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Erin Burnett Outfront

Russia Steps Up Bombardment Of Ukraine's Cities; Biden Says He Wasn't Calling For Regime Change In Russia; White House Spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre Tests Positive For COVID-19; Biden Says He Wasn't Calling For Regime Change In Russia; Ex-Russian Oligarch Speaks Out About Putin; Russian Mercenaries In Ukraine Linked To Far-Right Extremists. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired March 27, 2022 - 21:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN HOST: And we have links to several vetted organizations that are working on the ground to make a difference. There's such a huge need here. So many people tried to help him but such a huge need.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: One hundred percent. Well, thank you so much, everyone for joining us tonight. I'm Pamela Brown in Washington.

LEMON: And I'm Don Lemon in Lviv. Thank you for joining us. As Pamela said, Pam, it was a real pleasure working with you. I'll see you soon. A special edition of "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" is next.


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, breaking news, multiple explosions rocking Ukraine tonight. According to Zelenskyy's advisor rushing out targeting multiple cities in western Ukraine. The attacks coming as Ukraine's president has a message for Putin.

Plus, we'll take you inside hard hit Mariupol, a city where tonight Zelenskyy says the humanitarian catastrophe is unequivocal with those who remain are witnessing.

And Biden backtracking now telling reporters he wasn't calling for regime change when he said Putin shouldn't remain in power. Let's go OUTFRONT.

And good evening, I'm Erin Burnett. Welcome to a Special Edition of OUTFRONT. We begin with breaking news tonight.

Russian forces stepping up their bombardment of cities across Ukraine. Throughout the night there has been the hunting whale of air raid sirens in multiple cities, including Kyiv, as Zelenskyy advisor says Russia is also now targeting the cities of Lutsk, Zhytomyr and Rivne, as well as Kharkiv.

Now, you can see that three of those cities are in the West, and we have yet to see video of those strikes, but it was yesterday when a fuel depot in Lviv, about 40 miles from the Polish border was also struck. These new attacks coming as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, just gave his first interview to independent Russian journalists since the start of the war, which is a significant thing. And Russia is now banning anyone there from publishing it. Zelenskyy said he won't sit down with Russia if it continues to spin the reasoning for its deadly invasion.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We won't sit down at the table at all if all we talk about is some demilitarization or some denazification. For me, these are absolutely incomprehensible things.


BURNETT: Meanwhile, in the United States, President Biden tonight trying to clarify this off the cuff remark that he made about Putin while in Poland.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: For God's sake, this man cannot remain power.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, were you calling for regime change?



BURNETT: Unclear what else he could be calling for. Well, over the next two hours so much to cover with reporters across Ukraine, as well as in Poland tonight.

I want to begin though with Fred Pleitgen, who's OUTFRONT live in Kyiv. And Fred I know, obviously, the bombardment has continued. There's been a lot of loud explosions tonight. What can you tell us?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there certainly have been, Erin, throughout the city continues to be under attack. In fact, just as we're speaking right now, I can in the distance, hear some booms which appear to be either impact or possibly outgoing artillery. So the fight here certainly continues throughout the day. And in the night as well.

We did have a lot of air raid sirens tonight and some pretty loud impacts that we were hearing sort of here in the city center as well, unclear how far they were away from us. But it certainly shows that, that this war obviously continues in full speed, and also that the Russians are using longer range weapons now to attack Kyiv, when -- since they have been able to enter the city.

And, you know, one of the things that we did earlier today was we moved towards the north of Kyiv to a small village, small town up there. It's right on the front line. I think the closest of the frontline that we got was about three miles away.

And essentially the people there were telling us that the Russians haven't been able to advance there recently. If fact, over the past week, week and a half or so the Russians have night, zero forward progress, but what they're doing then is they're shelling these places. They're taking these places on your artillery shelling, rocket shelling, there were a bunch of destroyed houses out there.

And of course, as you can imagine, for the people that remain there, they say about a third of the citizens are still up there. It's absolutely unsafe to be there. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian military says, especially around Kyiv, they are making some headway. They are pushing Russian forces back. Their leadership very much understands that the gains that they've made here are still very fragile, because, of course, the Russian military is extremely dangerous and still does have a lot of gear out there and is now using these longer range weapons as well.

