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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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.

5:12 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

It's 10 p.m. in Kyiv. Catch up on the latest developments. 

From CNN staff

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky virtually addresses the US Congress on Wednesday, March 16.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky virtually addresses the US Congress on Wednesday, March 16. (J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

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."

CNN has geolocated the image and confirmed it is of the theater. Videos showed a fire raging in the theater's ruins. The number of casualties is unknown, authorities said.

Here's a catch up of key developments that have unfolded today:

  • Biden calls Putin a "war criminal": 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.
  • Ukraine says it has rescued mayor who was detained by armed Russians: The Ukrainian government says it has staged a rescue of the mayor of the southern city of Melitopol, who was detained by armed men in the Russian-occupied city on March 11. "A special operation to release the mayor of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov has just been successfully completed. Vanya is safe," Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in President Volodymyr Zelensky's office, said in a message on his Telegram channel. Russian troops gained control of Melitopol on Feb. 26. On March 11, armed men detained the elected mayor Fedorov and later that day the prosecutor’s office for the Russian-backed separatist Luhansk region accused him on terrorism charges.
  • Fate of hundreds sheltering in bombed theater in Mariupol is "unknown": Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of Donetsk regional administration which includes Mariupol, said Russian forces are trying to "physically destroy Mariupol and the people of Mariupol, which have been a symbol of our resistance" after a theater sustained heavy damage in an apparent bombing. Kyrylenko said they launched an air strike on the "Drama Theater" and "the Neptune" swimming pool. "According to preliminary data, 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.
  • Zelensky's address to US Congress: As Russia continued its attacks in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to Congress for help in a historic speech, telling US lawmakers "we need you right now" as he invoked tragedies in American history like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the September 11 terrorist attack. The speech, which was given as a virtual address to members of Congress, came as the United States is under pressure from Ukraine to supply more military assistance to the embattled country as it fights back against Russia's deadly attack.
  • Biden announced $800 million more in aid to Ukraine: US President Joe Biden announced $800 million in additional security assistance to Ukraine during remarks from the White House on Wednesday. This brings the total to $1 billion in aid announced in just the last week. "The world is united in our support for Ukraine and our determination to make (Russian President Vladimir) Putin pay a very heavy price," Biden said as he made the announcement. The package of military assistance will include anti-tank missiles and more of the defensive weapons that the US has already been providing, including Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, officials familiar with the plans said.
4:09 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

US defense official: Russian forces have not made "any significant advances" towards Kyiv

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Russian forces are still “generally stalled” near Kyiv, Ukraine, and have not “made any significant advances” towards the city from the north, northwest or east of the city, a senior US defense official told reporters Wednesday 

Russian forces to the east of Kyiv are still about 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) away from the city’s center, the official said.

“The bottom line is they haven’t made any appreciable progress coming to the east,” the official said.

Ukrainians are still in control of Brovary. Chernihiv remains isolated, but the US is seeing Ukrainians “trying to develop lines of communication to the south and with some success,” the official said. 

There has been no “apparent progress in or around Kharkiv” by Russian forces, the official said.

Mariupol also remains isolated by Russian forces, the official added.

In Mykolaiv, Ukrainians continue to defend the city. Russian forces are still outside of the city “mostly to the northeast,” about 10 to 15 kilometers (six to nine miles) away, the official said.

4:03 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

State Department spokesperson: US welcomes "sentiments" of hope about diplomacy, but Russia must de-escalate

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

The United States welcomes “the sentiments expressed that there is hope, that there is optimism for diplomatic progress,” but believes Russia must de-escalate for any such progress to actually be achieved, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

“What Ukraine needs now more than sentiments, more than hope, more than optimism is de-escalation, is an end to the violence, is a tangible indication that President Putin is changing course. And that is something we have not yet seen,” Price said at a State Department briefing Wednesday, referencing “more horrifying reports of shelling, of destruction of what appeared to be civilian sites across Ukraine, including in Mariupol.”

