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U.S. to Support Joint F-16 Training for Ukraine; Russia Bans Hundreds of Americans in Response to Sanctions; Tens of Thousands of Serbians March over Violence; Turkish President Touts "Positive" Ties with the Kremlin; Canadian Wildfires Threaten U.S. Air Quality; Florida Governor Expected to Run for President. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired May 20, 2023 - 02:00   ET




LAILA HARRAK, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello and welcome to all our viewers watching here in the United States and around the world. I'm Laila Harrak and this is CNN NEWSROOM.

Zelenskyy caps off a whirlwind week of diplomacy. The Ukrainian president expected to arrive at the G7 summit soon and made a push to secure more military aid for his country's fight against Russia.

And Biden in Japan says he's not worried as he confronts a crisis at home. Debt ceiling talks stalling out, even as the clock ticks down with less than two weeks before the U.S. government could run out of money to pay its bills.

Plus, my conversation with the European Commission president Ursula van der Leyen as day two of the G7 summit gets underway.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Live from CNN Center, this is CNN NEWSROOM with Laila Harrak.

HARRAK: Welcome.

World leaders at the G7 summit in Japan are tackling China's growing global influence and Russia's war on Ukraine, while a topic not officially on the agenda also looms large. Allies keep asking U.S. President Joe Biden about the debt ceiling standoff back home.

Talks are stalled and the White House accuses Republicans of pushing the country to the brink of defaulting on its debts.

Meantime, as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to make an in-person appearance at the summit in Japan, President Biden has announced support for training Ukrainians on F-15 fighter jets. Kevin Liptak joins me now live from Hiroshima, Japan.

Kevin, the crisis at home with the debt ceiling debate still unresolved as we speak.

KEVIN LIPTAK, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. The debt ceiling stalemate has really overshadowed many parts of the summit. It is true that, for all the talk of Ukraine and China that's underway here, the biggest threat to global stability at this point would be an American default.

So President Biden is being quizzed by his foreign counterparts about how those talks are progressing. The national security adviser today said they do want to know how these talks will resolve. President Biden has told them he's confident America will avoid default. He just spoke about this a little bit ago. Listen to what he had to say.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The -- it goes in stages. And what happens is the first meetings weren't all that progressive. The second ones were; the third one was.

And then what happens is the carriers go back to the principals and say, this is what we're thinking about. And then people put down new claims. I still believe we'll be able to avoid a default and we'll get something decent done.


LIPTAK: So the president there essentially saying that this is what he expected all along, voicing no concern that America could default.

We should note, he was sitting in a meeting there with the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese. The president had to cut off his planned trip to Australia to return home to deal with this situation. So it is affecting his trip here on the foreign stage.

Earlier today was kind of a whipsaw day on Capitol Hill. The talks were paused, briefly resumed and broke up again. It's not clear when these negotiators will resume these talks.

You heard the president's communications director saying in quite a harsh statement put out about an hour ago that Republicans are taking the economy hostage and pushing us to the brink of default. So no clear resolution at this point as the clock and calendar ticks up to that June 1st deadline, Laila.

HARRAK: Kevin, no resolution there but resolution on another topic, President Biden giving the green light to training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets. This marks a departure from his previous stance.

How has his decision been received at the G7?

LIPTAK: Well, I think the biggest endorsement came from President Zelenskyy.

[02:05:00] LIPTAK: He has been very enthusiastic about that. He's on his way here now to the G7. Of course, that will be a welcome point of discussion between the two men when they sit down to talk tomorrow.

But that reversal comes after several previous reversals the president made on equipment and military aid, he wasn't willing to send and then decided he was able to send.

What the president's aides say is this is an endorsement on a longer strategy in Ukraine, allowing the Ukrainians long-term deterrence against the Russians. It will take time for the U.S. and its allies to train up Ukrainian pilots.

