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U.S. Allies Meet Amid Debate Over Giving Ukraine Tanks; Zelenskyy To Allies: Speed Up Weapons Before Russian Offensive; Supreme Court Probe Fails To Uncover who leaked Draft Opinion; Treasury Department Expected To Designate Russian Mercenary Wagner Group As "Transnational Criminal Organization". Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 20, 2023 - 13:00   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Erica Hill in New York.

And we begin this hour with an ominous new threat hanging over Ukraine at a standoff between its allies. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at meeting today with European defense ministers at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

We are also, though, just getting in some breaking news, CNN White House reporter, Natasha Bertrand. Pentagon correspondent, Oren Liebermann, both joining us.

Natasha, what are you hearing potentially about what more we're learning, even this secret meeting that the CIA director held last week with President Zelenskyy?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. So about this meeting between Ukrainian president, Zelenskyy, and CIA director, Bill Burns, we are learning that Burns went there really to brief the Ukrainian president on what the U.S. believes are the potential battle plans by Russia to launch an offensive in the spring.

Now, of course, Bill Burns has been a very key emissary between the U.S. and Ukraine, as well as even with Russia over the course of the war. And this really just signifies the urgency that the U.S. feels at -- in this moment kind of getting Ukraine the information, the intelligence it needs ahead of this potential Russian offensive, seeing this as a very key window to give Ukraine potential information that it can use for a leg up there.

So Burns traveled there. This is a roughly the third time in the last three months that he has traveled to Ukraine, you know.

But we are also learning new information today about a key Russian organization inside Ukraine that the U.S. has been watching very rarely. And that is the Wagner Group, this Russian mercenary organization that Putin is increasingly relying on to carry out operations inside Russia. The U.S. says that they now have new information, new photos that they're willing to release to the public, showing Russian rail cars traveling from Russia to North Korea and back, picking up weaponry, they say, to be used in Ukraine by Wagner Group.

So a really a key kind of big escalation here by the North Koreans to be providing this military equipment to this Russian mercenary organization. And, of course, it says a lot about how the Russian defense establishment and Vladimir Putin, the president there, are increasingly relying on this Russian mercenary organization to carry out these military operations in Ukraine as the Russian military there is really faltering.

So again, this information just coming in that the U.S. does plan to issue even more sanctions on Wagner Group next week, and of course, releasing new evidence to the public about what they say are deliveries by North Korea to Wagner Group, a very powerful missiles and other military equipment that they can use there.

HILL: Yes. Certainly an important development. And we are -- I should point out, we are waiting to hear a little bit more from the White House on that. So we'll bring that to you as soon as that begins.

But as we -- as we dig a little deeper here, Oren, looking at the role, Wagner's role in Ukraine, just walk us through how it is understood that this group has been used by Russia to this point.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: So when Russia began suffering, when the Kremlin began suffering, a shortage of bodies, essentially, they brought in Wagner, the mercenary organization that was infamous for its work, its atrocities, if you will in Syria, and it's what it's done in Africa. Wagner was supposed to fill that hole. And that's what they've done.

The primary Russian force fighting around the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine is Wagner forces. And the U.S. has said many of these are convicts who were released from prison specifically to fight for Wagner with the promise that they would be released if they fulfilled their contract, if they fought for long enough.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that the U.S. also said that Wagner itself, not the Russian Ministry of Defense, was getting artillery from North Korea, that North Korea was supplying this. So this would be an additional step putting forward by the U.S. the evidence supporting that argument.

It has been Wagner fighting primarily in Bakhmut, making some gains. They claimed to have taken much of Soledar, a town just north of Bakhmut, but that has become the primary Russian force.

It's also interesting that we've seen, as Wagner has become the primary force there, disagreements, even open arguments between the leader of Wagner known as Prigozhin, and openly arguing with the Russian Ministry of Defense. So those fractures have become a bit evident. Prigozhin claiming it's Wagner that's the most effective fighting force that Russia has right now.

And this is why they've gotten so much attention, not only over the course of the past few weeks, but even longer than that, as they have become primarily one of Russia's key weapons in the fight in eastern Ukraine.


HILL: Stay with me, you guys. I also want to bring in retired Lieutenant General, Mark Hertling, who's joining us, CNN military analyst and, of course, former commanding general of the U.S. Army, Europe and Seventh Army.

When you -- when you hear the new reporting as to what's going to happen, first of all, I'm just curious, General, your reaction to what we're waiting to hear from the White House and what the potential impact could be.

MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, a couple of things, Erica. First of all, I want to make a comment on the tie we're on that's below us right now that Wagner is a transnational criminal organization. You know, what Oren has just described is sort of a scenario out of The Sopranos.

