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Defense Secy Talked To Russian Counterpart About Drone Russia Downed; Putin Could Be Attempting Regime Change In Moldova Next; Senate Confirms Eric Garcetti To Be Ambassador To India. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 15, 2023 - 15:00   ET



GOLODRYGA: Yes, Matt Egan ...

EGAN: It's unenviable and it's actually gotten even harder.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. Matt Egan, thank you.

EGAN: Thanks.

BERMAN: And don't miss CNN PRIMETIME tonight, Bank Bust: What's Next for America's Money. That's only here on CNN at 9 pm Eastern.

It is the top of the hour on CNN NEWSROOM. Hello, everyone. I'm Bianna Golodryga.


Minutes ago, the nation's top defense official condemned Russia's downing of a U.S. drone over international territory over the Black Sea. And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin revealed he just had a call with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu about the incident.


LLOYD AUSTIN, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Is a part - is part of a pattern of aggressive risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace. I just got off the phone with my Russian counterpart, Minister Shoigu. As I've said repeatedly, it's important that great powers be models of transparency and communication. And the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.


BLACKWELL: In a news conference with the Defense Secretary, Joint Chiefs Chairman, Gen. Mark Milley said that retrieving the wreckage will be very difficult and that it is now in 4,000 or 5,000 feet of water.

GOLODRYGA: The U.S. Military said on Tuesday a Russian jet dumped fuel on an MQ-9 Reaper drone, which officials say was doing routine operations in international airspace. The Russian jet then hit the propeller of the Reaper forcing its remote pilots to bring it down in international waters.

Let's go to CNN's Natasha - National Security Analyst, Natasha Bertrand and CNN Senior White House Correspondent MJ Lee.

Natasha, to you first. The General said that it's not clear that the actual contact between the Russian jet and the drone was intentional, though similar provocations have happened repeatedly in the past.


So Mark Milley, the Chairman - the joint chairman of the chief of staff did say that they believe that the Russian aggression was intentional in and of itself, That kind of harassment of those drones. However, it is unclear whether they actually intended to hit the drone, whether that clipping of the drone's propeller was actually meant to happen.

Now, Milley characterized it as part of a pattern of aggression that we have seen from Russian pilots against these U.S. and Allied assets in the region multiple times in recent history. And take a listen to what he told reporters just earlier.


GEN. MARK MILLEY, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: On the intentionality, I don't know. I do plan to talk to my counterpart, Gen. Gerasimov. We have a scheduled call, we'll see if that works out. So was it internal or not? Don't know yet. We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional. We also know it was very unprofessional and very unsafe.

The actual contact of the fixed wing Russian fighter with our UAV, the physical contact with those two, not sure yet.


BERTRAND: So this is part of what the U.S. is trying to discern by speaking to their Russian counterparts, whether the Russians actually intentionally hit the U.S. drone, because that, of course, is pretty unprecedented. Over the course of this conflict, they have not seen a Russian drone actually come into direct contact with a U.S. - Russian fighter jets come into direct contact with U.S. drone, so that is really significant.

We're also learning more about how the U.S. feels they are going to be able to carry out a recovery effort. It remains unclear at this point whether they are actually going to try because as you mentioned, Victor, this drone is in about 4,000 to 5,000 feet of water in the Black Sea. It's going to be very difficult for anyone to retrieve, let alone the U.S. because the U.S. does not actually have any Navy assets in the Black Sea right now.

However, they did leave open the possibility that they could call on allies in the region to try to recover it. What they have said is that the Russians, what the Russians have said is that they will likely try to recover it, but the U.S. ensuring that they have taken steps to mitigate any potential intelligence value of that drone so that anything sensitive does not fall into Russian hands.

And we are told that the U.S. actually did wipe all of the sensitive software off of that drone as it kind of plummeted into the Black Sea. Victor, Bianna?

BLACKWELL: MJ, what are you learning about the White House considerations of a potential response for this drowning - downing of a drone?

