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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Russian Missiles Hit Aircraft Facility in Western City of Lviv; NATO: Russia's Offensive in Kyiv Largely Stalled; Russia Extends Detention of WNBA's Brittney Griner on Drug Charge. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 18, 2022 - 05:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: It is Friday, March 18th, 5:00 a.m. in New York. Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Christine Romans. Laura Jarrett has the day off.


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

We begin with breaking news from Lviv where so far the city in western Ukraine has been largely spared from the relentless bombardment of Russian forces. But this morning, six missiles were fired towards the area. One hit an aircraft repair plant close to the city's airport. You can see those large plumes of smoke. You can hear the sirens wailing.

It happened about 43 miles from the Polish border, right on NATO's doorstep. Officials say the plant had been shut down. No one was hurt.

Here's how one resident described the scene.


ROMAN DEMKO, Lviv RESIDENT (through translator): There were some explosions. I heard the noise and I looked right away and I saw a column of smoke rising.

REPORTER: Even with bombing, you feel safe to stay here?

DEMKO: Well, I don't know. Where would I go?


ROMANS: But all over Ukraine Russian forces are pounding cities into rubble and killing scores of civilians in the process.

In Chernihiv, shelling has intensified in the past couple of days, including a strike on this bread line. Among those killed, James Whitney Hill, a U.S. citizen. More details on that story ahead.

In Kharkiv, more plumes of black smoke rising over the city after Russian shells hit a giant market. 75 acres, that market is said to be one of the largest in the world. Officials say one first responder died helping put out the huge blaze.

In Mariupol, rescue operations still underway to pull people from the rubble after Russians bombed a theater that was sheltering hundreds of families with children. The city has been the target of 50 to 100 attacks per day. The onslaught has triggered a desperate humanitarian crisis there. Hundreds of thousands of residents are sheltering underground or waiting in this endless traffic jams to leave that besieged city. Meantime, Ukraine's border guard services, more than 320,000 citizens, mostly men, have returned home to help fight off the Russian invaders.

CNN's Scott McLean joins us from Lviv, Ukraine.

Lviv, Scott, is seen as a safe haven during the early stages of this war under attack now. How close is that to you? What are you seeing? What are people saying?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Christine. Yeah, we got a rude wake-up call this morning. The air raids sirens went off shortly after 6:00 this morning. It was just a few minutes later when explosions were heard and you could actually see smoke from our vantage point in the center part of the city.

So, where we are now is in the western part of Lviv. We're on a traffic chokepoint. There's a bridge and train tracks and on the other side there's an airport which we are not supposed to be filming. We'll take you back down here where we can show you sort of pushing the press back towards this area. You can see them gathered at the edge of the bridge, trying to keep people away.

But this was a series of explosions we understand from the military here, that there were six missiles fired at the Lviv airport. Four of them landed. Two of them were intercepted by the air defense system and what they hit was some kind of an aircraft repair place. Now, local officials say there are no military operations in the city. There ought not be any military targets.

But this is a pattern we have seen in the western cities of Ukraine, Christine. Places like Lutsk and now there in Lviv. And, remember this was seen as a safe haven. Some 200,000 have flocked here.

Now, you have to wonder whether people will be flooding to the exit. I've spoken to the people earlier today, and I'm not sure if we have the sound from one gentleman we spoke to earlier today.

Sorry. Maybe not.

ROMANS: Okay. We'll try to get that in a moment. Go ahead.

MCLEAN: So I was going to say, Christine, you know, when you talk to people here, I spoke to several people here. What really surprised me is that no one seems all that bothered by this. This is obviously the most predictable target they would have imagined. So, a lot of people are saying they're making the decision whether to stay or go.

I was here a couple of weeks ago and they were keeping traffic off of this bridge. And the reason why is because they figured that this was -- not only is there a checkpoint but they figured this would be an obvious target to bomb itself because there are train tracks and it was at the end of the airport runway.


And so this is obviously something that they're trying to keep people off right now, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Scott McLean, thank you so much for your great reporting there.

So, thousands of Russian troops have been killed since the invasion began three weeks ago. The mounting casualties is raising new questions about the Kremlin's military strategy and its readiness in the face of what is clearly strong Ukrainian opposition.

I want to bring in CNN's Natasha Bertrand with her new reporting.

Fog of war, of course, a true count of Russian casualties is difficult. What are you hearing about the Russian military?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Christine, what U.S. and NATO officials are telling us, is that's, yes, of course, it's very difficult to get a precise number of Russians that have been killed in combat since the war began nearly a month ago. But one intelligence assessment places that number at about 7,000 Russian soldiers killed in the last 3 1/2 weeks.

Now, there are many intel assessments including one that pushed the number lower at 3,000 Russian troops killed and one that puts it at as many as 10,000 Russian troops killed. It is remarkable that even the lowest number here of the number of Russians that have died in this war is in the thousands. That is something they say that they believe Vladimir Putin did not anticipate when he launched this invasion of Ukraine.

