Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Ukraine: Russia Begin Major Offensive In Donbass Region; Putin Appoints General Known As "Butcher Of Syria" To Lead Troops; Soon: Biden To Announce New Gun Regulation, Name ATF Nominee. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired April 11, 2022 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan live in New York.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Brianna Keilar live in Lviv, Ukraine. And we're beginning with breaking news. The war in Ukraine is entering a crucial new phase as Russia begins a major offensive in the Donbass region. A senior Ukrainian official says it is already underway in part of Russia's shift in military strategy.

Overnight, Russian forces shelling another train station in eastern Ukraine. No casualties were reported. But trains and tracks were damaged. Putin appoints a new commander with a brutal history to lead Russia's war on Ukraine. General Aleksandr Dvornikov is known as the Butcher of Syria, notorious for inflicting horrific atrocities on civilians in that campaign. All of this as Ukraine's president says his country is ready for battle, but needs more weapons and a no-fly zone. Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Phil Black. He joins me here in Lviv. And all eyes are shifting to the east.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Brianna, much of the analysis that we're hearing talks about an imminent operation in the east or one that is due to start at any moment. One senior adviser to the Ukrainian government says, look, we're already dealing with this. It's already here. We're already dealing with a major escalation in bombardment, particularly on residential areas at some key battle points. We're already seeing large numbers of Russian troops being sent in to reinforce the existing positions there, both in terms of forces and hardware as well. What they haven't seen yet and what the next step is expected to be will be a hard push to try and break through Ukraine's defensive lines to try and extend their control over that Donbass region. Take a listen now to President Zelenskyy, talking about Ukraine's chances in this coming battle, during his interview over the weekend, with 60 minutes.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you expecting now in the east and in the south?

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE (through translator): We think this will be a new wave of this war. We don't know how much Russian weaponry there will be. But we understand there'll be many times more than there is now. All depends on how fast we will be helped by the United States.

To be honest, whether we will be able to survive depends on this. I have 100 percent confidence in our people and in our armed forces. But unfortunately, I don't have the confidence that we will be receiving everything we need.


BLACK: So the reason why Zelenskyy and other Russian -- Ukrainian officials talking about the need for weapons so often at the moment is because what they fear this new fighter is going to be like. They've had some success moving lightly in a very agile way with light arms, attacking overextended Russian lines. They think this is going to be a very different fight. It's going to be consolidated. It's going to be focused, lots of Russian firepower in very specific areas at the same time, and they think they need much heavier weapons to stand a chance in that fight.

KEILAR: Yes, they don't have the element of surprise anymore, right?

BLACK: That's for sure, yes.

KEILAR: The Russians know that they have -- their fighting has gotten in order here when it comes to the military. Phil Black, thank you so much for that.

Three days after Russian forces senselessly attacked a train station in eastern Ukraine, CNN got a firsthand look at the horrific aftermath. We do want to warn you that some of the images you're about to see are graphic. Dozens of civilians, including five children were killed in this attack. CNN's Ben Wedeman visited the site and talk to civilians who are trying to escape the area before the Russians strike again.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The air raid siren rings out over a scene of carnage passed. In Kramatorsk railway station, a ripped shoe, a discarded hat, a cane left behind. They came to the station with only what they could carry. Hoping to reach safer ground, but nearly 60 never left.

Lives cut short by a missile, on it someone scrawled in Russian for the children. Four thousand people were here waiting for a train West when the strike happened. The massacre accelerating the exodus.

(on camera): Most of the residents of Kramatorsk have left the city having been urged to do so by local authorities as this part of the country, the entirety of eastern Ukraine braces for what could be a massive Russian offensive.

(voice-over): At the city's bus station Nikolay, a volunteer, has been helping with the evacuation. For him news of the pullback of Russian forces around the capital Kyiv was bittersweet.


NIKOLAY, VOLUNTEER: When I heard about Kyiv that they leave Kyiv, I was happy, you know, but then I realized a couple of seconds later that they move in to Donbass all their forces. I'm little bit -- I'm not -- I can't say that I'm scared, but I'm worrying about my people, about people, about mothers, about grandparents.

WEDEMAN (voice-over): Some are heading west, others north, to the town of Slavyansk, where trains still run. Oksana and a friend and their children are bound for Lviv in the far west. There's a lot of bombing here, says Oksana, I'm afraid for the children. The children, thankfully, still children. A handful of adult relatives stay behind far more aware of the danger ahead.


