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At This Hour

Russia-Ukraine Standoff; Senate to Begin Voting Rights Debate; Omicron Peaking in Parts of U.S., Hospitals Strained. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 18, 2022 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Here's what we're watching at this hour.

Ominous signs: the new indications Russia may be ready to invade Ukraine and the U.S. is sending its top diplomat overseas on a mission now to prevent a war.

Catastrophic disruption: urgent warnings from airlines about the dangers of the 5G network. But a lot of questions still of how exactly 5G will disrupt air travel.

And two viruses, one shot: scientists working on a new booster for both COVID and the flu.

And before then, where is the crest of the Omicron surge?


BOLDUAN: Thanks for being here.

New developments and new signs that Russia could be preparing to invade Ukraine, the threat so real that it was just announced this morning the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, will be traveling to Kiev today to meet with the Ukrainian president.

Russia has been building up forces at Ukraine's border for months now but now "The New York Times" is reporting that Putin is quietly emptying out its embassies in Ukraine, Russian embassies, putting spouses and children of Russian diplomats on buses headed back to Moscow.

For what it's worth, the Kremlin is denying any such move at this moment. This new trip by America's top diplomat comes after a series of recent talks between Russia and the West ended without any tangible commitment from Russia to de-escalate the very serious situation we see with Ukraine right now.

Kylie Atwood is live at the State Department for us.

What are the details you're picking up of Blinken's trip?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN U.S. SECURITY ANALYST: Secretary Blinken is headed to Ukraine, the State Department said, to continue pressing. But what we aren't seeing this morning is any tangible progress on the diplomatic front.

Earlier today, we know that Secretary Blinken spoke with foreign minister Lavrov of Russia. He talked to him about the need to continue pursuing the diplomatic path.

But that is the same message that we were hearing from the U.S. at the end of last week, when they had all of these diplomatic talks with Russia. There is no tangible forward progress at this time, that those diplomatic efforts are actually creating momentum for Russia to de- escalate the situation.

And it's significant that one of the things that Secretary Blinken is going to do while he is visiting Ukraine this week is talk to those who are working for the U.S. State Department, based at the U.S. embassy in Kiev, and explain to them the preparations that are undergoing for contingency options, should Russia choose to escalate the situation.

That is an acknowledgment on the State Department's behalf, that they are preparing for the worst here. It's also noteworthy that the secretary is traveling to Germany after Ukraine. That's because the foreign minister of Germany is visiting Moscow as we speak here, Kate.

So Blinken may learn a little bit more about Russia's intentions, what Russia is demanding. But of course, up until this point, all of Russia's demands have been nonstarters for the U.S. and their allies -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: All right. Kylie, stick with me. Let's get over the Fred Pleitgen live in Moscow with more from there.

How are the Russians reacting to this?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, so far, the Russians show no signs of de-escalation. We have an update on what the military situation looks like in and around Ukraine, with the Russian forces that have been amassing.

The Russians themselves are saying they're conducting sniper drills in what they call their southern military district. That southern military district, that's right on the border with Ukraine. So some drills going on there as well.

One of the other things that's troubling for the U.S. and its allies, especially for the Ukrainians, the Russians have started moving forces into Belarus. They say there will be large-scale exercises by those two forces in that country at the beginning of February.

But of course, one of the things we have to keep in mind is that the southern border of Belarus is also the northern border of Ukraine. So the Ukrainians say they're continuously feeling more and more encircled by those forces that are building up. Kylie was alluding to it.

The German foreign minister was here to speak with Sergey Lavrov. And the Russians said they aren't the ones threatening anyone but they feel threatened. Listen to Sergey Lavrov earlier.



SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): We do not threaten anyone but we hear threats against us. I hope that all this only reflects the emotions that certain forces within the camp of Western countries, we will be guided by concrete steps and deeds.


PLEITGEN: Sergey Lavrov also says the Russians are still waiting for answers from the United States for those military and security concerns that they put forward in the security talks that happened in Geneva last week.

The Russians are saying they want those answers in writing and they want those answers soon.

