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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Explosions Rock Kyiv; Ukrainian Guards Defiant Towards Russian Warship. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired February 25, 2022 - 00:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: After 7 a.m., daybreak in Kyiv, where a Russian move on the city could be upcoming, and explosions were heard in the early morning darkness on the ground, and in the skies above it.







COOPER: The last voices you heard, they're using the word for "plane," referring to its destruction.

The blast, one of several so far tonight, in and above the capital, including at least three new explosions within the last 25 minutes or so to the southwest. A high-rise apartment also -- also got hit. Other explosions were reported elsewhere in the country.

The focus is Kyiv, with a top Biden administration official telling lawmakers in a conference call earlier this evening that Russian mechanized forces are now dangerously close, about 20 miles outside Kyiv. But because the briefing was nearly six hours ago, those troops are, of course, mobile. Their exact proximity may have changed.

We also have seen new satellite photos showing a long convoy of Russian military vehicles crossing a pontoon bridge near the border with Belarus, just north of Kyiv. Their current location also uncertain, as is what kind of resistance they may have met, if any.

Shortly before airtime, Ukraine's defense ministry claimed that more than 30 Russian tanks have been destroyed since the war began, along with seven Russian aircraft and six helicopters. Now, that is something CNN simply cannot independently verify, and it's important we point that out.

However, according to one source on that conference call we mentioned, lawmakers were told Russia had been having a tougher time than anticipated. Publicly, Secretary of State Blinken said the Russian objective in Kyiv is, in military parlance, decapitation.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're convinced Putin is going to overthrow this government?

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm convinced he's going to try to do that.


COOPER: For his part tonight, Ukraine's President Zelensky ominously said the same.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): According to our information, the enemy has marked me as target No. 1, my family as target No. 2. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state. We have information that enemy sabotage groups have entered Kyiv.


COOPER: Meantime, back home, the U.N. Security Council is set to take up a resolution condemning Russia tomorrow. Russia's expected to veto it.

And in Moscow, in Leningrad, a small but significant number of protesters came out against the war and were met by heavy police presence and arrests.

So there's a lot happening. CNN's Matthew Chance is in Kyiv. CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House. CNN's Sam Kiley is in Kharkiv. And in Kherson near the Black Sea, CNN's Nick Paton Walsh. Going to check in with everyone in the hour ahead but want to start with Matthew Chance and what he saw and heard in the capital tonight.

How how it been so far, Matthew?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Actually, up until a few seconds ago, it's been a relatively quiet night, compared to the night we had before.

We had a big explosion that was heard a few hours ago, followed by some other smaller explosions, as well. It's now emerged, according to Ukrainian Interior Ministry officials, that the video you can see now is of a Ukrainian Sukhoi-27 fighter jet that was shot out of the skies over Kyiv. You can see the -- the debris scattering over a sort of relatively broad area in some area of the Ukrainian capital. It was, you know, a Ukrainian fighter jet shot out of the skies by Russian forces, presumably, of course, surface-to-air missile attack in Kyiv.

A second incident, and also in the suburb of Kyiv, was that there was a Russian rocket attack on what is described as a -- as a residential area. You can't -- it caused damage to that building, and you see the pictures of the damage and the fire inside that apparently residential building.

You might not be able to hear this -- you might not be able to hear this now, Anderson, but right in the distance from where I'm speaking to you right now, I can hear a rumble of explosions as day breaks over this Ukrainian capital.

And of course, as you mentioned, Russians forces, according to the United States, are about 20 miles away, 20 miles outside the city. I mean, I encountered special force troops from Russia much closer to Kyiv than that. Maybe about ten, 12, 15 miles away at a -- at an airport, an air base that they had, at that time, taken.


They were choppered in, and they -- they battled Ukrainian forces to establish control over that -- over that airbase. It's not clear what the status of that -- of that position is now.

But clearly, there are a growing number of Russian forces in various strategic positions around the Ukrainian capital. And I can tell you, residents of the city and officials in the city are bracing for some kind of next step in this Russian plan, so bracing for an assault on the capital.

