sooner we get as many shells as possible, the more lives will be saved,” according to a readout from the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine. 

Before the meeting, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters he was confident production capacity could be increased to provide 2 billion euros (or about $2.1 billion) worth of ammunition.

“In order to increase our production capacity there has to be clear prospects for demand. That is why, there are three tracks that go together," Borrell said, according to remarks published online. “First, the ones [ammunitions] that we already have. Second, the ones that have to be produced. Third, the industrial capacity to produce more. It is one after the other and all together, it makes a comprehensive and coherent package. Funding is there. Capacities are there. They have to be increased and Member States have to act together in order to be more efficient."

The European Union’s 2 billion euro ammunition plan for Ukraine is “a very strong step to protect European security,” Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian President’s Office, tweeted Monday in response to the announcement.

The EU has not yet provided further details of the agreement.

2:36 p.m. ET, March 20, 2023

Russia and China have "similar goals," Xi tells Putin

From CNN's Xiaofei Xu in Paris and Wayne Chang in Hong Kong

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on March 20.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on March 20. (Russian Presidential Press Service/Reuters)

China and Russia "share similar goals," Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday during a visit to Moscow.

"It is true that both of our countries share the same, or some similar goals. We have exerted efforts for the prosperity of our respective countries…we can cooperate and work together to achieve our goals," Xi said.

"I'm very happy that I can visit Russia again, at your invitation. And that Russia is the first country that I visited after my re-election as China's President," Xi told Putin.

Xi also expressed support for Putin to be reelected.

"I know that the Russia presidential election is next year. Russia's development has significantly improved under your firm leadership. I believe that the Russian people will continue to strongly support you,” he said.

Xi said China “highly values” China-Russia ties and that both countries can cooperate to fulfill their development goals.


10:07 a.m. ET, March 20, 2023

German soldier transport vehicles are on the way to Ukraine, defense minister says

From Inke Kappeler in Berlin

A delivery of German Marder infantry fighting vehicles is on its way to Ukraine, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said on the sidelines of an EU Foreign and Defense Ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday. 

Germany announced in January it would provide Ukraine with 40 of the Marder vehicles. Later that month, it said Ukrainian soldiers had arrived in Germany for training on the vehicles.

More on the vehicles: The Marder is designed to move soldiers around the battlefield. It has been used by the German military since the early 1970s but continuously upgraded. The German military is in the process of phasing it out, but hundreds are still in service.