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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

President Biden in Brussels for High Stakes NATO, EU & G7 Summits; Ukraine's Navy Says Russian Ship Destroyed in Port. Aired 5- 5:30a ET

Aired March 24, 2022 - 05:00   ET



KEVIN LIPTAK, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: The U.S. doesn't import all that much energy from Russia.


LIPTAK: So, certainly, it would have a much greater effect if Russia followed suit -- if Europe followed suit, I should say.

CHURCH: CNN White House reporter Kevin Liptak, many thanks for joining us.

And I'm Rosemary Church. I thank you for your company and EARLY START is coming up next.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman in Lviv in western Ukraine. More coming up from here in a few minutes.

I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting live from Brussels, Belgium. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. An important day, an historic day about to unfold here.

Just moments ago, the president of the United States, President Biden arriving here at NATO headquarters. The NATO summit in Brussels about to begin. Part of a trio, a trio of emergency summits where world leaders have gathered.

NATO allies are here. They're looking to try to strengthen their response to Russia's brutal, brutal invasion of Ukraine. We're watching all of this unfold.

The NATO leaders, they will approve deployment of four, yes, four additional battle groups in Slovenia, in Hungary, in Romania and Bulgaria, all NATO allies, of course.

European Council and G7 meeting also scheduled for here later today. The president of the United States will unveil yet more sanctions on Russian political figures as well as oligarchs. This is a significant development.

They are announcing more U.S. help to wean European leaders and Europe in general for the dependence that they have on Russian natural gas that currently, currently gives the Kremlin a lot of extra cash, a lot of extra leverage. We're going to watch that unfold.

Also ahead, also ahead here we're going to see the meeting that the president of the United States has, the president and the administration and other top officials including the secretary of state. They are all now formally publicly accusing Russia's military behavior in Ukraine. They're saying, this is an official State Department conclusion, that the Russian military are engaged in war crimes deliberately targeting civilians in Ukraine. We're watching all of this unfold.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand, she's with me. She's here in Brussels at NATO headquarters.

Natasha, let's talk about this summit. What's going on? What's on the agenda? What do we anticipate in the immediate hours ahead?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, for the NATO tow summit, Wolf, it's going to be a very long day of meetings essentially. The president is going to have a brief meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. They will take a photo and then he and his secretary of defense and secretary of state will enter meetings with the North Atlantic Council that are expected to last two or three hours.

There is a lot on the agenda obviously, figuring out how to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from his onslaught in the Ukraine. Of course, they will discuss the idea of imposing increased sanctions on certain members of Russia's lower legislative body, the Duma, and, of course, trying to get allies -- NATO member allies to provide -- keep providing additional weaponry to Ukraine in order to fend off the Russians.

Now, of course, the primary topic today of the NATO meetings will be how to defend the NATO alliance against a potential Russian attack. Of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has gotten increasingly close to NATO's doorstep and just last week, we saw that a Russian missile landed about 10 miles from Poland's border. So, those eastern flanked countries are getting very nervous. And we have already Stoltenberg, the NATO chief, preview some of the actions that that he expects some of the allies to agree to today, including a major increase of forces in the eastern flank NATO countries, as well as increased weaponry there.

They're also going to be discussing sending additional equipment to the Ukrainians to protect them against a possible chemical weapons attack. This is top of mind here as well today at NATO as they determine contingency plans and what red lines might be for potential NATO action inside Ukraine. One of those major consequences could be that NATO gets involved if Russia does use, for example, chemical weapons.

And Jens Stoltenberg has said that would have severe consequences if Russia used weapons of mass destruction in the country because, of course, that could in turn affect NATO countries given the proximity here. So, a lot to discuss today, focusing primarily on the defense of the NATO alliance, but also on how to continue that support, to Ukraine -- Wolf.


BLITZER: All right. Natasha, stand by. We're going to get back to you.

Our chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is with me here at NATO headquarters as well.

Kaitlan, let's talk a little bit about the president. He's now here. He's going to be having some remarks pretty soon?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And we just take a step back and how historic this meeting is, Wolf, the fact that all of these world leaders can come together in something that came together in days. There's no pomp, no circumstance really at this meeting typically like there is when these heads of states get together because this was put together so quickly which reflects the urgency that these world leaders are putting together when it comes to this situation. Trying to coordinate their response to make sure it hurts Putin, it squeezes him as he is continuing to conduct this invasion.

And so, in a moment, you'll see President Biden take what is known as the family photo. All of these world leaders coming together in this historic setting and then we will hear from President Biden at the start of the long day where he's expected to make several statements.

