Ukraine war live updates: Kremlin approved harassment of U.S. drone, officials say; Bakhmut combat intense, no sign of retreat

Ukraine war live updates: Kremlin approved harassment of U.S. drone, officials say; Bakhmut combat intense, no sign of retreat

No sign Ukrainian fighters are withdrawing from Bakhmut, pro-Russian official says

The sound of artillery and the movement of Ukrainian troops is unrelenting.

Jose Colon | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The situation in Bakhmut in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, remains tense and intense, with both Russian and Ukrainian officials conceding this week that fighting there is extremely difficult.

On Thursday, the Russian-installed leader of Ukraine’s Donetsk region said there were no signs Ukrainian fighters are withdrawing from the city, and said Ukraine was building up forces in the nearby Chasiv Yar area.

In comments reported by news agency RIA Novosti, the acting head of the pro-Russian “Donetsk People’s Republic” Denis Pushilin told a Russian broadcaster that Russian forces see no sign that Ukraine is going to withdraw troops from Bakhmut, a city that Russia calls “Artemovsk.”

“In Artemovsk, the situation remains difficult. We do not see that there are any prerequisites that the enemy is going to withdraw units, and for [Ukrainian PresidentVladimir] Zelenskyy to save (them),” Pushilin told the Rossiya 24 TV channel.

He also claimed that that the only road for the Ukrainian forces to use to access Bakhmut was coming under fire from Wagner Group mercenary forces, making it difficult for Ukraine to deliver ammunition, food and reinforcements to Bakhmut. 

Nonetheless, Pushilin said Russia was seeing that Ukraine was accumulating forces in the Chasiv Yar area, near Bakhmut.

His comments contradict a report yesterday in which Pushilin’s spokesperson suggested “scattered” units were trying to withdraw from the city via country roads and fields.

— Holly Ellyatt

Kremlin approved aggressive actions against U.S. drone, officials say

Three U.S. officials told NBC News that the highest levels of the Kremlin approved the aggressive actions of Russian military fighter jets against a U.S. military drone that was downed over the Black Sea Tuesday. 

The Russian jets dropped jet fuel on the MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drone and two of the officials familiar with the intelligence on the matter told NBC News that it suggested that the intention of the jets was to throw the drone off course or disable its surveillance capabilities. 

It was “Russian leadership’s intention to be aggressive in the intercept,” one of the officials told NBC.

However, the officials said they believed that it was likely not intentional when one of the Russian jets clipped the propeller of the drone, an act that forced the U.S. to bring the UAV down into international waters in the Black Sea. Instead, U.S. video of the incident suggested it was more likely to be pilot error.

Russia denies that either of its jets collided with the drone and has essentially blamed the U.S. for the incident, its defense ministry stating Wednesday that “flights of American strategic unmanned aerial vehicles off the coast of Crimea are provocative in nature.”

Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin approved Russia’s apparent harassment of the U.S. drone is uncertain. One official said he had not had indications that the signoff went all the way up to Putin, and the other officials declined to provide specifics beyond “highest levels.”

Read more on the story here: Russian leadership approved aggressive actions of jets that damaged U.S. drone, U.S. officials say

— Holly Ellyatt

Neighbors Bulgaria, Romania sign agreement to boost ties

A soldier of the Polish Army sits in a tank as a NATO flag flies behind during the NATO Noble Jump military exercises of the VJTF forces on June 18, 2015 in Zagan, Poland.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev held talks Wednesday with his visiting Romanian counterpart as the two neighbors and NATO allies signed a cooperation agreement to boost bilateral ties amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

Radev met with Klaus Iohannis in the capital, Sofia, where the two leaders discussed topics including regional security, energy, and economy. They also discussed their countries’ bids to one day join Europe’s ID-check-free travel zone, the so-called Schengen area.

In a news conference afterwards, Radev highlighted Tuesday’s U.S. drone collision with a Russian fighter jet over the Black Sea, saying “we must do everything possible” to prevent events from escalating into a global conflict.

“In addition to supporting Ukraine,” he said, “we must work to end this conflict as quickly as possible.”

“The profound geostrategic changes on our borders, with consequences in the extended Black Sea region … prompt us to realize the need for even closer cooperation,” he said.

Iohannis said that he discussed with Radev the EU’s enlargement policy; the expansion of transport infrastructure; and the need to support embattled Moldova, which is not a member of the EU or NATO and has been heavily affected by the war in Ukraine.

— Associated Press

Ukraine can try to avoid repaying $3 billion loan to Russia

Ukrainian’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych looks on before signing an agreement in Kiev on February 21, 2014

Sergei Supinsky | AFP | Getty Images

The U.K. Supreme Court ruled that Ukraine can go to trial to avoid repaying $3 billion in loans it said it took under pressure from Russia in 2013 to prevent it from trying to join the European Union.

