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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9:33 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.

8:09 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Putin must be defeated, European Council president tells CNN

From CNN’s Ben Kirby

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has been invited to address the European Council at a summit this week, European Council President Charles Michel told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday. 

In an exclusive interview ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Michel confirmed that “we have proposed to him to address the summit.”  

He added that the European Council was the first assembly Zelensky addressed after the start of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24.

During a sit-down interview in Brussels, Michel told Amanpour: “We must make sure that Putin will be defeated. It must be the common goal.”
“This is a question of security, for the future of Europe and for the future of the world.”

Michel said he has spoken with Zelensky and the Russian president multiple times since Russia invaded Ukraine, hoping to help them reach “a ceasefire and to make possible a sincere track in order to negotiate.”

“It’s extremely difficult, because we are not certain that the Russian government is sincere,” he added. “We are not naïve – we think that they are trying to attack military in order to strengthen their positions in the negotiation talks.”

“But on the other hand, we must change the balance of power in order to give to President Zelensky a better position in those direct talks with Russia,” Michel said.

The European Council meeting is scheduled to run from March 24-25, with Ukraine as the main topic on the agenda. US President Joe Biden is confirmed to attend Thursday to discuss Ukraine and transatlantic cooperation. 

Michel also discussed sanctions, saying the European Union “must be intelligent” on sanctions against Russia.

“We have decided unprecedented sanctions” against Russia, he said, adding "we are targeting oligarchs, we are targeting the economic sectors in Russia.” 

However, “we do not have exactly the same situation in Europe and in the United States,” the European Council President acknowledged. “The oil or the gas sector, for instance. We are much more dependent in Europe in comparison with the situation in the United States.”

“It’s why we must be intelligent. The goal is to target Russia, the goal is to be painful against Russia. The goal is not to be painful for ourselves,” he said.

When pressed on Europe’s reliance on Russia for its energy supplies, Michel conceded that “we are too much dependent on Russian gas.” However, he added this was not a recent realization, pointing to the 2020 European Green Deal as one long term solution to over-reliance on Russia.

8:33 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Zelensky calls for "more pressure on Russia to restore peace" in address to Japanese lawmakers

From CNN’s Emiko Jozuka in Tokyo

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to members of Japan's lower house of parliament via a video link at the House of Representatives office building in Tokyo, Japan, on March 23.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to members of Japan's lower house of parliament via a video link at the House of Representatives office building in Tokyo, Japan, on March 23. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Japan for its immediate support of his country and urged Tokyo to apply “more pressure on Russia to help restore peace” in a video address to Japanese lawmakers on Wednesday.

“Japan helped us immediately, and we thank them from the bottom of our heart,” Zelensky said in a virtual speech in front of members of the Diet, Japan’s parliament.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defense, and Ukrainian envoy to Japan Sergiy Korsunsky were among the attendees.

Zelensky said Japan was the first Asian country to apply pressure on Russia, adding that “continued pressure on Moscow would help restore peace.”

He also warned Japanese lawmakers of reports that Russia was preparing a chemical weapons attack against Ukraine.

Zelensky's online address marked the first time the Ukrainian President has addressed an Asian legislature, but also the first address by a foreign leader at the Japanese Diet, a spokesman for the House of Representatives told CNN.

His speech was delivered in two separate rooms of an office building of the House of Representatives (the lower house of the National Diet of Japan), not in the Diet’s plenary session hall, the spokesman added.

8:00 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022

It's 2pm in Kyiv. Here's what we know

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine approaches the one-month mark, fighting is raging across major cities with defending forces trying to take back some areas, according to a US official.

  • Russia attacks Mariupol-bound convoy: A convoy of 11 empty buses driving towards the besieged city of Mariupol to rescue fleeing Ukrainians was commandeered by Russian forces, according to the Ukrainian government. The Russians have driven the buses, along with their original drivers and several emergency services workers, to an undisclosed location, the government says.
  • Strikes rain down on Mariupol: Meanwhile from the sea, strikes are coming from Russian ships in the Sea of Azov towards the southeastern city of Mariupol, according to a senior US defense official. The city has already been under an ongoing Russian bombardment from long-range missile launches and artillery outside the city. New satellite images from Maxar Technologies show more fires and destruction across the city, a consistent target for the Russian military since the start of the conflict.

Smoke rises above destroyed apartment blocks in Mariupol, Ukraine, in this satellite image from March 22.
Smoke rises above destroyed apartment blocks in Mariupol, Ukraine, in this satellite image from March 22. (Maxar Technologies/Getty Images)

  • Ukrainian forces fight back: Ukrainians forces have now been trying to take back territory in the last few days that the Russians had gained, according to a senior US defense official, calling them “able and willing” to do so. The official cited the examples of Ukrainians fighting to take back Kherson, as well as pushing Russian forces from the northeast of Mykolaiv to have to reposition south of the city, but cautioned that the US cannot say whether these moves are part of a “larger operational plan” by the Ukrainians or not.

  • Belarus could join war: The US and NATO believe that Belarus could “soon” join Russia in its war against Ukraine, US and NATO officials told CNN, and that the country is already taking steps to do so. It is increasingly “likely” that Belarus will enter the conflict, a NATO military official said Monday. 
  • Sending NATO peacekeepers "reckless," Kremlin says: The deployment of a NATO peacekeeping mission to Ukraine would be “very reckless” and “extremely dangerous,” according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who told journalists that “any possible contact between our military and NATO military can lead to quite understandable consequences that are difficult to repair."
  • US action: President Joe Biden will arrive in Brussels on Wednesday for a planned NATO summit -- one of many summits he will attend in Europe this week. At these summits, he is expected to unveil sanctions on members of the Duma. These sanctions will be on hundreds of Russians serving in the country’s lower legislative body, an official familiar with the announcement said.