March 31, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Travis Caldwell, Seán Federico O'Murchú, Adrienne Vogt, Jason Kurtz, Joe Ruiz, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Maureen Chowdhury and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 1:26 p.m. ET, April 8, 2022
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12:31 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

President Zelensky asks Belgian lawmakers for help with weapons, sanctions and EU membership

From CNN’s Cece Armstrong

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the Belgian parliament via video conference in Brussels on Thursday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the Belgian parliament via video conference in Brussels on Thursday. (Virginie Lefour/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)

On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the Belgian government to help with “weapons, sanctions, membership of the European Union," adding, "maybe soon the future will pay you back.”

In an address to the Belgian parliament, Zelensky said “we need to know that Ukraine will be in the European Union because if we are they will lose. But if we lose, if we lose Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities there will no longer be a strong European Union because tyranny will come and take away from you that which you have and you are proud of. This is not a threat, this is reality.”

Zelensky went on to praise Belgium’s response to the war, saying the country was “one of the first to provide our defensive support. This is historic support and we are grateful. We will never forget that.”

“But you are in the heart of Europe and you can inspire all other Europeans to do more to help us get the occupiers off our land and restore precious peace. A peace that is worth more than anything,” Zelensky added.

Zelensky continued to say that peace in Ukraine is worth “more than any treaties with Russia. Any Russian vessels in the European ports. Any barrels of Russian oil.”

During the address, Zelensky also spoke of the situation in Mariupol, the city under heavy bombardment from Russian forces.

“More than 90% of all the buildings in the city have been completely destroyed by artillery, rocket attacks, and tanks from the Russian army,” he said. “Thousands are hiding in the basements of multi-story buildings or whatever is left of them.”

“There is nothing there. No water, no food, no medication, no life. There is none. Nothing that is required to maintain any kind of life,” Zelensky said. “But Mariupol is not giving up.”

“Every day we try to do all we can to make the humanitarian corridors from Mariupol work to save civilians who remain in the city. Women, children, elderly,” Zelensky said.

“Today, this is the worst place in Europe. It is hell. It is a catastrophe there,” he said.

2:19 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Russian troops have withdrawn from Chernobyl, according to Ukrainian nuclear operator

From CNN staff in Lviv

Russian military vehicles are seen at Chernobyl near Pripyat, Ukraine, in this screenshot taken from a video uploaded to social media in late February.
Russian military vehicles are seen at Chernobyl near Pripyat, Ukraine, in this screenshot taken from a video uploaded to social media in late February. (from Telegram)

Energoatom, the state enterprise overseeing Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, said Thursday that Russian forces had withdrawn from Chernobyl, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986. 

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant and its surrounding territory fell into the hands of Russian troops in the first week of the war in Ukraine. In a statement on Telegram, Energoatom said: "It was confirmed that the occupiers, who seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and other facilities in the Exclusion Zone, marched in two columns towards the Ukrainian border with the Republic of Belarus."

The statement added that Russian troops announced their intention to leave and hand over control to Ukrainian personnel on Thursday. Energoatom posted the copy of a formal letter purportedly signed by a representative of Russia's National Guard, a representative of Russia's state nuclear energy company Rosatom and a Chernobyl plant shift manager, with the heading "The act of acceptance and transfer of protection of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant." 

The letter states that "the administration of the protected facility makes no claims in relation to the troops of the National Guard of the Russian Federation."

The Telegram statement from Energoatom said that a small number of "rashists" — a Ukrainian slur for Russians that combines the words "fascist" and "racist" — remained at the station.

"It should be noted that the information about fortifications and trenches that the rashists built right in the Red Forest, the most polluted in the entire Exclusion Zone, was also confirmed," Energoatom said. "So it is not surprising that the occupiers received significant doses of radiation and panicked at the first sign of illness. And it manifested itself very quickly. As a result, almost a riot broke out among the military, and they began to gather from there."

CNN was not immediately able to verify those claims. 

Separately, Energoatom said there were reports that a column of Russian soldiers who had encircled the town of Slavutych, which was built to house workers at Chernobyl, were also forming up to withdraw toward Belarus.

The US is also seeing Russian forces “drawing down” from Chernobyl and from the north and northwest of Kyiv, a senior US defense official told reporters Thursday.

The US believes Russian forces have likely “abandoned Hostomel airport,” also known as Antonov International Airport, outside of Kyiv to the northwest, the official said.

CNN's Ellie Kaufman contributed reporting to this post.

12:05 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

India continues to toe the line on Ukraine crisis at forum

From CNN's Swati Gupta in Delhi

At the first India-UK Strategic Futures Forum on Thursday, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar continued India’s stance of not intervening significantly in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

“The real problems are still to come, certainly for our part of the world. We are seeing the impact of the conflict on energy prices, on commodities. … All of this has consequences on the rest of the world, and we are seeing that,” Jaishankar said. 

