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Putin Calls Fall of Avdiivka an Unconditional Success; Bill Browder is Interviewed about Russia and Navalny; Guttierez-Reed Begins Trial in "Rust" Shooting; Assange in Court to Avoid Extradition. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 06:30   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, Russian forces are expected to advance in Ukraine after they took the key eastern city of Avdiivka this week. Ukrainian officials say weapons and ammunition are running out as western support is really on the brink. The White House blames the devastating loss on congressional Republicans for failing to pass an aid package, while Vladmir Putin calls on the -- calls the Ukrainian retreat an unconditional success.

Nick Paton Walsh joins us live from Kherson, Ukraine.

Nick, thank you very much for being with us.

What does it feel like on the ground there? The in-fighting continues politically here in the United States. And what are you learning about the plans?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, being, no doubt, it's a tidal wave, frankly, of bad news for Ukrainian forces at the moment. Here in Kherson, along the southern banks, we've been hearing intermittent shelling for much of the day. A town that was liberated from Russia over a year ago now.

But the bad news, it seems potentially increasing from Avdiivka. That was liberated over the weekend. Liberated, I used the phrase Russian forces would use there. They withdrew, the Ukrainians, from there on Saturday. Now, since then, we've heard from both Ukrainian commanders and also the commander of Russian forces in general in Ukraine, Valeti Asamov (ph), appears to have been near that area meeting soldiers who took part in that particular operation, and also it seems hearing of future plans to advance. So, suggestions on both sides there that the Russians have, in Avdiivka, adequate forces to potentially push further forward in that direction.

Bad news too around Robotyne in the south. That was a tiny village. A key gain of Ukraine's southern counter offensive. That's under, it seems, intense. Russian pressure. And also very confusing reports about a very small village not far from where I'm standing on the left bank of the Dnipro River. That's the part still held by Russia. Now, Krynky is a place that's long been talked about over months, a

Ukrainian operation to try and form a bridgehead, like a foothold on the other side of the river to try and launch a new phase of operations has long been talked about. Well, Russia's defense chief yesterday suggested that, in fact, Russia had taken control of that again after many months of Ukrainian troops putting their lives on the line there. Ukraine denies that, but it's yet another source of potential issues for Ukraine in the months ahead as that aid really seems to be changing things on the battlefield here by not arriving.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it appears to underscore some clear momentum Russian forces have right now, at least in those specific areas.

Nick, while we have you, a U.S. Russian citizen was arrested for treason, allegedly for collecting funds for Ukraine. What more do we know about her at this point?

WALSH: Yes, a 33-year-old from Los Angeles, arrested in Yekaterinburg, Ksenia Karelina. Now, apparently she donated just over $50 -- $50, you heard that right, to an online organization getting humanitarian aid together for Ukrainians. That organization may have been based in the United States.

She was arrested for that. And this, obviously, fairly unclear exactly what term she may end up facing. But the Russian criminal justice system has a pretty solid conviction rates and a due process that many frown upon as a forgone conclusion. So, deep concerns over that U.S.- Russian dual national. And another sign too, frankly, of the ferocity in which the Kremlin prosecute any find of criticism or opposition to its war here in Ukraine.

Back to you.

HARLOW: A key part of what you said, Nick, humanitarian aid, $50 of humanitarian aid on the ground.

Nick Paton Walsh, for us in Kherson, thanks very much.

MATTINGLY: Well, President Biden preparing new sanctions against Russia after the death of Alexei Navalny. Will they have an impact? One of Putin's top enemies, Bill Browder, is going to join us to discuss. That's next.




JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.

Putin is responsible for Navalny's death. Why can't Trump just say that? Putin's responsible.


MATTINGLY: That was President Biden calling out Donald Trump in a new video posted online last night. Now, during a townhall on Fox, the Republican frontrunner turned down the chance to blamed Vladimir Putin for Alexei Navalny's death. Instead, Trump made a false comparison between his legal situation in the U.S. to what happened to Navalny.


DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT AND 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Navalny, it was a very sad situation. And he's very brave. He was a very brave guy because he went back. He could have stayed away. And, frankly, probably would have been a lot better off.

It's a horrible thing, but it's happening in our country too. We all turning into a communist country in many ways.


MATTINGLY: Once again, the comparison is not apt at all.

