March 29, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Maureen Chowdhury, Adrienne Vogt, Aditi Sangal, Mike Hayes, Jason Kurtz, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Travis Caldwell, Seán Federico O'Murchú, Jack Guy and Hafsa Khalil, CNN

Updated 11:06 a.m. ET, March 30, 2022
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7:36 p.m. ET, March 29, 2022

Top US general in Europe: An intelligence gap could have caused the US to overestimate Russia's military

From CNN's Barbara Starr, Ellie Kaufman and Jeremy Herb

General Tod Wolters, U.S. European Command and NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, March 29, in Washington, DC.
General Tod Wolters, U.S. European Command and NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, March 29, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The top US general in Europe said Tuesday there “could be” a gap in US intelligence gathering that caused the US to overestimate Russia’s capability and underestimate Ukraine’s defensive abilities before Russia attacked Ukraine.

When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month, US intelligence assessed that the country-wide assault could lead to Kyiv falling into Russian hands within days. But Russia’s military has been bogged down around the capital as the war has entered its second month, beleaguered by sustainability and logistics problems, along with an unexpected stiff resistance from Ukrainian fighters.

Testifying at a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, US European Command chief Gen. Tod Wolters was asked by Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, if there was an intelligence gap that caused the US to overestimate Russia’s strength and underestimate the Ukrainian defenses.

“There could be,” Wolters responded. “As we’ve always done in the past, when this crisis is over with, we will accomplish a comprehensive after-action review in all domains and in all departments and find out where our weak areas were and make sure we can find ways to improve, and this could be one of those areas.”

While US intelligence was spot on in predicting Russia was planning to invade Ukraine —which the Biden administration aggressively released to turn global sentiment against the Kremlin — the intelligence community did not assess the poor performance of the Russian military.

In the opening hours of the war, US officials offered to help Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky flee the country as Russian troops moved toward Kyiv, fearing that he would be killed. Zelensky refused, asking instead for weapons to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia.

The US and NATO allies have continued to help re-supply Ukraine’s military with weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that have been used against Russian forces. While estimates vary widely, sources familiar with the estimates say thousands of Russian troops have been killed in the conflict. US officials say they have anecdotal evidence of morale problems in the Russian military.

More than a month into the war, Russia said on Tuesday that it would “drastically reduce” its military assault on the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Chernihiv after talks took place between representatives of the two nations on Tuesday. US officials told CNN it was a “major” strategy shift by Moscow, with Russian forces pulling back in some areas of the north and focusing on gains in the south and east.

Read more here.

7:06 p.m. ET, March 29, 2022

Doctors Without Borders official in Ukraine describes the challenges medical workers are facing on the ground

From CNN's Jason Kurtz

Avril Benoit is the acting as the emergency communication coordinator for Doctors Without Borders.
Avril Benoit is the acting as the emergency communication coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. (CNN)

Avril Benoit is on the ground in Ukraine, acting as the emergency communication coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. During a live interview on CNN, she offered a first-hand perspective on what medical workers are facing as the conflict continues.

"It's incredibly impressive," Benoit said speaking from Lviv of the work Ukrainian doctors and nurses are doing on the ground.

"What we're finding on the ground is a huge appetite to prepare for a mass casualty influx of wounded people all at once. Surgeons are interested, really keen to learn from an organization like us, that has a lot of experience of war surgery, of triage in situations like this. They've been doing a lot of training," she told.

On the topic of supplies, Benoit told CNN's Jake Tapper that necessary materials are still able to reach Ukraine, though the process is not an easy one.

"It's still possible to bring supplies in through various routes through Poland, Slovakia. There are ways with trucks to navigate the security environment. Amazingly enough, also the train system seems to be working quite well. So that's another way we are able to move shipments to and from," she said.

"There was a convoy of supplies that we were working with other organizations to reach Mariupol and it was far too dangerous on the road leading to it, littered with landmine's that perhaps a car could slalom through, but certainly not a transport truck with significant amounts of cargo. So it is also of course a dangerous and volatile environment. Sometimes you reach a place and you just have to hunker down for a while, while you're assessing is it possible to go further ... We're just making do the best we can," she told CNN.

Benoit's conversation with Tapper was then interrupted and ultimately cut short by the sounding of an air alarm in Lviv.

