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Pope Francis In Hospital With Respiratory Infection; Ukraine: Russians Suffering Heavy Losses Around Bakhmut; Taiwan's Leader Embarks On 10-Day Diplomatic Mission; King Charles III Greeted With Ceremony In Germany; Vanuatu Secures Historic U.N. Vote On Climate Obligations. Aired 1-2a ET

Aired March 30, 2023 - 01:00   ET




KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Kim Brunhuber. Ahead on CNN Newsroom, prayers for a speedy recovery after Pope Francis is hospitalized for a respiratory infection. Ukrainian military gear up to launch a counter offensive against Russian troops.

And tears and broken hearts in Nashville, Tennessee, as the community comes together to honor the six victims of this week's school shooting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Live from CNN Center, this is CNN Newsroom with Kim Brunhuber.

BRUNHUBER: We begin with details of Pope Francis's health. Right now, it is 07:00 a.m. in Rome, where the pontiff spent the night in hospital after he had trouble breathing on Wednesday. Vatican says he'll stay there for a few days.

Catholics around the world, including in the Pope's hometown of Buenos Aires, are praying for the 86 year old religious leader to recover quickly. The Pope has had some health issues recently, including colon surgery and chronic knee pain.

CNN's Delia Gallagher has the details.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: The Vatican says Pope Francis had been complaining in the past few days about some respiratory difficulties, and on Wednesday afternoon, he went to Rome's Gemelli Hospital for what the Vatican calls previously scheduled tests. Those tests revealed that the Pope has a respiratory infection.

They have ruled out COVID, but they say that he will need to stay in hospital for medical attention for the next few days. Now, we saw Pope Francis on Wednesday morning at his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square. He seemed to be speaking and breathing just fine. But of course, he is 86 years old, and when he was a younger man, he had part of his right lung removed due to respiratory illness. This begins an important Easter week, one of the busiest weeks in the Vatican. On Sunday for the Pope, he has scheduled masses and other events, but for the moment, we will be monitoring his progress in the hospital.

Delia Gallagher, CNN, Rome.

BRUNHUBER: Right now to Ukraine, where the defense minister is suggesting that a counter offensive campaign could begin as early as next month. Oleksii Reznikov says German leopard tanks now arriving in Ukraine will likely be on the battlefield in April or May, as Ukraine prepares to launch a counterattack against Russian forces.

Now, that work comes as Ukraine reports heavy Russian losses around the eastern city of Bakhmut. Officials say in just one day, nearly 100 Russian soldiers were killed, though they acknowledge Russians have had partial success in their attacks. Still, the U.S. Joint chiefs of staff chairman says it's the Russians who are paying the highest price. Here he is.


GEN. MARK MILLEY, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: These forces are very undertrained. They're essentially doing frontal assaults into machine gun positions, et cetera, and they're getting slaughtered. The Russian troops are. Ukrainians are doing a very effective area defense that is proven to be very costly to the Russians.

For about the last 2021 days, the Russians have not made any progress whatsoever in and around Bakhmut. So it's a slaughter fest for the Russians. They're getting hammered in the vicinity of Bakhmut and the Ukrainians have fought very, very well.


BRUNHUBER: Now to the southwest of Bakhmut, the head of the U.N. Nuclear Watchdog traveled to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to assess the current conditions. It was his second visit since Russian forces took over the plant last March.

Rafael Grossi says the situation at Europe's largest nuclear power plant hasn't improved, and the International Atomic Energy Agency is now focused on plans to protect the plant. He said there's been a significant increase in the number of troops in the region. Here he is.


RAFAEL GROSSI, DIR. GEN. INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY: The increased military activity, which I was referring to on the basis of the information I had before going is obvious in terms of military presence signs, visible signs of damage and destruction before you get to the place. So it is obvious that this area is facing a perhaps a more dangerous phase.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BRUNHUBER: Joining us now is CNN Military Analyst and Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. Thanks so much for being here with us again.

So I want to go back to General Milley's comments about the Russians getting, quote, hammered in Bakhmut. Is that the way you see things there? And what does this long stalemate mean for Ukraine?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Kim, it's good to be with you. It's really both sides are the ones that are getting hammered in this particular case, but the Russians are definitely getting the worst end of the deal, at least at the moment.


So as far as the state of play on the ground is concerned, the Russians are basically surrounding Bakhmut on three sides and they're trying to close the gap in the west by attacking the towns and in that particular area. So they have certain advantages, but they're not being able to really prosecute those advantages.

And right now, the siege of Bakhmut has lasted a real long time. In fact, it's lasted longer than the siege of Stalingrad did in World War II. We're approaching eight months now for the siege of Bakhmut, and that is a very long time for the Russians not to be able to move forward in this place. So, in essence, what we have is a basic area where both sides are really in a stalemate right now.