The president did inform the G7 yesterday he had made this decision. That will all come to a head tomorrow, when leaders do hear from President Zelenskyy, an important meeting here in Japan.

HARRAK: A very crucial meeting indeed. Kevin Liptak reporting from Japan, thank you so much.

Well, before the G7, Ukrainian's president attended a different gathering at the Arab League in Saudi Arabia and spoke with regional leaders in an effort to gain their support. He accused some of them of turning a blind eye to Ukraine's suffering and urged them to take an honest look at the situation.

Mr. Zelenskyy also held a meeting with the Saudi crown prince, where he outlined his plan to end the conflict.

Meanwhile on the battlefield, Ukrainians have reported several explosions in Mariupol. An adviser to the mayor said the blast on Friday hit a base that Russian forces use to install air defense systems.

They added the occupiers, quote, "should have suffered significant losses." More fighting was also reported in and around the city of Bakhmut. Officials say their forces still control parts of the city and continue to conduct counterattacks.

But Ukraine's deputy defense minister acknowledges Russian forces have made advances in the area. Nada Bashir joins us live.

What more can you tell us about what exactly is happening on the ground in Ukraine?

NADA BASHIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are still learning more details about these explosions which took place in Mariupol on Friday evening. We have heard from the Ukrainian authorities at this stage. They say these explosions took place at a Russian base in the now occupied city of Mariupol.

This base is said to have housed some 150 Russian fighters and used to install air defense systems. The last time we saw an attack of this scale in Mariupol, it was hailed by Ukrainian authorities back in February as an example of Ukraine's reach on the battlefield. Now Ukrainian authorities say they believe the Russian armed forces

have sustained significant losses as a result of these three explosions. We are, of course, still learning more details about that and waiting for reaction from Moscow.

Mariupol is, of course, a key base for Moscow-backed fighters. We learned earlier this month from Ukrainian authorities that authorities in Mariupol, Kremlin-backed authorities, had already begun mobilizing national cities.

This will be a key for Moscow as we continue to see fierce fighting across the country's east and indeed in the country's capital. Overnight, we learned that Kyiv was subject to an attack by the Russian armed forces, landing in residential areas in the city.

The city's mayor taking to Telegram earlier this morning to post that a residential block -- a nine-story residential block -- had sustained fire damage to its roof.

There are, of course, still assessments being held in the city to assess the damage to infrastructure but also casualties. Authorities are calling on citizens to remain in shelters until it is deemed safe in the city.

HARRAK: In a separate development, a number of Americans have found themselves on a Russian sanctions list, including some very high- profile personalities.

BASHIR: We've seen lists like this in the past, targeting foreign nationals, particularly foreign journalists. Now a new list announced by the foreign ministry listing 500 Americans, including notable figures.

Among them, former U.S. President Barack Obama as well as a number of U.S. senators. Also featured in this list which has been released by the foreign ministry in response to --


BASHIR: -- what they describe as Russia targeted sanctions by the Biden administration, this includes some late-night hosts in the U.S., Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert as well as an addition of some U.S. journalists, including our own Erin Burnett.

A warning directed to the U.S. government, that any hostile actions taken by the Biden administration viewed as hostile by the Russian government, that would receive a strong response from Moscow.

HARRAK: Nada Bashir, thank you so much.

Now tens of thousands march in the Serbia in the country's biggest antiviolence demonstration yet. Coming up, why so many Serbians are handing over their guns and calling for change in the culture.




HARRAK: Tens of thousands of people marched in Serbia Friday in the country's largest antiviolence demonstration to date. Serbians have been demanding change in the wake of two deadly mass shootings in as many days earlier this month; 18 people were killed, many of them children, and 21 people were injured.


HARRAK: Since then, candlelight vigils have swelled into fully fledged protests against the government and the status quo.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I came here to protest against living in this country the way it is now, against violence, which is visible everywhere, in public speech, in the media, against this evil we are living in and against the way this country is being led.