And one of the other things really important today was the foreign minister of Germany also saying, if Russia does further invade Ukraine, it will have consequences for Nord Stream 2 pipeline as well -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Fred, thank you so much.

Kylie, thank you as well. Appreciate it.

For more, I want to go to the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor.

Good to see you again, Ambassador. Thanks for being here.


BOLDUAN: Kylie alluded to the statement put out by the State Department, announcing Blinken's trip. It did not mince words when they were putting it out. They kind of lay it all out there.

"The secretary's travel and consultation are part of the diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the tensions caused by Russia's military buildup and continued aggression against Ukraine."

What do you think the secretary can do right now?

What would you like to see from him right now?

TAYLOR: So Secretary Blinken has continued this massive diplomatic effort that has been going on for weeks.

And Secretary Blinken, President Biden, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the Secretary of Defense, this has been a major diplomatic effort to build consensus and maintain consensus on challenging the Russians, on their threats, their clear threats.

Minister Lavrov's statement notwithstanding, that they don't threaten anyone, they're clearly threatening Ukraine. There's evidence. And this diplomatic effort is ongoing. So Secretary Blinken going to reassure and consult closely with the Ukrainians, doing exactly the right thing.

He's not blinking; President Zelensky is not blinking. But we are standing firm and just staring down the Russians, as they rattle their sabers in an attempt to intimidate. Their attempt to intimidate, so far, is failing.

BOLDUAN: And while so many diplomatic solutions are being looked at in this moment, one that doesn't seem to be on the table is taking this to the U.N. Security Council. And that's something you note with interest.

If Russia is such a threat, why do you think that hasn't happened?

TAYLOR: Kate, that's a good idea. I mean, here you have the U.N., with its U.N. charter, that talks about the territorial integrity of all member states. Ukraine is obviously a sovereign member state of the U.N.

And you have Russia about to violate all of international law, including the U.N. charter, in invading. And this threat to invade is only the latest evidence of that. They've invaded before. They invaded, as we know, in 2014.

So the U.N. Security Council would be a place -- not the only place, obviously, but a place -- to have this confrontation, to have this discussion. Make the Russians defend themselves. Make the Russians say why this is not a violation of the U.N. charter of international law. This would put the evidence right on the table.

BOLDUAN: You know, this new reporting out from "The New York Times," of David Sanger and Michael Schwartz, that Russia has been thinning out its embassy staff in Kiev, you read that and, you know, the Kremlin denies it.

But it's seen as a sign of something but it doesn't seem to be clear what the sign is.

Propaganda, preparation, both?

What do you think?

TAYLOR: Kate, I think both. I think we have seen several steps, kind of the playbook that the Russians have used. They've used hacks; they've used cyberattacks, information warfare. They are planting Russian special forces inside Ukraine and those Russian special forces will attack Russian-led forces in Donbas. Then they'll say it's the Ukrainians that are attacking Russian forces there.

And that will be the justification for an attack or an invasion that the Russians use.

One other part of the playbook is to demonstrate to the world that they are moving their people from the embassy in Kiev or in consulates in Lviv. This is just part of the attempt, again, to bully, to intimidate the West into giving them what they want.


TAYLOR: This is part of the standard playbook.

BOLDUAN: What we don't know, though, is if it's going to be a standard conclusion and what that's actually going to look like now. Ambassador, really appreciate it. Thank you.

Turning to another developing story: one day before Verizon and AT&T are planning to deploy their new 5G technology, the CEOs of major U.S. airlines are warning that the rollout could lead to catastrophic disruptions, how they're describing it.

And are begging the Biden administration now to intervene. Pete Muntean is live in Washington with more on this.

Pete, what is going on here?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The 5G rollout happens tomorrow across the country, major cities east to west, north to south.

But the real issue here, that airlines say, is that what it causes to flight safety, that this could lead to major problems for critical instruments that pilots rely on and that could lead to thousands of delays, thousands of disruptions, thousands of flight cancellations, they say.

