March 16, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Helen Regan, Adam Renton, George Ramsay, Ed Upright and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, March 17, 2022
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4:31 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Public swimming pool used as civilian shelter in Mariupol hit by Russian military strike, local official says

From CNN's Paul P. Murphy

The building that houses the "Neptune" swimming pool in northern Mariupol was hit by a military strike Wednesday.
The building that houses the "Neptune" swimming pool in northern Mariupol was hit by a military strike Wednesday. (Maxim Kach)

The building that houses the "Neptune" swimming pool in northern Mariupol has been hit by a military strike Wednesday, video posted to social media by a city government official shows.

CNN has geolocated and confirmed the authenticity of the video.

Maxim Kach, a Mariupol city government official, said that​ a bomb hit the building and that rescue workers were busy trying to get a pregnant woman out from under the rubble.

"Here there were only pregnant women & women with kids under three years old," Kach said in the video.

Kach ​also said there were no military ​personnel at, or near, the pool. 

The pool is roughly 2.5 miles, or just over four kilometers, north from where a military strike destroyed a theater being used as a shelter earlier on Wednesday.

CNN could not immediately verify Kach's claims that there was a woman buried under the rubble.

4:22 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

US defense official: "Increased naval activity" from Russian ships in Black Sea near Odesa

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Volunteers fill sand bags at a beach in Odesa, Ukraine, on March 16.
Volunteers fill sand bags at a beach in Odesa, Ukraine, on March 16. (Jonathan Alpeyrie/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The US has observed “increased naval activity” in the northern Black Sea from Russian forces there, a senior US defense official told reporters on Wednesday. 

“We also have observed on our own the shelling of some cities, some towns outside Odesa, near Odesa,” the official said.

The shelling is not in Odesa, but near Odesa, the official said. The shelling, the US believes, is coming from Russian warships in the Black Sea, the official added.

“We believe these are again from Russian warships in the Black Sea,” the official added. “There does appear to be naval shelling in places near Odesa."

4:14 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

President Biden calls Putin a "war criminal"

From CNN's Sam Fossum and Kevin Liptak

President Biden speaks during an event at the White House on Wednesday.
President Biden speaks during an event at the White House on Wednesday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden called President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal" on Wednesday as Russia intensifies its attack on Ukraine.

"I think he is a war criminal," Biden said. 

Some more context: Biden’s designation reflects a shift from the administration’s previous stance. Officials, including Biden, had previously stopped short of saying war crimes were being committed in Ukraine, citing ongoing investigations into whether that term could be used.

But officials have been clear they believe atrocities are underway and that the intentional targeting of civilians would constitute war crimes.

"The President's remarks speak for themselves," press secretary Jen Psaki said afterward. She said Biden was "speaking from the heart."

She said the ongoing investigation at the State Department into war crimes was still underway. 

"There is a legal process that continues to — is underway, continues to be underway at the State Department. That's a process that they would have any updates on."

When pressed on this by a reporter later in the briefing, Psaki said, "He was answering a direct question that was asked and responding to what he has seen on television. We have all seen barbaric acts, horrific acts by a foreign dictator in a country that is threatening and taking the lives of civilians — impacting hospitals, women who are pregnant, journalists, others and I think he was answering a direct question."

Biden initially said “no” when asked whether Putin was a war criminal, but returned to a group of reporters immediately to clarify what had been asked. When asked again whether Putin was a war criminal, he answered in the affirmative.

4:08 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Ukraine says it has rescued mayor who was detained by armed men in Russian-occupied city

From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych in Lviv, Paul Murphy and Mariya Knight

Melitopol mayor Ivan Fedorov.
Melitopol mayor Ivan Fedorov. (From Facebook)

The Ukrainian government says it has staged a rescue of the mayor of the southern city of Melitopol, who was detained by armed men in the Russian-occupied city on March 11.

"A special operation to release the mayor of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov has just been successfully completed. Vanya is safe. We just talked to him together with the president and the head of the Office. I would like to say only one thing - we never leave our people. Ivan will return to his duties as mayor of Ukrainian Melitopol very soon," Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in President Volodymyr Zelensky's office, said in a message on his Telegram channel.

Another video showed a smiling Zelensky speaking on the phone to someone identified by his office as Fedorov.

