Return to Transcripts main page

Don Lemon Tonight

Russia Ramps Up Attacks In Ukraine, Widens Assault On Civilians; Russian Families Are Desperate For Information On Soldiers Sent In Ukraine; WNBA Star Brittney Griner Detained In Russia. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired March 07, 2022 - 23:00   ET




DON LEMON, CNN HOST: This is DON LEMON TONIGHT. Our breaking news, Russian forces ramping up their attacks on Ukrainian civilians moving closer to Kyiv, the capital city. The U.N. reporting tonight more than 400 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly two weeks ago, and there are fears the actual number is much higher.

The United States and NATO sending nearly 20,000 missiles to help Ukrainians fight back against the Russian invaders. And the Pentagon announcing it is sending 500 more troops to Europe to support our NATO allies.

Let me get straight to CNN's Michael Holmes. He is in Lviv for us. Michael, hello to you. We are seeing countless videos of homes, apartment buildings up in flames. This one that we're looking at now is near Kharkiv and there is one at Mykolaiv. The Russians can say whatever they want, but the videos show that troops of civilians are under attack, Michael.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Don. And you and I have talked about Putin's playbook before where, you know, his plans go awry and he resorts to, you know, brutal, indiscriminate shelling, bombardment. And we are seeing that play out. No military target anywhere nearby in some of these places and yet the rockets and artillery rain down.

And this is -- you know, experts are saying this is because it looks like the Russians have stalled on the ground. They have had problems with logistics and resupply as well as dealing with Ukrainian counterattacks, which have been very effective.

So, they resort to what we are seeing: pound civilians, increase the body count, hope to break the will of the people and the government that way. It's frankly horrendous. And with no military targets nearby, it's also undeniable, Don.

LEMON: The president of Ukraine is defiant. He has been defiant since the beginning, delivering a message from his office for the first time since the war began. What did he have to say, Michael?

HOLMES (on camera): It was significant. He wasn't in a bunker or some underground area. He was at the presidential palace. It was a nine- minute address, as you say, his now trademark defiance. Let's have a listen to some of what he had to say.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE (through translator): Every Ukrainian who yesterday, today, and tomorrow have been and will be resisting against the occupants, hear us. We are together with you in this. We are not afraid. Together with you, when the occupiers are starting the fire, trying to disburse all of us. You're not backing down, and we are not backing down. I'm not hiding, and I'm not afraid of anyone.


HOLMES (on camera): You remember, Don, a day or two ago, there was talk of a, you know, a just in case plan being drawn up to get President Zelenskyy out perhaps to a neighboring country, perhaps here to Lviv where we are in the west of Ukraine, to run some sort of government exile if it came to that. Well, in that speech, he made it clear. As he just said, he said, I will stay here. He also said, my team is with me, I will stay in Kyiv. Don?

LEMON: I want to put up some video for you, Michael. This is from an occupied area near Kherson. And the crowd is shouting in Russian and Ukrainian. You can hear it in the background. It says, go home. This is the bravery that Zelenskyy was talking about, correct?

HOLMES: Absolutely, Don. That bravery -- because that's what it is. It's courage. It's bravery. Imagine doing that. That is played out across the country. People literally standing up to the Russians. And sometimes, it has to be said in the face of gunfire.


There was that one man we saw, remember, climbing on a Russian APC (ph) with the Ukrainian flag. That is courage.

The other thing, too, I would point out, Don, it points to something important. If Putin somehow thought he would roll in here and Ukrainians would roll over or somehow, you know, welcome or accept or be cowed by the Russians, he was very wrong.

And even if Russia's superior military wins the main ground battle, you know, taking territory isn't the same as holding territory, and many say it would become an insurgency here. People like those in that video and others will continue the fight, guerilla-style. The sad part is such insurgencies usually last years, Don.

LEMON: Uh-hmm. Michael Holmes in Lviv. Michael, thank you very much. I appreciate that.

