March 31, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Helen Regan, Jack Guy, Ed Upright, Adrienne Vogt, Aditi Sangal and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 8:03 p.m. ET, March 31, 2023
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2:05 p.m. ET, March 31, 2023

All Americans — even journalists — should leave Russia for their safety, US national security official says

From CNN's Sam Fossum

 John Kirby, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, speaks during an interview on March 31.
John Kirby, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, speaks during an interview on March 31. (CNN)

US President Joe Biden's administration is still working to secure a meeting with detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich, who is being held in Russia's Lefortovo prison in Moscow.

US officials have described Russia's espionage allegations against the journalist as "ridiculous" and "absolutely ludicrous."

"We have not been able to achieve consular access and nobody from our embassy has been able to meet with him," John Kirby, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, told CNN's Bianna Golodryga on Friday. "We are continuing to work on that, of course, and will until we can get that consular access to ascertain for ourselves how he's doing."

The US has previously warned US citizens against traveling to Russia. Kirby emphasized Friday that those recommendations apply even to journalists working in the country.

"This is not the time for Americans to be in Russia. If you're in Russia now — whether it's on business or leisure, whatever kind of travel — you need to leave now," Kirby said. "This is not a good place for you to be in Russia, even if you are a working journalist. Russia is a hostile environment for American citizens right now. And it's time to go if you're there."
1:27 p.m. ET, March 31, 2023

Leaders of more than 30 news organizations demand Russia release WSJ reporter

From CNN's Oliver Darcy

The leaders of more than 30 news organizations around the world signed a letter Thursday to the Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, demanding the release of imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

"Gershkovich is a journalist, not a spy, and should be released immediately and without conditions," said the letter, spearheaded by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which was made public Friday.

The letter was signed by the leaders of the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, TIME, Euronews, Bloomberg News, Sky News, The New Yorker, and The Economist, among many others.

"Gershkovich’s unwarranted and unjust arrest is a significant escalation in your government’s anti-press actions," the letter said. "Russia is sending the message that journalism within your borders is criminalized and that foreign correspondents seeking to report from Russia do not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law."

A representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists told CNN that the group had not received a response by Friday afternoon ET.

Gershkovich was arrested in Russia on suspicion of espionage, according to Russian authorities, the first time a US journalist has been detained on accusations by Moscow of spying since the Cold War.

In a Thursday statement, The Wall Street Journal said it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter.”

Almar Latour, the CEO of Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, condemned Russia’s arrest of Gershkovich in a memo to staffers Thursday, saying the company is working “around the clock” to secure his release.

“This is an incredibly disturbing development,” Latour said in a memo to staff obtained by CNN.

12:20 p.m. ET, March 31, 2023

French presidential source: China could be only country to have "a game-changer effect" on war in Ukraine

From CNN’s Xiaofei Xu in Paris

China's President Xi Jinping attends a working session during the G20 Summit in November 2022 in Nusa Dua, Indonesia.
China's President Xi Jinping attends a working session during the G20 Summit in November 2022 in Nusa Dua, Indonesia. (Leon Neal/Getty Images/FILE)

Given its close ties with Moscow, China could be one of the only countries that can have a “game-changer effect” on the war in Ukraine, a source from the French presidency told journalists during a briefing Friday.

The source spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing professional norms, ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China.

“It’s obvious that China is one of the few countries on Earth — maybe the only country in the world — to have a ‘game-changer’ effect on the conflict, for both sides,” the source said.

Macron’s upcoming visit to China will be a crucial opportunity for France and China to reconnect at the highest level after three years of China sealing itself off due to its strict zero-Covid policy, according to the source.

Macron will arrive in Beijing on Wednesday to start his visit, one day later than previously announced, and will also visit the southern city of Guangzhou before leaving China on April 8.

With meetings scheduled with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang, Macron aims to “find a space so that we can try initiatives that are useful to the Ukrainian people and then to find a way to identify solutions to end this war in the medium term,” the source said.

He is also expected to bring up cooperation between the European Union and China, as EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will accompany him on the visit. 

Von der Leyen will be in Paris on Monday to meet with Macron and prepare for the visit, according to the Élysée source. 

11:40 a.m. ET, March 31, 2023

Russia lists US as its main security threat in new foreign policy doctrine

From CNN staff

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed a decree on a new version of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept, which lists the US as the main security threat to Russia and "the just development of mankind." 

"Moscow considers Washington's course as the main source of risks for its own and international security, for peace and the just development of mankind as a whole," the document read. 

