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Latest Developments in Ukraine: March 24

A dog licks its nose in front of a Ukrainian Mi-24 combat helicopter in Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 18, 2023.
A dog licks its nose in front of a Ukrainian Mi-24 combat helicopter in Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 18, 2023.

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine.

The latest developments in Russia's war on Ukraine. All times EDT.

9:19 p.m.: The Kremlin on Friday said Russia will skip the annual global Earth Hour event this weekend after Moscow labeled the World Wildlife Fund a foreign agent.

The move comes as Russia cracks down on most foreign-linked groups since its offensive in Ukraine, including climate-orientated organizations, Agence France-Presse reported.

Earth Hour, which WWF organizes, encourages people worldwide to turn their lights off for 60 minutes to raise awareness about environmental issues.

Russia has taken part in the event, which is scheduled this Saturday, for 14 years.

"This year, we took the decision to hold back from this event," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday.

"It is because they have become a foreign agent."

8:56 p.m.: Economic growth in the eurozone accelerated in March and hit a 10-month high, according to a closely watched survey published on Friday, despite turmoil in the markets and concerns over banks, Agence France-Presse reported.

The S&P Global Flash Eurozone purchasing managers' index (PMI) showed the indicator at 54.1, up from 52.0 in February, thanks to the services sector.

A reading over 50 represents growth in economic activity.

Recession fears are receding in Europe after worries of a difficult winter because of sky-high energy prices following Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year.

Inflation remains much higher than policymakers' target, but eurozone consumer prices have also fallen in recent months after a record high of 10.6% last October.

7:55 p.m.: Russia could extend restrictions on fertilizer exports for six months until November to help support the domestic market, Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev said on Friday, according to Reuters.

Moscow introduced temporary quotas on some of its fertilizer exports in late 2021 to ensure domestic supplies but has extended them continuously since. The current restrictions are to expire at the end of May.

Russia is one of the top producers of potash, phosphate and nitrogen-containing fertilizers worldwide.

7:09 p.m.: French DIY retailer Leroy Merlin said Friday it would exit Russia, ending an 18-year presence that came under intense scrutiny after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Agence France-Presse reported.

Unlike Western companies that hurried to disengage from Russia, Leroy Merlin defiantly resisted calls to leave the country, saying it owed it to customers and to local staff.

Russia is Leroy Merlin's biggest foreign market with 113 stores and contributes around 20% to the company's overall revenues.

But Ukraine heaped scorn on the retailer for the stance, accusing it of sponsoring Russia's war effort.

Leroy Merlin's parent company, Adeo, said it would transfer control of Leroy Merlin to local management in Russia, where it is among the biggest foreign employers.

6:19 p.m.: China's partnership with Russia has limits, despite rhetoric to the contrary, and Europe should welcome any attempts by Beijing to distance itself from Moscow's war in Ukraine, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Friday.

Borrell's remarks followed a summit this week between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders declared a "no limits" partnership in February 2022, just days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

But Borrell said that while China had forged close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia, it had not formed a military alliance with Moscow and had not supplied arms to help Russia with its war in Ukraine.

"This unlimited friendship seems to have some limits," Borrell told reporters in Brussels. "China has not crossed any red lines for us."

5 p.m.: The son of a senior Russian official arrested in Italy at Washington's request disappeared the day after a court approved his extradition to the United States, Agence France-Presse reported Friday, citing media reports.

Following his arrest at Milan Malpensa Airport on October 17, Artyom Uss was held at his residence near Milan and required to wear an electronic bracelet.

U.S. authorities accuse Uss, the son of a Siberian governor, of illegally selling U.S. technologies to Russian arms companies.

On Tuesday, an Italian court agreed to his extradition to the United States and on Wednesday he disappeared, media reports said.

4:09 p.m.:

3:20 p.m.: The U.S. Treasury on Friday sanctioned Belarusian state-linked entities and nine individuals in response to an ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy activists launched after a 2020 presidential poll, Reuters reported.

The Treasury also identified a U.S.-made Boeing 737 jet as the property of Alexander Lukashenko, effectively blocked its use in the United States.

