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U.S. Rebuffs Ukraine's Requests for Longer Range Weapons Right Now; Queen's Funeral to be One of Century's Largest Diplomatic Events; Brett Favre's Texts Included in Lawsuit Over Misspent Welfare Funds. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired September 15, 2022 - 09:30   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Well, this morning, people in districts across Ukraine's central city of Kryvyi are being asked to evacuate their homes. This is after Ukraine says Russian missile strikes hit a local reservoir you see right there, destroying a water pumping station and flooding areas near those residential buildings. It's Russia's latest attack on civilian infrastructure.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Still Ukraine holding the line, also making significant advances in its ongoing counteroffensives. Sources tell myself and colleagues Natasha Bertrand, Oren Liebermann and Katie Bo Lillis, that despite those sweeping gains, the Biden administration is rebuffing some Ukrainian weapons requests for now that includes tanks, also, and this is key, the longer range army tactical missile systems known as ATACMS which Ukraine has been requesting for months.

Let's bring in CNN White House correspondent Natasha Bertrand.

So, Ukrainian officials just this week had released a new wish list of weapons which included this system here and it seems the real issue is, right, the U.S. doesn't want longer range and then expand the battle.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. So at the top of this list that the Ukrainians circulated to lawmakers and folks at the Pentagon was this long-range systems that can reach as far as 180 miles, 300 kilometers. And that is something that the Biden administration has told them repeatedly is just not going to happen, including now, even though they've been having all this momentum in northeast Ukraine.

The Ukrainians are saying, look, it would still really help us if we could have these systems that make us even more competitive with the Russians because they have extremely long range systems. But for now the Biden administration is saying we just don't think that the Ukrainians need them. And on top of that, we think that it could be escalatory because the Ukrainians could use these systems to launch attacks into Russian territory.

Now of course the question that comes along with that is Ukrainians have pushed the Russians out as far along as the Russian border, as far north as the Russian border. SCIUTTO: At the border, yes.

BERTRAND: So technically a lot of the weapons that they already have that have been provided by the U.S. could be used to launch into Russian territory. But the U.S. says, look, the Russians would probably view this as too much of an escalation and we don't want that to happen. So for now it's just not on the table.


SCIUTTO: And they warned too about the possibility of expanding to the point where NATO might come into the war, right, as an outlier.

BERTRAND: Exactly right. I mean, they do not want this to expand beyond what it already is even though the Ukrainians have been having all of this success. Right now they don't see the battlefield shifting to the point where they need to significantly change their strategy. Interestingly, though, the Ukrainians have started to share a lot more intelligence with the Americans which has allowed the U.S. to help them better shape their operations.

SCIUTTO: That's interesting. Natasha Bertrand, it's good working with you on that story, thanks so much.

All right, so joining me now to discuss what this all means, Dmitri Alperovitch. He's a former special adviser to the U.S. Defense Department, an expert on Russia as well as cybersecurity.

Dmitri, good to have you on.


SCIUTTO: So first to this administration decision here to hold back on those longer-range weapons, is that the right call?

ALPEROVITCH: Well, they clearly have some intelligence that Russia is going to escalate significantly if these weapons are provided, if the Ukrainians start striking with significant missiles, Crimea region potentially, other border regions in Russia. And they, of course, have been trying to avoid that escalation since the war began.

SCIUTTO: OK, looking bigger picture as this counteroffensive proceeds, and by the way, further and faster than really anyone predicted, and particularly in a part of the country where they were not expecting this push to really concentrate the north as opposed to around Kherson. The Biden administration says it's too early to call this a turning point in this war so far. Do you agree with that assessment or do you find this more significant?

ALPEROVITCH: I do. I think it is very significant because of course, one, Ukraine has taken over 3,000 square miles of territory. It has been able to secure the second largest city of Kharkiv, the city that had over 1.5 million people before the war began, and the city that the Russians were shelling almost daily since February 24th. So that is very significant. The Ukrainians have also shown that they're able to execute these very complex offensive operations which we haven't seen them do prior to this conflict because they've been engaged mostly in defensive operations.

