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Interview With U.S. Ambassador To Russia John Sullivan; Putin Defends Russian Invasion Of Ukraine; Republicans Signal Willingness To Seek Federal Abortion Ban. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 09, 2022 - 14:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. I'm Alisyn Camerota. Welcome to CNN NEWSROOM.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good to be with you.

We begin with the day of pomp and propaganda in Moscow. It's all against a backdrop of military parades. Vladimir Putin gave a national address to recognize Victory Day in Russia, his words here, that this is our duty to make sure that the global war is not repeated again.

Well, today, leaders worldwide condemned him for his invasion of Ukraine, and that includes Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who declared the victory in the end will belong to Ukraine.

Now, Putin did not declare war try to mobilize more troops, as analysts suspected.

CAMEROTA: He also canceled the Victory Day air shows across Russia that had been scheduled.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. believes this shows that Putin recognizes that his war is not going well.


LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: President Putin has recognized he has no victory to celebrate. His efforts in Ukraine have not succeeded. He was not able to go into Ukraine and bring them to their knees in a few days and have them surrender.

He gave up on taking Kyiv.


CAMEROTA: In the east, Ukrainians are fighting back in the Luhansk region, after Russian units built multiple pontoon bridges over a key river.

These could allow Putin's forces to cut off Ukraine's supply routes to that region. Also in the east, Ukrainian officials fear as many as 60 people are dead after they say Russia dropped a bomb on a school over the weekend.

BLACKWELL: Let's turn to CNN's Erin Burnett. She is in the capital of Kyiv.

Erin, what more did the president, President Zelenskyy, say about Victory Day?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Well, you know what, Victor? It's really interesting.

He was -- took -- very bold in response to it. He released a video of himself at the exact same time Putin was speaking. And he was walking along the streets of Kyiv here. Among other things, he said: "Pretty soon, there will be two victory days in Ukraine, and someone won't have any happy victory over Nazism day."

And he said: "We are fighting for our freedom, and, therefore, we will win."

He also said this about the Russian perception of the Ukrainian world view:


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): It annoys them. It is unfamiliar to them. It scares them. Its essence is that we are free people who have their own path. Today, we are waging war on this path, and we will not give anyone a single piece of our land.


BURNETT: Let's bring in CNN international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson.

And, Nic, Putin had a very specific message for the Russian soldiers in the Donbass here in the east of Ukraine. How did that play out?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, it was for the Russian soldiers fighting there and for the fighters, the pro- Russian fighters of Donbass.

And he said that they were fighting for the motherland. It played out in a way that Putin probably intended it to, that, on the streets of Kherson, for example, one of the Ukrainian cities that the Russian forces, one of the few that they had been able to take control of, there was a small -- small Victory Day celebration there, obviously pro-Russian, and the Russian authorities trying to sort of stamp their authority and control there.

So that would go the way that Putin would want it to go. He told them, the fighters in Donbass -- and interest in that he framed it as Donbass and not the whole of Ukraine, which gives him enough ambiguity to wiggle out, ultimately, if his forces aren't able to take any more of the country. But his message there was that you're fighting Nazism. This is a

message that he tried to sort of put on a par with the -- World War II and the Soviet forces, the Red Army helping defeat Nazism. He tried to sort of draw that equivalence.

How did it play out? It's going to ring pretty hollow to some of those soldiers who've lost friends on the battlefield. But, for Putin, it was all about image at home, and that's where he really wanted it to play out strongly. Our fighters in Donbass are fighting for us, the motherland -- that was his message.

BURNETT: Well, and it's crucial, as you point out, that ambiguity of using the word Donbass, as opposed to all of Ukraine, to give that ambiguity.

Obviously, you're in Helsinki because you're covering the latest on the diplomatic situation here. And apparent anti-Russian protesters targeted Russia's ambassador in Poland during all of this. Tell me about that and why that mattered today.



And I think it's going to matter more in the future as well. Look, Russia knows that Poland, of all the sort of former Eastern European nations, Poland, of all the sort of members of the E.U. and of NATO and supporters of the United States and of Ukraine, Poland is perhaps the strongest and the most bellicose.