I mean, the Russian government is corrupt. They are relying on these paramilitary organizations to recruit criminals from prison, putting them on the battlefield and having them attack in mass so that literally tens of thousands of them are killed, used as meat grinders.

So what you're talking about is a military that hasn't been able to execute their war plans, have not been good tactically, operationally, or strategically on the battlefield so they rely on Prigozhin and his Wagner group, and it's causing a great deal of consternation within the Pentagon itself. Personalities are at each other's throats in Moscow.

Having to do with CIA Director Burns going to Ukraine, giving additional information, you know, harken back to before the February invasion by Russia into Ukraine, Burns had been to Moscow several times, told them, basically, we knew what we were -- what we were seeing them do, getting ready to prepare and -- to attack into Ukraine. And yet, Mr. Putin brushed it aside. We had been reading their mail. The United States intelligence agencies know what Russia is doing at every step of the way. And it's great that they're informing President Zelenskyy of what's occurring.

HILL: How closely do you think these two events are tied together, both the visit last week from CIA Director Burns talking about these plans for spring offensive, and the decision now to designate the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization?

HERTLING: Well, I think both of those are tied pretty closely. Truthfully, if I were a leader in the United States government today, I would do exactly that. In addition to the coincidental serendipitous meeting of the Ramstein contact group, where continued pressure has been put on NATO allies and partners to provide more equipment to Ukraine. So the -- a combination of all of those three things.

And as Oren say a minute ago, the Wagner Group has been very effective, but they've only been very effective in a small portion of the battlefield, in and around Bakhmut. They can't cover the entire 500 kilometer frontage that is the distance between the Russian lines and the Ukrainian lines.

So while they have been successful in that very area, they can't cover down all of Russia's failures. So it's fascinating to watch what Prigozhin is doing with this group, but he's not going to be able to sustain these kinds of actions, because he doesn't have the manpower and he doesn't have the equipment. That's why they went to Korea.

HILL: It's interesting, too, that we're seeing all of this play out on the same day that there is more and more discussion about tanks, right? Tanks from the U.S., tanks from Germany. There was a little back and forth. We heard Secretary Austin earlier today.

But on the one hand, it would seem to highlight what from the very beginning has been a discussion among NATO countries, which is which weapons to send, and what the potential impact of those weapons could be, not just on the battlefield, but the broader impact.

Are you seeing a shift at all in terms of what these allies are willing to do?

HERTLING: I am, Erica. They are -- they are certainly looking for more and more capabilities to provide Ukraine for the next phase of the fight.

By my count, we're in about Phase Five of this operation. And that's the phase where Russia is drastically trying to mobilize literally hundreds of thousands of more fresh meat for the battlefield. And at the same time, Ukraine is trying to transform and build an operational and a western style army that they can use to conduct counter offenses against Ukraine -- or excuse me, against Russia.

So, yes, it is a very unique position. While that's occurring on the battlefront between Russia and Ukrainian troops, you still have Russia firing missiles at civilian population centers and killing Ukrainian civilians.

So it's a combination of how do you counter the Russian strategy to pressure the civilians in Ukraine and at the same time regenerate enough force on the battlefield, and at that same time, help Ukraine transform their military into a western style, high-tech counter offensive force. It's all coming together very well in this Phase Five. And I'm watching very closely in terms of what the Ramstein contract group can deliver to the Ukrainian army.


HILL: There's also the question of in terms of things that we're watching closely would be the reaction from Russia, not only to whatever we learn out of Ramstein, right, but also to this expected designation when it comes to Wagner, and what the impact could be on a response from Russia.

HERTLING: Yes. And there's been, you know, continued comments by Mr. Putin, and now the former president, Medvedev, who are saying, hey, you know, if Russia does lose a conventional war, the next step would be the use of nuclear weapons.

Well, that's becoming an old song for Russia, they continue to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. And they know that the potential for a retaliation or even a preemptive strike for that could be catastrophic for the Russian Federation.

So while they continue to push those threats, I think they're becoming less and less viable as Russia continues to lose on the battlefield.

HILL: What is the one thing that you're noting, you're waiting to see what this package is? We have a sense of the two and a half billion dollar aid package from Washington in terms of Ukraine. We're talking about more Bradley Fighting Vehicles, the Stryker combat vehicles. What in your estimation right -- can we really pinpoint to show in terms of impact and also where this battle is headed?

HERTLING: Well, we're seeing -- again, going back to Ukraine is putting together a combined arms force that conduct offensive operation into the territory where Russia is stretched very thin. And I'm talking about Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and maybe even to Crimea.

