March 23, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Seán Federico O'Murchú, George Ramsay, Hafsa Khalil, Adrienne Vogt and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, March 24, 2022
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7:07 p.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Russia to expel US diplomats and label American employees "persona non grata"

From CNN's Abby Baggini

Moscow announced it will expel US diplomats from Russia, according to a statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday.

A senior diplomat from the US diplomatic mission in Moscow was handed a note on Wednesday with a list of expelled American diplomatic employees declared “persona non grata,” according to the statement.

Persona non grata literally means “an unwelcome person.”

The move was in response to Washington's expulsion of 12 diplomats from the Russian Permanent Mission to the UN in New York, as well as a Russian employee of the UN Secretariat.

"The American side was firmly told that any hostile actions of the United States against Russia would receive a decisive and adequate response," the statement read.

The statement did not specify which diplomats or how many it intends to expel.

4:40 p.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Biden arrives in Brussels for high-stakes crisis talks

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

President Joe Biden and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, left, speak with others after arriving at Brussels National Airport, Wednesday, March 23.
President Joe Biden and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, left, speak with others after arriving at Brussels National Airport, Wednesday, March 23. (Evan Vucci/AP)

US President Joe Biden has arrived in Brussels for a set of emergency summits meant to address Russia's war in Ukraine.

Air Force One landed at the Brussels airport at 9:03 p.m. local time after a roughly seven-hour flight from Washington.

Biden is expected to be greeted by Belgium's prime minister at the airport. He begins intensive talks with NATO, the G7 and the European Union starting Thursday.

4:27 p.m. ET, March 23, 2022

It's 10 p.m. on Wednesday in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know.

From CNN staff

Volodymyr, 80, rests inside his apartment damaged by shelling in Kyiv on Wednesday, March 23.
Volodymyr, 80, rests inside his apartment damaged by shelling in Kyiv on Wednesday, March 23. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

US President Joe Biden departed Wednesday for Europe on one of the highest-stakes presidential trips in recent memory.

His visits to Brussels and Poland could still underscore the alliance's limits in ending the bloodshed in Ukraine, with Western leaders struggling to find ways to halt Russian President Vladimir Putin's war. So far, punishing Western sanctions haven't stopped Putin, and it's unclear whether the new steps expected this week — including sanctions on hundreds of members of Russia's lower legislative body and changes to NATO's force posture along its eastern edge — will be different. 

Here are more of the headlines from today in the Russia-Ukraine conflict:

