March 16, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Helen Regan, Adam Renton, George Ramsay, Ed Upright and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, March 17, 2022
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10:26 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Melitopol mayor was freed in a prisoner swap, Ukrainian officials say

From CNN's Kostan Nechyporenko in Kyiv and Vasco Cotovio in Lviv

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov was detained by Russian forces for five days.
Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov was detained by Russian forces for five days. (From Facebook)

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov was freed from detention by Russian forces as part of a prisoner swap, Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security said in a statement Thursday.

Fedorov was exchanged for nine Russian soldiers, whom the Ukrainians say are “conscripts,” born between 2002 and 2003, the statement said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied sending conscripts to Ukraine. But Russia's Ministry of Defense previously confirmed that conscripts have been involved in the invasion and that some were taken prisoner by Ukrainian forces.

Fedorov was taken to Luhansk after his detention and held for five days. He was allegedly advised to cooperate with Russia, which he declined to do, according to Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security.

“We have finally managed to release the mayor of Melitopol from captivity. Our Ukrainian Melitopol, which did not submit and will not submit to the occupiers," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message posted to Facebook early Thursday.
“Ivan Fedorov is free. I talked to him today. The Russian military abducted him on March 11, trying to persuade him to collaborate. But our man withstood. He did not give up. Just as we all endure. You all. Just as we all do not give up. Because we are Ukrainians. And we always protect our own.”

Earlier, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in Zelensky's office, said on his Telegram channel that Fedorov was rescued in a "special operation."

7:35 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

It's the middle of the night in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

From CNN staff

US President Joe Biden called President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal" on Wednesday as Russia intensifies its attack on Ukraine. "I think he is a war criminal," Biden said. 

Biden’s designation reflects a shift from the administration’s previous stance. Officials, including Biden, had previously stopped short of saying war crimes were being committed in Ukraine, citing ongoing investigations into whether that term could be used.

Here's a catch up of some of the latest developments that have unfolded:

  • Fate of hundreds sheltering in bombed theater in Mariupol is "unknown": A theater where hundreds of people had taken shelter in Mariupol was bombed on Wednesday, according to local authorities, as hundreds of thousands of people remain trapped in the coastal Ukrainian city that has been encircled for weeks by Russian forces. Mariupol City Council, who shared an image of the destroyed building, said Russian forces had "purposefully and cynically destroyed the Drama Theater in the heart of Mariupol." Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of Donetsk regional administration which includes Mariupol, said "several hundred Mariupol residents were hiding in the Drama Theater. Their fate is unknown, as the entrance to the bomb shelter is blocked by rubble," he said.
  • "Children" was spelled out on two sides of Mariupol theater before bombing, satellite images show: New satellite images from Maxar Technologies show that on Monday, the word "children" was spelled out outside the theater that the Mariupol City Council said was bombed on Wednesday. The City Council said that on Wednesday that Russian forces had "purposefully and cynically destroyed the Drama Theater in the heart of Mariupol. The plane dropped a bomb on a building where hundreds of peaceful Mariupol residents were hiding."
  • At least 103 children killed in Ukraine so far, President Zelensky says: At least 103 children have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message posted to Facebook on Wednesday. Speaking before addressing the US Congress, but released on Facebook afterward, Zelensky said in the video, “Last night, Russian troops continued shelling Ukrainian territory, our peaceful cities, our citizens. Kharkiv and the region ... They bombed the coast of the Odesa region. They fired missiles at Kyiv. Hit civilian infrastructure of Zaporizhzhia.” He added, “As of this morning, 103 children have been killed.”
  • NATO "not as essential" as no-fly zone, Ukraine's deputy PM tells CNN: Olha Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, told CNN on Wednesday that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to the US Congress didn’t mention NATO because that is “not as essential” as a no-fly zone and weapons — and political aspirations will have to go on hold for now. CNN’s Sam Kiley spoke to Stefanishyna remotely from a secure hidden location in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Wednesday, following Zelensky’s address.
7:56 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

US to provide Switchblade drones to Ukraine, sources say

From MJ Lee and Oren Liebermann with earlier reporting from Kylie Atwood

A product image of AeroVironment's Switchblade 600 drone.
A product image of AeroVironment's Switchblade 600 drone. (Courtesy AeroVironment)

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday additional US assistance to Ukraine including drones, and two sources familiar with the matter tell CNN that, specifically, the US will be providing Switchblade drones, which are small, portable so-called kamikaze or suicide drones that carry a warhead and detonate on impact.