COOPER: Let me ask you, I mean, because in the pictures that I've seen, it doesn't seem as if this is necessarily a capital ready for combat in the streets. I mean, are there -- you know, we've all been in places under attack or about to be attacked, where there are roadblocks on every block. People have armed themselves with makeshift weaponry. Some have heavy weaponry.

I mean, is that the scene in Kyiv now? Are people anticipating that, or have people just tried to leave? What's going on there? Are they ready?

CHANCE: Well, I mean, look, there's definitely people been trying to leave. I mean, for a good 24-hour period, there was a solid line of traffic taking the main highway to the west, out of the city.

That seems to have subsided now. I think the people that were going to leave, for the most part, have already left.

In terms about -- in terms of the defenses of the city, we know that in the -- in the days ahead of the -- of the actual declaration of war and the first airstrikes by -- by Russia, defenses were set up on the outskirts of the city.

We also know that the Russians pounded those -- those defenses on the outskirts of the city with barrage after barrage of cruise missile attacks.

But you're right. I'm not seeing a really -- well, hang on a minute. You can hear air raid sirens right now across the Ukrainian city of Kyiv. What is it? Five past seven in the morning here, local time.

And the residents of Kyiv are being woken up right now to those air raid sirens as they sort of echo across this otherwise silent city. You can hear them now.

So now, whether that's a precautionary measure or whether that is a sign of what is a about to happen --

COOPER: And are there -- are there places for people to go?


CHANCE: -- about to happen.

COOPER: I mean, are there, you know, subway (ph) places where people can go to? Or air raid shelters?

CHANCE: Yes. There are. I think there's some quite considerable facilities here in Kyiv. There are -- there are air raid shelters. There are subway stations underground, railway stations where people can be housed. You know, large numbers of the population.

It's a city of 2.8 million people. Many of those people have, of course left, as we've already said. But yes -- a lot of people have left. A lot of people will be taking shelter. But you know, there are still going to be a lot of people out here.

COOPER: We also saw in the video we just played of President Zelensky talking from an undisclosed location. I assume this is somewhere, perhaps, underground in -- in Kyiv.

He has said that there are saboteurs already in place, or already in the city, or coming and that he is target No. 1. His family is target No. 2. Is there anything, really, to stop Russian forces from -- I mean, if those defensive positions were battered by, you know, heavy armaments, how easy would it be for the Russian forces to come in if they wanted to take Kyiv and decapitate the leadership?

CHANCE: If they want to do it, I think they're going to be able to do it. I don't think Ukraine has the capability to -- to stop them for long. They may have stalled the operation a little bit now with the level of resistance that they've been putting up, which apparently has been quite intensive.

Although, you know, from my vantage point here on this rooftop in the center of Kyiv, I haven't been able to witness the level of that -- of that resistance.

But no. And if this operation has stalled, if there has been a sort of -- if there haven't been as many forces put in as perhaps were needed by the Russians to make this happen quickly, then I'm sure that would be addressed at some point by the authorities, by the Kremlin. And they will -- and it's not necessarily a good sign, is what I'm trying to say.

If this operation is decided to be underpowered and that the Kremlin decide they haven't put enough forces in, because perhaps they were expecting the surrender of Ukrainian forces; they underestimated the strength of the Ukrainian forces and their abilities, then that may have achieved a short-term delay in this. But it would probably provoke a much larger, stronger response by the Russians, to make sure the achieve their strategic goals.


COOPER: It's not --

CHANCE: That's what I'm concerned about.

COOPER: It's not entirely clear what the strategic coal is at this point of Russian forces. I mean, there are -- you talk to different military -- you know, people with long military careers who say well, perhaps they want to just encircle the second largest city, Kharkiv, in the east and not even deal with moving into a city with a population of a million, a million and a half people. And maybe move just toward Kyiv.

I mean, I guess there's a chance maybe they wouldn't even want to try to take over all of Kyiv. They just want to try to decapitate the leadership, install some new leadership. But then I assume they would have to keep forces on the ground there, because not everybody is going to embrace a new leader in -- you know, put in by Putin.

CHANCE: You're right. I mean, look, we don't know what the -- the real strategic objective is of this -- of this invasion by Russia. I mean, Vladimir Putin said it was a special military operation to, you know, secure Donbas and to, you know, secure the territory of those small little republics that were recognized a couple of days ago.