BRUNHUBER: Does that stalemate kind of mean a win for Ukraine in a way?

LEIGHTON: It does, because the Ukrainians were not expected to hold Bakhmut. And as long as they can keep Bakhmut, that is, in essence, a bit of Ukrainian victory. Now, if the Russians should still take Bakhmut, it will be a victory for them, but it won't be as meaningful a victory as it would otherwise have been.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, because of that enormous cost and the amount of time it took to take it. Now, we spoke earlier of the suggested counter offensive that could take place as soon as next month, which seems, you know, remarkably soon. I mean, would they be ready and how and where would it start, do you think?

LEIGHTON: Yes, that's a really good question. So if the Ukrainians are smart about this, and they usually are, they're going to pick a place that is a bit of a surprise and then take advantage of that situation, of that tactical surprise and move their forces very quickly.

So as soon as they have the ability to move fast, you know, with things like infantry fighting vehicles, like they received from Germany, of course, with the Leopard 2 tanks, like you mentioned, those things are going to be really important for mobility. And mobility is going to be the key for the Ukrainians.

If they can move with lightning speed, they can capture territory, just like they did over the summer, where they were able to get a large portion of the area just to the east of Kharkiv and of course, in the south, where they were able to get Kherson in the fall.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, you sort of referenced some of the arms that Ukraine got from the west while Russia, you know, now is in a possible convergence, at least that was the words of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, possible convergence between Russia, China and Iran. How challenging would that type of military and diplomatic alliance be for the U.S. and for Ukraine?

LEIGHTON: It could potentially be quite challenging. You know, Russia, China and Iran, they do share borders. At least two of the three countries share borders with each other and that becomes an important situation from a logistical standpoint.

The key thing though is, you know, how quickly each side can replenish the stockpiles of its ally. So if the Chinese and the Iranians replenish the Russian stockpiles, that's of course Russia's advantage. If the Ukrainians get their supplies from the west quickly enough, that can help them at least stave off a lot of what the Russians would be planning to do in this case.

BRUNHUBER: Yes. Listen, we'll have to leave it there, but always appreciate your analysis. Cedric Leighton, thanks so much for being here with us.

LEIGHTON: You bet. Anytime.

BRUNHUBER: In the move that's already angered China, Taiwan's leader has embarked on another diplomatic trip abroad, this time to visit Belize and Guatemala in Central America. President Tsai-Ing Wen arrived in New York City late Wednesday on the first leg of her 10-day trip. Her stopover in the U.S. isn't an official state visit, but Beijing quickly condemned her trip as a provocation.

CNN's Anna Coren joins us live from Hong Kong. So, Anna, obviously a politically fraught trip here. Take us through what we're expecting, the reaction and the possible implications of this.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and there are plenty certainly, Kim. President Tsai-Ing Wen, she has just attended a banquet in New York saying Taiwan's relationship with the U.S. has never been closer. She of course, is transiting through the U.S. before heading to Central America for official visits with Guatemala and Belize.

While her stopover is unofficial, it has deeply angered China. A spokesman saying China firmly opposes the visit, claiming her true purpose is to promote Taiwan's independence. But it's Tsai's expected meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California on her way back that has really angered China.

McCarthy would be the highest rank U.S. official to meet a Taiwanese leader on American soil.


China has threatened to, quote, resolutely, fight back if they in fact meet in Los Angeles. Let's now have a listen to China's top diplomat in the U.S. speaking before Tsai's arrival.


XU XUEYUAN, CHARGE D' AFFAIRES, CHINESE EMBASSY IN WASHINGTON: It could lead to another serious, serious and repeat confrontation. We urge the U.S. aside not to repeatedly play with fire on the table in question. As we say, those who play with fire will perish by it.


COREN: Now, when former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August of last year, China responded by firing ballistic missiles over Taiwan, deploying warships in the Taiwan Strait, and conducting a simulated blockade of the island. China believes that Taiwan belongs to it, and it has refused to rule out the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control.

And while the United States acknowledges China's position, it maintains that Taiwan's status should be settled peacefully between Beijing and Taipei. Her trip, of course, comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. But U.S. officials say China shouldn't overreact, and that such transits, which Tsai has done six times before as president, is simply routine. Take a listen.


JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY: This transit is consistent with our long standing, unofficial relationship with Taiwan, and it is consistent with the United States one China policy, which remains unchanged. It is Taiwan's decision to make these transits based on their own travel. Transits are not visits. They are private, and they're unofficial.


COREN: Kim, analysts believe that Tsai's 10-day visit is designed to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties with the west and assert her island's autonomy. They also believe that she wants to project strength back home. Tsai, of course, is stepping down as president next year following a drop in support for her Democratic Progressive Party. She wants to bolster confidence in the DPP before presidential elections next January, Kim.

