March 17, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

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

Updated 9:58 p.m. ET, March 17, 2023
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9:26 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

US officials will watch Xi-Putin meeting closely as China weighs sending weapons to Russia

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

American officials say they will be watching intently for signs that China is moving forward with providing weapons to Russia during next week’s summit between Chinese President Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The summit itself did not come as a surprise to the White House since there have been reports such a meeting could occur for weeks. Still, there remain deep concerns the “no limits” partnership Xi and Putin have cemented during previous meetings could deepen during face-to-face talks.

So far, officials have said there hasn’t been any indication that Beijing has made a final decision to assist Moscow’s war efforts with lethal aid. But they have been considering it, according to American officials, who have been monitoring intelligence on a day-to-day basis for indications that Xi is going forward.

Next week’s meeting could provide a venue for such an announcement.

“It's something that we will watch for,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said this week. “Obviously, Russia has its own interests in trying to pull other countries into this conflict if it can, but our position is the same whether or not they meet.”

The concern among US officials is not that Chinese weapons would help Russia land a decisive win in Ukraine. Instead, the worry is that lethal aid from Beijing could prolong the conflict, which US officials believe favors Putin.

A drawn-out war could also benefit China if American resources and attention are consumed in Ukraine, instead of in Asia, where Beijing has become increasingly assertive militarily.

Meanwhile, US officials say they are working to get Xi on the telephone with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, believing that hearing directly from him could prove useful.

"We think that it's important that China has the perspective of Ukraine," Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told CNN. "Clearly, Russia's motivations are nefarious. They illegally invaded and have occupied Ukraine. We hope that President Xi and the Chinese government would be able to have the benefit of understanding what exactly the impact of their support to Russia is having.”

CNN's Natasha Bertrand contributed reporting to this post.

9:07 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

UN report says Russia's atrocities in Ukraine may be war crimes and crimes against humanity

From CNN's Tim Lister

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

The independent UN human rights commission released a report on Thursday that concluded Russia committed abuses and atrocities that likely amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"The Commission has concluded that Russian armed forces have carried out attacks with explosive weapons in populated areas with an apparent disregard for civilian harm and suffering," it said, adding that the country's attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and authorities' use of torture "may amount to crimes against humanity."

While the bulk of the evidence gathered concerned the conduct of Russian forces, the commission said it had also documented "a small number of violations committed by Ukrainian armed forces, including likely indiscriminate attacks and two incidents that qualify as war crimes."

The report's findings include:

  • Russian authorities have committed unlawful transfers and deportations of civilians, including children, and of other protected persons within Ukraine or to the Russian Federation, respectively.
  • Russian authorities violated their obligation under international humanitarian law to facilitate in every possibly way the reunion of families dispersed as a result of the armed conflict.
  • Russian authorities have committed torture and cruel or inhuman treatment.
  • Some members of Russian armed forces committed the war crime of rape and sexual violence — which can amount to torture — in areas they controlled.
  • The commission has generally found that Russian armed forces launched or likely launched "indiscriminate" attacks that used weapons that struck both military and civilian objects without distinction. "The multiple examples of such attacks and the failure to take feasible precautions show a pattern of disregard on the part of Russian armed forces for the requirement to minimize civilian harm," the report said.
  • Patterns of willful killings, unlawful confinement, torture, rape, and unlawful transfers of detainees in Russian-controlled Ukrainian areas.

The commission said that in the course of gathering evidence it visited 56 cities, towns and settlements and conducted several hundred interviews in person and remotely. It also "inspected sites of destruction, graves, places of detention and torture, as well as weapon remnants; and consulted documents, photographs, satellite imagery and videos."

12:48 p.m. ET, March 17, 2023

US surveillance drone operating over the Black Sea, flight tracking website shows

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

A US surveillance drone is operating over the Black Sea, according to data from FlightRadar24, a flight tracking website. 

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is seen flying at 52,000 feet over the southern Black Sea. Its flight track shows that it entered international airspace over the Black Sea from Romania and traversed from west to east. According to FlightRadar24 data, the flight track shows the drone operating in international airspace southeast of Crimea and west of the Russian coastal city of Sochi. 

Asked at a news conference Thursday when the US would fly drone missions again, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said, “I’m not going to get into talking about specific missions, routes, timelines of operations. I think Secretary [Lloyd] Austin was pretty clear that we’re going to continue to fly and operate in international airspace where international law allows, and that includes the Black Sea region.”

