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March 17, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

She treats victims of Russia's attack. Hear her message for Russians
06:32

What we covered

  • In the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, people are emerging alive from a bombed theater where hundreds of civilians were sheltering before it was hit by heavy strikes on Wednesday, officials said.
  • Russia’s offensive to capture Kyiv has largely stalled, NATO officials said, and on Thursday, Ukraine said it launched a counteroffensive aimed at gaining decisive control of the capital’s suburbs.
  • According to UK intelligence, Russian forces are being prevented from resupplying “forward troops with even basic essentials such as food and fuel,” due to their inability to control Ukrainian airspace and challenges on the ground.
  • Want to help? Learn how to support humanitarian efforts in Ukraine here. 
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Arnold Schwarzenegger's message to Russians: "Help me spread the truth"

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made an impassioned appeal to the Russian people in a video posted on social media, asking them to resist their country’s disinformation as the devastating invasion of Ukraine continues.

Schwarzenegger said he was “sending this message through various different channels” for Russian citizens and soldiers, and hoped his message about the atrocities committed by its government and military would break through. The video posted on Twitter has more than 16 million views.

“Ukraine did not start this war. Neither did nationalists or Nazis,” he said. “Those in power in the Kremlin started this war.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and government officials have made false accusations toward Ukraine as their motivations for the invasion, baselessly saying the country must “deNazify.”

“There are things that are going on in the world that are being kept from you, terrible things that you should know about,” Schwarzenegger said.
“I know the Russian people are not aware such things are happening, so I urge the Russian people and the Russian soldiers in Ukraine to understand the propaganda and the disinformation that you are being told. I ask you to help me spread the truth.”

He heavily criticized the Russian government for the invasion, saying they “lied not only to its citizens but to its soldiers” for the reasons behind the war.

Read more:

FILE - Arnold Schwarzenegger, founder of the "Austrian World Summit", talks about his dreams and actions to fight the climate crisis in Vienna, Austria, on July 1, 2021. The film icon told Russians in a video posted on social media they're being lied to about the war in Ukraine and accused President Vladimir Putin of sacrificing Russian soldiers' lives for his own ambitions. Schwarzenegger (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

Arnold Schwarzenegger urges Russians to overcome government disinformation

Russian-backed separatists take control of government buildings in Luhansk

Russian-backed rebels from the breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region have taken control of government buildings in the city of Rubizhne. 

Luhansk is one of two separatist regions backed by Russia, along with Donetsk. Both regions are split between parts controlled by Ukraine and by pro-Moscow separatists.

In videos posted Thursday to the official channel of the People’s Militia of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), a uniformed soldier says, “We are located next to the administration of the city Rubizhne. The flag of the (LPR) is flying here now. This means for the local residents that, if the war hasn’t ended yet, then it’s in its final stages.”

In another video, the soldier is seen standing in the Rubizhne mayor’s office and is later seen placing a flag of the LPR on the roof of the government building.  After an explosion is heard, he says: “That’s more shelling, from the Ukrainian side.” 

Ongoing attacks: Shelling continues in Rubizhne, Luhansk regional administrator Serhiy Haidai said in a clip from an interview with local media.

In the clip posted to his Telegram channel late Thursday, Haidai said, “The enemy is simply destroying all the cities.”

“It’s not even selective anymore. Earlier they were shelling more or less selectively, today they are firing deliberately, quadrant after quadrant,” he added.
“People have been in basements for two weeks. Some have bomb shelters. If there’s a factory nearby, there are good, strong bomb shelters there.”

Up to 1,200 people are in some bomb shelters, he said.

Delivering aid is difficult with constant firing, he said, but added that with the help of Ukraine’s presidential office, there will be an attempt to create an evacuation corridor later in the week to deliver supplies to large cities.

Accounts of destruction: On Tuesday, Haidai said the Russian military destroyed a boarding school for visually impaired children in Rubizhne, in addition to a hospital, three other schools and “other military facilities.”  

Four people were killed during the military strike, he said.

CNN cannot independently confirm the deaths, or that the schools, hospital or facilities were hit.

Australia imposes new sanctions on Russian banks and oligarchs

Oleg Deripaska, the head of aluminum company Rusal, which owns 20% of Australia’s Queensland Alumina company was sanctioned Friday March 18.

Australia on Friday announced new sanctions against 11 Russian banks and government entities, according to a statement from Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Payne said Australia will continue to work with its partners to coordinate sanctions and to “constrain funds for President (Vladimir) Putin’s unlawful war.”