BRUNHUBER: All right, thanks so much, Anna Coren. I appreciate that.

Mexican officials have announced they will issue arrest warrants over the deadly fire at a migrant detention center near the U.S. border. Outrage is growing after video emerged from the facility. And we just want to warn you, the video you're about to see is graphic.

Now authorities say none of the public workers or private security officers made any attempt to open the door to the migrants who were locked inside the burning building there. At least 39 people died in the disaster Monday night. And protesters are demanding justice for the victims and accountability from the government.

They gathered outside the Interior Ministry in Mexico City and held banners reading, "The migrants didn't die. They were killed."

Britain's King Charles III is set to address the German parliament in the coming hours and meet with Ukrainian refugees who have sought sanctuary in Germany. When he and his wife Camilla, arrived in Berlin on Wednesday, it was time for ceremony and pageantry and symbolism.

Our Max Foster was on hunt.


MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A grand entrance fit for a king's first official state visit. King Charles and his wife Camilla, the Queen Consort, welcomed to Germany with a 21 gun salute and a flypast. In an unprecedented start to his 29th official visit, the royals were escorted by fighter jets, one of the many firsts.

(on-camera): Adding to the sense of history, this was the first full ceremonial welcome for a head of state here at the Brandenburg Gate since the Second World War. And a first chance for the new King to meet German fans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The atmosphere, it was really -- yes, I never experienced something like that before.

FOSTER (on-camera): Is it symbolic having him here in the shadows of the Brandenburg Gates?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think so. Yes. I think there's a strong bond between both countries for centuries and there were two world wars and it's actually great to kind of go together. There's a friendship in again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all know about him. When he was Prince of Wales, he did a lot for the environment, which I think is a good thing, and I think we'll have to see what will become of it when he's -- now that he's king.

FOSTER (voice-over): King Charles's focus on the environment was on the agenda, as usual, with a reception focused on green energy and a tree planting ceremony, part of the Green Canopy Initiative in memory of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.

KING CHARLES III, UNITED KINGDOM: It over all these years, and in so many ways, I have been struck by the warmth of the friendship between our nations and by the vitality of our partnership in countless areas. It was, Mr. President, a friendship which mattered greatly to my mother.


FOSTER (voice-over): The King's visit and State Bank was in Berlin is intended to celebrate the U.K.'s relationship with both Germany and France following the postponement of his visit to Paris due to protests. Buckingham Palace says Charles will use this historic trip to highlight the importance of sustainability and community. Idea is integral to both nations. Max Foster, CNN, Berlin, Germany.


BRUNHUBER: College student ends up on Russia's most wanted list just for criticizing the war in Ukraine. Listen this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because I'm not the first and I won't be the last. In the era of the information war between propaganda and reality, words can get through to someone. That is why the authorities are afraid.


BRUNHUBER: Has only just begun. Stay with us.


BRUNHUBER: And we have breaking news in the U.S. state of Kentucky, where the governor says fatalities are expected after a U.S. army helicopter crash. It happened at Fort Campbell in the southern part of the state near the border with Tennessee.

And I'll stay with CNN for the very latest as new developments come in. But we do want to share this with you. Kentucky Governor Craig Bashir tweeted this. "We've got some tough news out of Fort Campbell with early reports of a helicopter crash and fatalities are expected."

And Bashir said the state emergency management agency, along with local officials, are responding to the scene. And he said, please pray for all those affected.

Nashville, Tennessee is paying tribute to the six victims of the shooting at a private elementary school. At a vigil Wednesday evening, Mayor John Cooper said Monday was the city's worst day, but residents are united as they mourn together.

Singer Sheryl Crow performed her song, "I Shall Believe."


BRUNHUBER: U.S. First Lady Jill Biden was also there. Now earlier in the day, she left flowers at a memorial for the three children and three adults who were killed.

We have more on those victims now from CNN's Mike Valerio. And we just want to warn you, some of the video in his report is graphic.


MARY ANNE SPRY, FRIEND OF KATHERINE KOONCE: I know as sure as I'm sitting here that Katherine went down protecting those kids.

MIKE VALERIO, CNN U.S. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Her friend Katherine Koonce was head of Covenant Elementary School, one of six lives lost in Monday's horrific shooting. Remembered alongside Mike Hill, the school's beloved custodian. Big Mike to all the kids and three nine year old students.


Evelyn Dieckhaus, her family shattered. The pastor honoring her on Wednesday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's amazing. Shining light.

VALERIO (voice-over): Hallie Scruggs, her father, the pastor of the church that runs the school and their classmate William Kinney. Substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, who was filling in at Covenant on Monday. She and Katherine Koonce were both good friends of the wife of Tennessee's Governor Bill Lee.

