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The Global Brief with Bianca Nobilo

Western Officials: Almost Half Of Russia's Battle Groups Around Ukraine Are Within 50KM Of Border; France Vote On Sports Hijab Ban; Legacy Of A Brutal ISIS Leader. Aired 5-5:30p ET

Aired February 17, 2022 - 17:00   ET


CHRISTINA MACFARLANE, CNN HOST: Hello and welcome. This is THE GLOBAL BRIEF. I'm Christina Macfarlane in London, in for Bianca Nobilo.

Tonight, as Western leaders accuse Russia of creating a pretext for war, new intelligence suggests Russia's battle groups are getting closer and

closer to Ukraine.


Then, senators in France vote to ban the hijab in sports competitions.

And waiting for justice. Yazidi survivors of a brutal ISIS campaign in Syria recall the horrors of living under the militants' rule.

U.S. President Joe Biden says there's now every indication that Russia will attack Ukraine possibly within the next several days, a concern echoed by

leaders across the Western world. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unscheduled trip to the United Nations today to deliver that warning in


He says a scenario is unfolding right now that could lead to war.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: First, Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack. We don't know exactly the form it

will take. It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike

against civilians, or a fake -- even a real attack using chemical weapons.


MACFARLANE: Russia denies planning an invasion, insisting some troops are returning to their bases. But Western officials now warn that almost half

of Russia's battle group surrounding Ukraine are within 50 kilometers of the border.

Ukraine's president visited the front lines today of the country's longstanding conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the east.

International monitors are reporting a sharp increase in cease-fire violations and one citizen in Donetsk tells CNN her city hasn't experienced

this shelling this intense in years.

Ukrainian forces and separatist leaders are both accusing the other of the attacks.

Our chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward visited a kindergarten that was hit by shells today in Ukraine's Donbas region. She's now back in

Kyiv and spoke a short while ago with CNN's Jake Tapper.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Jake, just to give you a sense of how much the Ukrainians wanted us to see this and how

unusual a situation it was, it's very rare for them to take journalists at the front line at night, but that's what they did, because they wanted to

world to see what happened to this kindergarten, 8:45 this morning, two shells landed according to the Ukrainian military and also some employees

and staff who we talked to on the ground.

One of the rooms that you can see, the sort of play room, filled with children's toys, had a huge gaping hole, allegedly where that shell had

come through. There were toys scattered everywhere. By the grace of God, Jake, there were to children in the room when that shell hit. The children

were in a different part of the building having breakfast.

We interviewed a teacher who said she immediately moved them away from any windows into an internal corridor. She said he told the young kids that it

was a game, basically, that it was a make believe game of sorts. So, they weren't as frightened, but some of the older children understood what was

going on because of course they do live near the front lines and they are experienced with hearing the sound of heavy artillery.

However, just to give you a sense of perspective, you might see cease-fire violations on any given day in this area of Luhansk. You might see,

according to the OSCE, who monitors on the ground, yesterday, 129 violations. Today, there were more than 400.

So this was really a massive spike in activity, and what happened at the kindergarten, I think, is really a very ominous warning about what could

quickly escalate into a situation beyond anyone's control, because clearly the situation on the ground is getting more tense. People are getting more

trigger happy. There's a lot more confusion and a lot more emotion as well.

We have been used to talking to people who seem relatively calm, relatively relaxed. They are used to seeing, you know, acts of aggression. They're use

to living in the shadow of Russia. But today, you really had a sense this people were more nervous.

We could here some shelling as we were on the ground doing a live shot with John King. The Ukrainian military immediately yanked us out of there, put

us on a bus. And you know, we're lucky we have been flown now back by the Ukrainian military to here in Kyiv. But for the people living in that town,

the shelling continues, the fear continues, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Clarissa, how exactly might NATO leaders think Putin could use this incident as a justification for an invasion?

WARD: So, I have been talking exclusively about what we saw, the results of what was happening on the sort of Ukrainian military side of the front

line. On the other side, in the sort of pro Russian separatist region, they claim there was also a large amount of shelling going on as well.

And President Putin has said many times before -- and we've seen it in other conflicts in 2008 in Georgia -- he's been handing out Russian

passports like candies, some 600,000 in those pro-Russian separatist areas.


And so, he will often invoke any kind of act of aggression or there may be some kind of a false flag operation, as U.S. intelligence services have

predicted might happen, and then say, you know what? Now we have to go. We have to protect our people.

