March 21, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Travis Caldwell, Amy Woodyatt, George Ramsay and Hafsa Khalil, CNN

Updated 12:23 a.m. ET, March 22, 2022
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12:21 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Who is Russia's top field commander in Ukraine? The US isn't sure.

From Katie Bo Lillis and Zachary Cohen

The US has been unable to determine if Russia has designated a military commander responsible for leading the country's war in Ukraine, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter — something that current and former defense officials say is likely a key contributor to the apparent clumsiness and disorganization of the Russian assault.

Without a top, theater-wide commander on the ground in or near Ukraine, units from different Russian military districts operating in different parts of Ukraine appear to be competing for resources rather than coordinating their efforts, according to two US defense officials.

Units participating in different Russian offensives across Ukraine have failed to connect, these sources say, and in fact, appear to be acting independently with no overarching operational design.

Russian forces also appear to be having significant communication issues. Soldiers and commanders have at times used commercial cell phones and other unsecure channels to talk to each other, making their communications easier to intercept and helping Ukraine develop targets for their own counterstrikes.

It's all led to what these sources say has been a disjointed — and at times chaotic — operation that has surprised US and western officials. 

"One of the principles of war is 'unity of command,' said CNN military analyst retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a former commander of the US Army in Europe. "That means someone has to be in overall charge— to coordinate fires, direct logistics, commit reserve forces, measure the success (and failure) of different 'wings' of the operation and adjust actions based on that."

Historically, there have been instances in which Russia has publicized this kind of information, but the Ministry of Defense has not made any reference to a top commander for operations in Ukraine and did not respond to CNN's request for comment on the topic.  

And while it is possible that Russia has quietly designated a top commander to oversee the invasion — even if the US has been unable to identify that individual — the state of combat operations would suggest "he's inept," according to Hertling.

The Russian invasion has also been marked by an inordinate number of casualties among high-ranking Russian officers. 

The Ukrainians say they have killed five Russian generals during the first three weeks of the war, a claim CNN has not independently confirmed. Still, any military general being killed in combat is a rare event, Retired US Army Gen. David Petraeus told CNN's Jake Tapper during Sunday's State of the Union.

Col. Sergei Sukharev, the commander of an elite Russian airborne unit, was also killed in battle in Ukraine, Russian regional state TV network GTRK Kostroma reported Thursday.

"The bottom line is that their command and control has broken down," said Petraeus.

The sheer size of the invasion has only made things worse. Coordinating operations along a front that measures over 1,000 miles requires "extensive communication capability and command, control and intelligence resources that the Russians just don't have," Hertling added. 

"I can't see that anything the navy is doing is coordinated with the anything the air force is doing or anything the land force is doing," said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, another former commander of the US Army in Europe, who cautioned that he had no inside knowledge of the US understanding of Russia's command structure. 

"The Russians have had tremendous difficulties with command and control during this operation at all echelons," echoed a US source familiar with the situation on the ground. "Some of this may be due to actions by the Ukrainians themselves."

On the ground, Russian troops in the field have often been cut off from their senior commanders, sources said. 

"The guys in the field go out and they have their objective, but they have no way to radio back [if something goes wrong]," said another source familiar with the intelligence, who added that western officials believe this is part of the reason that some Russian troops have been observed abandoning their own tanks and armored personnel carriers in the field and simply walking away.

12:03 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Ukrainian-held city in Donetsk region hit by Russian attacks, regional military head says

From CNN's Katharina Krebs in London

The head of the Ukrainian government's Donetsk regional military administration said Monday the city of Avdiivka and its surrounding areas had been hit by Russian aircraft and artillery fire.

In a statement on his Telegram account, Pavlo Kyrylenko said at least one civilian was killed and at least two were injured in the recent strikes, and that shelling damage and fires had been recorded at 15 local addresses.

Kyrylenko also published photos of what he said were the results of Russian shelling, including damage to World War II monuments and collective graves for Red Army soldiers who fought Nazi Germany in World War II near the town of Toretsk. 

11:42 a.m. ET, March 21, 2022

US ambassador demands detained Americans in Russia be allowed consular access, US Embassy in Moscow says 

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan leaves after a closed hearing at the US Capitol on May 24, 2021, in Washington, DC.
US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan leaves after a closed hearing at the US Capitol on May 24, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/File)

US Ambassador John Sullivan met with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday and “demanded that the government of Russia follow international law and basic human decency to allow consular access to all US citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial detention," according to the US Embassy in Moscow.

“We have repeatedly asked for consular access to American citizen detainees and have consistently and improperly been denied access for months. This is completely unacceptable,” the Embassy tweeted.

The demand comes as WNBA player Brittney Griner and former US Marines Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed are being detained in Russia.

