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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Severe Winter Weather Hits US, At Least 49 Dead, Thousands Of Flights Cancelled, As Much As Four Feet Of Snow In Buffalo Region; Massive Southwest Airlines Disruption Leaves Customers Stranded And Call Centers Swamped; Four Power Substations Vandalized In WA State, Causing 14,000 To Lose Power; Ukraine Calls For Russia To Be Excluded From The United Nations; China Will End Covid Restrictions And Quarantining For International Travelers On January 8th. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired December 26, 2022 - 20:00   ET


SELINA WANG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I went to a major crematorium in Beijing recently, I saw body bags piling up in metal containers, workers loading more coffins and scenes like that are playing out across the country.

And meanwhile, the medical system is also under intense pressure -- Sara.

SARA SIDNER, CNN HOST: Wow that's really disturbing. Selina, those pictures that you and your photographer were able to gain.

Thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate you giving us the information.

And AC 360 starts right now.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: More than four days into one of the worst Holiday storms on record, make no mistake, it is not over yet. The weather outside is still frightful and in places still potentially deadly.

Pamela Brown here, in for Anderson tonight.

It is hard to imagine, but some parts of Western New York could see another foot or more of snow on top of the nearly four feet you see in these pictures on your screen.

Winter Storm Warnings there and elsewhere still in effect, Buffalo's airport still closed. The entire eastern part of the country still in a deep freeze. Almost 4,000 flights canceled today and nearly 2,600 tomorrow.

Nationwide, at least 49 people have lost their lives in this massive storm, 27 in the Buffalo area alone.

We have live reporting tonight from CNN's Polo Sandoval in Buffalo and Lucy Kafanov at Denver International Airport. Let's start tonight with Polo Sandoval who has been right there in the worst of it from day one.

Polo, what's the latest on the ground?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And today, those rescues also continued in fact that New York Governor Kathy Hochul saying that State Police officers carried out some 550 rescues at least over the weekend, but we also learned about what is perhaps are the most dramatic ones. This one happening about 12 miles north of Buffalo in the of Tonawanda where two local police officers came upon a bus transporting some 60 DC bound tourists. That bus it was stuck in the snow and those officers would later know, would later find out that that bus was only a foot away from potentially slipping into a ditch so they acted quickly, essentially leading those 60 tourists trekking through about knee deep snow to a nearby warming center. Those 60 tourists eventually making it there safely and on their way to their final destination.

But it really is Pamela, just one of many examples of first responders scrambling through the snow to help people during the height of the storm.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the worst that we have had.

SANDOVAL (voice over): In Buffalo, New York, it is being called the most devastating storm ever.

GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D-NY): We are in a war. This is a war with Mother Nature and she has been hitting us with everything she has.

SANDOVAL (voice over): In a region that is used to harsh winter weather, this is worse.

SHERIFF JOHN GARCIA, ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK: We deal with snow all the time, but the conditions were different because with the gust of wind, I could tell you at firsthand, zero visibility. I couldn't see two feet in front of my vehicle.

SANDOVAL (voice over): Up to 43 inches of snow, hurricane force winds, and hundreds of vehicles stuck.

MARK POLONCARZ, COUNTY EXECUTIVE, ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK: There's cars everywhere -- everywhere -- pointing the wrong direction on roads.

SANDOVAL (voice over): Buffalo's roads still impassable in most areas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just been crazy. I mean, a snowbank that's like taller than me on my front lawn.

SANDOVAL (voice over): More than 500 rescues, some people were trapped in cars for days before they were found by rescue workers.

HOCHUL: Going into homes, going into vehicles, and too many tragic times of finding people who did not survive the experience. SANDOVAL (voice over): In the Western New York Region, power

substations are frozen and the electricity is out. Thousands of people left without heat.

DANIELLE TISDALE, MOTHER: Conditions were deteriorating so bad, it was dropping in our home, maybe about two degrees every 10 minutes.

SANDOVAL (voice over): One family trying to get their children to a warm hotel was rescued from their car by the airport fire department.

MIKE CARRUBBA, BUFFALO AIRPORT POLICE: Demetrius says --he opened his window and said, "Please don't leave us" and I said, "Don't worry, man. I promise we won't. We won't leave you."

SANDOVAL (voice over): But elsewhere in the city, looters were taking advantage of the crisis.