What is at issue here is that the 5G radio spectrum operates on a similar spectrum to what is called a radar altimeter. That's an instrument in commercial airliners and cargo planes and helicopters that beams a radio wave up, giving a hypersensitive look at how high an airplane is above the ground.

And this could cause errors in that instrument, these airlines say. So they have sent this letter, 10 airline CEOs, to the Department of Transportation and the Biden administration, calling for immediate action here.

This rollout was already delayed by two weeks. They say it should be delayed again.

And in this letter, they say, "The ripple effects across both passenger and cargo operations, our workforce and the broader economy are simply incalculable. To be blunt, the nation's commerce will grind to a halt."

A White House source tells me there are talks taking place right now between the FCC, between the FAA, between the aviation industry and aviation equipment manufacturers, to try and find a solution here.

The White House says it is engaged on this to try and find a fix, with this deadline only hours away. We're in the 11th hour here, Kate.

Another source familiar with the talks tells me the idea now is to find a buffer zone, lowering the power or turning off these 5G radio towers near runways when seconds really count.

You know, these instruments are used for planes to make landings in low visibility, one of the most critical phases of flight. They really want a solution here, even though the telecom industry says this is really not all that big of a deal. This has happened in 40 other countries, they say.

AT&T and Verizon behind this push; AT&T owns our parent company. No new comment from AT&T and Verizon on this.

BOLDUAN: I want to ask you about -- I don't know if there can be a difference of opinion on this -- but that seems to be what you're laying out.

Is there hard data on what kind of -- what level of a threat 5G really presents to aviation?

MUNTEAN: There's been a lot of research done on this. And actually last month I went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, one of the leading institutions on this.

And they have been testing this. They have a radio spectrum lab, where they put these instruments and sort of bombard them with these radio frequencies.

You can actually see how they plot out where the spike, that would come from a 5G tower, and how that interferes with a radar altimeter. So you can physically see this and they've been researching this for a while now.

This has been on the horizon for some time. But now airlines say they simply cannot do this, they cannot reequip their airplanes with new instrumentation that would come at incredible expense to them. Now it is on the telecom industry to budge here.

BOLDUAN: So strange. OK, great to see you, Pete. Thanks so much for laying it out. Let's see what happens in the next day.

Coming up for us, Senate Democrats are bracing for voting rights to fail in a key vote.

But does it mean -- what does it mean for the reset moment that President Biden finds himself in, with a big press conference planned for tomorrow?

That's next.





BOLDUAN: We're keeping a close eye on Capitol Hill today. Democratic leaders in the Senate pushing ahead and set to launch into debate about voting rights bills, even though they face the reality that they don't have the votes.

And this effort on voting rights is doomed to fail in this moment. Democrats don't have a big enough majority to overcome the filibuster. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have made crystal clear in the last week they are not supporting efforts to change the voting rules in the Senate in the meantime.

So where are they now?

Joining me now, CNN chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju; also with us CNN political analyst and "The Washington Post" reporter, Toluse Olorunnipa.

Manu, the end result appears to be a foregone conclusion, with this push toward voting rights bills.

But what are you watching for in this moment?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The question is going to be how far does Chuck Schumer actually take this. We know the vote to actually overcome a Republican filibuster is expected to happen tomorrow. They're not going to get those 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

At that point, Chuck Schumer could try to move to go to change the Senate's filibuster rules. We also know he does not have the votes to change the rules because of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

The question will be whether or not Schumer carries through with that vote to change the rules. He has said for some time that he still plans to move forward.

But if he does, will there be any other defections among the Democratic side?

One senator from Arizona comes from the same state as Kyrsten Sinema, has not said how he will come down. Some other vulnerable Democrats may weigh whether or not to go along with their Democratic leadership or side with their party moderates.

And there's also a question with Schumer.

Does he want to put some of those senators, who don't want to take a position on this, on the record?


RAJU: And if they do go forward, will this be the end of the effort?

Will they try again in the coming weeks?

The question, too, will be, if they're done on Wednesday, what comes next for the Democratic agenda?

