March 18, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Meg Wagner, George Ramsay, Jeevan Ravindran, Laura Smith-Spark, Peter Wilkinson, Adrienne Vogt and Melissa Macaya, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, March 19, 2022
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2:14 p.m. ET, March 18, 2022

French president voiced "extreme concern" about Mariupol with Putin, according to Elysée Palace

From CNN’s Arnaud Siad, Simon Bouvier and Camille Knight

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting in Pau, France on March 18.
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting in Pau, France on March 18. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he was very concerned about the situation in Mariupol, the Ukrainian city that has been hit by constant shelling over recent days, according to the Elysée Palace.

According to a statement from the Elysée, Macron “shared his extreme concern with President Putin regarding the situation in Mariupol and once again demanded an immediate ceasefire.”

“President [Macron] asked him for concrete and verifiable measures to lift the siege of Mariupol, allow humanitarian access and an immediate ceasefire,” the statement added.

“The [French] President again brought up the deterioration of the situation in Ukraine, the continued strikes hitting civilians and failure to respect humanitarian law while negotiations between the Russian and Ukrainian delegation have for now not led to any progress,” according to Macron's office.

In response to a journalist’s question about whether Putin had accused Ukraine of war crimes on the call with Macron, the Elysée said: "As he has done publicly, President Putin again placed responsibility for the conflict on Ukraine." 

The call lasted just over one hour, according to the Elysée. 

1:40 p.m. ET, March 18, 2022

At least 3 cruise missiles shot down by air defenses in Vinnytsia on Friday, civil authorities say

From Khrystyna Bondarenko in Vinnytsia, Ukraine

At least three cruise missiles were shot down by air defenses in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia on Friday morning, the head of Vinnytsia war and civil administration reported.

Vinnytsia has faced increasing rocket fire from Russian forces; the city’s TV tower and airport have both been hit by airstrikes in the past two weeks, according to Ukrainian authorities.

1:36 p.m. ET, March 18, 2022

Baltic states expel 10 Russian diplomats in coordinated decision

From Alex Hardie in London

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have expelled 10 Russian diplomats, according to statements from their foreign ministries on Friday.

In a tweet on Friday, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs confirmed that the decision “has been coordinated with #Lithuania and #Estonia.”

Lithuania declared four employees of the Russian Embassy to be persona non grata, while Latvia and Estonia have each done the same for three Russian Embassy staff. 

“Current activities of those persons under diplomatic cover are incompatible with their diplomatic status and are causing detriment to the Republic of Latvia,” Latvia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Friday.

“The persons subject to expulsion must leave the Republic of Latvia by 23:59 on 23 March,” the statement continued.

Lithuania also ordered the four diplomatic staff to leave the country within five days, according to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Russian special services are actively involved in the planning and execution of the military invasion of Ukraine, threatening not only the security of Ukraine but also that of Lithuania,” the Lithuanian ministry's statement said.

Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that all three Russian Embassy staff members “have directly and actively undermined Estonia’s security and spread propaganda justifying Russia’s military action”.

“The activity of the persons in question has been in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and therefore they must leave Estonia within 72 hours,” the Estonian ministry added.

1:29 p.m. ET, March 18, 2022

OSCE investigation into human rights abuses in Russian war in Ukraine is underway

From Jennifer Hansler

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s investigation into human rights abuses and atrocities committed in the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine is now underway.

The fact-finding mission, which comes after 45 countries invoked a rare OSCE mechanism that is used to investigate human rights concerns, is being led by three experts chosen by Ukraine from an OSCE list of experts.

“The mission has already begun and the experts have started their work,” said Katya Andrusz, the spokesperson for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). “The mission itself will last around three weeks, after which Ukraine will have the opportunity to comment on the report before it’s finalized."

An email inbox has been established for people to send information relevant to the fact-finding mission. Andrusz said the inbox has been receiving a lot of information from a variety of sources, and it will be open for the entirety of the investigation.

The OSCE does not have the authority to legally punish Russia if it finds evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but their facts can be given to other bodies that do have that authority.

The Moscow Mechanism is a serious step, and according to the OSCE, it has been triggered only nine other times since its establishment in 1991. It was most recently used in 2020 to investigate human rights abuses in Belarus.

Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are all members of the OSCE.