So when the Russian ambassador, Sergey Andreev, decided he was going to go to the cemetery in Warsaw for fallen Soviet soldiers, he went there, and he met with protests. Red paint was thrown over him. And it's very clear from the statement from the Russian Embassy in Warsaw that they had or the police had expressed concerns about this, because they said that they had taken note that the authorities have said or implied that it wasn't smart to have what the Russians described as a wider demonstration.

So they said, in their words, they decided to meet them halfway, meet the Polish authorities halfway and go to the cemetery anyway. And they said that the Polish authorities, all they had to do was provide security. So there's clearly a tension there that exists between the Polish authorities and the Russian ambassador in Warsaw.

There was clearly, it seems from the words of the Russian Embassy, an attempt to warn them that there was an anti-sentiment, that there would be potential protests against this. But I think the words of Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman is the narrative that Russians will be hearing.

And that is that this shows the face, the rising face of Nazism, and it is a bloody face. That was what -- that's how the Russians are telling their people about what happened today.

BURNETT: Yes. Well, all right, thank you very much, Nic Robertson.

And I want to go now to Nick Paton Walsh. He's here in Ukraine in Kryvyi Rih.

And, Nick, I want to ask you about the school. This is this horrible story. Dozens were sheltering, and it was bombed. And we obviously have heard that the numbers have continued to climb in terms of horrible death toll. What is the latest as you know it?


You know, Erin, this was a 4:00 explosion on Saturday in Bilohorivka. Now, that's in Luhansk and close towards sort of areas in which they believe Russia will be trying to push forwards. But this was seven miles from the front line and a school in which it's thought about 90 people were sheltering.

Now, the death toll has been thought to possibly be as high as 60, because only 30 have been pulled from that wreckage. There seems to have been an airstrike. And while we do know that, at times, major infrastructure has been used by Ukrainian troops as they move around, at the same time, we also know that Russia has been very comfortable bombing shelters as well.

And this appears to have been exactly that, where children were sheltering as well. And so, as they begin to excavate the rubble there, there is, of course, going to be increasingly evidence to back up that number of 60.

And those who have emerged, indeed, the survivors, have talked of being folded into by essentially a slab falling off part of that school, being pulled out in utter darkness, the sound of screaming, and obviously the sheer horror of, it seemed, one explosion, possibly followed by another, maybe a secondary hitting something else inside the school, but, clearly, here another example of Russia's utter disregard for civilian life -- Erin

BURNETT: Utter disregard, which, of course, we have seen in city after city, including in Mariupol, where Putin had hoped to have some sort of a victory parade-type thing today. That didn't end up happening in the way that he expected. But that city is besieged.

And we now understand from the city council that they are finding more mass graves, more mass graves of civilians. What more do you know about that?

WALSH: Yes, I mean, that's -- some footage has emerged suggesting that there are new mass graves on the outskirts of Vynohradne, which we haven't independently been able to verify, but it fits into a broader pattern of obviously now that city being under Russian occupation.

There's an enormous health hazard and a large number of corpses to dispose off. So, and, indeed, in the event that there does appear to be more evidence of these mass graves, then that would be entirely in fitting with Russia's, frankly, cleanup here of what many describe as a war crime, not just in the drama theater where they bombed and possibly killed hundreds with an airstrike, but in other areas around there as well.

But, today, surreal, frankly, to contrast the statements we have heard from Ukrainian officials about the intensification of the onslaught at the last pocket there holding out of Ukrainian resistance, the Azovstal steel factory, some civilians having been taken out of that, but it's really unclear if there any still left inside there.

Ukrainian officials warning of long-range bombers, possibly as many as .50-caliber missiles, perhaps being in the Black Sea or Azov Sea that might be used to target that area, along with the statements from the separatist leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, there in Mariupol, an extension now, it seems, of that separatist territory essentially run entirely by Russia, describing about the possibility of using that in the future as a resort town.


