March 22, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Travis Caldwell, Seán Federico O'Murchú, Sana Noor Haq, Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Kathryn Snowdon and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, March 23, 2022
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8:31 a.m. ET, March 22, 2022

Zelensky says Ukraine must hold referendum for any constitutional changes 

From CNN's Hande Atay Alam and Yulia Shevchenko

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said any constitutional changes that relate to security guarantees in the country would need to be decided through a referendum and not by him alone.

The President made the comments during an interview with Ukraine's public broadcaster Suspilne News on Monday.

"It is a long process which will be decided by the parliament and by the Ukrainian people," he said.

Some context: It comes as delegates from Ukraine and Russia have held a series of peace talks. Zelensky said he has not met with Russian negotiators but told his delegation that any significant compromise would require a referendum.

"I explained to our negotiators at the talks that when one is talking about changes — and these changes may be of historic importance — there is no other way around it, we will have to hold a referendum," he said.
"The people will have to speak up and respond to this or that form of compromise you have mentioned. And what they (the compromises) will be is the subject of our talks and understanding between Ukraine and Russia." 

When a Suspilne reporter asked about the limit of the compromise Ukraine would go for, Zelensky said: "I think that without this meeting you cannot truly understand what they are really prepared to do in order to stop the war and what they are prepared to do if we are not ready for this or that compromise." 

Zelensky repeated previous comments that he was ready to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The issue of the occupied territories is important for us. But I am certain that a solution will not come at this meeting," he said.

Here's the background to the "occupied territories:" In early 2014, mass protests in Kyiv known as Euromaidan forced out a Russia-friendly president after he refused to sign an EU association agreement. Russia responded by annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and fomenting a separatist rebellion in Ukraine's east, which seized control of part of the Donbas region. In late February ahead of the invasion, Putin recognized the two separatist territories in eastern Ukraine as independent states.

9:31 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Damaged buildings and Irpin River flooding seen in new satellite images

From CNN's Paul P. Murphy

Russian artillery positions west of the Russian-held Antonov Air Base.
Russian artillery positions west of the Russian-held Antonov Air Base. (Maxar Technologies)

New satellite images from Maxar Technologies show fires from military strikes and growing flooding from the Irpin River.

The images, taken on Monday, also show Russian artillery positions west of the Russian-held Antonov Air Base northwest of the capital, Kyiv. Those positions match similar scenes at other Russian artillery positions — earthen berms have been constructed around them. 

Damage from Russian military strikes in Irpin.
Damage from Russian military strikes in Irpin. (Maxar Technologies)

Damage from Russian military strikes are also seen across Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, in the satellite images. Two distinct fires are seen in central Irpin near a complex of city government and apartment buildings. 

Two other fires can also be seen in another satellite image among a group of buildings near a school in the city and a residential area near a lake. 

Flooding from the Irpin River.
Flooding from the Irpin River. (Maxar Technologies)

An additional satellite image shows growing floodwaters from the Irpin River. 

CNN previously reported that a dam along the Dnieper River was flooding the Irpin River basin and its tributaries. The Irpin River is critical to the Russian advance toward Kyiv; if the Russians cannot cross it, they can't take Kyiv from the west.

It's unclear how the dam began flooding the Irpin River basin: whether the gates were opened on purpose by the Ukrainians to flood the area, or it was hit by a military strike. 

8:38 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Russian artillery positions, tanks and vehicles seen in new satellite images from Mariupol

From CNN’s Paul P. Murphy

Russian military vehicles and tanks seen on the streets of the "left bank" neighborhood in Mariupol.
Russian military vehicles and tanks seen on the streets of the "left bank" neighborhood in Mariupol. (Maxar Technologies)

Russian military vehicles, including artillery positions, in Mariupol are seen in new satellite images from Maxar Technologies. The images were taken on March 19.

One of the images shows Russian military vehicles and tanks on the streets of the "left bank" neighborhood in Mariupol — the day Russian-backed separatists took control of government buildings.

Russian military artillery positions northeast of Mariupol.
Russian military artillery positions northeast of Mariupol. (Maxar Technologies)

Additional imagery shows Russian military artillery positions northeast of Mariupol and smoke rising from burning apartment buildings.

Smoke rises from burning apartment buildings.
Smoke rises from burning apartment buildings. (Maxar Technologies)

8:14 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

The theater was supposed to be a safe haven. Missiles ripped it apart

From CNN's Eliza Mackintosh and Oleksandra Ochman

When Serhii woke up to news reports that a bomb had flattened Mariupol's Drama Theater, where hundreds of people had been sheltering, he couldn't breathe.

His wife and their two daughters were inside.

