March 25, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Jessie Yeung, Adam Renton, Sana Noor Haq, Adrienne Vogt, Melissa Macaya, Ed Upright, George Ramsay, Aditi Sangal and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, March 26, 2022
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5:11 p.m. ET, March 25, 2022

Russian military remains in full control of city of Kherson, residents say

From CNN's Natalie Gallon, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Nick Paton Walsh, Tim Lister, Paul P. Murphy, Ellie Kaufman and Oren Liebermann

The Ukrainian flag is draped in front of the Kherson City Hall on March 24.
The Ukrainian flag is draped in front of the Kherson City Hall on March 24. (From Ihor Kolykhaev)

The city of Kherson remains under total Russian control, four residents of the city told CNN, contrary to number of reports from other media outlets, citing a senior US defense official.

"Today [I] saw them with their guns at the market, possibly searching vegetables for buying," one resident said to CNN on Friday evening. "They lose only couple of villages, not towns."

CNN is not naming the resident over concerns for their security. 

The US official told the outlets, including CNN, that "we’ve seen reports of resistance there in areas that were previously reported to be in Russian control."

"We can’t corroborate exactly who is in control of Kherson, but the point is, it doesn’t appear to be as solidly in Russian control as it was before," the official said. "We would argue that Kherson is actually contested territory again."

The assessment that the city of Kherson was contested was based in part on images and media reports from the city showing the Ukrainian flag draped from city hall, according to two other defense officials.

Previous CNN reporting confirmed that the Ukrainian military counteroffensive has reached the Kherson region's northernmost villages. A CNN crew in one of the northernmost villages in the Kherson region, earlier this week, witnessed the Ukrainian counteroffensive there. 

Despite that, in the city of Kherson, the situation is unchanged. 

Ukrainian forces have been able to launch attacks from the Mykolaiv region just to the north, into Kherson region, for over a week. While the residents of the city continue to hold large protests, the Russians remain firmly in control of it and much of the region at this time.

For example, residents in town draped a large Ukrainian flag on Thursday down the side of city hall.

5:36 p.m. ET, March 25, 2022

Western scientists warn US policymakers against "shunning all Russian scientists"

From CNN's Danya Gainor

John Holdren, a professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard University is the the lead author on the letter is seen in Hyannis, Massachusetts on March 22.
John Holdren, a professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard University is the the lead author on the letter is seen in Hyannis, Massachusetts on March 22. (Merrily Cassidy/USAToday Network)

Five Western scientists have written a letter that calls on US policymakers and the rest of the scientific community to “avoid shunning all Russian scientists” in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

In their letter, published Thursday in the journal Science, the scientists said Putin and his associates deserve “every appropriately sized and targeted sanction against the Putin regime that the horrified world can devise.” 

But, they said, it would be a major setback if the world punished Russian scientists for the actions of their government.

“Shutting down all interaction with Russian scientists would be a serious setback to a variety of Western and global interests and values, which include making rapid progress on global challenges related to science and technology, maintaining nonideological lines of communication across national boundaries, and opposing ideological stereotyping and indiscriminate persecution,” the scientists wrote.

The lead author on the letter was John Holdren, a professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard University. Holdren was previously the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under the Obama administration.

The scientists noted that they had all participated in international collaborations, and welcomed the outpouring of support for Ukrainian scientists. However, they stressed that Russian scientists deserve the same security. The scientists noted the thousands of Russian academics and students living in the West who have criticized the Russian government publicly for their attack on Ukraine.  

“Surely these Russians should not be lumped together with leaders of the Russian state,” the letter said. “Rather, humanitarian provision should be made to ensure that, as their visas and passports expire, they are not forcibly repatriated to face not only isolation from their Western colleagues but also, very possibly, persecution.”

Nina Federoff at the Pennsylvania State University, Neal Lane at Rice University, Nick Talbot at the Sainsbury Laboratory and Toby Spribille at the University of Alberta were also authors on the letter.

4:43 p.m. ET, March 25, 2022

France's Macron will discuss "exceptional humanitarian operation" for Mariupol with Putin

From CNN’s Xiaofei Xu in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a press conference after an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, March 25.
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a press conference after an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, March 25.  (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

French President Emmanuel Macron will speak with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss the terms and conditions of an “exceptional humanitarian operation” to evacuate civilians in Mariupol, he announced at a press conference on Friday.

“We’ve had very concrete discussions today with the mayor of Mariupol and the relevant Ukrainian authorities,” Macron told reporters in Brussels following an EU summit. “We will then negotiate with the Russian side."

The operation will be carried out with Turkey and Greece to evacuate the civilians who want to leave the besieged city, according to Macron.