MAYOR BYRON BROWN, BUFFALO, NEW YORK: People who are out looting when people are losing their lives in this harsh winter storm is just absolutely reprehensible.

SANDOVAL (voice over): And as Buffalo tries to dig out, more snow is in the forecast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And even though it's been just two days, it feels like it's been two weeks.


BROWN: So Polo, you say there are more snow was in the forecast. Tell us more about any potential severe weather that is coming there in the coming days.

SANDOVAL: Yes. The forecasters here expecting yet another brisk and cold day tomorrow. Obviously, less snow, roughly three to six inches expected tomorrow. Also, that persistent snow band coming in off the lake, it is expected to shift south, but then eventually, a northerly wind then put it back over Buffalo, but there is hope that when it returns, it will be in a much weakened state.

And there is some, you could call it, a warm light at the end of the tunnel, Pamela. The forecast calling for temperatures in the 50s come this weekend. It is something that many people are here waiting for after this weekend.

BROWN: I'm sure it'll be welcome. Polo Sandoval, thank you so much.

And for a closer look at what it is still like on the front lines, we are joined now by Nate Marton, Commissioner of Public Works for the City of Buffalo.

Commissioner Marton, what is the situation like on the ground in Buffalo now? And where did the search and rescue efforts stand?


Yes. Thank you. Good evening. Appreciate the opportunity to update date a little bit from Buffalo.

So the conditions are exactly what you just heard. We've been hit with a blizzard, none that the likes of Buffalo has seen with those high winds and snow amounts that has recently just devastated the city.

So from that standpoint, the storm has -- the main part of the storm has come through and now we've got some closing snow of the storm that we are still trying to deal with. So overall, we've taken a really big hit.

From a search and rescue standpoint, we are continuing to undergo those operations in cooperation with State Police and Emergency Operations Center here in the area. So those are ongoing still, to this day, our DPW and all the First Responders were really collaborating on trying to get to everybody who might still be in need.

BROWN: It's just been amazing to see how they've been able to overcome so many challenges in this weather, those First Responders, and we have heard from multiple officials that they expect the death toll to climb. Is that still the current thinking? And do you have any expectations of how high it could reach?

MARTON: You know, we don't have an expectation of the number at this point in time, we do expect it to rise as we continue to dig out some of those cars. The drifts of snow are multiple feet high and over the top of cars. Driving around the city as I've been certainly these last day plus as the storm subsided, and even during the storm, just the drifts of snow that enveloped cars, really wreaked havoc around the city.

So the search and rescue will continue, and we anticipate potentially to find more. I don't have a number on that, but one is too many.

BROWN: Exactly.

MARTON: To say the least.

BROWN: Absolutely. At one point, there were more than 20,000 people without power in Buffalo. So where does that stand now? And when do you expect electricity to be fully restored?

MARTON: Yes, so yes, you're right. At one point, we had a little over 21,000. We've been working very closely with the National Grid, our streets and plow team with them, and certainly working with other resources from the county and the State involved.

But through our cooperative efforts, right now, the latest number we have is 7,500 still without power. That is a lot of people, you know, still to be restored power from our National Grid provider, but we're working on that.

There has been substantial damage to a number of their substations, poles down, wires down. It's just been -- really across our entire area, all parts of the city were affected with that storm and the power outages are scattered throughout the city.

BROWN: So what is your message in closing to people in Buffalo tonight about what they should and should not be doing right now?

MARTON: Well, I mean, for from our standpoint, we are focused on getting each and everybody who has a need. So the emergency personnel, our search and rescue teams, across the city, State and county resources and our First Responders, you know, we're still coming to those that are in need.

So if you're in need, please, we want you to call that in, and we will collaboratively work our way to you. But importantly, you know, to anyone who is here and is safe, we just need you to stay home and stay off the roads.

From our standpoint, we need to get in, get our equipment in here. We've got a lot of resources coming in to clear the streets and get the snow out. It's not just the snow plowing operation, it's a lift and haul away. So, a lot of work to do, a lot equipment.

And so we've seen a lot of people out on the roads. Obviously, there are abandoned cars that we're dealing with because of the entire storm. So, we've got to clear roads, move cars, and it's just helpful if we have everybody stay off the roads to allow our equipment really to do that work and to get to those still in need. That's the most critical part still at this time.

BROWN: Commissioner Nate Marton, we know how busy you are. Thank you for your time tonight.

MARTON: Thank you very much.

