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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12:50 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Russia has stepped up its presence of ships in the Black Sea, Ukrainian military says

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Olga Voitovych

Russia is increasing its presence in the Black Sea with a "rather atypical number of ships," Ukraine's military said Thursday.

The increased number of vessels, made up of 21 units, may be intended as "a demonstration of dominance at sea" after Tuesday's downing of a US drone by a Russian fighter jet, said a Facebook post from Ukraine's Operational Command South, a formation of the country's army.

The US has said it will take measures to ensure the drone won't fall into the wrong hands.

"It is also possible that the Russians themselves will conduct a search operation," the statement added. 

Threat to Ukraine: The military's post said Russia's increased presence in the Black Sea also means a greater threat of missile strikes on Ukraine.

Ukraine's military said the presence of five missile carriers in the Black Sea, including two underwater, "increases the missile threat enormously."

The vessels could be carrying as many as 32 Kalibr-type cruise missiles, the statement said.

"Do not ignore air raid alarms," the Operational Command South warned.

The formation also warned of Russia's growing Black Sea missile carrier presence in an earlier update, which was published Monday.

1:38 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Drone video "clearly demonstrated" US account of mid-air incident, US official says

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

Video of a mid-air incident between a US drone and a Russian fighter jet clearly demonstrates that Russia has been "just flat out lying" about what happened over the Black Sea, said John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council.

"It clearly demonstrated our narrative of what happened, and I think if any of you have seen that video you can see clearly that it does," he said Thursday, adding that the decision to release the footage was in part to "lay bare and to make clear to the rest of the world the manner in which the Russians have been just flat out lying" about the episode.

US officials and their Russian counterparts have been in an open dispute over what transpired that led to the downing of a US drone over the Black Sea. The US has maintained that Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the drone before clipping its propeller and forcing it to be flown down; Russians have denied that there was physical contact between a Russian jet and US drone.  

The video doesn't show the actual moment of collision, but it does show a damaged propeller blade after the pass by the Russian jet. Kirby said the video provided "clear and convincing evidence of the account that we laid out." 

Still, Kirby said the video could not provide evidence of the Russian pilot's intentions. "At best, it's reckless flying. At worst, it's reckless and incompetent. We don't know whether it is also intentional, the video doesn't just show us that," he added.

12:35 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Kremlin critic, who is a former Russian city mayor, sentenced to 14 days in prison, state media says

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova

A court in Yekaterinburg, Russia, has sentenced Kremlin critic and former mayor of the city Yevgeny Roizman to 14 days in prison on charges of displaying extremist symbols for reposting a video, titled "Why is Putin imprisoning Navalny" on social media, according to Russian state news agency TASS. 

The video was reposted on the VKontakte social network in a social media group of Roizman supporters, but it is not his personal page, as he says in a video published by TASS that he does not have a VK account. 

A separate criminal case was opened against Roizman in August for discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation. He was also banned from going online. 

Roizman, a close ally of Alexey Navalny, has also been declared a "foreign agent" in Russia. 

2:53 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Poland detains 9 people suspected of spying for Russia, interior minister says  

From CNN’s Antonia Mortensen in Milan

Nine people belonging to an alleged espionage ring suspected of “collaborating” with the Russian secret service agency FSB have been detained in recent days, Poland’s Interior Minister, Mariusz Kamiński, announced Thursday. 

Those detained are "foreigners from across the eastern border,” he said. “The suspects conducted intelligence activities against Poland and prepared acts of sabotage at the request of Russian intelligence.” 

Kamiński said the prosecutor's office charged six people with espionage and participation in an organized criminal group. 

The court decided on pre-trial detention of the six people, he said, adding that proceedings are pending against three others detained Wednesday.

“Evidence shows that the group monitored railway routes. Its tasks included recognizing, monitoring and documenting transports with weapons delivered to Ukraine,” the minister said. “The suspects were also supposed to be preparing for sabotage activities aimed at paralyzing the supply of equipment, weapons and aid to Ukraine.”
2:53 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Ukrainian foreign minister discusses Kyiv's peace plan in calls with US and Chinese counterparts

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Olga Voitovych

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is pictured at UN headquarters in New York City on February 23.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is pictured at UN headquarters in New York City on February 23. (Mike Sega/Reuters)

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba had phone conversations with top diplomats in China and the United States on Thursday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken: Kuleba said in a tweet that he and Blinken discussed Ukraine's "peace formula" and ways to speed up the delivery of artillery ammunition.

"We are working with the US and other partners around the clock to ensure that Ukraine has all of the ammunition we need for defense and counter-offensive operations," Kuleba wrote.

Ukraine is burning through ammunition faster than the US and NATO can produce it and the Pentagon is leaning on US manufacturers to help fill the gap, CNN reported last month.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang: In his call with China's foreign minister, Kuleba said he "discussed the significance of the principle of territorial integrity," and promoted Ukraine's peace proposal as the means "for ending the aggression and restoring just peace in Ukraine."

Kuleba did not share additional details about either conversation held Thursday. 

More on China's role in the war: China's recent call for the resumption of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine has been met by skepticism in the West, as Beijing comes under increasing pressure from the US and its allies over its growing partnership with Moscow.

At the time of China's proposal, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was pleased Beijing was talking about how to end the conflict and was open to seeing what came next.

He said, however, that China had talked about territorial integrity in general terms without specifying which country is to blame. Beijing has so far avoided calling Russia's war in Ukraine an "invasion."

“It doesn’t say whose territorial integrity," Zelensky said at the time, adding: "Our country’s territorial integrity has been violated."

