Ukraine war updates: Western leaders slam Putin's election win as 'illegitimate'; Ukraine hit with new wave of drone attacks

An Icelandic coast guard ship sails in front of EU and Ukraine flags flying in front of the Harpa Concert hall on May 16, 2023 in Reykjavik, Iceland, the venue of the 4th Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe, on the eve of the two-day summit.

John Macdougall | AFP | Getty Images

Ukraine is hoping to hold EU membership talks with the European Council in the first half of this year, the country’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in an interview with EU-focused news site Euractiv.

“We are waiting and wishing to have approval by the European Council at their closest meeting [this week], and believe we can begin accession negotiations in the first half of this year,” Shmyhal said.

“We hope that our European partners will approve it without any additional amendments as the European Commission proposes,” he said, adding that European Council President Charles Michel “named 2030 a possible target year for further EU enlargement, but we will do our best for Ukraine that it could happen earlier, immediately after our victory.”

Shmyhal was referring to a draft negotiation framework sent by the European Commission to member states on accession talks for Ukraine and Moldova. Brussels will host an EU summit to assess the draft framework on March 21-22, Euractiv reported.

Asked about worries among more reluctant member states that Ukraine’s accession to the EU could prove too costly for the bloc, Shmyhal said, “Ukraine will bring to the EU much more than the process of joining will cost,” citing Ukraine’s raw materials, markets, and defense forces as value additions for the EU’s economy and security.

— Natasha Turak

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attends a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow, Russia December 7, 2023. 

Sergei Bobylev | Via Reuters

Vladimir Putin’s sweeping win in Russia’s presidential vote over the weekend was a “unique” result, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, defending the electoral process from Western accusations.

In Google-translated comments reported by Russian state news agency Tass, Peskov said that foreign statements questioning the legitimacy of the election were “absurd,” noting that he expected international congratulations for Putin’s victory to continue pouring in for more than one day.

The European Union has criticized the circumstances under which Putin secured over 87% of the popular vote, stressing a restrictive political environment and a lack of genuine opposition in the electoral race. It also refused to acknowledge the polls held in Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia.

Ruxandra Iordache

Ukrainian soldiers firing artillery at their fighting position as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in the direction of Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on February 26, 2024.

Jose Colon | Anadolu | Getty Images

Seventy-two combat clashes took place between warring Ukrainian and Russian forces around Ukraine’s front line in the past 72 hours, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a post on Facebook.

“The enemy launched a total of 14x missile and 75x air strikes, 95x MLRS attacks on the positions of Ukrainian troops and various settlements. Unfortunately, the Russian terrorist attacks have killed and wounded civilians,” the post read, according to a translation by Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform.

Ukrainian soldiers prepare their next artillery fire from their fighting position as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in the direction of Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on February 26, 2024. (Photo by Jose Colon/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Jose Colon | Anadolu | Getty Images

“During the day of March 17, the Russian occupiers attacked Ukraine using 22x Shahed UAVs. The Ukrainian Air Defense forces and means destroyed 17x of the strike UAVs,” it said, further detailing a number of combat incidents around the country and saying that 140 residential settlements had come under fire in a range of regions.

— Natasha Turak

A woman walks past a board with information about candidates at a polling station during the Russian presidential election in Vidnoye, Moscow Region, Russia March 15, 2024. 

Maxim Shemetov | Reuters

Russia’s presidential elections took place in a “context of increasing repression of the civil society and any type of opposition against the regime,” the French foreign ministry said Monday, according to a CNBC translation.

The French institution noted “ever-increasingly strong restrictions on freedom of expression” and interdictions against independent media coverage in Russia. The French foreign ministry also condemned “so-called” elections held in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine, whose results it said Paris refuses to recognize.

Vladimir Putin swept through the election to clinch another six-year term, following polls held over March 15-17. He faced nominal opposition and was widely expected to win.

“Political opponent Alexei Navalny died several weeks before this election, notably after the tightening of his detention conditions by Russian authorities. Candidates opposed to the war in Ukraine were not admitted to run in the election, significantly reducing its [the election’s] pluralistic character,” the foreign ministry added.

Ruxandra Iordache

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a meeting in Beijing on October 18, 2023.

Sergei Guneyev | Afp | Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called to congratulate his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on his re-election at the helm of the Kremlin, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said in a Google-translated report.

During a press briefing after clinching his victory, Putin praised the state of Moscow’s relationship with Beijing as “very stable and highly complementary,” following years of development, according to a separate Google-translated Xinhua report.

China and Russia have tightened their bonds amid increasing isolation from Western countries, with Beijing providing a rare outlet for Europe and U.S.-sanctioned seaborne barrels of Moscow’s crude and oil products. The two are also allied in the BRICS coalition of emerging markets.

European officials have repeatedly entreated Xi to leverage his diplomatic sway with Putin and intercede in favor of resolving the war in Ukraine. China presented a 12-point peace plan for the conflict on the occasion of the first-year anniversary of Russia’s full invasion — but the framework has yet to gain traction.

Beijing’s relationship with Moscow has increasingly raised ire in the White House, with U.S. officials signaling to CNBC in February that Washington is considering slapping sanctions on Chinese companies that assist in Moscow’s war.

