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Top U.S. Officials Meet With Zelenskyy, Pledge More Support; Russian Strikes Hit Five Train Stations In Central & Western Ukraine; Supreme Court Hears Appeal Of Coach Reprimanded For Praying On Field. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 25, 2022 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. It is a visit. They're shrouded in secrecy, and also one that could mark a key strategic shift in the war in Ukraine. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin just wrapped up a high stakes visit to Ukraine.

This was the first time top U.S. officials visited the country since Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked war. Blinken and Austin met with Ukraine's president for 90 minutes. They declared after this, Ukraine is winning, made clear the U.S. isn't just there to bolster Ukraine's defense but also now to weaken Russia from here on out. They also pledged U.S. diplomats will return to Ukraine for the first time in more than two months.

This morning, President Biden named his nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Their visit comes as Putin's forces are continuing their relentless attacks with Russia, striking five train stations in western and central Ukraine. We are told there are casualties. And in Mariupol, Russia claims that it is offering a ceasefire now at the steel plant to allow civilians to get out and evacuate. But Russia has repeatedly attacked humanitarian corridors in Ukraine, says that no corridor has been agreed to.

Let's begin, CNN's Matt Rivers is live in Kyiv, joins us now. Matt, this visit from top U.S. officials, it's a show of force, yes. But they also brought very big statements.

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No question. And there's going to be symbolic shows of support moving forward. But while both symbolic and very practical shows of support from the United States, the headlines coming out of this meeting, including the fact that the diplomatic presence of the United States is going to return here to Kyiv in the coming weeks, that's following suit from several other countries, other Western allies that have done something similar.

And not only is that a sign that the United States thinks that it is safe enough for its diplomats to come back here, but also it's a significant sign of support for the United States with Ukraine for the long haul. Meanwhile, another headline coming out of that meeting, more than $700 million in additional military aid being sent to Ukraine in the coming weeks, according to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. And we have a sound bite where he talks about what he hopes some of that aid will eventually result in.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine. So it has already lost a lot of military capability and a lot of a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.


RIVERS: A pretty pointed statement there from the Secretary of Defense. Towards the end of this war, critics had said that the Biden administration was more concerned with not escalating with Russia. And now you're hearing really pointed statements about weakening Russia militarily moving forward. Finally, we are hearing that the United States Secretary General Gutierrez will be in Moscow today with Ukrainian officials demanding publicly that he try and get humanitarian corridors open in this country which are so desperately needed in many different cities across Ukraine. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. It's good to see you, Matt. Thank you very much.

Now let's turn to this fresh attacks on Ukraine's rail system. Russian forces hit several train stations overnight in western and central Ukraine while a large fire at an oil depot in Russia is now under investigation, the cause there, so far unknown. CNN's Scott McLean is live from Lviv. He joins us now. Scott, what can you tell us about these attacks?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Kate. So the timing here is quite interesting. You had Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin leaving the country into safe NATO territory in the early hours this morning. And then just a few hours after that, the air raid sirens went off here in Lviv. I should mention they just went off a couple of minutes ago again as well. And that is not long after that, the head of Ukrainian railways said that five different rail sites across the country in Central and Western Ukraine were hit by Russian missile strikes.

If you look at the map of the railways in this country, those strikes are all at choke points or junction points. It appears as if the Russians were trying to damage the ability for trains to move from west to east or from east to west. Not entirely clear, but that's what it looks like on the map. We went out to one of those sites about an hour's drive east of here in Lviv. We were limited in what we were allowed to shoot.

The governor put out a video earlier showing an electrical substation on fire, not the station itself but an electrical substation. We saw at that site as well the remnants of what they said were Russian rockets twisted bits of charred and partially melted metal scattered all throughout the area, very close to those train tracks. Separately, as you mentioned, just across the border in Russia, there was a fire at a fuel depot in the Bryansk region.


This comes not long since the Russians accused the Ukrainians of going after another fuel depot in the Belgorod region and also shelling a village just across the border. And so it seems like these kinds of depots are, again, we -- it's not entirely clear what caused that fire, but the Russians may well point the finger at the Ukrainians. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes, it's good to see you, Scott. Thank you for that. I really appreciate it. Joining us now for more on this is CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger. He's a correspondent with The New York Times. And also with us, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, retired General Philip Breedlove. It's good to see you both. Thank you.

General, we played a moment, a key moment, I think, from the Defense Secretary, Matt Rivers was pointing to it, while in Ukraine, saying that the United States wants to not only help Ukraine, but also wants to see Russia weakened to the point where it can't do this again, essentially. When you hear that from the Secretary of Defense, what does that tell you, General?

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE (RET.), FMR. NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER EUROPE: Well, thanks for having me on this morning. And they're welcome words to me. I think we're seeing a bit of a policy shift in that not only are we starting to use the word win, and that we want the Ukrainians to win, but now we see usefulness or see a need for Ukraine to diminish the Russian capabilities. And so while those are good words, and we're beginning to push back now a little bit against Mr. Putin. Now the onus is on us to make sure that we're giving them the right tools at the right speed and at the right location.