India has declined to take a stance on the conflict in Ukraine and has abstained from multiple United Nations votes. It has instead called for a resolution through diplomacy and peace talks. 

Jaishankar acknowledged that the world economy has seen multiple “shocks” in the past 2-3 years, with the Covid-19, the Taliban taking over Afghanistan and now the conflict in Ukraine. 

“Some of it also depends on proximity. … What we saw happening in Afghanistan last summer had a very, very strong impact, especially in India. I would probably say it did not have the same impact in Europe. … The ability to relate, the ability to identify – some of it is proximity – that is also a factor,” said Jaishankar, responding to a question on the moral impact of the events in Ukraine. 

UK Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss repeatedly pointed out how countries across the world are stepping up and denouncing Russia’s attack on Ukraine in an attempt to support every country’s right to democracy. 

“We are living in a more insecure world precisely because we have seen Putin’s appalling invasion of Ukraine and violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the shattering of European security,” Truss said. 

India has seen a flurry of foreign leaders arriving in the country over the past two weeks. Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived Thursday evening for a series of meetings.

12:05 p.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Polish prime minister says he thinks Russia is aiming to take a third of Ukraine "quite soon"

From CNN’s Emmet Lyons in London and Claire Calzonetti in New York 

(CNN)
(CNN)

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told CNN on Thursday that he believes Russian troops will "quite soon" aim to capture one-third of the land in Ukraine and that Moscow will use it to strengthen its negotiating hand. 

“I see the Russian troops regrouping, reorganizing. I think that they will try to surround the Ukrainian forces quite soon — in the Donbas region in particular. And then having captured one-third of the land in Ukraine, they will want to negotiate from this … very strong position,” the prime minister told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview. 

In a virtual address to the Australian parliament on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for further sanctions on Russia and warned of great implications to global security if Russia isn’t stopped. 

Speaking to Amanpour, Morawiecki said that Ukraine’s allies needed to continue imposing a “crushing set of sanctions.” 

Moscow is “fearful of long-term sanctions,” he told CNN. “We are advocating for confiscating their assets, and doing everything possible to stop buying Russian oil and gas.”

Despite the fact that Western allies have already imposed harsh sanctions, the prime minister warned that the price of the Russian ruble remained largely stable and that it was proof that “for the time being, Putin and his people were able to change the fiscal policy, monetary policy, financial policy in such a way that they are immune to the sanctions to some extent ... at least for the next several months.”

“For the next weeks and the next couple of months, Russia is prepared for this war. I’m not so sure if the West, if the United States, the European Union and NATO are as prepared. … Our public opinion will get tired of this war,” he said. 

Morawiecki also warned that while the “Ukrainians are fighting with lionhearts,” the West needs to urgently increase its supply of weaponry into the country, making a direct appeal to the United States to "act quickly, please act quickly as they [Ukraine] are fighting for our values, our universal values." 

“We have to help Ukrainians to defend their country as quickly as possible. Our days is their hours, our weeks [are] their days; they need weapons here and now. … Russia is a big country, a big country of lots of commodities, raw materials, resources … They have a big army. This is why they can again and again regroup and reorganize,” he added.  

11:54 a.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Russia is focusing strikes on four areas, including Kyiv, US defense official says

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

A destroyed market in Chernihiv, Ukraine, is seen on Wednesday.
A destroyed market in Chernihiv, Ukraine, is seen on Wednesday. (AP)

Russian forces continue to focus their strikes on Ukraine in four areas, including the capital city of Kyiv, a senior US defense official told reporters Thursday.

According to the official, the airstrikes Russians are launching are focused on:

  • Kyiv
  • Chernihiv
  • Izyum (to the south of Kharkiv)
  • The Donbas region
“We have seen the Russians continue to increase their number of sorties, aircraft sorties, in the last 24 hours up over 300, and their strikes are focused on Kyiv, Chernihiv, Izyum which we’ve talked about before, to the south of Kharkiv, and then that joint force operation area, basically the Donbas, those are sort of the four areas where they are conducting most of their strikes,” the official said.

The official stressed “Kyiv is still very much under threat from airstrikes,” despite Russia’s comments about pulling back from the area.

11:39 a.m. ET, March 31, 2022

France and Germany refuse to pay for Russian gas in rubles 

From Inke Kappeler in Berlin 

German Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck, left, listens as French Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire speaks during a news conference in Berlin on Thursday.
German Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck, left, listens as French Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire speaks during a news conference in Berlin on Thursday. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

German and French economic ministers said Thursday that they were committed to existing agreements with Russia on making the payments for Russian gas supplies only in euros.  

“The contracts are in euros and must be paid in euros and will be paid in euros,” French Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire said during a joint news conference with his German counterpart Robert Habeck.  