But you do sense that there is a bit more of optimism here in the city and certainly some people who now are sort of venturing out a little more than they had before, Erin.

BURNETT: All right, thank you very much. Fred Pleitgen in live in Kyiv tonight.

So, after Fred's report, let's go to retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, former commanding general of Europe and the Seventh Army. And Andrea Kendall-Taylor, former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia, and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, also now a CNN national security analyst, which we're thrilled about.

So General Hertling, let me start off with what Fred's talking about large explosions tonight around Kiev.


And he said, you know, whether that's incoming impact or outgoing artillery unclear, but it comes in the context of what he's reporting, right, which is that Ukraine has successfully pushed Russian forces further back from the capital. What do you think about the situation on the ground right now?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, FMR. ARMY COMMANDING GENERAL EUROPE AND SEVENTH ARMY (RET.): In tracking what Ukraine is doing against the Russians are and what I'm seeing, from reports across the board, different intelligence sources, mostly unclassified is Ukraine is having an extreme amount of success, not only north northwest and east of Kyiv, but also around the Kharkiv area and also in Kherson.

So you're talking about a Ukrainian army that is slowly attriting the Russian forces, the Russian forces, as we've said, so many times have lost their momentum. They are really in bad shape in terms of their resupply and their logistics trail.

And interestingly enough, these rockets or these missiles that are flying into various cities, you know, I hate to get theoretical, but they are violating every principle of war that you would think that our military force would try to apply.

What I mean by that is, is forces normally try and really focus on their objective, massing what they're doing, and using a very simple plan. Russia has not done that at all. They're all over the place. They're piecemealing their forces.

And in fact, I think what Ukraine is done in a very successful counter offensive from an active defense mode is they are gradually attriting the Russian forces in a great degree. And I think over the next couple of days, we're going to see the results of that north of Kyiv, around Kharkiv and in the South.

BURNETT: Well, that's amazing, of course, because no one knows what their objective is. And certainly --


BURNETT: -- the commanders on the ground do not know what their objective is, which is a big part of the problem. So Andrea, President Biden tonight in this, you know, comes into this and tells reporters who is not calling for regime change in Russia when he said, and I quote him, for God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.

I mean, whether he was doing it just from a personal point of view or an emotional point of view, of course, he was calling for regime change. How does Putin see this?

ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I don't think he was calling for regime change. I think he was kind of expressing these very human feelings about the horrors that he was seeing in Ukraine. And as so far as how Putin sees this, you know, there's nothing new here. And so I actually didn't find President Biden's comments particularly consequential either for U.S.-Russia relations, or for what's happening in Ukraine.

And I say that because President Putin for decades has believed that the United States seeks to overthrow him and his regime. He looks at things like the color revolutions, which were large scale protests in Ukraine, but also Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in the early 2000s, as being backed by the United States. He looks at the Arab Spring as being backed by the United States.

There were big protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012, when President Putin came back into power, once again, he believed that it's the United States that were behind those protests.

So this doesn't offer anything new for President Putin. Of course, you could say it offers a convenient or useful soundbite, but that soundbite has already been played with Russians. You know, this is one of the things that President Putin does to maintain his power at home, is to scapegoat blame the United States for Russians problems.

So to me, there's really nothing new here. And I've heard some people suggest, you know, that it increases the state in Ukraine. But I think President Putin already understands the stakes. He knows that his power is tied, or will be affected by what happens in Ukraine. So the fact that President Biden this off the cuff comment doesn't all of a sudden escalate the stakes for Putin in Ukraine.

BURNETT: So General Hertling, what Putin has to do, of course, is to define what it is that he defines as victory in Ukraine, right back to this point of not having a clear mission. And Ukraine's military intelligence head says Putin is now looking to do what many thought he wanted to do before he invaded the whole country, right. Which is just to connect the Donbas with Crimea, right, didn't need to invade the whole country to accomplish that, maybe, but that that's what the Ukraine military intelligence now says, is Putin's goal, they think. Does it look to you like this could in fact, be his goal now?

HERTLING: I'm not sure about that, Erin, but I'll reinforce what Dr. Kendall-Taylor said. Mr. Putin has failed in every one of the strategic objectives he's outlined for this campaign so far.