Asked about potential neutrality commitments or other guarantees that could lead to a cessation of the war, Price said it was “not a question for us regarding what might lead to a ceasefire, a diminution of violence between Ukraine and Russia.”

“This is ultimately a question for our Ukrainian partners to decide, to decide the terms of diplomacy, what they are willing to pursue, what they are not willing to pursue,” Price said.

He said such an issue was “really at the heart of this conflict." Adding, Russia is “waging this war precisely because they sought to deprive Ukraine of its sovereign rights, its sovereign right to determine its own foreign policy, its sovereign right to determine its own Western orientation, its sovereign right to choose its own partners and alliances.”

“So as part and parcel of that it is not for us to set the terms by which Ukraine and Russia may be in a position to reach an agreement that we all hope could diminish the violence. That is for Ukrainian to decide. We will be standing by our Ukrainian partners, assisting them with the diplomacy as we know a number of our allies and partners around the world are doing but these are questions for sovereign state of Ukraine,” Price said.

4:31 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Public swimming pool used as civilian shelter in Mariupol hit by Russian military strike, local official says

From CNN's Paul P. Murphy

The building that houses the "Neptune" swimming pool in northern Mariupol was hit by a military strike Wednesday.
The building that houses the "Neptune" swimming pool in northern Mariupol was hit by a military strike Wednesday. (Maxim Kach)

The building that houses the "Neptune" swimming pool in northern Mariupol has been hit by a military strike Wednesday, video posted to social media by a city government official shows.

CNN has geolocated and confirmed the authenticity of the video.

Maxim Kach, a Mariupol city government official, said that​ a bomb hit the building and that rescue workers were busy trying to get a pregnant woman out from under the rubble.

"Here there were only pregnant women & women with kids under three years old," Kach said in the video.

Kach ​also said there were no military ​personnel at, or near, the pool. 

The pool is roughly 2.5 miles, or just over four kilometers, north from where a military strike destroyed a theater being used as a shelter earlier on Wednesday.

CNN could not immediately verify Kach's claims that there was a woman buried under the rubble.

4:22 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

US defense official: "Increased naval activity" from Russian ships in Black Sea near Odesa

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Volunteers fill sand bags at a beach in Odesa, Ukraine, on March 16.
Volunteers fill sand bags at a beach in Odesa, Ukraine, on March 16. (Jonathan Alpeyrie/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The US has observed “increased naval activity” in the northern Black Sea from Russian forces there, a senior US defense official told reporters on Wednesday. 

“We also have observed on our own the shelling of some cities, some towns outside Odesa, near Odesa,” the official said.

The shelling is not in Odesa, but near Odesa, the official said. The shelling, the US believes, is coming from Russian warships in the Black Sea, the official added.

“We believe these are again from Russian warships in the Black Sea,” the official added. “There does appear to be naval shelling in places near Odesa."

4:14 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

President Biden calls Putin a "war criminal"

From CNN's Sam Fossum and Kevin Liptak

President Biden speaks during an event at the White House on Wednesday.
President Biden speaks during an event at the White House on Wednesday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

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. 

Some more context: 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.

But officials have been clear they believe atrocities are underway and that the intentional targeting of civilians would constitute war crimes.

"The President's remarks speak for themselves," press secretary Jen Psaki said afterward. She said Biden was "speaking from the heart."

She said the ongoing investigation at the State Department into war crimes was still underway. 

"There is a legal process that continues to — is underway, continues to be underway at the State Department. That's a process that they would have any updates on."

When pressed on this by a reporter later in the briefing, Psaki said, "He was answering a direct question that was asked and responding to what he has seen on television. We have all seen barbaric acts, horrific acts by a foreign dictator in a country that is threatening and taking the lives of civilians — impacting hospitals, women who are pregnant, journalists, others and I think he was answering a direct question."

Biden initially said “no” when asked whether Putin was a war criminal, but returned to a group of reporters immediately to clarify what had been asked. When asked again whether Putin was a war criminal, he answered in the affirmative.