KEILAR: Thank you to Ben Wedeman for that report. Here in just minutes, President Biden will be meeting virtually with India's Prime Minister, the President expected to push him to take a tougher stance against Russia. India is neutral right now. This is coming as we learn more about the new Russian general who is now in charge of Putin's war on Ukraine. CNN's Barbara Starr has more from the Pentagon.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Brianna as Russia is shifting its troops and its combat to the southern and eastern portions of Ukraine, it now looks like Vladimir Putin has finally appointed a top commander to oversee his war in Ukraine. This is General Aleksandr Dvornikov. Someone actually well known to the United States, they have kept an eye on him for several years since his era of commanding troops in Syria. Listen to what the National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had to say about Dvornikov.


JAKE SULLIVAN, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: This particular general has a resume that includes a brutality against civilians in other theaters in Syria. And we can expect more of the same in this theater. This general will just be another author of crimes and brutality against Ukrainian civilians.

(END VIDEO CLIP) STARR: After the virtual, defeat of Russian troops in northern Ukraine leading to their withdrawal, the U.S. had been expecting Putin to appoint an overall commander of his war in Ukraine in order to for him to try and get a victory where he might be able to achieve one in southern and eastern Ukraine. That now is where Dvornikov is expected to focus his attention. And there is a good deal of concern about how to now best support Ukrainian troops in that part of the fight. Brianna?

KEILAR: For the first time since the war began, Vladimir Putin is meeting with a foreign leader in Moscow that would be Austria's chancellor. CNN's Nic Robertson is live in Brussels with details on this. And Nic, this meeting comes as we're learning of more atrocities in Ukraine, what will come, what could come of this meeting?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Perhaps not much in reality, Putin and the Kremlin are not really sharing much of this meeting with the Russian people, they didn't allow cameras to be there, to be present in the way they would for a normal meeting between Putin and a head of state.

There were no joint comments immediately afterwards. The meeting we know lasted for 75 minutes. It was an unfriendly meeting according to the Austrian chancellor's office, one that was direct, open, and tough where the Austrian chancellor told President Putin that he had seen with his own eyes, his words, the immeasurable suffering, caused by, again, his own words, the Russian aggression.

He told us face to face with President Putin, this was his plan going into the meeting to tell Putin the hard truth about the situation that Putin has lost the moral war here. In many ways, the Austrian chancellor had the moral authority because he was in Ukraine, Kyiv, and Bucha over the past weekend. So he has been there and witnessed it with themselves. And that's why he'll relay to President Putin.

And we know from the chancellor's office that he told President Putin that the sanctions would continue as long as Ukrainian, as long as Ukrainians were being killed in this war. So it sounds like a very tough meeting. The minimum hope was to at least get some humanitarian corridors opened.

KEILAR: All right, we'll see if Vladimir Putin listens to anything. Nic Robertson live for us in Brussels, thank you so much. Joining me now is John Herbst. He is the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. And also with us is CNN military analyst retired Major General Dana Pittard. He is the author of the book "Hunting the Caliphate." Ambassador to you first, I wonder as you are looking at this next battle that is, you know, starting to get underway by some accounts, but largely has not, but we're on the cusp of it. What are some of the unique challenges in this that Ukrainian forces will be facing?


JOHN E. HERBST, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Well, this will be a different fight than the one we've seen around the major cities. It will be more in the open, which is why Zelenskyy is asking for tanks, armored personnel carriers, multiple rocket launchers, and mobile artillery. It looks like the West has agreed. The United States has agreed to help them get it. Hopefully we'll get it there fast. If he gets to the equipment, I think he'll give the Russians quite a fight. And it's not clear the Russians actually have the troops ready to launch a new offensive right now.

KEILAR: So general, how does that change things being out in the open, having longer supply lines, since a lot of the material is coming over the border with Poland and this is obviously a ways away from the Polish border?

MAJ. GENERAL DANA PITTARD (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, good morning, Brianna. I agree with Ambassador Herbst, about the changing nature based on geography in eastern Ukraine. What will also cause is vulnerability, the vulnerability of supply lines because the Ukrainian supply lines will get longer. And in fact, the Russian supply lines will be long also. But the Ukrainian ones will be longer. What they were able to take advantage in the key region was really interior lines where they can resupply like a spoke out of Kyiv into their forces. Now their supply lines will be much longer.