HERTLING: Not just the strategic objectives, but his military has failed and all the operational and tactical objectives. So it's now a -- he is now backtracking and saying, Hey, what I really wanted was just the Donbas. I think we ought to continue to remind him and I know Ukraine will that you have failed in subjugating the Ukrainian government. You have failed in reaching the objective of the capital city. You have failed in destroying the Ukrainian army. You have failed in increasing the economic capability of Russia by blackmailing Europe, so you have failed in all three things.


And by the way, you add to that the fact that he will never be able to stand on a world stage again. Mr. Putin is dead in terms of a leadership role in Russia. So he can say, Well, what I really wanted to do is, is really take over the Donbas region. What I would say to that is Ukraine's not going to let them do that either. They have generated a momentum for themselves --


HERTLING: -- where even people who were for Russia in the past the Russian speakers in the Donbas are now going to see the criminal activities that Russia and Putin has done throughout the country, and they are no longer going to want to attempt to even join a part of his piecemealing attempted biting off a piece of Ukraine.

BURNETT: And Andrea, into this context, enter the fact that Putin is now banning the publication or airing of any of Zelenskyy's interview with Russian journalists tonight. Now, those Russian journalists are not the Russian state media. Obviously, they are independent Russian journalist, but they got an interview with Zelenskyy.

You know, I know obviously, not a surprise that he would ban it. But I wonder to you, does it signal anything that he has any concern that anything's Zelenskyy is saying or doing or sort of how he's being perceived is getting through to the Russian public?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Well, he certainly cares, which is why we've seen him increase repression so mightily after the beginning of this war, and we should just step back for one second and remind ourselves that repression has already increased quite significantly in Russia over the last two years.

And that's what you see in authoritarian regimes. These longtime authoritarian leaders, Putin has been there for 22 years, have nothing left in their toolkit. They offer nothing to the people. And so repression is all they have.

So, he is concerned about these messages getting in, which is why he's banning Facebook and Twitter and coming up with 15-year penalties for people who talk about the war. He's also one concerning step though, is the way that he's mobilizing the Russian public.

We have seen him this was something he didn't do before the war because he didn't think that he would need so now they're trying to fill their stadiums with people in support of the war. President Putin is talking about people who don't support the war as traitors. And that also creates a difficult bubble to penetrate.

But there are so many innovative efforts that are underway. People who are texting everyday Russians who are leaving. There's 300,000 Russians who have left and they all have their own personal network.

So, what the United States and Europe need to do now is really focus on how to support Russians who are leaving, and other civil society actors to come up with innovative ways to penetrate the current that President Putin plot down.

BURNETT: Right. Thank you both very much. I appreciate your time.

HERTLING: Thank you.

BURNETT: Next, we do have new video from Mariupol, a city that has seen really some of the very greatest devastation in all of Ukraine. What residents are seeing as they returned to what's left of their homes tonight.

Plus, a key ally pushing back on President Biden after he called Putin a butcher.

And a mother and daughter who feared for their lives or tonight safe thanks to a tiny community that's nearly doubled its population.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I feel safe here. But I hope that this will end soon and go home.




BURNETT: New images just in the CNN of Mariupol residents returning to their city this weekend, finding nothing but this debris, ruins, homes and rubble, cars charred. President Zelenskyy saying, quote, The humanitarian catastrophe inside the city is unequivocal.

Kyung Lah is OUTFRONT tonight in Warsaw, Poland, where Ukrainians from Mariupol and other devastated cities are trying to seek refuge. And Kyung, I know you're at a train station in Warsaw, it's almost 3:30 in the morning. What is it like, you know, through the hours here, now you've been there at every hour of the day with refugees.

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's gotten a little quieter, because they're just trying to find a little peace here. The story here in Warsaw, Erin, is a little different. Of the two million refugees that have come into Poland, about 350,000 of them are here in the city of Warsaw. But this is a, think of it, this is a train station that I'm in. But a lot of the refugees come here to then disperse to other parts of Poland or to Europe.

And so when they first arrive, what do they see, they see a desk like this and they learn about services that they can get. Some of these cards that this gentleman gave me, it's about how to get psychological health, where to get medical help, how to get adjusted to Poland, and then they see a map like this. And they see, OK, here are the various places that they potentially could go around the entire country of Poland.

