March 23, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Seán Federico O'Murchú, George Ramsay, Hafsa Khalil, Adrienne Vogt and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, March 24, 2022
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9:50 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

First deliveries of $800 million in new US military aid have been delivered to Ukraine

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins

The first deliveries of the $800 million in new military aid that US President Joe Biden is sending to Ukraine have started to arrive in country, an administration official tells CNN.

Biden announced the new package last week after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered an impassioned plea to Congress for more help. 

The US will continue to move the rest of the $800 million into Ukraine as quickly as possible, the official said, given it includes 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems and 100 armed drones, among other assistance. Both are seen as critical to Ukraine's defense. 

The US has nearly completed the delivery of most of the $200 million package Biden announced on March 12, including all of the Stinger anti-air systems and most of the Javelin anti-armor missiles. The remaining equipment from that package is expected to be delivered shortly, the official said, though they declined to offer an exact timeline.

9:37 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Melitopol mayor accuses Russians of seizing businesses in the city

From CNN's Tim Lister, Katerina Krebs and Julia Kesa

The mayor of the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol has accused occupying Russian forces of seizing businesses as living conditions for civilians deteriorate.

Mayor Ivan Fedorov was detained on March 11 but freed five days later as part of a prisoner exchange.

In comments on Wednesday, Fedorov said the "situation is difficult, because Russian soldiers have declared themselves as authorities but of course, they don't care about people and their problems, they only care about taking the money from the businessmen, seize their businesses."

"We estimate that 80% of Melitopol's population have trouble with food, medications, fuel supplies, and there is a big problem with the cash payments," Fedorov said.

The mayor said the city was sending requests to Russia every day to allow humanitarian aid to enter the city and people to evacuate. "So far, no reply," he said. 

He also said Russian forces were intimidating the population and had detained a number of journalists.

Three Melitopol-based journalists, along with a retired newspaper publisher and his family, were detained by Russian forces on Monday 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 newspaper Melitopolskie Vedomosti. 

9:24 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Nestle suspends brands in Russia, including KitKat and Nesquik

From CNN's Chris Liakos and Matt Egan

Food giant Nestle is suspending KitKat and Nesquik brands among others in Russia after criticism over the weekend by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over its ties to Russia.

“Going forward, we are suspending renowned Nestlé brands such as KitKat and Nesquik, among others. We have already halted non-essential imports and exports into and out of Russia, stopped all advertising, and suspended all capital investment in the country. Of course, we are fully complying with all international sanctions on Russia. While we do not expect to make a profit in the country or pay any related taxes for the foreseeable future in Russia, any profit will be donated to humanitarian relief organizations,” Nestle said in a statement.

Nestle said its activities in Russia will focus on providing essential food, such as infant food and medical/hospital nutrition and not on making a profit.

“This approach is in line with our purpose and values. It upholds the principle of ensuring the basic right to food,” Nestle said. 

Some background: Over the weekend Zelensky called out Nestle for its continued relationship with Russia. 

“'Good food. Good life.' This is the slogan of Nestlé. Your company that refuses to leave Russia,” Zelensky said Saturday during an address to the people of Switzerland. “Even now — when there are threats from Russia to other European countries. Not only to us. When there is even nuclear blackmail from Russia.” 

A Nestle spokesperson told CNN Wednesday, “We are focused on providing essential foods such as baby food and medical/hospital nutrition products. This means we will suspend the vast majority of our pre-war volume in Russia.”

The company said that is identifying solutions for its people and its factories in Russia. “We will continue to pay our people,” it said. 

It added that it will suspend the vast majority of categories, such as coffee and pet food.

Nestle announced on March 11 that it suspended exports of its products from Russia except for essential items like baby food. Nestlé also said it stopped importing Nespresso and other products into Russia, except for essential goods including baby food, cereal, tailored nutrition and therapeutic pet foods.   

9:33 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Biden says chemical warfare in Ukraine is a "real threat"

From CNN's Betsy Klein

US President Joe Biden is greeted by Colonel Matthew Jones, Commander, 89th Airlift Wing, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, on March 23, before beginning a trip to Europe.
US President Joe Biden is greeted by Colonel Matthew Jones, Commander, 89th Airlift Wing, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, on March 23, before beginning a trip to Europe. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden warned Wednesday that the threat of Russia using chemical weapons in its ongoing attack of Ukraine was “real” as he departed the White House for a high-stakes trip to Europe to tout Western unity and support for Ukraine. 

Asked by CNN’s Jeremy Diamond about the threat of chemical warfare in Ukraine, Biden said, “I think it’s a real threat,” but declined to elaborate further before boarding Marine One. 

And asked his message to European partners, he said, “I’m going to say that to their face, I’m going to say all that I have to say, I’m going to say it when I get there. But I’ll be happy to talk to you guys when I get back.”

9:30 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

France freezes $800 million in Russian oligarchs' assets, according to French government spokesperson

From CNN’s Joseph Ataman in Paris

France's Secretary of State and Government's spokesperson Gabriel Attal leaves the weekly cabinet meeting at The Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France, on March 23.
France's Secretary of State and Government's spokesperson Gabriel Attal leaves the weekly cabinet meeting at The Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France, on March 23. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

French authorities have frozen $800 million in assets belonging to Russian oligarchs as part of sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told journalists Wednesday. 