Watch the interview here:

6:52 p.m. ET, March 29, 2022

US officials voiced extreme caution Tuesday at signals Russia is scaling back military operations near Kyiv

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

President Joe Biden speaks with the media during a visit by Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, March 29.
President Joe Biden speaks with the media during a visit by Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, March 29. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

US President Joe Biden and other American officials voiced extreme caution Tuesday following signals Russia is scaling back its military operations near Kyiv, suggesting they were waiting to see stronger signs of de-escalation before making an assessment of Moscow's intentions.

"We'll see. I don't read anything into it until I see what their actions are. We'll see if they follow through what they're suggesting," Biden said at the White House, where officials were busy digesting intelligence and reports from the ground that Russian troops were moving their focus away from Ukraine's capital toward other areas of the country.

Biden's don't-trust-but-verify approach reflects deep American skepticism at Russian President Vladimir Putin's motives amid his monthlong invasion of Ukraine. While the US has observed movements of Russian forces away from Kyiv, there remains doubt the Russian assault on Ukraine will end soon.

Some Western officials viewed Russia's moves as a mere tactical exercise amid a stalled campaign in Ukraine. US officials also said Russia could always reverse itself if the battle conditions allow.

Similarly, American officials appeared wary of voicing optimism about ongoing negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, which both sides suggested Tuesday had yielded progress. Instead, Biden was focused on ensuring the stringent sanctions regime he's enacted with European allies remains in place as the hostilities continue.

Meeting in Istanbul, Russian and Ukrainian teams began outlining the contours of a settlement, including discussions over the status of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and Donbas, the eastern region that Russia claims is independent. Ukraine's neutral status and international security guarantees are also up for discussion, as is a potential meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

US officials have questioned Putin's seriousness in negotiating an end to the violence from the start of the crisis. Some have also made plain they aren't certain of Zelensky's endgame in the talks and are wary of whatever concessions he may offer.

Speaking in the East Room alongside the visiting Singaporean Prime Minister, Biden said he'd discussed the nascent peace talks with European leaders on a 53-minute telephone call earlier in the day. He said there was a "consensus" among the leaders to "let's just see what they have to offer. We'll find out what they do."

"In the meantime, we're going to continue to keep strong the sanctions. We're going to continue to provide the Ukrainian military with their capacity to defend themselves and we're going to continue to keep a close eye on what's going on," Biden added.

Biden's aides echoed his sentiment, saying that while there were signs of troop movements, a new strategy did not appear afoot.

"We have no reason to believe that they have adjusted, that they've adjusted that strategy," White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said during a daily briefing. "Obviously, we continue to do everything we can to impose costs for this decision."

Speaking on a diplomatic visit to Morocco, Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned the pullback of troops could amount to "a means by which Russia once again is trying to deflect and deceive people into thinking it's not doing what it is doing."

Read more here.

7:05 p.m. ET, March 29, 2022

Ukrainian member of parliament has a message for Putin about his war: "Life goes on, we carry on living"

From CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Jo Shelley and Maddie Araujo

Lesia Vasylenko is coming to terms with her country’s new reality.

“There we go,” the Ukrainian member of parliament tells CNN as the air raid sirens sound across Kyiv’s morning sky. “That sort of disturbs your day, but you learn to live with it.”

Vasylenko wanted to meet at Maidan Square, where pro-European Ukrainian activists stood up for their rights in 2014 and forced pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country.

Today, the mother of three is adamant that Russia will never take the nation’s capital. We ask if she has a message for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We say to him (that) life goes on, we carry on living. Your war, your fighting against us is in the background now — and we’ll go on fighting it for as long as we have to, but we’ll go on living at the same time,” she says.

That fight includes her own AK-47, and a pistol she holds close to her heart.

On Twitter, where she has built a large following, she posts pictures of everyday life.

“New kind of weekend fun,” she captions alongside an image from shooting practice.

Another post reads, “Parliament still works…Even in war we intend to keep democracy working.”

Vasylenko takes us to a café-turned-war canteen, where volunteers are churning out 600 meals a day for the army, territorial defense, hospitals and shelters.

As we scroll through pictures of her three children, it becomes clear that that staying on the front line comes at a huge personal cost. A few weeks ago she sent her kids away for their safety.

Speaking about her youngest child, who will be 10 months in a couple of days, she says, “She’s sort of looking at me like ‘really, Mommy? Really, you’re going to be away from me?”

But Vasylenko remains steadfast in her decision to stay – it’s her duty, she says.

On Wednesday, she will travel to France as part of the effort to make Ukraine’s case to the world.

“I am where I have to be. Things happened for a reason, I am a firm believer in that, there’s a reason why I was elected in 2019,” Vasylenko says. “We have a task, we have a duty we will complete it then we will see where life takes us.”

