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At This Hour

Ukrainian Forces on Offensive, Reclaim Ground from Russia; Biden Heads to Europe for High-Stakes Meeting with NATO, E.U. and G7 Allies; Interview with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa on Russia's "Existential Threat" Triggering Nuclear Response; SCOTUS Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson Faces Final Day of Questioning. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 23, 2022 - 11:00   ET




ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Kate Bolduan. We continue with breaking news on the now month-long war in Ukraine. Ukrainian forces claim to have retaken control of an extremely important town near Kyiv, as Russian forces show more signs they're struggling to seize the capital city.

But Russian troops continue to shell residential buildings in Kyiv today. Russia has begun firing on Mariupol from ships in the Sea of Azov. Right now President Biden is on his way to Brussels for an emergency NATO summit on this war. The president is expected to announce another round of sanctions against Russia.

We have reporters covering every angle. CNN's Phil Black live in Lviv for us.

Phil, new signs today of Ukraine mounting a real counter-defensive.

What else are you learning?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are making progress, they reclaiming territory controlled by the Russians. This is close to Kyiv in the west and the northwest, particularly significant. If they can hold this territory, they can slow down Russia's efforts to encircle the capital. Because we know and we still believe that Russia plans to move close, take and hold the capital.

So it is a positive development and an unexpected one. No one was talking about Ukrainian counterattacks and stopping Russia in this way when this war started around four weeks ago.

But they do know they have a tough fight ahead. This is a somewhat sober assessment that this news was given by a senior member of President Zelenskyy's staff. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SERGII LESHCHENKO, SENIOR ADVISER TO VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Some achievements can be destroyed the next day. But I can confirm that we have progress around Kyiv to limit the presence of army of Russia in our suburbs of capital.

But at the same time, there is huge army around still. And we fight for our freedom every day and every night.


BLACK: So that's a pretty realistic view. Yes, they've made some ground, they've achieved some things recently. But they still know they're up against the might of Russia and Russia still has more firepower they can throw against the Ukrainians.

That said, U.S. Defense officials say there are counterattacks underway in the east of the country as well and in the south, around Kherson and Mykolaiv. A somewhat darker assessment from the British Ministry of Defence, which says those Ukrainian forces in the east are at risk of being enveloped by Russian forces advancing both from the south and the north there.

So it all points, despite the positive nature of these developments for the Ukrainian side, it points to a lot of tough fighting still ahead, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you, Phil. Thank you very much.

Now let's turn to the besieged port city of Mariupol, where Ukraine's president says 100,000 people are still living in "inhumane conditions," is how he put it. These new aerial visions will show you what he's talking about where Russian forces have contributed some of the worst atrocities in the war.

You can see smoke billowing out from buildings and countless other buildings destroyed by Russian airstrikes. Ukraine says images like these prove Putin's forces are committing genocide.


IRYNA VENEDIKTOVA, PROSECUTOR GENERAL OF UKRAINE: It's not about war, it's genocide because war, the theater of war have some rules, some principles.


BOLDUAN: Also this morning, Ukraine's government says Russian forces have stolen or commandeered a convoy of 11 buses that were making their way to Mariupol to help evacuate civilians still trapped there.

President Biden, as we mentioned, is on his way to Belgium to speak about the war in Ukraine. The White House says he will be announcing new sanctions against Russia. Kaitlan Collins is live in Brussels.

What are you hearing about these meetings?


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He'll announce sanctions after these three meetings, most of which were abruptly scheduled, which is pretty remarkable, given they put so many heads of state together.

Biden is expected to say there will be sanctions on hundreds of members of Russian parliament, that lower house of Russian parliament, while he's here. That's something that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has called for.

They're also going to announce new measures to continue enforcing the sanctions they've already put in place, these concerns they have, that people will try to evade or undermine the sanctions already intact. That will be another announcement from President Biden.

So he starts the day in Brussels when he arrives here, with a meeting with his NATO allies, then he goes to a European Council meeting and then meets with the G7.

All of this happens over the invasion of Ukraine and efforts to punish Putin. The White House says this is a show of solidarity with President Biden coming here, though there will be real questions and conversations about the assistance these countries are providing to Ukraine.

Kate, we should note that part of that $800 million in new military assistance that President Biden recently signed and authorized to go to Ukraine, we're now told the first deliveries of that have now started in Ukraine.