And then over here to my left, if you could swing over this way, this is the volunteer area. It's a little quieter now. But it's a 24-hour operation. This train station normally doesn't have anybody in it normally in the day.

And then over here, they can get a free SIM card so they can stay in touch if they can manage to get in touch with anybody in their families in Ukraine.

And then if they can't find a place immediately to stay, what we've seen is they just head upstairs. We were up there, it's a quiet area. It's a place where we can't talk to a lot of people. But you can certainly see there are people carrying Ukrainian flags, there are people like this gentleman over here who's wearing the colors of Ukraine on his clothing and on his jacket and carrying the memories of their country as they try to do the very difficult step of what to do with their lives.

We spent a lot of time, Erin, in these border towns talking to people about that immediate trauma of finally making it to safety. Well now what the safety look like, what shape does that take? And that's where those difficult questions come here.

You can get medical care, you can get the version -- the Polish version of a social security card here. You can get schooling and safety and potentially housing. So, all of these difficult things, Erin, start to come together here at this train station.

BURNETT: I mean, it's pretty incredible. The incredible generosity of Poland and the other neighboring countries, but Poland obviously with some of the most significant ties to so many in Ukraine. So when -- I know above you, Kyung, the level where the people who are there overnight are trying to sleep. What are you hearing from the people you spoke about where they're going?


LAH: You know, they don't -- some of them don't even know. A good deal of them do have some connection to Poland. They may have friends or family here so that that will be first where a lot of them turn but at this stage more than a month into the war, some of them just have no idea.

And you can see that, that sort of shock and confusion about what to do next. That is really what you see. We saw a man clutching a Ukrainian flag, as he clearly just is suffering from trauma and has no idea what to do next.

BURNETT: All right. Kyung, thank you very much reporting live in the early hours of Monday morning from Warsaw.

And next, breaking news, Biden spokeswoman who is traveling with the president to Europe just testing positive for COVID what the White House is saying tonight.

Plus, he was once the richest man in Russia, but then he broke with Putin. And for that, he spent 10 years in prison. Mikhail Khodorkovsky tells me why he believes Putin's time is limited.


BURNETT: Breaking news, President Biden tonight attempting to clean up his comments that quote Putin cannot remain in power, comments that sparked global speculation about what regime change actually means.

The President spoke to reporters just a short time ago.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, do you want Putin remove? Mr. President, were you calling for regime change?



BURNETT: Arlette Saenz is OUTFRONT of the White House. So Arlette, how worried is the White House about the damage that that line from President Biden may have caused?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESONDENT: Well, Erin, I think you can look at the speed with which they tried to clarify these comments yesterday from President Biden as a sign of their concern.


These nine words that President Biden said in his remarks in Poland yesterday were completely off script, not in the prepared remarks and the White House before President Biden even with lifted off on Air Force One up in the air from Poland.

They issued a statement on White House officials say that the President simply was saying that Putin should not be able to exert power or control over his neighbors. That is something that was reiterated today by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who said the U.S. policy is not one to pursue regime change in other countries. And then you heard President Biden himself clean up those remarks today as well.

In this moment was the third time on President Biden's foreign trip that the White House had to clarify something that he had said or a few days earlier, when he was speaking to American troops, he made a reference to Ukraine telling those troops that they would see when they were there pretty shortly after a White House official said that the President still maintained that U.S. troops will not be going into Ukraine, that there was also a comment he made about the U.S. responding in kind to Russia, if they use chemical weapons.

The National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan then had to come out and say the U.S. has no plans whatsoever to use chemical weapons. So the White House is aware that in this very tense situation with Ukraine that every little word matters. And so that's why you saw them try to clarify some of these comments over the course of the past week.

BURNETT: So, Arlette, also you have some reporting now, I believe, some breaking news that the Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who actually was on the President's trip to Europe has just tested positive for COVID. What else can you tell us, Arlette?

SAENZ: Yes, that's right, Erin. Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement just a short while ago saying that upon her return from Europe today she tested positive for COVID 19. She said that she last saw the President yesterday during a socially distance meeting and that the White House has determined that he has not a close contact based on CDC guidance. She said she's experiencing mild symptoms at the moment.

Of course, it what's interesting also is that Karine Jean-Pierre was on this trip because White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tested positive for COVID on the eve of the foreign trip happening on Wednesday.

