Ukrainian kickboxing champion dies from wounds sustained on the battlefield, mayor says
From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Radina Gigova
Vitalii Merinov, a four-time world kickboxing champion who fought on the front lines in Ukraine, died Friday night from wounds sustained on the battlefield, the mayor of the city of Ivano-Frankivsk said Saturday.
Mayor Ruslan Martsynkiv called Merinov's death "an irreparable loss for the Ivano-Frankivsk community" in a Facebook post. Merinov also had served as a member of the city council executive committee, according to Martsynkiv.
"Vitalii Merinov left for the war on the first day of the full-scale invasion," Martsynkiv said. "He suffered a gunshot shrapnel wound to his leg during one of the battles. Merinov recovered and returned to the front and defended Ukraine until his last breath."
The mayor did not say in which battle Merinov sustained his latest wounds. He is survived by his wife and two-year-old daughter, Martsynkiv added.
4:23 p.m. ET, April 1, 2023
Ukraine's Security Service says church leader with ties to Moscow is under investigation
From CNN's Radina Gigova
An orthodox church leader at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery is under investigation, according to a statement Saturday from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), who accuse him of "inciting religious hatred" and "justifying and denying Russia's armed aggression against Ukraine."
As part of the investigation, the SBU said it found that Metropolitan Pavlo, Petro Lebid, "in his public speeches repeatedly insulted the religious feelings of Ukrainians, humiliated the views of believers of other faiths and tried to create hostile attitudes towards them, and made statements justifying or denying the actions of the aggressor country."
"Investigative actions" were taken at the metropolitan's places of residence, the SBU said. The operation was conducted under the supervision of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General's Office, according to the SBU.
"The enemy is trying to use the church environment to promote its propaganda and split Ukrainian society. But we will not give him (the enemy) a single chance! The SBU systematically blocks all attempts by Russian special services to use their agents to harm the interests and security of Ukraine," SBU head Vasyl Malyuk said in the statement.
Here's what led up to the investigation: Metropolitan Pavlo is the abbot of the 980-year-old monastery, home of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), a branch of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine that has been traditionally loyal to the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.
Kirill is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a supporter of his war on Ukraine.
Tensions over the presence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra have risen after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and an agreement that allowed the UOC to occupy the historic complex was terminated on March 10. The UOC was instructed to leave the premises by March 29.
In May 2022, the UOC cut ties with Moscow and declared “full independence," but some members have maintained their loyalty.
The metropolitan attended a court hearing Monday but felt unwell and had to go to a hospital, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church said.
Some more background: Since the start of Russia's invasion in 2022, Ukraine's Security Service said it has launched more than 40 "comprehensive counterintelligence and security measures" in the church environment of the UOC, "which were aimed at stopping the destructive activities of pro-Russian clergy."
As a result of the measures taken by the SBU, 61 criminal proceedings were initiated against 61 clergymen, the agency said. "In total, the courts have already passed 7 sentences against individual clerics who sided with the enemy, including 2 who were used in the exchange for our servicemen," it said.
Based on SBU investigations, 17 UOC officials have been subject to sanctions by Kyiv and almost 250 clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church have been banned from entering Ukraine, the agency said.
Ukraine has also terminated the citizenship of 19 UOC clergymen who were dual Ukrainian-Russian citizens, forcing them to leave the country, the SBU said.
1:59 p.m. ET, April 1, 2023
Sister of Paul Whelan thinks he may be hidden away while Russia recruits more convicts
Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of an American who the US says is wrongfully detained in Russia, believes Moscow may have temporarily moved her brother to shield his knowledge of a potential prison recruiting scheme.
Paul Whelan's family told CNN Friday they were concerned for the former Marine's well-being after he didn't make his usual daily call to his parents.
"First the Wagner group and now the (Russian) Ministry of Defense are recruiting in the prisons to get people to send to the front line on their war on Ukraine," Elizabeth Whelan said in an interview on "CNN Newsroom" Saturday. "I believe that Paul may have been sent off to the side to a hospital — as he has the last couple of times the recruiters came around to the prison camp — so that he can't see what's going on and report out about that."
She said her family is "hoping to hear from him soon" because "it's always worrying when we lose contact with him like this."
Some context on prison recruitment: The Wagner mercenary group said it would no longer recruit convicts to its ranks in February. However, it appears the recruitment drive in prisons has continued under the Russian Ministry of Defense. CNN has spoken to several fighters this year who said they were directly employed by the ministry.
On the detention of another American: Elizabeth said what will happen next in the case of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was detained this week by Russian authorities on spying accusations, "is uncertain."
"It will be a couple of months, I understand, before he has his first hearing," Elizabeth Whelan said.
A district court in Moscow said Thursday that Gershkovich would be detained until May 29.
Whelan said the cases of Gershkovich and her brother have some similarities, but "each case is very different."
Paul Whelan was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in a Russian prison on accusations that he was involved in an intelligence operation — claims rejected by the US.
"When I heard about the news about Evan, I mean, you know, we had two reactions: First, of course, great sympathy for him and for his family to have to go through this ordeal. We know all too well how this can go," Elizabeth Whelan told CNN. She said the family was also "shocked that Russia would show itself to be so weak as to resort to trying to pull off another hostage-taking like this. I don't know what they expect to accomplish, but it doesn't look good for them on the world stage."
12:08 p.m. ET, April 1, 2023
Russia's defense minister says weapons production has increased, but doesn't provide specific numbers
From CNN staff and Radina Gigova
Weapons production for the military has increased "significantly," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Saturday in a statement, without providing specific numbers.