During the Macron-Putin call, France will demand Russia to lift its siege of Mariupol so that civilians who wish to leave can evacuate and humanitarians aid can go in for those who chose to stay, the Élysée Palace specified after the press conference.

3:39 p.m. ET, March 25, 2022

There's been no rotation of staff at Chernobyl nuclear plant since March 21, UN nuclear watchdog says

From CNN’s Pierre Meilhan

Ukraine informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that there has not been any rotation of technical staff at the Chernobyl nuclear plant since March 21, the UN nuclear watchdog said Friday.

According to an IAEA statement, Ukraine also did not know when the next rotation might take place.

Ukraine’s regulatory authority told the IAEA on Thursday that Russian shelling of checkpoints in the nearby city of Slavutych, where many Chernobyl nuclear power plant staff live, “prevented them from travelling to and from the plant,” the statement read.

The current staff who arrived at the plant on March 20-21 replaced the personnel who had been there since Russian forces took control of the site on Feb. 24, the IAEA said.

On Friday, Ukraine’s State Agency for the Management of the Exclusion Zone “provided additional detailed technical information about the Central Analytical Laboratory in Chernobyl town, which it earlier this week said had been ‘looted by marauders,'” the IAEA said.

The IAEA’S Director General Rafael Grossi said he has “in recent weeks expressed deep concern about the difficult situation facing staff operating Ukrainian nuclear facilities where the Russian military is present. He has stressed that their ability to carry out their important tasks without undue pressure” is critical in order to maintain nuclear safety.

4:18 p.m. ET, March 25, 2022

Top Russian general claims military efforts now centered on eastern part of Ukraine

From CNN's Nathan Hodge in Lviv

Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy is seen in November 10, 2020.
Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy is seen in November 10, 2020. (Russia Defense Ministry/Pool/Reuters)

A top Russian general gave some of the most detailed public remarks to date on Russia's military strategy in Ukraine, claiming on Friday that the "first stage" of Russia's military plan is now complete, with their primary focus now centered on eastern Ukraine.

"In general, the main tasks of the first stage of the operation have been completed," Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, first deputy chief of Russia's General Staff, said in a Friday briefing. "The combat potential of the armed forces of Ukraine has been significantly reduced, allowing us, I emphasize again, to focus the main efforts on achieving the main goal — the liberation of Donbas."

Rudskoy's remarks come as Russia's advances appear to have stalled around major Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv. Russia has also failed to achieve air superiority in Ukraine and has suffered heavy losses of personnel since the start of the invasion.

"The public and individual experts are wondering what we are doing in the area of ​​the blockaded Ukrainian cities," Rudskoy said. "These actions are carried out with the aim of causing such damage to military infrastructure, equipment, personnel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the results of which allow us not only to tie down their forces and prevent them from strengthening their grouping in the Donbas, but also will not allow them to do this until the Russian army completely liberates the territories of the DPR and LNR."

Rudskoy was referring to the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, separatist territories in eastern Ukraine that Russia recognized on the eve of its invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that the goal of what Russian officials refer to euphemistically as the "special military operation" in Ukraine is the complete demilitarization of the country. Putin has said the war is going according to plan, but Russian forces have incurred serious losses: Rudskoy said in the same briefing that 1,351 military personnel had been killed in Ukraine and 3,825 had been wounded. US, NATO and Ukrainian officials estimate the Russian casualty count is much higher.

"Initially, we did not plan to storm them in order to prevent destruction and minimize losses among personnel and civilians," Rudskoy said. "And although we do not exclude such a possibility, however, as individual groupings complete the tasks set, and they are successfully solved, our forces and means will be concentrated on the main thing -- the complete liberation of Donbas."

It is unclear if Rudskoy's statement implies a shifting of the goalposts for the Russian military, or just represents a change in public messaging.

The Russian military has claimed it is not targeting civilians or residential areas, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

2:36 p.m. ET, March 25, 2022

UN says it has "increasing information" corroborating existence of mass graves in Mariupol 

From CNN’s Niamh Kennedy

The United Nations has received “increasing information” corroborating the existence of mass graves in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, and it has been able to get “satellite information” on one such grave, said Matilda Bogner, head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.

“We estimate that one of those mass graves holds about 200 people,” she said at a press briefing on Friday.

She added one caveat: It is not guaranteed that all of the people buried in the graves “are civilian casualties, because when we document civilian casualties, we do not include both military casualties and we do not include people who die for other reasons apart from direct hostilities.”

Bogner made this note as she painted a stark picture of a city where “the ordinary rate of mortality has increased” due to a lack of basic utilities such as food, electricity, and water. 

“People are dying in the city who are not just civilian casualties,” she stressed.