The court rejected a bid by a British company acting on Russia’s behalf to order Ukraine to repay the loans without facing a trial. Ukraine said it borrowed the money while facing the threat of military force and massive illegal economic and political pressure nearly a decade before Russia invaded its neighbor.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted that the ruling was “another decisive victory against the aggressor.”

“The Court has ruled that Ukraine’s defense based on Russia’s threats of aggression will have a full public trial,” he tweeted. “Justice will be ours.”

The case was argued in November 2021, and the court was not asked to consider Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three months later.

Ukrainian authorities allege that the corrupt government of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych borrowed the money from Moscow under pressure before he was ousted in protests in February 2014, shortly before Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

After the 2014 Ukraine revolution, the country’s new government refused to repay the debt in December 2015, saying Moscow wouldn’t agree to terms already accepted by other international creditors.

— Associated Press

Russia ambassador says Moscow will “no longer allow anyone to break into its waters”

Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov appeared to blame the U.S. for the downing of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday that the U.S. military blamed on the “reckless” and “unsafe” behavior of Russian fighter jets.

Mark Wilson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Russia’s Ambassador Anatoly Antonov said that Moscow will “no longer allow anyone to break into its waters,” according to Russian state media agency TASS.

Antonov’s comments come on the heels of a Russian fighter jet downing a U.S. drone operating over the Black Sea.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday that its two fighter aircraft did not come in contact with the U.S. drone. In a statement posted on its official Telegram channel, the ministry said the drone was flying with its transponders off near the Crimean Peninsula when it went into “unguided flight” and then fell into the water.

— Amanda Macias

Ukraine invites DeSantis to visit after ‘territorial dispute’ remarks

Ukrainian servicemen from the 10th Brigade brigade known as Edelwiess work along the frontline outside of Soledar, Ukraine on March 11, 2023

Wolfgang Schwan | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ukraine has invited Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate, to visit the country after he downplayed Russia’s war on Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” and said the conflict should not be a top priority for the U.S.

Ukrainian foreign ministry official Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter that “we are sure that as a former military officer deployed to a combat zone, Governor Ron DeSantis knows the difference between a ‘dispute’ and war,” he said on Twitter.

“We invite him to visit Ukraine to get a deeper understanding of Russia’s full-scale invasion and the threats it poses to U.S. interests,” he added.

Nikolenko’s comments come after DeSantis appeared to dismiss the significance of the war in Ukraine, telling Fox News that “while the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party — becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”

When DeSantis was a member of Congress, he voted for several defense spending bills that provided U.S. military and intelligence support for Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

— Holly Ellyatt, Amanda Macias

Syria’s Assad offers Putin support

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Sochi on November 20, 2017.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad offered Russian President Vladimir Putin his support in the conflict in Ukraine.

In a televised meeting with Putin in the Kremlin, Assad said Russia was fighting neo-Nazis and “old Nazis” in Ukraine, according to a Russian translation.

Without offering evidence, Assad said the West had taken in “old Nazis”, and was now giving them support.

Kyiv and the West say Russian accusations that Ukraine has become a hotbed of Nazism and “Russophobia” are a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine.

Russia’s military support for Assad helped him to turn the tide in a ruinous civil war that began in 2011 as a pro-democracy movement.

— Reuters

U.S. warns Russia to be more careful, downed drone not recovered, White House says

U.S. officials told Russia’s ambassador to the United States that Moscow has to be more careful when flying in international airspace, White House spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday, following the crash of a U.S. military drone into the Black Sea after being intercepted by Russian fighter jets.

The State Department on Tuesday summoned Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, to express U.S. concerns over the incident, the first since the war in Ukraine began more than a year ago.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone similar to the one that was involved in an encounter with Russian fighter jets over the Black Sea.

John Moore | Getty Images

“The message that we delivered to the Russian ambassador is that they need to be more careful in flying in international airspace near U.S. assets that are, again, flying in completely legal ways, conducting missions in support of our national security interests,” Kirby said in an interview with CNN.

“They’re the ones that need to be more careful.”

Kirby also said the MQ-9 surveillance drone has not been recovered and may never be recovered, given the depth of the Black Sea where it went down.

“It has not been recovered,” Kirby said. “And I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to recover it. Where it fell into the Black Sea – very, very deep water. So we’re still assessing whether there can be any kind of recovery effort. There may not be.”

The Pentagon said one of the Russian Su-27 jets struck the propeller of the drone on Tuesday, making it inoperable, while Russia’s defense ministry blamed “sharp maneuvering” of the unmanned drone for the crash and said that its jets did not make contact.

Antonov, the Russian ambassador, said the drone “deliberately and provocatively was moving towards Russian territory with transponders turned off.”

— Reuters

British and German fighter jets intercept Russian aircraft in ‘routine’ mission

An RAF Typhoon jet.

