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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Russian Airstrikes Hitting Increasing Number Of Civilian Sites; Blinken: U.S. Believes Putin Is Planning To Use Chemical Weapons In Ukraine And "Falsely Blame Ukraine" For It; Biden Admin Confirms U.S. Citizen Killed By Russian Shelling In Chernihiv; W.H.O. Director- General: Global COVID Spike "Tip Of The Iceberg"; CNN Investigates Putin's Supposed Palace & Mob-Like Reign; Russian Court Extends Brittney Griner's Detention Until May 19. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired March 17, 2022 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Is there any line that Putin and the Russian military won't cross?

THE LEAD starts right now.

The giant letters painted outside of the theater said, in Russian, "children." They said it twice. But that did not stop the Russian military from targeting the building, which sheltered more than a thousand people. Now survivors are emerging from the rubble.

Then, an escape miles away from war. The swanky palace that includes a church, amphitheater and rumored underground hockey rink. CNN looks at the documents that trace all of this back to Putin.

Plus, it's spreading in Europe and Asia. With the omicron subvariant here in the United States, did the government lift all the pandemic restrictions too soon? We're going to talk to one of the nation's top doctors.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we start with our world lead and the United Nations Security Council meeting right now as Russia's brutal attack on Ukraine is now entering its fourth week.

This afternoon, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the devastating war and U.S. fears about what might come next.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: Moscow may be setting the stage to use a chemical weapon and then falsely blame Ukraine to justify escalating its attacks on the Ukrainian people. We believe Russia will bring its mercenaries from private military groups and foreign countries to Ukraine. They're also likely to systematically kidnap local officials and replace them with puppets. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Secretary Blinken also confirmed the sad news that a U.S. citizen was killed after Russian shelling in the northern city of Chernihiv. Ukrainian leaders naming the victim the moments ago. His name is James Hill, he's from Minnesota.

These new satellite images throw the ongoing damage in that town. Chernihiv has faced some of the most intense Russian shelling of recent weeks. Local leaders say more than 50 dead civilians were brought into the morgue yesterday. This was the scene earlier today in Kharkiv, outside one of the city's sprawling market. So far, officials believe one rescue worker was killed attempting to fight the fire at the market.

To the east in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, at least one person has been killed. Three others injured, after debris from a downed missile hit a residential apartment building.

After that attack, journalists witnessed this man kneeling on the ground bawling next to what appears to be a dead body. Just another heartbreaking reminder of the human toll of Vladimir Putin's unprovoked war on the independent nation of Ukraine.

Let's get straight to CNN's Sam Kiley live in Kyiv for us.

And, Sam, what can you tell us about these latest attacks?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are now part of a well-established pattern, aren't they, Jake. This morning, there was an attempt to fly a cruise missile against a target unknown, but it was brought down by surface surface-to-air missile, missile-to- missile technology here in Kyiv. When it came down, unfortunately it killed one civilian when it hit that residential apartment block.

Now, many other residential apartment blocks have also been attacked over the previous days, but this one was not necessarily deliberately targeted, unlike what local authorities are saying in Chernihiv where we've seen 53 civilians killed in a relatively small town close to the Belarusian border in the last 24 hours, including the American victim, including ten people who were killed outside a bread store, queuing for bread just yesterday.

And then southwest of Kharkiv, another city that has been really hammered with indiscriminate rocket fire, probably almost on the level that we've also seen in Mariupol, indiscriminate fire hitting a village killing over 20 people. Locals reported 25 people when a community center and school were hit with rocket launching systems. Of course, the horrors of Mariupol continue.

So all of this adding up to a pattern of indiscriminate killing of civilians against a background of renewed warnings coming from the State Department of a potential chemical attack, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Sam, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy spoke with German lawmakers today. This is one day after he addressed the U.S. congress. What was Zelenskyy's message today?

KILEY: Well, he was much more belligerent, if you like. Much more kind of on the front foot when it came to addressing the Germans because in Berlin, he, of course, raised the specter of a return to the Cold War, to the building of the Iron Curtain where the Berlin wall literally bisected the German capital and repeated the notion of never again, bringing up memories of the Holocaust, saying that effectively Germany really wasn't pulling its weight in terms of its support for Ukraine.


