March 21, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Sana Noor Haq, Aditi Sangal, Alisha Ebrahimji, Elise Hammond and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 12:05 a.m. ET, March 22, 2023
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5:28 p.m. ET, March 21, 2023

US flying surveillance drones further away from Crimean peninsula over Black Sea, officials say

From CNN's Oren Liebermann and Jim Sciutto

The United States is flying surveillance drones further south above the Black Sea after a Russian jet collided with a US drone last week, according to two US officials

The drone flights have remained in international airspace, but since the collision between one of the Russian jets and the MQ-9 Reaper drone last Tuesday, the US has moved its drone flights further away from airspace surrounding the Crimean peninsula and eastern portions of the Black Sea.

One of the officials said the routes are part of an effort “to avoid being too provocative,” as the Biden administration remains careful to avoid an incident that could potentially escalate into a direct conflict between US and Russian forces.

The official said the drone flights would continue this way “for the time being,” but added there is already “an appetite” to return to the routes closer to Russian-held territory. The officials also said Russia may try to unilaterally declare a broader closure of airspace around southern and eastern Ukraine in an attempt to force US drone flights further out.  

On Tuesday, FlightRadar24, a commercial flight tracking website, showed a US RQ-4 Global Hawk — which is a remotely-piloted aircraft used for surveillance — remaining in the southern and southwestern portions of the Black Sea at an altitude of approximately 52,000 feet.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Tuesday the US was continuing to operate drones of the Black Sea, “flying in international airspace in accordance with international law.”

But he declined to say whether the US had changed its routes or mission profiles following last week’s encounter between a US spy drone and two Russian fighter jets. 

“I’m not going to, for operational security reasons, not going to get into the specifics of routes, missions, timelines, things like that,” Ryder said at a press briefing.

6:10 p.m. ET, March 21, 2023

Russian activist arrested in Moscow for discrediting the military, human rights group says

From CNN's Tim Lister, Josh Pennington and Zahra Ullah

Oleg Orlov at his office in Moscow, on September 19, 2012.
Oleg Orlov at his office in Moscow, on September 19, 2012. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Memorial, a Russian human rights group, said one of its leading figures was arrested in Moscow on Tuesday and faces charges of discrediting the Russian armed forces.

A criminal case has been opened against Oleg Orlov, 69, co-chairman of Memorial Human Rights Defence Center, the group tweeted. He was later released on bail.

Memorial said Orlov's case was opened under allegations he repeatedly discredited the Russian military.

A journalist asked Orlov why he was being detained, to which he responded: "It's related to accusation against me that I support Nazism. An idiotic idea!"

Orlov had reposted an article he wrote for a French publication in November 2022 on his Facebook page. The article was entitled “They wanted fascism. They got it."

Memorial was banned in Russia in late 2021. Last year it shared the Nobel Peace Prize for its “outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power."

4:10 p.m. ET, March 21, 2023

White House rejects China's claim of impartiality in war in Ukraine following Xi-Putin summit

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

The White House rejected China’s claim to hold an impartial position in the war in Ukraine following a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow.

“I don't think you can reasonably look at China as impartial in any way,” said John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman.

Earlier, Xi said that Beijing held an impartial position in the war after lengthy talks with Putin in Moscow.

The United States held a skeptical view of the summit, particularly China’s stated goal of acting as a peacemaker. Kirby said if China wanted to play a constructive role, it would use its influence to urge Russia to end the war.

Biden “wants to keep the lines of communication open with China” and will speak with Xi “at the appropriate time,” Kirby said.

US officials are still digesting the language of the joint statement released following the Xi-Putin meeting, but Kirby said there was little optimism at the summit’s conclusions.

 “We haven't seen anything that they've said, they put forward, that gives us hope that this war is going to end anytime soon,” he said.

7:46 p.m. ET, March 21, 2023

Russian strike on Odesa region leaves 3 injured, Ukrainian official says

From CNN's Maria Kostenko

The novices' dormitory in a Ukrainian Orthodox Church monastery in Odesa, on Tuesday.
The novices' dormitory in a Ukrainian Orthodox Church monastery in Odesa, on Tuesday. (Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP/Getty Images)

Andriy Yermak, head of the Presidential Office in Ukraine, said three people were injured in a Russian missile attack on the Odesa region on Tuesday.

Yermak posted on Telegram: "Russians struck Odesa with four missiles. Kh-59, according to preliminary reports."

"Two missiles have been intercepted by air defence. Two more hit the city, unfortunately."

He said a three-story building was damaged on the premises of a monastery.

Yurii Kruk, head of the Odesa district military administration said "the enemy" carried out a rocket strike in the region with SU-35 fighters launching missiles from the sea.

"Some rockets were intercepted thanks to our air defences. However, there was a strike that resulted in partial damage to civilian building. There are wounded. No one was killed, according to preliminary reports," he said.

Unofficial social media reports indicate that the missiles were aimed at an airfield in the region.

3:35 p.m. ET, March 21, 2023

ICC prosecutor says Russia treats children like "spoils of war"

From CNN's Hira Humayun

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan said he believes Russia is treating children like “spoils of war."

Last week, the ICC announced arrest warrants against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian children's rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for their roles in allegedly illegally deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.

The Rome Statute of the Geneva Conventions makes it clear "you can’t deport civilians to a foreign country,” Khan said.

