March 31, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Travis Caldwell, Seán Federico O'Murchú, Adrienne Vogt, Jason Kurtz, Joe Ruiz, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Maureen Chowdhury and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 1:26 p.m. ET, April 8, 2022
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3:39 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Biden: There's some indication Putin is self-isolating and punishing his advisers

From CNN's Maegan Vazquez and Sam Fossum

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on Thursday.
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on Thursday. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

US President Joe Biden on Thursday said there’s some indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin is self-isolating and punishing some of his advisers, but added that the US doesn’t have much hard evidence to say that with certainty. 

When CNN’s MJ Lee asked the President how badly the Russian president is being misinformed by his advisers, Biden responded:

“That’s an open question. There’s a lot of speculation, but he seems to be — I’m not saying this with a certainty — he seems to be self-isolating and there’s some indication that he has, um, fired or put under house arrest some of his advisers.” 

“But I don’t want to put too much stock in that at this time, because we don’t have that much hard evidence,” he added. 

US government officials have expressed confidence this week in the intelligence assessment indicating Putin was being led astray by military advisers on the success of the Russian military’s performance during the war, which has gone on for more than a month.

Biden also noted that he is "skeptical" that Putin will withdraw all of his forces from around the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.  

"Thus far there is no clear evidence that he's pulling all of his forces out of Kyiv,” Biden said. “There's also evidence that he is beefing up his troops down in the Donbas area. Depending on your view of Putin, I'm a little skeptical.” 

He added, "I don't know the answer, but it appears so far that he has not pulled all of -- the idea he's pulling of his troops out from around Kyiv and moving south, there's no evidence that he's done that," Biden told reporters following remarks on the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. 

Biden, however, added that there is evidence Putin is "beefing up" his forces in the Donbas area of Ukraine.

What Moscow is saying: Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said earlier on Thursday before Biden spoke that Moscow finds it worrisome that the US allegedly lacks understanding of Moscow’s decision-making process, Russian state news agency TASS reported.  

Dismissing comments from the US on Wednesday that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers, the Kremlin said it regrets that its style of work remains unclear to Washington, and such “misunderstanding” results in “careless decisions that have very bad consequences,” Peskov said, according to TASS.  

CNN’s Zahra Ullah contributed reporting to this post.

2:38 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

There is an evacuation convoy moving toward Mariupol, the Donetsk military says

From CNN's Nathan Hodge

A bus convoy for the evacuation of civilians was moving toward Mariupol, the head of the Donetsk regional military administration said Thursday.

However, it was unclear when the vehicles would reach the besieged city, the official revealed.

"The process of evacuation is ongoing," said Pavlo Kyrylenko in a televised briefing. "We will understand how they are progressing closer to midnight tonight. The evacuation convoy has passed Vasylivka. It's difficult to forecast now whether the convoys will reach Mariupol or its seaside. As far as we understand, the convoys are now in Berdiansk. But the enemy has made everything to make it impossible to keep in touch with the convoy in Berdiansk."

Kyrylenko noted that shelling had intensified elsewhere in the region, particularly along the frontline.

"It has increased in geometrical progression," he said. "It's hard to differentiate day from night shelling because they are constant."

"We are conducting some fortification of positions in the south and north directions in order to not just withstand the enemy,, but to defeat them. But now I see not just regrouping of the enemy — this is my subjective opinion — but it seems to me, based on the information that I receive, that there might be more professional servicemen coming in for the enemy to succeed at least in some directions. From what we see, looks like they are re-formatting their groups and relocating their troops in the Donetsk region suburbs."

The Russian military has said it will be refocusing its military efforts in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.

2:29 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

US extends deployment of aircraft carrier in Mediterranean as Russian invasion continues, officials say

From CNN's Barbara Starr

US Navy intelligence specialist Lt Cdr Nichoas Lowe sits in his Boeing EA-18G Growler aircraft on the deck of the USS Harry S. Truman as it cruises the Mediterranean Sea on March 17.
US Navy intelligence specialist Lt Cdr Nichoas Lowe sits in his Boeing EA-18G Growler aircraft on the deck of the USS Harry S. Truman as it cruises the Mediterranean Sea on March 17. (Giuseppe Distefano/AP)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved a plan to extend the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean through the summer as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, according to two US defense officials. 

The carrier’s aircraft have been flying in support of US and NATO efforts to bolster the eastern flank of NATO in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The carrier deployed from the US East Coast in December and is now expected to be in the region possibly through August, one of the officials said. A typical carrier deployment is six months. Three Navy warships that are part of the Truman overall strike group are also being extended. 