It wasn't doing enough to sanction Russian businesses. It wasn't doing enough to close Russian businesses operating in -- I'm sorry, German businesses operating in Russia in the way the United States really has been very aggressive and only very recently have the Germans agreed to supply any lethal aid to Ukraine, demanding that the Ukrainians stop that attitude that they shouldn't be doing so.

And I think it's going to be very interesting to see the level to which he will resonate with the Germans, taking that sort of a line.

TAPPER: Sam Kiley live in Kyiv, Ukraine. Thank you. Please stay safe.

In southeastern Ukraine we go now in what short of may be a miracle. Officials on the ground there say survivors have begun to emerge from the wreckage of a Mariupol theater that was pummeled by Russian air strikes. They believe as many as 1,300 people were sheltering inside when it was hit. More than 100 have been rescued so far or escaped.

Ukraine's defense minister called the Russians who attacked the building monsters, noting that the word "children" was written in large letters in Russian outside of the theater twice to warn the potential Russian attackers that there were families inside with children.

Let's bring in CNN's Nick Paton Walsh. He's in southern Ukraine for us.

Nick, what can you tell us about the situation in Mariupol right now?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: I have to tell you, Jake, the one thing we don't know is how many people, if any, were killed or injured in this utterly barbaric, frankly still startling 24 hours later air strike against an established bomb shelter in Mariupol.

What we do know is that during the day, despite the lack of basic rescue services in Mariupol, to carry out the basic work of clearing the rubble to get people out, still that work has got under way. As you mentioned, 130 people have been rescued from the bomb shelter. We still don't know how many were down there when that bomb struck.

A count suggesting 1300, 1200, maybe a thousand, that varies. Videos posted six days before the attack show that we could easily be talking about hundreds. Labyrinth, dark, densely packed conditions in which people have been crammed for days sharing what little food they had, often in darkness. You can imagine pretty significant cold as well.

It's onto that this very powerful munition was dropped, despite as you mentioned deti, Russian for "children" being visible from space on both sides of the building. So, the initial problem was that the bomb hit the entrance to that bomb shelter, causing rubble, nobody around to rescue, intense shelling making any rescue attempt unviable anyway.

And as the day as gone on, light emerged and slowly we heard reports of people managing to get out. Still, that fundamental piece of information about any lives being lost or altered through injury still missing this late on. Obviously, that kind of accounting is not the first priority here. You have to get people out, rescue them, and there is so much other chaos in this city because of days of Russian bombardment and besieging, 350,000 people originally thought in there, it's possible 30,000 got out at some point.

Today, we are just seeing humanitarian corridors sometimes getting people out safely, other times coming under fire. It's just extraordinary to imagine that a bomb shelter would be considered a target for an air strike by Russia -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick, how does this attack in Mariupol fit into Russia's ongoing battle for southern Ukraine?

WALSH: It's just an example that exemplifies how grotesque their tactics have become. We've seen ourselves a place called Mykolaiv, to the east of where I'm standing repeatedly hit. Today, Human Rights Watch said that they'd manage to document three instances of cluster munitions being used in civilian areas.

We saw the remnants of cluster munition rockets ourselves in a car. This is not some sort of aberration. These aren't mistakes, it seems. This is systematic.

Russia is not getting what it needs strategically. It's not getting into the cities it wants to control. It's not being welcomed as liberators, as its propaganda initially ridiculously said it might be.

And so, its frustration is voiced through artillery, through rocket fire, through attacking civilians. We just see more and more of that every day -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh from Odessa, Ukraine, thank you so much.

Sources tell CNN today the Biden administration is currently discussing ways to help Ukrainian refugees join family members in the U.S. if they have any. But long before that can happen, the refugees have to get out of Ukraine first.

And as CNN's Ed Lavandera reports, 20,000 people a day are passing through one small city on the Polish/Ukrainian border, many not knowing where they're going to end up next.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When Ukrainian refugees step off the train in Przemysl, Poland, there's a sense of relief. They have escaped the war zone, but now these families must navigate a whole new world. Some are lucky they have family or friends waiting for them.