BROWN: And more now on flight delays and cancellations, which have been nearly as bad today as they were on day one of this mess, especially for Southwest Airlines, which has now cancelled about two- thirds of its entire schedule today, and more than 2,400 flights tomorrow.

Lucy Kafanov joins us now from Denver International Airport, which is as we know, a big destination for Southwest, as well as a major hub for United so many frustrated passengers there today.

How is it looking right now, Lucy?

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not great, Pamela, and that's because Denver is unfortunately leading the nation in terms of cancellations, 480 flights canceled today out of this airport. Southwest making up the large majority of those 460 of those flight cancellations coming from Southwest.


This line of folks behind me is people trying to rebook, trying to get new flights out, trying to get compensation. It was snaking around the corner for much of the day. A lot of the folks though went home because just a few moments ago, we heard an announcement on the PA system announcing that there will be no Southwest rebookings available until December 30th, if you can believe it, and no new bookings available until at least January 3rd.

People were told to leave this airport, some people did. Now, they initially also said on the announcement that there would be no compensation for travel disruptions caused by weather and crew shortages. They then went back onto the PA to announce that people will be compensated at a hundred percent.

But by then, this line grew a lot smaller. People have been walking around here. Southwest crews or staff I should say, handing out pretzels and water to make things a little bit more comfortable for people here. But you can imagine, Pam, this is just, just awful. And of course Denver is not the only airport affected by these same delays, shortages, cancellations taking place across the nation with the bulk of those cancellations coming from Southwest -- Pam.

BROWN: Yes, what a mess, man. Lucy Kafanov, thank you for bringing us the latest there.

Well, it goes without saying that in addition to all the airline workers putting in extra hours tonight, there are thousands of first responders to think, for their tireless work saving lives throughout the storm.

Well, these next two though, they aren't firefighters, police officers, or utility crews. Yet Andrea and Alex Campagna did more than just bring a group of South Korean tourists in from the cold after the van they were in got stranded outside their Buffalo area home. They also provided the kind of warmth that none of their visitors could have imagined when they knocked on their door.

What you both did for that group is just incredible.

Alex, walk us through what happened when you heard that knock on the door. Surely, it wasn't what you expected.


The storm had already been raging for about two hours when we got a knock at the door, and I assumed it was either a stranded neighbor, or perhaps my father-in-law who lives close by maybe he was coming home from a quick last minute trip to a store.

When I opened the door and it was people unfamiliar to me saying, we're part of a tour, and we need shovels to try to dig out our vehicle. I thought, oh no, this could be very serious and deadly.

BROWN: And you knew probably where it was heading, right, that you would become essentially an innkeeper for these guests?

And Andrea, I love this detail of the story that you and your husband there, you're coincidentally both big fans of Korean food and you even had your first date at a Korean restaurant. So you already had a lot of staples stocked at your house. What was your guests' reaction when you started pulling out things like kimchi and bean paste?

ANDREA CAMPAGNA, HOSTED 10 STRANDED SOUTH KOREAN VISITORS: I think they -- it helped them to feel at home and comfortable, because when all of them started coming through the door, at first, it was two people. And then they said, we have several other people here with us. And then soon 10 people were in our home.

Three of those people spoke English, and so I think when they saw my Asian rice cooker and all of the various spices that we had, and we all started to cook in the kitchen together, I think they quickly became comfortable.

BROWN: And you had enough food for everyone, right? Because you had been preparing for the blizzard, right Alex? Tell us a little bit more about some of the dinners you all put together and what that was like when you all sat down to have a meal.

ALEXANDER CAMPAGNA: I think early on when our guests entered our house, there was the belief that maybe this storm was about to blow over and they would just jump back in their vehicle and get on their way towards Niagara Falls, which is in the best weather about a 30- minute drive from our home. So with the blizzard, it may as well have been in another galaxy.

So once they kind of came in the house and saw that they might be here for a while, I pulled out from our freezer all of our frozen chicken and a large pork shoulder that I purchased on special a couple of weeks ago, and all of a sudden that food came in extremely handy and we had a couple of natural-born cooks in the group who were happy to prepare some exquisite Korean entrees.

BROWN: So will you stay in touch with your guests? Do you have any plans to visit them in South Korea one day, Andrea?

ANDREA CAMPAGNA: Absolutely. Several of the guests said that we are more than welcome to come visit them and we may take them up on that offer. We really connected with them. They became like family to us and we love to travel. We travel internationally and I think it would be wonderful to visit them in South Korea.