Now, they say because of these losses, they have anecdotal evidence that Russian morale is flagging, that on the grounds because these Russian troops do not have a good sense of what the military objectives actually are, of the, of course, because of these massive losses that are incurring because of the Ukrainian resistance and how fierce that has been, that they are kind of abandoning their equipment in the middle of the field. They are losing planes left and right which impacting pilot morale.

And this is having an impact, they say, these intelligence officials say, on the Russians' ability to actually advance on the ground within the country. Now, it is important to remember, of course, that this is not solely a ground operation. There are Russian planes that are conducting airstrikes and missiles being launched, of course.

So, this is not definitive in terms of how this is going to proceed. It's difficult to measure exactly how that morale is going to affect the Russian advance moving forward, but the Russian military leaders we are told do have a high level of morale still and Russian President Volodymyr Putin still believes according to these intelligence officials that he can take the whole of Ukraine, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Natasha Bertrand, we will continue to follow that. Thank you for that.

All right. Let's bring in retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. He also served as an assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush.

So nice to see you this morning, General. You see what's happening in Lviv this morning. Two of those missiles lobbed on Lviv were intercepted.

How does targeting Lviv fit into Putin's strategy, do you think?

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK KIMMITT, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Oh, I think targeting Lviv and taking Lviv is entirely his strategy. This is another large city, the second largest city inside of Ukraine, and he is slowly taking over the key cities, Mariupol, Lviv, and others and he eventually is taking this vice that he's building around Kyiv and he's going to start squeezing. But he has to take these major cities first.

ROMANS: Talk to me about the $800 million in military aid that the Biden administration is sending to Ukraine. There are switchblade drones. There are some -- a whole bunch of different things, including body armor and the like. You say some things were left out. Explain.

KIMMITT: Well, first of all, what was of the out, in my mind is counter battery capability. All of this artillery, all of these missiles, all these rockets come in and can be detected by U.S. and others equipment. We call them counter battery radars.

Those radars pick up the location of the firing position while the missile or rocket is in flight. Once you know that location, that then becomes a target for you to fire on to their firing position. We've given them some radars, but a very, very small amount. I would like to see more, because if we don't have fighters in the air, then I think, somehow, we need to prosecute a ground war against those locations to shut them down.

We won't shut them down completely, but without those counter-battery and counter-mortar radars, we won't shut any of them down.

ROMANS: I'm told you're an artillery man, so that means you know how important it is for the war going forward to take out Russian artillery and missile sites.

KIMMITT: Yeah, that's exactly right.

ROMANS: So U.S. defense officials say that U.S. forces have made virtually no advances on Kyiv. What do you make of that? Is that a function of the Russian military readiness or lack of readiness, or a function of, I guess, the stiff opposition from the Ukrainian people?

[05:10:07] KIMMITT: I think it's both. Clearly, we were surprised at the slow pace and the poor combat position of the Russians. And I think we're very happily surprised by how well the Ukrainian fighters have done, whether they're regular military or territorial gourd. But I think we've also got to applaud the mayors and the senior officials in these major cities, none who have capitulated. None who have said, we'll give up the city, please quit shelling our city.

So I think it's that combination of Ukrainian nationalism versus poor Russian performance, why we're seeing what's happening on the ground now.

ROMANS: We're hearing these reports. You just heard Natasha Bertrand talk about reports of 3,000 to 7,000 Russian military deaths. And that number just seems in three weeks to be so big when you compare other conflicts around the world, other Russian conflicts.

She also talked about how the generals, the leadership in Russia still have pretty high morale about executing this war, but maybe not so much in the Russian military. What do you make of that disconnect?

KIMMITT: I don't see it as a disconnect, at all. The Russian generals probably have a perspective on history. Yes, these numbers are small by the conflicts of the last decades. But these -- the numbers may seem large in the context of recent history, but very small in the past hundred years. We used to lose 150 to 200 men per week inside of Vietnam. The Russians used to lose 20,000 in a day during World War II.

So, I think they've got a view of history that says, yes, we're losing casualties, but candidly, the Russians don't care about casualties. That is not a good barometer of success or failure for the Russians. Advancing is, taking your targets is, and if that means you have to take casualties to do it, so be it.

ROMANS: All right. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, with great perspective there, thank you so much, sir.

KIMMITT: Thank you.

ROMANS: All right. WNBA star's Brittney Griner's detention in Russia was just extended. How much more time she's facing and why.

Plus, that American killed in Ukraine while trying to care for his sick partner. We'll remember James Whitney Hill, next.



ROMANS: Russia is extending the detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner an additional two months until May 19th. Griner has been held in Moscow since February when custom officials claim to have found hash oil in her luggage. That carries a maximum ten-year jail sentence.

CNN's Nada Bashir live in London with more.

You know, Nada, do we know why that detention is being extended?

