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U.S. Speeding Up Patriot System Delivery; Max Boot is Interviewed about China and Russia's Alliance; Death in South Carolina Being Investigated as a Homicide; No Classes in L.A. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired March 22, 2023 - 09:30   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, 65 Ukrainian soldiers are being trained in Oklahoma on the U.S. patriot air defense system.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: CNN got a look inside as the troops work through an expedited 10 week course.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand is at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

And, Natasha, ,this training comes as we learn that the U.S. is going to speed up delivery of the patriots and also Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: That's right, John, the U.S. really making a concerted effort here to get the Ukrainians the equipment they need in order to effectively pushed out the Russians. And while the Abrams tanks are not necessarily going to be in Ukraine until the fall at the earliest, the patriot systems, they are likely to be in Ukraine within the next few weeks.


BERTRAND (voice over): The United States fast tracking key weapons for Ukraine's fight against Russia. Heavy U.S. tanks now set to be deployed to the country faster than originally planned.

BRIG. GEN. PATRICK RYDER, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: DOD, in close coordination with Ukraine, has made the decision to provide the M1A1 variant of the Abrams tank, which will enable us to significantly expedite delivery timelines and deliver this important capability to Ukraine by the fall of this year.

BERTRAND: Patriot missile defense systems, also due to arrive in Ukraine in the coming weeks, defense officials told CNN. Much sooner than anticipated.

JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR: They're wrapping up training on things like the patriot air defense system. I mean, we're doing everything we can to make sure that they're ready as best they can be for these critical weeks and months ahead.

BERTRAND (on camera): CNN was invited to observe the patriot training here in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where 65 Ukrainian soldiers, ages 19 to 67, have been undergoing an intensive 10 week training course on the patriot systems. Here you can see behind me a decommissioned system, much like the one the Ukrainians will be using once they get back to their home country.

BRIG. GEN. SHANE MORGAN, COMMANDING GENERAL, FIRES CENTER OF EXCELLENCE: Our assessment is that the Ukrainian soldiers are impressive and absolutely a quick study due to their extensive air defense knowledge and experience in a combat zone. It was easier, though never easy, for them to grasp the patriot system operations and maintenance concepts.

BERTRAND (voice over): But the stakes are so high that CNN was not allowed to film or photograph the training, an effort to protect the Ukrainians who will be back on the front lines in just a matter of weeks, and to shield the U.S. from blowback from Moscow. U.S. officials emphasizing that the patriots are purely defensive and not a threat to Russia.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's a point defense system. It's got to be placed in a location that is defending a target like a capital city, Kiev, or a ports city like Odessa. So, it -- this is not a weapons system that can be moved around on the battlefield based on changing threats.

BERTRAND: The systems will, however, help defend Ukraine against near daily missile barrages by Russia, and will now likely be on the battlefield in time to support a looming Ukrainian counter offensive.

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL): What did Zelenskyy say when I met him in Kiev, he said, help us win quickly. It's exactly what he said when he visited Washington, D C., recently. And it's even what Secretary Hostin (ph) said.


He said, Ukraine doesn't have time. This spring offensive is coming.


BERTRAND: So, John, Erica, I really can't underscore enough just how impressed the U.S. trainers have been with the Ukrainians who have been here over the last 10 weeks training on these patriot systems, really allowing the U.S. to then expedite the process and allow those patriot systems to be sent to Ukraine within the next few weeks, much earlier than they had anticipated.

But, look, a senior defense official did tell us that these patriots are not going to be able to defend entire cities in Ukraine, right? These are going to be placed at very strategic locations throughout the country. And Ukraine is only getting two of them. But, Ukraine's air defense systems that they have right now are really not cutting it. They can't protect, for example, against ballistic missile attacks, and Russia has been deploying those more frequently. So, these patriot systems will be a game changer the Ukrainians do believe.

John. Erica.

HILL: Great, Natasha, really appreciate the reporting. Thank you.

Well, this morning. Chinese President Xi Jinping is back in China following a three-day summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite being pegged as a peacemaking journey, their meetings didn't produce any breakthroughs when it comes to Russia's war on Ukraine.

Joining us now, Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, columnist for "The Washington Post."

Max, good to see you this morning.

Certainly did produce plenty of photo ops, which was good I think for both sides in terms of what they wanted out of it. When we look at, though, where this puts the world, John Kirby, saying we can't reasonably look at China as impartial in any way earlier this week. This relationship, he was noting, is more about pushing back against the west, particularly pushing back against the U.S. What's your level of concern about this deepening relationship between China and Russia?