But for most others, this tunnel leads them to the main train station hall where they start making sense of the overwhelming confusion on their own. They have no plan. It's improvised from here.

When the refugees finally make their way off the platform and into the station, one of the first things that greets them is this sign in Ukrainian and Polish that says "here you are safe."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello, do you need any help?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have already been advised, I need to go to Warsaw.

LAVANDERA: Families emerge from the train with endless questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello, can I help you with anything?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can we go from Berlin into Denmark?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To some small town?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. And I think there will be some help offered there, too. Maybe families will host you, maybe there will be some dormitories. Maybe people will come and drive you.

LAVANDERA: About 20,000 refugees a day are endlessly moving through this one small Polish city on the border with Ukraine, filling the halls of this train station built in the 19th century. While parents figure out train rides to destinations across Europe, exhausted children find baskets of treats and toys.

This is what it's like to figure out your next steps when your world has been unraveled by war. Confusion fills the air.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where are you going to go?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't know yet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, you're still looking --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: At 10:00 p.m. we have a train to Prague, if you don't plan to stay in Poland.

LAVANDERA: These refugees have made it out of the first maze onto a bus that will take them to Warsaw, and there the questions will start all over again.

(END VIDEOTAPE) LAVANDERA (on camera): And, Jake, now three weeks into this crisis, the concern really has been moving people through here as quickly as possible. There's growing concern about fears of human trafficking, women and children being sexually assaulted, taken advantage of, because so many people here have been relying on the good will of citizens here in Europe to drive them to other locations.

There are a number of warnings in place in trying to get registered -- drivers registered who are driving refugees to other parts of Europe, warning signs urging people and families to make sure they take pictures of the driver's license and the people they are driving with, if it's not an official bus.

You know, all of this has really been taking a back seat to getting these refugees moved away from the border as quickly as possible -- Jake.

TAPPER: Ed Lavandera, reporting live from the Polish/Ukrainian border. Thank you so much for that report.

She was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was famously or infamously recalled during the Trump administration and later testified in his first impeachment trial. Marie Yovanovitch will join us live next.

And then bad news for WNBA star Brittney Griner who's being held in a Moscow jail.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: We're back.

Sticking with our world lead, despite renewed and emotional pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed today that the U.S. has not changed its position on helping to institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: In order to control the skies, you have to shut down the air defenses that are on the ground, and some of those air defense systems are in Russia. And so, again, there's no easy or simple way to do this. There's no such thing as a no-fly zone light. A no-fly zone means that you're in a conflict with Russia.


TAPPER: Joining us now to discuss, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. She was removed by president Trump and testified during his first impeachment inquiry.

Ambassador Yovanovitch, also the author of a brand-new book, "Lessons From the Edge, A Memoir." Ambassador, it's a really intriguing and well-written book.

Congratulations on it.


TAPPER: So I want to get your reaction to Secretary Austin's comments, because you have said that you think the U.S. should be considering a no-fly zone for humanitarian purposes, but you said it doesn't have to involve American pilots. So what exactly are you proposing?

YOVANOVITCH: So I would leave the details to the experts, I'm not a military expert, as you know. But I don't think we should be taking things off the table at this point. I think yesterday's $800 million package that the president announced was a really, really important step in terms of getting the Ukrainians some of the defense systems that they need -- the drones, the Stingers, the Javelins, and so much more. I think that was really important.

And I think, you know, now that we've done that, we need to continue to backfill it, because what we heard from President Zelenskyy yesterday and what we continue to hear from all the Ukrainians that we're in touch with is if you -- you know, we are ready to fight this war. We just need the equipment and the means to do it.


So I think we've provided a lot of equipment, provided a lot of means and now we need to keep on backfilling those supplies so that the Ukrainians can hopefully prevail against Russia.


YOVANOVITCH: And what the Ukrainians have said is if you're not going to do the no-fly zone, we can do it. We just need the means to do that. Is there a creative way to do that?