Joining us now is Bill Browder, the head of the global Magnitsky Justice Campaign. He was the largest foreign investor in Russia before he was expelled from the country in 2005. He was friends with Alexei Navalny and has called himself Putin's number one enemy.

Bill, I appreciate your time this morning.

One of the biggest questions I've had since this happened has been, why now? Why, in this moment, less than a month before the election, when he's been in custody for several years, why now?

BILL BROWDER, ANTI-KREMLIN ACTIVIST, FRIEND OF ALEXEI NAVALNY: I think it's - it's -- it's very simple, that there's an election coming up. And I - and I use the word "election" broadly. I mean it's not an election in Russia. They don't have elections like we do in the west. It's a totalitarian regime.

But Putin is not a very popular leader. He's been around for 24 years. He's - he's presided over just unbelievable corruption, which has made most people in Russia poor.


And - and there is this guy, Alexei Navalny, this young, attractive, charismatic man sitting in jail, who is issuing various directions to his supporters from jail. And Putin has got such a thin skin that it finally got to him. And I think that before -- he didn't want Navalny saying anything before the election, and he doesn't want anyone else showing up for the election. And no better way to solve those problems than to kill Navalny, which sends a message to everybody else, which is, that you want to get involved in opposition politics, you die.

MATTINGLY: Historically, there are plenty of examples of where an autocratic leader doing something like this ends up sparking the opposition or - or almost broadens it out to some degree. Weve seen kind of the heroic efforts of Alexei Navalny's wife over the course of the last several days.

I'm interested, what is the state of the opposition? Does it shift it all given what we've seen over the last couple of days?

BROWDER: Well, the opposition in Russia as almost impossible because anybody who -- who expresses any opposition sentiments ends up getting arrested, going to jail, maybe going to jail for a long time. And so it's very dangerous to be openly opposed to Putin. Even -- even saying that, 400 people were just laying flowers to mourn Alexei Navalny's death, and they were all arrested. I think for every one of those 400 people, there's probably 1,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 people sitting at home - I'm saying per person, sitting at home seething and angry about what Putin is doing.

And so I think that Alexei Navalny's widow is a very unifying person. She shares her husband's charisma and she's attractive. She's - and, most importantly, she's furious and - and she has the fury of a -- of a widow whose husband was murdered by this little dictator. And I think that that's a very potentially dangerous thing for Vladimir Putin.

MATTINGLY: The strength that she has shown, and, obviously, she's a mother as well, is remarkable, but you can't help but also be fearful to some degree when you watch her as she's taken upon this role in the last couple of days. Are you concerned for her safety, the safety of the family?

BROWDER: Well, I think that Putin is going to do whatever he can to try to rub her out, whether it's killing her or whether it's defaming her, or whether -- you know, he can't have this. And she will be certainly at risk. And hopefully she will be not going back to Russia. We can't have another Navalny murder. And hopefully she will, you know, stay safe in the west where she can then issue her directives and make her speeches and do the investigations that her husband used to do to continue to weaken the Putin regime.

But, yes, she is at risk. There's no question. Putin kills his opponents in Russia, and he kills his opponents abroad. We've seen it before in both situations.

MATTINGLY: The U.S. is set to launch another round of sanctions on Friday, in part because of Alexei Navalny's death. You've made the case very substantively for going after the frozen central bank funds. I believe it was about $300 billion. It was an unpopular -- unpopular idea for Biden administration officials for the first year plus of the war. They've now warmed to it. But you're a finance guy. The actual -- the legal mechanism to do it is what has always been the holdup. Do you believe that that can be figured out?

BROWDER: Absolutely. It's a no brainer. So just to summarize, the -- Putin started the war. And a week after the war was started, $300 billion of Russian government central bank reserves that were held in the west were frozen. Since the war has carried on, he's done, based on some estimates, up to $1 trillion of damage to Ukraine, and they desperately need money. And it just seems so obvious that - that while were digging into our own pockets to fund Ukraine, we should also grab Putin's money. It seems to make moral sense, it makes financial sense, and it makes political sense.

There -- there are absolutely clear legal mechanisms to do this various -- very important legal scholars have come out publicly explaining those legal methods. As you mentioned, the Biden administration was resistant in the first year, and the same way as everyone was resistant about providing long-range missiles. And then eventually everybody understood that that's like the thing you have to do. And I suspect that as we move further along in this war, and you're seeing Ukraine now losing some positions, the necessity of getting this money to Ukraine is going to become greater and greater. And that necessity will lead to the confiscation of this money.

