Editor’s note: This page recaps the news from Ukraine on Thursday, March 31. Follow here for the latest updates and news from Friday, April 1, as Russia’s invasion continues.
Russian troops have continued to retreat from Kyiv in the last 24 hours, although the withdrawal remains at about 20% of the force Russian President Vladimir Putin sent to seize the Ukrainian capital, a senior Defense official said Thursday.
The Pentagon believes the Russians are pulling back to get resupplied, not to wind down the war, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal intelligence assessments. As evidence, the official pointed to continued airstrikes and shelling of Kyiv by Russian troops.
President Joe Biden supported that contention later in the day, saying there have been no clear signs the Russians are relenting in their assault around the capital.
The official spoke to reporters hours after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg provided the same assessment in a briefing in Brussels. Stoltenberg also pledged that NATO will supply Ukraine with weapons for its struggle against Russia’s invasion for as long as necessary.
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The alliance remains unconvinced that Russia is negotiating in good faith in the peace talks taking place in Istanbul. Russia must be judged on actions, not words, “and it’s obvious that we have seen little willingness from the Russian side to find a political solution,” he said. 
“Russia maintains pressure on Kyiv and other cities,” Stoltenberg said. “So we can expect additional offensive actions, bringing even more suffering.”
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Latest developments:
►President Joe Biden ordered the release of 1 million barrels of oil per day for the next six months from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve in response to a spike in gas prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
►Syria is sending hundreds of fighters to join the Russian cause in Ukraine as a sort of favor repayment by President Bashar al-Assad for Moscow’s help in his country’s civil war, the New York Times reported.
►U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield will travel to Moldova and Romania on Saturday to focus on efforts to assist refugees and the overwhelming humanitarian needs created by the war. 
►Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree Thursday demanding payment for natural gas in rubles but appeared to temper the order by allowing dollar and euro payments through a designated bank, the latest twist over energy supplies that Europe relies on to heat homes and generate electricity.
►Talks between Ukraine and Russia will resume Friday by video, the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia, said. Ukraine will not sign a peace treaty until Moscow withdraws its troops, he said. 
The Ukrainian government said Russian forces blocked 45 buses that had been sent to evacuate civilians from the besieged port city of Mariupol, and only 631 people were able to get out of the city in private cars.
Twelve Ukrainian trucks were able to deliver humanitarian supplies to Mariupol, but the supplies were seized by Russian troops, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said late Thursday.
According to Ukrainian officials, tens of thousands of people have made it out of Mariupol in recent weeks along humanitarian corridors, reducing the prewar population of 430,000 to about 100,000 by last week.
Vereshchuk said about 45,000 Mariupol residents have been forcefully deported to Russia and areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
President Joe Biden told reporters Thursday there’s “no clear evidence” that Vladimir Putin is pulling all Russian forces out of Kyiv and that the Russian leader’s next military steps in Ukraine remain unclear.
“There is also evidence that he is beefing up his troops down in the Donbas area,” Biden said, referring to a contested region in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border. “Depending on your view of Putin, I’m a little skeptical. It’s an open question whether he’s actually pulling back or going to say I’m just going to focus on the Donbas and I’m not worried about the rest of the country.”
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that rather than pulling back their assault on the capital city and its surroundings as announced, Russian forces have intensified bombardment of homes, stores, libraries and other civilian sites on the city’s outskirts.
U.S. and British intelligence officials say Russian forces are repositioning and regrouping, not scaling back in and around Kyiv as the Kremlin said.
It’s not true,” Klitschko said in a video address to European Union regional officials translated by Reuters. “The whole night we listened to sirens, to rocket attacks, and we listened to huge explosions east of Kyiv and north of Kyiv. There are immense battles there, people died, still die.”
The impact of a war that’s not going according to plan appears to be taking an increasing toll on Russian forces and their leader. There are growing reports of friction between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisers, as well as discontent among the troops.
“He seems to be self-isolated, and there’s some indication that he has fired or put under house arrest some of his advisers,” President Joe Biden said of Putin. “But I don’t want to put too much stock in that at this time because we don’t have that much hard evidence.”
The head of the U.K.’s spy service said it “increasingly looks like Putin has massively misjudged the situation” in Ukraine and that Russian soldiers, short on weapons and morale, are refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment.
“And even though we believe Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth, what’s going on and the extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime,” spy chief Jeremy Fleming said.
A U.S. official who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity said Putin has felt misled by the Russian military, leading to tension between the sides. 
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he has stripped two generals of their military rank.
Zelenskyy said “something prevented them from determining where their homeland was” and they “violated their military oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people.”
According to Zelenskyy, one of the generals had headed internal security at the SBU, the main intelligence agency.
He said the other general had been the SBU head in the Kherson region, the first major city to fall to the Russians.
Zelenskyy didn’t say anything about the fates of the two generals other than them being stripped of their rank.
Russian troops were exposed to “significant doses” of radiation from digging trenches around the Chernobyl nuclear plant and have left the highly contaminated site, Ukraine’s state power company said Thursday.
