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Navalny Aides Suggest Prisoner Swap Negotiations; Zelenskyy Urges US Aid Amid Russian Aggression; Alabama Embryo Ruling Sparks Clinic Concerns; Magician Behind New Hampshire Robocall Scheme; Supreme Court Cases Impacting Social Media. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 26, 2024 - 14:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: New developments in the death of Alexei Navalny. His aides now say they were in the final stage of negotiating his release as part of a prisoner swap. What we're learning about who else may have been freed and how the Kremlin is responding. Plus, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy telling our Kaitlan Collins, millions will be killed if the U.S. does not send more aid. This as Ukrainian forces are retreating from a key eastern village amid Russia's continued push west. We're breaking down what's at stake on the battlefield.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Plus, abracadabra! New CNN reporting revealing who was behind the AI-generated robocall that urged voters to sit out of the New Hampshire primary. More on that and who allegedly paid for the scheme. We're following these major developing stories and many more, all coming right here to CNN News Central.

KEILAR: Was Alexei Navalny on the cusp of being released in a prisoner swap before he died? One of the late Kremlin critics, top aides, claiming negotiations were in their final stages for a deal that would have freed Navalny and two Americans held in Russia in exchange for a Russian assassin in German custody. Today, the spokesman for the Kremlin said he was unaware of this proposal, but a Western official confirms to CNN that talks were chance in Moscow for us. Matthew, what are you learning about this?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, it's been rumored for some months that Alexei Navalny, the late Russian opposition leader, was part of the negotiations for a prisoner swap. Those talks have been underway for some time between the United States and Russia to try and get U.S. citizens in Russian prisons freed, people like Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter, and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine.

But this is the first time that the Navalny team has come out public and said and admitted that Alexei Navalny was being discussed and was sort of part of that negotiation. More than that, they say that the negotiations had reached the final stage just the day before Alexei Navalny was pronounced dead at that Arctic penal colony. And what Navalny's team are saying is that he was essentially taken off the negotiation table by the Kremlin to prevent him being freed, prevent him being swapped, being killed. Of course, that's something the Kremlin have categorically denied.

They've described allegations that they were heading to do with his death as obnoxious. I've spoken to the Kremlin over the course of the past day, and they said they got no idea. They never heard anything about this proposal or this agreement being made about swapping Navalny. Nevertheless, it is potentially, and you've seen there, that there are some confirmation that you've been telling us about, about how this was something that was being discussed. It is a very interesting twist in this ongoing tragic saga about the latest opposition leader.

Now, just some other bit of quick news, which is at the end of the week, Navalny's team said they're going to be staging a public memorial, a public farewell to Alexei Navalny, his funeral. They're not giving us the exact day, probably Friday, possibly Thursday. They haven't found a venue that will host it yet, but it will be an intensely political event. And so, it could be a flash point for anti- Kremlin, anti-government protests across the country. So, we're watching that very carefully. Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. We will watch that. Matthew Chance, thank you for that report. Boris.

SANCHEZ: Let's break down the story with a former member of the FBI hostage rescue team, Rob D'Amico. He's the founder of Sierra One Consulting. Rob, thanks so much for sharing part of your afternoon with us. I want to get your reaction to this news that Alexei Navalny, according to aides, the Kremlin was ready to release him and a pair of American citizens in exchange for this convicted murderer and former FSB officer. Does that seem like something these parties would have actually agreed to?

ROB D'AMICO, FORMER DEPUTY OPERATIONS CHIEF, FBI HOSTAGE RESCUE TEAM: Yeah, I just read it and I was kind of shocked to it. But when you're doing negotiations, you really always have to ensure that who you're talking to actually has the connections to make what you're negotiating happen. So, if whoever we were talking to in this, if it was going on, they may not have had the Kremlin's permission to do this.


It may have been something that they were working that they were going to bring up. Or if the Kremlin actually kind of gave them the go- ahead, what level did that happen? Did the people holding him actually understand that? And was he sick to a point that he couldn't be brought back if it happened? So, a lot of this is going to come out.

And right now, it's right on the edge. Were the Germans going to release an assassin? Don't know. But if they were talking about it, you always have to understand what level was that approved at or what level was it discussed in the governments. SANCHEZ: That's a really interesting point. It brings up the scenario that the Kremlin, or at least the parts of the Kremlin that are connecting with Matthew Chance and the story, were actually telling the truth that at a certain level, a lot of folks didn't know that there was a negotiation going down, if there was. The timing, though, seems significant. A Navalny aide saying that the final stages of the agreement were in place on February 15th. Of course, Navalny died on the 16th, the following day. Does that at all make his death seem more suspicious?