Now, you have to take in their the grossly cynical surrealism of suggesting that a town that they have flattened, frankly, killed thousands there, it may at some point be a holiday destination on the sea. I mean, beggars belief, to be honest, Erin.

BURNETT: It truly -- it truly does.

Thank you so much, Nick Paton Walsh.

And, Alisyn, as I send it back to you, I was just talking to the deputy prime minister here. And she was saying that, obviously, they were focused on some of the strikes in the south here on May 9, on this Victory Day, but that they really felt that it was sort of the days and weeks ahead that they could understand which direction Putin was going to take this war, whether he would escalate it, whether there would be the fear of tactical nuclear weapons or not.

And they just still are in this sea of complete unknown and escalation at the same time.

CAMEROTA: Yes, understood.

Erin, we will check back with you. Thank you very much for reporting on the ground for us.

Joining us now from Moscow is the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for being back with us.

So, why didn't Putin declare victory yesterday, as was predicted? I mean, we have heard people say it's because he has no victories to celebrate, but since when does Putin let facts get in the way of his propaganda?

JOHN SULLIVAN, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Well, thank you, Alisyn. It's a pleasure to be back, back with you again. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Well, President Putin couldn't declare victory, because even the Russian propaganda machine couldn't back that one up. We have seen time after time Russian's goals in Ukraine thwarted, starting with their attempted lightning strike on Kyiv. That's not to say that President Putin didn't stray far from the truth in his remarks today at the Victory Day parade. He certainly did.

In fact, his remarks -- his remarks are just pure propaganda, misinformation, disinformation that would make George Orwell blush. It's that extravagant.


CAMEROTA: But what do they tell you about his mind-set, since you have a bit of a window into that? Does it just show his paranoia?

SULLIVAN: It shows, at a minimum, the Russian government, senior leaders' willingness to say anything to justify the unjustifiable, which is their aggressive war in Ukraine that is slaughtering innocents across the -- across that besieged country, atrocities that are hard -- hard to comprehend.

Any justification they can try to come up with, including some of the most ridiculous statements I have heard in my professional career, that -- the foreign minister attempting to refute the argument that Ukraine couldn't possibly be run by Nazis and engaged in a genocide because Ukraine is governed by a democratically elected president who is Jewish, to which the Russian foreign minister responded that, well, Hitler was Jewish.

I mean, it beggars belief. It -- again, referring to Orwell, it's like the Ministry of Truth on steroids.


SULLIVAN: It's hard to believe and take seriously what the Russian government says sometimes.

CAMEROTA: I want to describe for you what the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said about the difference that she has begun to see in Russian diplomats.

So, Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that she's noticed that, since the start of this, they are uncomfortable. She has seen that in the way they carry themselves, in their demeanor. She doesn't see the Russian prime minister in the Council as much as she saw them previously. So, in other words, they're just harder to find.

Are you seeing any difference in Moscow?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's certainly the case that it's difficult for anyone with a conscience to utter some of the -- some of the propaganda that the Russian government attempts to unload on the world.

So, my interactions, unfortunately, with senior Russian government officials have been quite limited over the last two months, since the war began. But I would concur wholeheartedly with my colleague Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield.

CAMEROTA: Can you give us a status report on the Americans who are still being held in Russia?

SULLIVAN: Wrongfully detained, I'm sorry to say, wrongfully detained in the case of Paul Whelan for years, in the case of other prominent -- another prominent American, Brittney Griner, months in both cases.

And this is true for all Americans who are detained here. This embassy, and myself in particular, are focused every day on their welfare, trying to do welfare checks, make sure that they have the support they need, if they need medical care, access to their lawyers, et cetera.


In addition, I know everyone back home from President Biden on down is working to make sure that we do all we can to get those Americans who are wrongfully detained here released.

CAMEROTA: And do you think there will be any progress? I mean, I know that you were so instrumental a couple of weeks ago. Are you seeing any movement?

SULLIVAN: You know, Alisyn, at this point, I would defer comment.