Ruxandra Iordache

Late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s supporters stage a protest at the front of the Russian Embassy in Riga, Latvia, March 17, 2024.

Ints Kalnins | Reuters

Thousands of supporters of dead Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny staged protests in various cities in Russia and at Russian embassies overseas to express their rejection of the widely expected reelection of President Vladimir Putin.

A woman holds a placard with a photo of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny outside the Russian Consulate, on the final day of the presidential election in Russia, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Milan, Italy, March 17, 2024.

Claudia Greco | Reuters

As part of the demonstrations, called “Noon against Putin,” supporters of Navalny went to their polling stations and cast votes either with spoiled ballots or a vote for one of the three candidates running against Putin. Proponents of the movement called it peaceful and symbolic. Putin was declared the winner with 87.97% of the vote.

Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya called on global leaders not to recognize the election results, while several Western leaders have called the contest a sham.

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died in a prison camp, speaks to the media after leaving the Russian Embassy on the final day of the presidential election in Russia, in Berlin, Germany, March 17, 2024.

Annegret Hilse | Reuters

Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition politician, died suddenly in an Arctic penal colony in late February while serving a combined prison sentence of 19 years. His team and family allege that the Kremlin murdered him, an allegation the Kremlin has forcefully rejected.

— Natasha Turak

In this pool photograph distributed by Russia’s state agency Sputnik, Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a videoconference ceremonies to launch the construction of Unit 7 at Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant and a high-speed railway line between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on March 14, 2024. 

Mikhail Metzel | Afp | Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin won his fifth term in the country’s general election over the weekend with 87.97% of the vote, according to Russia’s election authorities, in a contest that had no real rivals and that Western leaders are slamming as “illegitimate” and “illegal.”

Russia’s elections were characterized by “a lack of choice for voters and no independent OSCE monitoring,” British Foreign Secretary David Cameron wrote in a tweet, saying that the elections held in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine were “illegal.” He added that “this is not what free and fair elections look like.”

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky called the contest a “farce and parody,” saying, “This was the Russian presidential election that showed how this regime suppresses civil society, independent media, opposition.”

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said the “elections were neither free nor fair.”

Russia’s top opposition and anti-war figures were either barred from running, in prison, or dead.

— Natasha Turak

Ukrainian soldiers carry explosive charge as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in the direction of Bakhmut, Ukraine on March 4, 2024. 

Diego Herrera Carcedo | Anadolu | Getty Images

The Ukrainian Air Force said it has downed 17 of 22 Russia-launched drones in an overnight attack across nine regions.

Moscow deployed Iran-make Shahed unmanned missiles at the Kyiv, Poltava, Khmelnytskyi, Cherkasy, Kirovohrad, Dnipropetrovsk, Vinnytsia, Zaporizhzhya, and Rivne areas, the air force reported in a Google-translated update on Telegram.

In a separate Google-translated Telegram post, the air force warned of missile and ballistic weapons danger in the northeastern region of Kharkiv. Around 15 settlements in the area were struck by enemy shelling on March 18, said Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional administration, in a Google-translated post. He added that six people were injured as a result of the offensive.

CNBC could not independently verify the reports.

Ruxandra Iordache

G7 leaders on Friday urged Iran not to send ballistic missiles to Russia.

“We are extremely concerned about reports that Iran is considering transferring ballistic missiles and related technology to Russia after having supplied the Russian regime with UAVs, which are used in relentless attacks against the civilian population in Ukraine,” the statement said.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi greets Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 19, 2022.

Sergei Savostyanov | AFP | Getty Images

The G7 called on Iran not to deliver missiles, and said there would be consequences if they did.

“Were Iran to proceed with providing ballistic missiles or related technology to Russia, we are prepared to respond swiftly and in a coordinated manner including with new and significant measures against Iran,” the statement said.

A senior official in the U.S. administration said the country had not yet seen confirmation that missiles have moved from Iran to Russia, but noted that negotiations between the countries have been advancing.

The official reiterated that measures would be taken against Iran if it supplied Russia with missiles, including a potential ban of flights by state-owned Iran Air into Europe.

— Sophie Kiderlin

A new report from a U.N. commission of inquiry on Ukraine, published Friday, said it had found further evidence of systemic torture of Ukrainian prisoners of war by Russian forces.

“The Commission has found new evidence that Russian authorities have committed violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, and corresponding war crimes, in areas that came under their control in Ukraine,” the summary stated.

The three-member panel said Russia had shown a “disregard for basic principles of humanitarian laws and of human rights obligations,” and said the evidence confirmed the necessity of further investigation to establish whether Moscow is guilty of “crimes against humanity.”

It highlighted new evidence of “widespread and systemic” torture used by Russian authorities against Ukrainian prisoners of war in several detention facilities across the country.

“The report documents incidents of rape and other sexual violence committed against women in circumstances which also amount to torture. It also details incidents of torture with a sexualised dimension and threats of rape against male prisoners of war,” the commission stated.

The commission’s report has been submitted to the 47-member UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which will determine whether the commission’s mandate should be renewed for another year to continue its investigative work.

Russia has denied torture and other forms of mistreatment of POWs.

– Elliot Smith

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