Phil Noble | AFP | Getty Images

British and German fighter jets were scrambled Tuesday to intercept a Russian aircraft flying close to Estonian airspace.

Marking the first joint NATO interception of its kind, the British and German air forces deployed Typhoon jets to intercept a Russian IL-78 Midas air-to-air refueling aircraft after it failed to communicate with Estonian air traffic control. 

Following a successful escort, the British Ministry of Defense said in a statement that the pair of Typhoons were then redirected to intercept a Russian AN-148 airliner, also passing Estonian airspace.

The British Ministry of Defense noted that the mission by the NATO allies was standard procedure, stating that “the interception is however a routine NATO mission for the Typhoons which provides reassurance that the U.K. and Germany together with other NATO allies stand with their Estonian ally at this time of tension.”

The U.K. is preparing take over from Germany to lead the NATO mission in Estonia and this latest incident comes at a time of heightened tensions between the Western military alliance and Russia. On Tuesday, a U.S. drone was downed over the Black Sea after an encounter with two Russian fighter jets.

— Holly Ellyatt

U.S. to blame for drone incident, Russian ambassador suggests

Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov appeared to blame the U.S. for the downing of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday that the U.S. military blamed on the “reckless” and “unsafe” behavior of Russian fighter jets.

Mark Wilson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov appeared to blame the U.S. for the downing of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday that the U.S. military blamed on the “reckless” and “unsafe” behavior of Russian fighter jets.

Antonov said in comments posted on the Russian embassy’s Telegram account that he had told U.S. officials that Russia’s position on the incident was that the U.S. drone had been “moving deliberately and provocatively towards the Russian territory with its transponders turned off” and it had then, he claimed, “violated the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime established for the special military operation,” which is how Russia describes its invasion of Ukraine.

Antonov, who was summoned by the U.S. State Department on Tuesday to explain the incident, insisted that the Russian fighter jets did not come into contact with the drone and said “the unacceptable actions of the United States military in the close proximity to our borders are cause for concern.”

“We are well aware of the missions such reconnaissance and strike drones are used for,” he said, claiming that they are used to “gather intelligence which is later used by the Kiev regime to attack our armed forces and territory.”

The ambassador called for the U.S. to “stop making sorties near the Russian borders” and said Moscow perceives “any actions involving the use of American weapons and military equipment as openly hostile” but then added that Russia “does not seek confrontation” with the U.S.

The U.S. military said Tuesday that two Russian fighter jets had intercepted the drone while it was in international airspace, harassing it in a possible bid to damage the drone before one of the jets clipped the unmanned aerial vehicle, causing it to crash.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War say the incident is unlikely to cause an escalation between the countries, however, noting Tuesday that “Russian forces have used coercive signaling against US and allied flights and naval vessels for decades in multiple theaters without triggering conflict.”

— Holly Ellyatt

Russian mercenary leader claims further encirclement of Bakhmut

The head of Russia’s mercenary force — the private military company known as the Wagner Group — fighting for control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine said Wednesday that Russian forces have taken control of a village to the north of the city.

“Assault detachments are expanding the encirclement of Bakhmut. This morning, the settlement of Zaliznyanskoe [known in Ukraine as Zaliznyans’ke] was taken by assault detachments of PMC Wagner,” Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio comment on his business’ Telegram channel that was reported by Russian state news agency TASS.

CNBC was unable to verify the claims.

Locals gather next to a grocery shop as grill meat on the street on east Chasiv Yar nearby Bakhmut frontline as fighting continues between Ukrainian forces and Russian troops for control of the city in Donetsk Oblast Ukraine on March 12, 2023.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Bakhmut remains the hottest spot in the war in Ukraine with intense battles between Ukrainian forces trying to defend the city against regular Russian units and mercenary forces within the Wagner Group. Both sides are claiming they’re inflicting significant personnel losses on the other on a daily basis.

Russian forces claim to control all paved roads into the city and analysts say they surround the city to the north, east and south. Ukraine has vowed to defend Bakhmut to the last, despite doubts over the merits of that strategy.

Kyiv is seen to want Russia to expend its manpower on fighting in Bakhmut while Ukraine awaits more weaponry from its international allies and can launch a renewed counteroffensive in spring.

— Holly Ellyatt

Drone warfare in Bakhmut

An Ukrainian serviceman attaches a hand grenade to use in an attack, near Bachmut, in the region of Donbas.

An Ukrainian serviceman attaches a hand grenade on a drone to use in an attack, near Bachmut, in the region of Donbas, on March 15, 2023. 

Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images

An Ukrainian serviceman attaches a hand grenade on a drone to use in an attack, near Bachmut, in the region of Donbas, on March 15, 2023. 

Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images

— Aris Messinis | AFP | Getty Images