They only occupy and control a small amount of the territory that they claim as theirs. And so, you know, that initially, this was -- this was set out by the Kremlin, by Vladimir Putin, as being an operation to expand their territory and to push back Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.

But because of how this has played out, because of what we've seen, that doesn't -- that doesn't seem to be carried through with offense on the ground. I mean, the fact that there are strikes taking place in Kyiv, the capital, which is hundreds of miles away from -- from Eastern Ukraine, and also, other cities across the country, as well, does raise the possibility that, you know, the Russians are going for -- you know, not just an all-out invasion, but those scenarios that a couple of days ago, like a full occupation, like a decapitation of the government and installation of a pro-Moscow puppet regime -- a couple of days ago, you know, those sort of theories only found, you know, listeners in the dark recesses of the Internet.

Now, we're looking at a Russian government that has shown itself to be absolutely militant when it comes to Ukraine.

And so, as far as -- as far as I'm concerned, it seems that anything is -- anything is on the table.

COOPER: Yes. Matthew, if you can, stick around. I want to bring in senior CNN military analyst, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton.

Colonel, the idea that at 6:30 Eastern Time, U.S. lawmakers were being told that Russian mechanized forces had entered Ukraine through Belarus and were 20 miles away from Kyiv. Could those forces have already come to the outskirts of the capital by now?

LT. COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, about six hours ago, Anderson, almost six hours ago? Yes, it's absolutely possible. I mean, they only had this much to go from the border. That's about 56 miles.

And when you look at -- at that particular distance, if they're already more than halfway there, then yes, they could actually be in the capital or on the outskirts at least. It's theoretically possible.

COOPER: How difficult is this for Ukrainian forces, let alone, you know, other observers, U.S. and others, given that we -- it's not really even known publicly what the strategic objectives are of Vladimir Putin here?

LEIGHTON: So that's one of the big problems that you have when you're on defense.

So when it comes to military strategy, Anderson, what you have to really look at is, you know, what are your options? If you're on defense, you're automatically at a disadvantage.

The guy who's on offense, in this case, Vladimir Putin, has a lot of possibilities. And he can start changing things up when he -- when he really wants to.

He could, for example, just do this. Originally, we all talked about just going to the Donbas, the eastern part here. That would be it. And like you and Matthew we're talking about, that's the kind of thing that everybody thought he would do. Well, almost everybody.

I was never convinced that that would actually be the way he would do it. Because when I listened to Putin's speeches, it was very clear to me that he wanted one thing, and one thing only, and that was to take all of this, to take all of Ukraine and make it into a -- in essence, a Russian vassal state. Now, you know, more people seem to be believing that that's the case.

But this is the key thing. This right here is the objective. And what that really means is not so much the fact that it's the capital, but it's where Zelensky is believed to be. And that is why the Russians would want to get that.

It also, of course, means that there's a symbolic value to it. And Putin, of course, believes in symbolism. And that is something that can't be underestimated in this particular scenario.


COOPER: Matthew, there -- on the streets, what are -- I mean, on the streets yesterday, were people going around? I mean, are there roadblocks? Are there, you know, people with weapons walking around on the streets? And there was talk in the weeks leading up to this of the possibility

of a longer-term insurgency, all that sort of stuff requires there being weapons that aren't in central depots that are easily taken out by Russian forces that are -- you know, it requires people with a will to fight, figuring out ways to do that, and a government which has sort of tried to sow the seeds of that.

Is there any indication of any of that? I mean, have they prepared for any kind of longer-term fight?

CHANCE: Well, I mean, they've called up reservists in the country. There's been what they call a full mobilization announced. And so, the military is all on the highest possible alert, and observers are called up. People are being given weapons. Citizens have been given weapons, if they -- if they want to have them.

Also, there's been a ban on adult males between 18 and 60 years old leaving the country. So that they can serve in the military, should they be conscripted in. I'm not sure that issue of conscription has gone out. It may have.

