Russian military has lost more than 10% of combat force sent to Ukraine; humanitarian convoy seized, Zelenskyy says: March 22 recap

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Editor's note: This page recaps the news from Ukraine on Tuesday, March. 22. Follow here for the latest updates and news from Wednesday, March 23, as Russia's invasion continues.

The Russian military has lost more than 10% of the combat force that President Vladimir Putin sent to invade Ukraine, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.

The Russian combat force has dipped slightly below 90% for the first time in a war that began less than a month ago, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe intelligence assessments. Not all of the more than 150,000 Russian troops in and around Ukraine are combat troops; many provide support functions.

Russian ground forces remain largely stalled across Ukraine, particularly around the capital of Kyiv, where their closest troops remain about 10 miles from the city’s center.

The official described Ukrainian resistance as quick and nimble – and for the first time in the war seeking to retake ground from the Russians.

In Mariupol, the besieged port city in southern Ukraine, Russian ships have been shelling from the sea for the first time, the official said. The shelling appears to be a sign that Russia continues to struggle on the ground against Ukrainian forces. Russian commanders instead are relying on long-range bombardment to take the cities, a tactic that often results in civilian casualties.

Russia continues to have problems supplying its troops in Ukraine with food, fuel and weaponry, the official said. Some soldiers have suffered frostbite because they don’t have proper cold-weather gear. There are signs Russia is having trouble keeping ships fueled at sea, the official said.

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Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army said it forced Russian troops out of Makariv, a strategically important Kyiv suburb, after a fierce battle. The regained territory allowed Ukrainian forces to retake control of a key highway to the west and block Russian troops from surrounding Kyiv from the northwest.

But Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces battling toward Kyiv were able to partially take other northwest suburbs – Bucha, Hostomel and Irpin – some of which had been under attack almost since Russia’s military invaded late last month.

Displaced Ukrainians on a Poland-bound train bid farewell in Lviv, western Ukraine, on March 22, 2022.
Displaced Ukrainians on a Poland-bound train bid farewell in Lviv, western Ukraine, on March 22, 2022.

Latest developments

►White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that she has tested positive for COVID for the second time and will skip this week's trip to Europe with President Joe Biden. Psaki said she's vaccinated and has mild symptoms.

►Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov says he wants to auction off his 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal to raise funds for Ukrainian refugees. In his independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Muratov called for people to “share with refugees, the wounded and children who need urgent treatment."

►The president of Poland compared Russia’s attacks on Ukraine to Nazi forces during World War II. President Andrzej Duda said besieged Mariupol looks like Warsaw in 1944 after the Germans bombed homes and killed civilians “with no mercy at all.”

►Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was convicted of fraud and contempt of court and sentenced to nine years in a maximum-security prison on Tuesday. He rejected the allegations as politically motivated.

►Four children being evacuated were among those wounded Monday when Russian forces shelled along a humanitarian border, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address.

Zelenskyy accuses Russian forces of stealing humanitarian convoy

In a nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces blocked a humanitarian convoy attempting to reach Mariupol and also took rescue workers and bus drivers captive.

“We are trying to organize stable humanitarian corridors for Mariupol residents, but almost all of our attempts, unfortunately, are foiled by the Russian occupiers, by shelling, or deliberate terror,” Zelenskyy said in his address.

The president added that Russians had agreed to the route ahead of time.

More than 7,000 people were evacuated from Mariupol on Tuesday, but about 100,000 remain in the city “in inhuman conditions, under a full blockade, without food, without water, without medicine and under constant shelling, under constant bombardment,” Zelenskyy said.

— Charles Ventura, USA TODAY; Associated Press

Russian forces destroy laboratory at Chernobyl

A laboratory at the Chernobyl nuclear plant that works to improve the management of radioactive waste was destroyed, according to the Ukrainian agency in charge of the area surrounding the plant on Tuesday.

The laboratory contained “highly active samples and samples of radionuclides that are now in the hands of the enemy, which we hope will harm itself and not the civilized world,” the agency said in its statement.

Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory agency also said Monday that radiation monitors around the plant had stopped working.

Russia seized control of Chernobyl early on in its invasion of Ukraine, along with the Zaporizhzhia plant. Chernobyl is the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986 when a reactor exploded. The exclusion zone is the contaminated area around the plant.

Spokesman says Putin won't rule out using nuclear weapons

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not ruled out the possibility of using nuclear weapons in the nearly four-week-long war with Ukraine, his longtime spokesman said Tuesday in a CNN interview.