TAPPER: Today, the Turkish foreign minister suggested there might be a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy if their delegations can come to a series of agreements beforehand. You've dealt with Putin for years. Do you think he has any interest in a diplomatic off-ramp here?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, I'm glad that the Russians and Ukrainians are continuing to have discussions. I think that's really important. We've heard some hopeful signs from both sides.

I remain skeptical that at this point Putin is interested in a negotiated solution. He seems to be, you know, if past is prologue, he seems to be trying to buy time even as he is bringing in more troops from the Russian far east.

And so, again, I hope that this can move forward in a constructive way, but I would be surprised because I think what we've seen before in negotiations is Russia uses negotiations to buy more time and to sort of reequip its military. TAPPER: I mean, he's slaughtering innocent people. The munitions from

Russia have bombed the maternity and children's hospital. We're seeing all this play out in real time. What is Putin's end game here? Because obviously even if the Russians prevail and conquer the territory, they're going to have a Ukrainian resistance for years, if not decades.

YOVANOVITCH: I completely agree with that assessment. I mean we've seen the Ukrainians resist even in the face of this onslaught, and I think they will continue to resist if the Russians dominate militarily and try to pursue an occupation. But I think it will be ugly. I think that there will be a guerrilla war and there will be all sorts of civil disobedience.

I wouldn't want to be a Russian soldier that goes into a cafe. I'm not sure what they would be serving them. I wouldn't want to get into a car that hadn't been under 24/7 protection. I think the Russians have bitten off a lot here.


YOVANOVITCH: And I don't think they're going to be able to chew up Ukraine.

TAPPER: After decades serving abroad, you came to this conclusion about Russia. In your book, you write, quote: The Russians don't play by our rules or any rules for that matter, but their aim is straightforward, to undermine our institutions and expand Russia's influence. Russia's leaders seem to have made the calculation since they cannot dominate militarily, financially or politically by following internationally recognized rules and norms, they will foment chaos by underlining us domestically and probing our resolve abroad, unquote.

So if Russia is not stopped now and does take over Ukraine, what do you think they do next? Do they try to go for another country? Do you think ultimately they go for a NATO country?

YOVANOVITCH: I do believe that if Russia is not stopped in Ukraine, they will keep on going, maybe not immediately. You know, we saw that they bit off chunks of Georgia in 2008, then of course 2014 in Ukraine with Crimea and parts of the Donbas and now we have 2022 in Ukraine. They were able to get away with it in the past. The Ukrainians need to make sure that they prevail, and we need to help them prevail.

The Russians cannot get away with this again, because I think it will be very -- that would be a very, very serious issue, because it would be a threat to European security, which is a threat to ours.

TAPPER: We did a piece on it earlier this week, I'm not sure if you saw, but relooking, re-examining the Trump campaign in 2015 all the way through the first impeachment through the lens of what Putin is trying to do now in Ukraine. And so much of this, so much of what Putin and the Russians and other individuals like Trump and Manafort were about were setting the stage for Russia to do whatever it wanted in Ukraine. I'm wondering, you know, how much you've spent time since you lived

it, how much you've thought about that recently and what -- how you might see things differently.

YOVANOVITCH: Well, you know, honestly I think that Putin was getting everything that he needed from the Trump administration and by extension those around President Trump. And he -- you know, while our official U.S. policy towards Ukraine was still very strong in the Trump administration, the -- you know, the president's clear disdain for Ukraine as sort of the weaker country compared to Russia, to the extent that he thought about it at all, it was just a pawn for his own personal or political gain, as we saw in the perfect phone call of July, 2018.


So I think that that obviously must have been a bomb to president Putin. And I think the other thing is, it was clear that Trump wanted to take the U.S. out of NATO and perhaps would have done that if he had won a second term.

Again, a clear -- that would have been a real win for Putin, because NATO without the U.S. would be a very weak institution.

TAPPER: Basically just the E.U., I guess.

Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you so much for your time in the Foreign Service. Her new book, "Lessons From the Edge: A Memoir" is out now. Check it out.