“We will not accept the method of payment for [Russian] gas in any other currency than stated in the contract,” Le Maire added.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that according to a newly signed decree regarding natural gas trading with “unfriendly countries,” companies will need to have accounts in Russian banks and pay for contracts in rubles.   

At a separate news conference Thursday, Habeck said that Germany is “prepared” for all scenarios, including a stoppage of Russian gas flows to Europe, while Le Maire said France is “preparing” in case Russia cuts off gas deliveries.  

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also insisted Thursday that Berlin will make payments for Russian gas only in euros.  

“We have looked at the contracts on gas delivery and other deliveries. [The contracts state] that payments are to be made in euros, sometimes in US dollars, but mostly in euros. And I made clear in my conversation with the Russian president that this will remain as it is,” Scholz said in Berlin during a joint news conference with his Austrian counterpart Karl Nehammer. 

“It is a terrible feeling to be dependent on Russian energy at the moment,” the Austrian chancellor said. 

“We must secure energy supplies to make sure that the economy functions, because the gas coming from Russia is not only being used for private households but also by industries where jobs are concerned, and prosperity must be maintained,” Nehammer said. 

11:39 a.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Russian bank appointed to open accounts in rubles for gas buyers from "unfriendly countries," state media says

From CNN's Chris Liakos

Gazprombank has been appointed as an authorized bank that will open special accounts in rubles for gas buyers from "unfriendly countries" and will sell currency for conversion into rubles for gas payment at Moscow Exchange auctions, Russian state news agency TASS reported Thursday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Thursday that according to a newly signed decree regarding natural gas trading with "unfriendly countries," companies will need to open ruble accounts in Russian banks, and payments should come from these accounts.

Putin made the comments during a virtual meeting that he was chairing to discuss measures to support Russian airlines hit by Western sanctions.

According to TASS, the Bank of Russia must determine within 10 days the procedure for opening special currency accounts for foreign gas buyers.

“In a situation when the financial systems of Western countries are weaponized and companies from these countries refuse to perform their contracts with Russian banks, companies and individuals, and when assets in dollars and euros are frozen, there is no point using the currencies of these countries,” Putin said earlier during his speech.

These actions will strengthen Russia’s financial sovereignty, Putin said.

“We shall continue to steadily and systemically move in this direction as part of a long-term plan,” he said.

11:15 a.m. ET, March 31, 2022

US targeting Russian technology sector in crackdown over sanctions evasions

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Sean Lyngaas

The US on Thursday targeted members of the Russian technology sector in a crackdown on sanctions evasion, the US Treasury said in a news release.

The agency said it is sanctioning “21 entities and 13 individuals as part of its crackdown on the Kremlin’s sanctions evasion networks and technology companies, which are instrumental to the Russian Federation’s war machine.”

It has also determined “that sanctions apply to the aerospace, marine, and electronics sectors of the Russian Federation,” meaning that the US can “impose sanctions on any individual or entity determined to operate or have operated in any of those sectors.”

Among the sanctioned were three employees of a Russian government institute that is accused of building hacking tools that were used in a cyberattack that forced an emergency shutdown at a Saudi petrochemical facility in 2017. The hacking incident caused alarm among cybersecurity experts because the malicious code used was specifically designed to target safety systems that protect human life. 

The institute — known as the State Research Center of the Russian Federation (FGUP) Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics — has billed itself as working closely with the Russian ministry of defense, according to the US Justice department. Evgeny Viktorovich Gladkikh, one of the three institute employees who was sanctioned Thursday, has been indicted for his role in the Saudi hacking incident and for unsuccessfully targeting a US energy firm, the Justice Department announced last week.

11:11 a.m. ET, March 31, 2022

Why Russia could be ramping up its offense in eastern Ukraine

Analysis from CNN's Nathan Hodge in Lviv

Russia's military says it has moved on to a new phase of its so-called "special military operation" in Ukraine, claiming that it is shifting its focus to the Donbas region in Ukraine's east.

Is this regrouping of forces a feint — allowing battered Russian forces to regroup after suffering serious losses at the hands of Ukrainian defenders — or a simple face-saving measure? Is Russia actually moving troops and equipment to concentrate on Ukraine's east, where Moscow has recognized two separatist republics?

On paper, that seems to be the case. Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said a "planned regrouping of troops" was underway around Kyiv and Chernihiv, one day after Russian negotiators said Moscow's forces would take steps toward de-escalation around those two cities. He said Russian forces were regrouping in order to "intensify operations in priority areas and, above all, to complete the operation for the complete liberation of Donbas."

US officials and military analysts have rightly been skeptical of Russia's claims of de-escalation, and some observers have suggested Russia's shifting military objectives are meant to conceal massive setbacks on the battlefield. But there is evidence that Russian military activity is ramping up in the east: Ukrainian officials on Thursday reported heavy shelling of a number of Ukrainian cities, particularly in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of the Donbas and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

Here's why: