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Biden Says, Putin Ultimately Responsible for Navalny Death; Trump Rails Against New York Civil Case Ruling; Israeli Airstrikes Hit Central Gaza. Aired 3-4a ET

Aired February 18, 2024 - 03:00   ET




ANNA COREN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to all our viewers watching Around the World. I'm Anna Karen live from Hong Kong.

Ahead on CNN Newsroom, U.S. President Joe Biden says Putin will pay the price for his role in the death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. But for the emboldened and seemingly unstoppable Russian leader, what does Western response look like? We'll discuss.

Plus, Donald Trump is sounding off after a massive $355 million hit to his fortune, the former president campaigning in Michigan where he railed against the civil fraud ruling.

And airstrikes hit multiple cities in central Gaza. Israel says it was targeting Hamas, but doctors on the ground claimed dozens of civilians were killed.

There is continued and growing outrage over the death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Russian prison officials say Navalny died Friday after a walk. Many western leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, say Vladimir Putin is responsible for Navalny's death.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: I've heard several things I haven't had to confirm, but the fact of the matter is Putin is responsible. Whether he ordered it or not, he is responsible for the circumstances that put that man in, and he is a reflection of who he is, and it just cannot be tolerated. I said there would be a price to pay. He is paying a price already.


COREN: Well, this was a scene in Moscow Saturday as police took a heavy hand against public tributes to Navalny. Across Russia, more than 400 people have been detained while attending vigils or demonstrations supporting Navalny, those numbers from OVD-Info, an independent Russian human rights group.

In St. Petersburg, more detentions with people being placed on buses, it's not clear how many of those people have been released. A spokeswoman for Navalny says his supporters need to keep fighting for change in Russia, even though he's gone.


KIRA YARMYSH, NAVALNY SPOKESWOMAN: Alexey was a symbol of hope and a symbol of courage for many Russian people. And now they feel like this idea of hope abandoned them. But that's not true.

We all know what to do. It was what Alexey told all of us that we have to keep fighting and this is what helps us to cope with what is going on.


COREN: Former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Nathan Hodge joins us now live from London.

Nathan, we know Navalny's mother and lawyer have been denied access to Navalny's body. What more are you hearing from Navalny's team?

NATHAN HODGE, CNN FORMER MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Anna, we just don't know the whereabouts of Alexey Navalny's body right now. As you said, Navalny's mother and his lawyer went to the morgue where the prison authorities had told them that the body would be examined and essentially were turned away.

And Navalny's followers are now urging that his body be handed over to the family, and there's a very important reason why. Back in 2020, Navalny fell ill and slipped into a coma while on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk, going back to Moscow. And if it had not been for the swift action of the pilot, his life might have been lost.

Navalny was then evacuated to a hospital in Germany, and German authorities subsequently announced that he had been poisoned by the nerve agent, Novichok. A CNN investigation together with the investigative group, Bellingcat, subsequently revealed that Navalny had been tailed for essentially three years by a team of Russian security services that specialized in nerve agents.

But despite this, Navalny returned to Russia in early 2021. He had vowed to return so that he could remain committed to Russian politics.


He opted out of what could have been a very comfortable exile. And this was an incredibly bold move. And now we can see that this was a bold and near suicidal move, given that he has now died in a Russian prison and knowing that prison conditions in Russia are meant to be punitive.

The Russian prison system is essentially set up in a way to essentially crush people. But yet even in recent days, Navalny had managed to keep his sense of humor, posting humorous posts, poking fun of the conditions, Anna. COREN: Yes, he certainly paid the ultimate sacrifice for the cause. Nathan, we've shown those images of people, Navalny's supporters laying flowers, holding vigils within Russia. I mean, that is such an act of defiance against the authorities.

HODGE: Yes, Anna, you're absolutely right. Even before the full scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, conditions were extremely difficult for Russia's incredibly marginalized opposition. Yet in the face of consistent official crackdowns, Navalny had managed to rally thousands of people around Russia to go take to the streets and protest what they saw as a regime that was kleptocratic and corrupt.

And they would repeatedly face arrest, beatings by the authorities. Yet now, after the war, the full scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian civil society has been pushed even further to the margins with new and draconian media laws that essentially restrict free speech and make even the criticism of the war in the military, calling a war a war illegal, Anna.

COREN: Nathan Hodge, so important to get your deep analysis, many thanks, joining us from London.

