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CNN International: Russia Set To Advance In Eastern Ukraine After Avdiivka Falls; Navalny's Mother Files Lawsuit Over "Inaction" To Release Body, Files Complaint About "Illegal Actions"; Biden Blasts Trump For Not Blaming Putin; Indicted Biden Accuser Says He Was Fed Info By Russians; U.S. Vetoes U.N. Resolution For Immediate Ceasefire In Gaza; U.N.: Gaza Residents Desperate Amid Hunger, Rising Malnutrition; U.K. High Court To Decide If Assange Has Right To Appeal; Jury Selection To Begin For Armorer In Deadly "Rust" Shooting; Navalnaya Vowed To Keep Up Her Husband's Political Activism; North Korea Reopens Borders To Tourists; Video Shows Gang Leader Lived "Like A King" In Prison. Aired 8-9a ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 08:00   ET



AMARA WALKER, CNN HOST: Hi everyone and welcome to our viewers all around the world. I'm Amara Walker. This is CNN Newsroom.

Just ahead, while Russia celebrates what it calls a significant advance, Ukrainian forces scramble to repel drone attacks. We will have the very latest.

Plus, U.S. President Biden slams his Republican rival over comments about Alexei Navalny. We will have the details live from the White House.

And CNN takes an extraordinary look inside Ecuador's prisons, where rival gangs are in control and criminal bosses live like royalty.

Well, just days after seizing the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, Russian troops appear to be gaining momentum on the battlefield. Earlier, Russia's army chief visited the eastern front line area and presented awards to soldiers who took part in the assault.

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin is calling the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from Avdiivka an unconditional success.

And over the past 24 hours, Russia unleashing a torrent of attacks on other parts of Ukraine. Local authorities say at least three people were killed and 18 wounded in five separate regions. It comes as the mystery surrounding Alexei Navalny is no closer to being solved five days after officials say he died in an Arctic penal colony.

His mother has filed a lawsuit with the Russian court over, quote, "inaction" to release her son's body.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen joining me now live from Berlin. Hi there, Fred. So you were very recently in Ukraine. The Ukrainians say that they're striking down drones, but the Russians say they're building a lot more. What more do we know? And from your assessment, who do you see having the momentum here?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think on the battlefield right now, certainly the Russians seem to have the momentum, seem to have the initiative, especially if you look down there in the places of Avdiivka and south of the Avdiivka area as well.

But, of course, the drones have been and are a huge issue on the battlefield, really being used by both sides. And when you look at the Ukrainians saying that they're striking down drones, we're really talking about two different types of drones. On the one hand, there's those Shahed drones that are Iran made, Iran supplied, the U.S. and its allies say.

That the Ukrainians are striking down a lot of those and the Russians are using those for a lot of attacks as well. But then as far as frontline drones are concerned, also, the Ukrainians also say they're striking some of those down. But that's really where one of the big battles is taking place.

The Ukrainians, very early on in the war, certainly had the advantage as far as those small battlefield drones were concerned. So called FPV drones, as they call them, which are used on the front lines to bomb enemy positions, to bomb enemy troops, and also to take out things like tanks and armored vehicles.

The Ukrainians have been doing that with great success, but the Russians now, at the very least, appear to be on parity. There's one thing that we're keeping an eye on, Amara, which we thought was very interesting, is that the Russian defense minister said the Russians are now producing thousands of such drones every single day and using hundreds of them on the battlefield.

That is sort of the way things are going on both sides, both with the Ukrainians and the Russians, is that you have cheap, easy to use drones. A lot of those drones being expended, a lot of those drones destroyed on the battlefield, but simply to keep a mass of those drones coming.

It seems to us as though right now, and certainly this is something that we heard from Ukrainian forces when we were on the battlefield in those areas. Right now, there seems to be parody between the Ukrainians and the Russians, but certainly, the Russian production capacities if the defense minister quite seem to be very, very large in the Russian certainly have caught up at the very least to the Ukrainians as far as the use of those drones are concerned, Amara.

WALKER: And we're just mentioning Alexei Navalny's mother who is obviously very determined to get her son's body back. She's filed this lawsuit. What more do you know? And obviously, knowing the state of affairs in Russia, I mean, what are the chances of her actually being successful in this lawsuit?

PLEITGEN: Well, at least the Russian authorities appear to have acknowledged that this lawsuit or this criminal complaint was filed up in the northern town of Salekhard, which is where the morgue is where at the beginning Alexei Navalny's mother and certainly also his supporters from the Anti-Corruption Foundation believed that his body was there.

So far, the authorities have not actually admitted that Alexei Navalny's body is at the morgue there in Salekhard. But the head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, he has also said that this criminal complaint was filed against the authorities there in Salekhard for not moving fast enough for so-called inaction as far as giving access to Alexei Navalny's body and also handing that body over to the family.


Of course, Alexei Navalny's mother Lyudmila, she put out a video yesterday where she called on Vladimir Putin to allow her to have access to her son's body and also get the body back calling on him to do that. She said that she hadn't seen her son in at least five days now, it would be six days.

So certainly right now, very, very trying times for Alexei Navalny's mother who is up there in the very far north of Russia where it's extremely cold and extremely difficult trying to get access to his body, certainly fighting that legal battle.

But now, at the very least, it would take a very long time before court decision would be made on that. And the authorities, of course, have said that they need at least was 14 days at the beginning of about 12 or 13 days now to give the body back because they said that there was still testing going on as the Russians continue to say that there is an investigation and they don't know what that investigation will find.

Of course, we know Alexei Navalny's family and his Anti-Corruption Foundation do not believe what the Russian authorities are saying, Amara.

WALKER: All right, Frederik Pleitgen, thank you so much.

The death of Alexei Navalny is becoming an issue in the U.S. presidential race. President Joe Biden posted a video to social media on Tuesday blasting his Republican rival Donald Trump for dangerous comments about Russia. Now, Mr. Biden expressed disgust that Trump has not called out Vladimir Putin for the death of Navalny.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After Putin's most fierce opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, died in a Russian prison last week, the former president, Trump, and other Republicans refused to hold Putin accountable for his death. Instead, Trump said Navalny's death made him realize how bad America is.

He said, and I quote, "We are a nation in decline. A failing nation," end of quote. Why does Trump always blame America? Putin is responsible for Navalny's death. Why can't Trump just say that? (END VIDEO CLIP)

WALKER: Well, for his part, Trump's most pointed comments on Navalny's death have been to somehow compare it to his own legal problems.


DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But it's happening in our country, too. We are turning into a communist country in many ways. And if you look at it, I'm the leading candidate. I get indicted -- I never heard of being indicted before. I got indicted four times. I have eight or nine trials. All because of the fact that I'm -- and you know this -- all because of the fact that I'm in politics.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a lot of -- lot to do.

TRUMP: It is a form of Navalny. It is a form of communism or fascism.


WALKER: And let's be clear here, Trump comparing himself to Navalny when it comes to political persecution. That is clearly a false equivalency.

Let's go to the White House now for more on all this. And that's where we find CNN's Arlette Saenz. Arlette, first to President Biden's reaction. He was quick to go on the attack after Trump's comments on Navalny.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he was, Amara. And it really highlights President Biden's willingness to call out former President Donald Trump, especially as this campaign is heating up. The president has spoken in very blunt terms about not just Trump, but also Republicans approach to Russia in the wake of Navalny's death.

You heard those comments there where he spoke out quite forcefully against the fact that Trump will not condemn Vladimir Putin for the death of Alexei Navalny. The president repeated that criticism last night in a closed door fundraiser in L.A., telling that donors there that it was outrageous that Trump would not condemn Putin.

And it also comes as the president is really trying to paint the Republican Party as a party of chaos, and one that is beholden to the former president. We've seen the president take -- make those types of arguments when it comes to Republican opposition to that bipartisan border bill when it comes to the opposition, to the Ukraine aid bill, which Trump has lobbied lawmakers on both -- to oppose both of those measures.

But it really also comes as the president has also directed his senior team to turn on the -- up the heat on Trump as well from the campaign end of things. Sources told CNN that the president told senior aides that they needed to start calling out the crazy stuff that Trump is talking about. The sources just used more colorful language to describe stuff as they talked about inflammatory remarks that Trump has made.

There's really a belief within the Biden campaign that they need to drive up this contrast between Biden and Trump when it comes to temperament and policy issues. And one of the driving forces of that is their belief that they need to remind voters what another four years of a Trump presidency would look like.

They think that making these types of arguments from the president all the way down to his campaign will really work to their advantage in November as they try to make this a clear choice between Biden and Trump.


WALKER: Tell us more about President Biden's campaign stops across California. He's there for the next three days to fundraise this, as he's already has a ton of cash on hand much more than Trump.

SAENZ: Yes, President Biden is out in California for a three-day fundraising swing today that will include two fundraisers in the San Francisco area, including one with House -- former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is a huge draw on the fundraising circuit. And a source I spoke to said that they expect it will be a lucrative week for the president.

