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Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is Interviewed about Russia and Belarus; Airline Travel Expected to Surge. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired March 27, 2023 - 09:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, the death toll is rising in Eastern Ukraine after a barrage of new Russian missile strikes. Ukraine officials say at least two people were killed, dozens more injured in Sloviansk. Several high-rise buildings, civilian buildings, that were targeted were reduced to rubble and ashes. Explosions also rocking the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol. This dash cam video capturing the billowing smoke.

These strikes came less than 24 hours after Vladimir Putin announced plans to move and station tactical nuclear weapons, like the ones in this missile here we're showing you, in Belarus. Putin says he wants to store them there by summer, which means they could be closer to Ukraine but also the NATO's borders.

With me now is the Belarusian political activists and opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Nice to have you on again.


SCIUTTO: First, I want to ask you about Putin's threat here to move nuclear weapons to Belarus. Does this, in your view, amount to Russia threatening Ukraine with a nuclear attack?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: First old, it's aiming to subjugate Belarus and it violates our constitution. It violates international security. And, of course, it's against Belarusian people's well. We are non nuclear country and we don't want to deploy anybody, deploy a nuclear weapons on -- in our state.

SCIUTTO: He's made nuclear threats before, as have other Russian officials, including former president as well, Medvedev. Are these just threats or do you believe he may actually use such weapons?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I think that dictators in this difficult situation for them can make crazy steps, but I think the democratic world has to show that it will not be tolerated.

[09:35:00] And strong steps must be made in order to stop this -- the steps from fulfilling.

SCIUTTO: As you know, Putin has at times pressured the Belarusian president, Lukashenko, to supply forces and weapons to help in his invasion of Ukraine. It hasn't happened yet. Do you believe it may happen now as the Russian president makes plans to move nuclear weapons there?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So, actually, it's around perception that Putin pushes Lukashenko to do something. They are, on the one side of this war, they are collaborant (ph). Lukashenko became full accomplice in this war and he fulfills all the orders of Putin.

The fact that Belarusian troops haven't been send to Belarus is not the merit of Lukashenko. It's (INAUDIBLE) and people who are against (INAUDIBLE) in this war. And our Belarusian soldiers don't have anti- Ukrainian (INAUDIBLE). They don't want to kill or to be killed on the battlefields for the ambitions of tour observes.

And Lukashenko is totally responsible for crimes of aggression against Ukraine, and he had to be called sponsor of terrorism and have to be brought to accountability for this.

SCIUTTO: You - I should remind people watching, they may not be aware, but you ran against Lukashenko for president. You say the election was stolen for you -- from you. And since then you paid a price. Your husband is still held in a Russian prison more than two years now.

Do you fear that the world is overlooking Russia's aggression in Belarus? Of course, there's a war in Ukraine, but that Belarus is not getting the attention it deserves.

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: I think that at the moment Belarus is actually overlooked. And maybe not all the politicians understand the role of Belarus in regional peace and security. And I really want that you're saying President Biden and State Department to look more deeply into this problem and not to leave Belarus for one day later, you know, after we'll deal with Ukraine and then we will return to Belarus.

We don't have to forget that Belarusian people now are fighting not only against Lukashenko's regime but also against hybrid occupation of Russia. In Belarus we see the increase level of violence repressions. Thousands of people are in prisons for political motivated cases. Hundreds of thousands had to flee Belarus because of repressions. And one day we can wake up and see that Belarus is left as consolation prize for Putin.


TSIKHANOUSKAYA: And I'm sure that Belarus is a key state for keeping security in Europe.

SCIUTTO: You're in Washington this week to meet with U.S. officials in part. Is the U.S. doing enough for Belarus in your view? TSIKHANOUSKAYA: You know, the nations who are going through violations

of their rights, who are in difficult position, are sure that much more could be done, you know? And we are grateful to the USA for all the extra solidarity and support to our people. But I think that more pressure can be imposed on the Russia - Belarusian regime and more support can be provided to the Belarusian people who are -- who are resistant now to all this. And also we are calling now the international community to pressure Lukashenko to accountability through possible mechanisms like ICC. You can start investigation of his crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.

But several steps have been made to recently by the USA, just a new package of sanctions and, yes, launch of strategic dialogue with democratic Belarus was started and we appreciate this step.