Well, joining me now is Catherine Belton, reporter for The Washington Post. She's also author of the book Putin's People. Catherine, great to have you with us.

The world appears to be dealing with a very emboldened Vladimir Putin. It would seem a lot is going his way right now.

CATHERINE BELTON, REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, I'm afraid so. I mean, even before the death of his chief political opponent, Putin was thinking everything is going his way because already, we have the west tied up. There's paralysis in the U.S. Congress. There's a huge gap in the hose pipe of weapons going to Ukraine, and that's already translating into victories for Russia on the battlefield. Ukraine was forced to retreat from the strategic town of Avdiivka just yesterday. And, really, this is the biggest boost to Putin's power. If he wins in Ukraine, if he can hold on to territory there, this boosts him in the eyes of Russians and enables him to maintain his very, very tight grip on power.

COREN: Catherine, why was Navalny, who was behind bars in the Arctic Circle, such a threat to Putin? I mean, what sort of threat did he pose from prison?

BELTON: Well, that's a good question. You wouldn't think that he could pose any threat at all. But Navalny was a very powerful figure. He was a very uniting figure. He had charisma that appealed to all walks of Russian life, from liberals to sort of guys on the street. He made his anti-corruption message very, very strong. And he had called for Russians to come out and protest on the day of the election. He wanted everyone to gather at noon on the day of Russia's presidential elections in March.

We don't know how many Russians would have actually responded to that call, given the very draconian new laws that Nathan was describing and the fact that now you can get thrown in jail for 15 years if you criticize the regime. Nevertheless, it looks like the authorities may have not wanted to leave anything to chance.

We don't know how he died, of course. We know that he was kept in increasingly severe conditions in these isolation chambers, solitary confinement, and it may be that he just didn't hold out, but it certainly looked to everyone that a day before he died, he was in very good spirits.

COREN: Yes, laughing, smiling, making jokes. Catherine, do you see this as a warning to dissenters of Putin, any opposition movement, considering the elections next month?

BELTON: Certainly it sends a very chilling signal to everyone. Yes, of course, we've seen political opponents of Putin disappear or get killed before, but it's always been in a way that Putin, whether you believe him or not, can keep his.


I mean, again, we don't know exactly how Navalny died, but he died while he was under the care of the state. And that makes it much more difficult for Putin to keep his distance. And it sends a warning very clearly to anyone else who wants to cross him. I mean, before, if you were opposing Putin, you faced the risk of jail and ever longer jail sentences. But people thought, well, we'll get out in the end. But now it seems you possibly risk dying in jail as well.

COREN: U.S. President Joe Biden said a little bit earlier that Vladimir Putin will pay the price and is already paying the price. What do you think he means by that? And how can the west respond?

BELTON: It's difficult to know how Putin can pay the price because probably the only way that the west can respond right now, because it's very difficult for Putin, has made his political system such a fortress. It's very difficult to do anything inside Russia. But probably the only way the west can respond is to step up and provide adequate arms to Ukraine.

The mood in Russia is very different right now compared to before the counteroffensive. Then members of the elite were very nervous. They'd watched Ukraine take back Kherson Kharkiv, and this had dealt a huge blow to Putin's legitimacy. Most members of the elite were against the war. They saw it as catastrophic. And they would mumble and mutter privately about the need to replace Putin. And they would say, well, if Russia continues having military losses, then it's possible Putin will be replaced. They were speaking about how every first or second leader of Russia is removed illegally.

But after the counteroffensive, the mood in Russia really did change, because they saw the west had been too timid in supplying Ukraine with weapons. It hadn't received adequate amounts of weapons. And you could see playing out what Putin had predicted, that the west would tire of the war, that western democracies were weaker than his authoritarian regime, and that time was on his side. And I think he really believes that. And you can see that reflected in the disarray and paralysis in Congress today.

COREN: Yes, Russia obviously playing the long game. I know we are talking about examples of Putin acting with impunity, but could Navalny's death be a political problem for Putin?

BELTON: We're yet to see. I mean, at the moment that Putin is definitely trying to make sure his name doesn't get much airing in the media. There have only been very brief mentions of his death on Russian T.V. These mentions of his death don't even describe him as a politician. His name is quickly mentioned, and then they move on to Russia's strategic victory in Avdiivka.