HARRAK: The Serbian government has proposed a raft of measures. But many Serbians want to see a deeper and more meaningful change to the culture around guns and violence. Scott McLean has our story.


SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For the third time this month, thousands of protesters flooded Belgrade, blocking two major highway bridges to send a message to the government: enough is enough.

The sea of dissent is all in response to two back-to-back mass shootings earlier this month that shocked the country. Children and young people made up most of the 18 victims.

Now weeks later, the size of the protests and the anger is growing. Local media says, this is the biggest yet.

"I only want things to be better for my kids," one protester says.

"We want our schools to be safe," says another.

In the immediate aftermath, there were quiet vigils and pledges from the Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic to toughen gun laws. But that's easier said than done. Serbia has one of the highest rates of private gun ownership in the world.

While there are already checks on legal guns, the country is awash with illegal weapons, left over from conflict in the 1990s. Vucic has given a one-month amnesty for illegal guns to be turned in and promised harsher penalties after that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ALEKSANDAR VUCIC, SERBIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The amount of weapons in our nation must be drastically reduced by three times and of course none of our citizens must possess mine explosives.

MCLEAN (voice-over): Twenty-five hundred explosives and grenades plus 15,000 guns have been turned in so far. But that is a drop in the bucket. One estimate from 2018 suggests there are 2.7 million guns in Serbia. More than half are illegal.



RADOMIR LAZOVIC, SERBIAN OPPOSITION MP: What we are saying is that it is not enough and that's only a question of weapons.

What about this exposure of the children to the violence?


MCLEAN (voice-over): He's talking about things like this reality TV show, prompting and outcry against two pro-government TV channels, protesters say, are promoting violence. Vucic has proposed curbs on social media.

But political opposition parties organizing the protests have called for tougher regulation on traditional media. They've also called for key ministers to resign, some even for Vucic himself to step down.

Demonstrators say they will keep marching until their demands are met. At a small political rally, Vucic accused protesters of exploiting tragedy to win political power.

VUCIC (through translator): This won't happen. It comes about in elections, not with violence.

MCLEAN (voice-over): He's called for his own supporters to counterprotest next week, putting dueling protesters on a potential collision course -- Scott McLean, CNN, London.


HARRAK: Iran has been condemned by international watchdogs for executing three more men over recent protests that rocked the country. Amnesty International says the accused were fast tracked through Iran's judicial system without due process before their executions were announced on Friday.

Another human rights organization said the men had minimal defense rights. The three were accused of carrying out an attack that killed three security officers in 2022 during anti-government protests.

In Georgia, protesters have condemned the resumption of direct flights from Russia to the former Soviet public.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HARRAK (voice-over): Dozens of Georgians held a rally outside the capital's airport on Friday, as a Russian plane landed there for first time since 2019. Demonstrators held signs that read, "You are not welcome," and others calling Russia "a terrorist state."

Authorities detained several people. The country's public broadcaster reports some of the protesters blocked a road near the airport.


HARRAK: NATO member Turkiye is just days away from one of the most consequential runoff elections in its history. And it's coming at a time when the president is pushing his country closer to Russia. Just ahead, he explains why in an exclusive interview with CNN.





HARRAK: Welcome back to all of our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Laila Harrak and you're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

G7 leaders in Japan are making new pledges of support for Ukraine. They agreed on Friday to more sanctions on Russia, designed to choke off Moscow's ability to finance its war.

While the new measures attempt to plug loopholes and go after untapped industries, leaders also pledged to provide Ukraine with financial humanitarian and diplomatic aid for, quote, "as long as it takes."

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is said to make an in-person appearance at the summit on Sunday.


HARRAK: European Commission president Ursula van der Leyen joins me now from Japan.

Madam President, thank you so much for joining us from the G7 summit in Hiroshima. Welcome. We're now well over a year into Russia's war in Ukraine.

How do you see the E.U.'s role right now?


HARRAK: And do you see a path to peace?