But -- but certainly, we're not seeing sort of very concentrated elements of armor, very concentrated levels of troops in this capital city of Kyiv. I'm not seeing that. I can't speak to what's happening outside the city, or what's happening elsewhere in the country, unfortunately. We just don't have this one, very limited. I only have this one very limited vantage point.

I did see some Ukrainian forces earlier today on the outskirts of Kyiv, as I was going towards that airbase that I reported from, earlier today, where I actually met up with Russian special forces, sort of unexpectedly. And they looked tired. They looked worn down. Some of them looked like they'd -- they'd, you know, not had sleep for a long time.

And that compared very unfavorably to how the Russian forces looked, because when I met them, after I realized they were actually Russian forces, they were -- you know, the kind of people that had been brought in. Were obviously special forces. They were obviously highly trained, highly professional, highly disciplined. And so, yes, there was a big difference in those quality of troops, that we saw on that occasion.

COOPER: Yes. Matthew Chance, Colonel Leighton, I appreciate it. Please, Matthew, be careful, you and your team.

Joining us now, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer.

Ambassador, appreciate you being with us. I wonder what you make of -- I mean, listening to our correspondent, Matthew Chance, and others, what do you make of the latest attacks where the invasion stands at this hour?

STEVEN PIFER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Yes, Anderson, it's -- it's hard to figure out exactly what's going on. So you're trying to track it from social media, and really frightening to hear reports. But it seems to me that there were probably two major options for the

Russians. One was to come in very quickly and to destroy as much of the Ukrainian military as they could, and then leave, which would have been consistent with what Mr. Putin said yesterday about not wanting to occupy the country.

But the other one, which I think is now more likely, is actually to take Kyiv, and its regime change. They want to replace President Zelensky was somebody else.

But that doesn't bode well for the Russians, because it's very difficult for me to see any pro-Russian puppet installed in Kyiv lasting longer than five minutes after the Russian forces leave. So putting that kind of person in charge would require a long occupation by the Russian military.

COOPER: Yes, I mean, given what you know about Ukraine, it is a large country. And you have a -- if you have a Russian puppet in place, you know, securing the rest of the country is, as the U.S. has learned in many -- is a very difficult thing to do.

PIFER: Yes, and I think the Ukrainian population, I mean, let me start by saying nothing has done more than Russian policy over the last eight years to push Ukraine away from Russia and towards the west and to antagonize Ukrainians and build a mood that's anti-Russian. Not the anti-Russian people but the anti-Russian government.

And I don't believe that this assault is changing that. And there are a large number of civilians, or army veterans, who are prepared to take up arms and go out and defend their country. And that's going to be, I think, a very difficult problem for the Russians to deal with if they intend on occupying Ukraine or a significant part of Ukraine for a long period of time.

COOPER: Also, we should point out -- and I, if my memory serves me correct -- it was just several days ago what it was patriot -- what they called Patriots Day in the Ukraine, in which they honor those who were killed in the Maidan and fighting against a pro-Russian leader and successfully.


And I mean, it was a very almost medieval battle scene that we watched happening in the Maidan and civilians overthrowing the unpopular pro- Russian leader who fled the country.

PIFER: And just eight years ago. And what I think that showed is that, whatever problems Ukraine has, Ukrainians want to be in a democracy. They want to have a political voice.

They've got some ways to go, but they look at Russia, and they see where Mr. Putin has taken Russia over the last 20 years, to a much more autocratic regime. And they say they don't want that. And I think they are determined, and a lot of Ukrainians are going to be prepared to go out and fight to defend their country. Even though the odds are stacked against them. COOPER: Do you think -- it's been a problem. You know, the Ukrainian

government was in this position for the last several weeks, where you had the Biden administration saying an attack is potentially imminent and, you know, raising the alarms. The Ukrainian government was upset about that often, even them getting diplomatic families out. That upset the Ukrainians, who said that the U.S. was overplaying this.

Did that -- which obviously, there were reasons for them to do that, and to assure -- you know, not to have panic and to keep the economy continuing. Did that prevent them, you think, from setting up this -- or sowing the seeds of a future insurgency? Or preparing defenses?

PIFER: Let me say first. I think the Biden administration, the intelligence that it's been releasing was spot on. I mean, they basically called out what you're seeing today.