MAX BOOT, SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I am concerned, but I'm not panicked. I might start to hit the panic button if China were actually to start providing munitions for Russia, and particularly artillery shells and missiles. Russia is running low on both of those types of munitions. They desperately need them from somewhere. If China were to provide them, that could really tilt the balance of power in the war in Ukraine. That is not happening so far. China is providing economic support to Russia in the form of microchips and cell phones and other things that are now embargoed by the west.

And, of course, China is benefiting from oil that Russia sells to China. But it's still a very much limited partnership, and it's something that is a -- certainly of concern, but it's not -- what China is doing is not a game changer in the war in Ukraine.

HILL: What about on a broader level? Are there specific signs that you'll be looking for in the coming weeks and months in terms of this relationship between the two beyond the war in Ukraine?

BOOT: Well, I think that's the big one, is China going to step forward and provide weapons to Russia, which is something that the Biden administration has warned about.

But, you know, China has been reluctant to do that. And I think what we're seeing is that, although before the war China and Russia proclaimed this limitless friendship, there are actually sharp limits on their partnership. And you didn't see them talking about limitless partnership during Xi's visit to Moscow. In fact, it's a very limited partnership where they both want to triangulate against the United States. They see the U.S. as their common enemy, but they also have a lot of divisions. And one of the big ones is that China is economically dependent on trade. It's the largest trade nation in the world. And it needs to trade with the United States, it needs to trade with Europe. It does not want to become as isolated and as sanctioned as Russia is. And so there are sharp limits so far on how far Xi is willing to go to buddy up to this indicted war criminal in the Kremlin.

HILL: Looking specifically at Ukraine, the Ukrainians have said they are trying to organize a call between Xi and President Zelenskyy. If that call were to happen, do you see anything coming of it?

BOOT: Very little, but I do think it would be a way for China to pretend to be quote/unquote a peacemaker, which is something that is part of Xi's kind of diplomatic offensive right now. Just recently China brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations, which I think was a positive step forward. And that's been sort of the cover for Xi and his visit to Russia is that he is advancing this Chinese peace plan. I don't - I don't see any real -- there's no real evidence that the Chinese peace plan is going to produce peace. But, obviously, it will be a PR win for Xi, and it will at least create some - some, you know, some fodder for propaganda so that he can claim he's not just sticking with Russia, he's actually trying to act as a peacemaker. And so I hope he does talk to President Zelenskyy. I think that would restore a tiny bit of balance in that relationship.

HILL: And it would be interesting to have that readout too in terms of what is actually discussed because, obviously, the peace plan that has been -- that we've heard about in terms of Xi's peace plan, there are some very clear dealbreakers there for Ukraine.


BOOT: Yes, I mean, basically the Chinese peace plan would freeze positions in place, which would allow Russia to continue occupying 20 percent of Ukraine indefinitely. And, obviously, that's a dealbreaker from the standpoint of Ukraine. I think the actual -- the one thing that China's actually done for pieces is that Xi has made clear he does not approve of Putin's nuclear saber rattling. And since Xi made that clear last fall, you really have not heard Putin engage in those kinds of nuclear threats. So that is the one positive thing that China has done. But, otherwise, it's been largely on the side of Russia, although in a limited kind of way, not offering Putin everything that he wants.

HILL: Did Russia get enough out of this visit?

BOOT: I -- you know, certainly not as much as Putin wants.

HILL: Yes.

BOOT: I mean, he desperately wants China to come forward with artillery shells and other munitions that help the war effort, and he's not getting that. But what he is getting is a big hug and embrace at a time when he is becoming recognized as an international criminal and a pariah. You know, last week you had the International Criminal Court actually indicting Putin, and so there are not going to be any western leaders who are going to be journeying to Moscow, but this is a way for Putin to signal that he is not isolated, that he has an alternative to the west, and he is - he is cozying up to China, but he's doing so in a very subservient position. You know, at the beginning of the Cold War, Russia was the big brother in China was the little brother. And now that position has been reversed. And as a result of his aggression in Ukraine, Putin is more and more dependent on Xi Jinping.

HILL: Max Boot, good to see you this morning. Thank you.

BOOT: Thanks for having me.

BERMAN: The death of a young man who knew at least one member of the Murdaugh family is now being investigated as a homicide. Why investigators are taking a fresh look at this case.



BERMAN: This morning, less than a month after the murder conviction of Alex Murdaugh in South Carolina, a separate case is now being investigated as a homicide. Nineteen-year-old Stephen Smith was found dead on a road in Hampton County in 2015.

