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CNN On Front Lines As Bombs Rain Down On Ukrainians; Russian Commander Signals Moscow's Broader Intentions In Ukraine; New Audio: GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy Said Trump Admitted Some Responsibility For Insurrection. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 22, 2022 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. We do begin with breaking news on Russia's true ambitions in Ukraine. A senior Russian military commander now says Moscow wants full control over all of eastern and southern Ukraine even raising the prospect that Moldova could be next. We are just getting word that Russian forces opened fire on an evacuation bus with 25 people on board leaving the city of Popasna.

The crisis in Mariupol is getting worse by the hour. The owner of the steel plant there says it's quote close to catastrophe, food, water, ammunition, everything is growing even more scarce as the last Ukrainian defenders in the city and hundreds of civilians remain hold up there. Ukraine's President concedes that Russian forces have captured most of Mariupol.

New satellite images reveal apparent mass graves near Mariupol. Russian soldiers are accused of dumping more than 200 bodies, including women and children into ditches. Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Matt Rivers. He's live in Lviv with these breaking details. Matt, what is the latest?

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Kate. Well, what we're watching going on in the east, is we're getting some more insight into what Russian commanders have been thinking. And I think what we've heard from them is what a lot of us military analysts, journalists have been saying publicly for a long time now, but we're getting publicly now from this top military commander in Russia is that their goals in the second phase of the war is to connect the two areas of Ukraine that they both -- that they currently control. So that would be areas in the Donbass region in the east, places that are Russian controlled separatist areas, essentially.

And also, they want to control the south of Ukraine. So remember, they annexed Crimea back in 2014, 2015, we saw in the first phase of the war, they took places like Kherson, in the south, they want to make sure that they can connect that land bridge essentially, make that connection between the east going down to the southern part of the country, essentially making a land bridge between the east and the southern part of the country that would require completing the conquest, if you will, of the city of Mariupol, which continues to have Ukrainian fighters hold up specifically in one area called the Azovstal steel plant complex, that city not firmly yet taken by the Russians.

But generally speaking, once that city falls, that is the stated Russian goal. And that is the first time they've at least admitted to that publicly. And it really brings up broader concerns not only for cities like Mariupol, which are already seeing Russian fighting, but also pushing a little bit further east, a city like Odessa, which had largely escaped the kind of violence that we've seen in the eastern part, and even in the northern part of Ukraine. But what we're hearing is in Odessa, now there could be some scared -- some people who are concerned about that. Meanwhile, we're hearing from the mayor of Mariupol, that city I just mentioned, here's a little bit what he had to say.


MAYOR VADYM BOICHENKO, MARIUPOL, UKRAINE (through translator): According to our estimates, we have around 20,000 dead, civilian deaths in Mariupol. And these were people who were buried by enemy shelling, by enemy bombardment, buried under the rubble. And at the moment, we are witnessing the enemy trying to hide the evidence of their crimes, using the instrument of mass graves.


RIVERS: And so what we're hearing from officials in Ukraine is that there are atrocities going on in Mariupol, just like we saw in the northern part of Ukraine. The fear here is that could just be the tip of the iceberg as Russia continues its domination of that city.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Matt, thank you very much.

So fierce fighting is raging across towns all over eastern Ukraine, with civilians increasingly caught in the crossfire. CNN's Ben Wedeman, he met some of the Ukrainians who just can't get out, some having to hide in basements for five weeks now. He filed this report.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Russian forces continued to try to seize control of the town of Rubizhne, which is about an hour and a half drive from to the east of here. But they are running into stiff resistance from the Ukrainian defenders. We were able to get to a vantage point overlooking the town and saw as artillery fell on all parts of the city. In the southern area which is controlled by the Ukrainian forces, we found a small group of people trying to survive under fire.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): And it begins again. Hell rains down. A dozen pay people are hiding in the basement of a bombed out theater in the town of Rubizhne.

Let it stop, O Lord, he says, now there's incoming. A white flag hangs outside to no effect. The theater above has been bombed and bombed again and again. Yet they stay. Too poor, too old, too frightened to flee. Nina 89 years old has been here for five weeks. I want to go home, she says. I've suffered too much. I've seen the fire and the smoke. I've seen it all. I'm scared. Nina's plea simple, help us, help us.


Her daughter Lyudmila struggles to comfort her. We're praying to God to stop it, she says, to hear us on. Ina (ph) says I have nowhere to go. I have no friends, no relatives. With the shelling intensifying, volunteers are finding it hard to deliver food. As Russian and Ukrainian forces fight for control of Rubizhne, there are people down there praying as hell rains down.