But the list you just showed on the -- on the screen shows U.S. forces, the contributions of 90 Stryker vehicles. That's an ominous force, an additional 59 Bradley Vehicles, a great tank killing weapon. I've actually fought off of both of those vehicles in combat, they're very good. But you also need the tanks, and that's what Secretary Austin is pushing.

But I would say a warning though too, Erica. As I go down the list of the last couple of months that what had been given -- what has been given to Ukraine by various partners. We're talking about Bradley, Strykers, Denmark is given the Caesar artillery system, M777s, the artillery pieces HIMARS, MRAPs, Gepards, Patriots, Leopards, AMX-10s, 106s, NASAM, Hawk missile systems.

What I'm describing is a litany of different types of brand-new weapons systems. The Ukrainian army can fight off of most of those. They need training on some of those. But truthfully, Erica, as I've kind of become a broken record on this, I'm very concerned about the logistics support. When you introduce those various types of weapons from different country, it is really going to put a hard pressure on the Ukrainian logistics and sustainment system to maintain that type of equipment.

And that's what Secretary Austin is doing as Ramstein ensuring, not only is Ukraine getting the kind of equipment they need, but it's as simple as possible to put it to use on the battlefield.

HILL: Retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, always appreciate your insight. Thank you.

HERTLING: Thanks, Erica.

HILL: Well, in Washington, a milestone for the annual March for Life. It's actually the 50th time anti-abortion advocates have taken part in the event. They're actually, at this hour, making their way toward the Supreme Court.

This marks, of course, the first time the event has been held since the court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. And less than 24 hours after the Supreme Court revealed that its investigation to determine who leaked that draft opinion which led to Roe's demise and shocked the nation, well, they figured out that they don't know who did it.

CNN's Brian Todd and Joan Biskupic joining us now.

Brian, you're out there with that crowd. Is there a different mood this year given that they accomplished, for many people, a lot of what they wanted to do at least initially?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, you do get a sense that there is a different mood. This is a celebration at one time, but it is also a very significant show of resolve, because so many people we've talked to say that the work is not done yet. I'm going to kind of take you over here as we get ready for this march in just seconds from now. The March will begin over here and it's going to come over here and then go to the Capitol building, just to my right and over east of here.

As we get ready to start this, I want to talk to one of the marchers here. Marian Desrosiers is from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has been coming here, on and off, you say for 35 years. Marian, your movement achieved a huge victory last June. Why come now? What has changed and what -- you know, why would you come now after that big victory?

MARIAN DESROSIERS, MARCHER FROM CAPE COD, MASSACHUSETTS: Well, I think first we want to celebrate the victory itself, which celebrates all of the people that have worked so hard for 50 years to make a difference.

And the reason why they want to make a difference is because all human life matters and we care about human life. And we want to make a difference, so we want to help our country to understand that this is a great country founded under God, one nation, and that we just want to see the rights of everyone recognized the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


TODD: As far as the campaign itself and the tactics, how do you think the anti-abortion movement now has to change from maybe focusing on the federal component with Roe being overturned, to maybe going to the States in the grassroots? How does it have to change from here?

DESROSIERS: Well, I think when you go back to the States, many of them allow abortion, and many of them allow full-term abortion, Massachusetts is one of them. And I think that our movement has to also be a movement of change of law, a change of heart, reaching out to women, reaching out to men that are involved in difficult pregnancy situations, and letting them know that we're here for them no matter what, and to be much clearer and much more available to them. And to tell them, you know, if you're struggling, we will help you. We will do this. I did 26 years of post-abortion counseling with men and women. And I've seen the agony, I've seen the pain that it can cause. And that too really makes me say I've got to stand up for women.

TODD: Very good. Well, Marian, thank you for doing this. Nice to meet you. And good luck.

DESROSIERS: All right.

TODD: Thank you very much.

So guys, there you get a sense of it. The movement, they say, has to change, more to the grassroots. This symbolically is going to be interesting, because every year, until now that they've done this, they have symbolically ended this march at the Supreme Court. They are now symbolically ending it in front of the U.S. Capitol to symbolize that they want to take this again to the state legislatures. They're going to push for, you know, abortion to be restricted or banned in every state. That's kind of how they're shifting tactics now. Erica.

HILL: Brian, appreciate it. Thank you.

Joan, let's talk about this investigation. Because for months now, there have been questions about who leaked this information. The investigation basically found that they just don't know, but did reveal that plenty of people, dozens of people actually had access to it.