BROWN: And you love Korean food as well, so it seems like that would be the perfect trip and now you would have wonderful hosts there as well given your generosity over the Christmas Holiday.

Thank you so much Alex and Andrea Campagna. Thank you.

ALEXANDER CAMPAGNA: Miss Brown, we are so appreciative of our guests, but also of the emergency services personnel, the police, the firefighters, and the volunteers that spent day and night taking care of people trapped in their vehicles in the freezing cold day and night. Those are the real heroes in this blizzard of Buffalo demonstrating why Buffalo is called the City of Good Neighbors. BROWN: Thank you for that. You're absolutely right.

ALEXANDER CAMPAGNA: Our pleasure. Thank you.

BROWN: And much more ahead tonight, including breaking news, the first public comment from a Congressman-elect with a resume that probably overstated and his admission about it, which is arguably understated. Details on that up next.

Later on top of all the storm-related power outages, there has been more sabotage at power stations and still no answers yet as to who is behind it.

We'll be right back.


BROWN: It is not breaking news that politicians sometimes stretch the truth a bit or burnish their credentials, slightly. It is certainly unusual though for an elected official or anyone for that matter to have a resume like that of New York Republican Congressman-elect George Santos.


BROWN: Today, for the first time, he actually addressed the many questions about it. And that is breaking news.


GEORGE SANTOS (R), NEW YORK CONGRESSMAN-ELECT: I want to make sure that if I disappointed anyone by resume embellishments, I'm sorry.


BROWN: In addition to being his first public comments about his embellished resume, that could also be his first understatement about just how embellished it apparently is.

CNN's Melanie Zanona joins us now with more.

So Melanie, what more did Congressman-elect Santos have to say about these questions over his history?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, well, this is the first time that Santos admitted that he lied about key details in his resume. He said in an interview with "The New York Post" and a local radio station that he did not actually work for Citigroup, or for Goldman Sachs, even though previously on the campaign trail he said he did.

Now Santos is saying that he only worked for them through his company. And so he called it a poor choice of words to suggest that he worked directly for those firms. But Santos also admitted that he never graduated from any college or university after previously claiming that he received degrees from both NYU and Baruch College. Now, he said he was embarrassed and that essentially, he just chalked

it up to embellishing his resume and that everyone did it. So essentially, he was trying to downplay this entire controversy. And he said, while he is guilty of twisting the truth, he is not guilty of committing any crimes. Take a listen.


SANTOS: I'm not a criminal. Not here, not abroad, in any jurisdiction in the world have I ever committed any crimes. To get down to the nitty and gritty, I'm not a fraud. I'm not a criminal who defrauded the entire country and made up this fictitional character and ran for Congress.

I've been around a long time. I mean, a lot of people know me. They know who I am. They've done business dealings with me.

And I'm not going to make excuses for this, but a lot of people overstate in their resumes or twist a little bit or in ingratiate themselves. I'm not saying I'm not guilty of that.


ZANONA: Now, Santos did not answer questions about his charities, claims that he made about his heritage and questions about his financial disclosures and whether he followed proper protocols.

And so there is still a lot there that we don't know that is unanswered for. I suspect, this will not quell the calls for him to not serve in Congress. So far, however, Pam, GOP leaders are silent.

BROWN: Well, we will have to wait and see if that stays that way after this interview. Did he say why he made those statements in the first place? What was his reasoning, for example, saying that he graduated from these -- had degrees from these two colleges, and yet he never had a college degree?

ZANONA: Yes. He didn't really give a reasoning other than trying to suggest that it's a common trait to lie on your resume or to embellish a little bit. But, Pam, this is a big deal. He is about to serve as a Member of Congress. He misrepresented who he was.

In normal circumstances, if someone lied on their resume, they probably would be fired, but in this case, it is up to the voters to decide and if he chooses to stick around, there is not much anyone can do unless Congress decides not to seat him. But that is a decision up to GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy. And as of right now, like I said, he is silent and he probably needs every Speaker vote he can get next week.

BROWN: Yes, he does. I wonder if that's a factor in all of this.