Also special envoy will be sent to democratic forces, to Lithuania, to make this -- to build those bridges between our countries.

SCIUTTO: Understood.

I want to ask about your husband. He's serving an 18-year prison sentence simply for challenging Lukashenko. You have not been able to speak to him for, I believe, more than two years now. Do you have any idea what his state of health is and what his prospects are for release?

TSIKHANOUSKAYA: So, all our political prisoners, including my husband, iterated, humiliated, physically and morally imprisoned, so they are in extremely poor position there. But they are keeping strong. They know that the Belarusian society and international world are fighting for them. You know, they believe in us. They believe in international laws. And in solidarity. And I think that we can't betray them. We have to release all of our political prisoners and get rid of Lukashenko's regime in Belarus.

SCIUTTO: Well, we wish you the best luck and we hope your family is reunited soon.


Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, thanks so much for joining us.


DEAN: The Biden administrations is now rushing to select a new nominee to lead the FAA. Up next, one nominees withdrawal and the intense pressure on the agency amid runway close calls and holiday travel backlogs.


SCIUTTO: Well, you may have noticed, spring break is here for thousands -- many thousands of students across the country and airport officials say it is leading to a travel surge even bigger than before the Covid-19 pandemic.

DEAN: That is wild.

Right now, the FAA is preparing to handle 46,000 flights today alone.


But industry experts say those numbers would be far greater if it were not for the recent string of airline gaffes.

CNN aviation correspondent Pete Muntean has more on that.


PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Spring break travel is soaring back to normal and renewing worry that your flight could be canceled. Meltdowns plagued the FAA in January, Southwest Airlines over the holidays, and industrywide last summer.

GEOFF FREEMAN, PRESIDENT AND CEO, U.S. TRAVEL ASSOCIATION: The air travel system is under great stress.

MUNTEAN: The Federal Aviation Administration is already warning of a shortage of air traffic controllers that could cause increased delays at New York's three major airports this summer. There, a key air traffic control facility is at only 54 percent staffing.

FREEMAN: We're seeing it with delays. We're see it with cancelations. And that is leading some travelers to say, you know what, I would travel more if we could fix that air travel experience.

MUNTEAN: The latest figures from travel site Hopper show many travelers are concerned about flight disruptions. Twenty percent of Hopper's spring break travelers are buying extra trip protection that's on top of rising airfare, up 4 percent Hopper says, compared to 2019.

KEN DANIELS, TRAVELER: They were quite pricey this time of year I guess due to spring break and due to what's going on in the economy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They go up one day. They go down the next day. Just be diligent, be on point. And when you see that good price you want, hit the button.

MUNTEAN: Even still, industry figures say 158 million Americans will fly for spring break. That's an average of 2.6 million travelers each day.

HAYLEY BERG, LEAD ECONOMIST, HOPPER: We're expecting this spring break to likely break records for number of travelers who are getting out there and how much they're spending given the huge demand coming out of the pandemics.

MUNTEAN: The top destinations, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Miami, where the airport says demand is 20 percent higher than 2019. So high that officials are asking you to show up three hours before a domestic flight instead of the typical two hours. GREG CHIN, COMMUNICATIONS DIR., MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT: There are very few off peak times right now for us. We have been the best alternative to leaving the country since Covid.


MUNTEAN: Here are the top tips from travel experts. Book your trip now, if you have not booked already. Also, try to book a flight midweek, Tuesday or Wednesday. That way Hopper says you might save as much as $150 on airfare.

The other big tip here, Jim and Jessica, is try to book the first flight out. That will minimize your chances of delays and cancelations.

SCIUTTO: Good advice.

DEAN: Right, because hopefully that plane is waiting for you there. It's already -- it's already sitting at the gate when you get there, even though you're sleep deprived.

Pete, President Biden's pick to lead the FAA has decided to withdraw his nomination. He -- they just can't - simply could not get the votes in the Senate. What are we learning about that and how quickly do they need to introduce the replacement?

MUNTEAN: You know, it's pretty surprising that Phil Washington withdrew his nomination for the FAA administrator because it was only last week that the White House said it was still standing by him as the nomination to lead this agency. You know, this is so critical because the FAA is really having a moment right now. We've seen these strings of runway incursions at airports nationwide involving commercial airliners. There's so many issues we just laid out in the piece. The air traffic controller shortage. So we will see who the White House nominates next.