Based on that, any changes moving forward in terms of access to these draft opinions?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SENIOR SUPREME COURT ANALYST: Good afternoon, Erica. Yes, I don't think the number of people with initial access at the outset of negotiations, 82, as the investigators said in their final report, is going to change necessarily, but how the documents are handled most certainly will.

What the investigators found was that they couldn't determine how many copies were made by the people who first had access, the various law clerks and other assistants. They didn't -- they couldn't determine how many copies were actually e-mailed, potentially outside the building, whether they were downloaded to other devices.

It turned out that several of the law clerks told investigators that they had actually confided to their spouses about the vote count and opinion. So there were all sorts of ways that security was lax, not just in terms of, you know, who had access, but then how those people handled their access.

So it appeared that those were the kinds of things that would be may be changed going forward. You remember that when Chief Justice John Roberts announced this investigation back on May 3rd, the day after Politico published the draft opinion, you know, there was a lot of suspense and anticipation about what they would find. And here we are about nine months later with no answers about who a culprit might have been. But frankly, more questions about the security and institutional protocols. It seemed like frankly, Erica, that this was a leak that in some ways was waiting to happen, given how uncertain and unsecured various computers, printers, and other I.T. protocols were at the Supreme Court.

HILL: I mean, it is -- it is really surprising.

Let's take you now live to the White House. John Kirby. Let's listen in.


JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NSC: -- which is committing atrocities and human rights abuses in Ukraine and, of course, elsewhere around the world. But first, I want to be able to provide some additional information about Wagner's operations in Ukraine.

Now as his military continues to struggle in Ukraine, President Putin is increasingly turning to Wagner, which is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, from military support. We are seeing indications, including an intelligence, that tensions between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense are increasing.

Wagner is becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries. Publicly, Prigozhin and his fighters have criticized Russian generals and defense officials for their performance on the battlefield. Prigozhin is trying to advance his own interest in Ukraine and Wagner is making military decisions based largely, largely on what they will generate for Prigozhin in terms of positive publicity.

We continue to assess that Wagner currently has approximately 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts. Our information indicates the Russian defense ministry has reservations about Wagner's recruitment methods.


Despite this, we assess that it is likely that Wagner will continue to recruit right out of Russian prisons. Due to recent events, we assess that it is likely there are mounting tensions between Russian officials and Mr. Prigozhin.

I also want to discuss a little bit North Korea's ongoing support for Russia's military operations against Ukraine by providing arms and ammunition to Wagner. In part, because of our sanctions and export controls, Russia is searching for arms from foreign countries including through Wagner.

In recent weeks, we have seen North Korea -- sorry, we have seen North Korean officials, falsely deny that they have provided arms to Wagner. As we have said publicly North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner toward the end of last year. So today, we are releasing some imagery of this initial delivery. This imagery shows that on November 18th, five Russian rail cars traveled from Russia to North Korea. And the next day November 19th, North Korea loaded those rail cars which -- rail cars which shipping containers, and the train returned to Russia.

Now, while we assess that the amount of material delivered to Wagner has not changed battlefield dynamics in Ukraine, we do expect that it will continue to receive North Korean weapons systems. We obviously condemn North Korea's actions and we urge North Korea to cease these deliveries to Wagner immediately.

And we are going further by taking action against Wagner itself. Last month, the Department of Commerce designated Wagner as a military end user, which means we expanded the entity listing of Wagner to ensure that it cannot access equipment anywhere in the world based on U.S. technology or production equipment.

Today, we are announcing additional actions that we are taking to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian and Wagner forces. First, the Department of Treasury will be designating Wagner as a significant transnational criminal organization under Executive Order 1358, as amended.

In coordination with this designation, we will also impose additional sanctions next week against Wagner and its support network across multiple continents. These actions recognize the transcontinental threat that Wagner poses, including through its ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity.

With these actions, and there'll be more to come, our message to any company that is considering providing support to Wagner is simply this, Wagner is a criminal organization that is continuing wide -- I'm sorry, committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses. And we will work relentlessly to identify, disrupt, expose, and target those or assisting Wagner.

Second, as we have stated previously, the arms transfers from the DPRK are in direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. So today, we shared information on these violations with the Security Council's DPRK Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts. We will continue to raise these violations at the Security Council alongside our allies and partners.

And third, of course, I think you saw Secretary Austin and Chairman Milley in Ramstein today, at the 8th iteration of the Ukraine defense Contact Group. We are continuing to provide Ukraine with the weapons and equipment that it needs to defend itself.