Watch CNN's interview with Vasylenko:

5:50 p.m. ET, March 29, 2022

Zelensky: "Scale of challenges hasn’t diminished" despite Russian claims of reducing some military activities 

From CNN's From Hira Humayun and Mariya Knight

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy speaks during a Facebook video on Tuesday March 29.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy speaks during a Facebook video on Tuesday March 29. (From Ukrainian Government Facebook)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia’s claims about scaling back military activity in parts of Ukraine “don’t drown out the explosions of Russian bombs.”

The Ukrainian president's comments came in an address posted to social media on Tuesday night.

“I’m sure you saw the news that Russian military allegedly decided to scale down their attacks in the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas,” he said. The president went on to say Ukraine does not want to lose its vigilance and that the situation “hasn’t become easier”.

“The scale of challenges hasn’t diminished. The Russian army still has a sizable potential to carry on their attacks against our country. They have plenty of equipment and people who are disenfranchised who they could send into the fire of war,” Zelensky added.

Zelensky also went on to say, “On this very basis I regard the reports on the negotiation process which continues on different levels with the representatives of the Russian Federation. The enemy is still on our territory. They carry on shelling our cities. Mariupol is besieged. Rocket and air attacks are not stopping.”

Zelensky said Ukrainians cannot trust words coming from representatives of a country that is “still pursuing our annihilation.”

Zelensky also said Tuesday night that Ukraine is set to carry on negotiations.

“We have to achieve real security for our country,” he said.

Ukraine's president called on the international community to keep sanctions on Russia in place as negotiations continue.

“Some countries might not expect that certain negotiations will affect the lifting of sanctions against the Russian Federation. The question of sanctions cannot even be raised until the war is over, until we get what belongs to us back, and until we restore justice,” Zelensky said. He called for sanctions to be strengthened and intensified every week.

“And they must be of a high quality. Not just for headlines in the media that sanctions have been imposed, but for the actual peace," he added.

More context: Russian and Ukrainian representatives met for in-person talks on Tuesday in Istanbul. This comes the same day Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced it would “drastically reduce military activity” on two fronts: Kyiv and Chernihiv.

US President Joe Biden said regarding Moscow’s statement, “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are.”

A US official later told CNN, "no one should be fooled by Russia’s announcements" and should brace for more Russian aggression instead.

5:50 p.m. ET, March 29, 2022

Major artillery and rocket fire heard in Kyiv, CNN team on the ground reports

From CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen and Vasco Cotovio

At around 11:45 pm local time on Tuesday, major artillery and rocket fire were heard in Kyiv, according to a CNN crew on the ground. 

CNN reported earlier that intense fighting continued around the suburbs of Kyiv on Tuesday afternoon, especially in the northwest and northeast of the city, despite Russian officials saying Moscow was pulling some units away from around the capital and Chernihiv.

5:41 p.m. ET, March 29, 2022

Putin has created a "global food crisis" with war in Ukraine, US deputy secretary of state says

From CNN's Jeremy Herb

Workers plow wheat in the western village of Husakiv, Ukraine on Saturday, March 26.
Workers plow wheat in the western village of Husakiv, Ukraine on Saturday, March 26. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman charged Tuesday that Russia’s war in Ukraine has created a critical food shortage in Ukraine, with ripple effects of a “global food crisis” felt worldwide. 

At a United Nations meeting Tuesday held on the impact of Russia’s war on global food security, Sherman said that Russia has bombed at least three civilian ships carrying goods out of the Black Sea. She said that the Russian Navy is blocking access to Ukraine’s ports, cutting off Ukraine’s ability to export grain and preventing about 94 ships with food from reaching the Mediterranean Sea. 

Sherman argued that Russia’s claims that sanctions from the US and its allies are driving up food costs around the globe ignores the fact that Russia has prevented Ukraine’s grain exports from reaching the rest of the world. 

“So long as Putin continues his war, so long as Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities and block aid convoys, so long as besieged civilians are unable to get to safety, this humanitarian crisis will only get worse,” Sherman said. “Vladimir Putin started this war. He created this global food crisis. And he is the one who can stop it.” 

The claims from the senior State Department official leveled at Tuesday’s UN meeting come as the US has formally accused Russian forces of committing war crimes in Ukraine, including the targeting of civilians. 