And we've seen the very, very heavy police presence on the streets trying to prevent anyone laying down flowers in Navalny's memory. And this is a very far cry to what we saw even three years ago when after Navalny's arrests, people poured onto the streets in the thousands in protests that some people compared to the protests in Belarus, which had nearly toppled the Belarusian president.

Now, it's a much more muted response. People are very, very fearful and Putin is going to hope that fear and indeed apathy will continue because his Kremlin propaganda machine is now working full tilt. And people really believe that the war in Ukraine is in fact a war in the west and they must do their patriotic duty.

COREN: Catherine Belton in London, great to get your insights. Thanks so much for joining us.

BELTON: Thank you.

COREN: Russia's defense minister says the Eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka is now under full Russian control. This takeover was imminent. Ukraine's forces were greatly outnumbered and had suffered daily assault since October. But U.S. President Joe Biden says the fall of the city is a

consequence of Russian obstruction in Congress against more aid for Kyiv.

CNN's Priscilla Alvarez has more.

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Joe Biden on Saturday underscoring the stakes of getting additional funds to Ukraine following a phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy earlier in the day. This as Ukraine has had to withdraw from one of its towns, ceding ground to Russia because Ukraine is low on ammunition, something that President Biden tied directly to congressional inaction here in Washington.

Now, this scenario of Ukraine having to withdraw because they are low on ammunition has been a top concern for U.S. officials on something they have warned about if additional aid is not urgently sent to Ukraine.


And the president indicating on Saturday that he is not confident that other towns won't fall if that aid isn't sent to Ukraine.


REPORTER: How confident are you that there isn't another city that falls right after this if Congress acts on it?

BIDEN: I'm not. I'm not. No one can be. Look, Ukrainian people have fought so bravely and heroically, they put so much on the line. And the idea that now if they're running out of ammunition, you walk away, I find it absurd. I find it unethical.


ALVAREZ: Now, the funds that the president is referring to here are ones that date back to October when the White House and a broad national security supplemental request asked for $60 billion in additional funding to send to Ukraine.

Now, that funding has been stalled amid infighting in Congress but it did make some progress in the Senate when the Senate passed a foreign aid package earlier in the week that includes those $60 billion for Ukraine.

But the House has gone on recess for two weeks, and House Speaker Mike Johnson has said that he doesn't have any plans to put this package on the floor, leaving all of these funds uncertain.

In the meantime, the president and the vice president are trying to reassure allies that they will stand by Ukraine and they will not cede ground to Russia. All of it made all the more difficult without that additional funding sent to Ukraine.

Priscilla Alvarez, CNN, Washington.

COREN: Donald Trump hit the campaign trail again, just one day after his latest legal and financial setbacks. As of Friday, the 2024 Republican frontrunner has been slapped with roughly $438,000,000 in judgments over the past four weeks.

CNN's Steve Contorno reports from Michigan.

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: Appearing in Michigan on Saturday night, Donald Trump wasted little time addressing the $355 million ruling against him on Friday. Shortly after taking this stage, he went on an extended attack of the judge overseeing the case, the attorney general in New York, and the American justice system at large.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: We will have no higher priority than ending the weaponization of this horrible legal system that has developed around us. It's a horrible, horrible thing that's taking place. You talk about democracy. This is a real threat to democracy.

This judge is a lunatic. And if you've ever watched him, and the attorney general may be worse, may be worse, you ever watch her, I will get Donald Trump, her campaign, I will get Donald Trump. I promise I will get him. She knows nothing about me.


CONTORNO: The events of this week will serve as a preview of sorts to what we can expect in the coming months as Donald Trump attempts to balance his campaign calendar with his court schedule. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley on Saturday said that that will become a distraction in this race.


NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's going to be in court in March and April. He's going to be in a different court in April and May. He himself has said he's going to be spending more time in a courtroom than he is on the election trail. How do you win an election that way? You can't win an election if you're spending more time in court than you are on the campaign trail. You just can't do it.


CONTORNO: Trump's appearance Saturday night in Michigan is likely to be his last before the state holds its primary on February 27th, but he is expected to be here quite often in the coming months. Michigan is one of the top battlegrounds for the 2024 election.

Steve Contorno, CNN, Waterford Township, Michigan.

COREN: Coming up, refugees in Gaza hopes to find safety in the neighborhood that ended up being another target of Israeli airstrikes. The latest in a live report, next.