"Steps to expand production capacities and improve productivity have made it possible to significantly increase the production of weapons for the troops, including conventional and high-precision weapons," Shoigu is quoted as saying during a meeting on weapon supplies with the Joint Group of Forces.
"All this allows us to achieve the goals set by the supreme commander-in-chief based on the plan of the special military operation," he added, using Russia's euphemism for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Shoigu also said "necessary measures are being taken" to increase the most in-demand ammunition.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a large-scale effort to build up capacities in order to produce more weapons for his war in Ukraine, saying, "we need it urgently now."
The Ministry of Defense and Shoigu himself have come under criticism in recent months from Wagner private military company chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has accused them of failing to supply his fighters at the front line with ammunition.
12:12 p.m. ET, April 1, 2023
Ukraine’s Zelensky and France's Macron discuss defense cooperation
From CNN's Mariya Knight
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and French President Emmanuel Macron held a telephone conversation Saturday discussing “defense interaction" and steps to implement Ukraine's peace plan, according to a tweet from Zelensky.
For background: In November 2022, Zelensky presented Ukraine’s 10-point peace formula to world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.
The steps include a path to nuclear safety, food security, a special tribunal for alleged Russian war crimes and a final peace treaty with Moscow. He also urged G20 leaders to use all their power to “make Russia abandon nuclear threats” and implement a price cap on energy imported from Moscow.
12:16 p.m. ET, April 1, 2023
Geolocated video shows black Wagner flag near center of embattled Bakhmut
From CNN’s Allegra Goodwin
Wagner fighters appear to have planted their group’s flag on the top of a high-rise building near the center of the embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, video shows.
A video posted to a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel Friday and geolocated by CNN shows a black flag, a hallmark of leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private mercenary company, flying atop the building in the snow-covered city, west of the river that flows down the middle of Bakhmut.
Key context: The bloody battle for the eastern city has been raging for months and has seen heavy losses on both sides. In that time, Russian forces have made only slow, incremental gains. The building with the flag sits just a couple of blocks north of central neighborhoods already believed to be in Russian hands.
2:56 p.m. ET, April 1, 2023
2 people, including a baby, were killed by Russian shelling in Donetsk, regional leader says
From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Radina Gigova
Russian shelling killed at least two civilians in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region over the last 24 hours, the head of the region's military administration said in a Telegram post Saturday.
The two people, including a 5-month-old baby, died in the town of Avdiivka as a result of Russian shelling overnight and into the morning, according to the regional leader, Pavlo Kyrylenko.
One civilian was wounded in the town of Druzhkivka, Kyrylenko said. The shelling damaged two apartment buildings, a school and a bank.
The towns of Vuhledar and Novoukrainka also came under enemy fire, Kyrylenko said.
Some background: Avdiivka has come under almost non-stop fire, with up to 14 rockets hitting the town daily, according to Ukrainian officials.
"Someone dies every day," Donetsk region police, who are helping with evacuations, said Tuesday.
"The town is being wiped off the face of the earth," Vitalii Barabash, the head of the Avdiivka military administration, said late last month.
12:22 p.m. ET, April 1, 2023
Russia runs the UN Security Council this month. Ukraine says it’s the "world's worst" April Fools’ joke
From CNN's Richard Roth
A country led by an accused war criminal is in charge of the United Nations Security Council, as it’s now Russia’s turn to assume presidency of the powerful body that is charged with maintaining global peace and security.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba described Russia assuming the council presidency on April 1 as its brutal invasion of Ukraine stretches into a second year as “the world’s worst April Fool’s joke.”
The country which systematically violates all fundamental rules of international security is presiding over a body whose only mission is to safeguard and protect international security,” Kuleba said.
Presidency of the Security Council rotates alphabetically among its 15 member nations. The body is controlled by its five permanent members, including the US and Russia.
The UN diplomatic corps is well aware of the public skepticism about Russia leading the council while its troops occupy parts of Ukraine, a fellow UN member country. Few remember that Russia was last president of the council in February 2022 – during the run-up to its invasion of Ukraine.
A Security Council president is supposed to stay neutral. But in its new role, Russia can maneuver meetings on Ukraine and use the month to portray the US and other Western countries as making false accusations against Russia.
Russia's chief general is "pushing the limits" of Putin's tolerance of failure in Ukraine, UK says
From CNN's Amarachi Orie
The chief of the Russian General Staff (CGS), Valery Gerasimov — who became the overall commander of President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine on January 11 — "is pushing the limits" of the Kremlin's tolerance of failure in the war, the UK Ministry of Defence said on Saturday.
"Gerasimov’s tenure has been characterised by an effort to launch a general winter offensive with the aim of extending Russian control over the whole of the Donbas region. Eighty days on, it is increasingly apparent that this project has failed," the defence ministry said in a statement.
"On several axes across the Donbas front, Russian forces have made only marginal gains at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties, largely squandering its temporary advantage in personnel gained from the autumn’s ‘partial mobilisation’," it continued.
"After ten years as CGS, there is a realistic possibility that Gerasimov is pushing the limits of how far Russia’s political leadership will tolerate failure," it added.
Retired Lt. General Mark Hertling called the appointment of the 67-year-old general "bizarre," telling CNN on the day of the announcement: "It's troubling to me and it's confusing to me why Mr. Putin did this other than potentially to place blame on Gerasimov, who is considered an insider in the Kremlin."
Some context: Russian forces have suffered steep losses in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and made only incremental gains, Ukrainian officials said earlier this week.
Russia has been pushing hard to capture the city and land a rare if largely symbolic victory.