I was in Kyiv about three weeks ago, and there was this sense that President Zelensky wanted to take a more cautious approach. Because he was worried about not causing panic, not causing a run on the hrynia, the local currency.

And I think their assessment, and the impression I had was that they had the same assessment of the numbers and -- of Russian troops arrayed. But their assessment of the intent of the Kremlin was different.

And at least some that we spoke to thought that, if the Russians came in, it would be a much smaller operation than we've seen in the last day.

Now, having said that, it does seem that, in the last three days, the Ukrainians begin to get very concerned. And my guess is they've taken some -- some very urgent preparations to try to deal with what they saw coming.

COOPER: Ambassador really appreciate your time and expertise. Thank you.

Coming up next, live report from Lviv where air raid sirens have been going off.

Also, the latest on the Biden administration's assessment of where things stand right now and what new steps are being considered to amp up pressure on Putin.

Plus, two veteran Russian watchers weigh in on what Putin's move might be. That and more on our live late hour continuing.



COOPER: Air raid sirens echo through Kyiv this morning, and Lviv in the west.



COOPER: Atika Shubert is in Lviv for us. Atika, what are you seeing and hearing this morning?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we heard two sirens earlier this morning, at around 5:45, when I was up. I actually heard a volley of shots and red flares in the sky.

It's much rarer to see -- to hear these sirens here in western Ukraine. We're only about an hour away from the Polish border. There have been targets that have been hit near here. Yesterday an airfield about 60 miles from here was hit. The military sometimes uses the runway there.

So we don't know exactly why the air raid sirens went off this morning. We may still expect some more, but the Lviv city council did ask everybody to seek shelter.

So we're -- we're watching to see what happens next. But there certainly appearing to be still a threat in this area of Western Ukraine, as well, Anderson.

COOPER: Am I right in believing that Lviv is where American diplomats have kind of been moving to, crossing the border into Poland, then coming back to do work in Lviv during the day. Do you know, is that still where international diplomatic representation has moved to?

SHUBERT: Yes, in fact, more embassies have moved here in the last 48 hours or so. The U.S. Embassy has staff that stayed the night in Poland. And then they come across here to Lviv to continue their work.

They've also opened up a number of border crossings into Poland. And the U.S. embassy, in particular, has directed any U.S. citizens who are trying to leave to go to certain border crossings.

What's happening now is that Lviv is at the moment the safest city in Ukraine. And so a lot of embassies, a lot of people are fleeing here to try and seek safety.

So, Lviv, as Kyiv, the capital, becomes -- as Russian troops get closer and closer, Lviv is becoming in essence, the de facto capital.

COOPER: Atika Shubert, I appreciate you being with us. Thank you so much. Be careful.

Coming up next, the Biden administration's ominous assessment of the situation around Kyiv.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us.

So Kaitlan, what more are officials saying about the latest?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, they're monitoring things. Of course, watching to see what's happening. And they have been pretty blunt, Anderson, about what they think is going to happen next and what is next on President Putin's agenda. And that's taking the capital city of Kyiv.


And they've looked at the ways that he has tried to do that. Of course, we know that earlier, his defense officials were briefing lawmakers, telling them that some of those forces were approaching Kyiv, getting closer and closer. That was about 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

So, imagine, obviously, now it is past midnight here in Washington D.C. They are a lot closer in that sense. And of course, their concerned is that once they do get there, that Putin's plan is to try to overthrow the government, overthrow President Zelensky.

And that is something that President Zelensky himself has noted, saying that he believes he is target No. 1 and his family is target No. 2.

And I think when you listen to the president and what he talks about the likelihood of this happening, or what Putin is going to do. They seem to think that this is well on his way to doing this when it comes to his efforts to try and to overthrow the government there.

Questions were raised, of course, about what happens next, how long they can sustain them, what an insurance urgency would look like? But that does appear to be the situation for now.

We should know, when it comes to Zelensky himself, he's been posting these videos on a pretty regular update. He himself has made clear that he wants to stay in Ukraine.

We know there's been some conversations with White House officials earlier, before -- before Russia had actually invaded Ukraine. And that may be a contingency plan, maybe moving him closer to the Polish border, if Russia was going to take Kyiv.