The extension comes as the Pentagon is now grappling with how to eventually rotate the units it has sent to Europe due to the invasion. It is expected that the 82nd Airborne Division troop in Europe could be the next to be extended, because their rapid response capabilities are considered vital.

In February, the US Army extended a brigade combat team of about 4,000 soldiers that had already been on a rotational deployment to Germany for an additional 60 days. 

 

2:27 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

This 94-year-old Ukrainian has fled her home twice — first in WWII and now

From CNN's Omar Jimenez

Raisa Makhnovets, 73, and her mother Yevhenia Khomenko, 94, in their Sacramento family's home.
Raisa Makhnovets, 73, and her mother Yevhenia Khomenko, 94, in their Sacramento family's home. (Omar Jimenez/CNN)

Even as the bombs began to fall, Yevhenia Khomenko didn’t want to leave her home in Kyiv, Ukraine. “I would rather die there,” the 94-year-old said. But eventually, it became too much, and her daughter convinced her to leave the home she had known her entire life.

When Khomenko was a child, she lived through the Great Famine of Ukraine — one that killed millions, driven by Josef Stalin. Years later, she fled her home during World War II as her country was targeted by Adolf Hitler. She’s now had to flee once more over an invasion prompted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian attacks have reminded Khomenko of the bombing, shooting and violence during World War II, she told CNN.

The bombs then, as they are now, were unpredictable, and she recalled running anywhere to escape them. Khomenko returned to Kyiv after World War II to help rebuild the city’s main square, she said. Now, she’s worried the city may never be the same — and that, given her age, she may never return.

Her 73-year-old daughter, Raisa Makhnovets, is also worried about that fate. Through tears, she told CNN how difficult it was to persuade her mother to leave Kyiv, and how their attempts to do so quickly became a “horror movie.”

They had no other family in the city, and first spent two days in a bomb shelter before trying to flee the country by train. The station was overrun with others trying to do the same.

“I just couldn’t believe it was actually happening. The train station was scary,” Makhnovets said, speaking in Russian, as many Ukrainians do, and translated by CNN. “So many people with their kids and things, just really terrifying. The first train left without us, then the second. It was so cold waiting there overnight. There were even newborn babies.”

Makhnovets said it took roughly 20 hours to get from Kyiv to Lviv, in the western part of Ukraine, and then out of the country altogether. She and her mother were then able to fly to the United States on a visa they had obtained years ago. They reunited in Sacramento with five generations of their family, as a great great grandmother and a great grandmother.

In Sacramento, Khomenko noted the peace in the California air.

“It hurts in my soul, for my home, where I lived. But here it’s quiet, I don’t hear anything. I have a home, and I want to go home. I want to be in my own home. But the circumstances forced us to come here. Just go wherever necessary not to have to see the war,” she said, in Russian.

Her feelings now are familiar to those from a lifetime ago, Khomenko said, but in her youth, she didn’t really understand war in the way she does now.

She then told CNN, “I wish you a good life and to not have to endure what we’ve had to. I hope for friendship between us and all peoples.”

Read more here.

2:53 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Biden ties US gas price increases to Russian invasion of Ukraine

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on Thursday.
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on Thursday. (Patrick Semansky)

US President Joe Biden tied the increase in US gas prices directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, repeatedly calling it "Putin's price hike."

In remarks from the White House, Biden said gas in the US is averaging about $4.20 or $4.22 per gallon, up from $3.30 at the beginning of the year.

"The reason for that is because of Putin's war. And now, many people no longer buying Russian oil around the world. I banned the Russian import of oil here in America. Republicans and Democrats in Congress called for it and supported it. It was the right thing to do. But I said at the time, it's going to come with a cost. As Russian oil comes off the global market, supply of oil drops and prices are rising. Now, Putin's price hike is hitting Americans at the pump," Biden said.

Earlier today, the White House said that Biden would be announcing an unprecedented release of oil from US reserves and taking steps to punish oil companies for not increasing production from unused leases on federal land.

"Our prices are rising because of Putin's action. There isn't enough supply. And the bottom line is if we want lower gas prices, we need to have more oil supply right now," he added.

"This is a wartime bridge to increase oil supply until production ramps up later this year, and it is by far the largest release of our national reserve in our history," he said.

Biden said he coordinated the release of oil with allies and partners around the world.