Plus, Israeli protesters say their government is more focused on winning a war than on releasing hostages from Gaza. We'll look at the state of negotiations in a CNN exclusive interview. That's ahead.



COREN: Israel's Prime Minister still says it's, quote, realistic for his armed forces to expand military operations in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city. The population there has ballooned to some 1.5 million people, as Palestinians seek refuge from the war.

Mr. Netanyahu now says they need to move again, claiming there is, quote, a lot of space north of Rafah for people to go.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces are launching strikes in Rafah already and in Central Gaza, where many who were in Rafah have already fled.

Elliott Gotkine joins us now from London. 1.5 million people now in Rafah. Where are they supposed to go with this imminent ground offensive, although it would seem strikes have already begun?

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: Anna, I think the war came to Rafah in the early days of the war and it has come to it in the form of airstrikes ever since. Now, of course, we're talking about the possibility of this ground operation.

And there's a bit of deja vu in the sense that when Israel began its ground operations in the Gaza Strip in the wake of the Hamas terrorist attacks of October the 7th, we were waiting weeks. We expected it to be imminent and it didn't take place or didn't begin for several weeks. Now, that may be something similar now.

Certainly last week you recall Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had instructed the IDF to come up with a plan that would enable the one and a half million people in Rafah to evacuate two safer areas north. He now says that that plan has been done and he seems determined to enact it.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Whoever is telling us not to operate in Rafah is telling us to lose the war. I won't give it a hand.

There is a lot of space to the north of Rafah. Soon, we will end the operation in Khan Younis so there is a place to evacuate.


GOTKINE: And there were three big concerns about a prospective ground operation by Israel.


First and foremost is the possibility of further casualties among non- combatants and making the dire humanitarian situation even worse. We're around 29,000 deaths, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, figures which don't distinguish between combatants and civilians but which the authorities say include a majority of women and children.

So, there's concerns about additional deaths. There's also concerns, of course, about the fact that this potential for a ground operation is happening when we're still hoping for a breakthrough in hostage negotiations, to get the more than 100 Israeli hostages that were abducted on October the 7th freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Now, the Qataris say that those talks are not looking particularly promising right now but there are concerns that a ground operation could kibosh those talks completely.

And I suppose the final concern is Egypt. Egypt does not want to see a spillover of thousands of Palestinians into its territory. But just in case that happens, it has now built -- it is building or it has built a two-mile wide area on its side of the border creating kind of buffer zone to house these potential Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip if they do end up spilling over the border. So, there are a lot of concerns but Prime Minister Netanyahu, even in conversations with President Biden, has said that this Rafah ground operation will go ahead, but obviously it won't go ahead he said last night until such time as the civilian population has been evacuated. Anna?

COREN: Elliott Gotkine joining us from London, many thanks.

Well, meanwhile, talks for a hostage deal appeared to be at an impasse. Many Israeli officials agree that Hamas' demands are unreasonable.

On Saturday, CNN's Alex Marquardt spoke about that with Gal Hirsch, Israel's coordinator for the captives and the missing. Take a listen.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: What is your understanding right now of where the negotiations stand for a hostage deal?

GAL HIRSCH, ISRAEL'S COORDINATOR FOR THE CAPTIVES AND THE MISSING: Well, we want a deal very much. And we know we need to pay prices. But Hamas demands are disconnected from reality, delusional. And we hope very much that they will come much closer to the zone of potential agreement.

MARQUARDT: Prime Minister Netanyahu has also called the Hamas proposal delusional. What specifically about what they are asking for is just completely out of bounds for Israel?

HIRSCH: Actually, all their response was far, far away from reality, and they know that. And my concern is, who's in the other side of negotiations? Whom are we negotiating with? We want to deal very much. But in the other side, we need a proof that there is someone that can deliver.

MARQUARDT: Are you implying that those Hamas officials are not in touch with the Hamas leaders who are actually on the ground in Gaza?

HIRSCH: I very much want to see proof and such a proof can be, for example, show us that the medical support that was sent to hostages has arrived to its destination. This is very important because it will show us that there is someone there that can really deliver and release our hostages.

MARQUARDT: Are you willing to release a large number of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom have carried out attacks in Israel who have life sentences? Are you willing to release them?