Thank you so much, Madam Ambassador. Appreciate it.


TAPPER: Coming up, the masks are off, but is it too soon to breathe a sigh of relief? Dr. Anthony Fauci is live next on the latest concerns over this new omicron subvariant spreading in the U.S.



TAPPER: In our health lead, just the tip of the iceberg. That's what the director general of the World Health Organization is calling the rise of new COVID infections around the world. In the U.S., the BA.2 omicron subvariant now accounts for nearly a quarter of all new cases, putting as many as 28 million seniors at risk due to their vaccination status or the length of time since their last shot.

Let's discuss all this with the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases and the chief medical advisor to President Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Dr. Fauci, good to see you again.

So we're seeing these rising infections in countries in Europe and Asia where this BA.2 subvariant has become the dominant strain. The latest estimates from the U.K. authorities say it's spreading 80 percent faster than the original strain, but we're also told that the BA.2 subvariant is not more likely to lead to hospitalization, although, of course, there's growing impact -- growing concern about its impact on the health care system.

How concerned should we be? Why is there concern about its impact on the health care system?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Well, first of all, what happens is that we generally follow what goes on in the U.K. by about two to three weeks. So we better pay close attention to what's going on there.

They are correct. It has a transmission advantage over the general omicron, which is BA.1. What they're seeing is an uptick in cases that are related both to the increased transmissibility to the virus, the waning of immunity, but also the fact that they're opening up the way we are here and the way other countries in other parts of Europe and other parts of the world and pulling back on mask mandates and things like that.

They're seeing an uptick in cases. I've spoken to them multiple times over the last week or so, and what they are seeing now is not an increase in severity of disease. For example, their ICU bed usage, their intensive care unit bed usage is not up, and the overall mortality, the overall all cause mortality is actually down. So it's a very interesting situation where the cases are going up, but it does not at this point in time appear to be any degree of severity.

So when you ask me do we worry about it, we certainly are concerned because I would not be surprised, Jake, that if in the next few weeks given the fact that we've begun to open up and we have an increase in BA.2 variant, that we'll be seeing an increased cases. Hopefully, that's not associated with an increase in hospitalizations and severe disease.

TAPPER: Yeah. And as we've all learned, the most important indicators are hospitalization and mortality, death, because a case could be somebody who tests positive but is asymptomatic or has mild symptoms. The director general of the World Health Organization is sounding the alarm, though, saying that the pandemic is not over.

Do you think it was too soon to move to the new metrics that allow so many Americans to not have to wear masks?

FAUCI: Jake, it's not too soon if you observe the caveat that's associated with that. And the caveat is we need to be flexible. And if, in fact, we do see a turn-around and a resurgence, we have to be able to pivot and go back to any degree of mitigation that is commensurate with what the situation is.

So we can't just say we're done. Now we're going to move on. We've got to be able to be flexible because we're dealing with a dynamic situation. Hopefully, the cases will continue to come down as the weather gets warmer, the risk of being indoor is less, and we'll do well, at least for the coming several months.

But the one thing that's important, that's a wild card in this is that there is waning immunity. We've got to make sure that those people who have been vaccinated get boosted. Only about 50 percent of the people who were eligible to be vaccinated have gotten their boost.


And we still have only 65 percent of the total population fully vaccinated. If we want to be able to have a buffer against the possibility of there being a resurgence, there are things that we can do right now about that.

TAPPER: Is there a number, a percentage in terms of we still -- I think we still have more than a thousand deaths in the U.S. every day due to COVID. Do we know what the percentages of individuals who are in the mortality count who are not vaccinated at all or who are vaccinated but not boosted? That seems like common sense but I don't know that we have those numbers.

FAUCI: Oh, we do.


FAUCI: We definitely have those numbers. If you look at the percentage of people per hundred thousand who are hospitalized and/or die and compare the unvaccinated with the vaccinated/boosted, the lines split dramatically. Like, you know, 100 and something per 100,000 compared to 20 something. I don't have the exact numbers, but they're striking in the difference between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. There's no doubt about that.