The sanctions generally prohibit Americans from doing business with the designated entities and individuals, and could bring similar measures against any financial institutions or persons who conduct transactions with them.

The Treasury sanctioned two major Belarusian automotive makers, including the Belarusian Automobile Plant and Minsk Automobile Plant, which the Treasury statement said is "a significant source of revenue" for Lukashenko's government

The statement said sanctions were imposed on seven members of Belarus' central election commission, as well as the commission itself.

Finally, the Treasury said visa restrictions were placed on 14 individuals, including regime officials.

2:30 p.m.: Air force commanders from Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark said on Friday they have signed a letter of intent to create a unified Nordic air defense aimed at countering the rising threat from Russia, Reuters reported.

The intention is to be able to operate jointly based on already known ways of operating under NATO, according to statements by the four countries' armed forces.

The move to integrate the air forces was triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year, commander of the Danish air force, Major General Jan Dam, told Reuters.

2:00 p.m.:

1:40 p.m.: Like most Russian funeral ceremonies, the one held just north of the resort town of Goryachy Klyuch featured colorful flowered wreaths, portraits of the dead, red carnations, and coffins draped in tapestries, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

But the ceremony, held on March 19 in a region better known for thermal spas and mineral baths, was remarkable in another way: a public fight between the local administration and the founder of the Wagner Group mercenary company, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

The local mayor said there were too many Wagner soldiers being buried there; better to bury them elsewhere. Outraged, Prigozhin and his allies defied the mayor and held the ceremony, at which the dead were mourned and the administration was excoriated.

The graveyard spat comes amid growing questions about the political future of Prigzohin, who has become one of Russia’s most notorious public figures amid the 13-month invasion of neighboring Ukraine. A former convict who made his fortune opening restaurants in St. Petersburg, Prigozhin later netted lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin before founding Wagner Group.

1:20 p.m.: Russia's middle class will shrink as social inequality grows over coming years, an economic study conducted by Russian experts suggested, as sanctions against Moscow and limited growth potential scupper development prospects, Reuters reported.

The study, published this week, presents four possible scenarios for how Russians' living standards will change between now and 2030 from experts from the Social Policy Institute at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, one of Russia's leading educational establishments.

The study, based on a 2022 survey of experts from economic institutions, businesses and public organizations, states that only a combination of global economic growth and an easing of sanctions on Russia, imposed by the West because of what Moscow calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine, can improve real incomes and reduce poverty.

The middle class is set to suffer in any event, even if sanctions pressure is reduced, the study finds.

12:55 p.m.:

12:25 p.m.: Estonia has declared a staff member of Russia's Embassy in Tallinn persona non grata for "directly and actively undermining Estonia's security and constitutional order, spreading propaganda that justifies Russia's military action and causing divisions in Estonian society," the Baltic country's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

The unnamed diplomat must leave Estonia by March 29, the statement said.

Estonia is one of the most outspoken supporters of Ukraine in the face of Russia's unprovoked aggression.

12:10 p.m.: The world should listen to China's voice in order to find a way out of the war in Ukraine, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Friday, ahead of his state visit to Beijing next week, Reuters reported.

"China is a global actor, so obviously we must listen to its voice to see if between all of us, we can put an end to this war and Ukraine can recover its territorial integrity," Sanchez told a news conference in Brussels following a meeting of the European Council.

The meeting between the two leaders is expected to mostly focus on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, in which China has described itself as "impartial" and put forward a 12-point peace plan while calling for a comprehensive ceasefire.

Sanchez has publicly backed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's peace proposal, which includes demands to restore Ukraine's territory to the status quo before Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

11:55 a.m.:

11:15 a.m.: Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the owner of the mercenary group Wagner, has rejected a report saying he plans to scale back his military operations in Ukraine and instead concentrate on Africa, where Wagner was previously involved in local conflicts and businesses, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Responding to a March 23 report by Bloomberg, which cited its sources saying ammunition and personnel shortages had prompted Prigozhin to reconsider Wagner's role in Ukraine, the man known as "Putin's chef" said in a post on Telegram. " I do not know what Bloomberg is reporting about."