URSULA VAN DER LEYEN, PRESIDENT, EUROPEAN COMMISSION: The European Union is a strong supporter of Ukraine's fight for independence and the restoring of its territory, integrity and the serenity because it is the just cause they are fighting for. Therefore, we support them financially, up to 68 billion euros so far,

of course with military abilities but also we support them to hold, for example, Russia accountable by sanctions. We have issued now 10 sanctions packages.

But you are also asking for, where does this lead to?

We are working very hard together with Ukraine for a just peace. This is our goal. And, therefore, we are supporting the peace formula of President Zelenskyy. I think this is an excellent starting point to work toward a just peace that Ukraine really deserves.

That means that Russia has stopped -- has to stop its illegal aggression and that Russia has to withdraw its troops so that the territorial integrity of Ukraine is restored.

HARRAK: Now at the G7 where you are, new sanctions have been unveiled. Up to now, the sanctions imposed on Russia have not had the effect of halting Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

How big of a problem is it, Russia's sanctions invasion infrastructure?

And should Europe now completely ban exports to Russia?

VON DER LEYEN: So first of all, the 10 packages of sanctions have a huge impact on the Russian economy. We see that we have, for example, cut 120 billion euros of trade between the European Union and Russia. This is extraordinary.

And most importantly, we have cut completely Russia's access to technologies. And we see already degradation of the military base, the military industrial base. We see effects on the economy. We see the shrinking revenues that Russia has from its fossil fuels.

For example, the oil price cap has a strong effect. And what we also see is, of course, that there is -- if you have sanctions, there are always some who try to do a sanctions circumvention or evasion. And therefore we now issue the 11th package of sanctions that focuses on circumventions.

So we are discussing how to target companies, entities, where we see literally that they buy goods in the European Union and, by a third country, bring them to Russia. But we also target the transit via Russia that might contribute to circumvention of sanctions.

So there's a whole package that looks at these evasion, this sanction evasion, and this is a package we're going to issue in a few days.

HARRAK: Madam president, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to join you momentarily in person at the G7 meeting in Japan, where you are. And it's expected that he will ask for more support against Russia. And there seems to be a real urgency right now behind his request.

How will you answer his call? What will you tell him when you meet with him moments from now?

VON DER LEYEN: It is very good news that President Zelenskyy is coming personally here to Hiroshima. Indeed, we're going to discuss how we can strengthen the support for Ukraine.

The friends and supporters of Ukraine have enormously stepped up their support if you compare to one year ago, the last G7 meeting in person. But indeed more has to be done and this will be discussed here.

I think it's also very important that President Zelenskyy meets the partners that are invited to this G7; for example, India and Indonesia, because, with some of them, he has not been in touch in person since the beginning of the war.

And as I know him, he's going to make a very persuasive case for Ukraine and for restoring peace in Ukraine. And indeed, the path toward peace will also be a big topic here.

HARRAK: European Commission president Ursula van der Leyen, Madam President, thank you so much for joining us. We know you have a very tight schedule, so we appreciate you coming on.

VON DER LEYEN: Thank you very much.


HARRAK: While the U.S. and its allies continue to ramp up sanctions aimed at isolating Russia, one NATO member, Turkiye, has been pursuing closer ties with the Kremlin as that country heads to a crucial runoff election.


HARRAK: CNN's Becky Anderson sat down for an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Turkiye's president, who defended his "positive relationship" with Moscow and said he feels no obligations to impose sanctions. Here's more of what the Turkish president had to say.


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN HOST (voice-over): The U.S. would like Turkiye to take a stronger stance against Russia, particularly with regard enforcing sanctions. In April of this year, the U.S. imposed sanctions on at least four Turkiye based entities it said were violating U.S. export controls and helping Russia's war effort.

President Erdogan, is Turkiye helping Russia evade sanctions?

And will you abide by U.S. sanctions on Russia?