This source said that it's expected he could raise as much as $10 million while he is out on the West Coast. And it comes as the president is emerging from the month of January with a significant cash advantage over his Republican rivals. If you take a look at the numbers, the president -- his campaign alone has $56 million cash on hand.

If you combine the totals of the campaign, the DNC, and their joint fundraising committees, that's $130 million cash on hand. By comparison, former President Trump currently has $30.5 million cash on hand, while the RNC has $8.7 million.

One thing that advisers feel that they've been able to do since the launch of the campaign is focus on the fundraising at a time when Republicans are spending all their money duking it out with each other. And the signs coming from these fundraising numbers are still that the donor class, whether it's high dollar donors or small dollar donors, are still standing behind the president, even as there are deep anxieties about his re-election bid.

WALKER: Yes. Arlette Saenz at the White House, appreciate it. Thank you very much.

And our coverage of the death of Alexei Navalny and its aftermath continues in just a few minutes as Navalny's widow, Yulia, is thrust into the spotlight. I'll be speaking to someone who can tell us more about her and her role in his life. Stick around for that.

A stunning revelation from the FBI is raising new questions about Russian interference in U.S. politics. Alexander Smirnov, the man charged with lying about corruption within the Biden family told FBI investigators that he got his information from Russian intelligence officers.

Smirnov's now debunked claims that Hunter and Joe Biden were paid bribes by people in Ukraine caused Republicans to launch an impeachment inquiry into the U.S. president. Well, it now appears that these claims were fed to Smirnov by Russian operatives.

Katelyn Polantz is tracking this story. Wow. What a revelation. What more do we know?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Amara, this is a story about disinformation and the Justice Department now reacting to somebody who was an informant to the FBI for 10 years, funneling them information. So the charges that this man, Alexander Smirnov, he's an American citizen, that he faces are about lying to the FBI in multiple years, but primarily during the 2020 election when Joe Biden was running for office successfully.

And Smirnov was telling the FBI that there was a link, a financial link, millions of dollars between Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and then this Ukrainian energy company Burisma. That was false. That is in the indictment of Alexander Smirnov. That's what he's charged with criminally.

But then this week, after his arrest, Smirnov sits down and continues talking to the FBI and tells them he has plans to go meet with foreign intelligence officials. He has lots of foreign agencies that -- and governments that he's in touch with. And some of the information about Hunter Biden that is coming to them is false, that it is coming from Russian intelligence trying to corrupt the system.

So the Justice Department is quite concerned about that. They were so concerned that they went to a judge just this week and asked them -- asked the judge not to release Smirnov, to keep him in jail because of the threat he poses to sow disinformation into the political system.

The judge said that wasn't enough that he was going to be released. Smirnov was released after a hearing yesterday in Las Vegas in federal court. But the Justice Department has clearly outlined that this man, Alexander Smirnov, was feeding them lies that they were believing for many years and that he now says he was getting some of his information specifically about Joe Biden, things that could be damaging about the current president as he runs for re-election from the Russians.

And just quickly, because we're out of time, but I do want to ask about the impeachment inquiry into President Biden. I mean, what happens to that then if it was based on lies?

POLANTZ: Well, Amara, it's a great question. It does continue, though. Biden's brother, James Biden, is set to go in for an interview today, and Hunter Biden is set to come in for an interview with House Republicans next week, things that they had long sought after.

It doesn't mean that they have found anything yet, and now it seems even less likely, because much of what the Republicans had wanted to find was based on what Smirnov was saying, these lies about connecting the Biden's to foreign money. But they are continuing to pursue, at least to investigate to see if they can get an impeachment together of the current president.


WALKER: Well, just incredible revelations there.

CNN's Senior Crime and Justice Correspondent Katelyn Polantz, great to see you. Thank you.

Israel is conducting a raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. The Palestinian health ministry says one person was killed after Israeli troops opened fire in the refugee camp. Now videos shared on social media show bulldozers destroying infrastructure.

And separately, China is among nations disappointed at the U.S. veto of the U.N. Security Council Resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. China's U.N. ambassador is calling the veto, quote, "a green light to the continued slaughter." Washington has instead proposed its own draft resolution that calls for a temporary ceasefire.

In the meantime, malnutrition is a major concern in Gaza as the humanitarian crisis worsens. A UNICEF representative says the situation has risen to emergency levels. CNN's Nic Robertson has the details. And we do want to warn you, this report contains graphic and disturbing video.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): Gaza's food problem writ large, hunger trumping fear of Israeli bullets, news of a coming aid convoy carrying flower into the north of Gaza, converging crowds to plunder it.