Melanie Zanona, thank you so much.

perspective now from CNN political commentator, Scott Jennings, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush; also CNN political analyst and AXIOS Managing Editor, Margaret Talev. All right, Margaret, starting with you here. So Congressman-elect

Santos has admitted to essentially fabricating his entire resume top to bottom, he downplayed it as resume embellishment, something we all do all, we all embellish our resumes, is that all this is?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You literally can't believe anything he says. It's not just not that any of this is okay. It's not just his job history, it is not just his educational history, even down to his claim that one of his companies have lost four employees in the Pulse Nightclub shooting six years ago. It turns out, that's not actually true.

There are people who maybe were going to go work for him like, there are questions about his background in Brazil. There are a myriad of questions.

But the bottom line is, here is the question, what could block him from being seated? Probably nothing. There are age requirements and citizenship requirements to be seated in Congress. As far as we know, he is still 34 and he is old enough to serve in that job.

And of course, remember Kevin McCarthy does need his vote. In fact, he needs every vote in the Republican Caucus to ascend to the speakership, just about. So, this really maybe an instance where the question is, is he going to face ethics investigations in Congress? And again the answer to that question right now may well be no.


The Attorney General in New York has said that her office is going to look into investigating his background. But again, this really may be an issue for voters two years from now.

It's an astonishing story, and the congressional district is one of the wealthiest in the country. These are very, very plugged in and engaged voters, or they should be.

BROWN: Right. I mean, they were voting for someone based on a resume that was false, right? Santos, Scott has vowed to be sworn into Congress and serve his term. Now, as Margaret laid out, there is really not a whole lot you can do to prevent that from happening. But do you think he should bow out? Or do you think that he should still move forward, as he has said he will do?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, honestly, if he had any shred of self-integrity, you know, he would bow out because he made up a whole story, sold it to the voters, and he got elected. And so if he really meant what he said in his interviews today, he would resign and then run on his actual resume, and see what the voters had to say at that point. I mean, that would be sort of the honest and honorable way to handle it. He is obviously not going to do that.

I mean, you don't want to play golf or cards with this guy. I do think you want to see this guy put before the Ethics Committee, it strikes me that he may have financial disclosure issues. And it also has the smell, the whiff of other shoes that are about to drop. I don't know anything, and we've got reporters working on it, but you just get the feeling, even after all we learned today, there could be more.

So look, obviously, he is not an honorable person. I doubt he resigns. And if the voters get a chance to deal with it in two years, I'm sure they will.

BROWN: Yes, reporters are looking at everything. The financial disclosure, so much more, because he has not addressed other issues that have come up, as Melanie said, even the charities that were listed on his resume.

So House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, so far, hasn't addressed this controversy, as we've laid out, more could come out. Now, that Santos has admitted this though, Margaret, what do you think? I mean, can he continue to ignore this?

TALEV: I mean, Kevin McCarthy is certainly going to be asked about this, and so is Santos every place he goes, every corner has turns on what Committees do the person serve on. If you're a constituent and you are trying to engage with him, like how much money -- how much faith can you put in his response -- so, I think this is a real credibility problem.

But in terms of what's going to happen, it certainly seems like he's going to be seated in Congress.

BROWN: All right, Margaret and Scott, great to see you. Thanks for coming on tonight.

And much more ahead tonight, including new attacks on the power grid. I'll ask a former top FBI official about the possibility that extremist groups are targeting utilities and how to stop bad guys from pulling the plug on all of us.



BROWN: Well, millions of Americans lost power this holiday weekend, and you can blame the weather for most of it. That said, thousands of outages in Washington state had nothing to do with high winds or icy conditions. They were man made foul play, the latest in a string of attacks on the power grid that have left more than just customers in the dark, to some extent, law enforcement is too.

In this latest incident, vandals yesterday hit four substations near Tacoma, and they followed several other attacks over the last several weeks in Washington and Oregon, as well as similar ones in the Carolinas earlier this month, authorities in Washington state tell CNN that they have identified no motive or suspects.

Here to talk about these incidents and the larger threat that they could signify, CNN senior law enforcement analyst and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

So, Andrew, what do you make of these most recent attacks in Washington on Christmas Day and the fact that four different substations were targeted, what is the significance of this?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Pam, it's a really disturbing elevation of a threat that we've been watching since early 2013. And that was the year that there was this notorious attack on a Pacific Gas and Electric substation near San Jose, California. It was, for all indicators, a well-planned, highly organized, structured attack committed by multiple individuals in which they cut the fiber optic cables to a substation and then fired numerous high powered military rifle rounds at the transformers therein. They did, I think, $15 million worth of damage and shut down 17 transformers. That case is still unsolved. And it became, in the domestic violent extremist circles that we follow online, in the chat rooms and things like that, it became a notorious attack, one that's famous for being highly effective, easy to do, and easy to get away with.