2:07 p.m. ET, March 18, 2022

Ukrainian army says Russia's main routes for attacking Kyiv have been blocked

From CNN's Andrew Carey and Olga Voitovych in Lviv 

Smoke rises over Kyiv, Ukraine on March 18.
Smoke rises over Kyiv, Ukraine on March 18. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

The Armed Forces of Ukraine have issued an upbeat assessment of their defense of Kyiv, saying Russia’s two main routes for attacking the capital city have been blocked. 

In the face of a campaign to apparently encircle the capital ahead of a possible attempt to take it, Russian forces on both sides of the Dnipro river — which divides the city north to south — have been stopped, according to Oleksandr Hruzevych, deputy chief of staff.

“As of today, the enemy has been stopped at a distance of almost 70 kilometers (about 43 miles) from the city’s right bank, which makes it impossible to carry out fire, except for rocket fire. On the left bank, the advance has [also] been stopped. The enemy is cynically shooting at our infrastructure facilities. [But] the main ways of attack are blocked,” he said Friday. 

Russian forces had abandoned offensive actions around Brovary to the northeast of Kyiv, and Boryspil to the southeast, Hruzevych said. After creating two lines of defense to protect the capital, Hruzevych said Ukraine’s army was now “working on strengthening a third, distant line of defense.” 

Addressing the threat posed by cruise missiles, the brigadier general said an air defense system was still in operation around Kyiv, but admitted missiles intercepted over the city still posed a threat. One person was killed in such an incident Friday morning in the northwestern district of Podilskyi, the city council said earlier. 

On Friday morning, four cruise missiles fired from warplanes over the Black Sea had smashed into an aircraft parts plant in the western city of Lviv. Two further missiles had been intercepted by air defense systems before they could hit their target.  

"The Black Sea and Belarus are two difficult directions from which the enemy launches missile strikes,” Hruzevych acknowledged. But, he continued: “An effective system has been developed where the missiles are to be destroyed on approach. We are now working on a system that will minimize the impact of missiles for civilians." 

He also said a campaign to remove the threat of saboteurs in the capital had already resulted in the elimination of more than 100 people. 

1:35 p.m. ET, March 18, 2022

US defense secretary tells US and NATO troops in Bulgaria they are creating "trust" by training together

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks with US troops in Bulgaria on March 18.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks with US troops in Bulgaria on March 18. (Robert Burns/AP)

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with US and NATO troops in Bulgaria on Friday, where he told the troops that they are creating “trust” by training alongside one another.

“You can’t surge trust at the eleventh hour; trust is something you have to work on every day. And from what I’ve heard, it’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re building trust with, amongst, with our allies, and you’re learning more about each other, and I think that’s just fantastic,” Austin said.

The US troops that are in Bulgaria are part of the US troop deployment to reinforce the United States' commitment to the NATO alliance and to reinforce the Eastern flank. 

Reporters traveling with Austin conducted a brief interview with an Army major who is on deployment in Bulgaria from his home base in Rosenberg, Germany. 

“Our mission here with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment is to reinforce our NATO allies in the southeastern flank of NATO and also to train with them in order to assure our allies of US commitment to NATO,” Maj. Ryan Mannina said. 

The focus of the US troop deployment there is to partner with Bulgarian land forces, Mannina said. The US troops are there to be a part of “NATO’s effort to stand up a multinational battle group here in Bulgaria,” he added.

Mannina said the soldiers there are “anxious” but “understand the strategic relevance of our mission.”

“We're very, we're very aware and attuned to the fact that there's a war going on only a few hundred miles from us and, and we, but I think the soldiers are also excited to be a part of something really important here and to understand the strategic relevance of our mission and assuring our allies and building combat credible forces on behalf of NATO,” Mannina said.

1:32 p.m. ET, March 18, 2022

Zelensky: 130 people have been rescued from bombed Mariupol theater, but hundreds still under the rubble 

From CNN's Alex Hardie and Chris Liakos

Debris is seen after a theater was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine on March 17.
Debris is seen after a theater was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine on March 17. (Azov Battalion/AP)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that 130 people have been rescued from the bombed theater in the city of Mariupol so far.

Hundreds of people were taking shelter at the theater when it was bombed on Wednesday.

Speaking on Ukrainian TV, Zelensky said that rescue operations are continuing at the site despite the difficulties.

However, hundreds of people are still under the rubble in Mariupol, Zelensky added.

Earlier on Friday, officials from the Donetsk region and Kyiv said they had no further update on how many people had survived the attack. On Thursday, Ukraine’s human rights commissioner Liudmyla Denisova said there was no update on figures released, which reported 130 people rescued from a total of 1,300 people believed to have been sheltering in the building.