BLITZER: Yeah, throughout the day, he's got a series of three critically important meetings with the NATO allies, the G7 allies and the European Council, European Commission of European Union, three separate sets of meetings, the G7 leaders are all going to be here as well.

For the president, the pressure is enormous right now to do something to stop the slaughter that's going on in Ukraine.

COLLINS: Absolutely. So that is going to be the critical thing here, what are the takeaways? We know they're going to talk about new sanctions. They're going to talk about efforts to crack down on existing sanctions to make sure people can't evade them or try to undermine them.

They're going to talk about force posture, Wolf, which is a big deal because you've seen already, the United States and other NATO allies have surged forces to NATO allies who felt threatened by Russian aggression. Those on the border with Ukraine or shared borders with Russia, and they're very concerned what is happening in Ukraine.

So, that is another announcement we're expecting to see. It's unclear how many U.S. troops will be surged to these NATO allies. But that is something that the head of NATO said we could expect.

But, also, Wolf, the planning that has been under way for what Russia could do, what steps Putin could take given how frustrated he is by all of these measures. This is something we're learning four days after the invasion started the national security adviser Jake Sullivan authorized his team to start making contingency plans in case Putin conducts a chemical weapons attack. In case, he targets these U.S. convoys that are helping deliver the military assistance to Ukraine that they're using to try to push back on the invasion. All of these under way that they're trying to carefully plan.

And then, of course, the biggest one which is this concern, however likely it is U.S. officials believe that Putin could deploy a nuclear weapon. That is something that is going to be top of mind for officials here in a way that has not been in recent memory.

BLITZER: Yeah. Those are clearly, clearly red lines, even though they want to say that -- chemical weapons by the Russians, or God forbid, some nuclear weapons by the Russians, that would -- that would dramatically change what's going on right now.

You know, it's interesting. I did some checking these four additional NATO battle groups that are going to be deployed in eastern NATO countries, right -- not too far away from Ukraine. In recent weeks, the NATO allies have increased their military presence in these countries from 20,000 troops to 40,000 troops right now. Putin and the Russians, I'm sure, are noticing.

COLLINS: Absolutely. It's remarkable the way they've enforced those forces. President Biden has been clear, he does not want to send U.S. forces in Ukraine. He doesn't plan to do that. Of course, we see the world leaders now gathering together. These are the world leaders, wolf, coordinating this response and talking about what it's going to look like, what they want to do.

And President Biden said U.S. forces are not going into Ukraine. NATO forces are not going into Ukraine. Of course, they are right there at the border. They are there to protect because they're NATO allies.

There's a question, is that a reversible position. Is that a step that Putin could take that would go too far for NATO and the United States to feel the need to intervene?


COLLINS: We don't know the answer to that, of course, Wolf. That's a big topic they're talking about today. I just can't stress how remarkable it is to see all of these world leaders together in such short notice. Put together in just days, for obviously given the urgency of the situation.

BLITZER: Thirty NATO allies. 30 leaders, they are all here, the prime ministers, the presidents, all of the NATO-allied countries, they're represented. There's a little photo opportunity right now. We'll see them.

Then they'll go behind closed doors and have a serious discussion. You and I get a chance to meet with the Norwegian prime minister as we're walking to this location. Clearly, all of the NATO allies right now, they're seeing what the Russians are doing in Ukraine, not a NATO ally, but they're nervous.

COLLINS: They're very nervous.

And one thing that stood out to me, he was praising the United States with how clear they were with the intelligence they were seeing leading up to this invasion.


Making it very clear it was going to happen, even when other nations were skeptical. Ukraine obviously felt like they had Russia on their door step for so long. Now that the invasion is stretching into a month, these leaders all realize the gravity of the situation. And they're meeting together to talk about this.

And one thing that the Norwegian prime minister was talking about was forces being added here to the eastern flank in Europe, right there on Russia's door step. One thing that president Biden has highlighted throughout this is this is the last thing that Putin wanted, this is the last thing that Putin wanted which is fortifying NATO, bolstering NATO, unifying NATO. This is one part what they want to do here.

Yes, they want to talk about sanctions. Yes, they want to talk about what step they would take if Putin would take the extreme step of biological weapons, chemical weapons, and using those. But also, just the fact they are standing together in this group in such an abruptly scheduled meeting, also they want to send a message to Putin.

BLITZER: It's interesting the president of the United States, secretary of state, other top officials, ambassador to the U.N., they were suggesting, suggesting that the Russian military were committing war crimes in Ukraine.