BILL LEE, TENNESSEE GOVERNOR: Cindy and Maria and Katherine Koonce were all teachers at the same school and have been family friends for decades. We will act to prevent this from happening again.


VALERIO (voice-over): The fast actions of officers who charged in to stop the threat 14 minutes after the first 911 call are being widely praised.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no standing around the hallway talking about it, asking for extra equipment or more people.


VALERIO: And of course, this visit has one more layer of meaning because the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, is a teacher, an educator herself. She's been a teacher for decades now, and we're learning about the lead educator, Katherine Koonce, what happened inside that building. According to a city council member, she confronted the attacker during the shooting in order to try to save more lives.

BRUNHUBER: Now to the investigation, police are turning to an expert who previously conducted act of shooting training at the Covenant School. He says all six victims were in open areas or hallways. The shooter fired into several classrooms, but didn't hit anyone.

We have more now from CNN's Carlos Suarez.


CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The motive for why 28 year old Audrey Hale shot and killed six people at the Covenant School is still unclear. Nashville Police Chief John Drake spoke to CNN today about the investigation.

CHIEF JOHN DRAKE, METRO NASHVILLE POLICE: What we know is the suspect actually went to that school. And as I said once before, there may be some resentment, but we haven't been able to confirm that. SUAREZ (voice-over): The chief said detectives are still going over a notebook that Hale left behind with writings inside. Authorities believe Hale had weapons training and may have stopped somewhere between leaving home and arriving at the school. According to the chief, Hale did not have problems at the school while a student.

DRAKE: The suspect was under doctor's care for an emotional disorder of some type. As of right now, we don't have any indication there was any problems at the school or at home.

SUAREZ (voice-over): The chief said, detectives believe the parents did not know about the seven weapons Hale legally owned.

DRAKE: The parents felt like she should not own any weapons. She did have one weapon that they encouraged her to sell, which she did, so they thought she didn't have any more.

SUAREZ (voice-over): New tonight, an art instructor who taught Hale for two semesters in 2017 at Nossi College of Art told CNN Hale had an emotional outburst on the first day of class.

MARIA COLOMY, TAUGHT HALE IN 2017: During the creation of the password, where it asks you for a non-alphanumeric character, meaning a special character, she didn't know what it was asking for, and she got really flustered and she just turned red, started crying.

SUAREZ (voice-over): Maria Colomy said that was the only outburst Hale ever exhibited in class.

COLOMY: I just think that Audrey had easier access to guns and rage than she did to compassion or proper mental health care.


BRUNHUBER: You're watching CNN Newsroom. We'll be right back.



BRUNHUBER: You're watching CNN Newsroom. I'm Kim Brunhuber. A historic win for Vanuatu at the United Nations on Wednesday. The island nation won a vote calling on the International Court of Justice to define the obligations countries have to combat climate change. Vanuatu's prime minister praised the outcome. Here he is.


ISHMAEL KALSAKAU, VANUATU PRIME MINISTER: Together, we will send a loud and clear message, not only around the world, but far into the future, that on this very day, the peoples of the United Nations, acting through their governments, decided to leave aside differences and work together.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BRUNHUBER: Vanuatu has taken a beating from escalating severe weather. Just this month, two cyclones ripped through the island. It could take more than a year for the world's top court to issue its official opinion on the matter.

But for more on this, I'm joined by Kaveh Guilanpour, Vice President for International Strategies at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Thanks so much for being here with us. So Vanuatu's Prime Minister said it's, quote, a win for climate justice of epic proportions. So I know you have some reservations about this, but if you were just looking at the potential positives here, how, you know, quote, epic could this be?

KAVEH GUILANPOUR, VICE PRESIDENT FOR INTERNATIONAL STRATEGIES AT THE CENTER FOR CLIMATE AND ENERGY SOLUTIONS: Well, I think you're absolutely right. This is a very significant and historic moment. The International Court of Justice isn't asked very often to give opinions, and certainly this is the first time that it's being asked to opine specifically on climate change. So for that reason alone, I think climate campaigners around the world should feel very positive about this. It's definitely good news in that regard.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, but, you know, it's far from just symbolic. But, obviously, this may not usher in a new era of climate justice for the world. I mean, should climate activists and those, you know, directly affected by this as well temper their expectations here?

GUILANPOUR: Well, I think we'll need to wait and see. As you said, this could take well over a year before we know the outcome. And while the outcome itself will not be binding on countries, it could certainly have positive impacts, it could affect public opinion and it could embolden more domestic climate action within individual countries depending on what it says.

But at the same time, whenever you go to court, you can't be guaranteed to get what you want. And there is some precedent in the international court where proponents have not necessarily got the answer that they wanted.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, the wheels of climate justice grind very slowly, but in a couple of months the world will gather for the next U.N. Climate Change Conference. I mean, you've been a member of the U.N. Secretary General's Climate Action Team so you know the workings here. What might this mean for the negotiations?