MJ LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Victor, what struck me watching this press conference was the fact that they were clearly trying to send a message to Moscow. We heard Lloyd Austin saying right off the top that regardless of this incident, the U.S.' conduct is not going to change.

You heard him saying there that it is going to continue its drone operations wherever possible. Clearly the message was supposed to be whatever Russia does. We are not going to be intimidated or deterred.


I mean, take that in the broader context of what a big fallout this is, what a big dispute an incident this is between U.S. and Russia. The U.S. has used words like reckless and dangerous to describe what actually transpired. I mean, keep in mind that this is an incident that involved the Russians, fighter jets actually dumping fuel on a U.S. drone and clipping - actually making physical contact with the U.S. drone, which obviously, there are parts of that that the Russians have simply just denied.

And also keep in mind, just the fact that the United States has gone to real lengths to try to avoid actions that might be deemed by Russia as escalatory, that they haven't wanted to take any actions that might make things sort of worse between the U.S. and Russia, even while the U.S. has been aggressively supportive of Ukraine in terms of sending security assistance in terms of sending heavy weaponry in this conflict.

And so I think we're seeing this administration sort of trying to balance, not wanting for things to escalate between U.S. and Russia, but also sending the clear message, that the U.S. is not going to be intimidated that it is going to stay its course. Obviously, sort of the big outstanding question that might get to all of this is whether that physical contact between the Russian fighter jet and the U.S. drone, whether that was intentional or not.

BLACKWELL: MJ Lee, Natasha Bertrand, thank you both.

Let's bring in now retired Army, Col. Liam Collins.

Colonel, good to have you. On the question of intentionality, the State Department spokesman told NBC today that it's likely unintentional. We're talking about just the exclamation point at the end the clipping of the U.S. drone. We heard from the Pentagon today that they don't know what's the relevance doesn't matter.

COL. LIAM COLLINS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Not really, because it's just shows, right, the aggressive and risky behavior by the Russians. And so right, if you've gone all the way up to the act, if you clip it, because you're flying too close, the intention was there to get close and do that harassment. But I will say, I mean, it's very risky behavior, because it - that contact could have taken down the Russian aircraft itself.

GOLODRYGA: Let's talk about the timing here. Obviously, you've got the war in its second year at this point. We've flown these drones in the Black Sea prior to even Russia's invasion last year. And it's also coming at a time when a very important grain deal is being renegotiated that would supply a lot of commodities to millions of people around the world. Do you think that this was orchestrated around a specific time or was this as some are suspecting just a reckless pilot?

COLLINS: No. I mean, I think it's just reckless pilot and reckless Russian action. But the question is why are they flying these planes and doing these harassing actions in international airspace when they should be supporting the war effort. And the simple answer is they can't fly within Ukraine. They haven't been able to achieve air superiority.

And so they really instead of supporting the work, what they should be doing, they're harassing aircraft in international airspace really just for Putin to distract his domestic audience to show that his air force is doing something.

BLACKWELL: Should there be consequences - should there be from the U.S., as I just asked MJ, any consideration of a response more than just stern words?

COLLINS: No, not a military response. I mean, that's one of the reasons we have pilotless aircraft, right? If it's a piloted aircraft that really changes that, right, it increases the fear of an escalation that neither Russia or the U.S. want. So that's one of the advantages of having pilotless aircraft, but then on the flip side, it forces Russia or encourages Russia engage in risky behavior.

So in terms of escalation, not military escalation, we need to continue to supply our air support to Ukraine's ability to defend their freedoms. But other than sanctions and additional kind of political actions, not misquote military escalation.

BLACKWELL: Yes, that was really the focus of my question. I wasn't suggesting that there should be any missiles fired for the clipping of a drone. But we have some members of Congress who are suggesting that there should be sanctions against Russia for that. Is that something you think that would be persuasive at all?

COLLINS: Yes. I mean, I think at this point. a year into the war, regardless of this action, I mean, our sanctions should be maxed out at this point. I mean, they've continued to invade the sovereign territory of Ukraine. And so the sanctions really should be maxed out at this point and if they aren't, we should continue to increase those.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. We just know that Russia at this point, has been able to circumvent some of those sanctions that we may see the consequences in the months ahead.