“Today’s listing includes the Russian National Wealth Fund and the Russian Ministry of Finance. With our recent inclusion of the Central Bank of Russia, Australia has now targeted all Russian Government entities responsible for issuing and managing Russia’s sovereign debt,” she said.
“The majority of Russia’s banking assets are now covered by our sanctions along with all of the entities that handle Russia’s sovereign debt.”

Oligarchs targeted: Payne also announced new sanctions against Russian oligarchs Viktor Vekselberg, and Oleg Deripaska, the head of aluminum company Rusal, which owns 20% of Australia’s Queensland Alumina company.

Australia is “deeply committed to imposing high costs on Russia,” Payne said, reiterating Canberra’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and for the people of Ukraine.”

No mention of Ukraine after Chinese official's meeting with Russian ambassador

China’s Commissioner for Foreign Security Affairs, Cheng Guoping, met with Russia’s Ambassador to China, Andrey Denisov, on Thursday, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.

In a short statement released on Friday morning, China’s ​Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Cheng “briefed” Denisov on China’s “Two Sessions Meetings” and “exchanged views on China-Russian relations, counter-terrorism and security cooperation.”

There was no mention in the statement of Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Some context: The meeting comes amid claims by senior US officials — including Secretary of State Antony Blinken — that Russia has asked China for military support and economic assistance for its invasion of Ukraine.

On Monday, a Western official and a US diplomat told CNN the US has information suggesting China has expressed some openness to providing Russia with requested military and financial assistance as part of its war on Ukraine.

Both China and Russia have denied that Moscow asked for military assistance.

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Friday, according to a White House statement Thursday.

South Korea to close temporary embassy in Lviv, citing "escalating military threats"

South Korea will close its temporary embassy in Lviv due to “escalating military threats” near the western Ukrainian city, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday.

Heightening military threats near Lviv made it difficult for the temporary embassy “to function and to secure safety of its staff,” the statement said.

South Korean moved its embassy in Ukraine from the capital, Kyiv, to Lviv, on March 3.

It is also operating temporary offices in Chernivtsi, southwestern Ukraine, and in Romania, which will remain open.

As of Thursday, 28 South Korean nationals are in Ukraine, excluding embassy workers and those in the Crimean Peninsula, according to the presidential Blue House.

Russia's brutal attack on Mariupol is "ripped from the Syria playbook," analyst says

A woman reacts while speaking near a block of destroyed apartment buildings in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 17.

Though Russia’s invasion has stalled in most areas of Ukraine, troops have made progress in the south of the country by using the same tactics they deployed in Syria, said Mason Clark, lead Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Russia’s attack on the coastal city Mariupol, where hundreds of thousands of people have been trapped by relentless bombarding for weeks, is “ripped from the Syria playbook,” Clark said.

These tactics include “specific neighborhood-by-neighborhood targeting,” less precise weapons that take a more brutal toll, and hitting civilian infrastructure.

“They’re very intentionally targeting water stations and power supplies and internet towers and cell phone towers and that sort of thing, in a very deliberate attempt to make it more difficult for the defenders to hold out and try and force them to capitulate,” Clark said.

“It’s the same approach the Russian forces have taken in a number of cities in Syria, such as Aleppo and Palmyra,” he added. “You also then have the frankly deliberate war crimes that Russians are committing, such as targeting that drama theater in Mariupol that was housing refugees, which unfortunately tracks with what Russian forces have done in the past, both in Syria, as well as in previous wars in Georgia and Chechnya.”

The city of Aleppo was reduced to ruins during the Syrian civil war, with air offensives that killed and maimed scores of civilians. Hospitals were destroyed, and entire housing blocks reduced to rubble.

If Mariupol falls, that could be the “next major change in the war, because it’ll free up a lot of Russian forces that are currently deadlocked in that operation, including some of the best units of Russia’s Southern Military District that could potentially resume further operations,” he added.

Analysis: Russia seems to have a very bad army. That's not good for Ukrainian civilians

The accounts of Russia’s military issues and ineptitude during its three-week-long invasion of Ukraine are too numerous to list.

The proof of Russia’s military problems is in a video of Russian tanks, stuck in a line, being destroyed by Ukrainians — and in reports of Russian combat deaths, which already may be anywhere from 3,000 to more than 10,000.

If those death tolls are toward the higher end — and we really don’t know — it has been noted that would mean Russian deaths to date could be more than US military combat deaths during 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, although the total death tolls from those conflicts were far greater than just US military deaths.

There are numerous accounts of Russian soldiers surprised to learn they had been sent to war.

But an incapable Russian army is not entirely good news.

“Failing militaries can be even more dangerous than successful ones,” writes Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, in The Washington Post.

It is exactly their incompetence that could make this war so devastating, she argues.