But now, it's official. The State Department yesterday declared that these are war crimes that the Russian military are committing. That's a significant development right there.

COLLINS: Exactly. It was something they held off doing for several weeks. They said they were gathering evidence. They weren't prepared to take that step to say, yes, they have committed war crimes.

And now, it's not just -- it went even formal with the formal announcement from the State Department yesterday, because President Biden already said this, or Secretary Blinken already said. Oftentimes when they said, the White House said President Biden was speaking from the heart. They said Secretary Blinken was saying in his personal opinion what he believes.

This is a formal declaration from the United States saying, yes, Russia forces in Ukraine have committed war crimes. And that is incredibly significant in terms of repercussions how treated going forward.

BLITZER: One of the big decisions they will make, if in fact they believe, the U.S. does, that he's a war criminal right now, Putin and others engaged in war crimes, do they meet -- there's the president of the United States, he's here, of course. But do they go ahead and meet with Putin? There's a G20 summit scheduled for November in Indonesia, will Putin be invited to that summit?

COLLINS: That's a great question. The Italian prime minister says he doesn't think that will happen. We've seen China say, they believe he should come, one individual country.

You see there President Biden is greeting the French president. It's hard to overstate the critical role that Macron has played in all of this. And the number of conversations he's had alone with President Putin. He speaks with him so regularly, just as regularly as he speaks with President Zelenskyy with Ukraine.

But President Biden has been the go between with Putin to talk to him. At times they've been hopeful in the readout in the calls. At times, they said Putin was very clear, he's going to continue with the invasion, even if he doesn't want to refer to it as an invasion.

BLITZER: Yeah, 30 NATO allies, the 30 NATO leaders, they have gathered here, not too far away from where we are. They're having this little photo opportunity. It's not just a photo opportunity. It's designed to send a pretty powerful signal to the Kremlin.

COLLINS: Yeah. So, after this, we may hear from President Biden briefly. They're going to go into a closed-door session where the leaders of the free world will talk about what they plan to do going forward and how they plan to handle this. You see British Prime Minister Boris Johnson there as well.

I mean, these are the world leaders for the last month have been on the phone, almost constantly with each other. Now, they're together in person to talk about this. The president himself has a full day of meetings, not just this one.

But also another remarkable meeting with the heads of the G7 also meeting here at NATO headquarters. That is something that you don't hardly see, Wolf. So, it just underlines the gravity of which they're approaching this invasion.

One other thing we should note is they don't expect this invasion to end anytime soon. That is something we've been told by White House officials is going to be part of the discussion today, is that, of course, they let this go on for months, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah, it looks like -- a lot of U.S. officials have suggested to me that they fear it's going to get worse in the coming days and weeks. Right now, we're watching it all very closely. We'll anticipate hearing from the president of the United States fairly soon.

All of this unfolding, as Vladimir Putin is doing what he's doing in Ukraine. There's new video showing the brutal nature of what's going on in Ukraine. We're going to update you on all of that.

John Berman will be joining us, of course, live from Ukraine. I'll be back later. Kaitlan is with me. Much more of our special coverage coming up right after this.



BLITZER: Welcome back to our truly historic live coverage of the very, very critically important meeting that's going on right here at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Kaitlan Collins is with as well.

Kaitlan, as we're watching the president, he's now sat with these 29 other NATO leaders that are getting ready to go behind closed doors to deal with the invasion of Ukraine. But we're going to be hearing from the president.

COLLINS: Yeah, reporters are going to be in the room just a brief moment with cameras. We could hear from President Biden. We expect too soon. You see all of the world leaders. That's the head of NATO right there, who's been, of course, coordinating this, putting this together in days which is pretty miraculous, given, of course, this is the kind of planning to get heads of state together.


It takes months.

BLITZER: Normally, it would take months to put this meeting together. They've had, what, 11 or 12 days. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, that we're hearing from him right now, he has been working for days to get it together. .

COLLINS: You see the NATO chief greeting everyone. You get a sense how quickly they put this together, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let's listen to Jens Stoltenberg --

JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: -- the Kremlin's unprovoked aggression and in our support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. We are determined to continue to impose cost on Russia to bring about the end of this brutal war. We pay tribute to the great courage of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian armed forces, fighting for the freedom and their rights.

We also recognize those in Russia who are bravely speaking out against the war. We hear the voices. They matter. Today, we will discuss allied support of Ukraine, and the NATO efforts to strengthen the defenses now and for the years to come. We are already doing more on land, sea and the air. This is necessary tour respond to new security relative in Europe.