  • Biden will unveil new sanctions against Russian political figures and oligarchs during Thursday's summits: President Biden will unveil new sanctions on Russian political figures and oligarchs when he attends a series of summits in Brussels on Thursday. Speaking aboard Air Force One as Biden headed to Europe, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden would also discuss NATO’s force posture on its eastern edge and contingency plans for a potential Russian use of chemical or nuclear weapon in his talks. Biden will begin at NATO by meeting Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “to check signals” and get on the same page for the ensuing summit. Biden will attend the extraordinary NATO summit for about 3 hours, Sullivan said.
  • Nearly 1,000 residential buildings have been destroyed in Kharkiv, mayor says: About 1,000 residential buildings have been destroyed in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, Mayor Ihor Terehov said Wednesday. The city, which is regarded as a key target for Russian President Vladimir Putin's invading forces and has sustained weeks of heavy assault, sits just 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) from the Russian border. Terehov revealed the extent of the damage done, reporting a total of 1,143 buildings destroyed by Russian fire, of which 998 were residential buildings.
  • US government formally declares Russian military has committed war crimes in Ukraine: The US government has formally declared that members of the Russian armed forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Wednesday. The official US declaration that Moscow has committed the violations of the laws of conflict come after Blinken, Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman all said it was their personal opinion that war crimes have taken place. “Today, I can announce that, based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia's forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine,” Blinken said.
  • Biden urges governors to shore up defenses in face of potential Russian hacking threat: Biden has asked the governors of all 50 US states and the mayor of the District of Columbia to bolster the cybersecurity of state computer systems and critical infrastructure in the face of potential Russian hacking threats. “[T]here are things that only you as governor can do to secure your state’s computer systems, your critical infrastructure, your citizens, and through those efforts, our Nation,” Biden wrote in a March 18 letter to the governors and mayor reviewed by CNN. Biden reiterated in the letter that “we must prepare for any contingency, including cyber attacks on our homeland” from Russia. 
  • 700 people escape from towns in eastern Ukraine despite "massive" Russian shelling, governor says: About 700 people have managed to escape towns in the far east of Ukraine on Wednesday, according to Luhansk’s regional governor, despite continued Russian shelling through the day. Authorities had posted the addresses of collection points on Facebook where people could pick up buses and small vans to drive them to railway stations and then onward to the west of Ukraine. In addition to the evacuations, Gov. Serhii Haidai said about 600 tons of aid had made it into the region, even though he suggested Russia’s observation of a ceasefire around the evacuation corridor had been “nominal.”
  • Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who championed NATO's expansion, has died: Madeleine Albright — who championed the expansion of NATO and was the first woman US secretary of state — has died. She was 84 years old. She pushed for the alliance to intervene in the Balkans to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing, sought to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons, and championed human rights and democracy across the globe. The news of her death comes as NATO leaders, including US President Joe Biden, prepare to meet Thursday in Brussels for a summit on Russia's invasion in Ukraine.
  • US and European officials held "intense back and forth" on Russian energy dependence: US and European officials have held an “intense back and forth” on reducing dependence on Russian energy in the lead-up to emergency summits in Brussels this week, the White House said. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the matter would be a “substantial topic of conversation” among US President Joe Biden and other leaders at G7 and EU summits Thursday, and was a “major priority” for them. Sullivan said leaders have weighed a “practical roadmap” for ending European dependence on Russian oil and natural gas, and that Biden would have more to say on the matter on Friday.
  • Up to 15,000 Russians have been killed in ongoing Ukraine invasion, senior NATO military officials estimate: Up to 15,000 Russians soldiers have been killed in one month in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, two senior NATO military officials said. The officials made the estimate during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday. The officials specified the range could be as low as 7,000 or as high as 15,000 in total Russian soldiers killed in the conflict so far. Their estimate is based on what Ukraine is telling them, what they know from Russia “intentionally or by mistake” and from “open source” information, one of the officials said.
  • WHO reports 64 attacks on health care facilities in Ukraine: The World Health Organization has confirmed 64 attacks on health facilities in Ukraine so far, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday. “WHO has now verified 64 attacks on health care since the start of the war, and we are in the process of verifying further attacks,” Tedros said in a media briefing. “Attacks on health must stop. Health systems, facilities, and health workers are not and should not, [ever] be a target,” he said.
  • Bill to ban Russian oil sent to the US Senate: US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sent a bill to ban importing Russian oil, natural gas, and coal to the US Senate, a source familiar tells CNN. The House passed the bill on March 9.
4:09 p.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Zelensky calls out French companies remaining in Russia as "sponsors of Russia's war machine"

From CNN's Xiaofei Xu and Joseph Ataman in Paris 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech to the French parliament in Paris on Wednesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech to the French parliament in Paris on Wednesday. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday called out French business giants Renault, Auchan and Leroy Merlin for their continued presence in Russia, as he urged French companies to leave the country.   

“French companies must leave the Russian market. Renault, Auchan, Leroy Merlin and others must stop being the sponsors of Russia’s war machine,” Zelensky said in his video address to the French parliament on Wednesday. 

“Values are more important than profits,” he added.  

For some of the French companies Zelensky called out, the Russian market represents a crucial part of their profits. Russia is the second-most important markets for Renault, ranking only behind the carmaker’s home base France in terms of sales volume, according to the company’s 2021 sales results.   

The Russian market is also crucial for the French home retail giant Leroy Merlin. Present in both Russia and Ukraine, the former represents 18% of the brand’s global activities, CNN’s French affiliate BFMTV reported. 

The company will continue its operations in Russia, Veronique Retaux, a spokesperson for the mother company Adeo Group told CNN on Wednesday. The spokesperson did not provide further details.

Earlier in the week, a Leroy Merlin store in the Retroville shopping complex in Kyiv was hit by an explosion, according to the Ukrainian defense ministry. CNN has geolocated and verified the authenticity of photos on social media showing damage to the store. 

The incident prompted many to call on the company to leave Russia as it itself became an apparent victim of the Russian invasion.   

An online petition was launched on March 20 calling on the Adeo Group and Association Familiale Mulliez, the mother company of Leroy Merlin, to leave Russia. So far it has gathered more than 14,000 signatures.  

Renault confirmed to CNN on Tuesday that its Moscow factory resumed production on Monday, but would last for only three days. The company declined to provide more details when CNN asked why the company is restarting its production for three days.   

Meanwhile, some French companies are cutting their ties with Moscow. French oil giant TotalEnergies announced on Tuesday that it will stop purchasing Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022 as its plan to move towards a gradual suspension of its activities in Russia. 

CNN’s Niamh Kennedy and Katie Polglase contributed reporting to this post. 

3:49 p.m. ET, March 23, 2022

New drone video shows flooding in Kyiv region's Irpin River

From CNN’s Paul P. Murphy

New drone video near the Ukrainian village of Rakivka shows flooding in the Irpin River basin, northwest of Kyiv.