"Apparently, they know better than myself what we will do further. As long as we are needed by our nation, we will fight on the territory of Ukraine," he added.

For several months, Russia and Ukraine have been locked in intense trench warfare along a front line of more than 120 kilometers in Ukraine's Donbas region, including the cities of Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Maryinka. Prigozhin has called the Bakhmut offensive a "meat grinder" and has clashed with Russian military officials over ammunition supplies while reportedly taking heavy casualties, depleting his forces.

The Bloomberg report said that Russia's top military officials consider Prigozhin a threat and discontinued his practice of recruiting inmates from Russian penitentiaries to reinforce his ranks. It also said some officials see Wagner as an incapable group that has been unable to take Bakhmut.

Prigozhin himself in recent days has issued pessimistic statements warning of a likely Ukrainian counterassault.

10:50 a.m.: Russia wants to create demilitarized buffer zones inside Ukraine around areas it has annexed, an ally of President Vladimir Putin said on Friday, saying it might be necessary to push deeper into Ukraine if such zones cannot be set up, Reuters reported.

More than a year into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Putin's core war aims remain unfulfilled despite Russian control of nearly a fifth of the country.

Neither side shows any sign of laying down arms. Hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or seriously wounded, according to Western military estimates.

10:35 a.m.:

10:10 a.m.: Some 10,000 Ukrainian civilians, many elderly and with disabilities, are clinging on to existence in horrific circumstances in and around the besieged city of Bakhmut, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Friday, according to Reuters.

Russian forces have been trying for months to capture the city in Europe's bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two.

Several thousand are estimated to remain in the city itself, said the ICRC's Umar Khan, who has been providing them with aid in recent days.

Khan said he had been shocked by the scale of destruction he had witnessed.

"Houses are crushed by military firepower, roofs are ripped off, apartment buildings are littered with holes ... the constant threat of exploding shells, bombs - and some people still living in the shelters, trying to survive these intense hostilities."

9:45 a.m.: U.N. human rights monitors have documented dozens of summary killings of Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war, as well as the use of torture, human shields and other abuses against POWs since Russia invaded its neighbor that could amount to war crimes, a report released Friday said, according to The Associated Press.

The first full look by the U.N. human rights office’s mission in Ukraine at the treatment of POWs was released along with an update of human rights violations overall from a six-month period that ran through January. The report was based on interviews with about 400 POWs, half of them Ukrainians who were released and the other half Russians held captive in Ukraine.

The team said it had no access to POWs held in Russia or Russia-occupied parts of Ukraine where it identified 48 internment sites. The mission said it nonetheless documented some 40 summary executions over the course of the 13-month war.

The U.N. rights office, which has had a monitoring team in Ukraine since fighting broke out in areas of eastern Ukraine claimed by Russia-backed separatists in 2014, has said its findings are based on confirmed cases and typically understate actual tolls.

9:10 a.m.:

8:50 a.m.: With its stockpile of Soviet-era weapons, Bulgaria, home to a thriving arms industry, could be a key ally of Ukraine, which is trained on and equipped with such arms, in its war against invading Russian forces, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

But with parliament now dissolved ahead of elections on April 2, the fifth snap poll in two years amid political uncertainty, the caretaking government is in no mood to provide lethal aid to Kyiv, appointed as it was by President Rumen Radev, who is known for his pro-Kremlin leanings.

Radev, a former air force pilot, doubled down on his hard-line stance on March 21, balking at joining a dozen EU states to supply Ukraine with at least 1 million artillery shells over the next year.

"Bulgaria does not support and is not part of the general order for the supply of shells to Ukraine," Radev said. "Our country will support European diplomatic efforts to restore peace." Radev also added that Bulgaria will not provide fighter jets, missile defense systems, or tanks to Ukraine as long as the present caretaker government is in power.

8:20 a.m.: Russia has reacted furiously to plans outlined by Britain earlier this week to send shells containing depleted uranium to Ukraine, Reuters reported. Russia's defense ministry said on Friday that the use of depleted uranium shells in Ukraine would harm Ukrainian troops, the wider population and negatively affect the country's agriculture sector for decades or even centuries.