WEDEMAN: What we saw in that shelter are people who clearly have post- traumatic stress disorder. They've been there for weeks on end. Most of the time when we bought lights with our television cameras, but most of the time, their only light is candles. There's very little in the way of sanitation. There is no running water. There is no electricity. And for many, if they don't get out soon, there is no hope.

BOLDUAN: Ben, thank you very much for that.

There are new also new allegations of possible war crimes committed by Russian forces, this time coming from audio communications intercepted by Ukraine's military intelligence. In the intercepts, Russian soldiers can be heard referring to an alleged order to kill Ukrainian prisoners of war. CNN's Kylie Atwood is live at the State Department for us this hour. Kylie, what can you tell us about these recordings?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: They're incredibly horrific, awful to listen to, Kate. We haven't gotten a formal U.S. government response. But according to the Ukrainian government, what you can hear in these intercepts is Russian soldiers discussing an alleged order to kill Ukrainian prisoners of war. I think it's important that we listen. Just take a listen here.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).


ATWOOD: Now we have reported on what the Russian soldiers have done on the ground in Ukraine. But this shows what they are being told to do. Why are they are carrying out those horrific, horrific war crimes in the country. Now, the State Department, the Biden administration has already said that Russian soldiers are carrying out war crimes as part of this war in Ukraine. But of course, if the Biden administration, if the intelligence community here in the United States does verify that these intercepts are legitimate, it would be even more evidence of war crimes. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Evidence mounting. Kylie, thank you.

Joining me right now for more on all of this is CNN political and national security analyst, David Sanger. He's correspondent with the New York Times of course. Also with us, CNN military analyst retired Army Major General James "Spider" Marks. Thank you both for being here. General, I want to start where we - I want to start with you where we started off the top. This acting commander of Russian forces, saying on Russian state T.V. that the goal in this next phase is not only to control the Donbass region, but also to have full control over southern Ukraine. What would your understanding be of full control there? How far off are they from that?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, what we're seeing in Mariupol, in the Donbass and in Mariupol, is the first step of several steps. Mariupol from a military perspective, Mariupol is essential. The Russians need to control that. And the way that they are trying to control it, is through annihilation. They don't care if they turn that into a wasteland. In fact, that's their objective.

And then once they own that, that becomes a secure flank. Now they can turn south and west toward Kherson, north of the Crimea, then in the direction of Dnipro River and then possibly crossing Dnipro River into Odessa. That would be an additional step, but those -- that's the sequence of events that we're looking at.

BOLDUAN: And David, in that very same statement, this Russian general mentions the decision -- the desire rather, to gain access to Moldova, where a contingent of Russian forces have been for years. If they're already thinking about Moldova, does that mean that Putin thinks that he has momentum despite the losses he suffered?


DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It certainly does, Kate. And, you know, we reported yesterday in "The Times" that U.S. intelligence believes that Putin thinks he's winning, that he believes that if you looked at the map in 2013, you saw Ukraine in its traditional borders, by 2014, he had Crimea. And that within a few weeks, he hopes he will have that whole stretch that Spider was just discussing.

And if that's the case, then he will have seized a significant piece of Ukraine. Now, that is not, of course, what his broader objective was, starting in late February, that objective was to take the entire country. So it looks like he's gone back to something more akin to the original objectives that he had back in the fall. And I think this is why the United States believes these next four weeks are so critical. If they can get enough arms to make this work, then I think -- they think Ukraine can push them back.

BOLDUAN: I want to jump into that critical window in a second. But just on this, having their sights on Moldova, General, does that change the equation if they're now openly saying they'd like to connect through there? Does that change the equation for how the United States is looking at this or should it?

MARKS: I don't think it does. Very sadly, I don't think that that's additive kind of incentive for the United States and NATO now to increase it's, not increase it support but increase or at least crossed that line, which means NATO now is going to place boots on the ground, and will be engaged directly against Russian forces. Again, Moldova, not being a member of NATO, Putin knows that.

Putin has a relationship in Moldova, which would give him incentive to move in that direction. But bear in mind tactically, there are several steps that must be taken. And as David indicated, if Ukrainians can continue to push back on Putin at this stage, and delay their advances along the Black Sea, that's to their great advantage. And what that does is that gives President Zelenskyy an opportunity to raise a hand and say, let's have a further conversation about what the end state may look like.