Some background: The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a spy drone capable of high-altitude, long-endurance missions with a suite of surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities. It has a wingspan of 130 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 32,000 pounds, making it far larger than the MQ-9 Reaper that went down on Tuesday. 

On Thursday, CNN reported that the US was conducting an assessment of drone operations over the Black Sea following a collision between a Russian fighter jet and a US spy drone that forced the drone down.

The US military was “taking a close look” at the drone’s routes and assessing how to better deconflict with the Russians, who have been regularly flying their fighter jets in and out of Crimea, officials said. The Pentagon has asked European Command to justify surveillance flights in the area going forward in part to assess risk, a senior US military official said.

The US military had not stopped the drone flights entirely amid the assessment. 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 in an effort to survey the crash site and monitor Russians looking for the debris. 

8:05 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

It's mid-afternoon in Kyiv. Here what you need to know

From CNN staff

If you're just joining us, here's everything you need to know on Friday's developments in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

  • Slovakia joins Poland in pledging fighter jets to Ukraine: They are the only two NATO countries that have granted Kyiv's repeated requests for aircraft in order to shore up its air defenses. Poland pledged four MiG-29 fighter jets and Slovakia will send 13. The Kremlin has brushed off Poland and Slovakia's donations of fighter jets to Ukraine, calling the equipment "old" and "unnecessary." 
  • China's president to meet Putin next week: Chinese leader Xi Jinping will visit Russia next week at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry. It will be Xi's first visit to Russia since Moscow's forces invaded Ukraine last year. The Kremlin confirmed the visit and said the two leaders would discuss "strategic cooperation." Earlier, Western officials raised concerns that China may be considering providing Russia with lethal military assistance, an accusation denied by Beijing.
  • A secret 10-year plan drawn up by Russia’s security service: A document obtained by a consortium of media outlets and reviewed by CNN appears to have been drawn up by the FSB shows detailed options to destabilize Moldova and thwart its tilt to the West — including supporting pro-Russian groups, utilizing the Orthodox Church and threatening to cut off supplies of natural gas. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: "We know nothing of the existence of such a plan."
  • 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.
  • Wagner chief frustrated: Yevgeny Prigozhin repeated his complaints of inadequate munitions supplies from Russia on Thursday — yet another sign of the mercenary group's growing isolation from the Kremlin, with his fighters locked in fierce fighting for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin placed a bet on his mercenaries raising the Russian flag in Bakhmut, albeit at a considerable cost to the ranks of his force and probably to his own fortune. Many analysts think that Russia’s military establishment is using Bakhmut as a “meat-grinder” to cut his forces down or eliminate him as a political force altogether.
10:39 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

The Kremlin dismisses Poland and Slovakia's fighter jet pledges to Ukraine

From CNN’s Anna Chernova

Two Polish MiG-29 fighter jets take part in the NATO Air Shielding exercise near the air base in Lask, central Poland on October 12.
Two Polish MiG-29 fighter jets take part in the NATO Air Shielding exercise near the air base in Lask, central Poland on October 12. (Radoslaw Jozwiak/AFP/Getty Images)

The Kremlin has brushed off Poland and Slovakia's donations of fighter jets to Ukraine, and accused NATO of increasing its involvement in the war.

This week, the two nations announced further pledges of weapons to support Ukraine, including MiG-29 fighter jets. Poland has promised four of the planes, and Slovakia 13.

"It seems that these countries are thus engaged in the disposal of old unnecessary equipment," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday.

He told reporters that the move is "yet another example" of how NATO members are "increasing their level of direct involvement in the conflict."

Peskov said it would not chance the outcome of what Moscow consistently calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine, adding that the move could cause more problems for Kyiv.

6:50 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

Kremlin releases details of Putin and Xi meeting next week

From CNN’s Anna Chernova

The Kremlin has released the schedule of meetings planned between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Moscow next week. 

The two leaders will start with a one-on-one on Monday followed by an "informal lunch," with negotiations set to take place Tuesday, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. 

On Friday, Moscow and Beijing confirmed that Xi will travel to meet Putin in his first visit to Russia since the war in Ukraine began.

The visit will be seen as a powerful show of Beijing’s support for Moscow in Western capitals, where leaders have grown increasingly wary of the two nations’ deepening partnership as war rages in Europe.