Now, Karine Jean-Pierre was in contact with reporters briefing them on Air Force One alongside National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, but the White House says that she has not a close contact with the president at this time.

BURNETT: All right. Well, I hope that he does not contract it. Thanks very much, Arlette. And now, William Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine joins me and now the vice president for Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Ambassador Taylor, so glad to talk to you and so much to ask you.

Let me just start off with President Biden's words when he said about Putin, quote, for God's sake, this man cannot remain in power. You do not have a problem with anything in that statement coming from the President of the United States. Tell me why.

WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: I don't. He made a statement is true that this man should not stay in power. President Biden didn't say anything about regime change. There's no policy in that statement. So there's no -- the Secretary of State or Antony Blinkin is right. There's no new strategy for removal.

So, I think President Biden was just saying what he felt was not -- is not ad lib in some savvy was clearly thought out. I mean, it was not something that was just blurted out. No, it was well thought out. And so I think that he said what he thought.

BURNETT: So Arlette went through the other things that he said that they've had to clarify, you know, chemical weapons being another example, you know, and the President saying that the US would respond in kind they then of course, they need to make it clear that they would respond, but not in kind.

The French president Emmanuel Macron was critical of another remark that President Biden made about Putin in Poland. Let me play that remark. First for you, Ambassador, here's the president.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're dealing every day with Vladimir Putin. I mean, look at what he's done to these people. What does it make you think?

BIDEN: He's a butcher.


BURNETT: He's a butcher, he said, and here's what President Macron had to say to that.


EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): I think we must keep to the facts and do everything to not escalate things. I wouldn't use this type of word because I continue to hold discussions with President Putin.


BURNETT: What do you say to President Macron?

TAYLOR: I say fine have those conversation with President Putin. I hope you make a little more progress, then you've made so far that President Putin has shown no indication that he's ready to back down, no indication that he's ready to call off this unprovoked assault on Ukraine, peaceful nation on his border, unjustified.

[21:30:00] So, I'm glad that President Macron is having these conversations. I wish you're making a little more progress which President Putin were listening to President Macron.

But again, President Biden has made it clear what he thinks of this man. And I think it was a moral statement. It's a statement of moral clarity about what you think about Mr. Putin.

BURNETT: So the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy gave an interview today with independent Russian journalists, which Putin is prohibiting the distribution of in Russia, but I wanted to play something President Zelenskyy said to those Russian journalists about potential talks with Putin to end the war.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We won't sit down at the table at all, all we talk about is some demilitarization or some denuzification. For me, these are absolutely in comprehensible things.


BURNETT: Do you foresee any chance, ambassador? And I know it's been a few days since you and I last spoke. Do you see any chance at this point of substantive talks happening between these two parties? Given that, you know, some of the red lines just appear to be, you know, frankly, unbridgeable from what they're publicly saying at this point?

TAYLOR: You put your finger on it, Erin. And what they're publicly saying, and President Putin has made some statements and his people have made statements that make no sense as President Zelenskyy just said --


TAYLOR: -- denuzification makes absolutely no sense. But, I think the answer is yes, it is still possible to have a conversation to have even negotiations. There are areas of overlap. There are things that they can agree on. But, that's not going to happen until as we were just saying President Putin realize this, that it's in his interest to sit down and that's and talk, and that's going to happen when he realizes that he's losing on the battlefield.

He's a pariah in the world. His soldiers are coming back in in their thousands, tens of thousands coming back for burial. Their economic situation is terrible for the Russian people. When President Putin realizes this, that's, Erin, when they'll be able to sit down and have a conversation.

BURNETT: Do you worry, though, that if he's already a pariah and feels that he's lost, you know, any kind of standing that he had that, you know, when you're in a position where you have nothing left to lose, then what's the gain?

TAYLOR: What's the gain is his economic benefits, that is the sanctions are hammering him badly. And what's to gain is he stops losing his soldiers. His army is taking a real hit.


TAYLOR: So, there's a lot for him left again. And as I say, one of the areas of overlap is President Zelenskyy is thinking about the Austrian model, thinking about Austrian model that would have him a member of EU. Austria as a member if EU, not a member of NATO. That's something that President Zelenskyy is thinking about. And that is something that President Putin might be interested in as well.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Ambassador. I appreciate you.

TAYLOR: Thank you, Erin.