State Department principal deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said Friday that the US Embassy in Moscow "continues to press, thus far unsuccessfully still, for consular access … for all detainees and that includes Ms. Griner.”

“We’re deeply concerned about our inability to access any of these US citizens in recent months,” Porter said.

CNN has reached out to the State Department and US Embassy about the Russian MFA’s account of the meeting.

11:33 a.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Russians beginning to have "inventory issues" with precision missiles, senior US defense official says

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Russian forces are beginning to have “inventory issues with precision-guided munitions,” a senior US defense official told reporters on Monday. Precision-guided munitions refer to missiles that target a specific location, as opposed to “dumb bombs,” which do not have the technology to focus on a specific target.

The inventory issues around their precision-guided munitions supply are why “you’re seeing the increasing use of what we would call dumb bombs,” the official added. 

Some of their precision-guided munitions are “failing to launch, or they’re failing to hit the target, or they’re failing to explode on contact,” the official said.

They have used “quite a bit” of their “cruise missile, air launch cruise missile” supplies and have seen a significant “number of failures” of those munitions, the official said. 

CNN previously reported Russia has relied far more heavily on less sophisticated, so-called "dumb" bombs than it has on its arsenal of precision-guided munitions in its punishing war on Ukraine

11:39 a.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Neither side is backing down in the conflict, senior NATO official says

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand

Ukrainian servicemen are seen at an explosion site of a shopping center on March 21 in Kyiv.
Ukrainian servicemen are seen at an explosion site of a shopping center on March 21 in Kyiv. (Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

A senior NATO intelligence official said on Monday that signs are pointing to a stalemate emerging in Russia’s war on Ukraine, with Russian ground forces remaining stalled and Russian combat aircraft unable to achieve air superiority over Ukraine.

“If we are not in a stalemate already, we are rapidly approaching one,” the official told reporters during a briefing at NATO headquarters. “And it's quite a thing to say when you consider the disparity in strength when this fight began.” 

“You don't get to this point if you didn't make a series of mistakes,” the official added.

The official noted a stalemate is particularly dangerous, however, given how Russia has resorted to using less precise, more brutal weaponry against civilian targets since its campaign stalled. 

“Will Ukrainians give up? No. And they have been very clear they will not give up,” the official said. “So what happens when you have these two forces running on each other in this way?” 

Russia is not backing down either, despite their losses, the official said. In the last few days Russian forces have continued to assemble reinforcements and attempt to improve the logistical support in both Kyiv and the southern operational directions, the official said. The Belarusian government, meanwhile, is “preparing the environment to justify a Belarussian offensive against Ukraine,” the official added. Ukrainian officials have been warning publicly that Belarus might join the war.

It remains NATO’s assessment that Russia’s top goal is still to capture the Ukrainian capital and force a change of government there, as well as force Ukraine to adopt a neutral position with NATO and demilitarize. “I don’t think [Putin] has backed off any of his goals,” the official said. 

11:03 a.m. ET, March 21, 2022

96-year-old Holocaust survivor killed by Russian strike, memorial institute says

From Tim Lister, Victoria Butenko and Olga Voitovych

Boris Romanchenko, 96, survived four Nazi concentration camps, but his life was ended last Friday by a Russian strike on Kharkiv, according to the Buchenwald memorial institute.

The institute said in a series of tweets that according to his grand-daughter, Romanchenko was living in an apartment block in Kharkiv that was hit during a Russian attack.

The group said Romanchenko had survived the concentration camps at Buchenwald, Peenemünde, Dora and Bergen-Belsen during World War II. It said it was "stunned" by news of his death.

Romanchenko worked "intensively on the memory of Nazi crimes and was vice-president of the Buchenwald-Dora International Committee," the institute said.

In 2012, Romanchenko attended an event recalling the liberation of Buchenwald, where he read an oath devoted to "creating a new world where peace and freedom reign,” the memorial said.

In 2018, a Kharkiv newspaper reported on his visit to Buchenwald on the 73rd anniversary of the camp’s liberation by US forces, saying, “The event was attended by the last surviving Buchenwald prisoners from Ukraine and Belarus — Borys Romanchenko from Kharkiv, Oleksandr Bychok from Kyiv and Andriy Moiseenko from Minsk.”

11:00 a.m. ET, March 21, 2022

It's 5 p.m. in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

From CNN staff

A new curfew will go into effect in Kyiv starting Monday at 8 p.m. local time. Meanwhile, shelling has continued in the capital this morning and at least eight people were reported killed in an attack on a shopping center.