Sadly, that might end up being half a loaf, that everything into eastern Ukraine ends up in Russian hands. That's the -- that's kind of the tipping point right now with Ukrainian resistance.

BOLDUAN: And David, talk to me about more about what you're hearing is behind what -- when President Biden said that we're in this critical window in this war. What are you hearing from sources about this window?

SANGER: Well, this window may not be very long, for all the reasons that Spider just laid out. I mean, I don't think they would go toward Moldova until they seized Odessa, just looking at the map. They would need that to be able to make their way in.

But this is why you're seeing very different kinds of artillery being sent to the Ukrainians and sent so quickly, because the only way that they are going to stop this advance is if the Ukrainians can use that artillery to basically knock out the artillery that is attacking along this region, it's going to be look, very different from the war we've seen so far. And we just don't know how well the Ukrainians can push back in a situation that really plays a little more to Russia's traditional strength.

BOLDUAN: General, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he said that he thinks it's a realistic possibility that Putin may win the war in Ukraine. I mean, there are many possibilities of how this goes. I know that the administration is pushing back on that it's a realistic possibility a bit, but do you share that view that this is a realistic possibility?

MARKS: Sadly, I do. Again, as David described, the Ukrainians at the tactical level in order to kind of resist, you know, resist what Russia is doing, and then reclaim the initiative at the operational level, not just at the tactical level, they need counter fire. That's what David just described, which means artillery going after artillery. You have to have these deep strikes to set the conditions for the tactical engagements. Ukrainians are doing it. But what Russia is doing so effectively is they're providing all this artillery fire, rocket fire, and they've got the numbers. There could be a point, this is the window we're talking about, where Russia wins but Ukraine can come to the table, at least some portion of a victory, which means all of Ukraine has not gone, all of Ukraine has not been subjugated. But a portion of it could be in his work, we know what the examples are with Germany and Korea. I hope that's not the solution. That could be the realistic outcome.

BOLDUAN: General, thank you, David, it's great to see you. Thanks for coming in.

SANGER: Thank you.


BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy caught in a live, a new audio where McCarthy says that Donald Trump admitted to bearing some responsibility for the Capitol insurrection, that's next.


BOLDUAN: Breaking News, "The New York Times" has obtained new audio of the top Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy, telling Republican lawmakers on a private call that Donald Trump admitted bearing some responsibility for the Capitol insurrection. Listen.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (D-CA): But let me be very clear to all of you, and I've been very clear to the president. He bears responsibilities for his words and actions. No ifs, ands or buts. I asked him personally today, does he hold responsibility for what happened? Does he feel bad about what happened? He told me he does have some responsibility for what happened. And he need to acknowledge that.



BOLDUAN: This audio backs up additional reporting from "The New York Times" from an upcoming book by Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin that McCarthy considered asking Trump to resign over the riot. Reporting that McCarthy called totally false and wrong and then they released tapes. CNN's, Melanie Zanona is live on Capitol Hill with these breaking details. So, Melanie, what is going on here?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: I mean, this is a significant revelation. And let me break down why. First of all, we've reported at CNN on that phone call, where McCarthy told House Republicans that Trump had admitted some responsibility for the attack. We report on that earlier this year, but at a press conference when he was asked about it, McCarthy said, I don't know what you're talking about. So now that this audio is out there, he can't deny it anymore.

Second of all, that offers some critical insight into Trump's mindset in the immediate days after January 6th. That is of a keen interest to the committee that's investigating the riots. And of course, remember, Trump has to this date never publicly admitted any responsibility for the attacks.

And finally, I mean, I think it's important to talk about the political implications here for McCarthy, he could really be in some hot water with former President Donald Trump and his allies. The way he talked about Trump in private was very differently than how he's spoken about Trump publicly. Take a listen to another conversation that Trump -- that McCarthy had privately about Trump.


MCCARTHY: All right. I know this is not fun. I know this is not great. I know this is very tough. But what I want to do, especially through here, is I don't want to rush things. I want everybody to have all the information needed. I've had it with this guy. What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that, and nobody should defend it.


ZANONA: Also problematic for McCarthy, Kate, as you mentioned with "The New York Times" reported last night that McCarthy privately told House Republican leaders that he planned to tell Trump to resign in the days after January 6th, him and his aides denied that reporting. But of course, there were tapes, take a listen to that conversation, which was provided by "The New York Times."