D'AMICO: It does. It does. But when you're dealing with governments that lie and that you may never get the truth, you just don't know. And then the whole misinformation back and forth, it could have been the understanding of one group that the negotiations were further along when they weren't. And that's kind of the problem with these negotiations when they're done covertly is really getting that word out. It's always one of our times to be scared is when we thought we were close to a deal

And if the actual hostage takers who had custody of the person knew that, too, so that no harm or that they took better care of them. We do know like the Taliban and the Khanis, when they were negotiating for someone, they actually started taking a little bit better care. One, because they didn't want the prisoner to come out looking horrible. They want them to look decent when they came out of custody.

SANCHEZ: Such an interesting point. Can you walk us through some of the complexity of these negotiations when they're politically charged like this, because I imagine it would have taken a great deal for someone like Alexei Navalny to be released, being seen as such an enemy of the Kremlin.

D'AMICO: That's that's really the last couple of negotiations, both in Israel and Russia. You're dealing with politicians who actually have other agendas when we're negotiating with groups. Even if it's a terrorist group, you understand what they're really looking for, what they want. You get down to it. Obviously, the family wants them back. And you're dealing, I think, at a more level plane with that. But when you bring in a politician like you look at Netanyahu, he's making claims. Well, is he trying to save himself or is he really trying to release the hostages? When you look at Putin, you look at an ego that is so big. Would he like you said, would he really let this guy go if he was just so hated by him?

So, the politician throws a different level in the negotiations. And I think it makes it like 10 times tougher because you just don't understand what their end point is. When you have straight up negotiations, I think that's basically you understand what they want. You understand what you want to get out of it.

SANCHEZ: Rob D'Amico, thanks for sharing the expertise.

D'AMICO: My pleasure.

SANCHEZ: Brianna. KEILAR: In the meantime, there's fierce fighting underway in Ukraine as Russia is intensifying attacks following the second anniversary of its invasion. Ukrainian forces were forced to retreat from a village in the Donetsk region just days after Russian soldiers captured Avdiivka. And it's those examples that are adding more fuel to the fight over Ukraine funding in Congress.

President Biden set to meet with the four top congressional leaders tomorrow. He's hoping to broker a deal on his $60 billion aid package to Ukraine. It's a package that is desperately needed on the front lines. In an interview with CNN's Kaitlan Collins, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that without a deal, his country could be doomed.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: So you see the difference that USAID makes is what you're saying?

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Yes. I mean, that's -- this year, if we will not get anything, we won't have any success. And also, --


COLLINS: Wont have any new success.

ZELENSKYY: Any new success. And I think the route will be closed with a grain because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense and some other systems. And that's why without it and without we can't count on this.


COLLINS: That's a really stark comment. You're basically saying that there will be no new success for Ukraine if there's no new US aid. Essentially, this all depends on US aid.

ZELENSKYY: Steps -- success forward will depend on USA. Yes, not defending. Not only defending line because if you defend, just defend, you give possibility Russia to push you. Yes, small steps back, but anyway, we will have these steps back, small one, but when you step back, you lose people. We will lose people with us.


KEILAR: Now, to talk more about this, retired Air Force Colonel and CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton. I mean, that's pretty stark what he's saying there, essentially without this aid, Ukraine is going to start losing. Is that how you see it?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true, Brianna, because if you don't have this kind of aid, you have to look at Ukraine as being very vulnerable in all of these different areas. Not only do you have the Russian-occupied area here in red, but you also have the Russian border right in through here. You have Belarus, which is a Russian ally here. You have Russian troops in Moldova that could potentially act up very soon and potentially be used as part of a Russian effort to annex this part of the territory.

So, and then of course, we also have this area right here around Odessa. It's very vulnerable because there's very little coastline left that the Ukrainians have to move their grain through the Black Sea. So, Ukraine is in a vulnerable position no matter how you look at it.

KEILAR: And let's look at the change here because six months ago, this is Ukraine. We got to keep our eye on the territory there and the names of the towns and the cities. There's been obviously this shift. Walk us through the changing territory.

LEIGHTON: Yes, so what you're basically seeing here, Brianna, Bakhmut of course was taken over by the Russians. Avdiivka recently evacuated by the Ukrainians. And the Russians are also moving into towns right along this area right here. There's a town called Orlivka, not to be confused with another town of a similar name that's a bit further west. But that town right in this area is being subjected to a Russian movement on three different sides of it. So the Russians are, in essence, trying to advance their area into this part of Ukraine, which would, of course, have a significant impact on the Ukrainians' ability to defend not only this part of the country, but the rest of it as well.