HIRSCH: We showed that we are ready to pay prices. We showed that. We mean that. But we want to see that in the other side, there is a reliable address, someone that can release our hostages and can deliver.

MARQUARDT: Hamas wants to see an end to the war. Israel does not want to end this war because there is still work to be done, Netanyahu says, to dismantle Hamas. How do you close that gap in order to get these hostages home?

HIRSCH: Well, we showed in the last deal we've made that we are ready to stop warfare. It doesn't mean stopping the war.

MARQUARDT: Not permanently, though.

HIRSCH: It doesn't mean stopping the war. But we are ready to stop warfare. That's a lot. Because breaking the momentum of maneuvering, it's a big price. It's a big price.

MARQUARDT: The other ticking clock is the potential offensive by Israel into Rafah. This is something that the prime minister has talked about. Do you believe that a deal can be agreed to before that offensive?

HIRSCH: Well, Rafah is next, of course, because in Rafah there are many hostages and many, many terror groups. Actually, Hamas is still there.

So, we do not want to cause collateral damage. Rafah has many, many people there that Hamas use right now as human shields.

We are doing our best, everything we can, everything is possible to avoid collateral damage, but Rafah must be next because we must release our hostages.


MARQUARDT: So, standing here today, how optimistic are you that that deal can be reached?

HIRSCH: Well, I believe that Hamas needs ceasefire. I think that Hamas wants much bigger humanitarian support to his own people. I believe that deal can be made because we are ready to pay prices but it must be closer to zone of potential agreement. Right now, yhis is not the situation.


COREN: Alex Marquardt there speaking to Gal Hirsch.

Well, still ahead, how people around the world are paying tribute to the life of Alexey Navalny. Why the vigils and the memorials look very different inside and outside Russia.

Plus, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has strong words for the world after the U.S. House takes a break and further delays military aid for Ukraine.


COREN: Russians have been holding public vigils and memorials for Alexey Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who died Friday, after defying Vladimir Putin for more than a decade, authorities have reacted with a heavy hand. But as Michael Holmes reports, they can't cover up what's going on inside Russia today.



MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): An act of remembrance or a show of defiance. According to a Russian human rights group, Russian police have detained hundreds of people across the country for attending vigils and rallies following the death of Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny.

His supporters laying flowers at makeshift memorials in cities from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's very important for me to take some action because I was very shocked by what happened, and I understood the only thing I could do was come here today.

HOLMES: Authorities have warned the public not to hold unsanctioned gatherings after Navalny's death, but still people are showing up, mostly under the watchful eye of police.

A sign saying Putin is Navalny's killer getting some extra attention.

Other gatherings are more tense, with videos showing police scuffling with protesters, carrying some away by their arms and legs and hauling them into waiting police fans.

One woman in Yekaterinburg said she was stopped before she even got near one memorial site.

NADEZHDA, YEKATERINBURG RESIDENT: No, I didn't. I had to move forward. No, I couldn't lay the flowers. I had to throw the flowers in front of them. The police gave me ten seconds to turn around and leave.

HOLMES: The grief spreading outside of Russia as well, with tributes and rallies for Navalny held across Europe. In London, flowers and candles piled up outside the Russian embassy. One former Russian resident says he's watched Navalny's struggles with the Russian government from afar and thinks his death will continue to empower people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And despite the fact that he, let's say, lost this battle as of now, I think that in the end, he will emerge in this kind of triumphant.

HOLMES: A message echoed by Navalny's own spokesperson, who says Navalny, who once led mass anti-government protests himself in Russia, wouldn't want people to stay silent.

YARMYSH: We all know what to do. It was what Alexey told all of us that we have to keep fighting. And this is what helps us to cope with what is going on.


COREN: The war in Ukraine has dominated the Munich Security Conference, which is going into its final day at the summit. Ukraine's president has been urging leaders to send more weapons, but in Washington, additional military aid for Kyiv is bogged down in partisan politics. And now the House has taken a two-week break, further delaying the $60 billion package. On Saturday Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, quote, dictators do not go on vacation.

For more on this, I'm joined by CNN's Sebastian Shukla in Munich, Germany. Strong words from Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Were the leaders at the Security Conference listening, and will they step up and provide the aid, weapons, ammunition Ukraine so desperately needs?

SEBASTIAN SHUKLA, CNN PRODUCER: Yes, absolutely, Anna. I think the messages here in Munich were always going to be initially focused on the aid to Ukraine. But as we were just hearing, the news of Alexey Navalny's death served as a bit of a bellwether for European defense and security officials gathering here.

