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U.S. Defense Secretary: Commitment to NATO Allies Is "Ironclad"; United Nations Says 3+ Million Refugees Have Fled Ukraine; U.S. President Joe Biden to Talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday; White House Sending $800 Million in Aid to Ukraine. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired March 17, 2022 - 11:00   ET




QUESTION: Able to receive some sort of replacement system that would not degrade your air defenses?

Is that something that is continuing to be under discussion with the United States?

And may I ask also a question of Secretary Austin?

Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that you would be discussing this with other allies and partners.

Are there alternatives in this area; in other words, the problem being, the Russians have increasingly used long range missiles to attack population centers in Ukraine, as you've mentioned.

Are there alternatives to the S-300 to help Ukraine in that long-range air defense arena?

That would be my question, thank you.

GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: You're right, Bob. The systems that are being used to -- by the Russians to engage Ukrainian forces currently are -- they're using a lot of rockets and missiles and artillery. And so there are a number of things that can be used to counter that.

We've seen that drones have been very effective. We've also seen having the ability to conduct counterfire with rockets and artillery is also very effective. So I think increasingly, we'll see the Ukrainian forces turn to those methods to counter that.

The rockets that you -- or they're actually cruise missiles that you mentioned, that were fired from aerial platforms, I think, were -- I think you know that those were fired from inside of Russia. So a no- fly zone would not have permitted that activity. So...

JAROSLAV NAD', SLOVAK DEFENSE MINISTER: And if I may, Mr. (INAUDIBLE), thank you for your question.

Well, we've been in discussions with the United States, with Ukraine and also with other allies on possibility to deploy or to sander to give at 200 (ph) assistance to Ukrainians. And we are willing to do so. We're willing to do so immediately when we have a proper replacement.

The only strategic air defense system that we have in Slovakia is S- 300 system. So what would happen immediately, when we decide to give it to Ukrainians, is that we actually create a gap, a security gap in NATO.

So -- and first of all, I'm the defense minister of Slovakia. My first responsibility is to take -- to do everything I am capable of, to guarantee defense and security of our people and our territory.

So, yes, we've been in discussion. We are in discussion. There are no further comments to make as of now. But yes, should there be situations that we have a proper replacement or that we have a capability guaranteed for a certain period of time, then would be willing to discuss the future of S-300 system.

QUESTION: May I ask a follow up of Secretary Austin?

Secretary Austin, in light of the minister's comments there about requiring some sort of replacement, is the U.S. military in position to provide any, either Patriots or other replacement air defense systems?

AUSTIN: Thanks, Bob. Again, I don't have any announcements for you this afternoon. These are things that we will continue to work with all of our allies on. And certainly, this is not just a U.S. issue; it's a NATO issue. So...


QUESTION: Thank you both for this.

Mr. Secretary, we've seen the increasing attacks, especially against population centers, that Russia continues to carry out in Ukraine.

Are these war crimes?

And does this warrant a change in posture for U.S. involvement?

AUSTIN: Well, certainly, we've all been shocked by the brutality that we continue to witness day in and day out. And these attacks that we've seen most recently are -- appear to be focused directly on civilians.

And of course, that -- you know, if you attack civilians, purposely -- target civilians purposely, then that's -- that is -- that is a crime. So these actions are under review by our State Department.

[11:05:00] AUSTIN: And, of course, there'll be -- there's a process that we'll go through, to review all of this. But we call upon Mr. Putin to cease these horrible actions. Again, these are civilians and not combatants and so they should not be targeted.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Thank you, this was the last question unless the gentlemen decide otherwise.

OK. So I would like to --

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: And hello, everyone. I'm Bianna Golodryga, in for Kate Bolduan. We begin with breaking news on the war in Ukraine.

You were just listening to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaking at the NATO ministerial meeting in Slovakia, discussing military aid for Russia, as Russia's war enters day 22.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

GOLODRYGA: New hope in Mariupol, as survivors emerge from what's left of a theatre that was the target of a Russian airstrike. The building has been turned into a bomb shelter for as many as 1,200 civilians.

But while we know there are survivors, what we do not know is how many. And perhaps most galling is this case, that the building was marked. Take a look at these satellite images.


GOLODRYGA (voice-over): That is the word "children" painted in Russian that you see outside of the theatre, clear to see, "deti" in Russian, children in Russian, very hard to miss. That was far from the only attack we're following this hour.

In Kyiv, Russian forces launched another attack on a residential building. At least one person was killed there. Three others were injured when a missile hit the building this morning.

There's a bright spot this morning for Ukraine. New intelligence from the U.K. suggesting that Russia's invasion has largely stalled on all fronts.