A day before the attack, the 56-year-old editor, who lives in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, received a panicked call from his 30-year-old daughter.

He hadn't heard from her since March 1, when Russian forces intensified their siege of Mariupol, the strategic port city, launching a relentless barrage of rockets and bombs from land, sky and sea.

As electricity and internet service went out, Mariupol was largely cut off from the outside world. Serhii, who asked that only his first name be used for security reasons, waited desperately for any update from his girls.

Read more:

10:44 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Zelensky: Mariupol is being "reduced to ashes," but the city will "survive"

From CNN's Olena Mankovska and Sugam Pokharel  

Multiple buildings burn amid Russian strikes on Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 20.
Multiple buildings burn amid Russian strikes on Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 20. (Planet Labs PBC/AP)

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address released Monday that the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol is being “reduced to ashes” by Russia's military aggression, but added that the city will “survive.”   

Mariupol, which before the war was home to around 450,000 people, has been under near constant attack from Russian forces since early March with satellite images showing significant destruction to residential areas. 

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Monday that “what's happening Mariupol is a massive war crime.”

Zelensky in his address went on to again urge Ukrainians to “do everything you can to defend our country, to save our people.” 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started in late February, “we are seeing more and more [Ukrainian] heroes. Once ordinary Ukrainians, and now true fighters,” he said. 

The Ukrainian leader also said that ordinary citizens in Ukraine are “rising” to the point that Russia “doesn’t believe that this is the reality,” and added, "we will make Russia believe.”  

“Fight, keep on fighting, and help,” he urged Ukrainians.  
8:12 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Who is Russia's top field commander in Ukraine? The US isn't sure.

From CNN's Katie Bo Lillis and Zachary Cohen

The US has been unable to determine if Russia has designated a military commander responsible for leading the country's war in Ukraine, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter — something that current and former defense officials say is likely a key contributor to the apparent clumsiness and disorganization of the Russian assault.

Without a top, theater-wide commander on the ground in or near Ukraine, units from different Russian military districts operating in different parts of Ukraine appear to be competing for resources rather than coordinating their efforts, according to two US defense officials.

Units participating in different Russian offensives across Ukraine have failed to connect, these sources say, and in fact, appear to be acting independently with no overarching operational design.

Russian forces also appear to be having significant communication issues. Soldiers and commanders have at times used commercial cell phones and other unsecure channels to talk to each other, making their communications easier to intercept and helping Ukraine develop targets for their own counterstrikes.

It's all led to what these sources say has been a disjointed — and at times chaotic — operation that has surprised US and western officials. 

"One of the principles of war is 'unity of command,' said CNN military analyst retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a former commander of the US Army in Europe. "That means someone has to be in overall charge — to coordinate fires, direct logistics, commit reserve forces, measure the success (and failure) of different 'wings' of the operation and adjust actions based on that."

Historically, there have been instances in which Russia has publicized this kind of information, but the Ministry of Defense has not made any reference to a top commander for operations in Ukraine and did not respond to CNN's request for comment on the topic.  

And while it is possible that Russia has quietly designated a top commander to oversee the invasion — even if the US has been unable to identify that individual — the state of combat operations would suggest "he's inept," according to Hertling.

Read more:

8:06 p.m. ET, March 21, 2022

Neither side is backing down in the conflict, senior NATO official says

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand

A senior NATO intelligence official said on Monday that signs are pointing to a stalemate emerging in Russia’s war on Ukraine, with Russian ground forces remaining stalled and Russian combat aircraft unable to achieve air superiority over Ukraine.

“If we are not in a stalemate already, we are rapidly approaching one,” the official told reporters during a briefing at NATO headquarters. “And it's quite a thing to say when you consider the disparity in strength when this fight began.” 

“You don't get to this point if you didn't make a series of mistakes,” the official added.

The official noted a stalemate is particularly dangerous, however, given how Russia has resorted to using less precise, more brutal weaponry against civilian targets since its campaign stalled. 

“Will Ukrainians give up? No. And they have been very clear they will not give up,” the official said. “So what happens when you have these two forces running on each other in this way?” 

Russia is not backing down either, despite their losses, the official said. In the last few days Russian forces have continued to assemble reinforcements and attempt to improve the logistical support in both Kyiv and the southern operational directions, the official said. The Belarusian government, meanwhile, is “preparing the environment to justify a Belarussian offensive against Ukraine,” the official added. Ukrainian officials have been warning publicly that Belarus might join the war.

It remains NATO’s assessment that Russia’s top goal is still to capture the Ukrainian capital and force a change of government there, as well as force Ukraine to adopt a neutral position with NATO and demilitarize. “I don’t think [Putin] has backed off any of his goals,” the official said.