"The new concept of foreign policy provides for the possibility of symmetrical and asymmetric measures in response to unfriendly actions against the Russian Federation," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after presenting Putin with the updated doctrine. 

The 42-page document outlines the main objectives of Moscow’s foreign policy, among which are the strengthening of the military cooperation with allies and elimination of US dominance in world affairs.

The document made no direct mention of Ukraine even as Russia continues its full-scale invasion of the country, but did say that "Moscow is stepping up the process of registration within the framework of international law of its state border and jurisdiction over the territories it controls." 

"The main goal in the near abroad is to turn the region into a zone of peace, good neighborliness and prosperity," it continued.

According to the document, Moscow also sees "risks of aggravating conflicts involving large countries, as well as their escalation into a local or global war. The factor of strength increasingly determines relations between countries."

Russia will also focus on deepening ties with India and China as well as increasing cooperation with Latin American countries. 

11:27 a.m. ET, March 31, 2023

Zelensky visits Bucha street where Ukrainian forces destroyed a line of tanks just over a year ago

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio and Yulia Kesaieva

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the retreat of Russian troops from the Ukrainian town of Bucha, near Kyiv in Ukraine, on March 31.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the retreat of Russian troops from the Ukrainian town of Bucha, near Kyiv in Ukraine, on March 31. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the now famous street in Bucha where his country’s forces destroyed a column of Russian armored vehicles that were charging toward Ukraine's capital of Kyiv.

Zelensky posted a video on his official Telegram account recounting the fighting on February 27, 2022, in Bucha. The Ukrainian victory of destroying the Russian vehicles was short-lived, as it gave way to a brutal month-long occupation in the town.

Friday marks one year since Ukrainian forces liberated Bucha, ending that occupation, and Zelensky reflected on the fighting there during his visit.

The president's video shows the street shortly after it was liberated last year, flanked by damaged houses and littered with destroyed Russian military vehicles. More than 200 buildings had been damaged in the town, Zelensky said in his post.

CNN was among the first media outlets to gain access and visit the Kyiv suburb at this time, documenting the horrors there.

The video then shows Zelensky and Ukrainian leaders walking the street as it is now — clean, with refurbished houses. 

More on Zelensky's visit: The Ukrainian president spoke at a ceremony marking the anniversary of Bucha's liberation and toured the town speaking to residents.

“Humanity must remember every Ukrainian city, every street, whose heroism and resilience give the future to all who value life,” Zelensky said.

“I talked to a resident of one of the houses, 85-year-old Hryhorii Zamohylnyi. He stayed in his house during the fighting and the occupation of Bucha,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram.

In the video, the Ukrainian president is shown speaking to an elderly couple.

“Little by little. Thank you so much for such a work, for returning (Bucha),” the woman says.

“Let the God give you health, let Ukraine prosper and flourish,” the man adds. “We are so grateful, all of us Bucha residents, for the work you did here."

10:49 a.m. ET, March 31, 2023

Ukraine rejects Belarusian leader's call for ceasefire as Russia remains in occupied territories

From CNN's Vasco Cotovio and Yulia Kesaieva

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak speaks during an interview in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 16.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak speaks during an interview in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 16. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Senior Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has rejected Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s calls for an immediate ceasefire while Russian forces continue to occupy Ukrainian territory.

“Any ceasefire will mean [the Russian Federation’s] right to stay in the occupied territories. This is totally inadmissible,” Podolyak said. “[Ukraine] has the right to move troops and equipment on its territory as it deems necessary.”

Earlier on Friday, Lukashenko called for a freezing of “hostilities” in Ukraine, which the Kremlin rejected.

“It is necessary to stop hostilities and declare a truce that prohibits both sides from moving groups of troops and from transferring weapons, ammunition, manpower, and equipment," Lukashenko said. "All stopped, frozen."

The Kremlin said Moscow is aware of Lukashenko’s advice, adding it will “certainly be discussed” next week when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko are scheduled to speak.

Lukashenko also said he has intensified talks with Putin about deploying both tactical and strategic — more powerful — nuclear weapons to deal with threats from Ukraine’s Western allies, who he claims are planning a coup against him.

10:20 a.m. ET, March 31, 2023

Belarus says it will defend itself with nuclear weapons if West invades through Poland

From CNN staff

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused the West of "preparing to invade" Belarus from Poland, and welcomed Moscow’s move to station Russian tactical nuclear warheads in Belarus, saying the weapons are needed to safeguard the country.

