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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Russia Escalating Its Attacks on Ukrainian Civilians; Biden on Putin: "I Think He is a War Criminal"; Zelensky Renews Call for No-Fly Zone in Speech to Congress. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 17, 2022 - 05:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: It is Thursday, March 17th, St. Patrick's Day, 5:00 a.m. exactly here in New York. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Christine Romans. Laura has the morning off.

Welcome to the viewers in the United States and around the world.

But we begin with the war in Ukraine. Russia escalating its attacks on civilians in Ukraine.

New this morning, at least one person was killed, three injured when debris from a downed missile hit a residential building in Kyiv. Emergency services officials say a fire then broke out in the 16-story building, 30 building residents were evacuated.

This tragedy, horror, in the southern city of Mariupol, Russia bombed a theater where hundreds of people, families, had been sheltering for days. Among them children. Look at the word for children, D-E-T-I, deti, spelled out on the ground. Visible on two sides of the building.

Despite advertising that there were children there. They were still hit.

Here's Ukraine's President Zelenskyy on whether there are any red lines left for Russia to cross.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I don't really understand the meaning of red lines. What else should we wait for? For letting Russians kill 200, 300 or 400 children?


ROMANS: This is an inside look at the theater. This is just seven days ago. You can see here the conditions at the time. How many people were packed in there. Police says there's no electricity no water, food is brought by the volunteers, sometimes brought by the military. So far, no word on how many were killed and wounded. In northern Mariupol, a Russian military strike hit another civilian

shelter. This time, it's a public swimming pool that now lies in ruins. A local official says rescue workers are trying to get a pregnant woman out from under the rubble.

Meantime, the Ukraine defense ministry has said that the Russian invasion has largely stalled on all fronts as the Ukrainian military appears to be gaining momentum in counterattacks. This new video shows Ukrainian forces attacking a Russian tank. You can see the Russians losing its tread before Russian troops try to abandon it.

Ukraine said it also carried out an air strike on the Kherson airport. Now a Russian military base. You can see blown up vehicles.

And satellite image shows seven Russian helicopters, some still engulfed in flames.

All right. CNN's Scott McLean joins us live this morning from Lviv, Ukraine.

Scott, are there signs of change of momentum here? And how much does it matter that so many civilians are caught in the cross fire? The international condemnation is overwhelming?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, as it should be, Christine. Look, British intelligence assessment of military situation on the ground says that the Russian forces appear to have stalled at least on their ground invasion, unable to penetrate many cities including Kyiv, one of Zelenskyy's top advisers also said that the Ukrainians are beginning a counterstrike on many fronts that are changing the facts on the ground.

The problem, though, it seems that the most deadly attacks are actually coming from the skies, from airplanes dropping bombs or from artillery strikes that are landing in these residential areas. Case in point, in Mariupol, that public swimming pool that was hit where only according to local officials, pregnant women and women with very small children were staying, and also that theater in Mariupol where perhaps more than 1,000 people may have been sheltering underground.

Of course, we don't have numbers on the casualties, because local officials said it was difficult to get to the area because of ongoing shelling. And obviously, rubble was blocking the entrance to that building. The city council in their reaction to this said it was impossible to find the words to describe the level of cruelty and cynicism of this attack.

What seems to be more cruel, there's a trickle of people getting out of the city. Obviously, that's good news, but there was an attack on one convoy of 70 people yesterday, thankfully, no one was killed. But officials say that two children were injured in that attack.

And humanitarian convoys are leading to the city of Zaporizhzhia, and even there, it seems that no one is safe. There was an attack yesterday on a train station that severely damaged the building and put a crater in the actual tracks. And I spoke to the CEO of the Ukrainian Railways yesterday who

described the fact that, you know, many -- a lot of train infrastructure is getting hit, which is making the visit by these three prime ministers who came in the last two days all the more incredible, and all the more dangerous, as they managed to get in and out of Kyiv in one piece.


And he was actually critical, Christine, of their decision to telegraph their travel plans by announcing they were headed to Kyiv by train before they could arrive there. He said he was surprised by that because he was keeping that information secret. He called naive. He obviously is well aware of the security risks. He himself since the war began has been crisscrossing the country by train, because he believed the management of the trains are potential targets for the Russians, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Scott McLean, thanks so much for that. Nice to see you this morning.

President Biden for the first time using this term to characterize Russian President Vladimir Putin.


REPORTER: Is Putin a war criminal, sir?

REPORTER: Are you ready to call Putin a war criminal?

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, I think he is a war criminal.


ROMANS: I think he is a war criminal. The Kremlin says President Biden's remarks are unforgivable.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand live in Brussels, Belgium, with more.

