March 16, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Jack Guy, Ed Upright, Aditi Sangal, Leinz Vales, Adrienne Vogt, Matt Meyer, Elise Hammond and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 1:20 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023
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8:27 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Russia said to be ramping up presence in the Black Sea. Here's the latest news from Ukraine

From CNN staff

Russia is ramping up its presence in the Black Sea with what Ukraine's military says is a "rather atypical number of ships." The increased number of vessels could be intended as a "demonstration of dominance at sea" after Tuesday's downing of a US drone by a Russian fighter jet, the military said.

If you're just now catching up, here's what else you should know:

Drone downing: The US is conducting an assessment of its drone operations in the Black Sea area, weighing the costs and benefits of the flights, several officials told CNN. The Pentagon plans to compare the potential intelligence value of a particular route versus the risk of escalation with Russia, they said. In the meantime, the US believes Russia has recovered some debris from the surveillance drone, an official familiar with the matter told CNN. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Thursday that it's important to keep open the lines of communication between Washington and Moscow following the incident. In Washington, US Sen. Mark Warner said the Senate Intelligence Committee awaits more information on the drone downing, but that it was a clear sign Moscow was “on its back heels.”

Putin's address: President Vladimir Putin accused the West of hitting Russia with a "sanctions war," which he blamed for the country's decline in GDP.  In an address to business executives, the president also said despite some "systemic issues with logistics, finances and technologies," huge opportunities are opening up in the country for almost any area of business activity.

Poland's fighter jets: Poland is set to provide Ukraine with four MiG-29 fighter jets in the coming days, Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Thursday, becoming the first NATO country to do so. According to the White House, the decision won't spur President Joe Biden to send US F-16 aircraft. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the decisions countries make to provide Ukraine with military aid are “sovereign decisions."

Other news:

  • Ukrainian officials held discussions Thursday with leaders of the United Kingdom, China, the United States, Latvia and Estonia.
  • At least one person was killed and seven others wounded in Ukraine's Donetsk region as a result of Russian shelling, a local official said.
8:11 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

US says there's been a "significant spike" in aggressive Russian military flights in Syria

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

The US has seen a “significant spike” in aggressive Russian military flights in Syria this month, the commander of US Central Command said Thursday, two days after Russian jets collided with a US drone over the Black Sea. 

Gen. Erik Kurilla told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that Russian ground attack aircraft fly over US bases loaded with weapons “in an attempt to try and be provocative.” He described the Russian flights as “not what we expect of a professional air force.” 

Asked if the aggressive flights were new, Kurilla responded, “It’s not new, but we have seen a significant spike since about 1 March in Syria.”

“What we are seeing though is an increase recently in the unprofessional and unsafe behavior of the Russian air force in the region,” he said.

The US has approximately 900 troops in Syria at two different bases as part of the ongoing campaign to defeat ISIS. The US and Russia have a deconfliction line between the two militaries to ensure operations do not result in a miscalculation or an unintentional escalation.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a press conference that the US has observed a “pattern of aggressive, risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace.”

He added that the aggressive operations are not just pointed at the US, but at the UK and other countries as well.

5:34 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Officials: US is now weighing the benefits of drone intel against the risks of escalation with Russia

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand, Oren Liebermann and Jim Sciutto

The US is conducting an assessment of its drone operations in the Black Sea area, weighing the costs and benefits of the flights after Russia forced down one of the aircraft earlier this week, several officials told CNN.

The US has not stopped the flights entirely while it completes the analysis — the military sent the same model of drone, an MQ-9 Reaper, on a mission in approximately the same area over the Black Sea shortly after the collision occurred, US officials said. That aircraft was meant to survey the crash site and monitor Russians looking for the debris.

But the US military is “taking a close look” at the drones' routes and assessing how to better reduce the risk of conflict with Russia's military, which regularly flies fighter jets in and out of Crimea, the officials said.

The Pentagon plans to analyze the overall costs and benefits of flying these missions, comparing the potential intelligence value of a particular route versus the risk of escalation with Russia.  

There is concern among some in the US military that limiting drone routes will impact intelligence gathering related to the Ukraine war, the senior military official said. But the US has potential alternatives for gathering the intel, such as spy satellites. 

The US is considering another drone flight over the Black Sea in the coming days, the officials said, which would be consistent with its typical operating schedule.

More background: The collision between the Russian Su-27 fighter jets and the US drone happened around 40-50 nautical miles southwest of Crimea, over the Black Sea in international airspace, the US Air Force said Thursday. 

Russia accused the US of violating airspace they claim to have created for their “special military operation” in Ukraine—a designation the US does not accept. The officials also said Russia has not communicated any such airspace restriction. 

New footage released by the Pentagon on Thursday shows the Russian fighter jets rapidly approaching the drone, pouring fuel on it, and appearing to damage the drone’s propellor. The US was forced to take the drone down over the Black Sea after the impact made it effectively inoperable, officials said.