Here are more headlines from today in the Russia-Ukraine conflict:

  • Russian military says it carried out cruise missile strikes against targets: Russian forces fired air-launched cruise missiles early Monday at what Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson, described as a Ukrainian military training center in Nova Lyubomyrka, in Ukraine's northwestern Rivne oblast. In a statement, Konashenkov claimed the strike inflicted dozens of casualties. CNN could not verify any of those claims. Separately, Konashenkov said cruise missiles also destroyed an ammunition depot and the headquarters of a mechanized brigade near the western village of Selets, without providing additional details. 
  • Air pollution elevated in Kyiv following attack on shopping center: The Kyiv mayor said Monday that air pollution had been detected in the capital following the Russian strike on a shopping center in the city's Podil district, which killed eight people. In a statement on Telegram, Klitschko said the fires resulting from the strike burned down a shopping center and damaged six apartment buildings, leaving three of them unfit for habitation. Meanwhile, the premises of two schools and two kindergartens were damaged, he said.
  • The latest on Mariupol: Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said the defenders of Mariupol had played a "huge role in destroying the enemy's plans," as he gave an update in which he claimed Russian forces were stalled elsewhere but acknowledged a "difficult situation" nationwide. By confronting so much Russian firepower in Mariupol, Reznikov said on Facebook, "so many tens of thousands of lives throughout Ukraine were saved. Today Mariupol is saving Kyiv, Dnipro and Odesa. Everyone must understand this." Ukraine rejected an ultimatum to surrender the besieged city of Mariupol after a Russian deadline set at 5 a.m. Moscow time (10 a.m. ET) Monday passed.
  • Zelensky's appeal to Germany: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an appeal to Germany to save the capital city of Kyiv, in a televised address to the nation on Monday. Kyiv, used to be called a “new Berlin,” similar in its spirit of “openness, emotion, freedom in the squares, sincerity of the people, clubs and parties,” Zelensky said. “Now Kyiv is closed. It is silent in anticipation of a new air raid siren that will force people into shelters.” Zelensky played a 20-second clip of an air raid siren, calling it a sound Ukrainians have been hearing "for hours, days and weeks." 
  • More aid for Ukraine: German Finance Minister Annalena Baerbock said the European Union will increase financial aid and delivery of weapons to Ukraine. "We will increase financial means for the purchase of military goods to 1 billion euros, in order to make clear, we stand with full solidarity on Ukraine's side, we stand for the protection of the civil population in Ukraine," Baerbock told reporters.
11:05 a.m. ET, March 21, 2022

US sees increased Russian naval activity in northern Black Sea, senior US defense official says

From CNN's Michael Conte

The US has seen increased Russian naval activity in the northern Black Sea, according to a senior US defense official.

The official said that the US believes some of the shelling around the Ukrainian city of Odesa has been coming from these warships, but that there is still not an indication of an imminent amphibious assault against Odesa.

Russia has more than a dozen warships in the northern Black Sea, including amphibious ships, surface combatants, a minesweeper, and patrol boats, according to the official.

Some more context: The Defense Department assesses that the Russians are “near desperate” to gain any momentum in their invasion, which is why they are increasing their long-range missile and artillery bombardments that have made the war even more dangerous for civilians.

The official noted that Russian forces “haven’t achieved anything” of what the US assesses to be their objective of controlling population centers, having only taken Melitopol, Berdyansk and Kherson since the start of the invasion, and having not taken Kharkiv or Mariupol and having not made any progress towards Kyiv since last week.

However, the long-range bombardments have only hardened the Ukrainian resistance, increasing the frustration of the Russian forces, according to the official.

It is also possible that Russia is trying to gain momentum simply to increase their leverage in negotiations with Ukraine, because they do not appear to have a lot of leverage now, the official said.

11:24 a.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Here's where Ukrainians fleeing their homes have gone

From CNN's George Ramsay

People arrive at a train station in Przemysl, Poland, from Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 20.
People arrive at a train station in Przemysl, Poland, from Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 20. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

At least 10 million people have been forced to flee their homes in Ukraine following Russia's invasion less than a month ago, the head of the United Nations' refugee agency said Sunday.

That figure accounts for almost a quarter of the country's population, which was calculated at 44 million by the World Bank in 2020.

Of those who have left their homes, the majority — 6.48 million as of March 16, according to figures provided by the International Organization for Migration on Friday — have been internally displaced since the conflict began on Feb. 24.

Others have sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia and Belarus.

In the first three weeks of the conflict, two million people arrived in Poland from Ukraine, according to the UN, while more than a million went to other neighboring countries.

Raouf Mazou, the UNHCR assistant commissioner, said last week that he estimated 490,000 Ukrainians had fled to Romania, 350,000 to Moldova, 280,000 to Hungary, and 228,000 to Slovakia.

Read more about this here.