BURNETT: And next, one small town in Ukraine far from the fighting now nearly doubling in size as it opens its doors to thousands of refugees. We'll take you there. Plus a group dubbed Putin's private army now said to be inside Ukraine, according to one Ukrainian official their mission to assassinate Zelenskyy.



BURNETT: Ukrainian refugee crisis is one of the worst the world has seen and half a century. That's according to a new Pew Research Center tonight. Well, most of the nearly 4 million refugees have fled to other countries. Some few have found one of the few safe havens within Ukraine. Salma Abdelaziz joins me now from Lviv.

And Salma, the Carpathian Mountains are well often a tourist destination known for ski slopes beautiful views, but obviously it's very different now. Tell me what you saw.

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN REPORTER: Absolutely. Here in Ukraine, Erin, it feels like anyone can be a victim, anywhere can be a target, but a few 100 lucky family say they found the safest place in Ukraine these families as they fled. They remembered that special Ski holiday or heard through word of mouth of a village in the mountains with rooms to spare. Take a look.


ABDELAZIZ (voice-over): Nestled deep in the Carpathian Mountains, far from the bombs and bullets, lies the idyllic ski resort of Slavske, with plenty of room for those fleeing violence to find solace in the slopes.

Many hotels have opened their doors to displaced families, some at no cost or discounted rates. Guests, Staicy and Ramir found refuge here after Russian forces invaded their hometown of Kharkiv

RAMIR HOLUBOV, FLED KHARKIV: During this time they usually had, like shells blowing up. Lots of bombardment.

ABDELAZIZ (on camera): How did you feel when you arrived? STAICY CHERNILEVSKAIA, FLED KHARKIV: When you look at these mountains and into the news, it seems like not real.

HOLUBOV: And you're here you're safe. It feel kind of guilty because at the beginning, I left all my family there.

ABDELAZIZ (voice-over): After a terrifying week, mom and daughter finally squeezed onto a train out of embattled Kyiv, but where to go. Then they remembered a special family trip.

LARVSA KOALVOVA, FLED KYIV: Yes, the love of this place because our summertime we provide here.

ABDELAZIZ: So you had good memories here.

KOALVOVA: Good memories. We have good memory. We have good memories in this place.

DIANA KOVALVOVA: I feel safe here. But I hope that this will end soon and we'll go home. Because (INAUDIBLE) was much better because it's my home.

ABDELAZIZ: This tiny mountain community of Slavske has taken 3,400 displaced people, nearly doubling their population, but they say it's not a burden. They want to share the sanctuary.

(voice-over): Some have chosen less traditional accommodations. Also found peace for her two children in this glamping pod.

My daughter wakes up every morning, opens the curtains, wipes the dew from the windows and looks out at the view, she tells me. Yes, she loves it here. It's calming, I feel lighter. And I start to believe everything is going to be OK.

For these families, this feels like the safest place and a country where it seems everywhere is a frontline.


ABDELAZIZ: You know we filmed this story on Saturday, Erin, and as we drove away from that mountain village, we got reports of the missile strikes in Lviv. Multiple explosions. People scared in bomb shelters and it was just a reminder of how expansive intensive this war is and how rare it is to hear that sentence I feel safe. It was the first time I'd heard it since I came to Ukraine.


BURNETT: All right, thank you very much Salma. And as some Ukrainians are finding more and more ways to escape the whole country. The bodies of Russian soldiers are piling up in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, saying the number of Russian soldiers killed has already exceeded 16,000. It comes as former oil tycoon and once Russia's richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky is making a bold prediction about Vladimir Putin and his grip on power. Khodorkovsky led the country's largest private oil company, then cross Putin and spent 10 years in prison. I spoke with Khodorkovsky earlier this week.


BURNETT: Mikhail, thank you so much for being with me. You know, one month into Putin's invasion, American officials say that the Russian military doesn't have enough food. It doesn't have enough fuel. They have all kinds of logistical problems. Soldiers don't even have gloves. They're suffering from frostbite. Did you ever imagine this situation?

MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY, PUTIN CRITIC, SPENT 10 YEARS IN PRISON (through translator): Truly, I'm not surprised. But on the other hand, I will have to say that the level of their unpreparedness has come as a great surprise to me. In fact, I will say in the words of the Ukrainians is that they're heavily helped by the corruption.