GUILANPOUR: Well, I mean, that's a very good question because the Paris Agreement, which is really the state of the art in terms of what international law says about climate change, was a very delicate compromise between 197 or so countries. And deliberately, some of the provisions in there are quite vague so that the agreement could be reached.

So I think the court will tread probably quite carefully to make sure that balance isn't changed. Particularly issues that could be impacted is a very significant and controversial one of loss and damage in terms of whether countries are entitled to climate finance for impacts resulting from climate change.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, that's been the key issue. So looking more broadly now beyond just this case, I mean, we saw this week a group of Swiss women launching their climate lawsuit in Europe, we're seeing more and more people, not just countries involved in climate litigation. Why is that?


GUILANPOUR: Well I think there's really three broad reasons for that. I mean, first of all, we're seeing greater and more significant impacts around the world on climate change in every region and in every country.

Secondly that it's clear from the most recent not climate science -- but the recent IPCC report the governments are not acting fast enough. So I think citizens are taking action into their own hands through the courts.

And finally, the climate science is becoming much more precise, so it's possible to link individual impacts to climate change, which, of course, opens up the possibility for litigation in court.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, I mean that last thing has been such a fascinating development to see that science emerged. But as you sort of intimated earlier, these types of lawsuits have had mixed success so far. Is that fair to say? Yes I think so.

And I think that the significance is that courts are beginning to take jurisdiction of these cases. In the past, they wouldn't have -- these cases wouldn't have gone past the first hurdle, but now they are -- they are accepting jurisdiction, and in some cases, they've had an impact.

I think there was a case in the Netherlands last year where litigants forced the government to review some of its decisions on climate change.

BRUNHUBER: Yes. It will be fascinating to follow as these cases wind their way through the courts, hopefully, creating change. We'll see.

Kaveh Guilanpour, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

GUILANPOUR: Thank you so much.

BRUNHUBER: Ukraine says it won't use force to remove the current clergy from a historic monastery in Kyiv. On Wednesday, hundreds of worshippers prayed outside the Lavera Monastery, whose monks faced a deadline to leave by the end of the day. Ukraine's government says some members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are still loyal to Moscow, but that church says it cut its ties with the Russian Orthodox Church last year and calls the order to leave legally baseless.

A Russian man whose daughter drew an antiwar picture at school has now been found and detained in Belarus after failing to show up for a hearing. The man had been charged with discrediting the Russian military over his own antiwar posts and was sentenced to two years in prison. He fled while under house arrest. His lawyer has now released a letter from the man's 13 year old daughter, Masha, who was sent to an orphanage after her father was put on house arrest.

In her letter to him, she said, quote, "Know that we will win. No matter what happens we are together." Last April, Masha drew a picture during an art class of Russian missiles being fired at a Ukrainian family with the words "no to war", and "glory to Ukraine". Her school later called police.

A human rights group says more than 400 Russians have been prosecuted for anti war activities since the invasion of Ukraine began. But one 20-year-old student says she was singled out and faced severe charges after criticizing the war on social media.

Now she managed to flee Russia and has no intention of staying silent as our Melissa Bell reports.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: She's now a wanted fugitive escaping the law. But Olesya Krivtsova was a teenager, like any other. Olesya Krivtsova is now on Moscow's most wanted list but enjoying the streets and the freedoms of the European Union.

For the safety of those who helped her to get here we've agreed not to give too much away about how she escaped.

OLESYA KRIVTSOVA, EXILED RUSSIAN STUDENT: No one expected that the case would grow so much that the resonance would be huge.

BELL: Krivtsova Social media was typical of her age But some of her social posts criticizing the war in Ukraine were brought to the attention of authorities by fellow students, one of them distinguishing between snitching and patriotic denunciation.

KRIVTSOVA: The only difference is that in Stalin's time, people disappeared for good. And it wasn't clear where. Now because of social media almost the same thing is happening except it's very public.

BELL: From the start Krivtsova was made an example of. Most of the many hundreds prosecuted friends who were activity in Russia have been charged with disseminating false information. Krivtsova was charged with terrorism instead.

Why are you so scary to them?

KRIVTSOVA: Because I'm not the first and I won't be the last. In the era of the information war between propaganda and reality, words can get through to someone. That is why the authorities are afraid because words are the most terrible weapon.


BELL: Krivtsova had been on her way to meeting her husband for coffee when she was arrested for the second time. She was placed under house arrest on trumped up charges. So in February, as she turned 20, she made her decision to go taking very little.

Do you regret the posts?

KRIVTSOVA: It's a difficult question. I lost a lot and went through a lot. My mother's tears faced with this situation. I lost my husband, grandfather and grandmother. This is a huge price for anyone.

