March 25, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

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

Updated 8:17 p.m. ET, March 25, 2023
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4:54 p.m. ET, March 25, 2023

Putin says Russia plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus

From CNN's Hira Humayun, Mariya Knight and Andrew Carey

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow on September 9, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow on September 9, 2021. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images/FILE)

Russia plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, President Vladimir Putin told state television Saturday.

Moscow will complete the construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by the beginning of July, Putin told state broadcaster Russia 1.

The Russian leader said Moscow has already transferred an Iskander short-range missile system – which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads – to Belarus.

During the interview, Putin also said Russia has helped Belarus convert 10 aircraft to make them capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads. Russia will start training pilots to fly the re-configured planes early next month, he added.

Key context: The government in Belarus, which is situated west of Russia on Ukraine's long northern border, is among Moscow's closest allies.

Belarus has had no nuclear weapons on its territory since the early 1990s. Shortly after gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it agreed to transfer all Soviet-era weapons of mass destruction stationed there to Russia.

Belarus helped Russia launch its initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, allowing the Kremlin's troops to enter the country from the north. There have been fears throughout the conflict that Belarus will again be used as a launching ground for an offensive, or that Minsk's own troops will join the conflict.

Global tensions: Even though there is no guarantee the Russian leader will follow through with his plan to station the weapons in Belarus, any nuclear signaling by Putin will cause concern in the West.

Since invading Ukraine more than a year ago, the Russian leader has used escalating rhetoric on a number of occasions, warning of the "increasing" threat of nuclear war and suggesting Moscow may abandon its "no first use" policy.

The United States has sought to make it clear to Putin the consequences of any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, even low-yield tactical devices.

Speaking in October, US President Joe Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “It would be irresponsible for me to talk about what we would or wouldn’t do,” in response to nuclear use by Russia.

But Biden hinted at the possibility of a rapid escalation in events. 

“The mistakes get made, the miscalculation could occur, no one could be sure what would happen and it could end in Armageddon,” he said.

CNN's Peter Wilkinson, Frederik Pletigen, Zahra Ullah, Claudia Otto and Rob Picheta contributed.

2:36 p.m. ET, March 25, 2023

2 killed in Russian missile attack on Donetsk region, Ukrainian official says

From CNN’s Kostan Nechyporenko, Svitlana Vlasova and Mariya Knight

Ukrainian authorities said two civilians were killed in a Russian missile attack on Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region Saturday.

A man was killed in the city of Chasiv Yar, and a woman was killed in Toretsk city, Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said in a Telegram post Saturday. 

This comes after three people were killed in an overnight Russian missile attack on the city of Kostantynivka in Donetsk region Friday. 

The city has been struck with increasing frequency by Russian missiles, especially the inaccurate S-300. Kostantynivka lies about 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the embattled city of Bakhmut.

1:42 p.m. ET, March 25, 2023

Ukraine has pushed Russian forces off a key road in Bakhmut, Ukrainian officer claims

From CNN's Mariya Knight and Kostan Nechyporenko

Russian forces have been pushed out of one of the key roads in the contested eastern city of Bakhmut, a Ukrainian military official said Saturday.  

Ukrainian soldiers “managed to push the enemy away” from "the road of life" in Bakhmut for a “considerable distance,” making it impossible for Russia to keep the road under fire control, said Yuriy Fedorenko, a Ukrainian military officer.

Ukrainian forces have “improved their position” in the city, Fedorenko added, though he acknowledged "the fighting is tough."

He said Ukraine is "holding the line in the most difficult areas" and have had some tactical successes.

According to Fedorenko, Russia’s forces are “constantly conducting assaults in the Bakhmut direction and are constantly trying to advance.”

Some context: CNN has not been able to independently verify Fedorenko's claims.

It has been difficult to determine exactly where each military's troops stand during the grueling fight for Bakhmut, and Kyiv and Moscow have often offered differing reports on the status of fighting on the ground.

Ukraine's top generals have claimed in recent weeks that Russian forces are depleted in Bakhmut. A Ukrainian counteroffensive could soon be launched, the generals say, raising the prospect of an unlikely turnaround in the besieged city.

1:28 p.m. ET, March 25, 2023

Ukrainian military says it repelled over 50 Russian attacks over the past day

From CNN's Kostan Nechyporenko

The Ukrainian military has repelled more than 50 Russian attacks over the past 24 hours, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces claimed in an update Saturday.

The majority of the repelled attacks were concentrated in communities of the eastern Donetsk region, the General Staff said, including the embattled city of Bakhmut and the towns of Avdiivka, Lyman and Marinka.

This map shows the latest state of control in Ukraine:

1:21 p.m. ET, March 25, 2023

Around 10,000 people "pushed to limit of existence" in besieged Bakhmut, Red Cross says

From CNN’s Allegra Goodwin

Around 10,000 Ukrainian civilians are being “pushed to the very limit of their existence,” in the beleaguered eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and the nearby area, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Friday. 

The bloody battle for Bakhmut has been at the center of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in recent months, as soldiers from the private Russian mercenary company Wagner have bombarded the city and edged closer towards seizing control. 