BOLDUAN: Key point there. David, what are you hearing from your sources about this? Do they -- is this a real shift in the stated goals here, not just to help Ukraine, but to really weaken Russia?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It certainly sounds that way. You know, if you think back to the early days of the war, the initial objective was, of course, to get Russia to go back to the pre February 24th borders, the traditional borders of Ukraine, even though there was dispute over the annexation of Crimea and the status of the Donbass area. Then you heard Secretary Tony Blinken talk about the need to make sure that whatever agreement was reached with Russia was irreversible.

And now what you're hearing is, we need to permanently weaken the Russian military so they could never do this again, that's a different thing than building up the Ukrainians to deter. And the question is, how do you do that with a nuclear power, because obviously, if they got truly desperate, they could use their nuclear weapons to obliterate Ukraine or many other countries. So it's a very different thing to try to weaken the Russian military since they've got the nuclear backup, then it would be with a non-nuclear state.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. General, you mentioned another key moment, a statement from the Secretary -- from Secretary Lloyd Austin, and I want to play that where he made clear, made a very clear statement that Ukraine can win.


AUSTIN: In terms of our -- their ability to win, the first step in winning is believing that you can win. And so they believe that we can win. We believe that we can win -- they can win, if they have the right equipment, the right support, and we're going to do everything we can continue to do everything we can to ensure that that gets there.

BOLDUAN: And General, you think that is an important moment here, why?

BREEDLOVE: Well, first of all, Secretary Austin is a good friend, and I respect him. And I'm glad that he's beginning to use this language. It is important. The Ukrainians have to believe that we intend to give them what they need, because that is what will be required for them to win. They have to have faith and confidence that we will deliver as we say we will deliver. And that's why I use the little construction I did a few minutes ago, the right equipment at the right time at the right place. And I think we have some work to do to make sure that we're getting everything forward to those valiant fighters on the front line.

BOLDUAN: David, this also gets back to a conversation you and I had from last week, you're reporting that Vladimir Putin actually believes that he is winning, no matter the distorted kind of pictures that his generals are painting for him, is victory harder for him to believe when you have the U.S. Defense Secretary is saying the exact opposite so directly while standing and you, well, you know, just fresh off a visit from Ukraine?


SANGER: Well, it may be harder for Putin to believe it. He may think he's got better information, or he may think that he's gotten an advantage now that the war has shifted to the largely open spaces of the Donbass and the southeast where of course, his supply lines are a lot closer. But what worries me about this is if you have both sides coming in thinking that they are winning, you don't really have the prospect of a diplomatic solution anytime soon, because each one would want to go press their advantage before they entered any diplomatic discussion.

And that may explain why the whole diplomatic effort that we saw in the first few weeks appears to have fallen dead and Putin himself said it was dead. And that's concerning. The second concerning element of this, of course, is that if Putin actually feels he's in for a second defeat, then his temptation to reach for weapons of mass destruction, whether it is chemical, or a tactical nuclear weapon, is probably considerably greater.

BOLDUAN: I see general nodding his head in agreement on that one. It's good to see you both very much. I really appreciate your time.

Coming up for us, the Supreme Court taking up the case of a former high school football coach, raising big questions about prayer in public schools, that's next.



BOLDUAN: Prayer in schools the issue is right now front and center at the Supreme Court. The justices hearing oral arguments today about a case brought by a high school football coach at a public high school who took the school system to court over whether or not he can pray at the football games that he was coaching. CNN's Jessica Schneider, she's live in Washington. You've been listening in to oral arguments as they're underway right now. What have you been hearing so far, Jessica?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, Kate, right out of the gate here. We heard the three liberal leaning justices really hammer the attorney for the coach here asking a number of hypotheticals about how potentially this could spiral out of control, if coaches, coaches like this one are allowed to prey on the field. This is really a high state case, dealing with the intersection of free speech and religious liberties. The justices, they're tackling this important question of, did this coach have the right to engage in prayer on the 50-yard line after games?

He insists this was within his right under the free exercise of religion clause. But the school district argues that he really improperly pressured students to join him in what they say was a very public display of prayer while the coach was representing the School District in his capacity as a coach. The two lower courts here, they have found in favor of the school saying that they could restrict the coach's words and actions right after the football games.

But it's really possible with this argument before an increasingly conservative Supreme Court that we've seen vigorously defend religious rights in all arenas. It's possible they could go the other way here and the football coach could potentially win.

You know, earlier this morning, just before the arguments began at 10:00, I was outside the Supreme Court, a group there called Americans United for the separation of church and state, they were holding a rally outside a press conference. They're saying that if the Supreme Court allows this activity, it could improperly impede the religious rights of students who just don't have the same beliefs, but they might feel pressured to pray with their coach.

And, Kate, we've seen the Supreme Court repeatedly ruled in recent months on the side of religious organizations. So some court watchers argue that this really could up end Supreme Court precedent when it comes to prayers in school if the court here sides with the coach, that is a distinct possibility with this increasingly conservative court, a six-three majority. The arguments are ongoing here, Kate, but we will likely see a ruling here just some time before July. So in the coming weeks, we'll see. Kate?