KEILAR: Yes, they'll be much longer, which adds obviously to vulnerabilities. Ambassador, it was interesting in his 60 minutes interview, President Zelenskyy renewed his call for a no-fly zone. And after so many, so many allies rebuffed that that desire here in recent weeks, you hadn't heard so much about that from Ukrainian officials. But here he was kind of added again. I wonder why you think that was an if there's a chance that something that can happen?

HERBST: I think he's added again, because he needs it. I don't think there's a chance that will happen tomorrow. But as more Russian atrocities are uncovered, I think sympathy for it may grow. And also, I think maybe this could have an impact on changing the administration's I think fools decision not to provide MiGs. MiGs will be very helpful to Ukraine, as it has to deal with the fight in east.

KEILAR: General, how worried are you about this new commander that has been appointed to lead the war in Ukraine? His name is Aleksandr Dvornikov? Certainly you've seen some of his terrible handiwork in Syria? What are your worries here?

PITTARD: Well, General Dvornikov is well known to at least the U.S. side for his brutality in Syria, and his lack of care when it came to civilian casualties. But as a new overall commander, he's got a tough task, which is to reenergize the Russian forces, he's got to make gains as quickly as possible if in fact, his deadline is the May 9th, you know, 77th anniversary, the end of World War II. So he's got some challenges. He's got low morale with his forces, but they do have immense capability.

If I may, I'd like to touch what you just mentioned, as far as no-fly zone, it really is time for NATO and the U.S. to stop being intimidated by Russia, and declaring and working with the Ukrainian government, but declaring Western Ukraine and that would be east of Kyiv, all the way down to Odessa as a humanitarian assistance zone to help with humanitarian assistance. But that would take NATO troops to enforce that, as well as a no-fly zone of at least Western Ukraine and that would certainly be a start. And obviously, there's other steps that can be taken too.

KEILAR: I wonder Ambassador and also General, this eight mile long convoy that we're seeing. What are your concerns with that? Should we be concerned? I think the last time we saw images of a convoy, it didn't work out so well for the Russians. But maybe this is a different story, Ambassador?

HERBST: I agree completely with the general regarding humanitarian no- fly zone. And I've advocated that before. He's absolutely right. We should not be intimidated by Putin. On the convoy, I think we should not assume failure with this convoy as it wasn't the last one. And there are two again, the equipment that Zelenskyy is asking for could help deal with that. Again, if Ukrainians had additional airpower, not just MiGs, but we also have something called A-10s which are tank killers airplanes, which we are putting into storage. We should also be sending them to Ukraine.

PITTARD: I absolutely agree with that. In fact --

KEILAR: I'm sorry. Go on real quick.

PITTARD: What I was just saying, I agree with that. If Ukrainians had airpower and or having a special ops advisors and assistants who could help direct that, they could hit those key vulnerabilities that the Russians have as far as their supply lines.


KEILAR: Gentlemen, really appreciate it. I think we're on the precipice of something big and unfortunately very bloody here in Ukraine. Thank you for your insights.

Kate, back to you in New York.

BOLDUAN: All right, Brianna, thank you so much. And we will be returning to Ukraine very shortly.

And also coming up for us, President Biden is taking on gun violence once again today, the new rule to take ghost guns to try and take ghost guns off the streets. And the new person tapped to lead the ATF, details and the live report, next.


BOLDUAN: This afternoon, President Biden is expected to announce new steps to fight gun violence in America, taking on what are known as ghost guns, unregulated, untraceable weapons made from parts you can buy online. He's also going to name a new nominee to head up the ATF, the agency tasked with leading the fight against gun violence. CNN's Jeremy Diamond is live at the White House for us this hour. Jeremy, tell us more about what we're going to hear from the President today.

[11:20:22] JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Kate. President Biden has been under increasing pressure to address both rising gun violence and crime in the United States as well as to enact many of these common sense gun reforms that he has pledged to enact during his 2020 campaign. The White House says that this new rule that President Biden is going to enact on these ghost guns is expected to do to try and do both of those things.

This rule will require that serial numbers be printed on these ghost guns and the various components. These are these kits that you can get at home and make these guns that are essentially untraceable and untrackable. It will also require that people buying these components for ghost guns undergo background checks that would be a major change to the way that these ghost guns are currently used and are able to be purchased in the United States.