BELL: But Krivtsova would not be silenced even as Big Brother watched Orwell's quotes tattooed above an image of Vladimir Putin as a spider.

KRIVTSOVA: I think it's now my daily job to discredit the Russian army because the Russian army is committing crimes on the territory of Ukraine.

BELL: Tell me about this place how it's been.

KRIVTSOVA: Yes, the stairwell looks very Russian because the building was constructed in the USSR. It's only my second day here. I haven't had a chance yet to tidy up my new place properly or to get my bearings around the courtyard and the surrounding area.

BELL: But Krivtsova has already set up a new Instagram channel. A girl interrupted on her way to getting coffee now in Lithuania freer and intending to be louder than ever.

Melissa Bell, CNN -- Vilnius.


BRUNHUBER: All right. Still to come. CNN takes an in-depth look at how the deadly drug fentanyl makes its way from labs in China to Mexico and then finally into the U.S.

Please stay with us.


BRUNHUBER: Throughout this week, Call to Earth is turning the spotlight on Mexico and the conservationists working to protect the country's rich marine ecosystem.

Today as part of the Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative, guest editors Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier introduced us to a father- daughter duo on a mission to save whales.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Former U.S. tennis pro turned conservation biologist Michael Fishbach is the co founder of the Great Whale Conservancy, an organization dedicated to protecting the whale population.

MICHAEL FISHBACH, CO-FOUNDER, GREAT WHALE CONSERVANCY: Anthropogenic climate disruption is really what climate change is. Where has 90 percent of the warming happened? In the ocean.

CRISTINA MITTERMEIER, CONSERVATION PHOTOGRAPHER: I love working with people that are passionate, that are experts at what they do. And that are little maverick, you know, not afraid of doing things their own way.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: His daughter, Delphi Watters (ph) is also part of the team. She's been coming out here on the boat since she was six months old and about 10 years ago started conducting research as well.


PAUL NICKLEN, CONSERVATION PHOTOGRAPHER: You know, everything we have learned about the blue whales of the Lower Rideau Region are from Michael and Delphi.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But it's not so much the animal itself they are looking for this morning, rather something it's hopefully left behind.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whale poop. I see it. My goodness that's like a whale brick.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Finding and collecting feces is just one part of their daily routine.

FISHBACH: When it's in the photic zone it has phosphorus, iron and nitrogen and that mixes with the nutrients that are on the bottom of the ocean that are upwelling and that blooms phytoplankton that fertilizes phytoplankton.

So this is literally the stuff of life in the ocean.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael's referring to a process called the whale pump or put more simply.

MITTERMEIER: Everywhere I go I talk about the poop loop.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whales excrete nutrient rich feces, which feeds phytoplankton, tiny plant like organisms that help combat climate change by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while simultaneously producing at least half of the oxygen on earth.

In turn, the phytoplankton feed the krill and the whales then eat krill up to four tons of it a day and the cycle continues.

The samples they collect will be sent to a lab where tests will measure the amounts of microplastics in the feces as well as get a general idea of the animal's health.

FISHBACH: The thing about whales is that and especially blue whales, they consciously migrate to an area that they know historically is going to have a productive upwelling. I mean whales are a critical component and a conscious component. That's what's different about them.

MITTERMEIER: In our daily lives, we're not thinking about animals like whales or elephants. And yet these animals provide ecological services that are important for humans to survive on planet earth.


BRUNHUBER: And be sure to watch the special half hour program "CALL TO EARTH: PROTECTORS OF THE SEA", airing this Saturday and Sunday here on CNN.

You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. We'll be right back.


BRUNHUBER: An update on the breaking story we brought you earlier, the Fort Camel U.S. Army Base in Kentucky confirms two of its helicopters crashed during a training mission in Trigg County, Kentucky and says the status of the crew members is unknown at this time. Will have much more on this story as it becomes available.

Israeli negotiators held a second round of talks on Wednesday over the judicial reform plans that have plunged the country into political chaos. Now many doubt whether a compromise is possible. Again, demonstrators in Tel Aviv rallied against the prime minister's plan to weaken the power of the courts, even though that plan is on hold for now.

Benjamin Netanyahu called the debate public and often painful, but says he hopes an agreement can be reached serious (ph).


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: And we have to make sure that as we shift the pendulum from one side of an ever powerful judiciary, which is different from an independent judiciary. How do we ensure that the judiciary remains independent? And that we balance the need to strengthen the executive and the legislative and at the same time protect individual rights. I think that balance can be achieved and that's why I've promoted a pause.



BRUNHUBER: His taped remarks were played at a White House-hosted democracy summit, despite concerns about democratic backsliding in Israel and amid growing strains between the two allies.