And I think it coalesced the thoughts of everybody meeting. So, it just and served as a reminder that, look, Ukraine needs support from its allies, and that the message then came from world leaders that President Putin cannot go unpunished, not only for the death of Alexey Navalny, but also for the ongoing war in Ukraine.

So, for President Zelenskyy, when he turned up here yesterday, his message was clear, I need support, I need ammunition, and I need my strongest allies to come to my defense. The biggest issue that Ukraine is facing at the moment on the battlefield is the shortage of artillery and ammunition.

Listen to what he had to say yesterday.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: We are counting on this positive decision of the Congress. For us, this package is vital.

We do not currently look into alternatives, because we are counting on the United States.

Do I believe that this is a betrayal? No, because I do not think that our strategic partner can allow itself to not support Ukraine.


SHUKLA: And so that support, even more prominent right now in Ukraine, as Ukrainian forces have had to withdraw from the beleaguered town of Avdiivka, which is a small town just outside Donetsk, south of the now infamous city of Bakhmut, and had actually been one of the contentious points on the battlefield since 2014, since Russian separatists took control of Donetsk.

[03:40:09] But it represents a major move on the battlefield in Ukraine in favor of the Russians, something that the Ukrainians are looking to reverse, particularly in light of their failed counteroffensive in the summer. And the thing they need, as Zelenskyy has said, is we need weapons more than anything else. Anna?

COREN: Sebastian Shukla in Munich, many thanks.

And joining me now from Canberra, Australia is Malcolm Davis. He is a military analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Malcolm, great to have you with us.

Look, the fall of Avdiivka was a long time coming. I was there with artillery units on the outskirts of the town back in December. They had little ammunition against the Russians who, as we know, were throwing their soldiers into what was called a meat grinder. I mean, Russia had more men, more weapons, more ammunition. Ukrainians could not compete with this. So, you'd have to assume this was the right decision to pull out of Avdiivka.

MALCOLM DAVIS, MILITARY ANALYST: That's correct. I mean, essentially, what was happening was that the town was essentially being encircled by Russian forces who had worn down the Ukrainians ability to resist. Adding to this was the fact, as you said, they were running low on ammunition.

So, they were rapidly approaching the point whereby they literally could not defend their positions. And the danger was if they didn't withdraw, then the Russians could overrun them and either kill them on the spot or take them prisoner.

And the Ukrainian military decided quite correctly that the sensible move was to withdraw from that location and set up new defensive positions to the west of Avdiivka.

COREN: And, of course, there are reports that Ukrainian POWs were taken up by the Russians as they took over that town. But what does this mean, Malcolm, to the fight on the eastern front? Because it would have seemed that Russia has regained momentum.

DAVIS: Well, they have regained momentum at a tactical level around that particular location. That's true. They've even gained a degree of local control of the air, which I think is important. But they have taken very heavy casualties to achieve their objective of taking this town. And now the question is can they sustain any momentum going forward to advance onto secondary objectives that lie to the west of Avdiivka.

I think the assessment is that they probably can't. Both sides will stabilize their frontlines for a bit. The Ukrainians will try to build up their defensive positions where they've retreated to, to prevent the Russians from moving further west. The Russians will build up their military forces and restock and rearm so that they can try to launch more offensives going into the spring and ultimately into the summer. But, remember, this is one area along a very wide front that extends across multiple regions in Ukraine. And so the Russians are looking at playing this as a long-term game, a long-term strategy to try and wear down the Ukrainians, counting on a collapse in western support for Ukraine, starting with the U.S. House of Representatives in Congress.

COREN: Malcolm, with the fall of Avdiivka, explain to us now the Ukrainian towns and cities, excuse me, that are now vulnerable.

DAVIS: Well, look, I think that everything west of Avdiivka is vulnerable. Ultimately, I think what the Russians would like to do would be to extend their reach closer to Kharkiv. If the Russians can capture Kharkiv, that's a major Ukrainian city, that would require more than just the forces fighting around Avdiivka.

It would require considerable forces elsewhere from Donetsk and Luhansk, the Donbas region. At the same time, they want to advance in the south, recapture area in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. Ultimately, what they would like to do is capture Kharkiv and Odessa in the south so that they are then in a position to try and impose some sort of peace settlement on Ukraine, particularly if Ukraine doesn't have the military support coming from the U.S. and Europe that it needs to be able to fend off these attacks.