Natasha, what prompted the president's condemnation, the sharpest condemnation yet of Putin here?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Christine, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said he was speaking from the heart after seeing all of the images of the atrocities and the destruction that Russia is wreaking on Ukraine right now. And, you know, just yesterday alone, when we saw that they had bombed this shelter, of course in Mariupol, the images that the president was seeing of people being held against their will at a hospital, all of these contributed to his decision yesterday to actually come out and give the highest level condemnation that we've seen from U.S. officials of Putin's atrocities there.

He, of course, is not the first world leader to say that Putin has committed war crimes. Boris Johnson, the U.K.'s prime minister has also called them war crimes.

But this is a significant move for them because it could affect any diplomacy between Russia and the United States moving forward. As you said, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, did call the comments unforgivable.

We have to remember that this is not the first time that President Biden has said something like this. Last year, he also called Putin a killer in remarks during an interview and that upset the Kremlin but diplomacy continued. A few months ago, they had that conference in Geneva. So, that communication was not cut off entirely.

So, a lot of this outrage could be a bit performative from the Kremlin, of course, for domestic purposes. But the real question that comes from the comments of president Biden is what is the United States now going to do about it. Of course, we've seen that they have, you know, issues, about $800 million -- $800 million of new security assistance to Ukraine that they intend to send, bringing the total over the last week alone to about $1 billion.

But they say that's really the extent of what they're able to do right now. They're not going to put U.S. forces or NATO force in the air to close the skies as President Zelenskyy has been begging them to do. When you call these atrocities war crimes, obviously, it raises the stakes of the opportunity to respond, Christine.

ROMANS: Yeah, I mean, targeting families isn't a shelter clearly marked as a children's shelter abdomen a swimming pool. I mean, it's just -- and journalists targeting journalists, it's hard to bear.

All right. Natasha, thank you so much for that.

One of the things that Ukraine is consistent about seeking from the west in addition to stiffer sanctions has been a steady supply of weapons of all kinds.


DMYTRO KULEBA, UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: This has been the at of supplies that is crucial to save human life and to save our citizens. If we get all the weapons that we need on a sustainable basis, on a regular basis, that will help us to defeat Russia. And make it complete within a reasonable period of time.


ROMANS: Let's bring in retired U.S. Army Major General Michael Repass.

It's so nice to see you this morning.

You know, Ukraine says it wants weapons. They're getting them. I can show you what's coming soon here, $800 million of stinger anti-craft weapons, 2,000 javelins, 100 tactical drones, anti-armor systems. We know there's body armor, there's guns and ammunition.

Will this help fight against Russia?

MAJ. GEN. MICHAEL S. REPASS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Absolutely. And they're already putting the stuff that we've provided them to good effect. You see the attacks having a devastating effect on the rear echelons of forces in the country there. We're trying to cut off the rear -- the supply chains, if you will, of the territory. Those are the territories that can use the very lethal, yet simple to use weapons with minimal training in the rear area and wreak havoc.

So, yes, it's having an effect already. Additional weaponry will have an effect. There's one thing that you didn't mention in there, there are reports they have attack drone in there.


I think there's up to 100 of those.


REPASS: The switch blade -- once the target is identified it can attack the target and destroy it. So that's going to be a huge capability.

ROMANS: Yeah, 100 of those are called kamikaze drones, they can speak up to six miles away, we're talking about stalled convoys and tanks hiding in forests, that's something that could be advantageous for the military there.

Talk to me a little bit about this war criminal moniker -- President Biden called Putin a war criminal. How does that change the trajectory of the war moving forward? Or does it matter?

REPASS: Yeah, it does matter. It matters on multiple levels. It matters in the international court, in The Hague. It also matters in international opinion.

What the United States really is, I think, somewhat shielded from is the international appeal of the international tribunal, and International Criminal Court in The Hague. We aren't part of that agreement. However, we support it, as we've done since Bosnia and beyond.

So, the thing that I'm concerned about now, that he's calling him a war criminal or considers him a war criminal is how do we move forward on U.S./Russia relationships? I think that that title has severed or potentially damaged very badly any potential for U.S. discussions on arms agreements, a larger security settlement in Europe, et cetera.

I think it's positive and necessary, but it does have second and third world order that we need to consider.

ROMANS: Let's talk about the ships in the Black Sea near the southern city of Odessa. How significant would it should Odessa fall under Russian control?

REPASS: Wow, that will be very significant. A lot of energy flows in and out of Odessa. A lot of industry flows in and out of Odessa. Steel, manufacture steel. People most don't know that Ukraine is one of the top five steel producers in the world. That flows in and out of Odessa.

And it would essentially shut off Ukraine from any seaport whatsoever because Russia already controls the Sea of Azov in the east. And they control Russia, of course, and now they're working on the Black Sea coast around Odessa.