It's our job to make sure that Russian speakers and ethnic Russians and Russian nationals, indeed for those who have passports, are protected. And

so, that's what happens often in these scenarios, and that's why as the situation becomes more volatile, and as you're seeing this huge uptick in

the number of cease-fire violations, the situation becomes much more ominous and much more tense indeed, Jake.


MACFARLANE: Clarissa Ward there.

Well, NATO's secretary general is warning of possible false flag operations in Eastern Ukraine as the violence escalates.

Jens Stoltenberg spoke at the meeting with NATO's defense ministers in Brussels.


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: What we do know is that Russia has amassed the biggest force we have seen in Europe for decades in and

around Ukraine. And we also know there are many Russian intelligence officers operating in Ukraine. They are present in Donbas, and we have seen

attempts to stage a pretext, false flag operations, to provide an excuse for invading Ukraine.


MACFARLANE: Well, for its part, Russia says its red lines continue to be ignored. It responded Thursday to the U.S.'s answers on its security

demands. The Russian foreign minister says in the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees to ensure

our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military technical


Here's Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): Our priority is not seeing isolated issues plucked from the package of measures and then

claimed we've resolved all issues. We won't resolve the issues until we agree on key positions, overall security of Europe depends on. That is

NATO's non-expansion to the east, non-placement of the strike weapons and respect to the military and political configuration at the time of the

signing of the founding act between Russia and NATO.


MACFARLANE: Let's bring in CNN contributor for Russian affairs, Jill Dougherty. She's joining me live from Moscow.

And, Jill, we have had a lot of responses from Russia today. We've seen that formal response we just spoke about. We've seen them issue threats

over Crimea, expel the U.S. second most senior diplomat from Moscow. Are they really trying to find a diplomatic solution here? Or are they just

using any platform they can to make a case for the things they want?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, RUSSIAN AFFAIRS: You know, that actually is an interesting question, because I think -- here's the document -- 11

pages. So if you read it, essentially it says what Russia has been saying all along. Look, we have no plans of invasion, and what we want is a big

legal guarantee of the security concerns for Russia, which is really big picture. In fact, they use the expression, kind of package. Like a packaged


So they want the big deal, and what they accuse the United States of doing is peeling off parts of this that would give the United States an

advantage, things that are more, you know, discreet issues, nuclear issues, et cetera. And then, you know, what they're essentially saying is if

there's not a big deal, then we don't have a deal. So I guess you'd have to say we are back kind of at the starting point.

That said, they are not saying negotiation's over, we're never going to talk with you again. What they are saying is there are areas in these

discreet individual issues that the United States wants to talk about. Some things we might discuss and work on. Because don't forget, in the midst of

this, there's a security -- strategic security dialogue between the United States and Russia that began back when Joe Biden became president.

So, it's complicated, but I think what's notable to me is the way this is all being conducted very publicly. That normally in negotiations, you might

have people meeting sometimes secretly to discuss things, because that is how a lot of diplomacy is done. This is being done out in the open. Russia

has been publishing all of these papers.

And so, that raises the question, you know, what is this for? It is to inform people or is it more for show? They would say it's legitimate.


But I do think that -- that's different about this type of negotiation.

MACFARLANE: Yeah, that's certainly an interesting point, Jill. There's so much more we could get into, but unfortunately we don't have time ratting

now. Not least, of course, the warnings over these false flag operations.

But for now, Jill, thank you very much from Moscow.

Now, Belarus has been holding joint military drills with Russia, very close to the Ukrainian boarder and our Fred Pleitgen is in Belarus right now

where he spoke with President Alexander Lukashenko who had some harsh words for the U.S., Fred. He joins us now from the capital of Minsk.

And we know, of course, Fred, Belarus and Russia always enjoy close relations, and your exchange with Lukashenko was somewhat on the testy


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, it was. It certainly was somewhat on the testy side, but did come on the heel of

those military exercises, which were really large.

The interesting thing about being there, is we have been talking so much about the forces, the Russian forces that have been threatening, according

to the United States, threatening Ukraine. Well, a lot of those forces are actually in Belarus, and a lot of those forces are taking part in those

exercises. That's why it was interesting to go out there and see firsthand what forces Russia has down there.

It certainly was -- seemed to us they were a strong force, some of the very modern military equipment that the Russians have. Some modern fighters. But

also for instance the Iskander missile that could fly to Kyiv from Belarusian territory.