BURNETT: So how do you think Putin will respond to this situation? It best it seems embarrassing. At worst, humiliating, what will he do? And who will he punish?

KHODORKOVSKY (through translator): Oh, you know what, in fact, he has already punished quite a few officers from the Russian armed forces who were responsible for creating and establishing pro-Russian forces within the Russian speaking cities of Ukraine, but it seems like they've just stolen the money.

Also he will have to punish those people who in fact, have stolen quite a significant amount of his money, which were allocated for their retirement program, which cost $300 billion. And finally, he will have to continue with the campaign in this challenging situation, because he just cannot afford to retrieve the rest.

BURNETT: So when you say you cannot afford to retreat, Western officials, you know, they say Putin is frustrated, obviously, by the stall of his military, and that he has been lashing out. I know, Mikhail, you have spoken about Putin displaying what you called signs of senile paranoia. But you didn't think he was, you know, crazy in any traditional sense. How dangerous is he right now?

KHODORKOVSKY (through translator): Putin, that's not a person. But we have to understand that Putin is sufficiently dangerous, and yet he's not suicidal. He can use mass destruction weapons, but only if he knows it feel guarded and punished.

BURNETT: When you mentioned President Biden, you know, he has talked about the threats. He doesn't want world war three. He says it's a real threat Putin could use chemical weapons in Ukraine. Obviously, there are fears of what he could do with the nuclear arsenal.

So far, obviously, he has not even use tactical nuclear weapons. But there are these fears out there. Do you think that they're real fears, because they are what's holding NATO and the West back. KHODORKOVSKY (through translator): Well, I believe that actually what we're seeing now is that Western leaders are repeating the same mistake that their predecessors committed years ago with Hitler when Hitler was very vulnerable back then, when he tried to invade Europe, and that's what his accomplices did admit during the Nuremberg tribunals.

However, what we know is that Western leaders kept saying that they were afraid to aggravate Hitler. And they thought, well, if we are not showing any resistance, then eventually he'll stop. However, that mistake has cost hundreds of millions human lives, hundreds of millions human lives were lost. And the same mistake is being committed now.

Putin will never use nuclear weapons unless he knows he's in safety. And once he's been convinced that yes, we are safe, then obviously that just triggers him towards that.


BURNETT: So, the Wall Street Journal reports that President Biden was ready to sanction Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich. He ultimately did not. Because President Zelenskyy said, Hold on. Zelenskyy thought that Abramovich could help broker some sort of a peace deal here.

Obviously, I know you and Abramovich know each other. I've got a picture of you on the day your companies announced that mega merger, there you are on the screen, you and Roman Abramovich. Do you think he is the kind of key person that Zelenskyy thinks he is in terms of negotiating a peace settlement?

KHODORKOVSKY (through translator): Well, I believe that actually this negotiation so far faith in their nature, and they can only be real when Putin can feel that he can -- I -- that he might either lose in Ukraine or Ukraine capitulates. And obviously, this may not be possible so far because of Ukraine's (INAUDIBLE) courage and support from the west and also if the no-fly zone is provided. But as of now -- but for sure, this cannot be facilitated with the help of Abramovich's efforts.

BURNETT: Do you think Abramovich or anyone else, Mikhail, at this point, any other oligarch deserves to not be sanctioned by the West?

KHODORKOVSKY (through translator): The way I see it is quite simple. Oligarchs are not true oligarchs in that sense that they actually do not influence Putin. That's just an idiotic, preposterous idea of my theory.

So yet, they are Putin's instruments of influence. And to see for real, who has broken their relations with Putin would be when they actually denounce him. And when they admit that he is a war criminal. And if that doesn't happen, that means that they're still depend on him. And they're still dangerous.

BURNETT: Of course, none of them have used those exact words, although some have moved to denounce him. But certainly not in the way you talk about, Mikhail.

You talk about Putin would not use nuclear weapons unless he thought his own survival was threatened. Yet, I know that you think that he may not be in power for more than another couple of years, because of what he's doing in Ukraine. Why are you so confident? And how does this scenario not end with some larger catastrophe?