CNN's Nectar Gan and Simone McCarthy contributed to this report.

11:02 a.m. ET, March 16, 2023

US releases map of approximate location of downed Reaper drone

From CNN's Michael Callahan

The US Air Force released a graphic map of the approximate locations and times of the MQ-9 Reaper collision with a Russian fighter jet and the crash into the Black Sea earlier this week.

US Air Forces in Europe noted in a follow up tweet that the “points on the map are not plotted to scale, the distances provided in the text boxes are an estimation of the incident's location.”

Earlier today, the US military also released newly declassified video of the Tuesday encounter between the drone and Russian fighter jet as it played out over the Black Sea.

While US officials say they likely will not be able to retrieve the downed drone, Russia has said the decision on whether to retrieve it from the Black Sea will come from Russia’s Ministry of Defense

2:56 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Poland will transfer 4 MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine in the coming days, Polish president says 

From CNN’s Antonia Mortensen and Duarte Mendonca

A Mig-29 of the Polish Air Force flies above Siauliai air base, Lithuania, on May 15, 2014.
A Mig-29 of the Polish Air Force flies above Siauliai air base, Lithuania, on May 15, 2014. (Jakub Kaminski/EPA/Shutterstock)

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.

Warsaw has taken a lead among NATO allies in supplying Kyiv with heavy weapons, including the Soviet-designed fighters. “When it comes to the MI-29 aircraft, which are still operating in the defense of Polish airspace, a decision has been taken at the highest levels, we can say confidently that we are sending MIGs to Ukraine,” Duda said.

“We have a dozen or so MIGS that we got in the 90s handed down from the German Democratic Republic and they are functional and play a part in the defense of our airspace. They are at the end of their operational life but are still functional,” Duda added.

“In the coming days we will hand over four planes to the Ukraine, remaining machines are being serviced and prepared for handover. We will replace them with deliveries of South Korean FA-50s and American F-35s,” the Polish president said.

Speaking at a press conference in Warsaw, along with his new Czech counterpart Petr Pavel, the Polish president expressed their joint backing for Kyiv.

“The Czech Republic and Poland are countries that are in the absolute vanguard when it comes to supporting Ukraine, both at humanitarian and military levels,” President Duda said.

More background: Thursday’s announcement comes after NATO allies agreed earlier this year to send modern Western battle tanks to Ukraine.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced his country would provide 14 Leopard 2 tanks in January, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles.

The announcement was matched by the US, with President Joe Biden saying that he would provide 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, reversing the administration’s longstanding resistance to requests from Kyiv for the highly sophisticated but maintenance-heavy vehicles.

Since the decision on the tanks, top Ukrainian officials have escalated their public lobbying campaign for US-made F-16 fighter jets, arguing they need them urgently to defend against Russian missile and drone attacks.

But that push has been met with skepticism by US and allied officials who say the jets would be impractical, both because they require considerable training and because Russia has extensive anti-aircraft systems that could easily shoot them down.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand and Alex Marquardt contributed reporting to this post.


10:33 a.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Syria's Assad recognizes territories claimed by Russia in Ukraine as Russian

From CNN’s Celine Alkhaldi in Abu Dhabi

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Wednesday, reiterated his stance on the Ukraine war to Russian state-run media RIA, saying that Damascus recognizes the territories claimed by Russia in Ukraine.

"I say that these are Russian territories, and even if the war had not happened, these are historically Russian territories," Assad told RIA.

Some background: Ukraine and Syria cut diplomatic ties last summer. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the severing of ties with Assad’s government after Damascus recognized the independence of the two Russian-backed separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, located in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. 

Syria was the first country, after its close ally Russia, to recognize the independence of the breakaway regions and state its intention to build diplomatic relations with them last month.

In September 2022, Russia also declared the annexation of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions — parts of which are occupied by Russia troops — in defiance of international law after so-called referendums in the regions that were universally dismissed as “shams” by Ukraine and Western nations.

Russia began a military operation in Syria to prop up the Assad regime six years before its invasion of Ukraine.

10:04 a.m. ET, March 16, 2023

UN accuses Russia of wide-ranging war crimes in Ukraine

From CNN’s Duarte Mendonca and Catherine Nicholls

Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, Erik Mose, center, and members Jasminka Dzumhur, left, and Pablo de Greiff attend a news conference to present the report containing their latest findings in Geneva on March 16.
Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, Erik Mose, center, and members Jasminka Dzumhur, left, and Pablo de Greiff attend a news conference to present the report containing their latest findings in Geneva on March 16. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has perpetrated a range of war crimes during its war in Ukraine, according to a United Nations commission.

The country has “committed a wide range of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” in Ukraine, according to a report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine released on Thursday.

The report claims that the war crimes carried out by the Russians included “attacks on civilians and energy-related infrastructure, willful killings, unlawful confinement, torture, rape and other sexual violence, as well as unlawful transfers and deportations of children.”

The report also documented a small number of violations perpetrated by the Ukrainian forces, “including likely indiscriminate attacks and two incidents qualifying as war crimes, where Russian prisoners of war were shot, wounded and tortured,” according to a UN statement.

Some more background: This week, the International Criminal Court said it is planning to open two war crimes cases tied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and issue arrest warrants against “several people,” according to The New York Times and Reuters, citing current and former officials with knowledge of the decision who were not authorized to speak publicly.

In February, the US government said it had determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity.

Back in March 2022, the US government declared that members of the Russian armed forces had committed war crimes in Ukraine.