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Well, there has been little clarity offered on the situation that Brittney Griner has found herself in. We heard from a Moscow court that this extension was granted based on the investigation. They have of course, as you mentioned, granted that for an additional two months.

But of course, there are serious concerns around Brittney Griner's condition, her well-being, and, of course, how long this might go on for. Of course, as you mentioned, the maximum of ten years, she could be facing and there has been little clarity on when we may hear news of a potential trial.

Now, we have heard from the U.S. State Department. They have said that they are closely engaging in this case, in frequent contact with Griner's legal team, and they are pressing for fair and transparent treatment, as they say they do with all U.S. nationals in these sorts of consular cases.

But we have also heard from a source close to the case that her legal team has been able to see Griner several times during her detention. And despite the circumstances, and of course, the uncertainty around her future, she is doing well for now -- Christine.

ROMANS: I think she's in a cell with a couple of other English speakers. Do we know anything about her condition?

BASHIR: Well, we know that she's doing well. We've heard from human rights activists and monitors that she's with two others. She has complained about the bed not being long enough. Of course, she is a two-time Olympic gold medalist basketball player. They have suggested possibly moving her into house arrest, rather than being in a prison cell.

But, of course, there hasn't by any further development on where about she might be moved or what her future will look like over the next two months during the extended period of detention.

ROMANS: All right. Nada Bashir, thank you so much for that update.

Tributes coming in this morning for James Whitney Hill who was killed in Chernihiv, and that's in Ukraine, by Russian artillery fire. The Idaho native was visiting his Ukrainian partner, Irina, in a hospital where she was being treated for multiple sclerosis. That's when Russian forces attacked.

One friend described Hill known as Jimmy as a devoted partner, fierce friend, and an avid fly fisher. Hill's sister says the family doesn't know if they'll be able to see him properly laid to rest.


DR. KATYA HILL, SISTER OF JAMES WHITNEY HILL: We don't know where my brother's body is. So that kind of closure, the family won't have right now. So, any help that somebody can let us know on that would be greatly appreciated.


ROMANS: Hill updated his Facebook often. Last posting on Tuesday, saying the bombing had intensified, and quote, there was no way out.

Up next, stunning upsets in Cinderella stories are what March Madness is all about. Last night was no exception. "The Bleacher Report" is next.



ROMANS: All right. Some stunning upsets busted more than a few March Madness brackets yesterday.

Andy Scholes has more in this morning's "Bleacher Report".

Hey, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, good morning, Christine.

There's not quite like losing one of your final four teams on the very first day, but that's what makes March Madness so great. There were over 20 million brackets filled out on the major sports sites. Only 192 of them are perfect after last night. And I imagine many of those brackets reside on the campus of Saint Peter's. The 15th seed Peacocks were 18.5 point underdogs to two-seat Kentucky last night.

The game went to overtime and in OT, KC Ndefo, right here, going to find Hassan Drame for the lay in.


That puts St. Peter's up three with a minute to go. They would hold on to win 85 to 79 for their first-ever tournament win. Kentucky is out in the first round for the first time under Coach John Calipari.


SHAHEEN HOLLOWAY, SAINT PETER'S HEAD COACH: No disrespect to anybody, but we wasn't coming down here to lose, we came down here to fight so hands off to these guys.

DOUG EDERT, SAINT PETER'S GUARD: Every basketball player's dream is to play in a NCAA tournament and make a run in it and it felt really amazing to get this first win and we're looking to get more.


SCHOLES: Yeah, the students going nuts back on campus there at Saint Peter's in Jersey City, New Jersey. The Peacocks, only the tenth 15th seed to beat a two-seed in the tournament. They'll take on Murray State in tomorrow's second round. All right. So, the peacocks are into the second round. How about the

Spiders? Richmond getting it done again, upsetting Big 10 champion Iowa yesterday in a 12-5 matchup. This was Richmond's ninth win in the tournament as a 12th seed or lower. That's five more than any other program. Don't pick against the Spiders in March. They'll play Providence tomorrow.

New Mexico State also pulling off the 12-5 upset yesterday against UConn. The Huskies just couldn't stop Teddy Allen. He had 37 points, the most by any player in the country yesterday. The Aggies win 70-63 to get their first tournament win since 1993.

Finally, Indiana got blown out by St. Mary's, but the cheer squad were heroes. The ball got stuck above the basket. The players couldn't get it. The cheerleaders said, we've got this. Cassidy Kearny got on her teammate's Nathan Pear's shoulders and she was able to knock it free. The crowd going wild.

Indiana surely not going to make one shining moment for their play on the court, but hey, looks like their cheer squad coming through big- time there.

ROMANS: Way to go, with perfect posture the whole time. Never count out the cheer squad.

Nice to see you. Thanks, Andy, putting the madness in March Madness.

All right. In just hours, President Biden will speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a potential warning to Russia that their friendship with China may have consequences and we're following the news out of that live, where a missile struck an aircraft plant, just 43 miles from the Polish border.