“These sanctions are being felt in Russia where the economy is teetering, The ruble is collapsing, the stock exchange is in large part still closed and the central bank is strongly impacted,” he said. 

“There will be no taboo if we need to go further,” Attal said about any additional sanctions.

The European Union’s latest round of sanctions in early March against Russia included measures targeting 160 oligarchs and Russian politicians. 

9:06 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Chernobyl radiation monitoring lab destroyed by Russia, according to Ukraine's government

From CNN's Andrew Carey in Lviv and Kostan Nechyporenko in Kyiv

Chernobyl nuclear power plant seen from above on March 10 in Ukraine.
Chernobyl nuclear power plant seen from above on March 10 in Ukraine. (Maxar Technologies/Getty Imag

Russian forces have looted and destroyed a lab close to the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was used to monitor radioactive waste, according to Ukraine’s government.

The site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster fell into Russian hands in the first week of Russia’s invasion, triggering fears that safety standards inside the exclusion zone could be compromised.

According to a Ukrainian government agency, the laboratory was part of a European Union-funded attempt to improve radioactive waste management through on-site analysis of waste samples as well as the packaging used to dispose of waste. 

The government agency also reported that samples of radionuclides — unstable atoms that can emit high levels of radiation — had been removed from the lab. It said it hoped Russia would use the samples to “harm itself, and not the civilized world.”

It is the latest scare to emerge from the infamous Ukrainian site that sits close to the border with Belarus.

More background on Chernobyl: Staff working there on the day it was captured at the end of February only recently had the chance to go home, three weeks after they were due to rotate with an incoming team. 

Local Slavutych Mayor Yuriy Fomichev spoke to CNN after the workers had been confined to the plant for 10 days, describing them then as “exhausted, both mentally and emotionally, but mainly physically.”

Fomichev said that more than 100 people were shift personnel who should have been relieved after 12 hours.

Earlier this month, the site was forced to get power from emergency diesel generators for several days before being reconnected to the national electricity grid after repairs to damaged lines.

And on Tuesday, Ukraine’s government also warned of several fires close to the plant, which it said had probably been triggered by Russian artillery or arson.

8:59 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Longstanding Russian government insider quits, Russian state news reports

Anatoly Chubais speaks during the Open Innovation Forum in Moscow, Russia, on October 22, 2019.
Anatoly Chubais speaks during the Open Innovation Forum in Moscow, Russia, on October 22, 2019. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Anatoly Chubais, a Russian government insider for decades, is leaving his job as President Vladimir Putin’s special representative on the environment, Russian state news agency TASS reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed source.

Chubais is the highest-profile Russian official to quit since the war began.

Reuters reported that Chubais had left Russia and did not plan to return, also citing an unnamed source.

CNN is seeking comment from Chubais himself and has not independently confirmed that he has left Russia or the reason for his resignation.

Chubais had been in the environment job since December 2020, TASS said. He rose to prominence as Boris Yeltsin’s finance minister in the 1990s.

8:51 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Buses and vans bring 80 people out from towns in east Ukraine

From CNN's Andrew Carey and Olga Voitovych

Eighty people have escaped towns in east Ukraine on Wednesday morning after another night of attacks by Russian forces, a regional official said. 

Authorities posted the addresses of collection points on Facebook, where people could pick up buses and small vans to drive them to railway stations and then onward to the west of Ukraine. 

The humanitarian corridor was one of nine announced by Ukraine’s government for Wednesday – others include the key link between Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia in the southeast. 

The head of the Luhansk region, which includes Rubizhne, has been reporting intense Russian assaults in his region for many days. 

Serhii Haidai said there were ongoing battles between Russian and Ukrainian forces for control of territory with Russian aircraft also targeting Rubizhne. 

8:30 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Kyiv suburb Irpin now 80% under Ukrainian control, mayor says

From Julia Kesa in Lviv

A Ukrainian serviceman looks on as evacuees cross a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, Ukraine, on March 7.
A Ukrainian serviceman looks on as evacuees cross a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, Ukraine, on March 7. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Oleksandr Markushyn, mayor of the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, said the Ukrainian armed forces, territorial defense and police "have 80% of our city under control."

Speaking on Ukrainian television, Markushyn said, "Our city is being constantly shelled by GRAD systems. Very massively. They are pounding the residential area, multi-story buildings."

Despite mass evacuations in recent weeks, Markushyn, who said his own house had been destroyed on Wednesday, estimated that up to 6,000 people are still in Irpin and that small groups are being evacuated each day.

"Around 4,000 people do not want to leave the city at all. We help them with food and medical supplies," he added.

The national police on Wednesday said they are resuming work in Irpin, much of which was occupied by Russian forces. It was another possible sign that Ukrainian security forces are regaining territory around the capital of Kyiv.

Irpin, a suburb located to the northwest of Kyiv, has seen weeks of fierce fighting and heavy shelling since Russia's invasion was launched nearly four weeks ago.