Asked by CNN’s chief international anchor, Christiane Amanpour, whether he's convinced Putin won't take that drastic step, press secretary Dmitry Peskov declined to dismiss that option.

"Well, we have a concept of domestic security, and, well, it's public,'' Peskov responded. "You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used. So, if it is an existential threat for our country, then it can be used, in accordance with our concept.''

It's not the first time a high-ranking Russian official has dangled a nuclear threat, likely to sow fear among adversaries. Three days after launching the Ukraine invasion Feb. 24, Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces put on high alert in response to tough sanctions from the West.

Here's a clip of the interview, which is loaded with disinformation and outrageous claims from Peskov, among them that Ukrainian regiments were killing civilians trying to leave the besieged city of Mariupol and that some who escaped to Russia "simply tell us that they were used like a shield. ... And now the main goal is to get rid of those bad guys there.''

New sanctions to be announced during Biden’s trip to Europe

Additional sanctions will be imposed on Russia by President Joe Biden and the transatlantic alliance when Biden travels to Europe for a series of meetings this week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday.

A key part of the next round of sanctions will focus on enforcement, including stopping attempts by countries to help Russia evade the economic penalties.

"The West has been united,” Sullivan said. “The president is traveling to Europe to ensure that we stay united.”

Biden will also announce joint actions to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and will discuss with NATO allies the levels of troops needed on Europe’s eastern flank in the longer term.

And Biden will outline new humanitarian assistance from the U.S. to help the Ukrainians under attack as well as the growing number of refugees, Sullivan said.

During Biden’s trip to Poland, after conferring with European leaders in Brussels, the president will interact with U.S. troops and meet with experts involved in the humanitarian response. The White House has not said whether Biden will also meet with Ukrainian refugees.

The Kyiv Independent reported Tuesday that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address remotely the leaders of NATO countries at the summit to stress the importance of boosting air defenses to stop Russian bombardment that has killed hundreds of civilians.

-- Maureen Groppe

Zelenskyy wants to deal directly with Putin

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is prepared to negotiate a deal directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end a war that he said has left cities across his country bombed beyond recognition.

Authorities in Kharkiv said the Russian assault in that area has been intensifying with 84 artillery strikes reported in 24 hours. In beleaguered Mariupol, Russian aircraft dropped two more heavy bombs Tuesday, the City Council said in a social media post.

"The enemy continues to cynically destroy Ukrainian Mariupol," the post said. "The city suffered even more damage."

Zelenskyy spoke to Italian lawmakers Tuesday, telling them Mariupol has been utterly destroyed in the Russian onslaught.

Since the war began less than four weeks ago, about 3,780 residential buildings have been partially damaged, and 651 homes destroyed across the country, the Ukraine Emergency Service said.

In an interview with Ukrainian television channels, Zelenskyy said he would be willing to discuss a commitment from Ukraine to not seek NATO membership in exchange for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and a guarantee of Ukraine's security.

“It’s a compromise for everyone,” Zelenskyy said. He also repeated his call for direct talks with Putin – without them, it remains unknown whether Russia even wants to stop the war, Zelenskyy said.

Impact on grain exports due to war could be devastating for poor countries

As the war in Ukraine approaches the four-week mark, concerns about its impact on the global supply of grains -- especially wheat -- continue to grow.

Ukraine and Russia account for one-third of the world's wheat and barley exports, which countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa rely on to feed millions of people who subsist on subsidized bread and bargain noodles. They are also top exporters of other grains and sunflower seed oil used for cooking and food processing.

The war has disrupted grain production in Ukraine as farmers and other industry workers have been forced to fight or flee. On the Russian side, there's uncertainty about how sanctions will impact the country's grain exports.

About half of the grain the World Food Program buys to feed 125 million people worldwide comes from Ukraine. The double blow of rising food prices and depressed wheat exports from the war is a recipe for “catastrophe not just in Ukraine, but potentially globally,” the head of the U.N. food assistance agency said.

“It will impact millions and millions of people, particularly in the poorest countries of the world,” WFP Executive Director David Beasley told The Associated Press.

Ukrainian children airlifted to US for cancer treatment

Four Ukrainian children whose cancer treatment was disrupted by the war are receiving care at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that the agency "supported airlift" of the kids and some of their immediate family members from Poland.

"They will receive the specialized care they desperately need, and their family members will be afforded sustenance, security, and support from St. Jude," Price said.

Price said the U.S. was "proud to stand with European partners" who are also treating children whose life-saving care has been jeopardized. But he said thousands more children are missing treatments or otherwise dealing with compromised immune systems as their families are forced to flee their homes.