We came here and the Israelis started opening fire on us and we hid between the buildings, Hamzana (ph) says. When the fire stops, we come out again and wait for the flour. The IDF say they will look into this incident, but say they can't rule out Hamas shooting, desperation leading to looting a growing problem in northern Gaza.

HAMISH YOUNG, SENIOR EMERGENCY COORDINATOR, UNICEF: We're talking tens and tens of thousands for, you now, five, 10 trucks. It's the food that is getting through is just a drop in the ocean. It's not nearly enough.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Theft so bad, the principal U.N. food supply, the WFP, declaring Tuesday, it was stopped deliveries to the north, compounding the already dire conditions. 15 percent of children under two have malnutrition.

YOUNG: It's now an emergency level. According to international standards, once you're over 15 percent for acute malnutrition, that's a nutritional crisis and an emergency. And we are there.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): The most common thing that comes into hospital is malnutrition, Dr. Abu Safiya says. It creates complications, sometimes even death. Even before the World Food Programme canceled food deliveries, children venting fears shared by adults, abandonment by the world.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No food, no water, no medicine. Our message to the world, shame on -- shame on you. How dare you food (ph) your children while we eat animal food? Are you waiting our death?

ROBERTSON (voice-over): The whole family is dead, Ibrahim (ph) wails. Is he the last one alive? Gesturing towards her grandson. As bad as hunger is, Israel's armaments remain more deadly. And on Ibrahim's (ph) home in Nuseirat, central Gaza, one granddaughter dug out of the rubble, killed in the massive air strike. Another clings to life as rescuers give her CPR.

In southern Gaza, where food supplies a slightly better, this plastic surgeon, just out of the besieged on Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, close to tears.

DR. AHMAD MOGHRABI, HEAD OF PLASTIC AND RECONSTRUCTIVE SURGERY, NASSER HOSPITAL: I couldn't offer anything to my children. We use only, you know, only bread. My children want some sweets, I couldn't provide some sweets for my children. My little girl, three years old, she used to ask me many things, but I couldn't provide my little girl.


WALKER: And that was Nic Robertson reporting from Tel Aviv.

Still to come, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a last ditch attempt to stay in the U.K. The latest on the hearing taking place in London right now. We'll have that after the break.

Also the armorer from the movie "Rust" goes on trial this week. What her case could mean for actor Alec Baldwin?



WALKER: Crowds have gathered outside the U.K.'s high court in London this hour. They're there to support the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Inside is Assange's lawyers are making a final legal bid to head off extradition to the U.S. The second and final day of the hearing is underway.

Now, if the court denies him a fresh appeal, the U.K. will have to extradite him within 28 days to the U.S. where he is facing espionage charges. However, his lawyers would likely apply to the European Court of Human Rights to intervene.

CNN's Max Foster is in London. Hi there, Max. So, what more do we know about today's hearing?

MAX FOSTER, CNN LONDON CORRESPONDENT: Well, today was the U.S.'s chance to really challenge many of the things that Julian Assange presented to the court yesterday. Things like there was a CIA plot to assassinate him whilst he was hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy.

He says he has some evidence for that, hasn't presented it to the court yet, but that could be a tactic for another hearing. A lot of it focusing around a key defense that he was a journalist who released classified documents in the public interest.

So the American lawyer -- the lawyers for the U.S. are arguing that he didn't qualify as a journalist. He released all this information in one big dump, and crucially, he didn't redact the names of members of the secret services, for example, many members of the security services who were in those documents, which didn't really play into the public service argument.

So, a lawyer for the U.S. said Assange put lives at risk when he published classified information relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by disclosing unredacted names. Assange created a grave and imminent risk to innocent people who could suffer serious harm or arbitrary detention and that damaged the capability of U.S. forces. So this is why the U.S. says he needs to be extradited from the U.K. to face trial in America.

WALKER: And so tell us about the charges that have been laid out and the potential punishments that he faces in the U.S.

FOSTER: Well, it could be more than 150 years worth of sentences if he's found guilty on everything. But the essence of it is this, you know, the risk he posed by exposing the network, the security network of the U.S. and then this wider debate about whether or not it was in the public interest to release any of these documents.

I mean, there is, you know, there has been a tradition of classified documents being released by journalists.


They're saying there's never really been any protection for that, and they're looking at the constitution and seeing whether or not Assange, who is an Australian, qualifies for protections under that. So there's some debate about that today.