And I should just point out that we should call this whatever legislation is connected to this, we should call it the Navalny Act and so Putin knows that his murder of Alexei Navalny is going to cost him $300 billion.


MATTINGLY: Yes. And as somebody who was critical to the passage and implementation of the Magnitsky Act, you've got a good record of actually making things like this stick.

Bill Browder, we always appreciate your time, sir, thank you.

HARLOW: Such an important conversation.

All right, ahead, this morning, just a couple of hours from now, the armorer from the movie "Rust" will be in court, on trial for involuntary manslaughter. What this case could also mean for Alec Baldwin.


HARLOW: Welcome back.

Well, new this morning, a suspect has been identified in the disappearance and the death of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham. Her body was found yesterday in a river near Houston, Texas, and authorities say that suspect is Don Steven McDougal. He was a friend of the family. He actually lived on the Cunningham's property. McDougal was entrusted with dropping Audrii at the bus stop the day she vanished.


The sheriff's office says he was already in custody for an unrelated assault charge and has a long criminal history.

We are also learning this morning that McDougal joined the days-long search effort, was even knocking on doors in the neighborhood asking if anyone had seen Audrii. In a news conference yesterday, the Polk County, Texas, district attorney announced that she is preparing to file a capital murder charge against him. McDougal posted on social media that he's not guilty and that he has, quote, "done nothing wrong."

The medical examiner's office is still working to determine the exact cause of Audrii's death.

MATTINGLY: Well, also this morning, jury selection is set to begin in the trial of Hannah Gutierrez-Reed. She was the armorer for the movie "Rust" during the deadly shooting on set more than two years ago. Gutierrez-Reed has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence. Prosecutors are set to argue it was her fault that live ammunition ended up in a prop gun that Alec Baldwin was holding when it went off and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.

CNN's Josh Campbell has more.


HANNAH GUTTIEREZ-REED, "RUST" ARMORER" I'm the armorer. Or at least I was.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One female shot in 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 it went across her chest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And it came out the back and it went into the --

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 lack 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, "RUST": Which, 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 was 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 it at somebody and clicked the thing.

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


HARLOW: And we'll follow that as the trial kicks off today.

Meantime, next, Julian Assange in court today with a last-ditch effort to avoid extradition to the United States where he faces life in prison for espionage.

MATTINGLY: Plus, what an ex-FBI informant says Russian intelligence officers told him about Hunter Biden.

Stay with us.



MATTINGLY: Well, welcome back.

This morning, arguments are underway in the second day of a London hearing to determine whether Julian Assange has the right to appeal the British government's decision to extradite him to the U.S. to face charges. The WikiLeaks founder is accused of disseminating classified materials about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

CNN's Max Foster joins us live from London. Max, for people who maybe just are tuning into this right now, what

are the expectations today? What's the endgame here?

MAX FOSTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, yesterday, Julian Assange made his case he shouldn't be extradited to the U.S. because he may take his own life. The CIA has -- has an assassination plot against him or did when he was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy here in London. He says he has evidence of that as well. And it's against his human rights. He was a journalist. He was just doing his job.

What we've got today is the U.S. arguing against all of that, saying he can't call himself a journalist. He dumped unredacted classified documents. There isn't a protection for journalists to publish documents anyway, they're arguing, despite what's in the Constitution. But, you know, a journalists would -- would perhaps have taken out the public interest elements of those documents and then broadcast them, as opposed to dumping the whole lot.

We heard from the U.S. lawyer today saying that Assange created a grave and imminent risk to innocent people who could suffer serious harm or arbitrary detention, disclosure (ph), damaged capability of U.S. forces. Because the names of agents were put - weren't redacted in these documents when he put them out. So, he created a risk there, and this is why he must face trial in America.

HARLOW: Max, if -- if he does not prevail, I think it's 28 days is all he has before he would be extradited to the United States. But there is a potential for more relief, right, from a higher European court. Is that right?

FOSTER: Yes, so it could potentially go to the European Court of Justice, but the judges today could also say they want to look into this a bit more and have more hearings. So, if he's saying he has evidence that there was a CIA assassination plot against him, and they say that they do, then they may want to hear that and see that. They could just dismiss it all, in which case that 28 days does apply.


HARLOW: OK, Max Foster, keep us posted as this continues. Thanks very much.

And CNN THIS MORNING continues right now.