Zelensky also warned that it will be Western leaders’ moral defeat if Ukraine does not receive advanced weapons.

“We still have no missile defense. We do not have enough fighter planes,” Zelensky said.

“We shall call even louder on certain Western leaders and remind them that this will be their moral defeat if Ukraine does not receive the advanced weapons that will save the lives of thousands of our people,” Zelensky continued.

“Russian missiles are not going to be defeated by certain hunting guns that they are trying to sell us sometimes,” he said.

On Ukraine’s bid to become a member of the European Union, Zelensky said, “We will become a full member of the EU and every civil servant is working towards this 24/7.”

 

1:23 p.m. ET, March 18, 2022

US ambassador says Russia's "disinformation is a sign of its desperation"

From CNN's Laura Ly

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield delivers a statement at the United Nations Security Council meeting on Friday, March 18.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield delivers a statement at the United Nations Security Council meeting on Friday, March 18. (Jason DeCrow/AP)

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield slammed Russia's attempts to lie about allegations of biological weapons in Ukraine once again Friday morning. 

"As I said one week ago, Ukraine does not have a biological weapons program. There are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories – not near Russia’s border, not anywhere. There are only public health facilities, proudly, and I say proudly, supported and recognized by the US government, the World Health Organization, and other governments and international institutions," Thomas-Greenfield said in prepared remarks to the UN Security Council. 

Ukrainian and US officials have repeatedly debunked claims of US-supported biological programs in Ukraine. 

Friday's emergency session was called by Russia after they announced Thursday that they would not call for a vote on their humanitarian draft resolution on Ukraine. 

Thomas-Greenfield instead said "it is Russia that has a well-documented history of using chemical weapons" and that Friday's meeting is 'the result of their isolation on this Council and on the world stage." 

"We aren’t going to dignify Russia’s disinformation or conspiracy theories," Thomas-Greenfield said. "I will not repeat the slurs and false accusations that Russia has hurled against the Ukrainian people and the United States repeatedly at this table. But we know that Russia’s disinformation is a sign of its desperation. That’s the truth, and we will continue to ensure the world sees it and hears it."

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia claimed Friday that new details show evidence of US-supported biological weapons in Ukraine. 

"Over the last week, new details have come to light which allows to state that the components for biological weapons were being created on the territory of Ukraine," Nebenzia said in translated remarks to the council. "We can see that the American colleagues were not helping, as they claim, the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, but rather the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense."

Nebenzia claimed that a new document distributed to the council Friday morning "confirms direct funding and supervision of the Pentagon and its defense threat reduction agency of military and biological projects in Ukraine." 

"The representative of the US State Department continue to muddle the information and ascertain that US allegedly does not operate in any biological laboratories in the territory of Ukraine, but the facts show otherwise," the Russian ambassador claimed. 

More context: There are US-funded biolabs in Ukraine, but they are not building bioweapons. Actually, it's the opposite: Part of the reason for their creation was to secure old Soviet weapons left behind in the former Soviet republics. The State Department has described the claims as nonsense — and the US and Ukrainian governments have repeatedly, and for years now, tried to bat down conspiracy theories about the labs and spoken about the work that is actually being done in them.

Russia's falsehoods about labs like this have not been limited to Ukraine, and the country has been pushing various bits of disinformation about the US and biological weapons since the Cold War.

CNN's Kiely Westhoff and Donie O'Sullivan contributed reporting to this post.

1:16 p.m. ET, March 18, 2022

Polish prime minister will submit proposal for peacekeeping mission in Ukraine

From Anna Odzeniak in Przemsyl, Poland

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during a summit in Warsaw, Poland, on March 14.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during a summit in Warsaw, Poland, on March 14. (Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Poland plans to submit a proposal at a NATO summit in Brussels next week for a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday. 

Speaking at a news conference in Warsaw, Morawiecki told reporters that “at the next NATO summit, the proposal for a peace mission in Ukraine will be formally submitted.” 

Morawiecki was asked whether he thinks there was consensus for such a mission in Ukraine among NATO members. 

“Poland is very active in this forum, both in NATO and in the EU and we are the ones who urge them to take the following steps,” he said.  

“When the bombs are falling closer and closer to the Polish border, we will, of course, use this as an argument, both in the context of the most argument presented by [Ukrainian] President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as the arguments formulated by us during our mission in Kyiv," he added. 

On Friday, Russia launched missile strikes near an airport in Lviv, a strategic Ukrainian city not far from the Polish border.