So I think what the Americans are trying to do is, you know, damage all of Assange's arguments from yesterday. Because this isn't a case of the U.S. having to prove anything, it's just whether the judges decide that Assange does have a case here, and therefore, it should continue.

They could just throw the whole thing out, and it could be decided by the end of the day, in which case the extradition process starts in that 28-day period you were talking about.

WALKER: Yes, it's a high stakes hearing for Julian Assange.

Max Foster, thanks for breaking that down for us. Live for us in London.

Well, jury selection begins today in the trial of Hannah Gutierrez- Reed. She was the armorer from the fatal shooting on the set of the movie "Rust." She has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence after a prop gun that the actor Alec Baldwin was holding was discharged, killing the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.

Josh Campbell has more.


HANNAH GUTIERREZ-REED, ARMORER: I'm the armorer. Currently, yes, I was.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hannah Gutierrez-Reed on the set of "Rust" after the fatal shooting on October 21st, 2021.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One female shot the chest.

CAMPBELL (voice-over): Body cam footage captured the events right after actor Alec Baldwin fired a live round of ammunition during a rehearsal and shot the film's cinematographer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She came in here and went across her chest and came up (INAUDIBLE).

CAMPBELL (voice-over): Gutierrez-Reed is now facing trial, charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence in the death of Halyna Hutchins on the set outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Gutierrez-Reed has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The film's director, Joel Souza, standing beside Hutchins was also wounded, shot in the shoulder by the same bullet. Prosecutors say the trial will focus on lax safety protocols on the set. Gutierrez-Reed's attorney saying his client is being unfairly prosecuted. But the biggest question now facing a jury, how did a live round of ammunition make its way onto the set of "Rust" and into Baldwin's prop gun on the day of the shooting?

New Mexico workplace safety regulations hold the armorer responsible for storage, maintenance, and handling of all firearms and ammunition on the set, as well as loading firearms. And according to investigators, six live rounds of ammunition were found in a box, a bandolier, a gun belt, and other locations, and were commingled with dummy rounds.

ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: Wait, so if that's the case, then who commingled them?

CAMPBELL (voice-over): Baldwin, one of the film's producers, is also facing an involuntary manslaughter charge and has pleaded not guilty. He could face trial later this year.

BALDWIN: I'm the one holding the gun, yes.

CAMPBELL (voice-over): On the day of the shooting, the assistant director, Dave Halls, who in 2023, was convicted of negligent use of a deadly weapon, yelled cold gun and handed a prop gun to Baldwin.

BALDWIN: Hannah Reed handed the gun to Halls and said, don't give it to Alec until I get back to the set. I've got to go do something else. And he proceeded to the set and, a, handed me the gun.

CAMPBELL (voice-over): The "Rust" script called for Baldwin to point the gun towards the camera. He pulled it from a holster, according to the search warrant affidavit. And at 1 50 p.m. that day, a live round was fired, hitting Hutchins in the chest.

Baldwin maintains he never pulled the trigger and blames both Gutierrez-Reed and the assistant director for the shooting. Even though the FBI crime lab determined the weapon could not accidentally fire, the trigger had to have been depressed.

BALDWIN: I pulled the hammer back and I pulled it back as far as I could. I never took a gun and pointed at somebody and clicked the thing.

CAMPBELL (voice-over): Josh Campbell, CNN, Los Angeles.


WALKER: United Airlines says a flight from San Francisco to Boston had to be diverted after damage to one of its wings was discovered. Take a look here. The damage to a movable part of the wing of the Boeing 757 was very visible. The flight landed safely in Denver. And the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration says it will investigate this incident.

All right, still to come, a devoted wife and mother vows to hold the Kremlin to account for her husband's death. We'll have more on Yulia Navalnaya.

Plus, for the first time since the pandemic, tourists are allowed into North Korea, but they are not just any tourists. Ahead, a look at their carefully controlled visit.



WALKER: Welcome back, everyone. In Russia, Alexei Navalny's family is demanding answers about his death and the whereabouts of his body. His mother is appealing directly to President Vladimir Putin to release the body for burial. And she's actually filed a lawsuit over the authority's failure to do so.

CNN's Matthew Chance has more from Moscow.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Captured on camera in Russia's freezing north, what could be the prison motorcade carrying Alexey Navalny's body from the Arctic penal colony where he died. Independent investigative journalists believe these traffic images show the late Russian opposition leader's remains have been removed. Although there's still no official confirmation of where they're being held. Even Navalny's elderly mother, who traveled nearly 2,000 miles from Moscow to see her dead son, has been denied. And is now asking the Russian president for mercy.

