Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Ukraine Vows To Defend Bakhmut As Russian Forces Encircle City; Mexico President Comments On Missing Americans; NTSB Investigation On Scene Of Second Ohio Train Derailment. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 06, 2023 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone. AT THIS HOUR, the battle for Bakhmut.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).


BOLDUAN: Russian forces continue to surround the eastern Ukrainian city. What it does and does not mean for the bigger battle ahead. Plus, another scare in the air, frightening moments as smoke fills the cabin of the Southwest Airlines flight. And Chris Rock has his day taking on the infamous Oscar slap heard round the world. This is what we're watching AT THIS HOUR.

Thank you for being here, everybody. I'm Kate Bolduan. We begin in Ukraine where Russian forces are closing in on Bakhmut from three sides. Intense fighting continues today around that eastern city. There is growing concern Ukraine's forces may need to retreat to avoid being trapped by the encircling Russian troops.

But top Ukrainian military commanders have actually told president Zelenskyy today they are still not recommending a withdrawal and instead they want to strengthen their position. Several thousand civilians, including children, remain trapped there with only five to 10 people being evacuated each day.

So for what's at stake here, let's get to Melissa Bell, who's in Ukraine for us today. Melissa, what's happening on the ground right now in Bakhmut?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, for the time being, it is about who can take control of the city center. The Russian forces have been along a river that is to the east of the city now for some time. And the question is how much closer to the city center they can get and how fast, as you say, Ukrainian forces in fact saying they're going to send more men in. The truth is this is probably only a matter of time. It is just whether the Ukrainians will hold on to it for another few hours, for another few days. Their strategy at this point, their tactics at this point when it comes to Bakhmut, which has become such an important symbol of their resilience, is to hold on for as long as they can because they believe that it allows them, as they did in Severodonetsk and Lysychans'k before to wear down the Russian war machine.

And some figures put the Russian attrition rate really extraordinarily high at about seven to one. The Russians have lost a lot of men, sending wave after wave of both mercenaries but also regular troops in to try and wear the Ukrainian defenses down. Of course, Ukrainian forces have taken huge losses as well. But the idea is that by holding firm and the longer they hold firm, the more this will be the case, they weaken the Russian war machine and they hope it's resolved to push further west or to take on other parts of the front line.

Now, we've been hearing today from the American Defense Secretary, Austin Lloyd, who said that it would not be a strategic setback for Ukraine if and when they head further west and decide to stage that tactical retreat. This has become, he explained, a symbol. But it will be an important symbol, of course, for them.

For the time being, they hold on with all of that means, as you suggest, for the civilians trapped inside. And you're talking about those who haven't been able to leave yet after a seventh month siege. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Exactly, seven month siege. Thank you, Melissa.

So there are also new signs that the U.S. could be moving closer to giving Ukraine F-16 fighter jets. President Zelenskyy has been, of course, pushing for this and reiterates it at every turn, arguing that they need the planes, the jets, to defend against Russian missile and drone attacks. Natasha Bertrand has more details on this with this new development. Natasha, it seems that they're not maybe not necessarily opening the door yet, but can we say at least that they're still not slamming a shot?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: I think that's right, Kate. And so what we've learned is that two Ukrainian pilots have been in the U.S. to train with the Americans on flight simulator systems, essentially. They are learning how to fly certain American systems. They're not actually opt training on those systems themselves on actual planes, but they are kind of getting instruction from the Americans about how to become better pilots, for example, not only on their own systems, but also to see how long it would potentially take them to learn a system like the F-16, for example, or other kinds of American aircraft.

So this is described by a senior U.S. military official as kind of a familiarization process, it's something that is fairly routine between the U.S. and Ukraine. But it is actually the first time that Ukrainian pilots have come to the U.S. for this kind of training. So that could be a kind of a harbinger of things to come. Now, at the same time, the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, is in the Middle East today, and he is commenting on the situation in Bakhmut, of course, very difficult, as we just heard Melissa Bell lay out there. But he is saying that even if the Ukrainians don't succeed there, that he does not necessarily view that as a strategic failure. Take a listen to what he told reporters earlier today.



LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I would not view that as an operational or a strategic setback. I think it's more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value. What I do see on a daily basis is the Russians continuing to pour in a lot of ill-trained and ill-equipped troops, and those troops are very quickly meeting their demise.


BERTRAND: So the question now, Kate, is how long are the Ukrainians going to hold out in Bakhmut. Of course, we have reported here that the U.S. and some of its allies have been urging the Ukrainians to pull back because, of course, as you heard Austin say there, the U.S. does believe that this is largely a symbolic -- city of symbolic value rather than strategic value.

Getting them to pull out, focus elsewhere, that may be what the U.S. believes is for the best for the Ukrainians. But of course, Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, still viewing it as a key city where they can wear down the Russians there. Kate?

BOLDUAN: All right, well, Natasha, thank you so much. Joining me now for more on this is CNN military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. It's good to see you, General. This battle in Bakhmut, Defense Secretary Austin and what Natasha just played for us, Defense Secretary Austin calling it having symbolic value, more symbolic value than strategic and operational value if the Russians take it. What do you see there?

LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I agree with Secretary Austin's view, Kate. It has been and by the way, let's talk about Bakhmut and how long we have been discussing it.


HERTLING: It's been over seven months since that city has been under siege by the Russians. And on a weekly basis, we have heard different Russians say they're about to surround it and the Ukrainians continue to fight. And every day I wake up to a text from a friend of mine in Ukraine that says, Bakhmut holds, two words. So they have been very successful. It will never be a strategic or an operational victory for either side. It will be a psychological victory, and it already is for the Ukrainian forces because they have held it so long and have drained so much Russian manpower in that cauldron of blood. BOLDUAN: I wanted to ask you about that toll on the Russians first. I mean, you know, we have heard from more analysts over and over again, it's just the bloody toll that this progress has taken for the Russians to get where they are in Bakhmut. What price have they had to pay to pull off -- to pull this off if the Ukrainians do retreat?

HERTLING: Yes, well, let's talk numbers first, Kate. And I'm not a big body count guy. I learned early in my career that's never a good indicator of who's winning or who's losing. But Oleksiy Danilov, who's the head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, said last week that Russia was losing seven soldiers for every one Ukrainian soldier killed in the defense of that city. That is just unbelievable from a military perspective.

And I think your reporters, both Natasha and others, have talked about this. General Syrskyi, who's commander of Ukraine's ground forces, visited Bakhmut last Friday and talked about the state of the city's defense with the military commanders and said, let's continue to hold because we can. Today there were reports of Ukrainian Special operations commanders visiting the city and saying, here's what we need to do to continue to push the fight and kill even more Russians.

So it is something that's trapped Russia in this area that they can't use other places. We've been talking also about the potential for offensives and counter offensives. I believe Russia has been on the offensive for quite some time now, and they are losing considerable amounts of their forces in doing that. And soon we will see Ukraine when more and more Western type equipment gets into their hands, they will start their counterattacks and their counter offenses. But the entire time, Ukraine has been holding the Russian force in this area and preparing to attack in other places.

BOLDUAN: Yes, so interesting. You know, this morning also, Russia says that its air defenses brought down three missiles over Belgorod in Russia. And "The New York Times," General, is reporting that Ukrainian Special Forces made a rare public acknowledgment, actually today that they conducted a cross border strike in Russia, destroying an unmanned observation tower is how they describe it, in the Bryansk region using a drone strike. That caught my attention because I wanted to ask you what you see really in any Ukrainian strikes happening within Russia and also Ukraine staying as such.

HERTLING: Well, those who have not served in the military, Kate, kind of think this is like a video game that you just find a target, shoot at it, send drones there. But what is happening really is intel collection to conduct further strikes. And when you're seeing the Ukrainian forces launch drones into Russian Oblasts, like Belgorod, like Virgin (ph), like even outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg that knock down some of their air defenses.


Russia is now having to take air defenses and surround those cities, taking them away from the front line. It's a matter of material that's moving back and forth inside of Russia to the front line of Donbas and back again. So if Ukraine can continue to threaten inside of Russia, that requires the Russian generals to move their equipment back to defend their forces.