Sherman said the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that as many as 13 million people worldwide “may be pushed into food insecurity as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Noting that both Ukraine and Russia are major agricultural producers, Sherman said about 30% of the world’s wheat, 20% of corn and 75% of sunflower oil exports come from the Black Sea region.

The World Food Program has warned that 45% of the people in Ukraine are concerned about having enough to eat, Sherman said. She pointed specifically to the attacks on the port city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine, saying that the population there has been left without food, water, heat and electricity, and people have “resorted to melting snow for drinking water.”

“One mother told reporters she could feed her three daughters only a spoonful of honey a day as they hid from Russian bombs. Now, city officials say people are beginning to die of starvation,” Sherman said. “Five weeks ago, Mariupol was at peace. It was, in fact, a bustling port city, a grain exporter that helped feed the world. Today, its residents are dying because of President Putin’s war of choice.”


4:38 p.m. ET, March 29, 2022

White House on Russian troop withdrawal claims: "We are not going to take their word for it"

From CNN's DJ Judd

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said that the Biden administration’s determination that the movement of Russian forces within Ukraine does not constitute a withdrawal is “based on the fact that we need to see what the Russians actually do before we trust solely what they've said.”

“We saw from the outset, that they made an aggressive push toward Kyiv at the beginning of this conflict, and we have no reason to believe that they have adjusted ... that strategy,” Bedingfield told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on Tuesday. Obviously, we continue to do everything we can to impose costs for this decision. We will continue to execute on our strategy, but as you heard the President say, we are not going to take their word for it. We're going to wait to see what their actions look like.” 

Earlier on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden told reporters he won't “read anything into” Russia’s claim it was withdrawing troops “until I see what their actions are.”

“We’ll see. I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are. We’ll see if they follow through [on] what they’re suggesting,” the President said.

More background: An official also told Collins "no one should be fooled by Russia’s announcements" and instead should brace for more Russian aggression.

Bedingfield also responded to comments from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson that they do not want to see anything less than a “complete withdrawal” of Russian forces from the Ukrainian territory and will judge Russia by its actions rather than words.

“We are going to allow the Ukrainians to execute on these negotiations. It's not our role to begin the negotiation again, our role is to strengthen Ukraine on the battlefield to try to strengthen Ukraine at the negotiating table by implying the sanctions and costs to Russia,” Bedingfield told Collins. “But I'm not going to prejudge or predetermine an outcome for that conversation.”

4:46 p.m. ET, March 29, 2022

More than 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since the start of the war, UN official says

From CNN's Artemis Moshtaghian

Ukrainian evacuees line up as they wait to cross the border at Medyka, Poland on March 29.
Ukrainian evacuees line up as they wait to cross the border at Medyka, Poland on March 29.  (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 10 million Ukrainians, including more than half the population of children in Ukraine, have fled their homes since the onset of the war last month, a UN Humanitarian Affairs representative said while addressing the UN Security Council Tuesday.

Of those, 6.5 million are internally displaced and 3.9 million have crossed the borders to neighboring countries, UN Humanitarian Affairs Deputy Emergency Coordinator Joyce Msuya said.

Msuya said humanitarian aid is scaling up every day and now more than 1,230 United Nations personnel are in the country working with more than 100 humanitarian organizations across Ukraine.

“Ukraine is a humanitarian paradox: Side by side with extreme violence we see extreme kindness, profound solidarity and the gentlest of care,” Msuya said describing the humanitarian situation on the ground.

She said the first UN convoy reached Sumy on March 18 delivering 130 tons of medical supplies, water, ready-to-eat meals and canned food for 35,000 people among other things. On Monday, a second UN convoy reached Kharkiv providing food and other essential relief support items that were distributed by the Ukraine Red Cross society.

“Countrywide, more than 180 metric tons of medical supplies have been delivered, and more than 470 metric tons are on the way,” Msuya said. “Where we can, we buy supplies from the local market, and work alongside local efforts.”

In order to deliver more humanitarian support “we need detailed, realistic agreements on humanitarian ceasefires and pauses to allow aid in, and people out,” Msuya said. She added that “the situation in Ukraine is a breeding ground for human traffickers and predators taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the instability fueled by the war."

“Humanitarian organizations are worried about the risk of trafficking, as well as sexual violence, exploitation and abuse in Ukraine and the region,” Msuya said. “Predators are luring single parents on the road with promises of transport and accommodation.”

The UN representative said that the organization is scaling up protection services for Ukrainians fleeing the country at the border but also inside the country, “providing information available on safe options and routes, access to helplines and safe shelter.”