March 18, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Sophie Tanno, Adrienne Vogt, Tori B. Powell and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 6:04 PM ET, Sat March 18, 2023
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1:14 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Turkish President Erdogan announces extension of Ukraine Black Sea grain deal 

From CNN's Yusuf Gezer in Istanbul and Lauren Kent in London 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a press conference on March 17.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a press conference on March 17. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced an extension of the Black Sea grain deal Saturday, but he did not specify a new expiration date.

The deal, which was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey last July to guarantee safe passage for ships carrying vital grain exports from Ukraine, had been set to expire today.

"As a result of our negotiations with both parties, we extended the agreement period," Erdogan said at an event in Turkey's Çanakkale province.

"This agreement, which has provided the shipment of 25 million tons of grain to the world markets with more than 800 ships to date, is of vital importance for the stability of the global food supply," Erdogan added. "I would like to thank the Russian and Ukrainian parties and the UN secretary general for their efforts to extend the agreement once again.”

The United Nations praised the extension in a statement.

"We remain strongly committed to both agreements and we urge all sides to redouble their efforts to implement them fully," said Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the UN secretary-general.

Some context: The agreement comes after Russia said Monday it had agreed to a 60-day extension of the deal, while the UN emphasized on Thursday that the deal stated it would be extended for 120 days — not 60.

Why the grain deal is important: Ukraine and Russia are both significant suppliers of food to the world. Ukraine – known as one of the globe’s breadbaskets — normally supplies about 45 million metric tons of grain to the global market every year and is the world’s top exporter of sunflower oil. Together with Russia, it accounted for about one-quarter of global wheat exports in 2019.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the price of food was already at its highest level in a decade due to scrambled supply chains from the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme weather events.

In 2022, the number of people grappling with acute food insecurity — meaning their access to food was so restricted that it threatened their lives and livelihoods — shot up to 345 million from 135 million in 2019.

CNN's Julia Horowitz contributed reporting to this post.

11:25 a.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Senior Ukrainian and US officials discuss military aid in call

From CNN’s Kostan Nechyporenko

Top officials from Kyiv and Washington held a video conference to discuss the “urgent needs” of the Ukrainian military and the current situation on the battlefield, according to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley were all on the call, which was held on Saturday local time, Yermak said in a Telegram post.

They were joined by their Ukrainian counterparts, including Yermak, Armed Forces Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and other senior military commanders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also joined at the end of the conversation, Yermak said.

“We briefed our allies in detail on the current situation at the front, the battles in the most difficult areas, and the urgent needs of the Ukrainian army,” the Ukrainian official wrote.

Ukraine stressed the need for more equipment, weapons, ammunition and other aid for the battlefield, Yermak said. 

10:08 a.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Zelensky imposes sanctions on hundreds, including Syrian President Assad

From CNN’s Kostan Nechyporenko and Duarte Mendonca

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree Saturday to sanction hundreds of individuals, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to a Ukrainian government statement.

The decree, which approved a proposal by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, imposes sanctions primarily on Russian citizens and legal entities. But the list also includes other prominent names such as Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal аl-Mekdad and Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces of Iran Mohammad Bagheri.

The statement added that the sanctions — which order a halt on trading operations and restrict or completely ban shipping resources, flying or otherwise traveling through Ukraine — will be imposed for 10 years. 

This week, Assad met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in his first visit to Russia since the Ukraine invasion, he said.

Assad —who was able to remain in power because of Russia’s longstanding military support — reiterated his loyalty to Putin and his support for the war in Ukraine on Wednesday. 

CNN’s Mostafa Salem in Abu Dhabi contributed reporting to this post.

9:41 a.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Putin arrives in Crimea for 9-year anniversary of declared annexation

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Crimea's largest city, Sevastopol, Saturday for the nine-year anniversary of Russia's declared annexation of the peninsula. 

In Crimea, Putin is expected to participate in the opening of a cultural-historical monument, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. 

About Crimea: In 2014, thousands of Russian-speaking troops — dubbed “little green men” and later acknowledged by Moscow to be Russian soldiers — poured into the Crimean peninsula. Within days, Russia completed its annexation in a referendum that was slammed by Ukraine and most of the world as illegitimate.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to retake Crimea from Russia.

"It is not an intention, it is our land. Crimea is our sea and our mountains. Give us your weapons and we will regain (what is) ours," Zelensky said in January when asked during a panel at the Davos forum if he intends to retake Crimea. 

Russia has blamed Ukraine for attacks in Crimea during the past year. A huge blast that damaged part of the bridge connecting the peninsula to Russia spurred heavy Russian strikes on Ukraine in October 2022.

2:02 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Turkey will make efforts to further extend Black Sea grain deal, foreign minister pledges

From CNN’s Yusuf Gezer in Istanbul and Allegra Goodwin in London 

Ships, including those carrying grain from Ukraine and awaiting inspections, are seen anchored off the Istanbul coastline November 2, 2022.
Ships, including those carrying grain from Ukraine and awaiting inspections, are seen anchored off the Istanbul coastline November 2, 2022. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Turkey will work to further extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which guarantees safe passage for ships carrying vital grain exports from Ukraine, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Saturday.

The deal is due to expire today, though an extension struck this week will allow shipments to continue for at least 60 days.

“Russia said it could be extended for a period of two months. … After this two-month period, we will continue our efforts to maintain the agreement,” Çavuşoğlu said during a news conference in Cairo. 