Billy Nolan is the acting administrator of the agency. Will he be nominated for a five year term to lead it after Steve Dixon resigned as the head of the administration last year? Big questions, though. A lot of big questions about Phil Washington's background. He didn't have the experience, according to the right. He wasn't an aviation safety expert. So, will the nominee be a pilot or at least have an aviation safety background?


MUNTEAN: That is the big question now.

SCIUTTO: Yes, amazing how long some of these appointments take these days.

Pete Muntean, thanks so much.

Coming up next, when it comes to sports, everyone loves a Cinderella story. Now with every single number one seed out, a bunch of number twos and others as well, the story of this tournament is there's a lot of Cinderella stories, coming up.



DEAN: This year's March Madness is turning into a true Cinderella story kind of all across the board as we get closer to the men's NCAA championship.

SCIUTTO: Yes. The first time in more than 50 years that three schools will make their first Final Four appearance. None of them are the favorite first seeds. Got there in the end. Here with us now, CNN Sports Cory Wire.

Coy, I don't even want to talk about my bracket. It's like so dead. It's a source of great personal embarrassment. But I know I'm not alone because, frankly, most people had to throw away their brackets.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: Misery loves company. My name is misery.


WIRE: Your (ph) Houston Cougars got knocked out. Good to see you and Jessica.

Look, for the first time ever, there isn't a one, two, or three seeds in the Final Four. And Florida Atlantic, Miami and San Diego State, they're there for the first time.

Check this out, San Diego State was up two over Creighton with about 30 seconds ago, but Creighton's Baylor Scheierman steals the inbound pass. The Blue Jays tie the game. Six seconds to go now and Aztecs' Darien Trammell looking for the win, but Creighton's called for the foul. Look at the hand on the hip, Jim. Ah! Just 1.2 seconds to go. Trammell misses his first shot. The pressure's on now, but the senior locks in and nails the game winner. Creighton's last chance would go flying out of reach. Game over. Trammell played in front of fewer than 1,000 fans at Seattle University last year. But now, Jessica and Jim, he send San Diego State to their first Final Four. And he was emotional after the game.


DARRION TRAMMELL, SAN DIEGO STATE SENIOR GUARD: It's all about believing in yourself. I feel like I put in the work. I had nothing to be nervous about. I did - the game - it's just - it's just a game. I'm doing this for my family. I'm doing this for the people back home. My grandpa. My brother, who I lost. I'm just doing it for them.


WIRE: I saw you get your tissues out, Jim.

Don't ever turn your backs on the Hurricanes. Down by 13 to Texas in the second half until this, an inbound pass against the Longhorns right off the rear of the steer for the emphatic dunk. [09:55:04]

That becomes the impetus for a 37-17 run that gets the job done. Comeback complete. They took out one seed Houston.. Now two seed Texas. And here's 73 year old coach Jim Larranaga looking like Jim after he realizes I didn't get last in our CNN bracket challenge. Now he's taking Miami dancing in their first ever Final Four.

How about this now? She's savage, y'all. Iowa's Caitlan Clark re- writing the record books against Louisville, leading the Hawkeyes to their first Final Four in 30 years. She's the front runner for the national player of the year, 41 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists. She becomes the first player ever to record a 40-point triple double in tournament history. Look out.

LSU, they're headed to the Final four as well.


WIRE: There's two more games tonight to decide the others.

Check this out, LSU, they're drawing rings on their fingers. They're envisioning championship rings.


WIRE: I love this technique.

SCIUTTO: They say envision it, right?

WIRE: Yes.

DEAN: You've got to manifest it right?

SCIUTTO: You make it real. I think that was a foul, though, by - I know there's a lot of - I mean you put your hand on guys yet that's - I don't see how you don't call that in that moment.

WIRE: Yes, it was definitely controversial.

DEAN: All right.

WIRE: But, yes, here we are. we're into the Final Four. And madness, as always. Just as expected.


DEAN: Yes, it is. Brackets are busted, but it's been a lot of fun to watch.

All right, Cory Wire, thanks so much.

And still ahead for us this morning, we are live in Israel where protesters are filling the streets. A pointed message for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his push to reform the country's justice system amid his own corruption charges. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)