BOLDUAN: Good seeing you, Kaitlan. Thank you.

The Pentagon now, an official telling CNN that they provided the White House with more options for potentially sending more U.S. troops. Barbara Starr is here.

Barbara, tell us more.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Nothing is set yet. In fact, the NATO secretary general, the head of the alliance, had a press conference and talked about beefing up deterrence there, even providing chemical weapons protections gear to Ukrainian forces.

So all of that on the table at this alliance meeting. What President Biden has is a series of options from the Pentagon to consider, unilaterally or within the NATO alliance, sending more troops on a rotating basis, sending more troops permanently and even the potential of building a new military base somewhere, a U.S. military base, somewhere in Eastern Europe.

Don't expect to see these big announcements just yet from the U.S. side, because President Biden will be using the meeting, along with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, to talk to the allies, try and fine- tune some of these ideas, see what exactly is needed and what exactly they want, what the U.S. is able to provide. And would any of it make a difference?

What the bottom line is, what we're hearing from NATO, all of this, is really the new NATO, profound, deep changes in European security because of Putin's invasion of Ukraine and no sense that any of this is going to be dialed back anytime soon. Kate.

BOLDUAN: The total resetting of the security situation over there. It's good to see you. Thank you, Barbara.

Coming up for us, so we've been talking about it already.

But what will European and NATO leaders do, to try to not only punish Vladimir Putin but bring an end to Putin's bloody war?

We'll talk to the prime minister of Slovenia, next.






JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: The first step is the deployment of four new NATO battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Along with our existing forces in the Baltic countries and Poland, this means that we will have eight multinational NATO battle (ph) groups all along the eastern flank, from the Baltics to the Black Sea.


BOLDUAN: That was the NATO secretary general, this morning, making that announcement before an extraordinary meeting of NATO nations tomorrow. President Biden is on his way there now.

As Russia continues its relentless attacks on civilians across Ukraine, what can world leaders do to stop this war?

One of the key NATO allies meeting with President Biden joins me now, Janez Jansa, the prime minister of Slovenia.

Thank you for being here.

What do you hope to come out of these meetings?

JANEZ JANSA, SLOVENIAN PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Kate. This will be one of the most important meetings in the last decades. It's very clear what Ukraine needs now. First that is hope, then more weapons and money and humanitarian aid.

And NATO should provide that, too. The hope is very important, more than weapons, and it's also important that we are strengthening the eastern flank of NATO, because this is also something we have to do to show the Russians or to show Mr. Putin that NATO is not something which is only stepping back.

BOLDUAN: The White House has made clear more sanctions are coming. That will be announced when President Biden arrives. But no sanctions so far have stopped Putin.

Do you accept at this point that sanctions will not stop him?


JANSA: You know from the history that sanctions are very important because they're weakening the aggressor. But I don't remember any moment in history where sanctions stopped the war immediately.

So this will not happen, because currently Russian tanks can be stopped by missiles and by Ukrainian tanks and by the Ukrainians who are fighting. So we have to know that sanctions are very important. They are weakening the Russians. We have to do everything we can to help Ukrainians to become stronger.

And we have to do everything, to do what we can, for Russians to become weaker. So we have to combine our efforts. We have to do everything we can.

And speaking about the sanctions, first, we have to put in front of our actions those sanctions which are hurting the Russian war machine. The Russian technology is partially made from the spare parts were used on the West. I think this is something we have to focus immediately on.

BOLDUAN: Something else that may be on the table, the prime minister of Poland, who traveled with you to Ukraine, says he's going to be formally asking NATO to send a peacekeeping mission to Ukraine.

The Kremlin spokesman said today about this, he said, any possible contact between our military and NATO military can lead to quite understandable consequences that are difficult to repair.

What do you make of that threat, Prime Minister?

Do you want to see a peacekeeping mission head in?

JANSA: We know peacekeeping are peacemaking commissions. We have to establish some kind of peace or at least a cease-fire. This is not currently the situation on the ground.

But what we see when we visited Kyiv, the government and President Zelenskyy, we saw some strong determination on the Ukrainian side to prevail, to fight. And I think we have to do everything to help them, to be strong enough.

This means we help to provide them not only so-called defensive weapons but also offensive weapons, which should be used on the territory of Ukraine. Russia has no veto power on this. And only then I think there is a situation where we will be able to speak about the serious peacekeeping mission.

