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Biden Meets With World Leaders For Emergency Summits On War In Ukraine; NATO To Reinforce Chemical, Biological And Nuclear Defenses; Ukrainians Repel Russians On Front Lines Near Kyiv. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 24, 2022 - 11:00   ET




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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Wolf Blitzer. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We're following major breaking news. I'm reporting live from Brussels, Belgium, where a truly extraordinary NATO summit has been underway all day. Russia's invasion of Ukraine clearly the top item on the agenda; may I say, the only item on the agenda on this important day.

My good friend and colleague, Kate Bolduan, is standing by in New York. We'll go to her shortly.

It's already been an eventful day here in Brussels, one that could be potentially a turning point for the NATO alliance and the war in Ukraine, which is now entering its second month. Hard to believe what's going on.

So far, President Biden and the NATO leaders have discussed what they would do potentially if Russia deploys chemical, biological or, God forbid, even tactical nuclear weapons to deal with this issue in Ukraine.

The White House announced also today new sanctions against hundreds of Russian lawmakers and oligarchs. We're watching that unfold.

The president is also pledging that the United States will accept -- this is very important as well -- up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees into the United States, up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees into the United States.

This past year, the U.S. accepted less than 100,000 refugees from all over the world. This is a major development as well.

We're watching all of this as the U.S. has formally declared that Russian forces are committing war crimes in Ukraine, an official legal statement from the U.S. State Department. President Biden will hold a conference here after all of these deliberations have concluded. We'll, of course, have live coverage coming up.

But let's begin our coverage this hour with CNN's chief White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins. She's with me here at NATO headquarters.

Kaitlan, let's talk a little bit about what we're learning. I know you're doing some excellent reporting on this.

What have you learned that is actually taking place so far behind closed doors?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: One of the most notable things is, right now they're in the second summit of the day. This is the time it's with the G7 leaders. Of course, those industrialized nations.

President Biden is preparing to leave here at NATO to go to his third meeting of the day. All of these focused around Ukraine. And Ukraine's President Zelenskyy has addressed them twice now; first, of course, virtually on the video conference, as they met with the NATO leaders earlier this morning. Then he addressed the G7 leaders as well.

He's a very clear message, which is that Ukraine needs help from these NATO allies, from the G7 leaders, more help than what they've gotten so far and he has thanked them for the support they've gotten so far.

He's still calling on, saying Ukraine needs more jets, more fighter jets, more tanks. He's called on them, saying you've got thousands of fighter jets, Ukraine has not gotten one of those. We still need those.

That comes as the United States and other allies here are talking about the efforts that they've taken to try to bolster Ukraine as they have fought back against this Russian invasion. Something that they have noted, of course, that they have done.

They've also talked about the humanitarian aspect of this, Wolf, and the efforts to try to help there. In that sense, there's a really big announcement coming out of the United States, which is that they are prepared to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees in this, amid this crisis.

Over 3.5 million have fled Ukraine since the invasion started a month ago. And coming out of this, President Biden noted that he believes NATO is more united now than ever. He said they have a lot to talk about between now and the next time these NATO leaders are scheduled to meet, Wolf, in June, of course.

And one thing we expect President Biden to talk about is the effort to bolster NATO forces in Eastern Europe. Those are the countries right there on the border of Ukraine, the border of Russia. They're obviously very threatened right now by Russia and by its aggression.

And so we have seen, they've already deployed more U.S. troops in the area and more NATO forces to the area and they're planning to do more, Wolf. BLINKEN: It's interesting, Natasha Bertrand is here at NATO

headquarters as well. She's inside.

Natasha, I know you've got more reporting on what these NATO leaders heard today from President Zelenskyy.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. So it was more of a plea for NATO to do more, to save lives inside Ukraine. This is what Zelenskyy has been asking for, for the last several weeks.

Of course, he had been asking previously for NATO to implement a no- fly zone over the country. But interestingly, he did not ask for that today. He did stop just short as well of asking for NATO membership.


He said that Ukraine has more than proven itself. Its military has more than proven itself to be capable of joining the NATO alliance but that NATO now has to prove itself.