I want to turn now to Oleksandr Mykhed. He is a Ukrainian writer and literary scholar whose home was destroyed by the Russians. He joins us now from Kyiv tonight. Thank you, Alexander. I appreciate you joining us. I'm so sorry to hear that your home is destroyed, and I'm so sorry for the horror --


LEMON: -- that you and all Ukrainian citizens and everyone there is living through. What has it been like living in a city really under assault?

MYKHED: That's a really terrific question because actually, me and my wife, we live 30 kilometers from Kyiv, it is Hostomel, and now it's one of the biggest places for the terror and for the warfare, and everything started just immediately in the first day.

And as a scholar, as a writer, I usually -- I research on this dark side of humanity and what is war experience and everything, but I never thought that my nation and my country would experience that ourselves and my family as well.

It's not only about my home. It's also about the home of my parents, for example, because they live in Bucha, which is really close to Hostomel and another essential point for Russian occupants to go there. So, their house is just in front of Hostomel Airport. And then the first day, my mom saw 13 helicopters that were bombing the Hostomel Airport. Now, my parents lost their own house.

We haven't had the possibility to evacuate them. So, now, they just stay with random nice people who hosted them. This is just -- their whole life changed in just 10 days.

LEMON: Do you -- are there a lot of folks there who are doing -- you said that people just hosting other people, like the folks who are hosting your family.

MYKHED: Yeah. That is just -- I don't know. The tram (ph) is not the right word, but that's actually what's happening. We understand that this is the war of the whole nation and everybody should be useful with their instruments in their place. Either volunteering with the refugees or hosting their friends or friends of friends or -- just try to do their best in each area that is possible to do.

LEMON: You know, Putin thought that your country would just fold. But you say this has united Ukraine like never before, and the whole world is seeing it. Talk about how Ukrainians are responding and where that strength is coming from, Oleksandr.

MYKHED: There is a special feeling in the Ukrainian character, that there is special cheerfulness, there's irony that's happening, and that started just from the first day.

Despite the horror, despite the bombing, despite the shots, we started laughing on Putin's army. We started cheering up our own soldiers. And we have this special list of the Ukrainian people's heroes. For example, farmer who took the tank with his tractor and he just dropped it or the bully guys in one of Kyiv's districts, how they just, with their fists, they fought with the Russian soldiers and took their techniques and all that.

So, now we have these heroes -- or a postman (ph) with the special -- I don't know how we call it -- the rocket launcher from 80s, and he just shot the helicopter with this. But he is the postman (ph). And those are just these funny or -- cheering up the whole nation with these examples of how great we are, our defense, and with the huge amount of the examples -- how bad they are.


To my mind and to -- as far as the other experts in the Ukraine, we think that Russia haven't understood anything about Ukraine. Just -- they don't understand anything, starting with the idea that they would think that Ukrainian nation will cheer up them with flowers and welcome them here, and continuing with the guys whom they would love to put as prime minister or the demands they are putting and everything.

So, they just don't understand that Ukraine is independent, modern, young nation, and we will fight till the last.

LEMON: You wrote a piece for "The Financial Times" where you say that the only language that can be spoken by Ukrainians right now is the language of war. What do you mean by that?

MYKHED: By language of war, I mean two things. One is that the whole language now is really direct. Everybody knows like the whole world knows from the first day, the sketch phrase, what the Russian warship should do with himself.

And now, we have this direct language of swear words, just on the big boards around the country, saying what the Russian warship and the Russian army should do to themselves, and we use more swearing words in our daily speech because that's the stuff that helps us to free our emotions and to express ourselves. That is kind of the therapy in the terms of even on discourse of the -- on the level of language.

On the other hand, the idea of the language of war is that we don't read books. We can't listen to music. We can't think about our plans (ph). We can't -- we have only one thing. We need to stay alive. And we need to stand as one. And that's the only idea, the only stuff that we are talking. The only one thing -- one point that we have in our mind, to stay strong.