Because for peacekeeping mission, we have to have peace to protect. So we are not yet there. So when we are speaking about such missions, there could be some action seen between. But for a real peacekeeping mission, and I hope it will come to this situation, I only see one organization which is able to do it.

And this is NATO. So on this point, I agree with the (INAUDIBLE) proposal.

BOLDUAN: That very same Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, just spoke to Christiane Amanpour. And during the interview he repeatedly refused to deny that Putin could use nuclear weapons here. Let me play this part for you.


DMITRY PESKOV, PUTIN SPOKESPERSON: Well, we have a concept of domestic security. And, well, it's public. You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used. So if it is an existential (ph) threat for our country, then it can be used in accordance with our concept.


BOLDUAN: So they seem fine, leaving on the table the option of using nuclear weapons here, which should be unbelievable to everyone.

What do you say to this?

JANSA: I don't think Russia will use nuclear weapons, because using nuclear weapons means, you know, passing the threshold that is an area of no return. So this is something like having suicidal intentions. I don't think people who are needed now to execute such an order if it is given are willing to die.

So nuclear weapons are mutual of deterrence not using it.


JANSA: So it is very easy for Russia to threaten the population, especially in Europe, especially outer parts of Europe that are close. But I don't think this is a viable option. So we have to see the situation as it is, not as Russians are trying to project (ph) it.

BOLDUAN: Which can be hard to decipher, honestly, sometimes.

Finally, there have been constant phone calls between world leaders and President Zelenskyy of Ukraine throughout this conflict, this war. But you went into Kyiv, you went there with other -- two other world leaders last week.

Why was it so important for you to meet there?

Why was it so important for you to go in, rather than call in, when you clearly know the security risk? JANSA: Well, it's easy to call, you know. There is no risk in calling Kyiv. The communication is working. But 50 years ago, we were in the same situation when we were invaded by the (INAUDIBLE) army.

Nobody came to see us, to support us. And we know exactly how President Zelenskyy and the prime minister and the colleagues in Ukraine government feels. So we came there to give them hope, to give them a message that they are not forgotten, that we believe in them.

We also brought to them a draft plan to help Ukraine rebuild after the war, so they are not written out (ph). So this message, I think, is the most important --


BOLDUAN: It is most important, prime minister.

If it is most important, Prime Minister, should President Biden do the same?

JANSA: Well, we are in different positions. So for President of the United States to go into a war zone means something much more important than for prime ministers from European countries to go there, because, you know, we know the significance of the United States and the importance for the decisions you are making in the United States.

I think that now they are united, condemning the Russian aggression and supporting the Ukraine, we all know that we are strong enough to stop somehow this war on aggression and to bring peace there, only if there is strong involvement of the United States.

And I say thank you to your government, your president, to your media, who are making this situation presentable and for helping Ukrainians and also Europeans, because we have, frankly speaking, we feel neglected, the security during last decades. And now the United States is needed more than anytime after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

BOLDUAN: Prime Minister, thank you so much for your time.

JANSA: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Very interesting.

Coming up, President Biden's Supreme Court nominee is facing more questions on Capitol Hill as she is poised to make history. The latest on today's hearings. That's next.




(MUSIC PLAYING) BOLDUAN: Developing at this hour, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is

facing a final day of questioning after a marathon day yesterday. The hearing is currently in a 15-minute recess. And Senate Democrats, though, are hoping to confirm Biden's Supreme Court nominee before the Easter holiday.

Joining me for more on this is CNN's Manu Raju, CNN chief analyst Jeffrey Toobin and Gloria Brown Marshall, a constitutional law professor at John Jay College.

Manu, let me start with you.

What is new for today?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Currently they are on a break. And when they resume, we'll hear questioning from Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

He's making it clear that he's likely to vote against this nomination, even though he supported her for the D.C. Circuit. Yesterday he raised concerns about her defense as a public defender for Guantanamo Bay detainees.

She said she was representing her clients. He didn't buy that. Expect more from Graham in a matter of moments here.

Also this morning, questions about whether any Republicans could break ranks. One of them, Thom Tillis, questioned this nominee earlier. He also sounds skeptical about whether he'll support for her. And he wondered about the empathy she brings to sentenced defendants. Listen.