MCCARTHY: I'm seriously thinking of having that conversation with him tonight. I haven't talked to him in a couple days. From what I know of him, I mean, you guys all know him too, do you think he'd ever back away? But what I think I'm going to do, is I'm going to call him. Again, the only discussion I would have with him is that I think this will pass and it would be my recommendation you should resign. I mean, that would be my take, but I don't think he would take it. But I don't know.


ZANONA: Now, I'm told Trump and McCarthy did speak by phone last night and the Trump was not upset, at least for now, in part because McCarthy did not follow through with his plans to tell Trump to resign. But of course, Trump's Hill allies are going to want to hear that from Trump himself. They're out of session this week. But we will be tracking all of those reactions next week when they return, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Melanie, thank you so much, great reporting. Joining me now is CNN senior political correspondent and the host of Inside Politics Sunday, Abby Phillip. Abby, it's interesting -- Melanie's reporting, I know -- "The Washington Post" first reported the call last night. It's interesting that they spoke. It's interesting that Ms. Melanie is being told that Donald Trump wasn't upset that might be, I don't know, maybe the most surprising part about this? ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it might be. But I think you should look at it this way. This is not the first time that Trump who by the way, knows that many of these people have said in the past and probably say currently negative things about him privately. It's not the first time that he's been willing to look the other way.

And in some ways Trump wants people to be publicly subservient to him from a political perspective. And so the fact that McCarthy has come in line that even McConnell has come in line and voted against the impeachment is something that I think Trump views as a victory in the aggregate.

Now, how Trump views this versus how McCarthy's caucus views this is completely different. Republicans in the House Republican Conference have already been kind of at loggerheads with him for a long time now. And this is just going to be one more way that they try to undermine his leadership, potentially pushing him out of the way when it comes to the speakership if Republicans are able to take control of the House of Representatives.

BOLDUAN: Because of course, everyone knows it is extremely well known that Kevin McCarthy's end goal is to become Speaker of the House. And this once again, is often asked when there is something involving Kevin McCarthy, but this one is particularly significant. What this actually could mean for him.

PHILLIP: Yes, I think this is probably the most one of the more significant threats to McCarthy because at the heart of the Republican politics particularly in the House right now is the January 6th insurrection, is the election lies. And Kevin McCarthy is not a true believer. That's what these tapes prove. The tapes prove that he would have supported impeachment and conviction. The tapes prove that he believed Trump was responsible. The tapes prove that he did not believe that Trump won the election fair and square.


And so for his conference, it proves him to be a liar, not just because he denied that he said these things, but because he's not a true believer in the organizing principle of the Republican Party right now, which are these election lies and the belief that the January 6th insurrection has been blown out of proportion by Democrats and the media.

So you know, as McCarthy is trying to get everyone in line, he might have Trump in line. But I don't know about Matt Gaetz who's already out there attacking him. I don't know about Marjorie Taylor Greene, who, you know, we'll see what she had -- she and others have to say, their voices really loom large in the republican conference right now.

BOLDUAN: And what it gets at is, you know, the course correction that happened with Kevin McCarthy, and you mentioned to some extent, you also saw with Senator Mitch McConnell after January 6th. Alex and Jonathan Martin, they are also reporting that McConnell told a friend, I didn't get to be leader by voting with five people in the conference. And when I saw that it just rung to, like, hit me as a very good window into just what politics really is, as we know it, and also the fight for two men to try their best to stay in power.

PHILLIP: A 100 percent. I mean, you said it exactly right. It's what politics really is, and what you see the exceptions to that and that people do things that might be to their political detriment, because maybe they think it's the right thing to do. Like, for example, what Liz Cheney says that she's doing that's the exception, not the rule. And Mitch McConnell did not get to be the Senate Minority Leader.

And for a while, the Senate Majority Leader by doing an unpopular thing, he has fallen in line effectively with Donald Trump, even though we know that the two don't like each other, even though we know, you know, Trump would love to get rid of Mitch McConnell. McConnell went from believing that Trump should be impeached that he might even vote in favor of impeachment to not doing that and making a case that Trump couldn't be impeached for his conduct.

According to the book, McConnell said privately if this is not impeachable, I don't know what is. He took exactly the different position when the impeachment trial was actually occurring. And he did so for explicitly political reasons.

BOLDUAN: It's good to see you, Abby, thank you for being here.

Coming up for us, two former Russian gas executives and their families found dead just one day apart, eerily similar circumstances, details on what we know right now, next.