Energoatom said the Russians had dug in the forest inside the exclusion zone around the now-closed plant, site in 1986 of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. The troops “panicked at the first sign of illness,” which “showed up very quickly,” and began to prepare to leave, said Energoatom, which did not provide information on the soldiers’ condition.
Russian forces seized the Chernobyl site early in the invasion that began Feb. 24, raising fears that they would cause damage or disruption that could spread radiation.
On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Ukrainian officials informed it that the Russian forces who were in control of the plant have “in writing, transferred control” of the facility to Ukrainian personnel.
At least one volunteer was killed and four other wounded when Russian forces shelled a humanitarian convoy of buses sent to evacuate residents from the northern city of Chernihiv, Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova said.
She said the Russian troops besieging Chernihiv, about 90 miles north of Kyiv, have made it impossible to evacuate civilians from a city that has been cut off from food, water and other supplies.
The global fishing industry expects to feel the impact of the sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, with price increases and supply disruptions likely on the way.
Russia is one of the biggest producers of seafood in the world and was the fifth-largest producer of wild-caught fish, according to a 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In the U.S., which is not among the largest importers of seafood from Russia, the impact is most likely to be felt in products like fast-food sandwiches and fish sticks.
British consumers will probably see a significant increase in the price of the popular fish and chips dish, because the UK and the European Union are deeply dependent on Russian seafood. The cost of seafood is already spiking in Japan, which is limiting its trade with Russia.
“Because seafood is a global commodity, even if they are not harvested in Russia, you will notice the price hike,” said Kanae Tokunaga, who runs the Coastal and Marine Economics Lab at Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
Germany’s economy minister says Europe should impose additional sanctions on Russia to encourage an end to what he described as a “barbaric” war in Ukraine. Robert Habeck said he discussed additional measures with French officials Thursday in Berlin.
“The last package doesn’t need to be the final one, it should not be the final one,” he said. Habeck said French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire had identified additional sanctions but did not detail them.
Habeck declined to elaborate on what those points might be. Current sanctions include the freezing of assets held by the Russian central bank in the EU, the exclusion of Russian banks from the SWIFT banking system and a ban on EU companies exporting high-tech products to Russia.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Australia to increase sanctions against Russia and send him some armored vehicles in a video speech Thursday to the Australian Parliament.
“Most of all we have to keep those who are fighting against this evil armed,” he said. Finance Minister Simon Birmingham did not directly respond to the request in a briefing, saying the government was considering what was practical. He said Australia has already provided missiles and protective gear to Ukraine.
Zelenskyy said the war might not have happened if Russia had been punished after Russian-backed separatists shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014. Thirty-eight Australians were among the 298 aboard, all of whom perished.
“The unpunished evil comes back,” Zelenskyy said.
President Vladimir Putin signed a decree Thursday ordering 134,500 new conscripts into the army as part of Russia’s annual spring draft, but the defense ministry said the call-up was unrelated to the war. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the conscripts, ages 18-27, would be dispatched to bases in late May for 3-5 months of training. None will be sent to combat “hot spots,” he said.
The defense ministry acknowledged earlier this month that some conscripts had been taking part in the war, despite Putin saying only professional soldiers and officers had been sent to Ukraine. The Kremlin said Putin ordered military prosecutors to investigate and punish the officials responsible for disobeying his instructions to exclude conscripts.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says its teams are ready to help evacuate civilians from of the besieged city of Mariupol.
“Our team in #Ukraine is on the road right now to be ready to: Facilitate the safe passage of civilians out of #Mariupol tomorrow. And bring aid,” the Red Cross tweeted Thursday. “All parties must agree to the exact terms. This operation is critical. Tens of thousands of lives depend on it.”
The evacuation could begin Friday provided all the parties agree to the terms, route, start time and the duration, the Red Cross said. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukraine is sending out several dozen buses to collect civilians from Mariupol after Russia’s military agreed to a local cease-fire from the city to Ukraine-held Zaporizhzhia.
Sensing the worst two weeks before Russia began invading his homeland, tech entrepreneur Volodymir “Vlad” Panchenko wanted to charter a plane for a month to get as many of his employees and their families out of Kyiv as quickly as possible.
But the co-founder of video game and metaverse marketplace DMarket said his board was giving him heavy pushback because his plan to shuttle workers to the Balkan country of Montenegro would lead to a 20% budget increase.
“None of them supported me. They said I was overreacting,” said Panchenko, who trusted his gut and told them he was executing his contingency plan anyway – regardless of the cost. “I told them that I felt a war was coming and we should leave. And if there isn’t, we’ll spend time in a warm place and still get our work done.”
DMarket and many other tech companies rely on colleagues who live and work in Ukraine, a fast-growing tech hotbed. While known companies such as Google and  Microsoft have workers based in Ukraine, many far lesser-known, early- and mid-stage startups globally count on the embattled country’s talent-rich pool of engineers and developers and could be in jeopardy because of the conflict. Read more here.
– Terry Collins
Contributing: Joey Garrison, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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