More background: Russian troops gained control of Melitopol on Feb. 26. On March 11, armed men detained the elected mayor Fedorov and later that day the prosecutor’s office for the Russian-backed separatist Luhansk region accused him on terrorism charges.

Since then, newly installed mayor Galina Danilchenko has ordered the broadcasting of Russian television channels and attempted to dissolve the city council and instead create a People’s Committee.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general opened a treason investigation into Danilchenko on March 13.

2:31 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Slovakia has preliminarily agreed to send key Soviet-era air defense system to Ukraine, sources say 

From CNN's Katie Bo Lillis, Natasha Bertrand, Jeremy Herb and Zachary Cohen

Slovakia has preliminarily agreed to provide Ukraine with a key Soviet-era air defense system to help defend against Russian airstrikes, according to three sources familiar with the matter, but the US and NATO are still grappling with how to backfill that country’s own defensive capabilities and the transfer is not yet assured. 

According to two of the sources, Slovakia, one of three NATO allies that have the defense systems in question, wants assurances that the systems will be replaced immediately. 

If a country provided its S-300s, the supplying country is likely to receive the US-made Patriot air defense missile system to backfill the capability it would be giving up, according to two other sources familiar with the negotiations. 

Germany and the Netherlands have already publicly announced that they are sending Patriots to Slovakia. But integrating a new, complex air defense system into a country’s existing military architecture, as well as training its forces to use it, can take time, one source familiar with the matter cautioned. 

The push to get more S-300s into the hands of the Ukrainians comes as Congress has been pressing the Biden administration to help Ukraine obtain the air defense system. Lawmakers in both parties, who heard from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a speech Wednesday morning, have urged the US needed to do more to help Ukraine obtain the weapons it’s seeking, particularly after the administration opposed a plan last week to provide Ukraine with Polish MiG-29 jets.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, hinted publicly on Wednesday that the US had made progress in getting Ukraine access to additional S-300s, an anti-aircraft weapon system that congressional sources say Ukraine is already operating effectively against Russia’s assault.

“I’ve been pushing hard for this,” McCaul told CNN’s Jim Sciutto. “I’m proud to say they do have S-300s going in now.”

An aide to McCaul later said he was referring to S-300 systems that have been owned and operated by Ukraine for years. Those systems are already in the country.

More background: CNN previously reported that the State Department has been working to identify which countries currently have S-300s and determine how they could be transferred to Ukraine. 

CNN reported earlier Wednesday that other Soviet era air defense systems including the SA8 have already been sent into Ukraine. 

“People talk about a no-fly zone, they can create their own if we give them the military equipment and weapons,” McCaul noted.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to travel to Slovakia later this week after participating in the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels.

“At the request of President Zelensky, we have identified and are helping Ukraine acquire additional longer range anti-aircraft systems and the munitions for those systems,” US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday as part of remarks detailing new security assistance. 

Some US allies have also been extremely leery of making their contributions to Ukraine public, multiple sources told CNN. Bulgaria and Greece also have more the modern S-300 systems in question. Greece’s system is a different model than those currently operated by Ukraine, raising questions of whether additional training would be needed for it to be useful.

The State Department and the Slovakian Embassy in Washington declined to comment. CNN has reached out to the National Security Council and the Defense Department for comment. 

3:35 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

An 11-year-old boy traveled more than 600 miles from Ukraine to Slovakia on his own

From CNN's Manveena Suri

Carrying just his passport, a plastic bag and a telephone number written on his hand, an 11-year-old boy travelled from Zaporizhzhya in Ukraine to Slovakia, a journey of more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers).

“He conquered everyone with his smile, fearlessness and determination of a real hero," according to the Slovak Interior Ministry representative in a Facebook post put out by the Slovak Embassy in the UK on March 8.

“I am very grateful that they saved the life of my child,” said his mother, Yulia Pisetskaya in a video message posted on Facebook, adding “in your small country, there are people with big hearts.”

“I am a widow and I have more children. I want to thank the Slovak customs and volunteers who took care of my son and helped him cross the border. I am grateful you have saved my child’s life. Next to my town is a nuclear power plant that the Russians are shooting at. I couldn’t leave my mother — she can’t move on her own,” she continued.