I will say only that the United States is doing all it's can -- all it can to secure the release of these wrongfully detained Americans.

CAMEROTA: What is your thought on what happens next with Putin? And do you know anything about his health?

SULLIVAN: Can't comment on his health, Alisyn. I really don't know. I have seen what we have all seen in the media, speculation. And it's just that, in my opinion.

It's also difficult to know what President Putin is planning. We have seen -- we saw starting last fall the plans that he had to invade Ukraine, which we made public. But, beyond that, it's difficult to speculate, because his decision circle is so small.

What I would conclude with, though, is what my colleague CIA Director, Ambassador Bill Burns said. If I were -- if I were a betting person, I would say it's most likely that President Putin is doubling down on his special military operation in Ukraine, which the rest of the world, including 141 countries in the General Assembly, recognize as a war of aggression that all of those countries are condemned and deplored.

CAMEROTA: Ambassador John Sullivan, thank you very much for your time.

SULLIVAN: Thank you, Alisyn. Good to be with you.

CAMEROTA: You too. BLACKWELL: President Biden has a message for his top national security officials: The leaks about intelligence sharing with Ukraine must stop. More on what sources are telling CNN ahead.

CAMEROTA: And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says a national ban on abortion is possible.

We examine that next.



BLACKWELL: Abortion rights protests continue across the country.

The D.C. Police Department has now extended its use of a civil disturbance unit through Thursday. Now, this weekend, more than 100 protesters marched to the homes of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

CAMEROTA: Also today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says a national ban on abortion is possible.

He told "USA Today" that -- quote -- "If the leaked opinion became the final opinion, legislative bodies, not only at the state level, but at the federal level, could certainly legislate in that area. And if this were the final decision, that was the point, that it should be resolved one way or another in the legislative process. So, yeah, it's possible."

Joining us now is CNN political commentator Scott Jennings -- he's a longtime confidant of Senator McConnell's -- and Ashley Allison, former national coalitions director of the Biden 2020 campaign.

Great to see both of you.

Scott, because of your access to Mitch McConnell, I want to start with you.

First, let me just pull up the latest polling. This is just from last week in terms of where Americans are on Roe vs. Wade and abortion. So, 2-1, Americans do not want Roe vs. Wade overturned. So, despite that, do you agree with Senator McConnell that it's -- quote -- "possible" that there could be a federal ban on abortion if there were enough Republican votes on Capitol Hill?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, I don't think the Supreme Court should be making decisions based on public polling.

I actually think, if you pulled up a poll about, do Americans want unlimited abortion through all nine months, they'd say they don't want that either. So -- but that's what's going to be on the floor this week. Chuck Schumer's legislating in this area already, to borrow Senator McConnell's words. They're going to put a bill on the floor that would codify Roe. CAMEROTA: Scott, Scott, Scott, Scott, Scott. Hold on, hold on, hold on, Scott. Hold -- hold on, Scott.

You say -- you say that as though -- one of the caveats of what they're putting on the floor is if the life of the mother is in jeopardy. That's how the law is written. It's if the life of the mother or the health of the mother is in jeopardy. That's what would allow them to end the pregnancy. Don't you think that's an important detail?

JENNINGS: The Democratic Party position, as I understand it, is nine months of abortion, no limits.

CAMEROTA: That's not it, Scott. That's not it. I have it right here. I have it right there.

JENNINGS: What are the limits? Then you tell -- what are the limits? What are the limits?

CAMEROTA: I'm going to tell you right now.

JENNINGS: What is the numeric limit? What week or month is the limit?

CAMEROTA: I'm going to tell you right now.

A right now to abortion only when, in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient's life.

There it is. That's the line.


JENNINGS: Any health care provider.

Look, there are no limits in this. It goes all the way through. And -- but here's the thing. We can debate this. And the conservative position is it should be debated in Congress or in state capitals.

And in this article you referenced, that's all Senator McConnell was saying, was that this takes it out of the judicial venue and puts it in the political venue. So I suspect what you're going to have are Democrats and Republicans putting up legislation to legislate in this area.