“Based on our understanding, there are several thousands of residents still living in Bakhmut, and if we talk about the communities around, the numbers would be coming closer to several thousands, possibly around 10,000,” the ICRC’s Umar Khan, who has been in the city in recent days providing aid, told a news briefing. 
Civilians stuck in Bakhmut are “living in very dire conditions, spending almost the entire days in intense shelling in the shelters,” Khan said, adding, “all you see are people pushed to the very limit of their existence and survival and resilience in them.”

The ICRC has delivered hygiene kits, solar lamps, water containers, essential repair supplies and handheld tools to the community. 

“These are the practical items that give them practical solutions to the problems they are facing every day,” Khan said. 
“No matter how many times I’ve been there, or near the frontline communities and areas over the past 13 months, I still feel the same shock, as when we visited those places the first time. Houses are crushed by military firepower, roofs are ripped off, apartment buildings are littered with holes, chunks missing, the constant threat of unexploded shells, bombs underfoot, and some people still living in the shelters, trying to survive these intense hostilities,” he continued. 
1:56 p.m. ET, March 25, 2023

Reminders of war motivate Ukraine to perform "miracle" against England

From CNN's Ben Church

Midfielder Taras Stepanenko leads Ukraine out against Brentford B on March 23.
Midfielder Taras Stepanenko leads Ukraine out against Brentford B on March 23. (Courtesy UAF/Pavlo Kubanov)

It may be thousands of miles from the frontline, but the Ukrainian soccer team is never far from the horrors of war.

While the squad has assembled in the leafy suburbs of London ahead of its Euro 2024 qualifying match against England, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukraine – with deadly missile strikes seen across the country this week.

It’s why, despite the comfort of their luxury hotel, the minds of the team are very much with their friends and family back home as they prepare for Sunday’s game.

Oleksandr Glyvynskyy, the Ukrainian team’s media representative, says many members of the squad have an application on their phone that alerts them when there is an air-raid siren back home.

Others start every day by scrolling through social media to check whether there were any Russian attacks from the night before.

They do this to ensure their loved ones are safe, but it also serves as a constant reminder of just how perilous the situation is.

Read the full story here.

1:52 p.m. ET, March 25, 2023

A Ukrainian orphanage tried to hide its children when war began. Then the Russians came

From CNN's David McKenzie, Ghazi Balkiz and Maria Avdeeva

Cots stand empty at the orphanage in Kherson.
Cots stand empty at the orphanage in Kherson. (Ghazi Balkiz/CNN)

When the war began in February last year, the staff at Kherson's Children's Home came up with a plan.

They spirited all the children, mostly under 5, to the Holhofa church on the other side of town, orphanage worker Olena recounted.

The church and caregivers from the home kept the children safe and warm in the basement. They hid them to keep them safe from the fighting and to escape the Russians, said Olena.

Kherson fell to the Russian forces in the early days of the war. The invading troops moved swiftly over the Dnipro River; it was the first major city to be taken and the only regional capital.

“Yes, the children were here,” Victor, the 74-year-old caretaker of the church, told CNN. “But after the Russians occupied this city, they started asking questions.”

After a few weeks, he said, agents from Russia’s security service, the FSB, came to the church and demanded that the caregivers transport the children back to the orphanage.

Read the full story here.

8:49 a.m. ET, March 25, 2023

5,000 prisoners pardoned after serving with Russian forces, mercenary chief says

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova

Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Saturday that over 5,000 prisoners completed contracts with Russian forces and received pardons.

“At the moment, more than 5,000 people have completed their contract with PMC Wagnerand have been pardoned,” Prigozhin said in an audio message published on his Telegram channel.

“The percentage of persons who reoffended during the month is 0.31, which is 10-20 times less than the standard figures before the special operation,” he said.

Prigozhin’s private army heavily relied on recruiting convicts from Russian prisons with a promise of a free pardon and monetary compensation if they survived six months on the battlefield.

The group has now stopped recruiting from prisons. Last week it said it was seeking 30,000 more fighters, and has been focusing its efforts on sports clubs and gyms.

1:44 p.m. ET, March 25, 2023

UK's MoD says Russia's assault on Bakhmut has largely stalled

From CNN's Sophie Tanno

A Ukrainian serviceman looks through goggles while another sits on an anti-air gun near Bakhmut on March 24.
A Ukrainian serviceman looks through goggles while another sits on an anti-air gun near Bakhmut on March 24. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Britain's Ministry of Defence has said that Russia's assault on Bakhmut has largely stalled.

According to a statement issued Saturday, this is "likely primarily a result of extreme attrition of the Russian force."

"Ukraine has also suffered heavy casualties during its defence," the statement said.

Russia has shifted its focus to nearby Avdiivka, the ministry says -- a place Ukrainian officials previously warned could become a second Bakhmut.

According to the ministry, this suggests an "overall return to a more defensive operational design after inconclusive results from its attempts to conduct a general offensive since January 2023."

Some context: The exact picture of the fighting in and around Bakhmut is unclear, but Russia has made it a major target.

This week one of Ukraine's top generals said Russian forces were depleted in Bakhmut, and that his troops could "soon" launch a counterassault, raising the prospect of a turnaround in a city Ukraine has at times appeared on the brink of losing.