And so, now we're looking at a domestic violent extremist community that is considering attacks on substations as a way to strike back against the government, to strike back against corporate America, to strike back against, really anything that they harbor a grievance for and with the goal to kind of generate civil unrest. And that's what many of our domestic violent extremists are looking to do.

BROWN: If this is the work of violent domestic extremists, why isn't this label domestic terrorism, especially considering the potential national security implications? I mean, right now we just keep hearing that these were vandals that played a role in this, and we know how hard it is for law enforcement to investigate this. They haven't identified any groups or suspects, but what do you make of that?

MCCABE: Well, it's really tough, Pam, for law enforcement to come out and identify something as a terrorist related attack, whether that's domestic or international terrorism, until they have some connection to a terrorist purpose let's say. If they know that an individual or group has conducted that activity because in pursuit of some ideological or political or social gain, then they'll be able to do that. Right now, we just don't have any indicators on any of these recent attacks. They don't have suspects that we're aware of. We don't know that there's been any claims of responsibility or even online kind of credible claims of why these things are taking place. So right now, they're really at ground zero in terms of the investigation.


BROWN: Right. Many of these areas, as we heard from the official there in the Garnish, Washington, they didn't have cameras. So clearly a big tool that law enforcement could have used to help track down who was behind this, they don't have that. And in terms of securing these types of facilities, there are thousands of these sites around the country. I mean, in this latest case in Washington, authorities say the culprit just broke a luck to gain access. You described the other case where it was just very, sort of amateur the way that they were able to break it. How challenging is it to stop an attack like this? And there's no anything power companies and law enforcement can do?

MCCABE: Incredibly challenging. These places are by definition remote. They're in the middle of nowhere, and nobody's watching them. The sort of infrastructure, security infrastructure is not in place. The federal government can mandate changes, but that only applies to the big interstate carriers, not to the state and local level carriers. So, it's a very tough situation for any government entity to put in consistent security requirements.

BROWN: Andrew McCabe, thank you for helping us better understand this. We appreciate it.

And up next Christmas in Kyiv and the remarkable way some of the trees were lit.

Also, a live report on the drone strike deep inside Russian territory.



BROWN: Ukrainian President Zelenskyy today again acknowledged how difficult the frontline battle is against Russian invaders, and he also thanked those working during the holiday to restore power after weeks of Russian strikes. In Kyiv, they defend fight the odds, lighting the city's Christmas tree with generators, even as millions remain without power.

Separately, Russia's Defense Ministry today said three servicemen were killed when a Ukrainian drone was shot down deep inside Russian territory.

Details on that now from CNN's Will Ripley.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Pam, the Ukrainian Air Force tonight is falling just short of claiming official responsibility for yet another drone strike deep inside Russian territory. But they're certainly not denying it either. A spokesperson for the Air Force saying, quote, this is just a consequence of what Russia is doing, which is the relentless bombardment of civilian infrastructure targets that cause rolling blackouts affecting millions of people across this country in the dead of winter. Now, as far as this latest drone strike in the western port city of Engels, which is along the Volga River around 500 miles southeast of Moscow, we know that at least three Russian servicemen were killed on Monday. And we also know this is the second attempted drone attack on this area, which includes a strategic bomber air base.

Now, Russian state media is claiming that this drone was shot down. We cannot independently verify that claim.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, President Putin is well, he's certainly getting a lot of skepticism, not just here in Ukraine, but around the world, for his offer that is believed here in Ukraine to be disingenuous, to negotiate to an end to this war. Talk about acceptable solutions, in his words. Advisor to President Zelenskyy says that Moscow doesn't really want to negotiate. They just want to avoid responsibility for their continuing attacks on civilians that Ukraine says warrants them being kicked out of the United Nations and the United Nations Security Council, where they're a permanent member with veto power, one of five. There's actually no mechanism written into the UN charter to remove them. So that is more of a political statement than an actual possibility at this stage, although the Ukrainians would certainly like to see some consequences at the UN for Russia because essentially, they have the power to veto any resolutions against them.