Moscow has rejected the warrants, with a spokesperson for the ministry of foreign affairs previously saying that “Russia is not a member of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and bears no obligations under it."

“You must look after them," Khan said of Ukrainian children. "If they are not safe, you move them to a safe part of Ukraine. If that’s not possible, a neutral third country. And it seems to be not just deportation to Russian Federation, they’re met by strangers who now have suddenly become adopted parents. And the children are not property, they’re not the spoils of war.” 

The prosecutor said Russia does not seem to be denying the allegations against it but rather wearing it “like a badge of honor."

“Children are not the property of a country to be dispatched based on politics or some ideological motives. It needs to be regulated by law, and that law needs to be enforced,” Khan said. 

He said the ICC has since reached out to Russia, but it has not heard back.

5:58 p.m. ET, March 21, 2023

Russian forces are "running out of offensive potential" in fight for Bakhmut, Ukrainian officer says

From CNN's Maria Kostenko

Ukrainian servicemen fire with a D-30 howitzer, near Bakhmut on Tuesday.
Ukrainian servicemen fire with a D-30 howitzer, near Bakhmut on Tuesday. (Sergey Shestak/AFP/Getty Images)

A Ukrainian army major in the Bakhmut area says the situation remains extremely difficult, but that he believes the Russians are losing their "offensive potential."

Maksym Zhorin said on his Telegram channel that "the main task for the Ukrainian army is to hold the connection corridor, which allows for the supply and evacuation of the wounded."

"Therefore the fighting around this corridor, in the area of Ivankivske and Bohdanivka, is the most difficult," he said.

The two villages sit on routes west from Bakhmut toward the city of Kostiantynivka.

"One thing I can say for sure is that the enemy is gradually running out of offensive potential," Zhorin said. "They have sustained significant losses while trying to advance in the South and in the North, as well as while trying to attack directly through urban areas. Nevertheless, the endless assault attempts continue."
"The Russians have a goal to take Bakhmut at any cost. We have orders to hold the line. We are following our orders."
3:14 p.m. ET, March 21, 2023

Xi departs the Kremlin following state dinner with Putin

From CNN'sXiaofei Xu and Darya Tarasova

Chinese President Xi Jinping has left the Kremlin following a state dinner on Tuesday evening with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to footage on Russian state media.

“Together, we should push forward these changes that have not happened for 100 years. Take care,” the Chinese leader said during a goodbye handshake with Putin.

2:50 p.m. ET, March 21, 2023

Catch up on what happened on day 2 of talks between Xi and Putin in Moscow

From CNN staff

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands during a signing ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21. 
Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands during a signing ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.  (Mikhail Tereshchenko/AFP/Getty Images)

Talks between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin continued Tuesday as Western leaders closely monitored day two of Xi's three-day Moscow visit.

Let's catch up on what happened today:

  • The China-Russia partnership: Putin called Xi a "friend" who he is "in constant contact" with and described all discussions in the Moscow meetings as "successful." Xi said he has built a "close relationship" with Putin over the past decade. The visit is a show of unity that has heightened Western concerns Beijing will provide cover for Russia's war in Ukraine.
  • What the leaders said about Ukraine: Xi and Putin called for an end to actions that “increase tensions” and prolong the war in Ukraine, according to a readout released by Chinese state media People’s Daily. The two leaders also took part in a document-signing ceremony at the Kremlin, where they said the Ukrainian crisis should be solved through peace talks, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
  • A state dinner and a toast: To wrap up the second day of talks, Putin and Xi attended a state dinner. Putin gave a speech in which he toasted the health of Xi and the Chinese delegation, the “deepening of the Russian-Chinese partnership and strategic cooperation” and “the prosperity of the Russian and Chinese people.”
  • A likely aid request: NATO has "seen some signs" that Russia has likely requested lethal aid from China to bolster Moscow’s war in Ukraine, the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said Tuesday. Xi's three-day visit to Moscow signals the closer ties developing between China and Russia, he said.
  • Meanwhile, in Ukraine: The eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut remains the focus of Russia's attacks. Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN that Russian troops would have an "open road" to capture key cities in eastern Ukraine if they seized control of Bakhmut.
  • A faster timeline for US tanks and missiles: Patriot missile defense systems are also set to be deployed to Ukraine faster than originally planned, and a group of 65 Ukrainian soldiers will complete their training on the systems at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in the coming days, US defense officials said on Tuesday. The acceleration of Patriot deployments comes the same day the US said it will accelerate the time it takes to ship Abrams tanks to Ukraine by sending older M1-A1 models of America's main battle tank instead of the more modern version, according to two US officials.

3:12 p.m. ET, March 21, 2023

US will send older Abrams tanks to Ukraine which should speed up delivery, Pentagon spokesperson says

From CNN's Haley Britzky

The US has changed course and is now providing Ukraine with 31 M1-A1 Abrams tanks instead of the newer M1-A2 variants previously planned, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Tuesday.

“[A]fter further study and analysis on how best to do this, DoD in close coordination with Ukraine has made the decision to provide the M1-A1 variant of the Abrams tank, which will enable us to submit significantly expedite delivery timelines and deliver this important capability to Ukraine by the fall of this year,” Ryder said at a press conference. 

He added that the US would also be providing Ukraine with “advances armor and weapons systems” that are “very similar capability” to the M1-A2, including a .50-caliber heavy machine gun and 120 mm cannon.