And in these terms, all these fears of life might become the instruments of the world diplomacy, cultural diplomacy. Talking to our friends through social media, talking with you, Don, and the other media, trying to bring up our own feelings, because it is really important to understand that we should produce our own frame (ph) for Ukraine, not only as Putin said and some western media did that through this time as Ukraine is anti-Russia. It is not anti-Russia. Ukraine is Ukraine.

And that's the point. We are not something opposite to that. We are something different. And that's what I'm trying to say.

LEMON: Well, I appreciate you coming on, and we think it's important that people get to hear from the people of Ukraine, that the world gets to see it, hear it, and try to understand what you're going through. And hopefully, it will bring this to a resolution. Hopefully, that resolution will be peaceful soon. Thank you, Oleksandr. I appreciate you appearing.

MYKHED: Thank you so much, Don.

LEMON: Thank you very much.

MYKHED: Thank you so much.

LEMON: I want to bring in now CNN military analyst and retired Air Force colonel, Cedric Leighton. Colonel, thank you so much. What do you think when you hear these stories?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST, RETIRED AIR FORCE COLONEL: Well, I think, Don, what Oleksandr was just talking about is really the essence of what this fight is all about.

When you're looking at, you know, a writer like that who talks about the language of war and the kinds of things that they are going through, we're talking about total war here.

This is the war of a population against an occupying army and that's basically what're seeing here.

LEMON: Yeah. Let's talk about the strategy there, and you can show us around what's happening, what the strategy is. The Pentagon warning Russia is moving to a strategy of heavily bombarding cities, Colonel, after their troops haven't made any noteworthy progress for a few days now, really. Where are the frontlines tonight?

LEIGHTON: Well, that's a really interesting question. So, basically, Don, what we're looking at is frontlines right around Kyiv, right around Kharkiv, and of course Kherson and Mykolaiv right here, and also the city of Mariupol.

So, these areas right here kind of show the frontlines. The frontline is basically fluid, but it is somewhat static as well. It is not like what you would see here in this area, which is kind of a World War I- like trench warfare situation.


That is not at the moment at least what's happening either in the south or in the north. But what we are seeing is kind of a concentration or an effort by the Russians to concentrate their forces in certain areas. But they're not being very successful at leveraging those forces and moving them into all the cities.

LEMON: We are learning that an enormous convoy that is outside of Kyiv is mainly resupply vehicles, something that the Russian troops need, considering that the Pentagon says that Russia got major problems, including a -- that they have major problems, including fuel, food shortages. They might need to bring in foreign fighters from as far away as Syria. What impact would that have?

LEIGHTON: So, foreign fighters are going to be an effort by the Russians to change the balance of this war. Those foreign fighters generally are known as very ruthless fighters. They are going to be ones that will go in and in essence give no quarter to the Ukrainian population. They are very dangerous for urban warfare. They have experience. Many of them in urban warfare, particularly those who come from Chechnya or from Syria.

So, those two areas, foreign fighters from those areas, would be a very difficult thing for the Ukrainians to deal with, but they can be dealt with.

LEMON: Do you believe Russia was prepared for this to last this long?

LEIGHTON: No. I do not believe so at all, Don. I think they thought that they would roll over Ukraine, basically like they did in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. That was a two-day affair. This is obviously already much longer than that. And I think that their war plans called for a quick movement, quick takeover, and quick installation of a pro- Russian government in Ukraine.

LEMON: There's also a possibility of a Pentagon backfilling our NATO allies like Poland if they provide fighter jets to Ukraine. How big of a difference will that make and how would they get those into the country? I mean, I don't know if Poland is going to do it because they are afraid -- I think they are afraid that Russia might attack them for doing it, but how does this work?

LEIGHTON: Well, it has to work very carefully. So, one thing, of course, what we see here is a Polish MIG 29. To the right, we have U.S. F-16 which the Poles would get in addition to the F-16s they already have to fight their part of the fight should it come to that.

As far as bringing aircraft into the country, that gets to be a little bit more difficult than what you would normally see in terms of normal logistics movements. Generally, they would have to fly out of Poland into Ukraine.