And we are also hearing more from Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO chief, who gave a press conference here earlier today. And he was asked, you know, specifically about the idea that NATO is going to put additional forces on a more permanent basis on that NATO eastern flank because of how close the war has gotten to their borders.

And he would not answer that question directly but he did say NATO forces are essentially preparing for the long haul here, preparing for a long-term security presence, given the clear and present threat that Russia poses to the NATO alliance and to Europe. Here's what he said.


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: Today we decided on four new battle groups (ph) and that the leaders agreed to task or admit their commanders to provide options for a long-term reset of our presence, our military posture in the eastern part of the alliance and across the whole alliance.

President Putin's invasion of Ukraine has changed our security environment for the long term. It's a new reality. It's a new normal and NATO is responding for a long term.


BERTRAND: So this just underscores, Wolf, the extent to which the NATO summit today was really about protecting NATO. I mean, obviously, sending additional equipment and weaponry to Ukraine was top of the agenda.

But the real reason for today's meetings was about what can NATO do to protect themselves, given this brand-new, very, very challenging, they say, security environment in Europe -- Wolf.

BLINKEN: Natasha, stand by. Kaitlan, you've been getting some new reporting on this so-called

Tiger Team that the U.S. has put together to deal with this horrible contingency, this contingency of Russia using chemical, biological or, God forbid, nuclear weapons.

COLLINS: This is basically a group of national security officials inside the administration. They're called a Tiger Team. They formed a version of this back in the fall, when they thought Russia might invade Ukraine, to prepare for what that might look like. Clearly that paid off, given that's happened.

And now four days we learned, after the invasion started, they authorized another version of it. This time it's focusing on, if Putin takes the extreme step of deploying chemical weapons, biological weapons, maybe even these tactical and nuclear weapons in Ukraine, how does the U.S. respond to that?

Obviously, that's something they'd want to do in consultation with the allies here that the president is meeting with today.

But they want to know, what are the options?

What are we likely to do here?

What would warrant potentially a military response, given that's been something that President Biden has said is off the table?

And what we're hearing is that they really looked at every aspect of this, Wolf, not just maybe if there's a chemical weapons attack.

What do they do if Russia targets a U.S. convoy giving, providing that military aid to Ukraine?

What if they go after the humanitarian efforts that are underway here?

They are exploring all of those aspects of this, because they want to be prepared. And I think one thing that was -- really stood out to me about this reporting that we did is that they tasked this for the next three months ahead. That's how long they're prepared for this to potentially last.

And it could go on much longer than that; it remains to be seen. And so it just gives you kind of some insight into what's happening behind the scenes at the White House as they are trying to prepare themselves for any contingency plans for whatever Putin could do here.

BLINKEN: It's interesting, Natasha, because not just the U.S. unilaterally but we heard from Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, saying that NATO as a whole is also focusing on these horrible contingencies.

BERTRAND: That's exactly right. So the possibility here is that a chemical weapons attack could be launched by Russia -- or any type of attack using a weapon of mass destruction inside Ukraine has been top of mind for the NATO alliance, because, of course, the question then is, what is the moral imperative? And of course, the imperative in order to defend the rest of Europe and the NATO alliance in that instance?

Of course, NATO secretary Jens Stoltenberg did say that there's the possibility here that, if such a weapon were deployed in Ukraine, then it could actually spill over into the rest of the alliance.

And would that then trigger a response by NATO, a fulsome response?

Or would it just trigger a coalition of the willing, so to speak, a couple of countries who decide that's gone just too far and they have to respond?

So I think this is obviously a major part of the contingency planning here. And they understand, when Russia accuses other countries of doing something, it usually means, in their minds, that Russia is planning to do it themselves.

And they have seen that Russia has set the stage here, to accuse the United States and Ukraine of launching such attacks. And they are prepared for Vladimir Putin to take such steps, knowing that he has already essentially done so, right. We saw that he had poisoned a dissident on U.K. soil, for example, using the chemical nerve agent, Novichok.


These are things they don't believe would be out of the realm of possibility here.

But the question is, what is the red line for NATO?