They've spent the entire month focused on this issue but they won't get something to the president's desk.

And where does this leave the Democrats as they head into midterms, when both chambers of Congress are at stake?

BOLDUAN: You raised the critical questions that need to be answered in real time.

Toluse, Democratic congressman, also now Ohio Senate candidate Tim Ryan, he is suggesting a different approach once this fails, an approach I actually think applies beyond the voting rights bills into the rest of the agenda, as we've kind of seen this playbook kind of playing through.

Breaking the voting rights bills, the pieces, into smaller bits to try to pass. Listen to this.


REP. TIM RYAN (D-OH): I think we have got to call the question and make sure we know where everybody stands on that issue and then continue to fight. And then maybe we take smaller chunks of the voting rights piece.

Maybe we make Election Day a holiday. Let's get that done. And then we start moving forward. But let's maybe take smaller chunks but in the right direction. I think the American people would like to see that.


BOLDUAN: This was also suggested for Build Back Better.

I mean, do you think this could work?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's difficult to see it working, because you still have the math question. You still have Republicans that are largely in lockstep against many of the things that the Democrats want to do now.

There are some smaller ideas, the Electoral Account Act that could possibly get Republican support.

But even the idea of making Election Day a federal holiday, you hear Republicans say this is federalizing state and local elections; we should leave it at the state and local level, let states decide when they want to have their elections and how they want to have voting take place and have the votes counted and not have it dictated by Washington.

That's the talking point you hear from Republicans. There are very few pieces of this large voting bill that could pass that muster with Republicans, who essentially are in favor of allowing states -- which many Republican-led states have been rolling back voting rights -- they're happy with that and don't want Washington to sort of try to reverse that.

So even breaking this into smaller pieces could be hard to get past the fact that they don't have the math, they don't have the votes as long as the filibuster is in place. They won't get anything passed unless they get 60 votes, that requires 10 Republicans -- even if you get a handful of Republicans, getting 10 on any kind of major voting rights bill seems hard to see at this point, especially with the election just about 10 months away.

BOLDUAN: Tim Ryan, Manu, also puts this on the president and the White House. And he said that the Hill needs the administration to lead the way to get anything done. President Biden's holding a big press conference tomorrow afternoon.

Do you get a sense from folks on the Hill that he can reset and restart from here?

I mean, what impact did his visit just last week to the Hill have?

RAJU: It didn't have a whole lot of impact. But what you here from Democrats is palpable concern heading into the midterms. They see the poll numbers, the fact their agenda is stalled. They got two major pieces of legislation done last year, the infrastructure law done on a bipartisan basis; the COVID-19 relief law done along straight party lines.

The Democrats pushed that through. But everything else was essentially stuck.

So the question for Democrats now is what is their message heading into the midterms?

How do they refocus and get their party unified?

Because if they continue to set up these high-profile fights, only to be divided and to lead to essentially nothing, how does that help them come 2022 in November?

That's the big question for them, how they change their messaging.

And can they get on the same page over the next several weeks?

BOLDUAN: Great question for the president. He holds that big press conference tomorrow.

Good to see you both. Thank you very much.

Coming up for us, the surge of Omicron cases may have peaked in the United States but hospitals remain strained.

Is this good news or bad?

That's next.





BOLDUAN: Some encouraging news on the pandemic: a wave of Omicron cases in several states appears to be cresting. But still hospitals are at record levels of COVID patients. New York's governor says things are dramatically improving.


GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D-NY): We have a positivity rate of about 13 percent statewide. That is a dramatic improvement over our statewide average just a couple weeks ago, 23 percent. So what a decline we've seen. The COVID forecast is improving, looking better. The COVID clouds are parting.


BOLDUAN: Take what you can get when you look at that forecast. So far, COVID deaths remain below the pandemic peak. The vast majority are unvaccinated still.

Joining me now for more on this is Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital.

Dr. Hotez, the data is showing the surge of Omicron may be peaking. You have to kind of couch all of this a little bit in parts of the U.S. --