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U.S. Toughens Russia Rhetoric, Kremlin Accuses West of Proxy War; U.N. Chief in Moscow for High-Level Talks; Ukraine Allies to Meet Monthly to Discuss War Strategy; Germany to Send Ukraine 50 Anti- Aircraft Systems. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 26, 2022 - 11:00   ET




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

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. We begin with the war in Ukraine at a major turning point. In the last 24 hours, there has been a significant shift in the rhetoric from the United States and NATO allies vowing to do everything that they can to help Ukraine win.

And also to not just stop Russia there but also weaken Russia going forward. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin just wrapped a meeting with dozens of his international counterparts in Germany. Austin will be holding a press conference in just moments. We're standing by for that and we're going to bring it to you as soon as it begins.

The tough talk is also coming from Moscow. Russia's foreign minister accusing NATO of engaging in a proxy war by arming Ukraine. And he warned that the threat of nuclear war should not be underestimated.

The U.N. secretary general is in Moscow this morning, meeting with Vladimir Putin. And in Ukraine, Russian forces continue to pound the eastern part of the country. The mayor of Mariupol now says that three mass graves have been found near the city.

Let's begin in Germany. Oren Liebermann is live at Ramstein Air Base there.

What are we expecting to hear from Secretary Austin after these really big meetings?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Kate, one of the important messages here -- and we heard it from Lloyd Austin in his opening remarks -- was a show of unity, not just from Europe, not just from NATO but from the Western world and beyond.

More than 40 countries coming here, not only sitting together but discussing what can be done to support Ukraine and to support what many see here as an international rules-based order. That's what is at stake here and they've made that clear. This is bigger than just the U.S. or the U.K. or Ukraine. It's the

world order that's at stake. And that's why this is such a fundamental discussion. And that was clear in an interview my colleague Jim Sciutto just wrapped up with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley and what we heard from Austin.


GEN. MARK MILLEY, CHAIRMAN, U.S. JOINT CHIEFS: At the end of the day, what we want to see, what I think the policy of all of our governments together, is a free and independent Ukraine, with their territory intact and their government standing.

And the Russian aggression has been halted and stopped. And at the end of the day, I think that's going to involve a weakened Russia, a strengthened NATO.



GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Russia's invasion is indefensible. And so are Russian atrocities.

Ukraine clearly believes that it can win. And so does everyone here.

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.


LIEBERMANN: You hear there the stronger rhetoric and the stronger beliefs that Ukraine can win this, contingent upon the U.S. and others continuing to flow in the ammunition and the weapons that has made it possible for Ukraine to hold up at this point.

Into the third month of fighting now as we watch all of this unfold and the focus shifts to southeast Ukraine. One of the things we're looking for over the past couple of days or weeks, we've seen countries willing to send in bigger and more powerful weapons, such as the howitzers.

Will we see more of that here?

We already saw the Germans announce they'll send in 50 jet-part armored anti-aircraft vehicles. That sort of pressure, that sort of movement beginning to build upon itself as the U.S. and others show that willingness to arm Ukraine.

One of the other key questions here, Ukraine, who, uses mostly older Soviet-era weaponry, there's a discussion about how to transition them and how to train them on more modern NATO-capable weaponry.

That's been a part of the question here as well as we get ready for the press conference from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expected to start any moment.

BOLDUAN: Excellent points you are making of what's already come from this gathering of defense ministers. Much more to come, of course, as we stand by to hear from the Defense Secretary himself. Oren, thank you.

Let's turn to Moscow, where the U.N. secretary general is meeting with President Putin. It comes as the Kremlin is leveling a new accusation to deflect from its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, accusing NATO of entering a proxy war by arming Ukraine. CNN's Nic Robertson is live in Brussels and joins us now.

What are you hearing about this?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, Lavrov is saying that Ukrainian government has no interest in negotiations because those countries -- and he was referring to the United States -- that are calling for the defeat of Russia -- and here he's referencing what you heard from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, about degrading Russia's capability.

Those calling for Russia's defeat, Lavrov said, are stuffing Ukraine full of weapons. It seems that the Russian leadership has woken up to the fact that the rest of the world isn't going to stand back and let them trample over Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as it seems as if the Russian leadership seems to think they have a right to do.

And this is what Lavrov is referring to. We've heard them talk about this before. But it seems to be that they are finally realizing that Ukraine has security partners and allies and they are actually becoming a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, which is why there is perhaps these talks in Moscow with the U.N. secretary general, no real immediate path to peace, because the battlefield is still the objective.


ROBERTSON: But Sergey Lavrov just yesterday doubling down on what Russia has spoken about, its nuclear options in the past, saying that Russia has a principled position. But this, the nuclear option is "a real danger," his words here.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The danger is serious and real. And it should not be underestimated.