So it is all really the continuation of this attempts attrition warfare, knocking out as many forces as you can and at the same time destabilizing the defense that Russia has been attempting to build on the front lines. They can't have it both ways. So, you know, when you're threatening cities that are 100 miles away from the front line, the Russians have to do something about it that they don't want to do. Protect their citizens which like Ukraine has been protecting their own.

BOLDUAN: General Hertling, it's great to see, as always. Thank you.

HERTLING: Thanks Kate.

BOLDUAN: So of course, four American citizens are missing right now after being kidnapped at gunpoint in Mexico, and the FBI is asking for help over it all. The FBI says that they were last seen on Friday when armed gunmen forced them from the minivan that they were driving and -- that they were traveling in. Rosa Flores is tracking this for us from Houston. She joins us now. Rosa, Mexico's President is now reacting to the kidnapping. What's he saying?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What he is saying, Kate, will send ripples through the community in South Texas because of what he is referring to. The President of Mexico is saying that these four U.S. citizens were actually buying medicine in Mexico. Now, I can tell you from growing up in this area that that is very common. People in that area of South Texas go into Mexico to do just that all the time. They do that to -- they cross over to go see the dentist, they buy medicine, they buy fruits, whatever it is, they cross over for that reason.

Here's what the President of Mexico is saying. He says they are people from the United States referring to the U.S. citizens. The information we have is that they crossed the border to buy medicines in Mexico. There was a confrontation between groups and they were detained. By the word detained, he means kidnapped by a criminal organization in Mexico by these groups that had this confrontation.

Now, according to the FBI, these four U.S. citizens crossed over from Brownsville to Matamoros, Mexico on Friday. And shortly after they crossed, there was some gunfire. And then the passengers and the individuals in that white minivan with North Carolina plates were then taken by the individuals, unnamed individuals, and were taken away from the scene.

Now, we've obtained photos that we will show you later that show this confrontation. They show that some collision happened shortly after the white minivan entered Matamoros, Mexico. But we are working on all these details, Kate. We know that the FBI has set up a $50,000 reward asking for information and, of course, for the arrest of the individuals who are responsible for this, and they are cooperating with Mexican authorities. And the four U.S. citizens at this point have not been identified. Kate?

BOLDUAN: All right much more to learn here. Rosa, thank you for that. [11:13:18]

There has now been another trade train derailment in Ohio. The frightening scene also caught on video. The very latest on what investigators are finding is next.


BOLDUAN: So Norfolk Southern is facing new questions today. Now that a second train has derailed in Ohio, this one carrying what's being called minor amounts of residual hazardous material. Let's go over to Jason Carroll, he is where all of this happened in Springfield, Ohio. Jason, the second train derailment in a month. What does Norfolk Southern saying about this?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, a couple of things Norfolk Southern says, Kate, anytime something like this happens, there is of course, an investigation. If there are any takeaways from that investigation, they implement that into their policies going forward. But, you know, that's a tough sell to the people here in Ohio who have now seen their second derailment within just this past month.

The latest derailment occurring on Saturday at about 5 o'clock, cellphone video captured the moment the trains literally went off the tracks and all 28 of 212 cars were derailed. State officials say once again, that there were no release of any hazardous materials. Some of the trains were carrying materials such as propane and ethanol, but those cars were not involved in the derailment.


ASST. CHIEF MATT SMITH, SPRINGFIELD, CH FIRE RESCUE DIVISION: After the technical research they did, a recon of the site found nothing had spilled onto the ground and nothing very minimal material on the actual cars themselves that actually dried very quickly. There is no spillage onto the ground or into the waterways at this time.


CARROLL: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who, as Kate, was criticized for his what some called his slow response to what happened in East Palestine quick to respond and tweet this go around saying, once again, no hazardous material release has been reported here in Springfield. But again, this is the second derailment those people in East Palestine still trying to put their lives back together.

NTSB said in that case, that was something that could have been prevented. We'll see what the NTSB says this go around they're expected on the ground here later today. Kate?


BOLDUAN: Great question, Jason. Let's see as they get on the ground today. I really appreciate it. I want you to take a look at this video that's come in. It was taken by a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight showing smoke, as you can very clearly see, filling the cabin. The plane was on its way to Fort Lauderdale but had to make an emergency return to Havana. Carlos Suarez is live forest in Miami. He's got more on this for us. Carlos, what happened here?

CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So, Kate, according to Southwest Airlines, that 737 had just taken off from Havana International Airport on its way to Fort Lauderdale when it struck a number of birds. One of the birds hit the plane's engine, which caused it to go on fire. The other bird, apparently another bird hit the nose of that aircraft. And so, what you're taking a look at there is video inside of the cabin showing all of that smoke from that engine fire.

Now, according to the airline, the aircraft was able to make it back to Havana, at which point we're told there were already firefighters on the ground. They were able to put out that fire, and all of the passengers that were on board this aircraft were able to safely get out. Now, in a statement to CNN, Southwest Airlines said, in part, quote, we commend the swift, professional actions of our pilots and flight attendants in responding to this event.

We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience and have reached out to address their needs and offer support. The good news here, Kate, is that no one on board this aircraft was hurt. A few passengers were able to get on another flight to Fort Lauderdale late last night and were told that the remaining passengers will most likely be able to finish their destination, make it back to Florida at some point today.

BOLDUAN: All right, Carlos, it's super scary, though. Thank you.

A construction site for a new police training center in Atlanta becomes a new flash point. Police say people were hurling fireworks bricks, malls have cocktails at officers, and dozens of people are now under arrest. That's next.



BOLDUAN: Dozens of people are now under arrest, and this is after they clashed with police at the construction site of a controversial police training center in Atlanta. You can see this video. Police are calling them agitators and say officers were attacked with bricks and fireworks and Molotov cocktails. A construction vehicle was even set on fire. Nick Valencia is live in Atlanta with more details on this for us. Nick, what are you hearing about all this?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, look, Kate, this site has become really a ground zero for activists from across the country to air their grievances against police. Some see this proposed training facility, fire and training facility, which is supposed to be about 85 acres and costs $90 million. They see it as a step towards further militarizing police. And then there is another coalition of activists who believe that this wooded area would be detrimentally harmed by the construction of this facility, so really, a coalition of activists.

And it all came to a head on Sunday when police say about 35 protesters turned agitators were arrested for throwing large objects at police, including bricks, rocks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails. The police chief last night saying that this was not about protesting this proposed facility, in their opinion, this was about anarchy.


CHIEF DARIN SCHIERBAUM, ATLANTA POLICE DEPARTMENT: This is criminal activity. The charges that will be brought forth will show that. When you throw commercial grade fireworks, when you throw Molotov cocktails, large rocks, number of items at officers, your only intent is to harm.


VALENCIA: Now, activists we've spoken to push back on the police characterization. They say a music festival was occurring in the lead up to these arrests and that police went in to clear out people who were just there to listen to music and have a good time. We should mention that this weekend was promoted by protesters as being a week of action, a week of protests and festivities.

And earlier I spoke to Kamal Franklin. He's a national activist based here in Atlanta who's been part of organizing against this proposed Cop City, as it's been dubbed by their opponents. This is what he had to tell me. The language being used by police calling those arrested, quote, outside agitators is meant to separate protesters and meant to criminalize and detach a movement from its homegrown origin. He alleges that the arrests were indiscriminate and not necessarily targeted to those who were participated in what they're calling civil disobedience. Bottom line here, Kate, is that things are increasingly tense here in the site dubbed this Cop City. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes, Nick, thank you for that. And what's going on in Atlanta gets to a debate in some way, shape and form going on in many cities across the country over crime. Where is it best to put the time and where is it best to put the resources needed for public safety as violent crime is on the rise in so many places? The issue is at the center of the mayor's race in Chicago, as we've seen. Lori Lightfoot losing her reelection bid last week and not even making it to the runoff.

Here's what New York City's Mayor Eric Adams said about that this weekend.


MAYOR ERIC ADAMS (D), NEW YORK: People want to be safe. They don't feel safe and they are actually safe, then you're going to lose control of your city.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is what happened to her a warning sign for you here in New York?


ADAMS: To the contrary, I think it's a wonder sign for the country. (END VIDEO CLIP)