March 26, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Hafsa Khalil, Mike Hayes and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 2:43 a.m. ET, March 27, 2023
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3:49 p.m. ET, March 26, 2023

White House says no indication yet Putin has made good on his pledge to station nukes in Belarus

From CNN’s Sam Fossum

National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby answers questions during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on February 17.
National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby answers questions during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on February 17. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters/FILE)

Asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin's pledge to put tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby said Sunday: "We're just going to have to watch and see where this one goes."

"We have not seen any indication that he's made good on this pledge, or moved any nuclear weapons around," Kirby told Margaret Brennan on CBS' "Face The Nation."

More context: Putin made the remarks about his plans for tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus to state television Saturday. Putin added his forces would retain control over any of the weapons it stationed there.

The US has downplayed the move, saying there are no indications Russia was planning to use nuclear weapons. Ukraine says the plans are a “step towards internal destabilization" of Belarus.

Belarus, which is west of Russia on Ukraine’s long northern border, is among Moscow’s closest allies. It helped Russia launch its initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, allowing the Kremlin’s troops to enter the country from the north. 

11:22 a.m. ET, March 26, 2023

Ukraine calls on international allies to take action against "Kremlin's nuclear blackmail"

From CNN's Maria Kotenko and Radina Gigova

Russian President Vladimir Putin's statements about his intentions to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus are "yet another provocative step" that undermines nuclear disarmament efforts and the "international security system as a whole," Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Sunday.

"Despite the horrific crimes against humanity and war crimes that the Kremlin is committing in this war of aggression against a sovereign state, Russia is demonstrating its inability to win on the battlefield," the ministry said.

"Ukraine appeals to the Belarusian society to prevent implementing criminal intentions of deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus in violation of its obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which will further turn the country into a Kremlin hostage and cause catastrophic consequences for its future," it said.

Kyiv also appealed to the Group of Seven (G7) alliance and the European Union to warn Belarus authorities of the "long-term consequences" should they accept the weapons on their territory.

Ukraine is expecting the United Kingdom, China, the United States and France — which as permanent members of the UN Security Council have "a particular responsibility to prevent threats of aggression using nuclear weapons" — to act to counter the Kremlin.

"We demand that an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council be immediately convened for this purpose," the ministry said, adding "Ukraine calls on all members of the international community to convey the utmost unacceptability" of the latest "nuclear provocations" by Putin's regime.

"Russia has once again proven its persistent inability to be a responsible holder of nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterring and preventing war, rather than a tool of threats and intimidation. The world must unite against those who threaten the future of human civilization," the ministry said.

2:02 p.m. ET, March 26, 2023

Eastern Ukrainian city Vuhledar "completely razed to the ground," as battles rage in Bakhmut, commander says

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Maria Kostenko 

A view of destroyed buildings in Vuhledar, Ukraine on March 26.
A view of destroyed buildings in Vuhledar, Ukraine on March 26. (Head of Donetsk Civil-Military Administration Pavlo Kyrylenko/Handout via Reuters)

The eastern Ukrainian city of Vuhledar has been "completely razed to the ground" as heavy shelling by Russian forces is ongoing in the area, Nazarii Kishak, commander of the machine gun unit with the 72nd separate mechanized brigade, said Sunday on national television. 

"The enemy continues to use multiple rocket launchers, and shelling not only the immediate front line and Vuhledar but also the surrounding areas," he said. "The enemy is constantly shelling all settlements with large caliber weapons. The civilian population is exhausted."

"Vuhledar has been completely razed to the ground. Everything is burnt out, the city is almost empty. There are a few civilians who help the military. The police have taken away the rest of the people, especially the children who have been staying in basements for almost a month," Kishak said. 

Civilians are living "wherever they can, even in the corridors, hiding from the shelling," he said. "People are in a very exhausted emotional state of despair. They don't know what to expect. We are trying to support them, we communicate with them. People have been left without a thing but they still help us, the military."