London says they are a conventional form of ammunition, but President Vladimir Putin said the move showed NATO members were sending weapons with a "nuclear component" to Kyiv.

Critics of the use of depleted uranium, such as the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, say the dust created by such weapons can be breathed in while munitions which miss their target can poison groundwater and soil.

The Royal Society said in a report in 2002 that the risks to the kidney and other organs from the use of depleted uranium munitions are very low for most soldiers in the battlefield and for those living in the conflict area.

Countries such as the United States and Britain say depleted uranium is a good tool for destroying a modern tank. Britain says in guidance that inhaling enough depleted uranium dust to cause injury would be difficult.

Russia's defense ministry on Friday disputed those claims and said the use of depleted uranium shells, compared to Tungsten-based ammunition, "has no significant advantage" on the battlefield.

7:45 a.m.:

7:30 a.m.: A Russian security officer who fled the country because he objected to the invasion of Ukraine has been sentenced to six-and-a-half years in high-security prison, the news website reported on Friday, according to Reuters.

Federal Protective Service Major Mikhail Zhilin, 36, fled to Kazakhstan last year when Russia announced a conscription campaign, illegally crossing the border through woods while his wife and children drove through a checkpoint.

Zhilin sought refugee status in the former Soviet republic but his request was denied and authorities there stopped him from leaving for Armenia. Kazakhstan handed him over to Russia late last year, leading to the rare conviction of an officer for desertion.

7:15 a.m.: Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and now the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, said the Russian military was ready to repel any counteroffensive Kyiv may be planning aimed at dislodging Russian troops from occupied areas of Ukraine, The Associated Press reported.

“Our General Staff is assessing all that,” Medvedev said.

He also said that a Ukrainian attempt to seize Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, could trigger a nuclear response from Moscow.

“An attempt to split part of the state away means an encroachment at the very existence of the state,” he said. “Quite obviously, it warrants the use of any weapons. I hope our ‘friends’ across the ocean realize that.”

Though known for his bombastic pronouncements, Medvedev’s warning stems from the Russian security doctrine envisaging the use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or an attack with conventional weapons that threatens “the very existence of the Russian state.”

Medvedev also said that Western experts operating weapons, such as the U.S.-made Patriot air defense missile systems supplied to Ukraine, would be legitimate targets for the Russian military. Ukrainian soldiers have received training in the U.S., although Russian officials have frequently claimed that foreign instructors are present in Ukraine.

“If Patriot or other weapons are delivered to the territory of Ukraine along with foreign experts, they certainly make legitimate targets, which must be destroyed,” Medvedev told reporters in video clips he posted on his messaging app channel. “They are combatants, they are the enemies of our state and they must be destroyed.”

“They must understand that as soon as an American or a Polish soldier shows up there, he must be killed,” he added.

The Kremlin’s goal is to “create a sanitary cordon” of up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) around Russian-held areas so short- and mid-range weapons can’t strike them, according to Medvedev.

Moscow may even set its sights on grabbing a bigger chunk of Ukrainian territory, stretching all the way to the border with Poland, he said.

6:50 a.m.:

6:25 a.m.: Ukrainian troops, on the defensive for months, will soon counterattack as Russia's offensive looks to be faltering, a commander said, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that without a faster supply of arms the war could last years, Reuters reported.

The Ukrainian military said early on Friday that 1,020 Russian troops had been killed over the previous 24 hours as they launched unsuccessful attacks on the towns of Lyman, Avdiivka, Mariinka, and Shakhtarske. But their main focus was still the mining town of Bakhmut.

"The enemy has not stopped its assault of Bakhmut," Ukraine's General Staff in a report.

Russian forces have for months been trying to capture Bakhmut as they seek to extend their control over eastern Ukraine, in Europe's deadliest infantry battle since World War Two.

Ukrainian forces have held them off, as they did again in Avdiivka, Mariinka and Shakhtarske, among the 80 Russian attacks that Ukrainian defenders repelled over the past day, the military said.

6:05 a.m.: A Russian strike on the town of Kostyantynivka in the eastern region of Donetsk killed at least five people on Friday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported, quoting Ukraine's emergency service.