“There’s reason to worry that the ineptitude and lack of professionalism that Russian forces have displayed in the first three weeks of the conflict are making fighting considerably more brutal for civilians than a more competent military would — and increasing the prospects that the war escalates.”

Read the full analysis:

Destroyed Russian tanks are seen on a main road after battles near Brovary, north of Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 10, 2022.

Analysis: Russia's bad army is horrible news for Ukrainian civilians

UK Defense Ministry: "Faltering" Russian troops face logistical challenges like food shortages

A column of Russian military vehicles is seen abandoned in a forest near Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 6.

The Russian military continues to face logistical problems in its “faltering invasion of Ukraine,” Britain’s Ministry of Defence said in a statement on Thursday. 

In its latest intelligence update, the ministry said Russian forces were being prevented from resupplying “forward troops with even basic essentials such as food and fuel,” due to their inability to control Ukrainian airspace and challenges on the ground.

Russian forces have been reluctant to maneuver across the country, the ministry said, but did not provide additional details on its knowledge of Russia’s strategic moves. 

“Reluctance to maneuver cross-country, lack of control of the air and limited bridging capabilities are preventing Russia from effectively resupplying their forward troops with basic essentials such as food and fuel,” the ministry said. 
“Incessant Ukrainian counterattacks are forcing Russia to divert large numbers of troops to their own supply Iines. This is severely limiting Russia’s offensive potential.”

US basketball star Brittney Griner's detention in Russia extended to May

A sign reading "Free Brittney Griner" is seen on a television camera during the championship game of the Big West Conference at Dollar Loan Center on March 12, in Henderson, Nevada.

Basketball player Brittney Griner remains in Russian custody after a court hearing Thursday that extended her detention to May 19, according to state news agency TASS.

The Phoenix Mercury star, who plays in Russia’s Women’s Premier League during the WNBA offseason, was arrested on Feb. 17, according to US Rep. Colin Allred.

According to state-owned RIA Novosti, a court advocate said she should be kept under house arrest because their jail beds are a foot (0.3 meters) too short for Griner, who is 6’9” (2.05 meters).

What we know about her arrest: The location of Griner’s detention has not been publicly revealed. She is in a cell with two others who speak English, according to TASS and the court advocate.  

Griner was accused of smuggling hash oil into the country, according to RIA Novosti. Her attorneys argued in court Thursday that “the arrest was unlawful and the measure of restraint was unnecessarily severe,” RIA reported.

Consular access: Although a State Department official told CNN the US has been denied consular access to Griner, a source close to the situation said Griner’s Russian legal team has seen her several times a week throughout her detention, and she is well.

The source added the Russian investigation is ongoing, a trial date has not been set, and Griner’s detention could be extended again in May.

Meanwhile, Griner’s friends and loved ones in the US are watching the case closely, including her former high school coach, Debbie Jackson. “I’m hopeful that the US government is working on her behalf and doing everything they can to help,” Jackson said.

China is quietly making life harder for Russia in these 4 ways

China is quietly distancing itself from Russia’s sanction-hit economy.

The two states proclaimed last month that their friendship had “no limits.” But that was before Russia launched its war in Ukraine.

Here are some measures Beijing has taken in the past few weeks to distance itself from the isolated and crumbling Russian economy.

Letting the ruble drop: China’s currency, the yuan, doesn’t trade completely freely, moving instead within bands set by officials at the People’s Bank of China (PBOC). Last week, they doubled the size of the ruble trading range, allowing the Russian currency to fall faster. The ruble has already lost more than 20% of its value against both the dollar and euro since the start of the war in Ukraine. By allowing the Russian currency to fall against the yuan, Beijing isn’t doing Moscow any favors. Sitting on reserves: The most significant help China could offer Russia is through the $90 billion worth of reserves Moscow holds in yuan, wrote Alicia García-Herrero, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis, in a research report on Tuesday. Sanctions have frozen about $315 billion worth of Russia’s reserves — or roughly half the total — as Western countries have banned dealing with the Russian central bank. Russia’s finance minister Anton Siluanov said this week that the country wanted to use yuan reserves after Moscow was blocked from accessing US dollars and euros, according to Russia’s state media. The PBOC has so far not made any comment about its position regarding these reserves. Withholding aircraft parts: Sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union mean the world’s two major aircraft makers, Boeing (BA) and Airbus (EADSF), are no longer able to supply spare parts or provide maintenance support for Russian airlines. The same is true of jet engine makers. Earlier this month, a top Russian official said that China has refused to send aircraft parts to Russia as Moscow looks for alternative supplies. Freezing infrastructure investment: The World Bank has halted all its programs in Russia and Belarus following the invasion of Ukraine. It hadn’t approved any new loans or investments to Russia since 2014, and none to Belarus since 2020. More surprisingly, perhaps, is the decision by the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to do the same. In a statement earlier this month, it said it was suspending all its activities related to Russia and Belarus “as the war in Ukraine unfolds.” The move was “in the best interests” of the bank, it added.