It is also possible to disassemble the aircraft and move them over ground. But that is a much longer process and I doubt that they would actually do that. If they actually move those aircraft like this, I expect they're going to fly them into Ukraine.

The problem that they're going to have, Don, is they are going to have to make sure that the airfields that they landed at in Ukraine are airfields that have not been damaged irreparably and that can actually take and support those aircrafts, and these would be the MIG 29s that the Poles have right now.

LEMON: I always learn a lot when we have you on. Thank you, colonel. I appreciate it.

LEIGHTON: You bet, Don. Absolutely.

LEMON: Russia brutally attacking civilian targets in Ukraine, homes, schools, churches, shelling neighborhoods. But Ukraine's people are fighting back. Next, what urban warfare is like on the ground.




LEMON: A senior U.S. defense official warns Russian forces are increasing bombardments of major Ukrainian cities. I want you to take a look at this video. It is of heavy shelling in the city of Irpin. Homes on fire, residents trying to escape the bombs.

So, joining me now, Colonel John Spencer. He is the chair of Urban Warfare Studies at Madison Policy Forum. We have been having him on -- I love having you on. I learn a lot from you every time you're on. Thank you so much for joining, colonel.

These new videos, this video shows the horror of this war. A residential apartment building up in flames. This is what's left of a school in the northern city of Chernihiv. That was weeks ago. It was full of students. And then, I want you to look at what happened at a church in a small town outside of Kyiv. Are we seeing a new phase in this war?

JOHN SPENCER, CHAIRMAN OF URBAN WARFARE STUDIES, MADISON POLICY FORUM: I think we're seeing the transition, Don, really from what I would consider phase one to phase two. And the ICC is already going to investigate all of these strikes. Hopefully -- they say these are war crimes. Those are protected sites. He's going to claim that these are enemy locations. And this is really phase one of bombing.

Any location, he'll say that somebody had a weapon, but that doesn't abstain him from the law of war requirement to protect civilians. There are all kinds of things that can be done to get civilians ouch there.

Unfortunately, I think this is only the tip of the iceberg. Remember, this is not a war. This is an operation, a large operation to take Kyiv. And all we're seeing are the supporting operations. This is going to get way uglier.

LEMON: I just want to warn that this video that you're about to see is very difficult to watch. This is a Russian strike hitting an evacuation route in a suburb of Kyiv. Watch this.



UNKNOWN: Shit, shit, shit.



(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON (on camera): That's so fast, colonel. There's no way to get away from that. It happens in seconds, a second. Multiple people were killed, including a mother and her two children seen in this horrific video. How can Ukrainians hold on to their cities with this kind of attack?

SPENCER: One, we as the international community have to demand that the civilians flee, the civilians are allowed to get out. You could see there, there was somebody with a weapon. He's going to claim, that's the whole point of why we don't want -- why militaries don't want to fight in urban areas, because of the location, the civilians, and the restrictions of use of force.

Clearly, Russia is flying loose where there are restrictions -- restrictions are forced. The way the Ukrainians survive this, number one, is prepare for the next phase. This is going to get worse. And luckily, there was some ceasefires.

Just to be clear, Don, if we empty all of these cities out of civilians, which is a very common urban warfare tactic, when you want a city, give it time to empty civilians, and then the fire you can bring down because your restrictions are a lot less, the international criticism is not.

I mean, look at the battle of Grozny, which is Russian, which is only a city of 270,000. It was the smallest city. Only had 2,000 fighters in it. They started off by bombing 3,000 rounds of artillery a day. That got up to 30,000 rounds a day. That's around every 30 seconds for 24 hours.

LEMON: Wow! This is more video that I want you to take a look at. It shows Ukrainian police taking out Russian tanks. Their resistance is incredible. But you're saying Ukraine doesn't have to win militarily. They just have to buy time. How do they do that?

SPENCER: They do that. So, this is really a chess game. We know what they need to take Kyiv. We know they need armor, they need tanks, they need mechanized infantry, they need artillery. The Ukrainians are just picking them apart as they try to get to where they're going. And that is great. In that video, I wish they would be from a more concealed location.