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, PRESIDENT OF TURKEY (through translator): We have no problems with our relationship with Russia at the moment. And we are not at a point where we would impose sanctions on Russia like the West has done.

We are not bound by the Western sanctions. As Turkiye, we are a strong state and we have positive relations with Russia.

In terms of our foreign trade volumes, we've reached an ideal level with Russia. When you look at our tourism numbers, Russia is number one. Unfortunately, because of the latest statements by the main opposition party, many tourists are going to other destinations.

I won't be a leader that makes the mistake of missing the tourists from Russia or Ukraine.

ANDERSON: You've said that you don't agree with the attitude of the West toward Russia with regard the Ukraine conflict, that the West follows a policy based on provocation. I just want you to explain a little more what you mean there.

Do you believe, for example, that the massive military and financial aid going to Ukraine is a provocation?

ERDOGAN (through translator): The West is not leading a very balanced approach. You need a balanced approach toward a country such as Russia, which would have been a much more fortunate approach.

For example, the Black Sea grain corridor initiative; we are not only considering the interests and the needs of the Western countries but also that of the African nations.

This grain corridor initiative has been extended for another two months beginning on the 18th of May.

How do you think it was possible?

It was possible because of our special relationship with president Putin.


HARRAK: As we have been telling you, Turkiye's upcoming runoff election could be hugely consequential for Turkiye and the entire region. Voting is set for May 28. The runoff became necessary because no candidate received at least 57 percent of the vote.

But the official count shows Erdogan did much better than expected and beat his main challenger by 5 percentage points but not enough to win outright.

Northwest Italy is under warning for more heavy rainfall on Saturday, adding more misery to the already-flooded region, where more than a dozen people have been killed. A live report from Rome coming up after the break.




(MUSIC PLAYING) HARRAK: The death toll has risen to 14 from what experts call once in

a century floods in northern Italy. According to researchers, the intense flooding is a sign of the climate crisis, with rising temperatures intensifying years of severe droughts in the region. Up to 25,000 people have been forced to evacuate because of the rising waters.

Let's get more now from Barbie Nadeau live in Rome.

Barbie, is aid reaching these areas impacted by the catastrophic flooding?

BARBIE NADEAU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There has been a lot of aid pouring in. But the difficulty is just getting it to the people. There are shortages of food and water in some of these smaller towns. Over 500 roads have been washed out.

We've had mayors of certain towns tell people to go to the upper floors of their buildings so that they can stay safe. But there's also been a lot of loss of livestock. This is a very important farm area. It accounts for 9 percent of the GDP of the country. It's a very rich area.

So they haven't begun to really take the total toll, especially on agriculture. On Tuesday, the government will be having a special commission meeting. Of course, the prime minister has been at the G7; she'll be coming back and attending that meeting and we're going to see what they can do for the people of that area.

HARRAK: Up to 20,000 people had to leave their homes. Barbie, thank you so much.

A fast-moving wildfire has forced 600 people to evacuate from their villages in Western Spain. Strong winds and a prolonged drought may have made extinguishing the fire all the more difficult. They say it appears someone started the fire intentionally.

April was the hottest, driest month on the Spanish mainland since recordkeeping began back in 1961.

Smoke from wildfires in Western Canada has prompted air quality alerts across the central U.S. Officials warn the smoke and haze could linger for days. Smoke is pouring in from devastating wildfires in Alberta. Last week, the flames had burned more than 150 times more area in that province than in the last five years combined --


HARRAK: -- by the same point in the year.

Jim Brown, one of the most memorable and powerful players in NFL history, has died. Brown played nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns in an era when the Super Bowl did not yet exist in 1971.

He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the game's greatest running backs, racking up more than 12,000 yards in his career. He quit football in the mid 1960s to pursue acting and would then appear in some 50 films.

He also became a prominent figure in the civil rights movement and is remembered for his charity work with underprivileged youth. Brown was 87.

For international viewers, "MARKETPLACE EUROPE" is up next. For viewers in the United States and Canada, I'll be back with more CNN NEWSROOM after this short break.