But it is absolutely the case that what happened in the north in the Kharkiv Oblast may not translate into the same type of rapid success in the south and other regions where you have Russian regular forces, significant numbers of those that will likely not cut and run like the irregular forces, auxiliary forces that were mostly based in the north. It was mostly the LNR conscripts with poor morale, it was interior forces basically cops with guns and tanks as I call them. They were protecting that territory. And when they saw the Ukrainian, they just ran.

SCIUTTO: This has been a debilitating pullback for Russian forces once again, first around Kyiv in the early stages of the war, now around Kharkiv. And you're seeing other evidence of units not just pulling back, but cutting and running, right, leaving their equipment behind. Are you concerned at all that Putin reaches a point where he's backed into a corner, and because he can't lose, in his view, takes an extraordinary step, including the possibility of using tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons?

ALPEROVITCH: I think the probability that they will use nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear weapons is extremely low. However, if the Ukrainians start retaking Crimea which by the change in the Russian constitution is now Russian territory, I think that could change the calculus. But aside from that I think it's highly, highly unlikely because the rest of Ukraine is really not an existential fight for Putin. It is a war of imperialism, a war of trying to conquer this territory.

If he loses, he can still portray it as a victory because his original goals that he articulated were very nebulous. It was demilitarizing Ukraine, de-Nazifying Ukraine. So at any moment with his control of the media sphere in Russia, he can say mission accomplished, I've done what I needed to do, it's time to end this thing.

SCIUTTO: Finally before we go, you follow Russia very closely, it's been notable in recent days and weeks to hear internal criticism of Putin in a country, by the way, where such criticism has been criminalized, right? I mean, you can go to jail or worse for criticizing the president or his decisions. Is that significant? We've talked so often about whether there will be internal opposition, whether this weakens Putin. The fact is he's got a pretty iron grip. But is this a change?

ALPEROVITCH: I don't think so. And you have to understand what type of criticism he's getting. He's getting criticism from the right, from the nationalists who are saying he's not doing enough, they want him to do more, to be more brutal in Ukraine. He's not getting any criticisms from the people that are saying let's end this war. Those people are mostly in jail or exiled. And he's always preferred to have those nationalistic elements as part of the discourse in Russia.

Famously a guy named Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a hard core nationalist who just passed away this spring, who was always taking those sorts of positions in television, and that makes Putin look more rational, more reasonable to the Russian population and, frankly, to the world by saying, hey, I'm the reasonable one. If I go, these other nutjobs are going to be in charge.


SCIUTTO: Interesting. It's always an information battle. Dmitri Alperovitch, thanks so much for joining us.


HARLOW: Well, still ahead, we have new details on the funeral plans for Queen Elizabeth. We'll take you live from Buckingham Palace ahead.



SCIUTTO: Here's some new details from Buckingham Palace this morning. Queen Elizabeth's children will hold a vigil around her coffin tomorrow. This will be similar to their guard in St. Giles' Cathedral in Scotland earlier this week. This comes as we're learning new details about Monday's funeral for the late monarch.

HARLOW: For more on those details CNN anchor and royal correspondent Max Foster joins us live in London.

And Max, before I begin, let me just say thank you. You have been there for every moment of this, from the moment of her illness and on, and you have probably not slept. So thank you for all you've done. What are you learning on this as we lead up to Monday?

MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR ROYAL CORRESPONDENT: Congratulations to you, Poppy. Very much looking forward to your new show.

HARLOW: Thank you.

FOSTER: We've had lots of details coming into us in the last hour or so. First of all, something we're expecting in relation to the lie in state there which is happening at the moment. I have to say incredibly powerful. You meet people who are so affected not just by seeing the coffin, but by spending hours and hours with random people in line and just sharing stories and sharing this experience. I think that's quite profound.

And people going through tomorrow night will have, you know, even more profound moment, I think, potentially because the three children of the monarch are going to stand in vigil at each corner of the coffin for 15 minutes at 7:30. So I think that's one thing to look out for on Friday. But then on Sunday, a quite an incredible moment as well. There's going to be a reception here hosted by the king for heads of state.

And if you look at the list that's developing of people who are coming to the funeral, the palace won't give it to us. But each head of state is revealing whether or not they're coming and all of them seem to be coming at the moment apart from obvious ones like Putin. I think it's probably going to be the biggest gathering of heads of state in modern history here at Buckingham Palace on Sunday ahead of the funeral. And then the funeral itself, we're told that 6:00 a.m. your time, the

service will start at Westminster Abbey then there'll be a procession to Windsor where the Queen will be buried alongside her late husband Prince Philip. And that will be a much smaller service in Windsor. But between the two there's going to be a procession, and then the first part of it we're going to see the royal family walking behind the coffin. That will be quite powerful, I think. And also, once the procession gets to Windsor, they'll rejoin the procession there.