For days, satellite images have shown rising water levels of the Irpin River. Now, new drone video is giving a better glimpse of just how far south flooding has spread. 

CNN geolocated and verified the authenticity of the video. It was published on Tuesday, but its metadata shows the video file was created on Monday.

The video also shows a Russian tank firing toward the eastern bank of the Irpin River.

The Russian military controls much of the western bank of the Irpin River around Rakivka; the Ukrainian military is dug in and is defending northwestern Kyiv around Moshchun.

Why this matters: The 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 — whether the gates were opened on purpose by the Ukrainians, or it was hit by a military strike.

Watch the video:

2:58 p.m. ET, March 23, 2022

US President Biden urges governors to shore up defenses in face of potential Russian hacking threat

From CNN's Sean Lyngaas

President Joe Biden has asked the governors of all 50 US states and the mayor of the District of Columbia to bolster the cybersecurity of state computer systems and critical infrastructure in the face of potential Russian hacking threats.  

“[T]here are things that only you as governor can do to secure your state’s computer systems, your critical infrastructure, your citizens, and through those efforts, our Nation,” Biden wrote in a March 18 letter to the governors and mayor reviewed by CNN.  

Biden reiterated in the letter that “we must prepare for any contingency, including cyber attacks on our homeland” from Russia. 

Politico first reported on the letter. 

Some more context: This is the latest in a series of statements from Biden administration officials for critical infrastructure firms to be on high alert for any potential Russian cyber activity. 

The FBI advised five US energy firms last week that Russian internet addresses were scanning their networks in possible preparation for a hack. There are no known compromises from that activity. Scanning, which involves checking computer networks for devices and vulnerabilities, happens on the internet all the time. 

Biden urged the governors and mayor, if they haven’t already, to meet with their leadership teams to discuss how they will protect critical infrastructure and state resources in the event of a cyberattack.  

“Has your chief information security officer done all that he or she can do to lock down your state’s systems and put your cybersecurity teams on high alert?” Biden asked. 

Russian hacking groups have in 2015 and 2016 used cyberattacks to cut off power in parts of Ukraine. That has’t happened in the US. The electric sector and other critical industries have invested heavily in defenses and preparatory work.

2:55 p.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Nearly 1,000 residential buildings have been destroyed in Kharkiv, mayor says

From CNN's Andrew Carey and Yesa Kesaieva in Lviv

A man leaves an apartment building damaged after shelling the day before in Kharkiv on March 8.
A man leaves an apartment building damaged after shelling the day before in Kharkiv on March 8. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

About 1,000 residential buildings have been destroyed in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, Mayor Ihor Terehov said Wednesday.

The city, which is regarded as a key target for Russian President Vladimir Putin's invading forces and has sustained weeks of heavy assault, sits just 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) from the Russian border. 

Terehov revealed the extent of the damage done, reporting a total of 1,143 buildings destroyed by Russian fire, of which 998 were residential buildings.

2:47 p.m. ET, March 23, 2022

700 people escape from towns in eastern Ukraine despite "massive" Russian shelling, governor says

From CNN's Andrew Carey and Yulia Kesaieva in Lviv

Seven hundred people have managed to escape towns in the far east of Ukraine on Wednesday, according to Luhansk’s regional governor, despite continued Russian shelling through the day.

Authorities had posted the addresses of collection points on Facebook where people could pick up buses and small vans to drive them to railway stations and then onward to the west of Ukraine.  

In addition to the evacuations, Gov. Serhii Haidai said about 600 tons of aid had made it into the region, even though he suggested Russia’s observation of a ceasefire around the evacuation corridor had been “nominal.”

The governor said shelling on the towns of Rubizhen and Popasna had been “massive and continuous” adding that Kreminna and Severodonetsk were also under fire. There were civilian casualties, he said, without providing additional details.

3:13 p.m. ET, March 23, 2022

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who championed NATO's expansion, has died

From CNN's Caroline Kelly

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2012. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Madeleine Albright — who championed the expansion of NATO and was the first woman US secretary of state — has died. She was 84 years old.

She pushed for the alliance to intervene in the Balkans to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing, sought to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons, and championed human rights and democracy across the globe. 

The news of her death comes as NATO leaders, including US President Joe Biden, prepare to meet Thursday in Brussels for a summit on Russia's invasion in Ukraine.

Her death was confirmed in an email to staff of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm founded by Albright.

Albright was a central figure in President Bill Clinton’s administration, first serving as US ambassador to the United Nations before becoming the nation’s top diplomat in his second term.

In a New York Times op-ed, written last month just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Albright argued that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would be making “a historic error” in invading Ukraine and warned of devastating costs to his country.

“Instead of paving Russia’s path to greatness, invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance,” Albright wrote.

Read more about Albright and her leadership here.