All this as Ukraine's President Zelenskyy makes another forceful appear (ph) for the West to do to more to help his country, this time in an address to German lawmakers.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Every year, politicians say "never again." Now I see that these words are worthless. In Europe, a people is being destroyed. (END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: We began with CNN's Scott McLean, live in the Western Ukraine city of Lviv.

Scott, how are things looking there today?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Bianna, yes, we are still watching anxiously the city of Mariupol, where that theatre was bombed, the theatre where local authorities say there could be as many as 1,200 people sheltering when the bomb hit last night.

The trouble and the reason why we have so little information in part is because they, local officials say they couldn't get to the area very quickly afterwards because of continuous shelling and the sheer volume of rubble there.

We did, though, get a glimmer of good news and of hope that there were survivors. The initial news came from the head of the Donetsk regional administration, who said, after an awful night of not knowing, there's been good news.

The bomb shelter of the theatre was able to hold, the rubble is beginning to be cleared, people are coming out alive.

And then we got more good news from a second official. This one was the Ukrainian parliament's human rights commissioner, who said the building withstood the impact of the high-powered air bomb and protected the lives of people hiding in the bomb shelter. Work is underway to unlock the basement.

As you mentioned, it is not clear how many survivors there may be. But she said that there are adults and there are children who are coming out of that theatre, which is undoubtedly good news.

The Ukrainians got another piece of good news today and that is that the mayor of Melitopol, a city in southern Ukraine, where the mayor had been taken in broad daylight by Russian forces last Friday, has been freed.

The mayor's name is Ivan Fedorov and he has been with the Russians ever since. He was freed through a prisoner swap. The Ukrainians say that it took nine captured Russian soldiers. The Ukrainians say those soldiers were conscripts, something that the Russians deny.

Zelenskyy also says that the Russians pressured the mayor to turn to cooperate with them but he refused -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: That was incredible to see President Zelenskyy on the phone with that mayor after he was freed yesterday. The mayor asking for two days to rest, the president saying you only have one day, given that we are at war right now. Scott McLean, thank you.

Well, nine humanitarian corridors leading out of various Ukrainian cities, including Mariupol have been agreed to for today. It comes as more than 3 million refugees have now left the country since the war began. CNN's Melissa Bell is live in Poland, where 1.9 million refugees have arrived just the last three weeks.

Melissa, what are you seeing there now?


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bianna, more extraordinary scenes today where the infrastructure, the organizations now been put in place by NGOs, by local government officials, ordinary citizens as well.

I just watched a couple unpack groceries from the food in their car to bring inside to the refugees arriving here by the hundreds. They said we just really felt we had to help. So again, extraordinary acts of solidarity, of kindness.

And again, a better organization than there had been so far in trying to get the refugees that arrive here in train stations like this one, onto buses, that then take them to schools, where they're being kept in tents, ordinary people's homes as well, and on to other European cities.

That has been because of the sheer size, the scale of this crisis. It is looking set to be Europe's largest refugee crisis since World War II. Already nearly 2 million arrived here in Poland.

There's been a meeting earlier today between the Polish transport minister and his German, French and European counterparts, to look at how they can avoid bottlenecks of refugees trying to move on from Poland toward other countries.

This is a country that has shown extraordinary solidarity. Really taking a lion's share of Ukrainian refugees so far but they're limited simply to the amount of strain that the system can cope with. And local mayors beginning to warn that they're starting to get to that point, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: The images and figures are stunning. Thank you so much, Melissa Bell.

New concerns this morning that Vladimir Putin will take harsh actions against Russians who speak out against the war. Putin condemned Russians with Western sympathies as, quote, "national traitors." Nina dos Santos is live in London.

How are Western leaders responding to the speech, which many are comparing to rhetoric used by Josef Stalin?

NINA DOS SANTOS, CNNMONEY EUROPE EDITOR: Yes, it's the strongest condemnation we've had of President Putin's actions. Joe Biden yesterday decried what he saw as war crimes taking place in Ukraine.

That is a big rhetorical step up in terms of the language from the U.S. President but it wasn't referring specifically to this speech that really wasn't designed for Western leaders to hear.

It was more designed for Russians living in exile and, in particular, the rich Russian oligarch class, essentially to say, do not interfere in my politics. You know exactly what the score is here. Keep your money; thus far, you've been able to keep your money and your safety outside of Russia if you do not get involved in politics.

And this is really important, Bianna, because what Western governments have been trying to do is to squeeze that rich political class close to Vladimir Putin, to try to get them to change his mind and his actions over Ukraine.

If you like, undermine his support back in Russia. But Western leaders will think it was not just menacing and sinister but also utterly bizarre. Have a listen.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): Obviously the West will try to rely on the so-called fifth column, on national traitors, on those who earn money here with us but live there.

And I mean live there, not even in the geographical sense of the word but according to their thoughts, their slavish consciousness.