A missile fired from an S-300 antiaircraft system hit a local so-called "invincibility point" -- a humanitarian support center -- in Kostyantynivka, the Prosecutor General's Office reported, killing five people. Of those, at least three of them were women taking shelter at the "invincibility point" set up to provide a place with basic services such as electricity, water, and heating for those displaced by the fighting in the region.

Russia also launched a drone attack overnight on the city of Kryviy Rih in Ukraine's south-central region of Dnipropetrovsk, the region's governor said on Friday. Five Iranian-made drones were launched on Kryviy Rih at night but there were no casualties, Serhiy Lysak said on Telegram, adding that one Shahed drone and several Russian missiles were downed.

In the east, Russian forces pressed on with their offensive, launching 79 assaults on Bakhmut and the surrounding areas over the past 24 hours, despite some reports of signs of exhaustion among Moscow's troops, Ukraine's General Staff said in its morning summary on Friday. Most of Russia's assaults targeted Bakhmut, the largely destroyed city in the Donetsk region that has been the epicenter of Moscow's efforts for months.

Russia continued to launch unsuccessful attacks in other areas of Donetsk -- Lyman, Avdiyivka, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk, the General Staff said, adding that fighting was also under way in parts of the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions.

5:35 a.m.:

5:18 a.m.: Insurers continue to cover grain shipments from Ukraine through a U.N.-backed corridor although more clarity will be required soon, a senior Lloyd's of London official said on Thursday, after the export accord was renewed for at least 60 days, Reuters reported.

The deal allowing the safe wartime export of Ukrainian grain from its Black Sea ports, initially brokered last July by Turkey and the U.N., was renewed Saturday.

Insurance for ships going into the three Ukrainian ports covered by the agreement has been vital, and the war-cover policies need to renewed every seven days.

"There is clearly underlying risk that if events change and somebody wanted to sink a ship to make a point, that clearly our appetite for continuing with those kind of risks might change," Lloyd's market's Chairman Bruce Carnegie-Brown told Reuters.

4:32 a.m.: The latest intelligence update from the U.K. defense ministry said that Russia appears to be training troops under the Belarusian army at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground. It's believed to be an indication of the effect Russia's invasion of Ukraine has had on its own military training system. Many instructors, the update noted, have been deployed in Ukraine.

3:11 a.m.: Russian leaders should be put on trial for the invasion of Ukraine even if they cannot be arrested and brought to court in person, Kyiv's top prosecutor said Thursday.

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, speaking to Reuters during a stopover in The Hague where the International Criminal Court is based, said that a planned tribunal for the crime of aggression should hold so-called trials in absentia.

Kostin spoke after meeting with the chief ICC prosecutor, who last week issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him and his children's commissioner of the war crime of deporting children from Ukraine to Russia.

Swift work by prosecutors and cooperation with the ICC "was the reason for such a fast response to one of the most severe war crimes of this war, forced deportation and abduction" of children, Kostin said.

2:09 a.m.: The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank, said in its latest Ukraine assessment that Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks northeast of Kupyansk and along the Svatove-Kreminna line.

Russian forces are also continuing to attack Bakhmut City and areas in its vicinity and around Avdiivka, the assessment said.

Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, continue to conduct raids over the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.

1:09 a.m.: The Kyiv Independent reported that Russian forces shelled four communities in Sumy Oblast on Thursday. No casualties were reported.

12:02 a.m.: A Russian court Thursday issued an arrest warrant for an opposition activist on charges of disparaging the military, and authorities declared other activists and bloggers as foreign agents amid efforts to muzzle criticism of Russia's action in Ukraine, The Associated Press reported.

Moscow's Basmanny District Court ordered the arrest of Maxim Katz, an opposition activist and blogger who has left Russia. He is accused of spreading false information about the Russian military, charges that carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Days after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine last February, Russian lawmakers approved legislation outlawing the disparagement of the Russian military or the spread of "false information" about what the Kremlin calls "the special military operation" in Ukraine.

Courts across the country have increasingly handed out prison terms to critics of Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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