KEILAR: And the eastern front, I mean, this is the key, as we look a little closer in here. This is the key area. This is where the fight is. Why is this so important?

LEIGHTON: Well, this is so important for a variety of reasons, but primarily Luhansk and Donetsk, these two oblasts or regions right here, were the ones that the Russians occupied starting in 2014. They also moved forward into this area right here to create a land bridge to Crimea. So it's important because it's economically a very important region. It has a lot of natural resources, coal, other minerals, plus a lot of industry is in this area. And it is the center of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. So that is why the Russians want it. But the Ukrainians also want it for economic reasons, plus to maintain the viability of Ukraine as an independent state.

KEILAR: Yeah, it's key to its economy, and it will be over time as well. So Zelenskyy also saying in that interview that Russia is preparing a new offensive. And we are aware, of course, that Ukraine has been preparing its own. What's the interaction here?

LEIGHTON: So, the basic thing here, when you look at the broad picture here, is the Russians have several options if they move their forces into these particular areas. Predominantly from the south, we could see things happening in this area, right around the rivers, the Dnipro River specifically. Plus, of course, clearly on the move from the east to the west around Avdiivka, Bakhmut, these areas right here. Kharkiv, the second city, is always at risk. It's only 30 kilometres from the Russian border. Plus, there's always a risk to Kyiv. Right now, there's no indication that Kyiv's in danger. However, that could change depending on how the Russians move their forces.

KEILAR: Let's talk about the aid package and why what's in the aid package is so critical.

LEIGHTON: Right. So, let's take a look at some of this, because, first of all, Ukraine is going to be used, if this aid package passes, as it's currently written, to replenish military weapons that have already been provided to Ukraine from the DoD inventory. What this means is that it's going to replenish our inventory, not the Ukrainian inventory. And there's $14 billion that's going to allow Ukraine to buy U.S. weapons. So that allows them to actually have weapons for their own use. And then another key factor here is military training, intelligence sharing, and other support that is worth about 15 billion dollars.


This is a critical element right here. We gain a lot of intelligence from the Ukrainians. They have a special relationship that was reported in the New York Times just the other day with the CIA. They also have relationships with the other U.S. intelligence agencies where they're providing very unique insights. So, this is basically an investment not only in the relationship with Ukraine, but also in our ability to secure NATO's eastern flank.

KEILAR: Yeah. People forget. And we've known because of this Washington Post analysis for months now, about 90 percent of this money going towards weapons is actually coming back into the U.S. People think it just goes to Ukraine. It's not. This is where they're getting the weapons. So, it also does contribute to the industry here in the U.S. Cedric, thank you so much for taking us through that. We appreciate it.

LEIGHTON: You bet, Brianna.

KEILAR: Boris.

SANCHEZ: We're learning new details today about a deadly protest outside the Israeli embassy in Washington. Authorities identified Aaron Bushnell as the person who on Sunday set himself on fire. The 25-year-old was an active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force. CNN's Gabe Cohen joins us now with the details. And Gabe, this is something that he did in protest.

GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's correct. And we're learning much more about this 25-year-old active-duty airman, Aaron Bushnell. As you mentioned, he's from San Antonio, Texas, and he live streamed his actions on Sunday in broad daylight on the streets of D.C. outside the Israeli embassy. We are not going to show that video. It is extremely graphic and disturbing. I have watched the video. I can tell you at the beginning, at the start of it, you can see Bushnell walking up to the embassy on the street in his military fatigues. He's speaking calmly to the camera.

I want to read a portion of what he says. He said, quote, I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I'm about to engage in an extreme act of protest but compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it is not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal. He then goes on to pour some sort of accelerant, it looks like, on his head out of a water bottle he was carrying. And then he lights himself on fire, Boris. And as the flames engulf him, you can hear him yelling, free Palestine, free Palestine, again and again until finally he collapses.

And that is when officers, you can see them race in, one of them with a fire extinguisher in their hands trying to put out the flames. But it takes time. And as we have learned, Bushnell died in the hospital at some point later on. And look, it really speaks to the tensions that are continuing to escalate around the war in Gaza, not just across the world, but here in the United States. We saw a similar incident in December when someone self-immolated lit themselves on fire outside of the airport. Israeli consulate in Atlanta. But this feels different. This is an active-duty member of the military burning himself to death on the streets of the nation's capital.

SANCHEZ: Gabe Cohen, thanks so much for the details. Appreciate it. Still to come on News Central, Republicans facing tough questions after Alabama's IVF court ruling saying that embryos are children. It's as Democrats step up their messaging on reproductive rights. We're going to speak to one doctor at an Alabama fertility clinic about what's next for her patients. Plus today the Supreme Court hearing arguments on cases that could change what we see on social media. A really important case involving Florida and Texas. And some incredible deep-sea discoveries. How scientists may have found more than a hundred new species and a gigantic underwater mountain. A look at what lurks beneath the waves in just moments.