Col. Liam Collins, thank you.

COLLINS: Thank you.

GOLODRYGA: Well, recent intelligence suggests that Vladimir Putin has plans to orchestrate a regime change in Moldova, a small country without EU or NATO protection. It shares borders with Western Ukraine and NATO member, Romania. Moldova's pro Western government was recently given an EU candidacy status, but it also is home to some 1,500 Russian troops in a separatist region.


Since invading Ukraine, Russia has cut off much of the gas and electricity that it has historically supplied to the country, leading to some of Europe's highest inflation rates. And as you can see from over the weekend, outrage among the Moldovan people.

The U.S. has stepped up efforts to help the country financially, namely with some $300 million in energy assistance. Nicu Popescu is the country's Minister of Foreign Affairs and I asked him about Russia's efforts to destabilize his country.


NICU POPESCU, MOLDOVAN MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS: The Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian state are able to keep the front line quite far from us. And we're strongly supporting the Ukraine in its fight for liberty and for peace and security.

And in the meantime, we as a country have also - we are in a situation where we have to face hybrid threats, so - whereas in military terms, our country is not under threat at this stage. We do face a lot of hybrid threats, cyber attacks, fake bomb alerts, we have a series of paid protests supported and instigated by Moldovan oligarchs who work together with Russia, and they try to bring violence on our streets. We try to destabilize the political situation, the economic situation.

Our institutions work day and night. And as I said, they've proved that we can keep the country stable.

GOLODRYGA: Let me ask you about those economic challenges that your country is facing, because Russia is trying to take advantage of that right now, the situation is pretty dire, inflation is at 30 percent. The worst in Europe. You are a small country of 2.6 million people that is largely dependent on Russia for natural resources and energy in particular. Now, Russia has cut back its supply of energy and gas, the United States has offered some $300 million in aid to make up for that, is that enough?

POPESCU: This is really substantial and we've managed to go through this winter in a way that allowed us to keep the lights on in our flats, and the heating go on and the economy going. But, of course, the longer the war continues the higher the toll on our population, on our economy. And without having clarity on, on when Ukraine can liberate its territories and when our continent, Europe, can return to a state of peace, it's hard for us to predict how the situation will evolve.

GOLODRYGA: And fortunate for you it was a mild winter, this past one. You mentioned your dependence on Ukraine and Ukraine's military for protection there. You have a very small army of about 6,000 troops, a budget of $80 million or so. What happens if Ukraine at some point, given the amount of fighting that Ukraine is enduring right now isn't able to offer you the protection that they currently do, what happens to Moldova?

POPESCU: It's crucially important for this external support for Ukraine to continue. This kind of support, military, economic is also helping Moldova, is also helping us to keep peace and stability in our country. At the same time, we don't know how the future will be like, so we, as the government of Moldova have a duty to be preparing for the full spectrum of risks and scenarios and we've been doing that from - already before the war. And as you know that the U.S. has warned also that we were warned from - before the war that such a war might take place. So we've been preparing for all kinds of risk for over a year and a half, but we know we are not alone.

GOLODRYGA: Finally, Mr. Minister, you mentioned a few times the aid from the West in particular the United States for Ukraine, I don't have to tell you, there are growing concerns, even here in the United States about how much longer that aid will be available, at least at the amount and frequency as it's been delivered thus far. There are people in certain parties in the United States and certain voices, perhaps even potential candidates for presidency in the United States questioning Russia's real threat to Europe and the United States.

Governor Ron DeSantis, just this weekend, said that the war on Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a territorial dispute and not a threat to the U.S. What is your response to that?

POPESCU: Russia's actions are clearly a brutal, unprovoked, unjust aggression against a sovereign country and this kind of precedent creates a threat for everyone in the world. We - no one wants to live in a world where international law is brutally put aside and ignored and armies of big countries invade neighbors. And that is why I would say that Russia's brutal aggression is a threat to international law, is a threat to the international order and is a threat for every country that counts on international law, on multilateralism if we want to keep peace.