Earlier this week, the U.S. president said he hopes Israeli leaders bend on the judicial overhaul, adding quote, "they cannot continue down this road". Here he is.


JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: We obviously have urged Israeli leaders to come up with a compromise as soon as possible. And the president's comments yesterday about walking away from it are perfectly consistent with finding a compromise that -- that again preserves checks and balances in Israel.


BRUNHUBER: But the Biden administration's stance isn't going over well with some groups in Israel.

CNN's Nic Robertson explains.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Reaction has been swift, Israeli TV leading with and debating President Joe Biden's rejection of any near term visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Consensus: it's unprecedented, a clear put down by Israel's most important ally.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to the White House, sir?



BIDEN: Not in the near term.

ROBERTSON: Biden's message, back off on contentious judicial reforms, has touched a raw nerve in the Israeli government.

Itamar Ben-Givr, Netanyahu's hard right cabinet member firing back on Israeli Radio, saying we are an independent country, not another star on the U.S. flag.

And Netanyahu, during a U.S. hosted virtual summit for democracy, also shrugging off Biden's cold shoulder.

NETANYAHU: Israel and the United States have had their occasional differences. But I want to assure you that the alliance between the world's greatest democracy and a strong, proud and independent democracy, Israel in the heart of the Middle East is unshakable.

ROBERTSON: But on the streets at the many anti government protests, Biden's snub of Netanyahu is exactly what protesters have been calling for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We needed the world to help us not let him in. Just punish this guy. This guy is a dictator, is very, very bad for democracy. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll probably let things calm down --

ROBERTSON: But among opposition leaders here concern the U.S. president isn't tough enough.

AHMAD TIBI, ISRAELI KNESSET MEMBER: It's a new and interesting statement by President Biden unprecedented, good one. I am not sure that this is enough for Netanyahu to stop.


TIBI: Because he can -- he loves Washington more than Tel Aviv -- Netanyahu. But he can live without visiting the White House for the next year.

NETANYAHU: This alliance is something that President Biden is committed to. I've known him for 40 years. He is a true friend of Israel.

ROBERTSON: Not for the first time this year, Netanyahu defending his hard right government to U.S. officials.

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The discussion that the prime minister and I had today was no exception.

ROBERTSON: In January U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken came to call spiking Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

President Biden's blunt comments Tuesday, signaling growing frustration in the White House and taking conversations here to a whole new level.

Nic Robertson, CNN -- Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BRUNHUBER: The U.S. is trying to curb the flow of fentanyl produced in China from entering the country. The extremely powerful synthetic drug is aggravating the opioid crisis in the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses between 2021 and 2022.

CNN's David Culver takes a look at how the drugs get from China through Mexico and then into the streets of the U.S.


DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The U.S.' largest port of entry --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where we are going today --

CULVER: -- also its busiest. Each day more than 100,000 people enter the U.S. through the San Ysidro crossing, about 800 Customs and Border Protection officers tasked with keeping the bad from seeping through this part of the border.

MARIZA MARIN, SAN YSIDRO PORT DIRECTOR, U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION: Very difficult and complex job for them to, in a matter of moments and sometimes seconds, identify whether someone presents a threat coming into the station or not.

CULVER: Among the deadliest threats, illicit fentanyl.


MARIN: So we want to feel the door to make sure it doesn't feel heavy, and there's nothing in there.

CULVER: The CBP tells us that more than half of all the fentanyl found at U.S. borders come from ports here in San Diego. Officials say this is ground zero for illicit fentanyl smuggling.

MARIN: We will probably double what we saw last year within the next month or two. That's double the amount of fentanyl seized in all of 2022 in just the first four months of this year.

But before the fentanyl even reaches the U.S. border you need to know where it's coming from. And for that we start not over there in Mexico but in China.

Specifically Shijiazhuang, China -- a city some 200 miles south of Beijing, known for manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs and once a major hub for fentanyl production.

In May 2019, facing mounting U.S. pressure, China took a major step and banned the production and sale of all known forms of fentanyl, including any variants of the drug.

MATT DONAHUE, FORMER CHIEF OF FOREIGN OPERATIONS, DEA: That was a big step. That stopped fentanyl. Fentanyl and the powder coming in from China direct to the United States.

Matt Donahue worked for the DEA for more than three decades, retiring last year as its chief of foreign operations.

While he says finished fentanyl is no longer flowing out of China, precursor chemicals, the ingredients to make fentanyl, are.

DONAHUE: If you can get to the precursor chemicals, you're going to have less fentanyl. You have less fentanyl, you have less overdose deaths.

CULVER: Using that same approach in recent years, the U.S. levied new sanctions against a handful of Chinese chemical manufacturers to combat the global illicit drug trade.

