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March 26, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news
By Hafsa Khalil, Mike Hayes and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN
Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry said it will call for new sanctions against Russia in response to plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, according to a statement released Sunday.
The ministry said this will be part of its discussions with its Euro-Atlantic partners on how to respond to Russia and Belarus’ latest plans and called it “yet another attempt by two unpredictable dictatorial regimes to threaten their neighbours and the entire European continent.”
“These are desperate moves by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and (Belarusian leader Alexander) Lukashenko to create another wave of tension and destabilisation in Europe. These actions are dragging Belarus further into the war with Ukraine and into confrontation with the democratic world,” the ministry stated.
“Belarus, which is increasingly losing its sovereignty, supports and aids Russian aggression, and gets integrated more and more closely into Russia's military plans, is an additional risk factor for the Baltic region," the ministry added.
Authorities in the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka — located in the eastern Donetsk region — are urging people to evacuate as critical resources like mobile service and electricity are disrupted by Russian shelling, a top regional official said.
Starting Sunday, the town’s utilities will be shut off as “more and more of the town is shelled and destroyed daily," Vitalii Barabash, the head of Avdiivka military administration, said in a Telegram post.
“The town is being wiped off the face of the earth. You have to leave the town — if the public utilities (personnel) are evacuated," he said. "We will evacuate utilities in several stages. There was an incoming hit near the utility company facility today."
The regional leader said mobile coverage for the town will be shut off, too. He also cautioned that people will not be able to charge their phones, because in the coming days there will be nobody to service the generators or run the mobile tower.
“The prospects for the town are very bad. Every day we have multi-story buildings falling apart. There hasn't been a day in the last couple of weeks when we haven't been shelled,” he said.
“That's why you need to move out, you need to get ready for this. Especially those with children,” he said, “Real life shows that basements will not save you at the rate they are hitting the town with airstrikes now. Soon, I think Avdiivka may become a second Marinka — that is, nothing of the town will remain.”
About Avdiivka: The town is located just north of Donetsk city, a large metropolitan area.
The industrial town, home to a large smelting plant, has been shelled persistently since the Russian invasion began. However, in recent weeks Russian ground attacks in the area have intensified.
Some Ukrainian officials have said that the town could become a second Bakhmut, the mostly abandoned city where Ukrainian and Russian forces have fought for weeks to what is, at this moment, a bloody stalemate.
Barabash has said in previous updates that civilian evacuations from the town are perilous, with a "road of death" leading out of town that's monitored by Russian troops who "immediately open fire."
CNN's Svitlana Vlasova contributed to this report.
At least two people died, and one person was wounded by Russian shelling in several areas of Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region overnight Saturday into Sunday, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the region's military administration.
Kyrylenko said one of the people killed was in the town of Chasiv Yar, west of Bakhmut, and the other was in Pivnichne Toretske, a village to the south.
Homes were damaged in the industrial city of Kostyantynivka and the nearby community of Predtechyne, according to the Ukrainian leader. Shelling hit several other towns around the region, too, he said.
CNN cannot independently verify Kyrylenko’s claims.
Russia says a Ukrainian drone caused an explosion that wounded three people the country's Tula region, about 140 miles south of Moscow, Russian state news agency TASS reported Sunday.
"The explosion in the city of Kireyevsk in the Tula region was caused by a Ukrainian Tu-141 Strizh unmanned aerial vehicle. The drone was stuffed with explosive substances," a spokesperson for the local law enforcement agencies told TASS.
“Fragments of the Ukrainian Tu-141 Strizh drone have been retrieved from the blast,” the Russian official added.
According to TASS, “two young men received fragmentation wounds and one more person was slightly hurt. Three apartment blocks and four household structures were damaged.”
Ukraine has not commented on the incident so far, and CNN has not been able to independently verify Moscow's claim.
Russia’s announcement that it will move tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus is “dangerous and irresponsible,” a NATO spokesperson told CNN Sunday.
“NATO is vigilant, and we are closely monitoring the situation. We have not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own,” said NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu in a statement.
"Russia’s reference to NATO’s nuclear sharing is totally misleading," Lungescu continued, referring to Putin's claims that his move would merely mirror those of Western nations.
"NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments. Russia has consistently broken its arms control commitments, most recently suspending its participation in the New START Treaty," she said.
"Russia must return to compliance and act in good faith,” Lungescu said.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief also condemned Putin's announcement.
“Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation & threat to European security. Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice,” Josep Borrell, who serves as the EU's top diplomat, said in a tweet. “The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions.”
Artillery strikes have intensified near the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kupyansk and Lyman in recent weeks, a spokesperson for Ukraine's military said Sunday.
"This area has been leading in the number of artillery strikes for several weeks now," said Serhii Cherevatyi, who represents the Eastern Grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The area has seen 370 artillery and Multiple Launch Rocket System strikes over the last day alone, Cherevatyi said on national television.
The spokesperson said the attacks differ from those in the besieged city of Bakhmut, because Wagner mercenary forces have been conducting those assaults, whereas Kupyansk and Lyman are being targeted by regular Russian troops.
Russian forces in the Kupyansk-Lyman area are mostly reinforced by conscripted Russian troops, Cherevatyi said.
"They are engaged in more 'classical' combat operations, so their losses are somewhat lower," the spokesperson said. (Bakhmut, by contrast, has been compared to a "meat-grinder" for its wave after wave of casualties.)
So far, Russian forces have been unable to make significant breakthroughs against Ukrainian defenses in the region, according to Cherevatyi.
Russia has kept up its attacks on the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, but the Ukrainian military is able "control the enemy's actions" and has "enough forces to hold the front line," a spokesperson for Ukraine's military said Sunday.
Serhii Cherevatyi, who represents the Eastern Grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, shared the update on national television. He was asked to clarify remarks by the commander in chief of Ukraine’s military, who said Friday that the situation in Bakhmut has been "stabilized."
"'Stabilizing the situation' means that we see and control the enemy's actions," Cherevatyi said.
"We understand the direction of the enemy's actions. We understand the enemy's plans. We know our forces and the means we rely on. We know we have enough forces to hold the front line. And we know where our reserves are and what we can use to back us up," he continued. "And we know how we can strike at the enemy in order to bleed the enemy to the maximum, to weaken the enemy and to bring down his offensive potential."
Cherevatyi said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's recent visit to the front lines helped demonstrate the military's command of the situation on the battlefield.
"Everyone knows the course of their actions, everyone knows their algorithms, there is coherence, there is an understanding of what to do. This is stabilization," the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, the Russian onslaught is fierce, with "dense shelling" and a total of 268 attacks in the Bakhmut sector over the last 24 hours, according to Ukraine's military. Cherevatyi said Russia made 94 attacks in Bakhmut alone.
Troops engaged directly in combat 17 times in the region over that period, including 13 times directly in the city of Bakhmut.
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.