I think there'll be lots of symbolism, lots of state ceremony and this incredible moment, all of these heads of state together in Westminster Abbey on Monday morning, and quite incredible thing that we're being told is that, you know, there are a lot of heads of state coming, and they're not allowed to bring delegations because they just can't handle the numbers. Not only that, they can't handle lots of private cars.

So they're all going to be taken to Chelsea and they're going to gather there, and these heads of state are going to travel on buses to Westminster Abbey. So that's going to be quite an incredible moment.

SCIUTTO: Wow, and those lines, just endless lines of everyone who wants to mark the moment.

Max Foster, thanks so much.

Still ahead, another story we're following. What new text messages reveal about Bret Favre's connection to the largest welfare fraud scheme in Mississippi history.



HARLOW: A series of text messages raising questions about the roles of NFL Hall of Famer quarterback Bret Favre and Mississippi's former governor Phil Bryant in an apparent scheme to siphon millions of dollars in welfare funds to build a volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi. The question, though, Jim, is what connection, if any.

SCIUTTO: Exactly. And that is appears to be what investigators are trying to establish here.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher, she's been following the story for us. Dianne, tell us what exactly the text messages said in the investigation?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Jim and Poppy, the court documents include these text messages that appear to show Mississippi's former Republican governor Phil Bryant helping NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre secure millions of dollars for this volleyball center at this alma mater, the University of Mississippi where his daughter played the sport at the time.

The issue here, well, that money was welfare funds that were meant for the neediest families in the poorest state in the nation. Now that is a fact that Brett Favre's attorney says he didn't know. He told me, quote, "Brett couldn't have been more honorable in any of it. He had no idea where any of it came from."

But here's the thing, those text messages were entered into a civil suit from the state by an attorney for a nonprofit founder Nancy New. She has already pled guilty related to this overwhelmingly large welfare fraud scheme. And in those text messages, we see communications between Bryant, Favre and New talking about getting money for this. Just for example, in August of 2017, court documents show Favre texted Nancy New, quote, "If you were to pay me, is there any way the media can find out where it came from and how much?"

New responds, "No, we have never had that information publicized. I understand you being uneasy about that, though." The next days she added, "Wow, just got off the phone with Phil Bryant. He is on board with us, we will get this done." Now Favre and New text regularly. Phil Bryant is in there as well. And they forward messages from Bryant to each other about the status over a two-year period on this.

At one point there are messages that Brett Favre forwards to Nancy New allegedly from Phil Bryant where it appears Bryant is telling them how to make their funding proposal so it would be better accepted by the Department of Human Services, going over rewording of that document.


And then I want to point out that months later, toward the end, the last text message that is included in this document, Governor Bryant asks Nancy New whether she had gotten any of the new programs from the state Department of Human Services. New responded in part, quote, "Someone was definitely pulling for us behind the scenes. Thank you." And then Bryant responds with a smiley face.

Now look, I have to point out here, neither Brett Favre nor Phil Bryant have been criminally charged with anything related to this welfare scheme. In a statement, the former governor's attorney told CNN in part cases should be tried in courts of law where rules of evidence govern and privileges are respected. They should not be tried in the press where inuendo and speculation sometimes get confused with actual facts.

Jim, Poppy, six people including Nancy New have been criminally charged in this. Brett Favre is one of 38 people who have been served civil suit that was filed by the state of Mississippi. That's where these text messages come into play. But again, neither he nor Bryant have been criminally charged with anything. Bryant is not a defendant in a civil suit either.

The FBI as well is investigating this overwhelmingly large welfare scheme. We're talking $77 million that were taken and misspent from this welfare fund in again the poorest state in the country where more than 200,000 children live below the poverty line.


HARLOW: Dianne Gallagher, thank you so much. We'll follow this very closely.

Still ahead, buses that were filled with migrants were dropped off near the Washington, D.C. home of the Vice President Kamala Harris. We'll have the latest on that immigration battle ahead.