We looked into one of them, Hebei Atun Trading Company, accused of being involved in fentanyl precursor chemicals sales. Public records show the company was dissolved in 2021, but our investigation found the same email address once listed for Hebei Atun attune now linked to this Chinese company. Shanxi Ni Pu (ph) registered just days after Hebei Atun began to shut down.

And look at Hebei Atun's Facebook page still active. It links to Shanxi Ni Pu, not to mention the WhatsApp contacts advertised for both companies, the same. So I texted a number listed on one of Shanxi Ni Pu's four Web sites without even mentioning the word fentanyl, the seller Linda Wong asked if we wanted this substance, which can be used to make fentanyl. Wong then sent me this full menu of chemical products. A closer look reveals these are mostly precursors legal to buy, but ones that chemists tell us can be used to manufacturer illicit drugs -- from fentanyl to cocaine.

The company offers fast delivery and safety shipping.


CULVER: Logan Pauley is an intelligence analyst who has been investigating the flow of fentanyl precursors out of China for years. We showed him our conversation with Wong.

PAULEY: They have a warehouse in Mexico City.


We wondered if Wang would reveal any ties to the sanction company. Tell me you are the same company as Hebei Atun. You're now called Shanxi Ni Pu Import and Export. Ha ha. Yes (smiley face). Sorry I don't want to cheat you.

PAULEY: I think it's wild that they confirmed that they're the same company.

CULVER: In an email responding to our request for comment, Shanxi Ni Pu told us, "We are not related at all to Hebei Atun. Adding that they bought the sanctioned company's Facebook account, email and cell phone number in order to quote, "attract Internet traffic". They also deny selling the fentanyl precursor that they offered to us in multiple exchanges.

And the company denies having any warehouses in the U.S. or Mexico, stressing that everything they sell is legal. We found hundreds of other Chinese chemical companies selling the same fentanyl precursors legally.

I mean, does this show? Do you think that U.S. sanctions aren't working or aren't effective?

PAULEY: The way in which the system is being exploited by these Chinese companies makes it hard to enforce everything.

CULVER: Another problem when one precursor is banned, a substitute chemical quickly takes its place.

ALEXANDRA EVANS, CHEMIST, D.C. DEPARTMENT OF FORENSIC SCIENCES: So what they're doing now is they're buying compounds that are structurally very, very similar.

CULVER: Chemists point out the ease of creating a substitute ingredient called amassed precursor. Simply put, make one small chemical change, and it's no longer a banned precursor but a legal substitute, one that's readily available to purchase by essentially anyone with Internet access.

DEA officials tell us the majority of precursors ship directly to Mexico where cartels cook up fentanyl in secret labs.

We wanted to see for ourselves, traveling into the state of Sinaloa, cartel country as some see it. We got exclusive access with the Mexican army as they hunt for drug labs.

They took us to their latest fentanyl lab bust, this unassuming home.

That white building right there. That's the fentanyl lab.


CULVER: The army says they seized 270,000 pills here all containing fentanyl. Soldiers keep watch 24/7, preserving the scenes for prosecutors and preventing cartel members from restarting production here.

Despite what we saw and scenes like these, Mexico's president claims, "Here in Mexico. We do not produce fentanyl," he said. Instead turning it on the U.S. essentially asking why the U.S. can't fix its own social decay, comments that immediately made headlines across the country.

China's foreign ministry points the finger in the same direction, they told us quote "Using China as a scapegoat will not solve the drug crisis in the United States. With U.S. drug overdoses at record levels and a relentless demand for opioids, blame shifts from one country to another international cooperation appears increasingly unlikely.

DONAHUE: If we had Mexico actually working with us, you can actually work against the precursors coming in and actually target Chinese companies from Mexico.

CULVER: Instead, the burden falls here on the U.S. southern border where drugs continue to pour in.

Narcotics. We don't know what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't know what it is yet.

They found obviously significant amount of drugs in the back trunk will continue over this way, and get out of their way because they're going to continue to investigate that finding.

CULVER: Do you see yourself as the last line of defense.

MARIN: We're the last line of defense holding the border. But we're the first line of defense in the expansion and all of government outreach approach. It's not just an enforcement mission. It's a humanitarian mission.


BRUNHUBER: Tech leaders have signed an open letter warning of the dangers of artificial intelligence. They're calling for a pause on developing the most powerful AI systems for least six months. The order comes just two weeks after the firm OpenAI announced an even more powerful version of the technology behind the viral AI chatbot tool, ChatGPT being the CEO of OpenAI signed onto the letter.

It reads in part quote. "AI systems with human competitive intelligence can pose profound risks to society and humanity. Recent months have seen AI labs locked in and out of control, race, develop and deploy even more powerful digital minds that no one, not even their creators can understand, predict or reliably control.

I'm Kim Brunhuber. CNN NEWSROOM continues now with Paula Newton. Please do stay with us.