So, the U.S. is very concerned about those exercises and especially whether or not the Russian forces will actually after those exercises finish. And

that was one of the things that I posed to Alexander Lukashenko, what about those concerns? Here's what he had to say.


PLEITGEN: The United States has said that there would be severe consequences for Belarus if an attack on Ukraine were launched from

Belarusian territory by yourself or the Russian army. Do you still support Russia in its course towards Ukraine?

ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO, BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Do you still believe we're going to attack Ukraine from here, or have you already

overcome this mental block?

PLEITGEN: It's not about what I believe, it's about what the United States says. The United States says there's a very real threat of an attack from

Russian territory or Belarusian territory towards Ukraine.

LUKASHENKO: We have an agreement between Belarus and Russia. We have practically formed here a united Russia Belarus group, a united army that

is, you might say, and this is our official position. Please take it into account as we're taking into account your position.

And on a broader subject, what are you doing here, thousands of kilometers away? What about your experts in Ukraine? Your troops in Poland, in

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia? What do you have to do here, thousands of kilometers away?


PLEITGEN: Lukashenko in the final bit of the answer equating us with the U.S. government.

But at the same time the Russians and Belarusians are saying that after those drills finished that all the Russian forces will depart Belarusian

territory. However, I haven't put a time frame yet on when that's exactly going to happen, Christina.

MCFARLANE: With all the military buildup you have been seeing, what do you think are the chances of them actually withdrawing after the 20th?

PLEITGEN: That's going to be the very big question. That is actually also one of the questions that Alexander Lukashenko was asked as well.

So, the official statements we have from the Russian and Belarusian side is that not a single Russian soldier will remain on Belarusian territory after

those drills finish. But the time frame for when those soldiers are set to depart or would depart, that's something that's much more open and not

exactly clear.

Now, Alexander Lukashenko was asked about that and he said, look, it could take a couple of days. It could take a month. It could take more.

So, it really is not any more clear than it was before, and that's also one of the things that's obviously fuelling the concern by the United States

that possibly those forces there right now conducting the exercises right now could actually be there for the long haul and then obviously also, as

far as the U.S. is concerned, remain a threat to Ukraine simply by the fact that in thousands of Russian soldiers -- soldiers from Russia could be

deployed to the north of Ukraine in a part of Belarus that's as close as you could get to the Ukrainian capital.

That would be the closest way there was to be an invasion -- Christina.

MACFARLANE: All right. Fred Pleitgen from Minsk, thanks very much, Fred.

There's clearly a lot to keep up on regarding the Ukraine crisis, but you can find latest updates, as well as expert analysis on

This piece by CNN's Nathan Hodge: Is Putin creating a pretext for war?


Important question. You can find that online and on the CNN app.

But let's take a look at the other key stories making international impact today.

Hong Kong hospitals are running out of room in the face of a surging COVID outbreak, and some patients are being treated in parking lots. The city is

facing its worst surge with more than 6,000 new cases reported Thursday. Mainland China sent experts and more than 1 million vaccine doses to help

fight the surge.

In Brazil, rescue workers and residents are digging through massive piles of dirt and debris in a setting that's been compared to a war zone north of

Rio. They are searching for survivors after rains triggered landslides. More than 100 people are confirmed dead and more than 130 others are


Iran and the U.S. are wrapping up indirect negotiations in Vienna aimed at restoring the Iran nuclear deal. Iranian delegates are sounding optimistic,

while Western diplomats are sounding more cautious. Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 which aimed to stop Iran from

producing nuclear weapons.

French President Emmanuel Macron says France and its military allies will soon leave the West African nation of Mali after spending almost a decade

fighting Islamist rebels there. Thousands of soldiers are move to Niger instead. Relations between Paris and Bamako have rapidly deteriorated in

the recent months.

In France, a draft bill that would ban competitors at sporting events from wearing the hijab is moving into the national assembly. The board of

legislation aims to, quote, democratize sport, but includes a clause that prohibits the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols. It was originally

attached as an amendment by the state, but the conservative-dominated upper house declined to vote on it Wednesday. Some senators questioned how the

legislation would impact the Olympics which France is set to host in 2024.

The bill is opposed by Emmanuel Macron and his party, which holds the majority. That means it's likely to be removed from the bill but plays into

the wider picture about Islamic identity in France ahead of April's presidential election.

Okay, the U.N. calls the Islamic state's brutal campaign against the Yazidi people a genocide, but why is it taking so long to hold the militant group

accountable? A special report coming up next.