When asked if there are signs of exhaustion among the Russian forces, he said, "I’ll tell you this — everyone is exhausted but we have to hold on and defend our country. We are the infantry who must stand until the end, not leaving a single meter of our land."

Kishak said Russian forces "did suffer heavy losses" but "Russia has lots of reserves."

"The brigade is standing strong and Ukraine has no reason to worry about the Vuhledar direction," he said. "But the Bakhmut direction is really difficult. Which is why a very strong commander is there now. Heavy fighting is ongoing there, there are dead and wounded every hour."

"Our task as Ukrainians is to pray and believe, and then it’s up to God. We have got to win on our land," he said.

10:10 a.m. ET, March 26, 2023

Putin's statements about nuclear weapons are a sign he is afraid of losing, Ukrainian presidential adviser says

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Maria Kostenko 

Statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus show he is afraid of losing, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Sunday.

"Putin (RF [Russian Federation]) is too predictable. Making a statement about tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, he admits that he is afraid of losing and all he can do is scare with tactics," Podolyak said on his official Twitter account. 

"Second. He once again states his involvement in the crime. Violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty," Podolyak added. 

Belarus, which is west of Russia on Ukraine’s long northern border, is among Moscow’s closest allies. It helped Russia launch its initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, allowing the Kremlin’s troops to enter the country from the north.

Some more context: In an interview that aired Saturday on Russian state television channel Russia 24, Putin claimed that stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus would not be a violation of nuclear nonproliferation agreements He said Moscow had already transferred an Iskander short-range missile system, a device which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads, to Belarus.

The US State Department told CNN it would “continue to monitor the implications” of Russia’s plan to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus but would not adjust its nuclear weapons strategy.

“We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement to CNN.

9:50 a.m. ET, March 26, 2023

Increased Russian strikes continue to make situation in Avdiivka "difficult"

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Maria Kostenko 

Russian forces have increased airstrikes and cut off supply routes in Avdiivka, a town in eastern Ukraine, where the situation continues to be “difficult,” a Ukrainian Special Forces Legion of Freedom soldier said Sunday on state television.

"The operational situation is difficult but this is not something that has developed recently,” soldier Maksym Morozov said. “The situation here has been difficult all the time since the beginning of the full-scale war." 

"The only thing that has changed, is the number of airstrikes has increased," he added.

Avdiivka is located about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of the city of Donetsk. 

Some Ukrainian officials fear the town may become a second Bakhmut, the city which has become a bloody stalemate in recent weeks.

According to Morozov, Russian forces are using "meat grinder" tactics along the eastern frontline, including in Bakhmut and Avdiivka, but the situation in both differ. 

Attacks in Bakhmut have been in waves, whereas in Avdiivka, enemy troops have been accompanied by heavy equipment like tanks, he explained. Likewise, both have seen similar encirclement tactics, but Avdiivka was “threatened” with it from the beginning due to its proximity to Donetsk, he added.

Russian forces have partially cut off supply routes but not to ammunition, he said. "This road to Avdiivka is not cut. The threat of the Avdiivka encirclement is being stopped and controlled."

Morozov said the enemy is not short of ammunition or manpower, with up to 12 airstrikes a day, but for Ukrainian troops, “there is never enough ammunition.”

11:23 a.m. ET, March 26, 2023

Wagner in "full control" of AZOM plant in Bakhmut, reports Russian state media

From CNN's Josh Pennington

Russia’s private military group Wagner has taken “full control” of the AZOM metallurgical plant in the north of the city of Bakhmut, according to video posted by Russian state media and verified by CNN.

“Wagner has full control of the territory of AZOM, the Artemivsk [Bakhmut] non-ferrous metal processing plant,” a correspondent for RIA Novosti said in a video, which captures Wagner fighters throughout the plant.

CNN cannot independently verify RIA’s claim and has reached out to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense for comment but is yet to receive a response.

Bakhmut has become a focal point of Russia’s invasion, with Moscow pressing hard to capture the city after failing to make major gains elsewhere.