But you know, no smart army person -- no smart military person goes into the fight without armor. So, how do you prevent them from doing that? Thousands and thousands. That is an RPG (ph). The Javelin is a more lethal tank killer. Take away all of their tanks. I'm telling you -- Ukraine can survive.

And they also have to get underground. I put out a tweet about the underground network in Kyiv. It's crazy. If they can get underground, survive the bombardments that are going to come, they have a real -- you know I keep saying this because I have hope, and I know the defenders have the advantage.

Russia is demoralized and that would be even if they are the best army in the world, and they are far from it, because of the time they've given Kyiv to pair the defense, and we see them doing that. Like you said, every day that we have a talk, Ukraine is winning. They're preparing to turn Kyiv into a meatgrinder.

They have reached the gates. There is force at the gates of Kyiv. Hopefully, it will be the gates of fire when they try to actually go in. But they're going to start hitting it. I mean, beyond what I think anybody is really expecting, especially if you can get the civilians out.

I'm talking World War II, thousands of rounds a day, and they have to get, for me, get to places where they can survive that and be ready to fight.

LEMON: Colonel Spencer, thank you. We'll see you soon.

SPENCER: Thank you.

LEMON: The world watching as Russia escalates it invasion of Ukraine, attacking nuclear plants, bombing civilian homes. Will anything get Vladimir Putin to back down? The former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, joins me next.




LEMON: As Russia bombards cities and targets civilian infrastructure, there are increasing concerns about just how far Vladimir Putin will go with this war on Ukraine.

Let's discuss now with CNN national security analyst James Clapper. By the way, he's the former director of National Intelligence. He joins us now. Thank you, Director Clapper. Appreciate seeing you.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recorded a video from his office just today, the first time that we have seen him there since the invasion began, really. Is this dangerous for him to do this?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, I think it was pretty brave of him, maybe even brazen. But I think when he does that, he's really poking Putin in the eye, and I think he's doing a little psychological operation on Putin. So, the fact that he made that broadcast from his normal office -- so I think you have to hand it to President Zelenskyy.

Who would have thought that somebody, a former actor, comedian, would rise to the occasion like he has? But he really has been an inspiration not only to Ukraine but the rest of the free world.

LEMON: You know, we're used to -- I was speaking to someone in Ukraine earlier and talking about, you know, how used to a free press we are. Russia doesn't have that, especially right now.


(on camera): The information black hole in Russia is getting so severe that some families split between Ukraine and Russia don't even believe each other's narratives about the conflict. Sounds a little bit familiar as to what's happening here.

This is a woman I spoke to. Her name is Lisa, and her family is in Russia. Here she is.


LISA, UKRAINIAN FORCED TO EVACUATE KYIV: They can't believe that Russians are doing anything wrong. They can't believe that Russians are hitting civilian buildings.


LEMON (on camera): Her own family, director, doesn't believe what she is seeing with her own eyes, what she has experienced. It is shocking, believing Putin rather than your own family's personal account of what's happening to them.

CLAPPER: Yeah, that's -- has a familiar ring to it, doesn't it? That is, I will tell you, is Putin's Achilles heel, I think. You know, he is paranoid about information. You know, if you mention the word war or invasion, you go to jail for 15 years. They have clamped down. There is virtually no independent media left because Putin and his cronies are so afraid of real truth getting out. And that's an area we absolutely must exploit.

You've had former Secretary Bill Cohen on who's very eloquent and passionate about this. I think he's absolutely right. And we need to exploit that as a weapon, weaponized information against Putin because that's -- the truth is what he's really afraid of.

LEMON: I want to ask you quickly about this Z symbol that we have seen on some of the Russian military equipment. Director, it is now spreading across Russia for supporters of the war. With all the misinformation in Russia, are you worried that the Russian support for the war could actually grow in the coming weeks?

CLAPPER: I'm sorry, Don, I didn't hear. Could you repeat the question? I didn't hear it.