That doesn't mean that Zelensky had subscribed to that. But it was something that was, you know, that premeditated and that far considered in the minds of officials here. And the U.S. government. Because they realize this was a strong likelihood.

One other thing I want to know, Anderson, we've been talking today about how Russian forces had gone and the Ukrainian national guard have been monitoring and guarding the Chernobyl plant. Of course, this radioactive waste that now is this repository, basically.

At this point, they have taken that, and officials said they were very concerned about. Because they believed it was of very little strategic military value to the Russian government.

But one thing that they noted is that it does provide a direct route to Kyiv, from territory that is Russian controlled. And so, that plays into the factor of what Russia is doing and what their game plan is now.

COOPER: Yes. Kaitlan Collins for us tonight, thank you so much.

Perspective now from Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, senior fellow at Harvard's Belfour Center for science and international affairs and former CIA intelligence officer. Also CNN national security analyst and former CIA chief of Russia operations, Steve Hall.

Rolf, as Russians reportedly advance on Kyiv, and given the Biden administration's assessment, what do you expect the next 24, 48 hours to look like? Obviously, hard to tell, given that it's not even clear exactly what the strategic objectives are?

ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN, FORMER CIA INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: Well, given the way that the indicators are pushing towards this Putin plan to replace the government in Kyiv. The part of the story we're not seeing is what's happening behind the scenes and the gray of intelligence.

And I can assure you that right now, Russian intelligence, meaning mainly the FSB, the Federal security service, is in Ukraine en masse, with very specific set of targets.

Zelensky himself called himself target No. 1. Going throughout the country and trying to label and find all the people that they will remove. Not just to remove, decapitate, say, the leadership of Kyiv and replace it with people who will be loyal to Russia with puppets.

But also to avoid the -- try and avoid the possibility that Ukraine can start a meaningful insurgency, which means going after a whole series of what they would consider anti-Russians, which I think is one reason you're seeing this full country press.

They need to be everywhere in this phase of Putin's operation. In order to change the government, in order to use intelligence, the FSB and the GRU, again, they're probably there in the hundreds, not thousands. This is their backyard. They know this area.

And I'll just point out here that Vladimir Putin came to power on the basis of his ability to go into Chechnya in Russia, and brutally take out a -- basically, an insurgency against the Russian government. That's how he came to power.

That brutality, that resolve, that very detailed operational plan that the FSB and GRU are executing right now is as important as the military operation. And in fact, it may be driving the timeline more than their ability to encircle and take Kyiv.

COOPER: Steve, do you agree with that? And if so, I mean, then how long of -- I mean, even if you take out the top leadership and, you know, people in lots of different parts of the country. People with military experience. People who might be able to take part or lead some sort of insurgency.

You're still talking about an occupation by Russian forces of an awful lot of land for a fair amount of time. You know? STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. Rolf hit the nail on the head on all those points. The only thing I would add is that, in addition to the hundreds, if not thousands of Russian operatives that are already in -- that are in Ukraine now, coming in with the Russian forces, there have been a whole bunch there for a number of years, operating much more clandestinely, much more covertly.


But still doing the same type of work. Identifying where the primary point of resistance are, building lists of people that need to be, perhaps, liquidated, as the Russians like to say. And, you know, Zelensky might, indeed, be No. 1 on that list.

It's a really interesting decision that Putin is going to have. Because on the one hand, as you pointed out, Anderson, if his intention is to move into Ukraine in force and then stay there -- sort of annex it like he already did with Crimea and -- I don't know -- make it part of Russia, or effectively do so, that's going to be really, really difficult. It is a large country. And how are you going to basically do that with a bunch of Ukrainians who just -- you know, just got attacked?

On the other hand, if you're going to do what people are calling a decapitation move, you're going to do regime change -- get rid of Zelensky and put in a Russian puppet government, that didn't go so well last time.

Remember the Maidan in 2014, where there was a very pro-Russian government in power, and the people rose up and tossed him out. And that -- there wasn't even any warfare going on at that point. They just didn't like him because he had too many ties to Russia.

So it's a really interesting strategic choice he's going to have to make there.