BOLDUAN: All right, Jessica, thank you so much for that. Also with me now, CNN chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. What do you think of what you've heard so far, Jeff?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: You know, it's fascinating case. And I think Jessica is right. This is a real sign of how the court is moving. You know, since 1962, it's been the law of the land in the Supreme Court that there is no prayer in schools. You can't have teachers directing prayers. But it is also true that teachers have First Amendment and free exercise of religion rights.

For example, every teacher can in the school cafeteria, say a prayer before he or she eats. I mean, I think nobody, nobody disputes that. The question in this case, is, is this a private expression of religion on the part of the coach? Or is it a coercive act to pressure, particularly the players on his team to participate and discriminate against those who choose not to discriminate?

BOLDUAN: That's why this case is fascinating in many levels, including we were talking about on the commercial break before that off, by the time a case gets to the Supreme Court, the facts of what actually happened are generally established, and that seems to still be in debate, a debate.

TOOBIN: And also what's at issue is what facts matter. One of the things that the school board is pointing out is look what happened in this case. After it became publicized, you had people swarming the field, trying to participate in the prayer, trying to -- you had other groups, having non prayers intentionally on the school basis -- on the field, and what the school board is saying the reason we limit religion in the public sphere is that we don't want to have this kind of conflict. We want that to be in the private sphere, not in the government sphere, which is what a public school is. That -- the relevance of people storming the field is something that's being disputed by the parties in the court.


BOLDUAN: Another layer of this is the Supreme Court previously had refused to hear the case. What -- how does that add to this then?

TOOBIN: You know, it -- I'm not sure it has a lot of significance. But, you know, the effort to inject religion and allow religion in the public sphere is a big agenda of the conservatives on the court. You know, and what a lot of liberals believe is this is all basically an attempt to get school prayer back into public schools.

Again, that's not the issue in this case. But you can see why, you know, if teachers can lead a prayer immediately after a game where they still have official responsibilities that's come up in the cloud -- in the argument is that just because the whistle blew at the end of the game, doesn't mean that the coach's responsibilities were over. He was still the coach, and he was leading a prayer. And that's significant to the liberals in the class. BOLDUAN: What are the potential ripple effects because there are a lot of hypotheticals, obviously, that are being played out right now in the courtroom, because the coach's legal team had said, going into this, that this goes, they believe this goes beyond prayer in school that could impact all government employees and their First Amendment rights, you know, when they crossed the threshold into the workplace, which is what you're really getting at?

TOOBIN: Right. And, you know, there are a lot of disputes about, you know, when is the coach on duty? And when is he not on duty? Because, you know, he's allowed to have private religious expression. But those lines are less clear, just like, you know, what, if there is a prayer in a government office, you know, at 8:59, is that allowed, or is it a group prayer, is it -- and, you know, what you have is a conservative court that is much more accommodating of religious expression in government places. And this case is an example.

BOLDUAN: Well, it's not only an important case, just on its facts, because we're talking about something I mean, church and state separations, but also just the window into the direction of the court kind of in for --

TOOBIN: Very much.

BOLDUAN: Near and immediate future.

TOOBIN: Very much. And it's also about whose perspective does the court look for -- look to? Is it the person who wanting to pray? Is it his, the coach's free speech rights? Or is it the outsider's perspective? The kid who doesn't belong to the majority religion, the kid who doesn't have any religion at all? What about the parents of those kids who don't want, you know, religious participation on the part of their kid. Whose perspective matters more to the court? That's a tough question. And that's what the court is addressing.

BOLDUAN: That's really interesting. It's good to see you, Jeff. Thanks for working through it with us.


All right, coming up for us, top U.S. officials make a visit to Kyiv and make a big announcement. What diplomats returning to the country could mean for the fight in Ukraine. We'll be right back.


BOLDUAN: They believe that they can win. We believe that they can win, that as the assessment from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after visiting Ukraine. He and the Secretary of State are the two highest ranking U.S. officials to meet in person with Ukraine's president since Russia's invasion began. The Secretary of State also pledging to send U.S. diplomats back into Kyiv as part of their visit.

Joining me now is Kira Rudik. She is a member of Ukraine's parliament. It's good to see you again. Thank you for being here. So this was the highest level U.S. visit to Kyiv since the invasion. Seeing and hearing from both the Defense Secretary and the Secretary of State, what does it mean to you?

KIRA RUDIK, UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT MEMBER: Hello, thank you so much for having me. Well, having these high ranking officials in Ukraine sends a strong message that the world is still behind us, and that we are working as a united front. It also means that the help and support from the United States will continue and will be increased. And I think that this visit is also important for the United States, as well as for Ukraine, because it shows that their world leadership on standing up for democracy, the important point that the world needs right now.

BOLDUAN: Secretary Blinken also announced during the visit that U.S. diplomats are going to be returning to Ukraine this week first to Lviv and then eventually back into Kyiv. It is an important symbolic move. Yes. But is -- do you see that as more than a symbolic move? Do you think that it will impact, have an impact on the ground?


RUDIK: You know, U.S. diplomats moving out of the country was the first sign of war. It was actually the first sign of people started -- when people start asking like are we going to get into this war, is Putin really going to attack.