LEMON: It's about the Z. Are you worried that their support for the war could grow because we're seeing all Z symbols in support of the war?

CLAPPER: I don't think so. I kind of thought those Z symbols were just, you know, what the military often does so people can identify who's who in the zoo with respect to the vehicles. I think there's a generational gap to a certain extent in Russia, and I don't think young people are quite as gullible as a lot of older people that are more traditionally minded.

And again, that's a gulf we need to exploit. So, I don't worry about it too much, but I think we need to be more aggressive about figuring out ways to get the truth to the people of Russia.

LEMON: Agreed. Thank you, director. I'll see you soon.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: Families of Russian soldiers desperate to get in touch with their loved ones after being left in the dark by their own government. Now, many are turning to an unlikely source for help, Ukrainians.




LEMON: Many families of Russian soldiers who were sent to fight in Ukraine are desperate for news about their loved ones. They say they're not getting information from the Russian government. So, they are turning to an unlikely source for help: a hotline run by Ukrainians.

The story tonight from CNN's Alex Marquardt in Kyiv.


UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): Hello, is this where one can find out if someone is alive?

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): Hello, do you have any information about my husband?

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): Sorry to bother you, I'm calling regarding my brother.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are the voices of Russians. Parents, wives, siblings desperately searching for answers. Calling to find information, anything, on Russian soldiers they've lost contact with, who are fighting in Ukraine, who may be wounded, captured or even killed.

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): When was the last time he contacted you?

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): On the 23rd of February when he crossed the border into Ukraine.

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): Did he tell you where he was going?

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): He said towards Kyiv.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): This Russian wife, like many others, has turned to an unlikely source for help, the Ukrainians. In the Ukrainian government building, Christina, which is her alias, is in charge of a hotline called Come Back from Ukraine Alive, which Ukraine's interior ministry says has gotten over 6,000 calls. Christina asked that we don't show her face. (On camera): Your country is being invaded, but you also feel the need to help these Russian families. Why?

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): We will help find their relatives who were deceived and who without knowing where and why they are going - find themselves in our country. And secondly, we will help to stop the war in general. They don't know what's actually going on in Ukraine. So, the second goal of this hotline is to deliver the truth.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): The Russian relatives who have called this hotline say they haven't heard from their soldiers since the invasion.


(voice-over): The hotline, which Russian families have found on social media or through word of mouth, gave CNN exclusive recordings of a number of the calls.

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): This is not our fault. Please, understand that they were forced.

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): Yes, I understand.

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): I also want this to end. I want everyone to live in peace.

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): Yes.

MARQUARDT (on camera): What are some of the calls that stick out to you, that you remember the most?

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): A father called.

MARQUARDT (on camera): It's okay.

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): He said, our children are being used as cannon fodder. Politicians and VIPs are playing their games, solving their issues while our children have to die.

MARQUARDT (on camera): These are the notes from one of the calls. In fact, this call came from the United States, the relative of a young Russian soldier trying to find him. She told the Ukrainians that his parents are no longer alive, that the grandmother in Russia is quite sick. We have his birthday. He is just 23 years old and he was last known to be in Crimea, right before the invasion. Now, the Ukrainians do not have any information on him, but if they do find him or get some information, they can then call his aunt back in the United States.

(Voice-over): Data from the hotline shows thousands of calls not just from all across Russia, but also from Europe and the United States.

(On camera): Hello. Is this Marat (ph)?

UNKNOWN (voice-over): Yes, it is. MARQUARDT (voice-over): We got through to three relatives in the United States of Russian soldiers believed to be in Ukraine who called the hotline, including a relative in Virginia, of one who also found the soldier's I.D. and photos on a channel of the social media app Telegram, also dedicated to finding the whereabouts of Russian soldiers.

UNKNOWN (voice-over): We do realize that all of the signs are pointing to that it's most likely he was killed in action, but still trying to locate information, where is the body, that be potentially found, or maybe hopefully, he's alive.

MARQUARDT (on camera): Is the Russian ministry of defense telling anything to the family?