LYUDMILA NAVALNAYA, ALEXEY NAVALNY'S MOTHER (through translator): They won't give me his body. They don't even tell me where he is. I'm addressing you, Vladimir Putin. The solution to the issue depends only on you. Let me finally see my son. I demand that Alexey's body be immediately handed over so that I can bury him humanely.

CHANCE (voice-over): It is an emotional appeal with Russian public support. It's hard to ignore.

CHANCE: But Navalny here is only the latest in a long line of Kremlin critics to be permanently silenced. At home and abroad, dissidents have been poisoned, killed, even fallen out of windows.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement of political killings, but the message Russians are hearing is as clear as it is dark. Opposing the Kremlin right now is an extremely dangerous path to take.

CHANCE (voice-over): Alexey Navalny knew it firsthand. The Kremlin critic barely survived this poisoning with a Russian nerve agent, Novichok, on a plane from Siberia in 2020.

Now, his bereaved widow is accusing the Kremlin of finishing the job and hiding the corpse to prevent the real cause of death from being revealed.

YULIA NAVALNAYA, ALEXEY NAVALNY'S WIDOW (through translator): My husband could not be broken and that's exactly why Putin killed him. And it is just as despicable and cowardly that they are now hiding his body, lying pitifully, and waiting for the traces of another Putin's Novichok to disappear.

CHANCE (voice-over): But the Kremlin has rejected those allegations as absolutely unfounded and boorish saying investigators have yet to determine why this latest prominent critic died. Immune to the criticism, it seems, and the grief so many Russians now feel.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.


WALKER: As CNN's Matthew Chance was just reporting there, Alexei Navalny's widow Yulia has vowed to continue her husband's work to fight for freedom and democracy in Russia.


And as you heard, she's accused President Vladimir Putin of being responsible for her husband's death, even poisoning him. Accusations the Kremlin has called unfounded. Until 2020, Yulia Navalnaya largely remained out of the spotlight, but she began to take a more public role after her husband was poisoned. And now following his death, there's growing speculation that she might lead Russia's opposition movement one day.

Vladimir Ashurkov is the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and an associate of Alexei Navalny. He's joining me now live from London. I really appreciate your time, Vladimir.

First of all, you also consider yourself a personal friend of Yulia Navalnaya, and I want to ask you about just, you know, where she goes from here, because over the years, you know, I've read some interviews, I've seen these interviews where she has consistently resisted entering politics.

You know, in those interviews, she said, I'm the wife, I'm the protector of my children. And now she's announcing on social media that she is going to carry the torch and she is going to fight this fight on behalf of her late husband. How significant is that, that she's making this declaration?

VLADIMIR ASHURKOV, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ANTI-CORRUPTION FOUNDATION: Yulia Navalny has been the rock on which Alexei has been standing throughout his political career. Indeed, she was by mutual agreement with Alexei, mostly out of the public limelight while he was alive because political -- being in political opposition in Russia is dangerous thing and have -- they have two children.

But I know that before Alexei Navalny returned to Russia in the beginning of 2021, they discussed various scenarios, including the most tragic one that unfortunately has realized in recent days. And I think it's quite logical that Yulia decided to continue Alexei's struggle in this circumstances.

WALKER: We know -- we're looking at these beautiful images of Yulia and Alexei, and it's just clear, just from the looks on their faces, you know, their body language that they really had a strong and profound bond. Can you talk a little bit about his -- Alexei's love for his wife and how much he had leaned on her?

ASHURKOV: Indeed. In Russian politics, there are very few politicians that project a normal, healthy, loving family relationship. If we speak about Vladimir Putin, his personal life has always been opaque with lover, information about his lovers, with the fact that he hides his daughters, and Alexei and Yulia Navalny presented this perfect picture of loving family, and indeed their bond was very strong. And Yulia supported Alexei through all the ordeals that he had to go through in the dangerous field of Russian politics.

WALKER: I do want to show Alexei Navalny's last Instagram post. It was on February 14th, Valentine's Day, where he professed his love for Yulia. And that Instagram post reads, "Baby, everything is like a song with you. There are cities between us that take off light of airfields, blue snowstorms, and thousands of kilometers. But I feel that you are near every second, and I love you more and more."

I mean, just what a way to profess his love. And then, of course, you know, he dies in this penal colony.

I also want to play for you sound in that address that Yulia Navalnaya played, or posted, excuse me, on social media, where she's vowing to carry on this fight. Here's another part of that.


NAVALNAYA (through translator): I ask you to share your rage, rage, anger, and hatred with me towards those who are daring enough to kill our future. And I address you with Alexei's words, which I believe it is not a shame to do. It's not a shame to do little, but it's a shame not to do anything. It's a shame to make yourself intimidated.