Russia on Monday said it had agreed to a 60-day extension of the deal, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov describing the move as a “goodwill gesture.” 

But on Thursday, the UN emphasized that the deal states it would be extended for 120 days rather than 60. “The agreement is public, it’s an open document. It foresees a rollover of 120 days,” UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said. 

1:11 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Wagner chief announces plans to recruit 30,000 fighters by mid-May

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova and Tim Lister 

egeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner private military group, announced Saturday that he plans to recruit about 30,000 new fighters by mid-May.

Prigozhin also claimed Wagner recruits about 500 to 800 people on average each day — and sometimes up to 1,200 per day.

“It is possible that this number of recruits may decrease after some time; however, by the middle of May, we plan that the number of fighters of the unit will increase by approximately 30,000,” Prigozhin said in an audio message published on Telegram

Last week, Prigozhin said Wagner had opened recruitment efforts in 42 cities in Russia. 

Wagner has focused its attention on recruiting mercenaries from sports clubs, boxing gyms and other gyms, as well as men who have previously completed six-month contracts and could be rehired. Wagner has also recruited a small number of foreign fighters.

CNN previously reported that Wagner said it stopped recruiting from prisons in January. The prison recruitment campaign was well-publicized and widespread, netting as many as 40,000 fighters for Wagner last year. 

But many of the private military group's recruits are believed to have been killed or wounded in heavy fighting around the eastern city of Bakhmut. 

1:59 p.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Analysis: Putin hopes to attain weapons in meeting with Chinese leader — he may find that's wishful thinking

From CNN's Jill Dougherty

Russian President Vladimir Putin with China's leader Xi Jinping during a bilateral meeting in Brazil in 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with China's leader Xi Jinping during a bilateral meeting in Brazil in 2019. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images/FILE)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited his international “best friend,” China’s leader Xi Jinping, to Moscow for a three-day state visit beginning Monday.

There’s sure to be plenty of glad-handing, champagne toasts, a major press conference and – behind closed doors – serious discussion.

For Xi, it’s a high-profile trip: his first state visit to any country since being appointed to an unprecedented third term in office. Kremlin officials say the two leaders will be signing “important documents” that will “deepen relations” and solidify economic cooperation. But for both men, this trip is much more than just another chapter in what they both describe as a “no limits” friendship.

For Putin, it’s a welcome show of support from his biggest ally after a year of military failure to attain his so-called goal of “de-Nazifying and de-militarizing” Ukraine. Putin’s army is burning through military hardware, ammunition – and men.

He has reached out to North Korea and Iran for weapons and drones, but getting more weapons, ammunition and perhaps drones from China would be a major victory for the Russian president.

However, that could be a hard sell.

Read the full analysis piece here.

8:26 a.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Putin signs laws against "discrediting" volunteers and mercenaries fighting in Ukraine

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday signed laws that prohibit "discrediting" and spreading “fake news” about volunteers and mercenaries participating in the war in Ukraine.

Putin signed a law amending the criminal code about spreading "fakes" in relation to the Russian armed forces, extending it to also apply to volunteers and mercenaries, with the maximum punishment up to 15 years in prison.

Putin also signed a law that prohibits discrediting participants in the so-called "special operation" — Russia's euphemism for the full-scale invasion — including volunteers, according to the decree published on the country's official portal of legal information.

Violations of that law carry a punishment of up to seven years in prison.

The new law comes as Wagner fighters have become the disposable infantry of the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.

More about Wagner: The private military contractor is run by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been highly visible on the front lines in recent weeks – and quick to claim credit for Russian advances. Wagner fighters have been heavily involved in taking the town of Soledar, which is a few miles northeast of Bakhmut, and areas around it.

At the start of Russia's war in Ukraine last year, Russian authorities restricted access to news publications, including BBC Russia, Radio Liberty and Latvia-based Meduza.

The media outlets were added to a list of publications “containing appeals for mass riots, and participation in illegal mass rallies,” according to state news agency RIA Novosti.

9:11 a.m. ET, March 18, 2023

Analysis: NATO allies are unlikely to send more advanced jets to Ukraine – here's why

From CNN's Bianca Nobilo

A MiG-29 Ukrainian fighter jet is seen flying over eastern Ukraine on January 1.
A MiG-29 Ukrainian fighter jet is seen flying over eastern Ukraine on January 1. (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images/FILE)

In one of the most significant escalations of military support to Ukraine from a NATO member since the Russian invasion, Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday became the first leader from the security alliance to pledge fighter jets to Kyiv.

Duda announced that four MiG-29 fighters will be handed over to Ukraine in the coming days – the rest, he said, are being serviced and will likely be handed over successively.

The US has so far resisted calls to provide F-16s to Ukraine on the grounds of avoiding escalation with Russia, as well as impracticality.

The desire to avoid a cataclysmic spill-over of the conflict was front of mind this week after the downing of a $32 million US Reaper drone over the Black Sea by a Russian jet – the first time Russian and American aircraft have come into direct contact since the war began. The potentially incendiary incident was seized on by Russia as proof of direct American involvement in the conflict.

Still, the shift from resistance to delivery has happened before; the US came around to supplying Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks after Germany reversed their own policy on Leopard II tanks.

But the impracticality argument is not a mere political fig leaf. The Ukrainian Air Force already operates MiG jets so they will be able to use them as soon as they arrive, whereas it would take months to train a MiG-29 pilot to a high level of comfort and efficacy on an F-16. Not to mention that Ukrainian pilots are in short supply.

Read the full analysis piece here.