So, we're looking at probably a scenario of this sort of steady advance by the Russians that are growing more powerful as the Ukrainians grow weaker over the course of 2024 and into 2025.

COREN: Malcolm, this decision by the new general, Oleksandr Syrskyi, to pull out of Avdiivka, what should we read into this, I guess, as he looks to the overall battlefield and what changes could we expect?

DAVIS: Look, he's making the choice that the Ukrainian military is running low on ammunition, both in terms war.


They're running low on artillery shells, for example, or even rifle ammunition. At the same time, Ukraine is running low on other types of capabilities, including air defense capabilities, because the aid is drying up.

So, what he's trying to do is firstly avoid the unnecessary surrender or slaughter of his own forces by leaving them in an exposed pocket that is then encircled. But, secondly, building up and strengthening his defensive lines to the east of areas, such as Kharkiv, stop any Russian advance for as long as possible in the hope that somehow the west gets its act together and keeps the aid going.

COREN: Malcolm Davis, as always, great to get your perspective. Thank you for your time.

DAVIS: Thank you very much.

COREN: Still ahead, new developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. We will bring you the details on what the Texas governor has in mind. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COREN: Texas Governor Greg Abbott is ramping up his controversial border policy. On Friday, Abbott announced plans to build an 80-acre military base in the border town of Eagle Pass.

CNN's Camila Bernal has the latest.

CAMILA BERNAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is just the latest in this contentious feud between the state of Texas and the Biden administration over federal immigration policy and how things should be handled at the border. The base will house up to 1,800 Texas National Guard members, but it could expand to 2,300 if there is a surge of migrants.

Now, the governor is calling it a military base to amass a large army in a very strategic area, but it's also an 80-acre base that appears to be in direct defiance of federal border control.

Now, according to Abbott, the base will help them consolidate and it will give them that flexibility and speed because of its proximity to the border.


He also highlighted the ability will give them to expand razor wire in the area, something that has already been a point of contention between the two sides.

Here is what the governor said.


GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): Our goal is to make sure that we expand the effectiveness of that razor wire to more areas along this border. Having the soldiers located right here, right by the river, they're going to have the ability to more quickly be able to construct that razor wire barrier. And this will reduce the travel time and costs of current living conditions.


BERNAL: Now, last year, Texas officials sued the Biden administration for cutting razor wire at the border. But last month, the Supreme Court ruled that Border Patrol agents could remove that razor wire while the state legal challenge plays out.

And it's not just the razor wire and the Border Patrol's access to the border that is playing out in court. The legality of Texas' decision to implement a series of buoys on its river border with Mexico is still in question.

An appeals court is set to reconsider an earlier court's rulings declaring the barrier illegal. And Abbott continues to send migrants from the border to Democrat-controlled cities across the U.S., which has been at the center of this showdown between the state of Texas and the federal government.

Now, the administration has said that this is a federal issue but Abbott is showing with this latest announcement of a new base that he is not backing down.

Camila Bernal, CNN, Los Angeles.

COREN: Californians are bracing for a one-two punch. Waterlogged parts of the Golden State are getting ready for more rain and potential flooding in the coming days. That story and much more, straight ahead.



COREN: The National Weather Service issued evacuation warnings for parts of California, Santa Barbara County on Saturday, as two back-to- back storms are set to drench most of the state, raising the risk of flooding and mudslides.

More than 27 million Californians are under flood watches this week. Many are still recovering from record-setting rainfall and mudslides earlier this month.

The first storm is expected to be weaker than the second. The heaviest rain will start moving in late Sunday. That system is forecast to stall near the coast, raising the risk for excessive rain through Wednesday.

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner is back in Texas this weekend ahead of her Jersey retirement.

Griner's number 42 jersey will be officially honored and retired by Baylor University in the Bears game against Texas Tech in the coming hours.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, played for the Bears for four seasons before heading to the Phoenix Mercury in 2013. She then won a WNBA title with the Mercury the next year.

Griner, of course, spent ten months behind bars in Russia on drug charges before being released in a prisoner swap.

Well, thanks so much for your company. I'm Anna Coren in Hong Kong. Another hour of Newsroom is just ahead. Stay with CNN.