DOS SANTOS: He also said, quote, these are people who "cannot live without oysters and gender freedom and luxuries like villas in the south of France," so you can tell very much he's referring to that important class close to him, at one point, that have money and influence. He's trying to torpedo that influence before they open their mouths. Bianna?

GOLODRYGA: Yes, a stunning and shocking speech by Putin. Nina dos Santos, thank you.

Now let's get to Washington. President Biden will speak to Xi Jinping for the first time since the Russian invasion began. The call is scheduled for tomorrow and comes just days after a U.S. diplomatic cable revealed Beijing may be open to providing Russia with military and financial aid.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond is live at the White House.

What do we expect the president to say to Xi?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This is going to be a really critical conversation between two of the world's most powerful leaders. President Biden speaking with President Xi Jinping of China tomorrow, in part to focus on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

This comes just several days after the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, met with his Chinese counterpart in Rome on Monday, where they also discussed this invasion of Ukraine.

And it comes as we've learned that Russia has actually requested not only economic support from China but also military support from China. And a recent cable from the United States suggests that China has expressed some openness to helping Russia on the military and economic front.


DIAMOND: Of course, the United States has warned China repeatedly against doing so, making clear that any kind of support, whether military or to help China evade or to help Russia evade some of those U.S. and European Union sanctions, would be met with severe consequences from the United States.

I think you can expect President Biden to underline that point once again in his call with President Xi.

It's also clear the fact that President Xi, having this call, perhaps suggests an openness to considering this. It has strived to maintain some kind of purported neutrality but of course we know that they've been echoing some Russian propaganda. China, Russia, very, very close.

But they also don't want to suffer economic consequences as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. So a lot of moving pieces, at a very key inflection point.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, and China has yet to condemn Putin's invasion. Jeremy Diamond, thank you.

President Zelenskyy continues to press Western leaders for military planes, something they're not willing to provide, at least not now.

Why the hesitation and what are the military tools the Biden administration thinks would be best to keep Russian troops at bay?





GOLODRYGA: While Ukraine fights off the Russian attack, there's some new hope for the country's military. The White House yesterday announcing $800 million in additional military aid to Ukraine.

This just days before President Biden is scheduled to travel to Brussels for a meeting with NATO allies. Joining me now, State Department spokesman Ned Price.

Good to see you. The president has made clear that there will be a no- fly zone, there will not be a no-fly zone over Ukraine. That having been said, the continued number to ask from President Zelenskyy has been for fighter jets.

Why is the U.S. so reluctant?

NED PRICE, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: Well, Bianna, good to be with you. We heard from President Zelenskyy yesterday a few asks: more sanctions, more security assistance, more security defenses from what the Russians are raining down from the air.

And the United States has and will continue to provide all of that. You mentioned $800 million in new security assistance that we announced yesterday. The total is $1 billion this week alone, $2 billion since the start of this administration.

Working with the Department of Defense, we are providing our Ukrainian partners with precisely what they need to take on this Russian threat and to defend themselves. And that includes anti-armor systems, anti- tank systems, anti-aircraft systems, a sort of surface to air system that President Zelenskyy has been asking for, in addition to small arms and munitions.

Beyond what we provided in our own inventory, the Department of State and Secretary Blinken personally authorized some 14 countries to provide supplies from their own stocks and 30 countries around the world have provided security assistance to our Ukrainian partners.

What we're doing with this aid is two things: one, as I said before, we are enabling our Ukrainian partners to defend themselves against this Russian aggression but, in turn, two, we're also giving them a stronger hand at the negotiating table.

Our goal in all of this is to bring this conflict to a close to save lives, to see this Russian aggression put to an end just as quickly as we can.

GOLODRYGA: Right and, no doubt, President Zelenskyy has been very grateful for the military aid that has come to his country, as he is now at the hands of the Russians. But I'm specifically referring to those planes.

Why has the administration and NATO itself stalled on delivering those MiG-29s that President Zelenskyy repeatedly says that he needs?

PRICE: Bianna, we don't have MiGs in our possession. I think what you're referring to are Polish planes and of course every country will make sovereign decisions about what it wishes to and can provide to Ukrainian partners.

We've made the sovereign decision to provide $2 billion to our Ukrainian partners, including $1 billion in the last week alone. Precisely the type of system that President Zelenskyy and others have been asking for to help defend against what they're facing from Russian planes, Russian rockets, Russian missiles, Russian artillery.

I think the point is that the destruction we're seeing, including these horrific strikes against a maternity hospital and theatre, housing civilians, many are not coming from Russian planes but Russian missiles. These surface to air systems are precisely what will help the Ukrainians take on this threat that they are facing from the skies.