COOPER: Rolf, do you think -- when we talk about decapitation of leadership -- I mean, what is the M.O. for Vladimir Putin? I mean, are you talking imprisoning? Are you talking killing?

MOWATT-LARSSEN: I think whatever it takes, Anderson. As Steve said, they -- they have no problem liquidating opponents.

I heard the administration at one point cite intelligence that it would be particularly brutal, the Russian response in Ukraine. And I immediately thought as an intelligence officer, that this is what that might have been referring to.

And if they don't have to, they don't have to. In other words, if they flee, great. If they can imprison them, swap jail cells for Poroshenko or people they want out, in response to people they want in, then they'll do that.

But Steve's right. This is not easy. I think this is the riskiest -- certainly, the riskiest move Vladimir Putin has made in 20 years of rule. He's probably spent years thinking about it, years planning it. And as Steve said, the apparatus they have operating in Ukraine is massive in order to make book on everything that they're going to have to do.

Even with all that, I think personally, the insurgency is a huge problem for Putin, and he knows it going into this. That if he changes the government, that doesn't end it. As Ambassador Pifer just said on air, the Ukrainians are going to fight. And I think Putin knows that. But he may have underestimated the amount of antipathy in Ukraine towards Russia, in that regard.

COOPER: Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, I really appreciate it.

Steve Hall, as well, thank you so much.

Just ahead, as the Russian military tries advance in parts of Ukraine we're going to hear an incredible story of defiance, involving an outnumbered group of Ukrainian border guards who tonight are being held hailed as heroes. We'll explain why, ahead.


COOPER: We've seen CNN reporters this evening spread across the country in the Ukraine. Often very close to where fighting has been according, or with those trying to survive. There's one story that happened in the south of the country I want to bring you now.

CNN's international security editor, Nick Paton Walsh, is in Kherson (ph).

Nick, there's a recording between Ukrainian and Russian forces that occurred. What -- what happened?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, it's a really dark episode, which was cast by the Ukrainian President Zelensky as a moment of heroism.

Snake Island, off the coast of Odessa, where we were yesterday, where we heard explosions at dawn in the distance, and they persisted intermittently throughout the morning. It's always hard to know exactly what was being hit. Some of them were ferocious.

You could hear their impact from miles away. Snake Island is off the coast of Odessa, some distance, in fact. It appears to have been attacked by a Russian warship.

And on it, the population is basically just Ukrainian soldiers defending it. Here's the intercept of the conversation between them and the Russian forces that approached them.



GRAPHIC: I am a Russian military ship, proposing to put down arms immediately to avoid bloodshed and unjustified deaths. In worst case you will be hit with a bomb strike. I am repeating, I am Russian military ship propose to put down arms or you will be hit. Acknowledge.




GRAPHIC: Just in case. Russian warship, got (EXPLETIVE DELETED) yourself.


WALSH: Now that is the end of the recording. And it is most likely -- we can't confirm independently, that the Russian warship made good on his threat to destroy that island. Part of the extensive efforts we saw yesterday by the Russian military to attack Ukraine's defenses along the Black Sea coast.

That adds vital power to Ukraine's economy and infrastructure. And it seems they kind of bore the brunt of that -- Anderson.

COOPER: What's the latest you've been seeing in the region?

WALSH: Look, we're in a key town, Kherson, on the way up from Crimea. That's, for eight years, been illegally held by Russia. And their forces have been trying to move up.

We heard intensive fighting in the east of this town when we came in last night, and that was centered around a key bridge that goes from sort of the Russian-held side of the river then over to the side still had by Ukrainian forces.

It seemed that the Russians had, in fact, moved over that bridge yesterday. And we don't quite know what they did. There were suggestions they may have peeled off parts of the town. We heard small arms fire in the town, on its outskirts here in the night. And there were persistent, low-flying jets that swooped in, buzzing the town. Unclear whose there were.

They more likely would have to say, given the frequency, Russians. We heard some distant airstrikes to and just this morning, there was another low-flying jet that came into.

So clearly, fighting continues for this key river. And that essentially, I think many argue, might be about defining the future borders of whatever we see down the line here. The Dnieper River runs straight up through Kyiv, defining the east, where separatist territories are, separating Crimea, already held by Russia and up through Kyiv, where the fighting is at the moment.