ROBERTSON: Sergey Lavrov there, laying the groundwork for what's going to be a tough talk with President Putin, for the secretary- general of the United Nations. Kate.

BOLDUAN: Nic, thank you. Let's go back to Germany right now. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd

Austin has just begun his press conference. Let's listen in.

AUSTIN: We've had some great discussions and a lot of rich interactions among leaders throughout the day. So let me again thank all of the ministers and the chiefs of defense and your teams for joining us today.

Especially my good friend, Ukraine's minister of defense, Minister Reznikov and his delegation. It's great to see him.

We're all coming away with a transparent and shared understanding of the challenge that Ukrainians face. And I know that we're all determined to help Ukraine win today and build strength for tomorrow.

The work that we've done together in record time has made a huge difference on the battlefield. President Zelenskyy made that clear when we met Sunday in Kyiv. And countries all around the world have been stepping up to meet Ukraine's urgent needs.

And I wanted to especially welcome a major decision by our German hosts as Minister Lambrecht announced just today that Germany will send Ukraine some 50 Cheetah anti-aircraft systems.

And yesterday, of course, the British government announced that it would provide Ukraine with additional anti-aircraft capabilities as well.

And today, Canada announced that it will send Ukraine eight armored vehicles. And so that's important progress. We're seeing more every day. And I applaud all the countries that have risen and are rising to meet this demand. But we don't have any time to waste.

The briefings today laid out clearly why the coming weeks will be so crucial for Ukraine. So we've got to move at the speed of war. And I know that all the leaders leave today more resolved than ever to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression and atrocities.

And I know that we're all determined to do even more to better coordinate our efforts. So I was especially glad to hear General Wolters encourage us all to make more determined use of EUCOM's coordination mechanism.

Now that -- to ensure that we continue to build on our progress, we're going to extend this forum beyond today. I'm proud to announce that today's gathering will become a monthly contact group on Ukraine's self-defense.

And the contact group will be a vehicle for nations of goodwill to intensify our efforts and coordinate our assistance and focus on winning today's fight and the struggles to come. The monthly meetings may be person, virtual or mixed. And they'll extend the transparency, the integration and the dialogue that we saw today.

And let me underscore another key point: we held an important session today on the long-term support for Ukraine's defenses, including what that will take from our defense industrial bases.

And that means dealing with the tremendous demand that we're facing for munitions and weapons platforms and giving our staunch support to Ukraine, while also meeting our own requirements and those of our allies and partners.

But it also means redoubling our common efforts to strengthen Ukraine's military for the long haul. And I look forward to our discussions in the contact group and elsewhere about how to get that done right. Let me again thank all of the countries who came together today.


AUSTIN: They've done crucial work. And they sent a powerful signal. We're going to build on today's progress and continue to reach out to nations of goodwill to help Ukraine defend itself. And we'll continue working transparently and urgently with our allies and partners.

And we'll continue pushing to support and strengthen the Ukrainian military for the battles ahead. So we leave tonight strengthened and so does Ukraine. And thank you and I'll be glad to take your questions.

ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Our first question today will come from Silvia Antoine, AFP.

You have a microphone?

QUESTION: Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, actually, I have double question for you. Moldova is stepping up its security measures after a series of explosions in the separatist region of Transnistria.

Do you think there's a risk of spillover of the conflict to Moldova?

And my second question is, after this big meeting about arming Ukraine, are you concerned that Putin may become restless and threaten again to use a nuclear weapon?

AUSTIN: Well, on the issue of spillover to Moldova because of what we see here, a reporting of recent violence, we're still looking to a cause of that. That's still -- you know, still doing analysis there. So not really sure what that's all about but that's something that we'll stay focused on.

And certainly we don't want to see any spillover. And again, it's important to make sure that we do everything that we can to ensure that Ukraine is successful. And that's the best way to address that.

And I think the second part of your question, Sylvia, was?

QUESTION: Was about the risk for Putin to threaten to use a nuclear weapon. AUSTIN: Well, you know, you've heard us say a number of times that that kind of rhetoric is very dangerous and unhelpful. Nobody wants to see a nuclear war happen. It's a war that, you know, where all sides lose. And so rattling of sabers and, you know, dangerous rhetoric is clearly unhelpful and something that we won't engage in.

KIRBY: Our next question goes to Suzanne from ZDF.

QUESTION: Secretary, what military aid do you now expect from the German government?

Do you think the delivery of Leopard (sic) tanks is sufficient in your opinion?

AUSTIN: You mean Cheetahs, which is what the -- ?