"Already, we have commitments from other countries to release tens of millions of additional barrels into the market. Together, our combined efforts will supply well over a million barrels a day," he said. "Nations coming together to deny Putin the ability to weaponize his energy resources against American families and families and democracies around the world."

Watch US President Joe Biden explain why "Putin's price hike is hitting Americans at the pump":

2:03 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

France says evacuation corridor "insufficient" to allow rescue from Mariupol

From CNN’s Joseph Ataman in Paris 

The evacuation corridor in Mariupol agreed by Ukrainian and Russian officials, announced on Thursday, is “insufficient” to allow the rescue of civilians “in the right conditions,” the Elysee Palace said.

“The few hours announced by the Russian authorities are not in fact sufficient to allow the organization of this evacuation in the right conditions,” the Elysee said.  

French President Emmanuel Macron had been working with Turkey and Greece to organize the evacuation of the remaining civilians in the Mariupol. An Elysee source told CNN on March 29 that some 170,000 civilians remained trapped in the city.  

1:51 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Russia blocks EU's "top leadership" from entering in response to bloc's sanctions

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy in London

Russia announced Thursday that it has blocked the European Union's "top leadership" from entering the country, in a reciprocal move against the bloc sanctioning Russian citizens and companies. 

In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry said that "on the basis of reciprocity" it is "expanding significantly the list of representatives of EU Member States and institutions who will be denied entry to the Russian Federation."  

"The restrictions apply to the top leadership of the EU, a number of European commissioners and heads of EU military bodies, as well as the overwhelming majority of members of the European Parliament that have advanced anti-Russian policies," the statement said.  

No individuals were named in either the Russian or English language versions of the statement. CNN has reached out to the Russian foreign ministry for a list of the individuals' names.  

The foreign ministry said that the so-called Russian "blacklist" also includes "high-level officials including government and parliament members of some EU Member States, public and media figures who are personally responsible for promoting illegal anti-Russian sanctions, inflaming Russophobic sentiments and infringing on the rights and freedoms of Russian-speakers."  

The EU has sanctioned a host of leading figures in Russian politics, business and industry, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, CEO of Russian oil firm, Rosneft, Igor Sechin and Chelsea Football Club Roman Abramovich.   

Russia maintained in the statement that the bloc's "actions are not only driving the relationship with Russia into a deadlock but are similarly jeopardizing the well-being and security of its own citizens, as well as the stability of the global financial and economic system." 

"Any further unfriendly action by the EU and its member states will inevitably be met with a forceful response," it added.

1:50 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher say "much more" can be done to help Ukraine after the couple raised over $30M

Actors Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher have raised more than $30 million in donations for Ukrainians fleeing the war, and they outlined their next steps for helping Ukraine to CNN+'s Chris Wallace on "Who's Talking to Chris Wallace?"

Kunis said sanctions imposed on Russia by Western nations has been successful, but the public needs to keep up pressure on companies working with Russia.

"Sanctions work. ... In the meantime, the thing that the people can do on the Internet, in the world, is reach out to these companies and ask them to stop producing and stop working and close their doors in Russia," Kunis said.

Kutcher said that in addition to publishing an index of companies that are still doing business with Russia, the couple will be organizing 20,000 bulletproof vests to send to Ukraine and work to track children leaving Ukraine without parents or guardians to thwart human trafficking.

"There's so much more that can be done. This is just the beginning of our work," he said. "This is going to be a long war, because Putin doesn't seem to step down and face the reality that he made a huge mistake," also calling on China to "wake up."

"We're not going to stand down," he said.

Kunis was was born in Ukraine in 1983 and her family moved to the US eight years later.

Watch some of the interview here.

1:01 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Separatist leader orders formation of city administration for Mariupol, Russian state news reports

From CNN's Nathan Hodge in Lviv

Denis Pushilin, the head of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, has ordered the formation of a city administration for the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, according to a decree published on the DPR head’s website on Thursday, Russian state news agency TASS reported Thursday.

"A local administration of the Donetsk People’s Republic is to be formed in the city of Mariupol," the document said according to TASS. 

Mariupol, which endured weeks of Russian bombardment, has been encircled by Russian forces, and Ukrainian authorities are racing to organize the evacuation of over 100,000 people who remain in the city.

Around 90% of the residential buildings in the city are damaged or destroyed, and power supplies and communications have been cut, Ukrainian officials say.

About Mariupol: The city is within the boundaries of the Donetsk region of Ukraine. The city was under Ukrainian government control before the war, but the Russian government — which recognized the independence of the DPR in late February — considers the entire region to belong to the separatist republic.