MACFARLANE: ISIS is still a major threat. A recent U.S. raid that killed one of the leaders proves that. U.S. officials say he was driving -- a

driving force behind the atrocities against the Yazidi people in northern Iraq in 2014. The religious minority suffered mass killings and sexual

violence, a brutal campaign the U.N. calls genocide.

But as CNN's Jomana Karadsheh reports, justice has been slow in coming for the Yazidi people.



JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Most hadn't heard his name until the U.S. president declared him dead after a Special Forces raid

in Syria this month. But those documenting ISIS' crimes had been investigating Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi aka Hajji Abdullah long before he

became the group's leader in 2019.

An exclusive CNN report in 2017 revealed one NGO's secret mission to hold ISIS accountable for its crimes. Investigators from the Commission for

International Justice and Accountability, CIJA, collected evidence in Iraq and Syria, part of a Western government funded effort.


in the mass murder, he oversaw the program of enslaving Yazidi women and females. He himself took a slave, who we believe was aged 12 years. Again,

our evidence is he took that girl as his third wife.

KARADSHEH: According to CIJA, Hajji Abdullah was the main architect of one of the worse crimes of our time, the genocide of Iraq's Yazidi minority.

Justice has been painfully slow for people who have lived through the unspeakable. Thousands are still searching for loved ones who disappeared

nearly eight years ago. For others, the wait is over. The anguish is not, as they buried remains identified in some of the mass graves exhumed by


Malas is still waiting. Every day, she says, she cooks a little extra food. Maybe her husband will be back.

Then reality strikes. She hasn't heard from him since ISIS dragged him away along with other men from their village in 2014. There's a permanent

sadness imprinted on her face, testament to the chilling cruelty she and her three children endured.

For more than three years, Malas says she was an ISIS slave, moved from Iraq to Syria. For a few dollars, bought and sold in a market with her


MALAS, YAZIDI SURVIVOR (through translator): They used to constantly assault and beat us. She they forced us to do everything. To this day, my

children don't well sleep at night. They live with fear in their hearts.

KARADSHEH: When news of Qurashi's killing broke, his photos circulated on Yazidi survivor groups online. Melas says she recognized a man she saw

three times in 2019. They called him Hajji Abdullah.

MALAS: He took my husband and father-in-law. He hit me and my children. He ordered them to separate the women, the old ones the young ones, the pretty

one, and those with children. They put us in the back of pickup trucks like cattle until we got to Syria, we did not know where our children were. We

could only hear their cries.

KARADSHEH: She says his death was good news, but she had hoped he and others would have face justice in court, then executed so they could get a

taste of the kind of hell they put Yazidis through.

Establishing specialized courts in Iraq or elsewhere to hold ISIS members accountable has been a long and complicated process, tied in politics and

jurisdictions, but the road for justice for Yazidis is now beginning. In November, a German court sentenced a jihadist to life in prison, first ever

ISIS member convicted of genocide.

For Malas, her struggle is not only for justice, it's about survival now. Like countless other Yazidi, she remains displaced, forgotten. This caravan

is the only home her kids have known.

Life is so hard, she says, recounting how her husband was ripped away from them is just too much. But she has to be strong, she says, for her

children. She's all they have left.

Jomana Karadsheh, CNN, Abu Dhabi.


MACFARLANE: Just heartbreaking, isn't it?

Okay, you're watching THE GLOBAL BRIEF. We'll be back after this short break. Stay with us.



MACFARLANE: Now, ever wished you had someone to carry your shopping bags? Well, meet Gita, the new first of its kind robot built to follow you

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U.k. Brilliant.

Now apparently there's a contest to see who can grow the world's heaviest strawberry, yes, and this is the titanic berry that now holds the title.

More than ten ounces, says the Guinness world records and seven inches long. A farmer in Israel grew it last year and said cold weather conditions

slowed the ripening process, helping the strawberry gain its spectacular weight.

But it wasn't until this week that Guinness could confirm it, and that's why the berry looks a little bit wrinkly. It had to go in the freezer for

apparently up to a year. The previous record holder was a berry from Japan, weighing about 9 ounces.

So, nice bit of jam perhaps, if it wasn't so wrinkly and frozen. But anyway, there you go.

That's it for now. Thanks for watching THE GLOBAL BRIEF. You can catch me on Twitter @chrissymacCNN. And find more GLOBAL BRIEF content at

"WORLD SPORT" is up next with our latest about the Olympics skating controversy. Don't miss it.