6:29 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

Analysts note decline in offensive actions by Russian forces

From CNN's Tim Lister

Russian forces are carrying out fewer offensive actions in Ukraine than at any time since January, according to the UK's defense ministry.

Russian and Wagner Group forces have obtained footholds west of the Bakhmutka River in the center of the Bakhmut, but "more broadly across the front line, Russia is conducting some of the lowest rates of local offensive action that has been seen since at least January 2023," the ministry said in its daily bulletin Friday.

"This is most likely because Russian forces have temporarily depleted the deployed formations’ combat power to such an extent that even local offensive actions are not currently sustainable," it added.

Ukrainian officials and other analysts have also noted a decline in Russian offensive action in recent weeks, even as fire from artillery and rocket systems, as well as airstrikes, continue.

A Ukrainian military spokesman, Col. Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi, said Wednesday that Russian ground attacks have decreased from 90-100 attacks per day to 20-29 per day and two to nine at night.

"The enemy has somewhat lost its offensive potential amid significant losses in manpower and equipment," Dmytrashkivskyi said. "In addition, it has significantly reduced the use of military equipment, especially at night."

And the Institute for the Study of War noted earlier this week that "the overall pace of Russian operations in Ukraine appears to have decreased compared to previous weeks."

However, indirect fire — from artillery, rocket systems and air strikes — continues to cause widespread damage across the Donetsk region.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of Donetsk region military administration, said that six people were wounded in two waves of shelling in the city of Kostyantynivka on Thursday, with Toretsk and Chasiv Yar also targeted.

5:51 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

Slovakia to send 13 MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine

From CNN's Amy Cassidy in London

MiG-29 aircraft flies above Sliac in Slovakia on July 8, 2016.
MiG-29 aircraft flies above Sliac in Slovakia on July 8, 2016. (Slavek Ruta/Shutterstock)

Slovakia will send 13 MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, Prime Minister Eduard Heger said Friday, making it the second NATO member to pledge the aircraft after Poland.

"Promises must be kept and when [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky asked for more weapons including fighter jets, I said we'll do our best. Glad others [are] doing the same," Heger said on twitter

Military aid is key, he added, to ensure Ukraine "can defend itself" and Europe against Russia.

Some context: Poland has already announced that it will transfer four MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine in the coming days.

Polish President Andrzej Duda said the planes – from about a dozen that it had inherited from the former German Democratic Republic – would be handed over after being serviced.

The White House said Thursday that Poland’s decision to send the fighter jets is a "sovereign decision" that won’t spur US President Joe Biden to send F-16 aircraft.

4:38 a.m. ET, March 17, 2023

Xi's trip to Moscow will mark a new milestone in China and Russia's growing partnership

From CNN's Nectar Gan in Hong Kong

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet in Beijing on February 4, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet in Beijing on February 4, 2022. (Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin declared a “no-limits” friendship in February last year, when the Russian President visited Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.

Weeks later, Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.

Since then, China has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion — or referred to it as such, instead blaming the advance of NATO for provoking the conflict and repeating the Kremlin’s stance.

It has also provided diplomatic support for Moscow, while strengthening economic and military ties to its northern neighbor.

In recent weeks Western officials have begun publicly raising concerns that China may be considering providing Russia with lethal military assistance, an accusation denied by Beijing.

Here's a timeline of closer relations between Beijing and Moscow:

  • Last month, Putin hosted China’s top diplomat Wang Yi in Moscow just days before the anniversary of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The high-profile visit was widely believed to be a precursor to a meeting between Putin and Xi.
  • Putin told Wang relations between his country and China are “reaching new milestones,” while Wang vowed to “further strengthen our comprehensive strategic partnership.”
  • Wang arrived in Moscow after US officials went public with concerns about how China’s continuing partnership with Russia could have an impact on the war in Ukraine — and hours after Putin made a major speech on the conflict, in which he announced plans to suspend Russia’s involvement in its last remaining nuclear arms treaty with the US.
  • Putin and Xi last held a virtual meeting in December, in which the Russian leader described relations between the two nations as “the best in history,” saying they could “withstand all tests.” Putin also invited Xi to visit Moscow in the spring of 2023.
  • The two leaders have forged a close personal connection, with Xi describing Putin as a “best friend” in 2019. Xi has met Putin in person 39 times since becoming China’s leader, most recently in September during a summit in central Asia.

Read more here.