2:41 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Fate of hundreds sheltering in bombed theater in Mariupol is "unknown," regional official says

From CNN's Tim Lister in Lviv

The Drama Theater in Mariupol where hundreds were taking refuge sustained heavy damage in a bombing Wednesday.
The Drama Theater in Mariupol where hundreds were taking refuge sustained heavy damage in a bombing Wednesday. (From Telegram)

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of Donetsk regional administration which includes Mariupol, said Russian forces are trying to "physically destroy Mariupol and the people of Mariupol, which have been a symbol of our resistance" after a theater sustained heavy damage in an apparent bombing.

Kyrylenko said they launched an air strike on the "Drama Theater" and "the Neptune" swimming pool.

"According to preliminary data, several hundred Mariupol residents were hiding in the Drama Theater. Their fate is unknown, as the entrance to the bomb shelter is blocked by rubble," he said.

"The Russians are already lying, [saying] that the headquarters of the Azov Regiment was there. But they themselves are well aware that there were only civilians," he continued on Facebook.

The Azov Battalion is an ultra-nationalist militia that has since been integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces.

"Now there are pregnant women and women with children under the rubble. This is pure terrorism!" he wrote.

It is currently impossible to determine the number of casualties of these shellings and the extent of the destruction as well.

1:45 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

The International Court of Justice orders Russia to immediately halt its invasion of Ukraine

From CNN’s Abby Baggini

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague has ordered Moscow to immediately stop its invasion of Ukraine, saying there is no evidence to support its justification of the war.

During a hearing Wednesday, the court ruled there was no evidence to support Russian claims that Ukraine was committing genocide in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, whereby Moscow has justified its invasion of Ukraine.

"The Russian Federation shall immediately suspend the military operations commenced on 24 February, 2022, that have as their stated purpose and objective the prevention and punishment of a claimed genocide in the Luhansk and Donetskoblasts of Ukraine," it said.

The Court also called for other forces supported or controlled by Moscow to cease their military operations, and for Russia to refrain from aggravating or extending the dispute.

Ukraine filed a dispute on Feb. 26 against Russia on the basis of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It asked the ICJ to deliberate on Russian claims that Ukraine was committing genocide in the Donbas.

The hearing took place in the Peace Palace in The Hague, where presiding Judge Joan E. Donoghue read out the Court’s order. The preliminary decision was confirmed by a 13-2 vote. A Russian and a Chinese judge were the two to vote against the decision.

"The court is acutely aware of the extent of the human tragedy that is taking place in Ukraine," Donoghue said. "The court is profoundly concerned about the use of force by the Russian Federation in Ukraine which raises very serious issues of international law."

ICJ rulings are considered binding, though the court lacks an enforcement mechanism. 

Russia boycotted a previous ICJ hearing on March 7.

1:51 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Attacks on health systems are "becoming part of the strategy and tactics of war," WHO says

From CNN's Naomi Thomas

The World Health Organization slammed the unprecedented numbers of attacks on global health care systems Wednesday. 

“This issue is more important than bricks and mortar. This isn’t just about the destruction of buildings,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, said while discussing Ukraine.

“This is about the destruction of hope. This is about taking away the very thing that gives people the reason to live. The fact that their families can be taken care of, that they can be cured if they’re sick, that they can be treated if they’re injured. This is the most basic of human rights, and it has been directly denied to people and we are then in a position where we can’t send assistance to those people, because the very act of attacking those facilities or not taking care to avoid those facilities means we can’t send the appropriate help when it’s needed,” he said.  

Ryan said that attacks on health care, encompassing workers and facilities, means health systems are “becoming a target.” 

“We’re only a very short part into this year, we have never seen, globally, never seen this rate of attacks on health care,” Ryan said. “Health is becoming a target in these situations; it’s becoming part of the strategy and tactics of war. It is entirely, entirely unacceptable. It is against international humanitarian law.”

Of the 89 attacks on health systems around the world this year so far, 43 have been in Ukraine, according to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 

“More than 300 health facilities are along conflict lines or in areas that Russia now controls. And a further 600 facilities are within 10 kilometers of the conflict line,” Tedros said, adding, “WHO condemns all attacks on health care wherever they occur.” 

The Ukrainian health system is “teetering on the brink,” warned Ryan. 

WHO is working with its partners to get emergency medical teams on the ground in Ukraine, but officials said they are concerned the emergency medical teams will get attacked or bombed. 

“How can you do that in all conscience if the very infrastructure that those people will go into support is being under direct attack?” Ryan said.