4:08 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Ukraine says it has rescued mayor who was detained by armed men in Russian-occupied city

From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych in Lviv, Paul Murphy and Mariya Knight

Melitopol mayor Ivan Fedorov.
Melitopol mayor Ivan Fedorov. (From Facebook)

The Ukrainian government says it has staged a rescue of the mayor of the southern city of Melitopol, who was detained by armed men in the Russian-occupied city on March 11.

"A special operation to release the mayor of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov has just been successfully completed. Vanya is safe. We just talked to him together with the president and the head of the Office. I would like to say only one thing - we never leave our people. Ivan will return to his duties as mayor of Ukrainian Melitopol very soon," Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in President Volodymyr Zelensky's office, said in a message on his Telegram channel.

Another video showed a smiling Zelensky speaking on the phone to someone identified by his office as Fedorov.

More background: Russian troops gained control of Melitopol on Feb. 26. On March 11, armed men detained the elected mayor Fedorov and later that day the prosecutor’s office for the Russian-backed separatist Luhansk region accused him on terrorism charges.

Since then, newly installed mayor Galina Danilchenko has ordered the broadcasting of Russian television channels and attempted to dissolve the city council and instead create a People’s Committee.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general opened a treason investigation into Danilchenko on March 13.

2:31 p.m. ET, March 16, 2022

Slovakia has preliminarily agreed to send key Soviet-era air defense system to Ukraine, sources say 

From CNN's Katie Bo Lillis, Natasha Bertrand, Jeremy Herb and Zachary Cohen

Slovakia has preliminarily agreed to provide Ukraine with a key Soviet-era air defense system to help defend against Russian airstrikes, according to three sources familiar with the matter, but the US and NATO are still grappling with how to backfill that country’s own defensive capabilities and the transfer is not yet assured. 

According to two of the sources, Slovakia, one of three NATO allies that have the defense systems in question, wants assurances that the systems will be replaced immediately. 

If a country provided its S-300s, the supplying country is likely to receive the US-made Patriot air defense missile system to backfill the capability it would be giving up, according to two other sources familiar with the negotiations. 

Germany and the Netherlands have already publicly announced that they are sending Patriots to Slovakia. But integrating a new, complex air defense system into a country’s existing military architecture, as well as training its forces to use it, can take time, one source familiar with the matter cautioned. 

The push to get more S-300s into the hands of the Ukrainians comes as Congress has been pressing the Biden administration to help Ukraine obtain the air defense system. Lawmakers in both parties, who heard from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a speech Wednesday morning, have urged the US needed to do more to help Ukraine obtain the weapons it’s seeking, particularly after the administration opposed a plan last week to provide Ukraine with Polish MiG-29 jets.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, hinted publicly on Wednesday that the US had made progress in getting Ukraine access to additional S-300s, an anti-aircraft weapon system that congressional sources say Ukraine is already operating effectively against Russia’s assault.

“I’ve been pushing hard for this,” McCaul told CNN’s Jim Sciutto. “I’m proud to say they do have S-300s going in now.”

An aide to McCaul later said he was referring to S-300 systems that have been owned and operated by Ukraine for years. Those systems are already in the country.

More background: CNN previously reported that the State Department has been working to identify which countries currently have S-300s and determine how they could be transferred to Ukraine. 

CNN reported earlier Wednesday that other Soviet era air defense systems including the SA8 have already been sent into Ukraine. 

“People talk about a no-fly zone, they can create their own if we give them the military equipment and weapons,” McCaul noted.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to travel to Slovakia later this week after participating in the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels.

“At the request of President Zelensky, we have identified and are helping Ukraine acquire additional longer range anti-aircraft systems and the munitions for those systems,” US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday as part of remarks detailing new security assistance. 

Some US allies have also been extremely leery of making their contributions to Ukraine public, multiple sources told CNN. Bulgaria and Greece also have more the modern S-300 systems in question. Greece’s system is a different model than those currently operated by Ukraine, raising questions of whether additional training would be needed for it to be useful.

The State Department and the Slovakian Embassy in Washington declined to comment. CNN has reached out to the National Security Council and the Defense Department for comment.