UNKNOWN (voice-over): Family is trying to not get contacted by anybody because everybody is so scared in Russia. Everyone is scared to talk. Everyone is afraid of law enforcement agencies tracking them.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): Marina (ph) told us that her cousin's parents have had no contact with him, no information on whereabouts or on his condition.

(On camera): Are they being told anything?

UNKNOWN (voice-over): No, no, they called. They tried to find him but no one is answering.

MARQUARDT (on camera): Is that why you called the Ukrainian hotline?

UNKNOWN (voice-over): Yes, that's why I tried to call. Yes.

MARQUARDT (on camera): Did you get any information?

UNKNOWN (voice-over): Nope, nothing. I was, you know, hoping that he is like maybe like in prison or something like that, you know, that he is still alive?

MARQUARDT (voice-over): The vast majority of the calls do not result in immediate information for the families.

Back in Kyiv, Christina makes clear that the call center isn't just designed to offer answers, but to galvanize Russians against the war.

UNKNOWN (on-screen translation): The more people we can share the truth about what's happening in Ukraine with, the more people will go out protesting and demanding to stop this bloodshed.

MARQUARDT (voice-over): Sympathy for families, but also one more way to try to undermine the Russian war effort as Ukraine fights for its very existence.

Alex Marquardt, CNN, Kyiv.


LEMON (on camera): Alex, thank you very much.

WNBA superstar Brittney Griner detained in Russia. Her whereabouts since her arrest is unknown. And at least one U.S. lawmaker is saying it is going to be difficult to get her out.




LEMON (on camera): Tonight, calls are growing louder for Russia to release WNBA star Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, from detention. She was apparently arrested for allegedly possessing cannabis oil. Her whereabouts since her arrest are unknown.

CNN's Lucy Kafanov has the story for us.


BRITTNEY GRINER, OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST: What am I going to do for the rest of the day? It is freezing cold outside.

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): WNBA star Brittney Griner in her own words, telling ESPN about the isolation of playing basketball off season in Russia.

GRINER: It made me open up to my family more on telling them like how much I love them.

KAFANOV (voice-over): Those lessons now more grim as Griner seen here at the airport entering Russia is detained at a security checkpoint for allegedly having cannabis oil in a vape pen. The video and details just emerging. But Russian customs officials say the arrest happened in February. A criminal case has been opened with a possible punishment up to 10 years in prison, if convicted.

All of this against the backdrop of war.

DEBBIE JACKSON, GRINER'S HIGH SCHOOL COACH: They are really like your second family.

KAFANOV (voice-over): Debbie Jackson coached Griner at a Houston high school, calling her disciplined and humble. Jackson isn't surprised Griner went on to become a seven-time WNBA all-star in Phoenix and two-time Olympic gold medalist.


Her message now for her former student?

JACKSON: You have always had a true resolve and grit to get to the finish line, and know that you will get to the finish line.

KAFANOV (voice-over): Griner's wife on Instagram telling her, my heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by. I miss your voice. I miss your presence.

Those familiar with Russian policies say Griner's sexual orientation may also be a complicating factor.

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D-CA): Russia has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws. That may be part of this also.

UNKNOWN (voice-over): You are worried that is part of this?

GARAMENDI: I wouldn't be surprised.

KAFANOV (voice-over): California Congressman John Garamendi says the lack of a diplomatic channel with Russia amid the war in Ukraine is a huge roadblock. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is working this and other cases, like that of Trevor Reed, held in Russia for more than two years, telling the U.S. Embassy he has no medical attention behind bars.

ANTONY BLINKEN, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: We are doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected.

KAFANOV (voice-over): Like others, Griner plays in Russia during the off season where the pay is better. Now, her toughest challenge moves to a different kind of court.

JACKSON: You are always hoping for the best and cheering for them to stay on top.

KAFANOV (voice-over): Lucy Kafanov, CNN, Phoenix, Arizona.


LEMON (on camera): Lucy, thank you.

And thank you for watching, everyone. Our live coverage continues.