AUSTIN: Yes. Let me just say that -- and I think you probably heard me say this before as I visited Germany. I consider Germany to be a great friend and an ally. You know, we've served -- I've served in Germany as an officer and worked with German forces.

And I -- it's always been a real pleasure to work alongside our German partners here. Now I think it's significant that, you know, Germany announced that it was going to provide 50 Cheetah systems. I think those systems will provide real capability for Ukraine.

And in terms of what else Germany will do going forward, again, that's a sovereign decision, one that the German leadership will make. And I don't want to speculate on that.

I just believe that, just based upon everything that I have seen in my interaction with the minister of defense and how intently she's been focused on making sure that she can do everything that she can to help and work alongside her partners and allies, that she'll continue to look for ways to be relevant and provide good capability to the Ukrainians, as they continue to prosecute this fight.

KIRBY: The next question goes to John Isme (ph), "The New York Times."

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, yesterday you mentioned that one of the United States' goals in Ukraine now was to see Russia weakened.

Can you explain more fully what that means and specifically what do you want to weaken and how you would measure success in that regard?


AUSTIN: Yes, John, so I think we've been clear from the outset. We do want to make it harder for Russia to threaten its neighbors and leave them less able to do that.

Now if you look at what's transpired here in this 62 days or so that Ukraine and Russia have been involved in this struggle here, Russia has, in terms of its land forces, their land forces have been attrited in a very significant way. Casualties are pretty substantial.

They've lost a lot of equipment. They've used a lot of precision- guided munitions. They've lost a major surface combatant. And so they are, in fact, in terms of military capability, weaker than when this started.

And you know, John, it will be harder for them to replace some of this capability as they go forward, because of the sanctions and the trade restrictions that have been placed on them. And so we would like to make sure, again, that they don't have the same type of capability to bully their neighbors that we saw at the outset of this conflict.

KIRBY: Next question goes to Utz Spungenberger (ph) from ARD.


How can we guarantee a safe and secure Ukraine in future?

Is it possible that Ukraine becomes member of NATO?

AUSTIN: That's -- again, that will be a sovereign decision. I think that NATO will always stand by its principles of maintaining an open door. So I don't want to speculate on what could come.

I do believe that, in the future, if the possibility exists, I think Ukraine will seek to once again apply to become a member of NATO. But again, that's probably a bit down the road. And speculation at this point is not very helpful.

I think the first step is to end this conflict. And I think that what needs to happen to cause the conflict to come to an end is Mr. Putin needs to make a decision to end this conflict. He's the person that started it. It was unjustified.

And, of course, it will be his decision to de-escalate and then go back to the negotiating table. And we really all would like to see that happen.

KIRBY: OK. And the last question of the day, mindful of our time, goes to Oova Dreesen (ph) from TV2 Denmark.


Mr. Secretary. The Russian foreign minister has warned that there's a danger of a third world war and there's a real danger of nuclear weapons being used in the present situation.

Are you not afraid that the conflict will somehow spin out of control and we'll have this nuclear confrontation?

AUSTIN: Well, we certainly will do everything within our power and within Ukraine. Ukraine will have the same approach, do everything within their power to make sure it doesn't spin out of control. The international community is focused on that as well. Again, I think this -- any bluster about the use of nuclear --

possibility of use of nuclear weapons is very dangerous and unhelpful. Nobody wants to see a nuclear war. Nobody can win that.

And as we do things and as we take actions, we're always mindful of making sure that we have the right balance and that we are taking the right approach. So there's always a possibility that a number of things can happen.

But you know, again, I think it's unhelpful and dangerous to rattle sabers and speculate about the use of nuclear weapons. Thanks.

KIRBY: Thank you all. And that's all the time we have for today's press conference. We really appreciate you all coming. Thank you.

BOLDUAN: That is the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, after a meeting of -- with dozens of his international counterparts at Ramstein Air Base in Germany about how they can further better support, train and prepare and back up Ukraine in this war with Russia.

Joining me is CNN correspondent Scott McLean. He's in Lviv. Also CNN military analyst, retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling and national security analyst Steve Hall, a former CIA chief of Russia operations. Let's start in Lviv.

Scott, how is everything that we just heard from the Secretary of Defense, what is that going to mean on the ground there?


SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the thing that stood out to me is what the Defense Secretary was saying about, look, for this conflict to end, it has to be ended with a decision from Vladimir Putin.

On the ground, it seems like this conflict could go on for some time. There's heavy fighting in the east of the country, heavy fighting in the south of the country. The Russians seem to be digging in, regrouping for a long offensive. The Ukrainians seem to be repelling them in some places but not in others.

And so it doesn't seem like any one side on the ground here has an obvious advantage or is set to easily overwhelm the other anytime soon.