TAPPER: But do we know what the percentage of people are that die every day vaccinated versus unvaccinated versus vaccinated but not boosted? Is there a breakdown like that in terms of -- if a thousand people die in a specific day?

FAUCI: Yeah, yeah, I don't have the precise number, Jake, but it's something like 90 percent weighted towards the unvaccinated if not more.

TAPPER: All right. Dr. Anthony Fauci, thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it. Good to see you again.

One hundred ninety thousand square feet of opulence. This is the palace that according to documents belongs to Vladimir Putin. CNN is going to take a look at who may be behind this life of luxury.



TAPPER: Back with our world lead. The U.S. Justice Department and Treasury Department have officially launched a joint Russia sanctioning task force working with seven countries and the European Commission to collectively hit one of Russian President Putin's most prized assets, the oligarchs in his pocket.

CNN's Drew Griffin investigates now Putin's secret wealth, as critics say, we're witnessing the Russian leader's metamorphosis from a president into a czar.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On the shore of the Black Sea, it can only be described as a palace, 190,000 square feet. From the air, you can see the church, tea house, and amphitheater, and reportedly, an underground hockey rink, with a no-fly zone, and no-boat zone.

This, according to an investigation last year by the jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's group, they claim that gilded luxurious palace, fit for a king, was built for Vladimir Putin.

MARIA PEVCHIKH, HEAD OF INVESTIGATIONS, ANTI-CORRUPTION FOUNDATION: This palace is very much a symbol, and miniature of Putin's Russia. He no longer sees himself as a government employee, as an elected figure. He sees himself as a czar, as king of some sort. And the Russian czar, of course, deserves a palace.

GRIFFIN: CNN can't independently verify Putin's connection to the palace, and Putin spokesman denies the Russian leader owns it or any palace.

Maria Pevchikh, from Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, says they have proof. But their sources and documents all point to the palace as an example of how the oligarchs corruptly enrich Russia's president.

PEVCHIKH: It has been paid for by Russian oligarchs, by Russian state-owned companies, money from Russian people, from regular people. It's stolen, and diverted into building this horrendous thing on the Black Sea.

GRIFFIN: According to the investigation, and a whistleblower who came forward, the money for the palace came from a Russian investment fund company that solicited charity donations from the Russian oligarchs.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: There are these rumors about Putin being the richest man in the world. And he may be. It is very, very hard to try and understand what his wealth is, and where it is held.

GRIFFIN: Rumored to be worth more than $100 billion, officially, Putin claims an 800-square-foot apartment, a few cars and a modest salary in 2020, valued at about $140,000.

But his official income is irrelevant. Russia watchers say Putin controls Russia by determining who gets money, and who doesn't, who gets to run business, who skims profit, and how the wealth is passed.

He doesn't need any assets listed in his name, says journalist Tom Burgis. It's all his when he asks.

TOM BURGIS, AUTHOR, KLEPTOPIA: He is closer to something like the Godfather. But, ultimately, they owe everything they have to the boss. With a click of the fingers, as he is shown in the past, Putin can take everything from an oligarch. However rich and however influential they may seem, they are ultimately dependent on him.

GRIFFIN: Fight the system, interfere in politics, and face his wrath.

Exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was convicted of tax evasion and fraud, spent ten years in a Russian prison, he says, for not playing Putin's game. He claims Putin is paranoid, dangerous, and must be stopped.

MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY, FORMER RUSSIAN OLIGARCH & OIL TYCOON (through translator): All the accounts of all of the oligarchs who function as Putin's wallet must be stopped.


They must all feel the pain right now, and it must continue until the war ends.

GRIFFIN: Newly-imposed sanctions from the West have now made it hard for many of the Russian billionaires to do business outside of Russia -- yachts, bank accounts, frozen. Inside Russia, the economy shows signs of crumbling.

But chipping away at Putin's brutal hold on power through economics will take time. From his actions, observers believe Putin's strategy is far beyond personal riches.

DOUGHERTY: He wants to rebuild Russia as a great power. You always have to go back to the czarist days to understand that.