President Biden this afternoon also expected to announce a new nominee to head the ATF after his previous nominee failed to pass Senate confirmation. The new nominee is Steve Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney in Ohio. He also ran for attorney general in the state of Ohio, a career prosecutor, somebody that the White House believes can get Senate confirmation.

Of course, the ATF has been under interim acting leadership since President Biden came into office in January 2021. And this is expected to be one of those moves that can help President Biden try and move forward in his fight to combat gun violence, and also to move forward with some of these gun safety reforms that he's been pushing. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Jeremy, thank you very much for that. Joining me right now is CNN law enforcement analyst Jonathan Wackrow. He's a former secret service agent. Also with us CNN's senior law enforcement analyst Charles Ramsey. He's the former police commissioner of Philadelphia, former chief of D.C. police. Chief, let me start with you because I want to start with the problem at hand. How much of a challenge have ghost guns become for law enforcement?

CHARLES RAMSEY, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: It's grown every single year. It is a big problem. More and more of these guns are being found on crime scenes, no question about it. And people need to remember that this isn't just about semi-automatic handguns. Assault weapons can be purchased this way too, and put together. And so it's a growing problem. I think over the last five years or so, close to 700 homicides that have occurred across the country, ghost guns have been involved in those murders.

So it's a growing problem. It's not going to get better on its own. It's only going to get worse. And because you can circumvent background checks, domestic abusers, convicted felons, people who would not otherwise be able to have a gun, can now get their hands on them.

BOLDUAN: Jonathan, I was looking at "The New York Times" and they've reported just out of California, for example, over the past 18 months, they said officials there say ghost guns accounted for 25 to 50 percent of firearms recovered at crime scenes. So what do you think then the completion of this new rule means to stop these guns from being, well, from being in the hands of criminals and ending up with these crimes, so many crime scenes.

JONATHAN WACKROW, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: So Kate, actually what you raise is really what I refer to is the ghost gun paradox. States that have the most stringent gun control measures are the ones that are the most susceptible to the existence of the ghost guns, really, because it's easy to get around the regulations that are in place.

So today, what the President is doing is actually bringing a national strategy to address this problem. So any regulation from a national level that stops these untraceable, uncivilized weapons from getting in the hands of, you know, really, the nation's most violent criminals is a benefit not only to law enforcement, but a benefit to the community at large.

So I think what we're seeing is, you know, states have taken action against ghost guns in the past, this is the first attempt to codify a national strategy to start addressing this problem.

BOLDUAN: And of course, as I always say, there's always a question of how much time do we all give before you see if this rule, we know if it's working or not. And that's, of course, TBD. I do -- Jonathan, let me though, before we go, today, there's a hearing that continues for two men charged with impersonating federal agents, and doing so for years.

The details coming out in court and in court filings have just been wild. I mean, four Secret Service agents are on leave connected to this. It looks bad, but what's the key question in your mind to find out how bad this actually is going to be?

WACKROW: Well, listen, Kate, I mean, the reporting that we've seen to date, unfortunately, it's all coming out of the affidavit for the application for arrest of these two individuals. But listen, the four Secret Service agents that are caught up in this this matter, they are cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's Office. They are cooperating with the investigation. And they're not alone. You know, these two individuals targeted law enforcement officials, you know, outside of the Secret Service, FBI, other law enforcement entities as well.


So right now, there are two big questions. Why? What was their intent? And what are the consequences? These two individuals had a very sophisticated cover story that was very well researched. This goes beyond, you know, an individual or individuals who just want to play cop. There was some sort of goal that they were trying to achieve. I do want to point out, though, that in conversations with senior leadership of the Secret Service, they have assured me that even though there are four members of the agency that are involved in this matter, the trust and the confidence of our protectees of the Secret Service were never compromised. In the safety and security, the White House complex was never compromised. So those are two big factors, we can start pushing that aside, in terms of the consequences. So that just raises again, another question. What were these two individuals doing? Why were they doing it? What was their goal?

BOLDUAN: And also just raising how susceptible and vulnerable members of law enforcement are to this? I know, the three of us could have a long conversation about it's not just federal law enforcement, what this can mean on the state and local level as well and the challenges they face in that. It's great to see you guys. Thank you.

All right, coming up for us, a race against time in eastern Ukraine as refugees are desperately trying to escape the war still, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO joins us next.