HILL: So, his death was initially ruled a hit and run. State investigators, though, opened a probe into his death after Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were murdered.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher is following this story for us.

So, this is the first time that the state has acknowledged, Dianne, that they don't think this was a hit and run. But I think for a lot of people what's confusing here is what does any of this have to do with the Murdaughs. How is it tied?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So exactly what you just said there, law enforcement, in 2021, June of 2021, state law enforcement officials, said that they were opening a state investigation into the death of Stephen Smith because of information they gathered during the investigation into the murders of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh. Now, look, state investigators have not said what that information is. And in 2015, when Stephen Smith was found dead in the middle of a road in Clarendon (ph) County, it was originally said to be the result of a hit and run.

But, look, we have gone through those investigative files from the highway patrol back then. Those investigators did not think it was a hit and run. They said that there was no debris in the ground, his shoes were still on his feet, the injuries on his body did not match with being hit by a car.

What we're hearing from law enforcement at the state level today is that they agree with that assessment and that they have been investigating Stephen Smith's death as a homicide since they opened this case.

Now, an attorney for Stephen Smith's mother, Sandy, tells us that the chief of SLED, the state law enforcement division, told him that they were waiting until the Murdaugh trial wrapped up so they could basically devote more resources to this but also in case witnesses in the low country area, people who had information about the death of Stephen Smith, that maybe they would feel more comfortable coming forward.

Now, we need to be very clear about something. There have been no suspects named in the death of Stephen Smith. There have been rumors and there are a lot of documentaries and podcasts and people on social media talking, but nobody in the Murdaugh family has ever officially been named in connection with Stephen Smith's death.

In fact, look, they're still asking for information and tips right now. But Buster Murdaugh's name did get thrown around in some of the interviews after Stephen Smith's body was found with highway patrol investigators. Again, not a suspect. And Buster Murdaugh released a statement this week saying that, look, he's been trying to focus on grieving his mother and his brother, while his father was convicted of killing them, but that he was unable to, quote, ignore the vicious rumors for any longer. He said, this has gone on for far too long. These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false. I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death. And my heart goes out to the Smith family.

Again, this is a nearly eight years old murder at this point that they are looking into, Erica, John, and they are asking anybody who may have information to please reach out to them. His mother hopes to be able to exhume her son's body to maybe get more information about his death.


HILL: Dianne, really appreciate it. Thank you.

BERMAN: The nation's second largest school district forced to essentially close for a second day as thousands of school workers continue their strike. The White House has a message for negotiators on both sides.



Happening now, a second day of closed schools for half a million students in Los Angeles as nearly 30,000 school support staffers walk the picket line.

HILL: Cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers staging a three day strike. This is, of course, the nation's second largest school district. They're fighting for higher pay and for better working conditions. Now the White House is stepping in, urging both parties to find a quick resolution.

CNN's Nick Watt is live there.

You're at the picket line. Look, as you mentioned to us, and you've been talking about as you've been covering this over the last few days, these negotiations have been going on for a long time already. Is this strike lighting a fire on the other side.

NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're right, Erica, these talks have been going on for nearly a year, but I heard from a -- the union side this morning -- and it's still very early here -- I heard from the union side and they say negotiations are in the impasse process. Right now it's at the fact finding step where a third party looks into the remaining unresolved issues. So, it doesn't sound like he's talks going well.

One of the big issues, money.


The union is asking for a 30 percent raise. Right now the district is at about 23 percent. So again this morning, from 4:30, the union workers were out here picketing at this bus depot.

Now, it's not just this union. There are also the teachers union is out in sympathy. And some kids we've also seen joining the protest yesterday.

Take a listen to what some of them had to tell us.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We love our students. We love our families. We want to be with our students. But this is a righteous fight. It's a righteous fight for living wages.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're getting underpaid. They deserve to get more. I have a teacher that doesn't even get enough money a month to pay off his rent.


WATT: Now, of course, many kids, many, many children, many parents impacted . A lot of parents seem quite sympathetic. They say, listen, this is a work environment for these people. It's a learning environment for our kids. So, it's good for everybody if conditions are the best they can possibly be.

Guys, back to you.

HILL: All right, Nick, I know you'll keep us posted. Appreciate it. Thank you.

BERMAN: Big developments in multiple investigations into former President Trump. A major ruling as the Justice Department argues former -- the former president may have committed a crime in his handling of classified material. And, of course, we are waiting, watching, for a possible indictment in Manhattan in connection to a hush money scheme. The latest, ahead.