KHODORKOVSKY (through translator): The reason I have this confidence of quite high level is that because if Putin loses the war, then we -- you just have to look at the Russian mentality. And actually, the Russian history, traditionally, as soon as someone in power loses the war, then they end up in a difficult challenging situation, which just means -- eventually just means they fail and loss for them.

At the moment, situation in Ukraine is not black and white. And it is only if Putin manages to actually claim that he has Crimea, and he has Donetsk and Luhansk. And also to assure that Ukraine declares their neutrality statutes. And this will be enough for the Russians. And the full victory for Putin will be when he has his money here and when Zelenskyy is either out of the country or move to Lviv.

BURNETT: Move to Lviv. OK. Mikhail, thank you very much. I'm grateful to you for your time and look forward to speaking with you again soon. Thank you.

KHODORKOVSKY: Thank you very much.


BURNETT: And next, CNN learning chilling new details about a group known as Putin's private army, now believed to be in Ukraine with their sights set on Zelenskyy. Plus, Putin stepping up his assault, said to be targeting a number of cities and towns to the west. We're live in Kyiv where explosions are again rocking the capital.



BURNETT: Tonight, the New York Times reporting that more mercenaries from a brutal group dubbed Putin's private army are deploying to Ukraine when U.S. official telling the Times that the group is expected to triple to at least 1,000 fighters up from more than or about 300.

It comes as a senior Ukrainian official tell CNN The Wagner Group is allegedly in the country with a mission to assassinate President Zelenskyy. David McKenzie is OUTFRONT.


DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (through translator): A Russian mercenary takes a selfie video in Syria. It's a recruitment style pitch. Allegedly for the notorious Wagner Group, a brutal force believed to be linked to the Kremlin. In the shadows of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a senior Ukrainian defense official tells us that Wagner contractors were in the country and had a very specific mission.

(on camera): What is the objective do you think in Ukraine right now?

MARKIYAN LUBKIVSKY, ADVISER TO THE MINISTER OF DEFENSE OF UKRAINE: They wanted to assassinate the leadership of Ukraine, our president and prime minister. So that was the goal and the couple of groups, couple of people were sent to me to Ukraine without any success.

ZELENSKYY (through translator): I am here. We are not putting down arms.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): The primary target he says President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Ukraine's military says documentary evidence gathered by intelligence officials and Special Forces outlines their alleged mission. He says several Wagner operatives have been eliminated, identified by the unique dog tags. CNN couldn't independently corroborate the account.

LUBKIVSKY: We need to find all these people and they need to go to the court. They absolutely illegal.

MCKENZIE: Wagner contractors surfaced in eastern Ukraine in 2014, exposed by research groups and CNN investigations. Their operations span the Middle East and Africa.

U.S. officials accused Wagner of multiple human rights abuses in multiple countries. In this disturbing 2017 video investigated by CNN, Wagner mercenaries appear to be torturing and murdering a Syrian man as they make jokes.

The Kremlin said the incident had nothing to do with the Russian military operations in Syria, and they've repeatedly denied any links to Wagner.

U.S. officials say that Wagner was started by this man, Dmitri Utkin, a veteran of the Chechen conflict, and allegedly bankrolled by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch so close to Russia's leader he's nicknamed Putin's chef. Multiple U.S. sanctions, Prigozhin denies any involvement in Wagner.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want blood. We want to fight.

MCKENZIE: But the senior researcher at the Dossier Center says Wagner is Putin's private army. We agreed to hide their identity for their safety. They've spent years investigating Wagner's links to the Kremlin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They operate without any law, without any rules. They can do whatever either way, whatever they want. Then when there is a call to MOD, or there is a call to Mr. Putin, what the guys are doing in this particular country the response will be these are individuals they have no link to the Kremlin.

MCKENZIE: Despite the invasion, a new allegations of an assassination plot, Ukraine's President says he isn't going anywhere.


MCKENZIE: Now the Ukrainian military is telling us that in fact, Wagner is trying to recruit hundreds perhaps even more mercenaries to that region to join the fight against Ukraine, perhaps in the eastern part of the country, Erin.

And because this group has this plausible deniability -- deniability with Putin, they think that this might be a way to really increase the atrocities amazing that might be that are occurring in Ukraine, Erin.

BURNETT: David, thank you very much. And next, our breaking news coverage continues. The sound of explosions are heard across the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv tonight. We're live on the ground there with the latest, next.