And that is just something they're not prepared to discuss at the moment. They're trying to keep it deliberately ambiguous to keep Vladimir Putin on his toes.

BLINKEN: And, Kaitlan, it's also significant, I've covered a lot of these kinds of summits over the years but this is really historic, what's going on right now.

The president brings the secretary of state, Tony Blinken; his defense secretary, Lloyd Austin; his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan and a whole bunch of other senior officials here to Brussels to participate in these talks.

COLLINS: Absolutely, because that is all part of this response. A lot of this is what we're just talking about in these plans, these contingency plans. That involves the State Department and the Pentagon, obviously.

So one interesting thing we did hear from the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, when you two were speaking earlier and interviewing him, he talked about the lack of communication between senior U.S. officials and senior Russian officials, saying basically that Russian defense officials are not picking up the phone when the United States calls right now. That doesn't mean there's no communication happening; they do have

this deconfliction line where, if they needed to check on something when it comes to airspace, they could talk in that manner.

But they're saying when they call these senior Russian defense officials, they are not answering. And I think that really underscores just how far apart these two sides are here and the gulf between them since this invasion has started.

And it raises a lot of concerns because, the less insight you have, that's not good for the United States, especially when we're talking about two nuclear powers here. So that's a big concern, I think, for the White House right now. And it does show a lot of concern about what is happening inside Russia and the concerns that they have there.

BLINKEN: It's interesting, it's very significant that, when the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, calls his Russian counterpart or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley calls his Russian counterpart, they don't answer the phone. They don't return the calls. It just goes silent right now. And that's a worrisome development as well.

We're following all of these developments. Kaitlan, thank you,

Natasha, thanks to you as well. Don't go too far away. There's going to be breaking news I'm sure over the next several hours, as we're watching all of this unfold.

Also coming up, a lot of new developments in the war in Ukraine, including this -- these powerful images of a Russian warship being destroyed in southern Ukraine. Stay with us. Our special coverage continues right after this.





KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are monitoring all of the developments out of the NATO summit in Brussels but there's also breaking news on Russia's war in Ukraine.

A senior U.S. official now says Ukrainian forces have pushed Russian forces back from Kyiv by more than 15 miles.


BOLDUAN (voice-over): And also, check out this video. Ukraine's military says that it destroyed this Russian ship in a southern port city. CNN's Phil Black live in Lviv, Ukraine, for us this hour.


BOLDUAN: Phil, let's start with what's happening in Kyiv.

What have the Ukrainians been able to do?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So it's been a trend over the last couple of days, really, Kate, increased reports of Ukrainians not just defending but now counterattacking, fighting back, working to regain control of territory that the Russians had previously conquered.

And you're right, a U.S. Defense Department official said they made really good progress to the east of Kyiv in one day, reclaiming some 15 to 22 miles, is the estimate. Now the Ukrainians haven't confirmed those gains specifically. But they have talked about making other gains to the west of the city and to the northwest as well.

It's all important because it all slows down Putin or perhaps even stops Russia's efforts to encircle the capital. This morning in the port of Berdyansk, there was another example of Ukrainians fighting back and in a pretty spectacular way, too.

That's the destruction of this Russian large landing vessel, the Orsk, it exploded around 7:00 am this morning in such a way that it damaged two other Russian naval vessels and also destroyed a fuel tank. A fire apparently took hold in a weapons depot.

And so the video was quite spectacular, because you see a series of explosions that follow the initial blast.

The Ukrainians haven't revealed just how they were able to achieve this, what military capability they deployed to destroy a Russian naval vessel in a port that has been controlled by the Russian military from the very earliest days of this war.

And finally, Kate, I'd like to talk about a percentage, a figure that goes some way toward explaining the scale of the humanitarian disaster still unfolding in this country.

UNICEF, the U.N.'s child protection organization, says that 50 percent of children in this country have been displaced. That means half the children in this country, half the children in Ukraine, have been forced to flee their homes because of the war.

They described it as an unprecedented crisis in modern history and one that will only get worse unless the war ends soon -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Phil, thank you so much for hitting on that and highlighting that, because military wins and losses is one thing. The humanitarian crisis is unprecedented and as we're watching it unfold. Thank you, Phil, so much for that.