Read more:

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022.

4 ways China is quietly making life harder for Russia

Biden will "speak directly" about consequences of aiding Russia in call with Xi

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Friday, according to a White House statement released Thursday.

The phone call — the first known discussion between the two leaders since November — comes after recent assertions from US officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that Russia has asked China for military support in Ukraine. Beijing and Moscow have both denied the claims.

In a briefing Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration had “high concern” that China could provide Russia with military aid. 

“It is a high concern and significant concern. Our secretary of state just conveyed that and certainly our concerns about China assisting Russia in any way — as they invade a foreign country — is of significant concern and the response to that would be consequences,” Psaki told reporters. 

“I’m just not going to outline what these consequences will look like. The President obviously will speak with President Xi tomorrow and he’ll speak directly about that,” she added. 

The two leaders will also discuss other bilateral issues like managing competition between the two countries, the White House said on Thursday. Chinese state media did not mention the topics of discussion when announcing the call, only saying the leaders would “exchange views” on “issues of common interest.”

Some context: The announcement of the call comes after an intense, seven-hour meeting in Rome, between Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi. During the meeting, Sullivan warned his Chinese counterpart of “potential implications and consequences” for Beijing should support for Moscow be forthcoming, a senior administration official said.

Assistance from China would be a significant development in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It could upend the hold Ukrainian forces still have in the country as well as provide a counterweight to the harsh sanctions imposed on Russia’s economy.

Zelensky warns mercenaries joining Russian forces: "This will be the worst decision of your life"

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in a video message posted to Facebook Thursday night March 17.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned those trying to join Russian forces in Ukraine it would be “the worst decision of your life,” in a video message posted to Facebook Thursday night.

“Long life is better than the money you are offered for a short one,” Zelensky said. He claimed Ukraine has information the Russian military is recruiting mercenaries from other countries, but said this will not help them.

Ukrainian forces are still holding all key areas of the country, he added.  

New Russian conscripts have been taken as prisoners, Zelensky said — but added, “We do not need 13 or any number of thousands of dead Russian soldiers.”

Zelensky addressed the German Parliament Thursday following earlier speeches to British, Canadian and US lawmakers. He said in his Facebook message he would continue speaking to partner states. “I feel that we are being increasingly understood. In Europe, in the world, in different countries,” he said.

James Hill's sister says she is still waiting for closure and remembers him as "the helper" in a crisis

James Whitney Hill is seen in this 2013 Facebook photo.

In his last Facebook post, United States citizen James Whitney Hill described the intensifying bombing around where he lived in Ukraine and said, “No way out,” before authorities identified him as the American who was among the dead in the war.

The Minnesota native lived there with his partner, Ira, who is Ukrainian and could not leave because of her battle with multiple sclerosis.

Even as he detailed a chilling account of his last days in Ukraine — intense bombing, limited food and cold — he never thought about leaving “because he was not going to leave Ira’s side in her condition,” said his sister Katya Hill, who lives in the US in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The specifics around his death have not been confirmed to her, and she told CNN she is still trying to locate his body. She said her family is trying to reach Sen. Amy Klobuchar, or Minnesota, and Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

“We don’t know where my brother’s body is. So that kind of closure the family won’t have right now. So any help that somebody can let us know on that would be greatly appreciated,” she said Thursday.

“We’ll do a prayer service,” she said. “What can I say? The hardest thing that we’re going to have to go through is not having that kind of closure.”

In the meantime, she also had not yet been able to connect with Hill’s partner, Ira.

With electricity out, Hill had been reserving battery on his phone, she said, adding, “I can only assume that Ira’s mother’s phone is unable to be charged at this point.”

She remembered her brother has “the helper that people find in a crisis.”

“He had a stash of chocolate that he was keeping so he could hand out chocolates when someone … needed encouragement,” she told CNN.

Mariupol suffering 50 to 100 attacks daily, city council says

Mariupol is being hit by between 50 to 100 artillery shells daily, according to the council of the besieged Ukrainian city. 

“The city has been under blockade for sixteen days, more than 350,000 Mariupol residents continue to hide in shelters and basements from continuous shelling by Russian occupation forces,” a city council statement said. 

It continued: “About 80% of the city’s housing stock has been hit, almost 30% of which cannot be restored.” 

The statement, which was released early Thursday evening, said information about casualties from the attack on the theatre being used as a shelter was still being clarified.