Meanwhile, here in Kyiv, President Zelenskyy calling for patience and faith from the Ukrainian people and warning that there could be some difficult and dark days ahead. When he gave his Christmas address, he warned of the potential of Russian retaliation. Of course, he didn't mention the drone strike, but in general, the Ukrainians are worried that there could be some major Russian attack before the end of the year after a brief pause over Christmas. And Dmitry Medvedev, the former president of Ukraine, he is saying that Russia will engage in this war until, quote, the disgusting, almost fascist regime in Kyiv is both removed and demilitarized, which certainly is very different language from President Putin saying he's willing to negotiate. Pam?

BROWN: All right, well, Ripley, thank you so much.

And more perspective now from CNN military analyst and retired army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

General Hertling, you heard that report there from Will Ripley. What is your reaction to this new strike on an airbase deep inside Russian territory?

MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Let's call it what it is, Pam. Engles-2 airbase near the city of Sakura, about 400 km away from the front line, has several important factors regarding. It's -- this has been an effective operational target now twice for the Ukrainian military, and it's important for about four reasons. First, it shows Russia they have no safe haven and they must defend their facilities wherever they are. Secondly, it shows Ukraine has a strike capability that Russia didn't know about. Third, and most importantly, Engles-2 is the base for the Tu-160 aircraft. That's something called the Backfire Bomber. And that airplane has a standoff capability, and it's able to launch multiple cruise missiles. These are the missiles that have been launched from outside the territory of Ukraine to affect the infrastructure within Ukraine, and that's why Ukraine is targeting.

But finally, the most important part, there was reports tonight that these aircrafts have now been moved further to the east and Russia, 4,000 miles away from the Ukrainian border. That's three time zones. If so, it will require Russia to launch those aircraft, use a lot more fuel, and be able to be picked up. So, they're all critically important.

BROWN: So that is the practical military effect. Meantime, you have Vladimir Putin saying on Sunday that he is ready to, quote, negotiate with everyone involved in this process about acceptable solutions, end quote with regard to the war in Ukraine. You have actually, what should we say, quote, negotiated with Russians. What did that experience tell you about Putin's intentions here?

HERTLING: Yes, well, I certainly haven't negotiated with Mr. Putin himself, but I have negotiated with some of his military officers as generals, and some of as Ministry of Defense officials. And what I will tell you is this, I learned valuable lessons, Pamela. First of all, they lie. Secondly, they will never negotiate evenly. And thirdly, if they do finally negotiate and you think you have a deal, they will renege on that deal.


And what's important about this, all of our European allies know this. And it seems the Americans are slow to learn this, that it's just not a good thing to negotiate with Putin because he lies, he detracts, and he reneges on any deal that he makes.

BROWN: Ukraine, as well, pointed out, is calling for Russia to be excluded from the UN. What do you make of that?

HERTLING: Yes, I'm not going to comment on that, Pam, because that's something for the politicians to decide. But I've also seen reports from CNN reporters saying that's going to be very difficult to do because the Soviet Union, not Russia. The Soviet Union was one of the founding members of the UN. And because of that was one of the five original members that makes up that body. It's going to be tough to kick them off because they have a veto vote. They can just veto anybody that tries to kick them off that Security Council.

BROWN: All right. General Mark Hertling, thank you so much.

And coming up, one of the first comments from China's president since the relaxation of its zero COVID regulations and a huge spike in COVID cases. We have a live report from Beijing.



BROWN: Well, in one of the first public statements since easing its zero COVID restrictions, China's President said the country needs a more targeted health strategy to protect against what he called a new COVID outbreak situation. Even as the country announced today that international travel regulations would ease soon. Chinese hospitals, they are overwhelmed by the surge in cases and recently, China's top health authorities stopped publishing daily COVID numbers.

CNN's Selina Wang joins us now from Beijing with the very latest. So, Selina, in the face of this surge in China, which travel restrictions are being lifted and when?

WANG: Well, Pam, there's a whole slate of changes to COVID restrictions. And the biggest one is that from January 8th, the country is dropping quarantine requirements for all international arrivals. These are major changes and a big move towards the formal end of zero COVID and towards the ending of China's nearly three years of isolation. And, Pam, to really understand why this is such a big deal, we have to look at what the reality has been for years, China has been severely limiting who can go in and out of China with strict border controls. Flights have been very limited and expensive. All arrivals had to go through quarantine and government facilities. I went through multiple quarantines myself, including 21 days earlier this year, and we're talking about harsh quarantines. You get sorted into a facility, no opening your door except for food pickups and COVID tests.

