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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2:35 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Ukrainian official: 2 children in critical condition as families fleeing Mariupol come under artillery fire 

From CNN's Olga Voitovych and Andrew Carey in Lviv

Two children are in a critical condition after cars carrying families came under artillery fire on the road between Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia, a regional official in eastern Ukraine said.

Oleksander Starukh reported heavy shelling around the frontline separating Russian and Ukrainian forces Monday, in a statement on his Telegram channel. 

Three children from Mariupol who had escaped the besieged city with their family came under fire as they were traveling through Polohivsky district, Starukh said, leaving one child in a critical condition. 

A second child traveling with their family is also in a critical condition after their car came under fire in the village of Kamianske. 

2:47 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Why some African countries choose not to interfere with the crisis in Ukraine

From CNN's Stephanie Busari

A man looks at a shopping mall following an explosion in Kyiv on March 21.
A man looks at a shopping mall following an explosion in Kyiv on March 21. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela was once asked why he still had relationships with, among others, Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, the Cuban and Palestinian leaders who had been branded terrorists by Western powers. The revered South African statesman replied that it was a mistake "to think that their enemies should be our enemies." 

This stance has largely typified some African nations' response to the Russia-Ukraine war. Across the continent, many appear hesitant to risk their own security, foreign investment and trade by backing one side in this conflict.

While there has been widespread condemnation of the attacks on Ukrainian civilians and their own citizens fleeing the warzone — from countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya — there has been a much more muted response from some key African nations.

Countries on the continent find themselves in a delicate position and will not want to get drawn into proxy battles, said Remi Adekoya, associate lecturer at England's University of York.

"There's a strong strand of thought in African diplomacy that says African states should maintain the principle of non-interference and so they shouldn't get caught up in proxy wars between the East and the West. As some states did get caught up in proxy wars during the Cold War, for instance," Adekoya told CNN.

One influential voice that has made it clear he will not make an enemy out of Russian leader Vladimir Putin is South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

While addressing his country's parliament Thursday, he said: "Our position is very clear ... there are those who are insisting that we should take a very adversarial stance and position against, say Russia. And the approach that we have chosen to take ... is we are insisting that there should be dialogue."

After initially releasing a statement calling for Russia to immediately pull its forces out of Ukraine, South Africa has since laid the blame for the war directly at NATO's doorstep for considering Ukraine's membership into the military alliance, which Russia is against.

"The war could have been avoided if NATO had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less instability in the region," Ramaphosa said in parliament Thursday.

Keep reading here.

1:48 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Shelling in Ukraine kills 21 rescue workers and injures 47

From CNN's Katharina Krebs in London

Twenty-one Ukrainian rescue workers have been killed and 47 have been injured so far due to shelling by Russian troops, said the deputy head of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, Roman Prymush, during a news briefing with Ukrinform on Monday. 

"According to the Geneva Convention, shelling or other threats to rescuers at the time of rescue operations are considered a war crime. We record all these cases, the materials on each of them are transferred to the relevant bodies, which will provide a legal assessment of such actions, will identify the perpetrators involved," Prymush said. 

He noted that the detention of rescuers by Russian forces is also a violation of the Geneva Convention. 

Prymush added it will be the subject of proceedings in international courts, which are already underway.

1:17 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

The theater was supposed to be a safe haven. Missiles ripped it apart.

From CNN's Eliza Mackintosh and Oleksandra Ochman

When Serhii woke up to news reports that a bomb had flattened Mariupol's Drama Theater, where hundreds of people had been sheltering, he couldn't breathe.

His wife and their two daughters were inside.

A day before the attack, the 56-year-old editor, who lives in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, received a panicked call from his 30-year-old daughter.

He hadn't heard from her since March 1, when Russian forces intensified their siege of Mariupol, the strategic port city, launching a relentless barrage of rockets and bombs from land, sky and sea.

As electricity and internet service went out, Mariupol was largely cut off from the outside world. Serhii, who asked that only his first name be used for security reasons, waited desperately for any update from his girls.

Click here to read more on the bombing of Mariupol:

12:43 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Journalists and a former newspaper publisher held for several hours by Russian forces in occupied Melitopol 

From CNN staff

Three journalists, along with a retired newspaper publisher and his family, were abducted Monday morning by Russian forces and held for several hours before being released, according to Ukraine’s national journalists’ union. 

The four – former publisher Mykhailo Kumok, editor Yevhenia Boryan and reporters Yulia Olkhovska and Lyubov Chaika – are all associated with the Melitopolskie Vedomosti, a newspaper based in the Russian-occupied town of Melitopol in Ukraine’s south. 

Armed men arrived at the homes of the four around dawn and confiscated computers from some of the journalists, before driving them off to an unknown location where they were held before later being let go, the journalists' union said. 

Anna Medvid, the director general of the company that owns the newspaper, said the abductions were an attempt to coerce local journalists into supporting the Russian invasion. 

She said she too had recently been visited by pro-Russian officials. 

“A week ago, I was called in for a talk and they asked me to support them. They met me in the editorial office, which they entered arbitrarily before searching it,” Medvid told the journalists’ union.  

“[The Russian occupiers] want us to be loyal and supportive. I did not agree to it, and we parted ways," she added. 

The condition of those abducted and then released Monday is not known. 

According to human rights organizations, there have been multiple reports of journalists, activists and local officials going missing since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost four weeks ago. 

Digital broadcaster Hromadske says the whereabouts of its reporter Victoria Roshchina is still unknown since she filed her last report on March 12 from the Russian-occupied town of Enerhodar. Ukraine’s government says it believes she was kidnapped by Russian forces in the town of Bediansk. 

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