WALKER: How effective do you see Yulia being potentially as, you know, an opposition leader in Russia, but she lives in Germany and the fact that she is a woman?

ASHURKOV: I think she has a very balanced view. And she has been involved behind the scenes in politics, always discussing things with Alexei and members of his team.


I know that he asked her for advice on various political matters constantly, and they were communicated through whatever means available while, for the last three years, while he was in prison.

I think the Western world does not fully realize the peril that it's in that Putin's regime is bringing not just to Russian people, not just to Ukraine, not just to the Europe, but to the world as a whole. And I think in times like this, Yulia is the type of leader that the world needs. And her initial appearances and speeches that we have seen over the last few days are -- send a very strong message against tyranny, against war. And for Russia to become a normal country, part of international community again.

WALKER: Vladimir Ashurkov, we appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

ASHURKOV: Thank you.

WALKER: Well, earlier this month, a group of tourists was allowed into North Korea for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic when the country closed all of its borders. The visitors were a group of 100 Russian tourists. Another sign of growing ties between Pyongyang and Moscow.

CNN's Will Ripley spoke to some of the travelers about what they were allowed to see.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After years of near total isolation, North Korea is rolling out the red carpet for Russian visitors. This group of 100 believed to be the first post-pandemic tourist, visiting Kim Jong-un's hermetically sealed nation, amid its deepening ties with Russia.

They flew from Vladivostok to Pyongyang on a vintage Russian plane operated by Air Koryo, North Korea's only airline. I've flown it more than a dozen times when Westerners were still allowed in.

Diplomacy with the U.S. collapsed in Hanoi in 2019, when observers say Kim made a strategic pivot, bolstering his nuclear arsenal, prioritizing ties with Moscow and Beijing, both protecting Kim from fallout at the United Nations for his unprecedented missile testing binge.

Russia is reportedly releasing millions of dollars in frozen North Korean assets, facilitating access to international banking networks, "The New York Times" reports, setting the stage for a new chapter of Kim's nuclear ambitions, possibly with the help of Russian rocket scientists.

This Russian tour and perhaps more to come is about more than sightseeing. It's about the bigger picture of international relations. Russia and North Korea strengthening ties, icing out the West.

Ilya Voskresensky is a travel vlogger from St. Petersburg, a tough job these days. Many European nations ban Russian tourists, the result of Putin's war on Ukraine.

ILYA VOSKRESENSKY, TRAVEL VLOGGER (through translator): I signed up for this tour at the moment, I heard about it. It's like stepping back in time, reminiscent of the stories my grandparents told me about life in the Soviet Union, the empty streets, the lack of advertisements. It's surreal.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Elena Bychkova is a marketing professional from Moscow.

ELENA BYCHKOVA, MARKETING PROFESSIONAL (through translator): The meticulous preparations for our visit felt like being in a theater production. But amidst the choreographed scenes, I couldn't shake the feeling that there's another side to North Korea, one that remains hidden.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Beneath the carefully controlled facade, encounters with North Korean children, revealing curiosity, genuine interest in the outside world.


RIPLEY (on-camera): Tourism is one thing, but what the United States and its allies are truly concerned about is this deepening military cooperation between North Korea and Russia. At least 24 North Korean ballistic missiles fired on Ukraine, responsible for at least 14 deaths, according to the Prosecutor General of Ukraine.

And an investigative organization out of the U.K. says that a North Korean ballistic missile launched just last month by the Russian military onto Ukraine contained hundreds of components from the U.S. and Europe. All of them made reportedly within the last three years. Will Ripley, CNN, Taipei.

WALKER: Still to come, a raid on a prison by the Ecuadorian army trying to restore order as part of a nationwide crackdown on gangs. A report on the lavish lifestyle of one criminal kingpin when we come back.



WALKER: One of the most notorious gang leaders in Ecuador is said to have lived like a king while behind bars. With a queen size bed and mini fridge, his prison cell looks more like a hotel room. His recent jailbreak is shining a spotlight on the country's penal system with experts saying prisons have turned into headquarters for criminal groups.

CNN's David Culver has the story.


DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's as though they're stepping into a war zone. Ecuador's military and national police trail an armored vehicle in a raid of one of the country's 35 prisons.

Inside, prisoners stripped down, hands tied, scenes like this have played out across Ecuador over the past few weeks. The Armed Forces making a very public show of force, attempting to reinstate order within their own prisons.

