March 29, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Rhea Mogul, Joshua Berlinger, Ed Upright, Adrienne Vogt, Aditi Sangal, Maureen Chowdhury and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 2:17 a.m. ET, March 30, 2023
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2:13 a.m. ET, March 29, 2023

Zelensky invites Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Ukraine, AP reports

From CNN's Hannah Ritchie

Volodymyr Zelensky invited Xi Jinping to visit Ukraine in an interview with the Associated Press.
Volodymyr Zelensky invited Xi Jinping to visit Ukraine in an interview with the Associated Press. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Xinhua/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky formally invited Chinese leader Xi Jinping to visit Ukraine in an interview with the Associated Press published on Wednesday.

“We are ready to see him here. I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before [the] full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn’t have,” Zelensky told the news agency.

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin are close allies and have strengthened economic and political ties since Moscow invaded Ukraine last year.

Following Xi's state-visit to Moscow earlier this month, the Chinese and Russian leaders reiterated their alignment across a host of issues but their talks yielded no breakthrough on resolving the Ukraine conflict

China has attempted to position itself as a peace broker on Ukraine, releasing its position on a “political solution” to the conflict with calls for a ceasefire and peace talks.

Zelensky on Bakhmut: Speaking about the months-long battle for the eastern city, Zelensky told the AP that a Ukrainian defeat would spur on Russia’s propaganda effort and embolden Putin to “push” forward more aggressively. 

“[Putin would] sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran…if he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push,” he told the AP. 
12:29 a.m. ET, March 29, 2023

Russia begins exercises with Yars ICBMs, Defense Ministry says

From CNN's Josh Pennington and Mitchell McCluskey

Russia has deployed thousands of military personnel to start drills with the Yars intercontinental ballistic missile system, its Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

The Novosibirsk missile formation is participating in the exercises and the Strategic Missile Forces are conducting a “comprehensive control inspection” of the Omsk missile association, the ministry said in a statement on Telegram.

More than 3,000 servicemen and about 300 units of military equipment are involved in the exercise, the statement said.

"During the exercise there are plans to practice maneuvering actions of autonomous YARS rocket launchers which will cover the territories of three regions," the statement said. "The strategic missile specialists will also perform a series of measures to camouflage and counteract modern means of aerial reconnaissance in cooperation with formations and units of the Central Military District and the Airborne Forces."

Some context: Russian President Vladimir Putin has aimed to make the Yars missile system part of the country's "invincible" weapons and the mainstay of the ground-based component of its nuclear arsenal, according to Reuters.

12:28 a.m. ET, March 29, 2023

Ukrainian shelling hits locomotive depot in Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, officials say

From CNN's Josh Pennington

A locomotive depot in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol in southern Ukraine was hit by Ukrainian shelling Wednesday morning, the city's administration said. 

The Melitopol city administration reported damage to infrastructure, but no casualties.

“First responders are working at the site. We are clarifying information as it comes in,” the administration said.
1:38 a.m. ET, March 29, 2023

Bakhmut situation remains "under control," Ukraine's military says. Here's the latest

From CNN staff

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery in the direction of Bakhmut on Monday.
Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery in the direction of Bakhmut on Monday. (Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The situation in Bakhmut remains "under control," with the commander of Ukraine's ground forces taking control of the contested eastern city's defense, the Ukrainian military said.

The military also said in an update Tuesday that the heaviest combat is concentrated in several zones in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and its units have repelled the latest efforts by Russian forces to advance. Over the past day, the General Staff said it repelled 24 Russian attacks.