4:45 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

1 killed and 7 wounded in Russian shelling in Donetsk region, Ukrainian officials say

From CNN's Olga Voitovych and Radina Gigova

At least one person was killed and seven others wounded in Ukraine's Donetsk region on Thursday as a result of Russian shelling, the Donetsk Regional Prosecutor's Office said in a Telegram post.

Russian forces fired on the city of Kostiantynivka and several villages with artillery and Uragan multiple rocket launchers, the prosecutor's office said, adding that the shelling hit "the railway station, market and private houses."

The woman who died was 50 years old and living in Pivdenne, where one other person was hurt, according to the prosecutor's office. The six other people who were injured were in Kostiantynivka, including one Polish citizen, it added.

Shell fragments damaged more than 30 residential buildings, the prosecutor's office said. 

4:50 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Ukrainian officials hold spate of talks with counterparts from China, US, UK and others

Ukrainian officials have held a number of discussions with leaders of other countries today. Here's what they spoke about:

Separately, UK Foreign Minister James Cleverly made an official state visit to Moldova, where he said he believes that the best way to protect the country from a Russian attack is not by sending it military support, but by protecting Ukraine.

4:30 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Zelensky discusses military aid and Ukraine's EU bid in meeting with Latvian prime minister

From CNN's Radina Gigova

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Latvia's Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins on Thursday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Latvia's Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins on Thursday. (From the Presidential Office of Ukraine)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Latvia's Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins in Kyiv Thursday, Zelensky's office said in a statement. 

Zelensky thanked Latvia for the "powerful political, defense, financial and humanitarian support since the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion," his office said.

"Even from the first days of 2014, when this war actually began, (you) have shown that you are with us, you support our sovereignty, our people, our society, territorial integrity," Zelensky is quoted as saying.

The Ukrainian president noted the Latvian government's recent approval of a new military assistance package. The defense support provided by Latvia to Ukraine has already reached 1% of the small European country's GDP, according to Zelensky's office. 

The two leaders also discussed the situation on the front line, and Zelensky emphasized the importance of coordinating efforts between Ukraine's allies to make sure Kyiv's military is supplied with the weaponry it needs in the fight.

The parties also discussed the negotiations for Ukraine's accession to the European Union and preparations for the NATO Summit in Vilnius, according to the statement. 

Zelensky praised Latvia's advocacy for using international legal mechanisms to punish Russia for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, and for finding means to compensate the country "for the damage caused by Russia," the president's office said.

Earlier Thursday, Karins met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal

3:18 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Negotiations on possible Zelensky-Xi conversation are ongoing, Ukrainian presidential adviser says

From CNN's Olga Voitovych and Radina Gigova

Negotiations about a possible conversation between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are ongoing, but it is too early to say whether a conversation will actually take place, according to a Ukrainian presidential adviser. 

"We can't say for sure, because negotiations are ongoing," Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said on national television Thursday.

The Ukrainian president is open to conversations with other leaders as well, not just Xi, "in order to explain the nature of the war and to say why, without taking into account Ukraine's position, this war cannot be ended," Podolyak said. 

"Why supporting for instance only the Russian side firstly will not lead to the finalization of the war, and secondly, it will not add points to China as a global player that understands the nature of war and understands how to end it," he added. 

Earlier on Thursday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he had a telephone conversation with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. The two discussed Ukraine's peace plan and "the significance of the principle of territorial integrity," Kuleba said in a post on his official Twitter account.

3:09 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Blinken says Poland made a sovereign decision to send fighter jets to Ukraine

From CNN's Kylie Atwood

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds a press conference during his visit to Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa, on March 15.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds a press conference during his visit to Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa, on March 15. (Tiksa Negeri/AFP/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the decisions countries make to provide Ukraine with military aid are “sovereign decisions.”  

His comments come after Poland announced Thursday that the country would be sending four of its MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine in the coming days.

“With regard to the decision by Poland to provide jets to Ukraine, look, these are sovereign decisions for countries to make what they will provide to Ukraine to help defend itself against the Russian aggression,” Blinken said at a press conference in Niger. “We of course, are working closely with dozens of countries on these questions, but different countries are doing different things in response to what they have and what the perceived needs are."

Blinken gave no indication that Poland’s decision would change the Biden administration’s position against sending fighter jets to Ukraine right now.

“Our focus has been on doing everything we can to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs, what it can use, and what it particularly needs in this moment, dealing both with the offensive that we're seeing from Russia, across the eastern front, but also in preparation for its own actions in the weeks and months to come as it seeks to take back more of the territory that Russia has seized from it,” Blinken said. 

Blinken said it is a mistake to focus on any one weapons system at any one time. He spoke to the vast nature of military resources that Ukraine needs including air defenses, artillery, ammunition and armored vehicles.

“Secretary Austin has, you know, led a very, very successful process of bringing together dozens of countries to help find and coordinate that assistance,” he added.