I think Russians will have an exceedingly hard time and somewhat impossible for them to control Odessa.

ROMANS: All right. Thank you very much, Major General Michael Repass. We'll talk again very soon. Thank you for your expertise.

REPASS: Thank you.

ROMANS: Ukrainian President Zelenskyy received a standing ovation for his historic and emotional speech before Congress. But it's still not enough. What he's demanding and why he can't have it.



ROMANS: All right. In an emotional plea to the members of Congress Wednesday, Ukrainian President Zelensky renewing his call for a no-fly zone to be established over his country.


ZELENSKY (through translator): Is this a lot to ask for, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask? Humanitarian no-fly zone, something that Russia would not be able to terrorize our free cities.


ROMANS: The U.S. and NATO allies have repeatedly refused this request. They say it could trigger a nuclear confrontation with Russia.

CNN's Daniella Diaz is live on Capitol Hill with more.

I mean, that speech was emotional. Lawmakers gave him a standing ovation. And he stuck with the no-fly zone plea, but did it move the needle in Washington?

DANIELLA DIAZ, CNN REPORTER: Christine, I do want to emphasize, even though he did want and reiterated his call for a no-fly zone, he was grateful for a lot of the aid that United States has already provided. And lawmakers that I spoke to after he addressed Congress said they felt personally touched by what he said. But it's just as you said, Christine, they're really concerned if they do implement or enforce a no-fly zone in Ukraine, the west does that, it could lead to a nuclear confrontation with Russia. It could escalate tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

And I'm quoting these lawmakers I spoke to, Democrats and Republicans, who said it could lead to World War III. But it doesn't mean that the United States isn't responding to Zelenskyy's speech to Congress, of course, just hours after he addressed Congress, had a standing ovation from lawmakers. President Joe Biden announced an additional $800 million in aid for Ukraine, totaling just $1 billion that were announced by the White House just in the last week.

But really, lawmakers are divided, Christine, between what to do, because they want to help Zelenskyy. They want to help Ukrainians, but they don't want to escalate tension between Russia and Ukraine that could lead, of course, to what they said what they called could be World War III.

ROMANS: You know, just about an hour ago, he finished up a speech speaking to the Bundestag, the German parliament, and he talked about Putin's desire to build a wall through Europe, clearly tailoring his message to the Germans, and he will speak to Israel's Knesset later today. So, he is taking his plea for help around the world.

Daniella, thank you so much for that.

Millions of Ukrainian refugees escaping the nightmare of war, finding solace in neighboring countries like Poland. We're going to go there, next.



ROMANS: Day 22 of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, forces bombarding that country sending more than 3 million people flee, escaping to neighboring countries. The United Nations reporting 1.9 million refugees have made it to Poland, 1.9 million. That is a number more than the population of Warsaw, Poland's capital.

CNN's Melissa Bell joins us live in Poland. She's outside of a train station.

We see a lot of people behind you. What town are you in and where are people telling where they hope to go?

MELISSA BELL, CNN PARIS CORRESPONDENT: Christine, that is Przemysl, which is the main -- one of the main Polish train stations, on the Ukrainian border, where there's 1.9 million, a staggering figure, you're quite right, Christine, refugees have been pouring through, over the course of the last two weeks.


As you can see, there have been -- there are makeshift areas where food is given out. There's even a room that we went to see where women and children are allowed to sleep. And if things hadn't been bad enough, as a result of the massive disruption caused by these arrivals over the course of the last few weeks, Christine, we're expecting even more trouble for people fleeing and arriving in train stations like this one later in the day, 4:00 a.m. local time, there was a massive disruption caused to the country's traffic control system.

So people in Poland are being advised not to travel by train today. The minister for cyber security says that the incident is being investigated to try to figure out what could have caused so many control centers to go down at the same time. But train stations like this, likely to be pretty overwhelmed today, and again, things were not easy even before.

Let me take you inside, Christina, and show you what's been set up in here. Basically a lot of NGOs are the ones organizing themselves to provide food, water, toys and as I said, shelter being provided here in this train station as well. Now, beyond that problem of the tactics, control systems going down, further disruption is expected as well, because we've been hearing from Poland's minister of the interior that those special trains that have been organized in Germany that allow the refugees get there have actually been stopped because of the bottlenecks it caused, because what happens in train stations like these, refugees arrive, and the sheer numbers, Christine, mean there are all kinds of problems that are beginning to appear, and they're likely to make things harder for those getting away from the violence -- Christine.

ROMANS: Melissa, just heartbreaking, you see the train stations where they're staging strollers, baby formula. I mean, just the -- just the sheer scope of moving all of those people and families.

Melissa Bell, thank you so much.

Putin on attack, ripping his own people as traitors. We'll tell you what he said, next.