GOLODRYGA: Mr. Minister, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it today. (END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: The country is in such a vulnerable place right now. It was notable to see President Biden call out Moldova in particular when he was in Poland recently and said that he supports Moldova's independence as a democracy there. And personally, it's a country - I was born in Moldova ...


GOLODRYGA: ... and it was just really heartwarming to see what this country - such a small poor country was doing. With all of these refugees taking in about 400,000 refugees from Ukraine, remember a population of 2.6 million people.

BLACKWELL: Especially in such a vulnerable time.


BLACKWELL: All right. Thank you for that interview.

After hours of arguments, a federal judge in Texas will make a key ruling concerning abortion. This time, it's whether to block the FDA's approval of a very commonly used abortion medication. We'll have new details of today's hearing.

GOLODRYGA: And shares of Credit Suisse plunged today after the European banks biggest backer said that it will not provide any more financial aid. This move is further fueling fears of a potential global bank crisis. We'll have more on that ahead.



GOLODRYGA: This just in to CNN, former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is confirmed to be the next ambassador to India.

BLACKWELL: CNN's Chief Congressional Correspondent, Manu Raju, is joining us now. It took a long time.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It most certainly did. It was snarled because of accusations that Eric Garcetti as the L.A. mayor did not act soon enough over allegations that were raised over a former aide and sexual harassment by that former aide.

Garcetti denied knowing about those accusations, denied that he was too slow to act on that and said he had no knowledge of it. But a Republican investigation said that he should have known and then caused some concerns among Republicans and some Democrats.

So for the last two years, the ambassadorship to India has been vacant. That is a significant position and a key part of the world as the White House and Garcetti himself has tried to convince senators to vote his - in favor of his nomination. Well, just moments ago, he got that vote, 52 to 42 was the final vote

in favor of his confirmation. And in talking to Republicans and Democrats today, it was clear there was still divided over his nomination.


SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD): He was very aggressive in defending himself from the charges that were made against him that they were not true. He gave us as much supporting evidence as available, including people around him.

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-NH): I've read the independent counsel report that exonerated him.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA): He's not a very good example of somebody that wants to stop sexual harassment.


RAJU: Now ultimately, there were Republicans who voted for him. There were seven: Lindsey Graham, Bill Hagerty, Susan Collins, Steve Daines, Todd Young, Roger Marshall and Bill Cassidy. There were three Democrats who opposed him. That's Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Mark Kelly of Arizona.

Kelly telling me earlier that he does not believe that Garcetti acted soon enough in all of these issues and Mazie Hirono said that there was new credible information that had emerged in recent days about Eric Garcetti. She refused to say what that information was, but she was one of the handful of Democrats voting no. But ultimately, they were not enough to stop this nomination, which was confirmed on the support of both Republicans and Democrats, guys.

GOLODRYGA: All right. Manu Raju, thank you.

BLACKWELL: A Texas judge has just finished hearing arguments in the most significant legal dispute concerning abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. He's considering a lawsuit filed on behalf of anti-abortion groups who want to end access to the most commonly used abortion pills.

GOLODRYGA: The FDA authorized the use of mifepristone nearly 20 years ago. But groups are arguing that it wasn't lawfully approved. And in today's hearing, the Trump-appointed judge's line of questioning seemed to suggest that he is open to the idea. The judge pledged to issue his opinion "as soon as possible." But if he sides with plaintiffs, access to the drug could be eventually cut off nationwide.

BLACKWELL: CNN Legal Analyst, Jennifer Rodgers, is a former federal prosecutor joins us now.

Jen, this judge who is not a medical doctor doesn't have any training that is relevant to the approval of a medication could overrule essentially the FDA. The precedent that this sets and the judge acknowledged he asked these litigants to come prepared, the lawyers to come prepared to convince him why they are harmed and he can do this.

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That's right, Victor. In fact, that's one of the points the DOJ was trying to make here. Here's someone sitting in the judicial branch with no technical expertise, potentially overruling the experts, the true experts in the executive branch, the FDA, who approved this drug 20 years ago. It's been considered and reaffirmed approval since then, many times. And so that's one of their main points, that it's kind of crazy that this could even happen.