The Russians are resorting to bombing the western parts of the country. They just took out a bridge in the southern part of the country, which connects the far southwest of Ukraine to the rest of the country, essentially isolating it. The only way you can get there is through Moldova.

And so it doesn't seem at this stage of the game like there's a lot that they can do around negotiations in order to end this. And it doesn't seem like there's a lot of appetite for negotiations. Even earlier today, the Russians seemed to indicate the Ukrainians

don't seem that interested. The Ukrainians have said much of the same. So I wouldn't be holding my breath at this stage of the game to see a negotiated settlement anytime soon. It seems to be Lloyd Austin's perspective that it really may come down to Vladimir Putin's choice.

BOLDUAN: General Hertling, what stuck out to you from what we just heard from the Defense Secretary?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: A couple of things, Kate: the first was the fact there were 40 or so ministers and chiefs of defense at this meeting. When you account for the 30 members of NATO, there's about 49 countries, some larger than others within Europe.

But the fact that the secretary also mentioned other ministers and chiefs of defense from around the world. And we could probably name a couple of them. I know Japan and Australia were likely there. But the fact that so many global partners have come together to stand against Vladimir Putin's illegal war in Ukraine was critically important.

The second thing is the secretary made a special callout of Germany, citing the fact that they were going to give the Gepards, an air defense system, he was calling them the Cheetahs. They are known by both names.

But that's saying, hey, we're finally getting some of the European nations that have stayed behind into this group of people who are supporting Ukraine.

But the third thing, the fact that they almost have a tagline of, "win today and build for tomorrow," what they are talking about is getting the vehicles, the ammunition, the equipment, the support today that will help Ukraine stand up and then potentially having them transform their military, like other nations in Europe have done -- Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania -- into a modern force.

All of that is critically important and that sends a huge message not only to Putin but to Ukraine and the rest of the world that there are a lot of nations standing behind this nation as they fight for their sovereignty.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely.

And, Steve, what do you make of the message to Putin from Secretary Austin just in this press conference?

But also we heard from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to my colleague, Jim Sciutto, last hour. And speaking very directly that the future holds a weakened Russia. That is now a goal of the United States.

What impact do you think that has on Vladimir Putin?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's hard to overstate the impact. I'd like to revisit Mark's first point, which is the fact that you have got 40 countries plus sitting together and saying Russia must be stopped.

What's happening in Ukraine is horrific. Not only is it terrible in Ukraine but Russia must be weakened so that it can't do this again.

I mean, words speak loudly. Obviously, if Putin listens and has people briefing him on what's being said but the actions; it's difficult to imagine just two, three months ago, that -- let alone two years ago -- that this level of unity, geopolitical unity against Russia and against Vladimir Putin's actions, I mean, it's exactly the opposite of what he wanted.

We say that a lot but it's just breathtaking when you see, it's almost as though, if you said to Putin, all right, what would you do that could cause the exact opposite of what you want there to be?

A divided NATO, a divided West, weakening of Russia and plot something out.

And if he said, I'm going to invade Ukraine, who would have thought this would happen?

It's really amazing the geopolitical strength that's being arrayed against Russia right now. And it's going to make them weaker. That's obviously not what Putin wanted.

BOLDUAN: And it goes -- and to your point, Steve -- and General, I wanted your opinion on this, which is that Lloyd Austin also said this isn't just one round of meetings. This is now, as he described it, this will now become a monthly contact group.

This is, as you are talking about, this is a -- I mean, he's signaling, at least I hear, this is a long-standing commitment that all of these nations and leaders are committing to.


HERTLING: The fear of a little bit, Kate, is I think there are some that think the West will become tired of watching this, tired of watching a nation be decimated by a foreign invader, a criminal foreign invader.

And that's not what is happening right now. The world is coming together. Austin says we're going to do these monthly meetings. We're building up a defense industrial base to support it.

That was also another important element of this, because there's a lot of weapon systems right now going into Ukraine to defend themselves. All of these things, as Steve said, are critical.

We have not seen the nations of the world come together like this ever before. When you're talking about going back to World War II, where there was an axis of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan taking on the entire world, that was at least a cabal, an axis, if you will.

And it took a long time to get a coalition against them. Right, you have a coalition right now against one country, one country that's doing something evil. And the message is loud and clear. The fact that the U.N. secretary general is there today probably to tell Putin, will you stop this illegal invasion, is critically important as well.

The world is against Putin and against Russia right now.

BOLDUAN: Thank you all so much for being here. It's an important moment and an important day and it's great to have you all. Really appreciate it.

Coming up for us, also a CNN exclusive: thousands of text messages handed over by Donald Trump's former chief of staff. A real-time window into the extensive conversations by Trump's allies to try to overturn the 2020 election. Details on that next.