Here are the latest headlines:

  • Nuclear concerns in Belarus ...: US President Joe Biden told reporters Tuesday he’s concerned about Russia's plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus. "This is dangerous kind of talk, and it’s worrisome," he said. Moscow will complete the construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by the beginning of July, Russian President Vladimir Putin told state media on Saturday.
  • ... and in Ukraine: International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi told CNN that military action is increasing around Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is held by Russian forces. Russia has said it is ready to discuss the safety situation at the plant with international observers after President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow of "radiation blackmail."
  • International aid: Britain and Poland announced plans to build two temporary villages in Ukraine with housing for people who have been forced to flee their homes due to Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Kyiv will also receive an additional $2.5 billion from the US as a grant to help with state services such as salaries and benefits. The budgetary support is part of a US pledge of $9.9 billion to assist the Ukrainian economy in 2023 and is separate from military assistance. 
  • Olympic controversy: The International Olympic Committee’s executive board issued a recommendation to international federations and sports event organizers that athletes “who actively support the war cannot compete.” But IOC president Thomas Bach defended plans to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in international competitions. 
  • Russia munitions plan: The Russian Defense Ministry said the production of individual types of ammunition will increase seven to eight times by the end of the year. But Western analysts have expressed skepticism that Russia’s military-industrial capacity and supply chains can be accelerated so quickly. In Ukraine, the government announced that three new companies financed by donations are ready to deploy Ukrainian-made drones for combat.
  • Data decisions: The US decided to not share data under a key nuclear arms control treaty in response to Russia's announcement that it will not do so either. Meanwhile, the US decision to fly its surveillance drones further south over the Black Sea after a Russian jet collided with a US drone earlier this month “definitely limits our ability to gather intelligence” related to the Ukraine war, a senior US military official told CNN.
12:53 a.m. ET, March 29, 2023

Biden "concerned" about Russia's plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus

From CNN's DJ Judd

President Joe Biden briefly speaks with reporters as he returns to the White House on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden briefly speaks with reporters as he returns to the White House on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden told reporters Tuesday he’s concerned about Russia's plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus.

“They haven’t done that yet, unless something happened while I was on the helicopter,” Biden said. “Sure, I’m concerned about that.” 
“What’ve I been talking to you guys about for the last year? This is dangerous kind of talk, and it’s worrisome,” Biden added.

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Moscow will complete the construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by the beginning of July, Putin told state broadcaster Russia 1.

Former Vice President Mike Pence also weighed in Tuesday on Putin's plans.

"Every time he gets into a corner, he mentions nuclear weapons, and now the threat about moving tactical weapons is just the latest,” Pence said of Putin Tuesday during an interview with Newsmax.

He argued it's “absolutely essential that we continue to give Ukraine what they need."

"We don't allow Putin to distract the world or diminish support through his threats of moving tactical nuclear weapons," Pence said. "We just need to remain strong and stand with the Ukrainians.” 

8:55 p.m. ET, March 28, 2023

Military action is growing near Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, IAEA director general says

From CNN’s Alex Hardie and Jaya Sharma

Military action is increasing around Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, International Atomic Energy Agency director general Rafael Grossi said Tuesday.

Speaking from Dnipro in Ukraine ahead of a visit to the plant, Grossi said the situation “is not getting any better."

"Military action continues," he told CNN’s Lynda Kinkade. "In fact, it is increasing. There are growing numbers of troops, and military vehicles, heavy artillery, more military action around the plant.” 

The plant has been “in blackout repeatedly,” Grossi added.

The director general's visit will be his second to the plant and his first since the IAEA established a permanent presence at the site in September last year, the agency said in a statement Saturday.

“I want to see what the situation is for myself, talk to the management there, which is the Russian management," Grossi told CNN.

Russia's state-owned nuclear energy monopoly, Rosatom, said Tuesday that Russia is ready to discuss the situation at the plant with Grossi.

“In a few hours myself and my team, we are going to cross the front line again — as we did last year,” Grossi said. “I am going to continue my consultations in order to try to establish a protection around the plant and spare us all from a nuclear accident with potential catastrophic consequences.”

The IAEA chief said the current risk level at the plant is “extremely high and it’s totally unpredictable, precisely because we are in a combat zone.”