So -- and you saw today the significant new package of security assistance which included more than 500 armored vehicles, including Bradleys, Stryker combat vehicles, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, otherwise known as MRAPs and of Humvees, all in addition to the armored vehicles that we have already announced.

Now, this package also contains critical additional air defense capabilities, including both more air defense systems and more surface to air missiles, as well as more ammunition for the artillery systems and the HIMARS, the advanced rocket systems, that the U.S. has already previously provided to Ukraine.

Look, we've been clear, and the president has been consistent. We're going to continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes to defend itself, to defend its sovereignty and to defend its territorial integrity. You saw those actions today. And everything we're doing as well, with respect to North Korea and Wagner, also reinforces those efforts. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Let's take a couple of questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. Can you explain what the practical effect is of designation of a transnational criminal organization?

KIRBY: It will open up additional avenues for us to continue to not only sanction Wagner and put more squeeze on their ability to do business around the world, but we'll assist others in doing the same. It will broaden the network of nations and institutions that will be able to stop doing business with Wagner.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can I just ask one other question on Ukraine? What is the level of frustration here at the White House over Germany's position on giving tanks to Ukraine, especially since Germany doesn't have to give their own tanks, they just have to allow another country to send tanks to Ukraine.

KIRBY: We're working not only in lockstep with the Ukrainians, but with allies and partners all over the world. And these are -- all decisions that each nation makes for itself, sovereign decisions. We aren't arm twisting, and nobody's arm twisting us. We are working inside what you could consider a coalition of the willing here to provide Ukraine with the defense and security assistance that it needs.

Germany, obviously, a strong NATO ally, but they have -- they have stepped up. They have provided a lot of equipment, including some air defense and some armored vehicles of their own to Ukraine. And they have, as we have, evolved their support to Ukraine over time as the war has evolved and changed. And we are just in a different phase now in this war. And so we're all talking about what kinds of collective capabilities can be provided.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: [inaudible] John, you've been asked this question many times, when you say you will continue to support Ukraine as long as they won't, what do you mean by that? As long as they need. What do you mean by that? What winning looks like for you in Ukraine?

KIRBY: Well, as long as it takes means is as long as it takes, and it means that I'm unable to give you a date certain on the calendar for, you know, when -- you know, when that support won't be necessary anymore. It's necessary now. It's going to be necessary in coming weeks and months for certain. And we want to make sure that we are meeting the need as best we can for Ukraine.

And what is winning look like, President Zelenskyy gets determined -- gets to determine what victory looks like. We're not dictating that to him either. What we've said is, we're going to continue to help them defend themselves, defend their sovereignty, win back their territory as they should, as they must, and to defend their citizens and their infrastructure.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You want them to retake Crimea?

KIRBY: Crimea is Ukraine and decisions about parts of Ukraine that Ukraine -- Ukrainian armed forces are going to fight over or fight in or strike, that's up to President Zelenskyy and his -- and his military leaders.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you very much [inaudible]. I have a question about Brazil President, Lula, said he's coming to the White House February 10. So my first question is, can you confirm the date?

KIRBY: I can confirm that we look forward to seeing President Lula early next month.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And this week, President Biden said that the institutional structures in Brazil are collapsing. Is the White House concerned that the risks remain high in Brazil and democracy in Brazil is still danger?

KIRBY: The president said that -- at the time of those violent protests, that we have confidence in Brazil's democratic institutions. And we certainly have confidence in the way the president has been handling himself throughout that time and afterward.

And again, we look forward to welcome him here at the White House into having more and deeper discussions about improving and deepening the relationship between the United States and Brazil.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And when it comes to investigations that are taking place in Brazil right now, did the administration offer any kind of assistance to Brazil in either cooperation from U.S. law enforcement or Intel agencies?

KIRBY: I think we made it clear at the time that we'd be happy to support in any way that we can. I'd leave it to Brazilian officials to talk about their investigation, though.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. [inaudible]


KIRBY: [inaudible]

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: First on Wagner, can you -- can you talk about what sanctions are on the table against North Korea, given the fact that you've already identified them as supporting Wagner? KIRBY: I don't have anything to report right now in terms of specific sanctions. That's why today we brought it up to the panel of experts on the -- on the UN SC Resolutions Committee. And we'll see where that conversation goes. But we're certainly not going to rule out the possibility for additional sanctions if that's deemed fit inside the UN.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Secondly, on the -- on the tanks, can you just help us understand how badly Ukraine needs these advanced battle tanks right now or is it not time sensitive?

KIRBY: No, it's absolutely -- we recognize that it's a need, a relevant and critical need for the Ukrainians. So pardon me for repeating myself, but I think it's important to remember what kind of fighting we're talking about here.