GRIFFIN: Just look at the gates of Putin's purported palace. A golden two-headed crowned eagle, a symbol of Russia, similar to the two- headed crowned eagle that is atop the gates of the winter palace that belonged to Russia's last czar.


GRIFFIN (on camera): And, Jake, this story symbolizes just how hard this sanctioning is going to do in terms of getting to Putin. He is not going to be affected. Many of these oligarchs are willing to sit this one out while their money is safe, even being seized in the West. So it's going to be up to that crumbling Russian economy and its people who are in so much pain to try to put some kind of pressure on a dictator who seems hell-bent on keeping this war going -- Jake.

TAPPER: And who seems hell-bent on not caring about the Russian people in many ways.

Drew Griffin, thank you so much.

One of the top WNBA players is being held in a Russian jail. Why they're already extending her time behind bars.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


TAPPER: In our sports lead, WNBA star Brittney Griner will remain under arrest by Russian authorities until at least May 19th, according to Russian state media. The two-time Olympic gold medalist was detained in February after Russian officials claimed they found cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport.

Let's get right to CNN's Rosa Flores.

And, Rosa, what do we know so far about what happened?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Jake, what all this means is that Brittney Griner will continue to be detained while she goes through the legal process in Russia. It's important to note that all of this is according to Russian state TV. We've tried to confirm some of this with the U.S. State Department and have not been successful.

But here's what we know so far. Again, based on Russian state media. They say that Brittney Griner went before a judge in a video conference and that this hearing was not about the merits of the case, it was about the legality of the arrest and the detention, with her attorneys arguing that even the beds that are available for her are too small. The prosecution arguing that absolutely she should be detained and remain detained. The court at the end of the day ruled in the favor of the prosecution.

So, Jake, again, what all this means, at the end of the day, Brittney Griner will continue to be detained at least through May 19th while she goes through the legal process in Russia -- Jake.

TAPPER: Explain to our audience why she was in Russia to begin with.

FLORES: You know, in this case, Brittney Griner is not alone. A lot of WNBA players go abroad and they play during the off-season to earn more money.

And let me break it down for you, because according to the latest WNBA collective bargaining agreement, about the average WNBA player earns about $130,000. The top players earn between $200,000 and $300,000, and the stars earn about half a million dollars.

Now, compare that to the starting salary of a rookie NBA player, which is about $925,000, and you quickly learn that they're earning about seven times what the WNBA players are earning. So imagine players can go to Russia, for example, Brittney Griner can go to Russia and earn about $1 million, Jake.

So, Brittney Griner and many WNBA players do it because they get to earn a lot more money than they earn here in the United States.

TAPPER: Rosa Flores, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Coming up, maternity hospitals, apartment buildings, boarding schools for the blind, theaters serving as bomb shelters, these are not military targets. These are the civilian targets of the Russian military.

Plus, breaking news on that horrific crash that killed six college golf players and their coach. What we're learning about who was behind the wheel of the other vehicle.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

This hour an update from investigators in Texas after a horrific traffic collision killed nine people. Investigators now say someone too young to even have a driver's license was behind the wheel of the truck involved.

Then, she survived World War II as a child, only to be forced from her home in Eastern Ukraine because of the Russian invasion. Now she's a refugee living in a stranger's apartment near Dracula's castle. And she's far from alone.

And we lead this hour with breaking news. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirming this afternoon that a U.S. citizen has been killed by Russian shelling in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. Ukraine's government named the American victim as James Hill from Minnesota.

Secretary Blinken also accused Russia of committing war crimes. Blinken said he does not believe Russia's claim that these strikes are mistakes, and warning the Russians are not likely to stop the slaughter any time soon.

Recent Russian air strikes in Ukraine have hit a maternity hospital, schools, countless residential buildings in civilian neighborhoods, even a bread line. Civilians in Ukraine paying the highest price of this war so far.

CNN's senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen joins us now from Lviv.

And, Fred, today we learned that there may have been survivors after that horrific bombing of that theater in Mariupol where about 1,300 people were sheltering with signs warning the Russians that children were in there. Signs that went ignored.

What more do we know?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Jake. It's really difficult to get reliable information from that place.