Democrats are doing it this week, however you feel about it. Republicans are likely to do it as well. And then the Senate would and the Congress would take it up.

Now, what's also said in this article is the most important piece. They will not blow up the legislative filibuster over this, meaning Republicans. So you would get -- you would need 60 votes to do anything. And that's unlikely to be the case for either party in the near term.

[14:25:07] BLACKWELL: Ashley, Scott called on Twitter the concerns about the statements from Mitch McConnell dishonest gum-flapping.

What's your degree of concern when you hear Leader McConnell say that a national ban on abortion is possible?

ASHLEY ALLISON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: When someone shows you who they are, believe him.

I think he is giving a signal to people that, if he were head of the Senate, he would try and make abortion illegal in all circumstances for women. He ensured that there was a court that would actually allow this constitutional right for over half of the population to be erased by stealing a Supreme Court seat from President Obama, being hypocritical and expediting the confirmation of Justice Barrett, when we had -- when he wouldn't allow that vote for Merrick Garland.

So he is showing us who he is and what he would do. And I think we all need to take heed that it is quite possible that he would act on an abortion ban.

And I also think he has been disingenuous in the past. And while it may say that removing the filibuster is not an option, I doubt that he -- if he really wanted to make a federal ban on abortion, that he would stay true to his word and not try and get rid of the filibuster, even though he has opposed it when we try and have rights like voting rights passed.

CAMEROTA: Scott, here's something else that I...


JENNINGS: Can I just address that for a -- can I just address that for a second?



JENNINGS: We had Donald Trump as president of the United States for four years beating on Mitch McConnell to get rid of the legislative filibuster, and he wouldn't do it.

We now have Mitch McConnell saying, I will not get rid of the legislative filibuster. The only politicians in Washington who have changed their position on the legislative filibuster are the Democrats, who didn't want to get rid of it during Trump, but now all want to get rid of it because Biden is the president.

McConnell has been a constant.


JENNINGS: The Democrats have wavered on this. So let's just be factual about who's where on this filibuster issue.


Scott, one other thing that I want to ask you about abortion rights. Help me understand how there are some states that want to ban abortion at the same time that they want to restrict access to some birth control.

So, Mississippi, for instance, which would try -- would have a trigger lock to ban abortion, also this weekend basically suggested that they would look at restricting access to, at some point, some forms of birth control. How does that -- how do those two work? In other words, you -- you -- are they trying to increase unwanted pregnancy?

JENNINGS: I don't think anybody's going to get too far on banning contraception.

I know this keeps getting thrown around. My view is, some states are going to put restrictions on abortion. Some aren't. Some states are going to liberalize their abortion laws. Some states are going to wind up in the middle. That's what the political process gives us when things are taken out of the courts and put in the political venue.

But this idea that we're going to ban contraception, that you're going to have rollbacks in other areas, I have seen people making all kinds of really stretched claims. I don't think that's going to happen. I think you are going to see different jurisdictions come up with different answers on abortion.

But I would be stunned if this extends to basic contraception that virtually everyone in the United States uses every day.

BLACKWELL: Ashley, we played at the top of this block the protesters heading to Justice Kavanaugh, Chief John Roberts' homes.

Do you think that there should be protests organized in front of the houses, the homes of these justices?

ALLISON: I think we're in a critical moment, and people want their voices heard. We have free speech. I think, as long as people are safe, that the American people have the right to protest how they want.

I'm not saying that anyone's life should be put in danger or that people's privacy should be invaded. But I do think that we have the right to protest and let our voices be heard.

And, most importantly, I think that it is a signal and a rallying cry for folks not just to be protesting on the weekends when this decision, just -- the leak just happened or when the actual decision comes down, but then to also -- the biggest protest we could do is by voting this fall.

BLACKWELL: Ashley Allison, Scott Jennings, thank you.


CAMEROTA: A stark warning from the White House today: More than 100 million people could be infected with COVID-19 by this winter.

There are a lot of ifs here. So we will tell you what you need to know ahead.