2:31 p.m. ET, March 25, 2022

Russian cruise missiles strike Ukrainian Air Force command center, according to Ukraine's military

From Yulia Kesaieva in Lviv 

The Ukrainian military said in a statement Friday that Russian forces launched cruise-missile strikes on the Ukrainian Air Force command center in west-central Ukraine, causing "significant destruction" to infrastructure.

"Today, March 25, around 4:30 pm, Russian occupiers launched a missile strike on the territory of the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Vinnytsia," according to the statement.

"A total of six cruise missiles were released by the Russians. Some of them were hit by air defense. The rest struck several structures, causing significant destruction to the infrastructure," it continued.

The statement said the consequences of the missile strike were being examined.

7:05 p.m. ET, March 25, 2022

About 600 people believed to have survived Mariupol theater attack, city official says

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva and Andrew Carey in Lviv

An adviser to Mariupol’s mayor said about 600 people are believed to have survived a Russian bomb attack on a theater in the city nine days ago.

Information about casualties and survivors has been slow to emerge since the attack on March 16, and the absence of a functioning police force and emergency responders' network had made compilation of an official count impossible, Petro Andriushchenko said on his Telegram channel.

Instead, he unveiled details of what he called “almost official” numbers and explained how the council had reached the figure of around 300 fatalities, which was announced earlier in the day. CNN has not independently verified the casualty figures.

He said council officials had started with information about the number of people using the theater as a shelter, which changed day by day as new people arrived while others left. 

They had also gathered data from people who lived near the theater or had gone to the site after the attack. 

Finally, city officials had been helped by a local journalist who had specific information about people who had escaped and had left the city.

“This is not just the testimony of one person. It is the result of great and careful work,” Andriushchenko said.

As a result, he concluded, the city’s “almost official” figures put about 900 people in the theater on the day of the bombing. 

The estimated 300 people who died were on the upper floors of the building and in the back of the theater. 

Many of the 600 who survived were in the process of making their way out of Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia, he said.

2:15 p.m. ET, March 25, 2022

It's just past 8 p.m. in Kyiv. Catch up on the latest developments

From CNN staff

These are the biggest updates so far on Friday as the war in Ukraine gets into its fifth week:

Fighting on the ground: Ukrainian forces have retaken towns and defensive positions on the eastern outskirts of Kyiv, Britain's Ministry of Defence said Friday in its latest intelligence update.

Meanwhile, Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed Friday that Russian forces destroyed "the largest of the remaining fuel depots" near Kyiv, with a strike carried out with sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles

Mariupol theater survivors: An adviser to Mariupol’s mayor said about 600 people are believed to have survived a Russian airstrike on a theater in the city on March 16.

The Mariupol city council said earlier that based on eyewitness reports, it now believes around 300 people died in the strike. CNN has not independently verified the casualty figures. New footage has emerged on social media showing people making their escape from the theater.

Biden in Poland: US President Joe Biden lauded the bravery of Ukrainian civilians while speaking to US troops in Poland, saying they "have a lot of backbone." He also addressed the growing refugee crisis, thanking humanitarian organizations in Poland for sending aid to Ukraine and assisting refugees. One in every two Ukrainian children has been displaced since Russia began its invasion on Feb. 24, according to a statement from the UN Children's Fund on Thursday.

He is set to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda and deliver a "major address" on Saturday, according to the White House. Read more about Biden's events in Poland here.

Russia gives update on military deaths: The Russian military said in a briefing on Friday that more than 1,300 military personnel had been killed in Ukraine and over 3,800 had been wounded, in the first major casualty update since March 2. US, Ukrainian and NATO estimates put Russian troop losses drastically higher. 

Two senior NATO military officials on Wednesday estimated the number of Russian soldiers killed in action in Ukraine to be between 7,000 and 15,000. Other US officials have put Russian losses in a similar range — between 7,000 and 14,000 Russian soldiers killed — but they have expressed “low confidence” in those estimates. 

Ukrainian forces also said they had killed a Russian general in the Kherson region.

Putin claims "cancel culture:" Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a complaint about so-called "cancel culture" in a videoconference Friday, saying the West was trying to "cancel" Russia.

He compared his country's treatment to a public backlash against "Harry Potter" creator JK Rowling, who has come under criticism in the past for views that have been called transphobic. Putin, who casts himself as a flag-bearer for conservative cultural values, has railed against transgender and gay rights. Rowling responded, saying that critiques of cancel culture are “not best made” by those "slaughtering civilians" in Ukraine and posting a link to a news article on jailed Kremlin critique Alexey Navalny.

In his remarks, Putin went on to compare the current situation with Russian culture in the West to censorship in Nazi Germany. Putin has cast his invasion of Ukraine — a country with a Jewish president — as a campaign of "denazification," a description roundly dismissed by historians and political observers.