"That is why, together with our allies and partners, we will continue to support our Ukrainian partners as we seek to save lives and bring this needless war to a close," Price said.

Ukraine official dismisses calls to strike at Russian cities

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych called on his fellow citizens to refrain from calling for the bombing of Russian cities in retaliation for the carnage faced by Ukraine civilians. Arestovych called on Ukrainians not to dehumanize the enemy and dismissed calls for the abuse of prisoners and attacks on the civilian populations of Russia and Belarus as unacceptable.

"You and I are not barbarians," Arestovych said. "We are a civilization that fights against barbarians. We remain civilized."

Kremlin quiet on rising casualty count

Estimates of Russian military casualties vary, but even conservative figures by Western officials are in the low thousands. Ukraine has estimated Russian losses at more than 15,000. Russia has not given an update since it said March 2 that 498 soldiers had been killed in action.

Russia’s pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, citing the Defense Ministry, briefly reported Monday online that almost 10,000 Russian soldiers had been killed. The report was quickly removed, and the newspaper blamed hackers. The Kremlin declined comment Tuesday.

Some Russian journalists abandon jobs, blame war and Putin

A former Paris-based Europe correspondent for Russian state-controlled Channel One said Tuesday that she resigned this month because of the war and voiced fears she'll be accused by the Kremlin of being “a highly paid spy.” Zhanna Agalakova, one of several Russian journalists to quit in recent days, told a press conference in Paris that “I cannot do this job anymore ... I left Channel One specifically because the war started.”

Two journalists have left rival NTV – Lilia Gildeyeva had worked for the channel as a presenter since 2006 and Vadim Glusker had been with the network for almost three decades. At RT, formerly Russia Today, Maria Baronova was the highest-profile of several resignations. The former chief editor told the BBC that Putin had destroyed Russia's reputation – and that the economy was dead too.

Ukrainian refugees arrive at border ready to restart lives

The U.N. refugee agency says more than 3.5 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, an exodus prompting Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

With Russian munitions destroying cities and troops tightening a stranglehold, more displaced persons leave each day. They arrive at the border with only a bag of personal possessions and clothing, mostly women and children lining up in bitter cold for shelter, food and transport to destinations unknown.

Yet the uprooted Ukrainians may have advantages over millions who fled World War II and other past military conflicts.

An international refugee aid system developed at the end of World War II is more coordinated than at any time in history. Nonprofit relief agencies are bigger and more organized. And, at least for now, the Ukrainians are being welcomed into neighboring nations. Read more here.

Dennis Wagner

Russia increases military flights, senior US official says

Russian forces have increased the number of military aircraft sorties over Ukraine in the past two days, a senior U.S. defense official said. The official said Russians have done up to 300 sorties – a combat mission of an individual aircraft – in the past 24 hours.

Most of the flights involve air-to-ground strikes, mainly on stationary targets, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the military’s assessment. Russia has much more aircraft than Ukraine but has yet to take air superiority over the country.

– Celina Tebor

Biden confirms Russia used hypersonic missiles in Ukraine

President Joe Biden confirmed Russia's use of hypersonic missiles in Ukraine, warning Russian President Vladimir Putin's "back is against the wall," which means he could resort to using more severe tactics as the war stretches into another week.

Speaking at the Business Roundtable’s CEO Quarterly Meeting on Monday, Biden said Russia used the fast-flying missiles "because it's the only thing that they can get through" Ukrainian defenses. He called it a "consequential weapon" that's "almost impossible to stop."

"There's a reason they're using it," Biden said.

Russia has said it twice used its Kinzhal aviation missile system to strike targets in Ukraine. Hypersonic missiles can move at five times the speed of sound or more. The Russian military said these missiles are capable of hitting targets at a range of more than 1,200 miles, or roughly the distance from New York City to Kansas City.

– Courtney Subramanian

Holocaust survivor killed in Ukraine after Russian shelling hits his home

A 96-year-old Holocaust survivor was killed last week in a Russian bombing in his home city of Kharkiv, Ukraine. The victim, Borys Romanchenko, survived the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald, Peenemünde, Dora and Bergen-Belsen during World War II. The Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation confirmed Romanchenko's death on Twitter Monday.

The foundation said Romanchenko's granddaughter told them the multi-story building he was living in was hit by Russian shells, adding they were "deeply disturbed" by the news of his death.

– Jordan Mendoza

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine recap: Zelenskyy says humanitarian convoy seized by Russians