The exact status of the battle for the city is unclear, but if confirmed Wagner’s claims would suggest Russia has made gains despite positive signals from Ukraine this week.

On Thursday one of Kyiv’s top generals said Russian forces are depleted in Bakhmut and a Ukrainian counter-offensive could soon be launched.

Read more here.

8:11 a.m. ET, March 26, 2023

A tale of two wars

From CNN's Tim Lister

While the fury of conflict echoes across the eastern Donbas region, a very different war is being waged in Crimea: one of night-time explosions, sabotage and disinformation.

Reclaiming Crimea may seem like an unlikely quest for Ukraine but it is putting considerable effort into making Russia’s occupation as uncomfortable as possible. And the Russians are going to great lengths to fortify the peninsula, which they illegally annexed in 2014.

That includes hiring legions of workers to build fortifications and trenches.

The Ukrainian military has been carrying out attacks in Crimea with two goals: harass the Russian Black Sea fleet and disrupt vital Russian supply lines.

Satellite imagery in February showed a substantial Russian build-up of equipment and armor at several points across northern Crimea.

Few details emerge about Ukrainian strikes in Crimea. Only occasionally does unofficial social media video provide clues about what has been hit. And only occasionally do normally circumspect Ukrainian officials refer to any actions in Crimea.

This is part of the conflict that is fought largely in the shadows, a far cry from the brutal attritional warfare that rages across Donbas.

But last week Ukraine’s Main Intelligence reported that explosions in the Crimean town of Dzhankoi were due to a strike against Russian Kalibr cruise missiles being transported via rail. It said the strike served to “demilitarize Russia and prepare the Crimean peninsula for de-occupation.”

Read more here.

11:23 a.m. ET, March 26, 2023

Analysis: With plan for tactical nukes in Belarus, Putin is scaring the world to distract from his problems

Analysis by CNN's Jill Dougherty

Vladimir Putin says he plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, the neighboring ally from which he staged part of his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. When the Russian President uses the word “nuclear” the world pays attention and that appears to be a major reason why he said it.

As usual with Putin, the world should read the fine print and check the context. The weapons Putin plans to move to Belarus are not strategic nuclear weapons, those giant intercontinental ballistic missiles that, if fired, could end life on earth.

Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller, but powerful, and can be used on the battlefield. Putin has been threatening the possibility of nuclear war for the past year, especially when his military operation in Ukraine is faltering.

That could help to explain the context of Putin’s announcement. He’s a man with a lot of problems right now. Russian forces are bombarding Ukrainian cities from the air, but their ground war is not making much headway.

Then there’s the International Criminal Court and the arrest warrant it has issued for Putin.

Now, about that fine print.

Putin is blaming his decision on the other side, saying he made it in response to the United Kingdom supplying Ukraine with anti-tank ammunition that contains depleted uranium.

That, Putin charges, is a dangerous escalation. The UK denies this, explaining that the ammunition is used only for conventional purposes.

Read the full analysis here.

6:13 a.m. ET, March 26, 2023

Putin claims “no military alliance” with China after Xi meeting

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a visit from Xi in Moscow. On Tuesday, Xi held talks with Putin at the Kremlin.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a visit from Xi in Moscow. On Tuesday, Xi held talks with Putin at the Kremlin. (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua/Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin says Russia has not “created a military alliance with China and does not threaten any countries."

The comment follows Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day state visit to Moscow last week, which was closely watched for signs China might step up support for Russia.

The US administration maintains China has been providing “non-lethal” assistance to Russia through its companies. 

Speaking during a TV interview Putin also accused the West of “starting to build a new axis similar to the one built by fascist Germany and militaristic Japan.”

Some background: Xi visited Putin for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine, a trip which Beijing cast as a "journey of peace."

But the visit came just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin on account of war crimes, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said showed China's intent to provide "diplomatic cover" for alleged Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

China has claimed neutrality in the conflict, seeking to portray itself as a peacemaker. At the same time is has backed Kremlin rhetoric blaming NATO for the war and refused to condemn the invasion.