On Monday, Grossi met with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was visiting the Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro regions. Later, in his nightly address on Monday, Zelensky thanked Grossi for his support.

CNN's Anna Chernova and Sarah Dean contributed reporting.

8:53 p.m. ET, March 28, 2023

US announces it supports creation of special tribunal to prosecute Russia for "crime of aggression" in Ukraine

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

The United States announced it supports the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression — a significant development in the push to hold top Kremlin officials accountable for the war in Ukraine.

“At this critical moment in history, I am pleased to announce that the United States supports the development of an internationalized tribunal dedicated to prosecuting the crime of aggression against Ukraine,” US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack announced Monday.

The announcement of US support for the development of such a body comes after Ukraine and other countries have for months pushed for the creation of the mechanism.

In that time, the US would not say whether it supported a special tribunal, with US officials instead saying there were reviewing the option and supporting other mechanisms like the International Criminal Court.

However, in her remarks Monday, Van Schaack said “there are compelling arguments for why” the crime of aggression “must be prosecuted alongside” crimes that are being investigated by the ICC.

She noted the past example of the Nuremberg trials prosecuting Nazi leaders after World War II, in which “the United States led the prosecution of the crime of aggression — deemed ‘crimes against the peace’ in the lexicon of the era.”

There are a number of different bodies like the ICC which can prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, but they do not have the jurisdiction to prosecute the crime of aggression by Russia against Ukraine.

As such, Ukrainian Ambassador at Large Anton Korynevych in December argued that these existing mechanisms do not do enough to ensure that the decision-makers in Moscow face punishment for their war against Ukraine.

Read more here.

11:52 p.m. ET, March 29, 2023

Russian man whose daughter made anti-war painting sentenced to 2 years in prison

From CNN's Anna Chernova and Tim Lister

A Russian man whose 12-year-old daughter drew an anti-war picture at school has been sentenced to two years in prison by a court for his own online posts critical of the invasion of Ukraine.

Alexey Moskalyov had been charged with “discrediting the Russian military” and was under house arrest in the Tula region after being accused of repeatedly publishing anti-war posts.

According to the indictment, Moskalyov, “using his personal computer, posted on his page in social networks statements in the form of text-graphic publications discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” reported Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

One of Moskalyov’s posts read: “Army of Russia. The oppressors around us,” according to the court, as quoted by Russian independent news site Mediazona.

In April last year, Moskalyov’s daughter Masha drew a picture of Russian missiles being fired at a Ukrainian family and wrote “No to war” and “Glory to Ukraine” during her art class, according to Mediazona.

The school subsequently called the police.

Read more here.

5:15 a.m. ET, March 29, 2023

US official says new drone routes over Black Sea "definitely limits" intelligence gathering

From CNN's Jim Sciutto

The US decision to fly its surveillance drones further south over the Black Sea after a Russian jet collided with a US drone earlier this month “definitely limits our ability to gather intelligence” related to the Ukraine war, a senior US military official tells CNN.

Flying drones at greater distances reduces the quality of intelligence they can gather, a US military official explained, noting that spy satellites can compensate to some degree but have shorter times over targets, again reducing effectiveness relative to surveillance drones.

After the Russian jet collided with a US Reaper drone earlier this month, the US began flying its surveillance drones further south and at a higher altitude over the Black Sea than previously, placing them further away from airspace surrounding the Crimean peninsula and eastern portions of the Black Sea.

When CNN first reported this change, one US official said the new routes were part of an effort “to avoid being too provocative,” as the Biden administration continues to be careful to avoid any incident that could escalate into a direct conflict with 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.

Asked about the new routes’ impact on intelligence gathering, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told CNN, “We’re not going to discuss missions, routes, or timing of operations. We’re also not going to discuss intelligence operations other than to say we maintain a robust ISR capability in the region and beyond.” A spokesperson for the National Security Council referred questions to the Pentagon.

Read more here.