But a lot still remains unclear. We don't know how many flights will be allowed to enter the country or how easily Chinese nationals will be able to travel out. Officials said they will gradually restart outbound tourism and a, quote, orderly manner, but they didn't give details on when or how. Overall, these changes are a huge sigh of relief for many people in China who've been waiting years and years for a chance to travel abroad to see loved ones overseas. So, this is an emotional moment.

BROWN: It certainly is. I mean, really, as you laid out, quite the U- turn for China. How and why are Chinese authorities changing the way COVID is classified as an illness?

WANG: So, these changes to the travel restrictions I just mentioned are actually part of this broader change to how China is managing COVID. The country says it is downgrading its COVID management to a class B disease. Previously, COVID was managed as a class A disease. That means it was on par with cholera or the bubonic plague, which was justification for the draconian zero COVID measures. Now China is even changing the name from COVID pneumonia to COVID infection. Officials are saying Omicron is less severe and only a small number of cases actually develop into pneumonia.

But since China has abandoned zero COVID, information from the country has become even more opaque, with health authorities no longer reporting daily COVID cases. And it severely narrowed the definition of COVID deaths and has only reported a small handful of deaths for the entirety of this month even though COVID is sweeping through the country. The health system under major pressure, fever and cold medicine are nearly impossible to get at drug stores. In a big move, Beijing has just announced it's going to start distributing Paxlovid to community health centers in the coming days. This is a big deal because it's been very hard for people to access antivirals. And finally, this appears to be some relief for people. Pam.

BROWN: Yes, a little bit of hope there. Thank you so much. CNN's Selina Wang in Beijing.

Perspective now from CNN medical analyst and former Baltimore health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen. She is also the author of Lifelines a Doctor's Journey and the Fight for Public Health. And she recently wrote about the COVID surge in China for The Washington Post. The op- ed has headlined We Must Prepare For The Fallout From China's COVID U- turn.

So, Dr. Wen, as the rest of the world watches what's happening in China, how concerned are you about new variants forming and spreading globally, and how do you think health officials should be preparing for that possible outcome?

LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, it's definitely possible that we're going to get new variants from China surge. That's because when viruses replicate, they mutate. When you see a large surge, in this case, we could have hundreds of millions of people in China getting infected in a matter of weeks. So, when you have that kind of surge, you could definitely have new variants develop. The question is, are these new variants going to take hold? Are they going to be more immune evasive? Are they also going to cause more severe disease?

And so, in terms of how the rest of the world should prepare, what they need to do, what we all need to do is to invest in better vaccines and developing better treatments. That's something that the U.S. urgently needs to take leadership and take ownership of, because what starts in one part of the world is not going to stay there.

BROWN: Right. So, what would the likelihood be then if it mutates into something else, that what it would mutate into could actually be more dangerous? Because, as you know the current strain, for example, in the U.S. has been more immune evasive, but more mild. So, what is the likelihood that a more dangerous strain could emerge?


WEN: We don't know. I mean, we just don't know what could happen because in this case, there are new variants emerging all the time. Every time, every day, there are new variants emerging. But the vast majority of them never take hold. The ones that take hold that displace existing variants are tend to be the ones that are more transmissible, not necessarily ones that are more dangerous, but could there be one that's more severe, that could, of course happen. And the immune evasion is also very serious too, because already our vaccines don't work as well against the new variants developing and we don't even have any monoclonal antibodies that work well against the variants that are here.

BROWN: All right, that's a really important point because that was going to be my next question about the vaccines being a match for what's circulating. Because right now, you know, look, its post- holiday weekend, people have been gathering. Are you concerned about another post-holiday search?

WEN: It could certainly happen because when people gather and there are lots of viruses circulating and it's not just COVID, it's also the flu, RSV many other viruses. When people gather and come from all over the country or the world, of course we're going to see virus transmission. So, I think at this point, we need to focus on what's next. As in, if you did gather over the holidays or are gathering over new year's, make sure that before you see vulnerable individuals after the holidays, that you take a rapid COVID test. And of course, if you're symptomatic, do not go into public indoor settings.

BROWN: Yes, and as you point out, protect the elderly because they are so very vulnerable. Dr. Leana Wen, thank you.

We'll be right back.


[21:00:25] BROWN: And the news continues. So, let's hand it over to Aliysn Camerota in "CNN TONIGHT." Aliysn?