The Switchblade 300 and the larger Switchblade 600 are produced by AeroVironment. 

The smaller Switchblade 300 can hit a target up to 6 miles away, according to specifications provided by the company, while the larger Switchblade 600 can strike more than 20 miles away. Both systems can be set up and launched within minutes.

CNN reported earlier today that the Switchblade drones were on Ukraine’s wish list of requested military and technological assistance they are still requesting to share with the US government, according to two sources familiar with the list. 

These weapons were added to the list after the Ukrainians consulted with congressional partners over the weekend on a draft of the list. The US would have to provide training for the Ukrainian troops if the US gives them those weapons, but the sources familiar with the list said that could be done remotely.

The company had no comment on the provision of the drones to Ukraine, though a statement on AeroVironment’s website says the company “stands with the people of Ukraine and all of NATO.” 

6:51 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Ukraine's rail chief reveals how EU leaders got in and out of Kyiv in 24 hours, despite a "naïve" move

Scott McLean and Sarah Sirgany

Oleksandr Kamyshin, chairman of Ukrainian Railways
Oleksandr Kamyshin, chairman of Ukrainian Railways (CNN)

The chairman of Ukrainian Railways has said that the Polish, Czech and Slovenian Prime Ministers, who traveled by train for a Tuesday meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, took a "strong step" to show support for his war-torn country, albeit a "naïve" one.

"That was really important for us, even if it was naïve," Oleksandr Kamyshin told CNN Wednesday.

Kamyshin, the national rail system's top executive, called the move naïve because the delegation of EU leaders announced their travel plans while they were still en route to the capital.

Kyiv has been terrorized by a campaign of Russian airstrikes that have hit residential areas in recent days, including several apartment blocks — prompting a 35-hour curfew that began Tuesday evening.

Ukraine's rail system is not immune to those strikes. But Tuesday morning, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that he, along with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, were heading toward Kyiv.

"I was keeping their secret, but when I saw something was published online, it surprised me. I didn't understand that," Kamyshin told CNN.

While en route, Morawiecki wrote in a Facebook post: "It is our duty to be where history is being made. Because it's not about us, it's about the future of our children who deserve to live in a world free from tyranny."

Fiala also tweeted that the "purpose of the visit is to confirm the unequivocal support of the entire European Union for the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine."

Security concerns have been at the top of the 37-year-old rail executive's mind ever since the war began.

Kamyshin and his top deputies have spent the last three weeks criss-crossing the country, managing the railway's 321,000 employees and roughly 1,450 stations on the move. He believes that railway management is a target for Russian bombs, so staying in near-constant motion is a matter of personal safety.

"Even to my kids I don't tell them, 'Hey don't reveal your location,' because everyone should understand that it's war. I can't instruct prime ministers," he said.

According to Kamyshin, it was the Prime Ministers' idea to travel to Kyiv by train, believing it was the safest mode of transport.

He agreed, despite a train station in Zaporizhzhia being hit Wednesday morning by a Russian bomb, shortly after their visit, which left a crater-sized hole on the railway tracks, and damaged the rail station.

"Any smart person would choose the train over a car these days," he said. "Even with bombing everywhere, stations and trains are the safest places in the country right now."

Kamyshin said the delegation traveled on a special train with four of the railway's newest sleeper cars. The only other passengers were part of the delegation or security.

"It was a regular, normal train, with normal rail cars," he said. "So [the delegation's route] was not more special than the others. ... It was the same track that normal passengers take as well."

The journey took around eight or nine hours, he said. The leaders spent a few hours with Zelensky and his team before taking an overnight train back to Poland.

"For me, it's the best assessment of the railways if foreign prime ministers chose railways instead of a car or a helicopter, or any other option," he said.

6:27 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Zelensky: At least 103 children killed in Ukraine so far 

From CNN staff

(Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky/Facebook)
(Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky/Facebook)

At least 103 children have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message posted to Facebook on Wednesday. 

Speaking before addressing the US Congress, but released on Facebook afterward, Zelensky said in the video, “Last night, Russian troops continued shelling Ukrainian territory, our peaceful cities, our citizens. Kharkiv and the region ... They bombed the coast of the Odesa region. They fired missiles at Kyiv. Hit civilian infrastructure of Zaporizhzhia.”

He added, “As of this morning, 103 children have been killed.”

Zelensky said Russian troops have caused “hundreds of times more damage” in Ukraine than on Donbas in eight years of war. The Ukrainian president went on to say a total of 400 educational institutions have been destroyed in Ukraine to date, with 119 being in the Donetsk region.