Joining me now for more on this, CNN military analyst Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling and CNN national security analyst, the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Beth Sanner.

General, let's start where Phil left off, this fight in Kyiv. If, as a Defense official tells CNN, that to the east of the city, the Ukrainians have managed to push Russian forces back some 15 or 20 miles.


Really in just a day. And then to the northeast, you have Russian forces quote-unquote "digging in."

Where does and what does this say about the fight right now?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it's an important fight, first of all, Kate. It's a critically important one, because capturing Kyiv was Mr. Putin's primary objective.

But I would suggest that Ukrainian forces have been masterful in their tactics and their actions on the battlefield. This is more than just pushing people back; Don't, you know, I wouldn't want to give that kind of a scenario, that it's just fighting back and forth.

Ukrainians flooded the area with the European river, trapped the Russian forces in there, they eliminated their supply convoys. And now we've got something -- and I'm going to introduce a term to you called the Bucha Gap (ph), because it's around a town called Bucha.

This is something like the Falaise pocket of World War II. They have the potential of capturing or destroying close to 10,000 Russian troops in this one area. That would be actually an entire combined arms army because the Ukrainians have not only pushed them back, they've surrounded them. . And the Russians can't get resupplies into that area. The thing that most important about this is they've pushed them back far enough that they can't -- they're out of artillery range of the city of Kyiv.

So the Russians cannot do long distance fires against Kyiv, like they've done in so many other major cities, that's caused such catastrophe and human suffering.

BOLDUAN: Which is wise to point, a critical development here.

Beth, this is all happening as NATO leaders are meeting, G7 leaders meeting. President Zelenskyy made a direct appeal today, asking very specifically for more firepower. He said, give us just 1 percent of what you have.

What do you think of that request and what options are realistically being considered by NATO leaders now?

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, President Zelenskyy is being, I think, it is masterful how he has also been really pushing on not just the emotional but the moral heartstrings of the NATO leaders. And there's reason for that.

They really do need additional firepower. He did not repeat the no-fly zone request but he doubled down on requesting the fighter jets. And he said, Ukraine is waiting and we're waiting for real action. And we're waiting for security guarantees. And I think that security guarantees issue also gets into the end game

of how to have a peaceful negotiation that will end this war. But in the meantime, the air defenses are really the key.

And after Zelenskyy's appeal, they also started talking about providing anti-ship weapons, so they could repeat what we've just seen in the video about Berdyansk. But the problem is it takes a lot of effort to put in these really large weapons systems.

So the flow, we really just need to see a lot quicker delivery as much as possible. But it is not easy.

BOLDUAN: That's a great point.

General, can you weigh in on that really amazing video of that Russian warship in Berdyansk?

You call it a critical blow.


HERTLING: First of all, there's a significant amount of ammunition, equipment and perhaps personnel on that ship. That is what's called an LST, a landing ship troop. So it actually unloads a lot of things on shore that is required in the battle.

When you see a ship of that size being blown up like that and affecting other ships in the harbor, that's going to, again, significantly affect the capabilities of a logistics resupply, a personnel reboot, all of the things that the Russians need in the south.

They have been very successful in resupplying themselves in the southern area of this fight because they have the ports around Crimea. This will be a significant, really, disaster for the Russian forces, because they're trying desperately to continue to push out of the area.

When you can affect the supplies this way, the re-supplies, you affect the fight and that's what is causing all the so-called stalling that we've been talking about for the Russian troops. They are on what's called an operational pause. They're not -- it's not a planned pause; it's a forced pause, because they right now cannot go any further.

BOLDUAN: General, it's great to see you.

Beth, great to see you. Thank you very much.

Coming up for us, what concrete actions will come from today's extraordinary series of meetings of world leaders on the war in Ukraine?

That is a huge question. We'll get back to Brussels. Wolf Blitzer standing by live.




BLINKEN: Breaking news: President Biden and 29 other NATO leaders, they are convening here at a major, major summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The focus, of course, Russia's war, the brutal war launched against Ukraine.