SANCHEZ: It's been nearly a week since Alabama's Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos are children. And now the Biden administration is calling out Republicans to fight the battle over reproductive rights intensifies. The White House says that Republican lawmakers who once supported in vitro fertilization are now trying to erase their own records on IVF. Already a number of Republican lawmakers have tried to distance themselves from the ruling, with many struggling to respond to it. Here's Texas Governor Greg Abbott on CNN.


DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Are you saying that families in Texas who are using IVF have extra embryos that are frozen, do not need to worry?

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): Well, so you raise fact questions that are complex that I simply don't know the answer to. Let me give you a couple of examples, and that is I have no idea mathematically the number of frozen embryos. Is it one, ten, a hundred, a thousand? Things like that matter. These are very complex issues where I'm not sure everybody has really thought about what all the potential problems are. And as a result, no one really knows what the potential answers are.

BASH: Yeah.


SANCHEZ: In the days since the Alabama ruling, multiple fertility clinics have expressed concerns over potential liability based on the ruling. With us now to talk about this is a doctor at one of those clinics, physician and reproductive endocrinologist with Alabama fertility specialist Dr. Mamie McClain. Doctor, thank you so much for being with us. You wrote in a column recently, quote, the Alabama Supreme Court ruling is truly a nightmare for physicians and patients across the state. Help us understand your perspective on this decision.


DR. MAMIE MCLEAN, PHYSICIAN AND REPRODUCTIVE ENDOCRINOLOGIST, ALABAMA FERTILITY SPECIALIST: So when we found out about the decision Sunday morning, it was a complete shock to us. We had no idea that this was ongoing and the implications for our clinic are significant. If in fact an embryo is equivalent to a child, then the normal procedures that we undergo in an IVF lab are simply not tenable any further. There are patients that are ready for embryo transfers and IVF that I simply cannot take care of.

SANCHEZ: Wow. A lot has been made, doctor, about the ruling being intended to protect couples and their embryos. The embryos are now covered under the wrongful death of a minor act. It has obviously created uncertainty for providers like you, but I'm curious about what you think the intention is. Do you think this is a byproduct, unintended consequences of the decision, or was this intentionally meant to limit IVF?

MCLEAN: I can't speak to the intent of the justices, but I can say that what happened to the couples in South Alabama is something that should be avoided. Our embryos should be taken care of and carefully watched by IVF clinics and cryostorage facilities, but the decision that an embryo is equivalent to a child effectively cancels or shuts down the IVF clinics in the state of Alabama.

SANCHEZ: Doctor, what have your conversations been like with patients since this ruling, those that had to pause IVF treatments? I'm wondering what they've shared with you.

MCLEAN: They're worried. Right now, they don't have any options in the state of Alabama. Not only can I not provide an embryo transfer to them, but now they're unable to take their embryos outside of the state to have an embryo transfer. So, there are absolutely fewer pregnancies and will be fewer babies born in the state of Alabama as a result of this ruling.

SANCHEZ: If you could help us better understand the process, I think it would illuminate some of the ramifications of this decision because there are a lot of steps for patients even before the embryo is ready for implantation, right? And timing is also a critical component of this.

MCLEAN: So, the lead up to IVF treatments can be months at a time. It involves about two weeks of fertility injections that are used to grow the eggs, a procedure to remove the eggs from the body. Then the eggs are fertilized and embryos are then grown and cultured in the lab until they reach the blastocyst stage. And that's when a physician and a patient should be able to make a decision about whether to do an embryo transfer or not. And that's when a physician and a patient or to freeze embryos at that juncture. Once the embryos are frozen, they do provide couples with more opportunities to be successful because it can take up to two to three transfers to become pregnant.

SANCHEZ: What has been your advice to those patients that are stuck now in this process?

MCLEAN: My advice is to get involved, to make your voice heard, to work with our legislature and our state to make this right at a time where we feel so powerless. Advocacy and awareness are our only tools.

SANCHEZ: Dr. Mamie McClean, we appreciate the work that you're doing and your desire to bring attention to this issue. Thanks so much.

MCLEAN: Thank you. Of course.

SANCHEZ: Still ahead, we now know who was behind a robocall urging voters in New Hampshire to sit out the primary in that state. How a magician found himself in the middle of the night. And that's when a physician and a patient were able to find themselves in the middle of a political scandal. And the two controversial Supreme Court cases that could dramatically change how you use the Internet and what you see on social media. Moments after a quick break.