This concludes the public part of the meeting. I thank the media for joining us at the opening, and we will continue our deliberations in a moment. So, thank you so much for joining us.

BLITZER: All right. All right. You there see it. We're not going to hear from the president of the United States, at least not yet.

We will be hearing from him several times during the course of this historic day. But that was Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary- general, watching all of this unfold. He may be clear, that the item on the agenda, the sole item on the agenda for the 30 NATO allies is Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine.

COLLINS: And that's also really unusual, because they typically, when we have this at NATO headquarters, they have so many things to talk about. Often, there's one or two things on top of the agenda, and they have a few other things to discuss. This, everything they discuss will be solely focused and centered around the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and how to help with humanitarian efforts, how to get more assistance there and the refugee crisis caused by it, and also the efforts to punish Putin and to continue to put the pressure on Russia.

So, I think all of that is going to revolve around this. We will hear from President Biden after this happens. He's got several closed-door meetings today. This is a remarkable meeting. They're in the room, the staff at the tables, that is the world leaders sitting there to talk about how they're going to handle this. It's a historic day, of course.

BLITZER: We'll see how Putin and the Kremlin leadership responds to what happens here at NATO headquarters.

John Berman, of course, our anchor who's on the scene in Ukraine right now. This war, John, I take it, continues nonstop?

BERMAN: It does, it's safe to say, Wolf, just about everyone in this country is watching this meeting where you are with anticipation and anxiety. The people here in Ukraine, they think they're not just fighting for Ukrainian democracy. They're fighting for democracy, period, around the world.

Ask every Ukrainian, and they will tell you Vladimir Putin will not stop here. We do have brand-new video just in from the port of Berdyansk, in southeastern Ukraine, this is Russian troops have been operating, more or less, under control in some cases.

Ukraine's Navy says a large Russian ship is now destroyed. The video shows a huge fire. That's a Russian ship on fire, the Ukrainians say. We also see secondary explosions there. This would be a huge disruption of Russian efforts.

Also overnight, Ukrainian forces pushing Russians back, they say, on the fronts east of Kyiv. A senior defense U.S. official says Ukrainians have gained between 16 and 22 miles of territory in a single day.

I'm joining here in Lviv by CNN's Phil Black.

Phil, again, these efforts continue, the Ukrainians in some cases have success, in other cases, not so much.

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, John. And if this destruction of a Russian naval vessel is due to the Ukrainians, and that is undoubtedly a success, but Berdyansk fell to the Russians in very early days of this war. And what we understand is that this disruption of this vessel occurred this morning. As you say, the pictures clearly show an explosion, and indeed secondary explosions.

The Ukrainian navy has acknowledged that this destruction took place. From other regional government officials, we've heard that it was the Ukrainian military that was responsible for this.


They say it destroyed that ship, the landing ship, the Orsk, damaged two others, destroyed a large fuel tank, and there's a fire that took hold of the weapons. Some of that could explain some of the secondary explosions we're seeing there.

What they haven't talked about, though, assuming they did it, is how they did, what capability they deployed in order to destroy this ship.

We also want to talk about Izyum today in the east where there has been intense fighting. And we have a new video from there. A warning it is disturbing.

It's essentially one man's tour of his local city, the aftermath of intense fighting that has taken place there. He's clearly disturbed by it. He's shocked by what he sees, not just the dead bodies but the widespread destruction, you can still hear shelling in the distance which he quite clearly jumps at when it takes place.

Now, in Izyum, we're told this is the scene of a Ukrainian counterattack, that was according to U.S. defense officials in the last couple of days. Today, the Russian military very much in control of Izyum. And the Ukrainian military will not comment on that specifically, but they deny that is the case, they say this is still very much a battle underway.

BERMAN: One thing I want to make clear, you'll hear the Ukrainians or Russians say we are control of this town, or that town, it's very difficult to verify.

BLACK: It is, indeed. Yeah, a lot of he said she said and all we can do.

BERMAN: And in Berdyansk, you look at that ship yard, even the Russians are in control of that area, that shows Ukrainians are able to operate behind those lines.

Phil Black, thank you for being with us.

Next, we're going back to Wolf at the NATO summit in Brussels, where leaders have just begun meeting behind closed doors to talk about what their response will be to Vladimir Putin with new announcements. This comes as the U.S. has now officially accused the Russian military of war crimes.

Stay with us. Our special live coverage continues next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)