It's part of Ecuador's effort to neutralize terror groups and weed out gangs, which have unleashed chaos nationwide from a live TV studio, armed takeover, to random shootings in the streets. This most recent surge in violence sparked by this suspected escape of this man, Jose Adolfo Macias known as Fito.

On January 7th, officials reported that while serving a 34-year sentence for murder and drug trafficking, the notorious gang leader vanished from this prison in Guayaquil. A drone's view allows us to grasp the scale of this complex. It is sprawling.

CULVER: Not really much of a prison uniform. They're all kind of in their own clothes.

CULVER (voice-over): Officials tell us it's made up of five different prisons. Through military and prison sources, we get a sense of the layout. We learned the women are kept here. These buildings house the men and they range from minimum to medium security. And over here, maximum security known as La Rocha or The Rock.

With the military escort, we go past the first of three perimeters. Any farther, we're told, too dangerous, even with armed soldiers. We're told inmates are separated based on gang affiliation and are essentially self-ruled. CULVER: And you can see behind one of these gates, folks kind of moving comfortably and casually from cell to cell. It's kind of an indoor outdoor complex.

CULVER (voice-over): CNN obtaining these videos from inside. By prison standards, they reveal a life of luxury for Fito, the drug kingpin. The images captured last year by members of Ecuador's military. They appear to show Fito's cell, messy, but complete with home comforts. A mini fridge, a queen bed, upscale shower fittings, artwork featuring an image of a Fito himself with guns and cash.


He lives like a king, you can hear one of the soldiers say in this video obtained by CNN and verified by Ecuador's military. Outside his own courtyard at a half dozen fighting roosters believed to be his, a military source tells us Fito had a fresh fish important for his meals, and somehow even managed to shoot a music video from within the prison walls.

Ecuavisa showing these images of Fito's 42nd birthday in 2022. The prisoners reportedly enjoyed cake, music, and drinks. The night capped off with fireworks.

He had more power outlets than a Marriott Hotel room, Ecuador's President Daniel Noboa said late last year. So why escape?

Ecuadorian security experts believed that Fito was tipped off that he was going to be transferred in the same complex back to The Rock, maximum security. Fito spent a few weeks in The Rock last year. Moving him there involved in estimated 4,000 police and soldiers. His sudden disappearance suggesting he wasn't ready to leave the comfort of his cell.

The government's focus now is to reassert control within, but it won't be easy. Prison rates have turned up everything from laptops to guns.

Noboa also announcing the construction of new prisons designed by the same company behind El Salvador's notorious mega prisons, where thousands of suspected gang members are locked step.

Back outside of the prison in Guayaquil --

CULVER: You can hear there's church services going on, some sort of religious ceremony loud speakers.

CULVER (voice-over): Soldiers and police stand guard on the perimeter, knowing that its often the gangs whose still dictate what happens on the inside.

David Culver, CNN, Guayaquil, Ecuador.


WALKER: What a fascinating story by David Culver. Thank you so much. All right, still to come, a new savory latte flavor is rolling out in China. We will do a taste test of this really unusual brew. Stay with us.


WALKER: How about some braised pork in your next latte? No. Starbucks is betting coffee drinkers in China will go for it. They have released the new flavor to mark the Lunar New Year, saying eating meat means prosperity in the coming year.

Here's CNN's Marc Stewart with his own taste test in Beijing.

MARC STEWART, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So much anticipation. We're here to try this new pork inspired latte, unique to Starbucks Reserve here in China. Let's go.

OK, all right, let's give this a try. All right. So let's take a closer look. You've got coffee, you've got milk and you've got some barbecue style sauce on top. We don't have the garnish of the piece of pork, which you see in the promotional materials. But, all right, let's give this a try.

One more sip.


All right, so it pretty much tastes like a latte with a little bit of like a sweet, savory topping. I can see why people may like it. It's kind of that sweet, savory mix. This costs about $9.50. I think for me personally, I'm going to stick to an almond latte.

Marc Stewart, CNN, Beijing.

WALKER: Yes, better you than me. I would not want to taste that. Thank you, Marc.

Finally, Beyonce's venture into country music is officially a hit.




WALKER: Wow. Very catchy. Her new song, "Texas Hold 'Em", debut in the top spot of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. And her song, "16 Carriages", came in at number nine on that same chart. She is the first woman to top both the Hot Country and Hot R&B/Hip Hop charts since the list began decades ago.

That to all of her haters. Good for Beyonce.

All right, thank you all for joining me here on CNN Newsroom. I'm Amara Walker. Connect the World with Becky Anderson is up next.