GOLODRYGA: But again, to go back to the MiG-29s here, you're right; they are in the hands of Poland. But Poland agreed to deliver them if they had been transferred from the Americans. So my question is, to you, is the administration reluctant because

it's not an effective military strategy or because you're concerned about the U.S. and other NATO countries being dragged into the war?

At this point, as you know, Russia has made clear that any military assistance is considered a fair target for them.

PRICE: Well, we are going to continue to provide the types of military assistance that we provided at unprecedented levels.

But we've spoken, when it comes to these planes, of two considerations. The first is the overriding consideration, the fact that we are providing our Ukrainian partners with precisely what we believe, what the Department of Defense believes is most effective to take on the threat that they face.

You've heard this from my Pentagon colleagues. But two, the other consideration is that we want to do everything we can to bring this war to an end. We do not want to see this war expand. We don't want to see it prolonged any more than necessary.

We don't want to see other countries potentially implicated in this. So we always do consider the perception and any sort of escalatory perception that would be accompanied by our moves.


PRICE: And so that is why, part of the reason why we're continuing to supply our Ukrainian partners with this massive amount of security assistance, so they can effectively take on the Russians.


PRICE: And what you've seen, Bianna, you -- we're now three weeks into this. Russian forces have been stalled throughout large parts of the country. I think that speaks to the effectiveness of the bravery, the courage that Ukrainians are defending their country.

GOLODRYGA: You're not answering my question about the planes but I want to move on because we only have a couple of minutes left.

As mentioned, the president is speaking to Chinese President Xi as China is doing close to nothing, as you know, to pressure Putin to stop this war and could very well be helping Russia both militarily and economically, according to U.S. intel.

What are the tangible tools that President Biden has now to force China not to do so?

PRICE: You're right. The PRC, the People's Republic of China has been on the wrong side of history so far. We haven't seen them condemn this aggression. We haven't seen them stand up in support of our Ukrainian partners.

And in some ways, that doesn't come as a surprise. The Russians and the PRC, they have a vision of the world that is in stark contrast to the free and open vision that we share with our allies and partners.

Their vision is one that's repressive at home and increasingly aggressive beyond their borders. So to see this partnership that has really developed over the course of years take on this shape -- and in many ways, that's not surprising.

The national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, met with his PRC counterpart earlier this week in Rome. He was very clear, very direct in that meeting regarding the concerns we have with the potential for the PRC to attempt to make up for some of the Russian losses, whether it's economic losses, financial losses as a result of our crippling sanctions, the sanctions that we have imposed, together with much of the rest of the world, or the provision of military supplies.

We have deep concerns about all of this and made clear that there would be profound implications not only from us but, again, from our allies and partners, if the PRC were to go forward with this.

GOLODRYGA: But as you know, the U.S. has focused on how closely aligned NATO is throughout this crisis and that is true.

But can Putin truly be isolated without pressure from both China and even India, which is reportedly now looking into ways to avoid sanctions and still manage to do business with Russia?

PRICE: I think the answer is yes. And I think you see that answer every single day. You look at the Russian economy, you look at the Russian financial system. It is basically in ruins.

The Russian stock market has been closed for some three weeks now to prevent capital flight. The ruble is virtually worthless, less than a penny. International companies are fleeing by the dozen, Russia's credit rating is at junk status on the verge of default.

So you've seen the massive toll that together our allies and partners have had. Russia and China together may tout their partnership. But together they're about 25 percent of global GDP.

When the United States acts as we have with the allies and partners around the world, we are well over half of the world's GDP. We've leveraged economic might and power to exact this toll on the Russian economy.

But we also have the strategic assets and the strategic resources that any country, whether it's Russia or China, will need if they want to have advantageous strategic positioning on the global stage.

We are going to continue to deny Russia access to what it needs, if it wants to be a global power. Our measures will continue to escalate as long as the Russians continue to escalate in Ukraine. We've been very clear about that.

GOLODRYGA: Ned, quickly, in this phone call with President Xi tomorrow, will he be speaking for all of NATO?

PRICE: The president speaks as the President of the United States. The president speaks with the authority of the leader of the free world. So when the president speaks to President Xi, he'll be speaking to what is, in many ways, the most consequential bilateral relationship we have, potentially the most consequential bilateral relationship on the face of the Earth.

But he'll speak to President Xi, knowing we are united with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. And we spent the better part of the first year of this administration repairing our partnerships and alliances, revitalizing them to put us in the strongest position to take on any challenge we face, whether that's from Russia, whether that's from China, whether that's from any other country around the world.

GOLODRYGA: Ned Price, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you so much.

And this just in to CNN. A Russian court today announcing that it will extend the arrest of American basketball star Brittany Griner, the WNBA player in Russian custody, until at least May 19th.

She was arrested on February 17th while trying to leave the country. Russian authorities are holding the two-time Olympic gold medalist on allegations of drug smuggling.