In an address to the nation Friday, Lukashenko said he has intensified talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin about deploying both tactical and strategic – more powerful - nuclear weapons to deal with threats from Ukraine’s western allies who he claims are planning a coup against him.

“If necessary, not only tactical but also strategic nuclear weapons will be introduced into Belarus,” he is quoted as saying by state media BELGA in his first comments since Putin announced plans to complete the construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by the beginning of July. 

He confirmed that Moscow has already transferred an Iskander short-range missile system, a device which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads, to Belarus.

“Our converted planes can also carry a nuclear warhead. You heard from the President of Russia about joint plans to create the appropriate infrastructure on the territory of Belarus. I just want to clarify: the entire infrastructure has been created and is ready,” he said.  

Lukashenko stressed that Minsk and Moscow would make “every effort and use the means to ensure their sovereignty and independence,” against Poland and its “zealous” western neighbors who he accused of building up the “formation of certain regiments, banners, legions,” for a “subsequent coup in Belarus.”

“At the same time, the transfer of NATO troops to the east is proceeding at an accelerated pace. The grouping of the bloc in Poland and the Baltic countries alone today has more than 21,000 military personnel, 250 tanks, almost 500 armored vehicles, about 150 aircraft and helicopters. And this whole armada is defiantly training near the borders of Belarus and Russia. The question is the same: why?" he said.

In response, the Belarusian military has been instructed to “immediately restore sites” in Belarus where intercontinental ballistic missile systems with nuclear warheads were previously located. "If necessary, Putin and I will decide and introduce strategic nuclear weapons here. And they must understand this, those who are trying to blow us up abroad today from inside and outside. We will stop at nothing, protecting our countries, our states and their peoples," the Belarusian leader said, adding that he is “confident that these measures” will deter “overseas hawks and their satellites for a long time.”

10:44 a.m. ET, March 31, 2023

Biden tells Russia to release arrested US journalist

From CNN's Arlette Saenz and Sam Fossum

President Joe Biden talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on March 31.
President Joe Biden talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on March 31. (Susan Walsh/AP)

President Biden was asked by CNN what his message to Russia is following the detainment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

"Let him go," the president said as he departed the White House this morning.

This is the first time Biden has publicly commented on the matter since Gershkovich was accused of espionage by Russian authorities Thursday.

Asked later by another reporter if the US would expel Russian diplomats or journalists over the detention of Gershkovich, Biden said, "That's not the plan right now." 

Later on Friday, US Vice President Kamala Harris said she was “deeply concerned” about Gershkovich.

“I will state in unequivocal terms that we will not tolerate and condemn, in fact, repression of journalists and that we are absolutely concerned about any attempt to in any way stifle freedom of the press,” Harris said in a press conference with Zambia’s President Hakainde Hichilema in Lusaka.

CNN's Jasmine Wright contributed reporting to this post.

8:29 a.m. ET, March 31, 2023

It's mid-afternoon in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

Ukraine will “punish every perpetrator” for the atrocities that happened in Bucha, the town just north of Kyiv where Russian forces allegedly committed war crimes last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky said.

Friday marks exactly one year since Bucha was liberated, which Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andrii Kostin recalls, "was the first time we all saw evidence of the unprecedented scale of the enemy's atrocities."

Here are the other headlines:

  • Russia strikes Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv: Multiple rocket attacks hit the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Friday. There were no casualties but several buildings were damaged. In addition, three people were injured further north after Russia fired nine missiles at Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city on Thursday night.

  • Finland NATO accession imminent: Finland will formally join NATO in the “coming days,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday. The Turkish Parliament voted unanimously in favor of Finland’s membership on Thursday, clearing the last hurdle in the accession process.

  • Lukashenko fires warning to West: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko called for a freezing of “hostilities” in Ukraine, and warned that Russia would have to use the full force of its military if the West were attempt to use a hypothetical pause in the war to encroach on its territory.
  • Ukraine boycotts Olympic qualifying: Ukraine has decided to boycott Olympic qualifying events in which Russians are competing for the Paris 2024 Games. It comes after the International Olympic Committee outlined new guidelines that would allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals.
  • Russia's spring draft isn't mobilization: Russia's armed forces are not planning for a second wave of mobilization and an upcoming military draft is part of a routine conscription program, a Russian official announced Friday.
  • Slovenian PM in Kyiv: Slovenia’s Prime Minister Robert Golob has met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Golob told Zelensky that Slovenia will contribute to the post-war recovery of Ukraine, specifically the liberated city of Izium in the northeastern Kharkiv region.