So, yes, he could do it, he may do it, he may do it soon, I expect he'll write an opinion on it so that as soon as DOJ goes for the appeal, they will have that in hand. But his questioning today and his statements today, well, it's hard to read the tea leaves, certainly indicated that he is thinking hard about doing that, which is very problematic for women across the country.

GOLODRYGA: As you've noted, this drug was approved 23 years ago. So what legal standings do these plaintiffs have and trying to knock it down?

RODGERS: Well, standing is a - is an interesting thing. I mean, if you are an alliance, as these plaintiffs are of various groups, they represent various people. So you say what is the harm here, well, unborn children are the harm here. So they say that the fact that these women are using these abortion drugs, they have an interest in that as an alliance of groups that are seeking to stop abortion and stop the killing of unborn children effectively is their claim.


BLACKWELL: Short of this judge staying his own decision pending an appeal, let's say he sides with the plaintiffs and appeal from the FDA. What happens then? Are prescriptions invalid? Do pharmacists have to pull it from the shelves at pharmacies?

RODGERS: Well, that's an excellent question, Victor. I mean, first of all, the government can go to the circuit court and ask for a stay. So if Kacsmaryk refuses to give a stay, they can appeal and ask for an immediate state from the appellate courts, so that might happen.

But if that doesn't happen, then you're talking about a complete chaotic situation, because no one really knows the answer to that question. I mean, there are pharmacies and doctors that have been stockpiling, if you will, of this drug because they don't know whether or not they can continue to use it while this case is pending, if an injunction issues if it's just that no more doses will go out, but they can still use what they have or whether they can't use what they have.

So one of the problems here is it's going to be very unclear where they stand legally if they try to continue to use what they have or whether they have to stop immediately.

GOLODRYGA: And it's the most common way to end a pregnancy at this point. And we should note that it's also used at times during a miscarriage if a woman is having a miscarriage as well. And Jennifer, it's important to point out, right, that this doesn't just impact states where abortion is currently illegal.

RODGERS: That's right. Judge Kacsmaryk has the ability to issue a nationwide injunction so that would apply to states that will continue to allow abortion to be free, legal, accessible to women, protected in their constitutions. This is about the drug and the approval of the drug by the FDA.

So if he says the FDA's process was flawed in some meaningful way, I'm going to revoke the approval of the drug. That drug can't be used anywhere, even in states that want to keep abortion illegal for their citizens and residents.

GOLODRYGA: The impact this could have is huge.

Jennifer Rodgers, thank you.

RODGERS: Thanks.

GOLODRYGA: President Biden is in Las Vegas, where he's discussing his administration's plans to help seniors when it comes to costly prescription drugs, especially for those fighting cancer.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And my - anyway, you all - how many here have had you or a family member be diagnosed with cancer? Raise your hand. It's probably, as the docs know, the most devastating word they can tell a patient. You got a serious heart disease, you may die; that's worrisome. More people die of heart disease than they do from cancer. But cancer scares the living hell out of every single person.

Well, folks, a lot of those drugs now that are available, that are very helpful - and, by the way, I've declared war on cancer. We've set up - no, I really have. I've gotten $5 billion for cancer research through NIH, like we did through the Defense Department for special weapons systems - the same system.

But here's the deal: Some people are paying about $10,000, $12,000, $14,000 a year for expensive treatments like cancer drugs. It's going to give seniors certain peace of mind, because no matter how much they pay - no matter how much they pay, they're not going to - how much the bills are, they'll never have to pay more than $2,000 a year for all the drugs they consume. It changes the peace of mind people have.


BLACKWELL: Just a bit of the president there in Las Vegas talking about his efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs. That event is ongoing. We'll bring any more headlines that come out of that.

Meantime, we're down to the last 30 minutes of the trading day. Stocks down about 330 points now. Of course, we're watching the challenges, let's call them, in the banking sector. We'll talk more in a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)