HARRAK: A federal judge has ruled the U.S. airman accused of leaking classified documents will stay behind bars while he awaits trial.

The suspect, Jack Teixeira, appeared in court on Friday. In his ruling the judge said the 21-year-old showed a, quote, "lack of integrity" and his actions put countless citizens in the U.S. and abroad at risk.

He was arrested in April and charged under the Espionage Act for allegedly removing a trove of classified military documents. He has not yet entered a formal plea. Jason Carroll has more.


JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: At one point during the proceeding, the judge raised his voice in order to make his point, saying that this was a defendant who simply did not care who he put at risk.

He said several things. He said, for example, what the record shows is a profound breach of the defendant's word, that he would protect information and the security of the United States and its allies.

Judge David Hennessy went on to describe who was hurt because of what Jack Teixeira had done. He said, who did he put at risk? You can make a list as long as a phone book --soldiers, medical personnel, Ukrainian personnel, Ukrainian soldiers -- we do not know how many people he put at risk.

The government has said, if you disclose this information, you put the United States at serious risk.

And the defendant's response was, "I don't give a (INAUDIBLE)."

His family has also put out a statement, saying they are disappointed about the outcome but they are going to continue their steadfast support of Jack Teixeira.

The judge had also indicated he did struggle with one portion of this, saying he was confident, if he had released him on bail, he was confident he would abide by the conditions of that release.

Then he also went on to say, "But when I look at him, I think, 'What if I'm wrong, what are the consequences of my decision?'" -- Jason Carroll, CNN, Worcester, Massachusetts.


HARRAK: South Carolina senator Tim Scott has entered the race for the White House. That's according to a filing on the Federal Election Commission website. The Senate's only Black Republican is expected to make a formal announcement about his bid on Monday.

Last month, Scott reported nearly $22 million in his Senate campaign account. That money could be used for a presidential bid.

Another likely candidate for the race for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor is expected to file to enter the fray next week. Jeff Zeleny has more on how the quest for the 2024 nomination is shaping up.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): How are you doing?

It smells really good, I'll tell you that.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is hitting the campaign trail.

DESANTIS: Is that a milkshake?

ZELENY: Gearing up to launch his White House bid next week. He is sharpening his electability argument against Donald Trump, telling Republicans, it's time to shed their loyalty to the former president if they hope to win back the White House.

DESANTIS: It's going to require a lot of fight. It is going to require that we do a lot of things.

ZELENY: In a visit to New Hampshire today, DeSantis touted his Florida record as a conservative blueprint for the nation.

DESANTIS: We passed that in Florida.

ZELENY: Even as fallout intensified from his escalating fight with Disney, which pulled the plug on a one billion dollar office complex development in Florida. Republican rivals blasted the governor's feud, with Trump suggesting DeSantis had been caught in the mouse trap. DeSantis defended his oversight of the entertainment giant and his Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics have dubbed the "don't say gay" bill, that first sparked his battle with Disney.

DESANTIS: I know people try to interpret and say this or that. The chance from both sides exactly down from that is zero.

ZELENY: After months of flirting with a campaign, DeSantis is poised to formally join the Republican contest next week, convening top donors to a meeting in Miami. Today, he got an early taste of the fight awaiting him.


ZELENY (voice-over): As the Trump super PAC took aim at DeSantis for supporting a national sales tax during his years in Congress, DeSantis brushed aside the criticism and pointed Republicans to his record as governor.


DESANTIS: It's easy to be a front runner. It's easy to go out and take positions that are really popular at the time. It's harder to dig in and really cut against the grain.

ZELENY: The field of GOP presidential candidates is swiftly growing. But Senator Tim Scott filing paperwork today ahead of a formal campaign announcement Monday in South Carolina.

Fred Plett, a New Hampshire state representative, said Republicans are sizing up the contenders.