Zelensky also said he spoke with the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and that the Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine and law enforcement agencies have already started working to “bring the invaders to justice.”

“The invaders will be responsible for all war crimes against Ukrainians,” he said.

6:17 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Canada prohibits Belarusian aircrafts from entering country's airspace in response to their support of Russia

From CNN’s Jenn Selva

Belarusian aircraft are prohibited from entering Canadian airspace in response to their support of Russia’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine, according to a tweet from Canadian Transport Minister Omar Algahabra.

“Effective immediately, and until further notice, all aircraft directly or indirectly owned, registered, chartered, leased, operated or controlled by a citizen of either the Russian Federation or of Belarus, are prohibited from entering, exiting or overflying Canadian airspace,” Transport Canada tweeted.

The restriction is part of a number of economic measures from Canada against direct supporters of Russia. 

“We have issued a revised #NOTAM (notice to airman) to inform air operators of the new restriction,” Transport Canada tweeted. “We will not hesitate to take immediate enforcement action should non-compliance with the restrictions be confirmed.”

5:21 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

11,000 people leave besieged Mariupol, as Orthodox priests accompany buses through Russian-occupied territory

From CNN's Mariya Knight and Marina Marukhnych

Evacuees from Mariupol wait at the Zaporizhzhia State Circus to be transported to other locations in the city on March 16.
Evacuees from Mariupol wait at the Zaporizhzhia State Circus to be transported to other locations in the city on March 16. (Emre Caylak/AFP/Getty Images)

Eleven thousand people left the southeastern city of Mariupol en route to Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday, according to a post on the Telegram channel of Mariupol city council, marking another increase in the number of residents able to escape the besieged city.

For people able to make it as far as Berdyansk in their own cars but unable to drive further, fifteen buses were supplied to complete the journey and Orthodox priests accompanied the buses, the council said.

By Wednesday evening, officials said more than 6,400 Mariupol residents had made the journey through Russian-occupied territory to Zaporizhzhia, which is still in Ukrainian hands. More than 2,000 children were among them.

The humanitarian convoy to bring aid into Mariupol, and empty buses to evacuate residents, remains blocked by Russian forces, officials said.

5:13 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

"Children" was spelled out on two sides of Mariupol theater before bombing, satellite images show

From CNN's Paul P. Murphy

The Russian word ДЕТИ, or "Children" is seen on the grounds of the Mariupol theater prior to being bombed. 
The Russian word ДЕТИ, or "Children" is seen on the grounds of the Mariupol theater prior to being bombed.  (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

New satellite images from Maxar Technologies show that on Monday, the word "children" was spelled out outside the theater that the Mariupol City Council said was bombed on Wednesday.

The City Council said that on Wednesday that Russian forces had "purposefully and cynically destroyed the Drama Theater in the heart of Mariupol. The plane dropped a bomb on a building where hundreds of peaceful Mariupol residents were hiding."

5:30 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

NATO "not as essential" as no-fly zone, Ukraine's deputy prime minister tells CNN

From CNN’s Sam Kiley and Bex Wright in Kyiv

Olha Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, told CNN on Wednesday that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to the US Congress didn’t mention NATO because that is “not as essential” as a no-fly zone and weapons – and political aspirations will have to go on hold for now.

CNN’s Sam Kiley spoke to Stefanishyna remotely from a secure hidden location in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Wednesday, following Zelensky’s address.

“I think that NATO is something which is not as essential as a no-fly zone and more weapons and basically, capability to defend ourselves,” she said, “but now basically it's not about politics, it's about survival.”

Stefanishyna said Putin is failing in the war because “the chain of command which disinforms him, and the senior management around, shows that they know nothing about our nation.”

“I'm absolutely sure that he's uncomfortable in every moment that he’s sitting in his bomb shelter,” she said, adding, “he fails in each of his assessments.”

She also responded to how she feels about her government being effectively driven underground, saying that “we feel ourselves as one with Ukrainian people and we suffer and cry the same with the death of every child and citizen of Ukraine.”

Stefanishyna told CNN she has faith in her country’s military — and the unity and fearlessness of the people — to overcome Russia’s aggression in this conflict, but she added that it's the “responsibility” of Western leaders to provide security guarantees, together with Russia.

“Security guarantees in a broader format are essential to us,” she said.

“What we want is to live peacefully on our land in a democratic way," Stefanishyna said, adding that Ukraine is already part of the European family. "We're already part of the political European family,” she said.