So if the Russian ambition here is not for all of Ukraine, this Dnieper River and the bridges across it that we're seeing intense fighting before here are actually key, Anderson.

COOPER: Nick Walsh in Kherson, Ukraine. Careful.


Coming up next, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill debate what more should be done or could be done to punish Russia, support Ukraine, I'll speak with a member of the House Armed Services Committee about what he wants President Biden to do next.


COOPER: Report tonight of explosions in the sky over Ukraine's capital. A battle for Kyiv, a potential turning point in this war. If when it comes. Earlier, Secretary of State Blinken said he is convinced Russia intends to overthrew the Ukrainian government there.

President Biden is suggesting more sanctions may follow the ones he announced at the White House. I'm joined now by Democratic Congressman Reuben Gallego, a Marine veteran who sits on the Armed Services Committee and was in Ukraine in December as part of the congressional delegation.

Congressman, if the Russians take control of Kyiv and the current government is overthrown, does that impact the U.S. response in any way?

REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D-AZ): Well, I certainly think it does impact our response about who we're actually arming. At that point, we have to make the realization that the Ukraine military, as we know it, may be compromised.

And then I think we have to shift to actually supporting partisans and resistance fighters who are willing to take up the fight against Russia.

Ukraine's a massive country. It's the size of Texas, 44 million people. The amount of manpower that Russia is bringing into Ukraine is not going to be enough to actually stop an actual insurrection from what looks like to be a country that wants to be free and independent.

I mean, if you just look at what we just saw, where 13 men and women decided to die rather than give up to, you know -- you know, a Russian warship, that tells you that there's probably a lot more of that type of fighting spirit in that country.

So, we as a nation should decide. And we as, actually, western allies and democratic allies, should decide that we need to arm the resistance. And we need to make sure that Russia knows that they're not going to have a country that they can just eat whole, without actually having to drink the poison that comes with it.

COOPER: How difficult would that be in a country like Ukraine? The weaponry that the U.S. has already sent to Ukraine -- do -- is it clear to you that that's in the hands just of the Ukrainian military forces? Or I mean, has that been set up in any way to be given out to people in the event of decapitation of the central government? GALLEGO: I think at this point, it's very much centralized within the

military. At least, my last conversations that were, you know, involved with the U.S. military and with Ukraine special forces.

But, you know, when it comes to the resistance fight of an insurgency, at that point, all bets are off. And it's more about who has the will to fight. Not necessarily who has the skill to fight.

And with enough training from our allies and ourselves, and with enough willpower for us to actually arm them, you can actually put a lot of harm to Russia.

At this point, I actually have not been very impressed by Russia's skills at actually been able to fight in Ukraine. And I don't think -- I think we, a lot of us overestimated their capabilities. And I think we should actually really, you know -- really give credit to the will of the Ukrainian people to fight. And we should give them the capability to do it.

COOPER: It's not easy. I mean, if -- we've had a number of guests on tonight saying, you know, even if they take out the leadership, one way or another, of Ukraine and go after other elements within the country on kill lists or imprisonment lists who they believe could be behind an insurgency, or they believe is potential future problems for them, it's still occupying a country for a long time.


COOPER: And as we've learned, you know, as we saw in Iraq, as we saw in Afghanistan, that is a difficult thing to do.

GALLEGO: Yes, I mean, I felt a seven-month insurgency in the Anbar province, and I -- and actually had, you know, Iraqi allies on the ground with me. And it was still extremely difficult.

I think Russia's, you know, in a worse situation, where they probably have no allies on the ground that actually want to kill them, considering the fact that they have, you know, invaded their country, a country that is democratically-elected. And they're coming in to try to depose them.

You may actually kill all the leadership. But that's the kind of thing that may work in Russia, but you're dealing with a country that has twice overthrown autocrats to become a democratic country.

I'm not sure they're just going to lay down and just let this happen again. And I think, to the detriment of Russia, they may actually learn this the hard way.

COOPER: Yes. Congressman Gallego, appreciate your time tonight. Thank you. We'll be right back.

GALLEGO: Thank you.