FRED PLETT (R-NH), STATE REPRESENTATIVE: They are looking for a candidate I think with less baggage that Trump is carrying with him now.

ZELENY: You think Republicans also are looking for a candidate who can win back the White House.

PLETT: Yes, it's not clear who that is right now. And, frankly, even though Trump has got strong his supporters, he may take the primary, I'm not sure he can win in the general election.

ZELENY: And Republican voters say they are indeed looking for a winner. That is one of the leading criteria as they begin sorting through this growing field of candidates.

Of course, the question of who that is is going to be determined by this campaign. With governor DeSantis announcing next week at that donor meeting in Miami, this field is quickly growing; the first Republican debate, only three months away -- Jeff Zeleny, CNN, Washington.


HARRAK: Russia says its defense minister has visited Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya region. Officials say he met with several commanders and awarded medals to troops as Russian forces are trying to defend the areas they've occupied and shelling nearby towns. Sam Kiley reports.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Carried on a gun ship, escorted by another, Russia's defense minister, we're told, is visiting Russian troops in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya province.

"These high awards reflect high appreciation for your military work," Sergei Shoigu says, handing out medals.

Across the Dnieper River from the Russian-held parts of Zaporizhzhya, the director of Nikopol Children's Hospital isn't impressed by his performance.

He says, "They're not brave, hiding in that bank between houses. They shoot at us."

KILEY: What do you think when you see pictures of him like that?

KILEY (voice-over): Then he replies, "I think they're both, Shoigu and Putin, such cowards, it's more likely I'd say 90 percent that they're hiding somewhere in Crimea, at least very far from us."

That would probably be wise, given that, across the river from Nikopol, Russian troops have turned a nuclear power station into a front line redoubt.

KILEY: That is the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power station behind me. It's going now a fire base for Russian forces. Nearly every day they're shelling this town from over there.

It's going to be a major problem in any future Ukrainian offensive because that is the biggest nuclear power station in the whole of Europe and it's a target.

KILEY (voice-over): Ukrainian officials say they hope to bypass the nuclear plant during any offensive to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.

In the mayor's office across the river, boarded windows and shrapnel scars tell of Russian rocket attacks. Avoiding disaster will depend on the Russians.

He says, "I think it's important for them to hold the nuclear power station and they will do everything to hold it as long as they can. First of all, it's the biggest nuclear facility in Europe. And, second, it's a very important base for the military and their artillery."

Russian military ambitions drove Maria (ph) literally underground, where she's been sheltering in a hospital bunker.

KILEY: How have things been in this town with the threat coming from the power station across the river for a whole year?

MARIA (PH), NIKOPOL SHELLING SURVIVOR (through translator): Not very good. I gave birth in a basement. It's fine. We survived somehow.

KILEY: And how have the children been affected by the war?

MARIA (PH) (through translator): They're worried that something might happen to them.

KILEY (voice-over): And those fears won't go, not until the Russians are gone -- Sam Kiley, CNN. Nikopol.


HARRAK: And this just in to CNN NEWSROOM. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy just arrived in Hiroshima. The Ukrainian president will appear at the G7 summit later today.

The trip comes as his country is preparing for a much-anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces and also caps off a whirlwind week of diplomacy for Mr. Zelenskyy, who appeared at the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia on Friday, urging leaders there not to turn a blind eye to the war in Ukraine.

We'll have much more coverage on Mr. Zelenskyy's visit ahead in the next hour.


HARRAK: Finally, attention all parrot heads, Jimmy Buffett is hospitalized but he reassured fans by saying not yet. The "Margaritaville" singer is being treated for something he said couldn't wait but he wasn't more specific. He had to cancel his weekend performance in Charleston, South Carolina.

Paraphrasing Hollywood legend, Bette Davis, Buffett described his current condition this way, "Growing old is not for sissies, I promise you." He's 76 years old.

Do stay with us. I'll be back with more CNN NEWSROOM in just a moment.