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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

U.S. Officially Declares Russian Troops Are Committing War Crimes; Ukraine Says Its Forces Destroyed Russian Ship; North Korea Fires Possible Ballistic Missile. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired March 24, 2022 - 05:30   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our special coverage. I'm Wolf Blitzer here at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

The United States is expect -- has already declared that Russia -- Russian military forces are committing war crimes in Ukraine. Now, this is a public, official announcement that came from the U.S. State Department. It's a major development. We're watching all of this unfold.

I want to bring in Washington Post columnist and CNN political analyst. Josh Rogin is joining us right now. Josh, explain why this is a big deal -- not just a statement of opinion from the president, or the Secretary of State, or the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., but an official State Department legal declaration that war crimes by Russian troops have now been committed against Ukrainian civilians.


Well, it's pretty clear to everyone watching television that the Russian military is committing war crimes -- starvation sieges, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, attacks on hospitals and schools. For the U.S. government to make that legal determination has a huge weight and a huge effect.

First of all, it obligates the United States government to commit itself to the process of documenting the evidence and then pursuing justice and accountability for all of the war criminals. And that includes not just the guy who pulled the trigger but his boss, the general above him, and all of the commanders, all the way up to Vladimir Putin himself.

Second of all, there is no statute of limitations on war crimes. That means that prosecutions for each and every one of these war criminals could last forever. There will be no general, or colonel, or admiral, or captain in the Russian military who will from this day on pull that trigger to attack civilians without thinking in the back of his mind that he could go to jail for it even years or decades down the line. Now, that doesn't stop the war crimes from happening right now, which is a separate part of the problem, but at the very least it commits the U.S. government to pursuing justice and accountability in the long run.

BLITZER: Well, do you sense, Josh, that this official legal declaration from the United States government will actually, in the short term, have an impact on Putin and the Russian military?

ROGIN: It's very clear that Vladimir Putin does not care. It's very clear that Vladimir Putin is not only denying that he's committing war crimes but increasing the pace of those war crimes.

This designation is aimed at all of the people around him, all the way down to the guy who presses the button. Those are the people who usually get prosecuted, as we've seen in other cases. It's very rare for the president of a country to go to -- it does happen sometimes but more typically, it's the colonel or the major, or the lieutenant with his finger on the trigger who actually goes to jail.

And that's what this is meant to do. It's meant to make those guys think twice, at least for a little while, before they kill civilians in Ukraine.

BLITZER: Yes. NATO allies -- they are meeting right now. All 30 of the leaders -- they are meeting right now.

You recently wrote an important article in The Washington Post and let me read to you a line or two from what you wrote, Josh. You said, "...considering that the Russian military has been committing war crimes" in Syria "in collaboration with Bashar al-Assad's regime since 2015. Perhaps if the world had held Putin accountable then, he wouldn't be committing war crimes in Ukraine now."


I want you to elaborate.

ROGIN: Well, there's no doubt that the world turned a blind eye to Putin's war crimes, first in Grozny, then in Syria, and now in Ukraine where all of a sudden we're acting shocked and surprised that these things are going on.

But the -- what war crimes experts and activists, and survivors will say 100% of the time is that when you ignore war crimes anywhere they expand everywhere. And that these international norms that we talk about in classrooms and in diplomatic meetings -- when they get eroded they're almost impossible to put back. Putin knows that. He learned that he got away with this stuff for 20 years so he didn't expect anyone to hold him accountable today.

And that means that we can't just care about war crimes when they happen to countries that we care about, we have to combat them everywhere. Otherwise, they will definitely proliferate. And by the way, that applies to other international norms, including these chemical weapons, and biological weapons, and nuclear weapons. These are all things that are under intense discussion right now in Brussels.

What happens when one dictator crosses this line and doesn't get punished? The clear signal is sent to all of the other dictators that the world is willing to turn away.

BLITZER: Yes. It will be interesting to see what the 30 NATO leaders -- what, if anything, they declare about war crimes being committed by Putin and the Russians. We're watching all of this.

Josh, thank you very, very much.

The meeting is now underway. This is a critically important historic summit that's going on here at NATO headquarters. How will President Biden and the NATO allies crank up the pressure on Vladimir Putin? We're watching all of this.

And a new report suggesting Russian forces are, themselves, suffering some staggering losses on the ground in this battle.

Lots more coming up. John Berman is standing by in Ukraine. I'm here in Brussels at NATO headquarters. Much more of our special coverage right after this.



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman in Lviv in western Ukraine.

We have brand-new video just in to CNN. This shows a Russian ship, the Ukrainians say, ablaze in the port city of Berdyansk. Now, this is a city that has been under control by Russian troops. This is a fire at the dockyard, the Ukrainians say, aboard a Russian landing ship -- a vessel that's been in port for some time. A ship that can deliver all kinds of supplies to the ground.

A huge fire, you can see there. Also, some secondary explosions. There's a big oil tank nearby we are told. Also, some munitions depots, perhaps, exploding as well.

Again, the Ukrainians say this was a Ukrainian action against this Russian ship in port.

I'm joined now by CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force colonel and a former member of the Pentagon joint staff.

Colonel, you look at this video and you hear what the Ukrainians say. They have destroyed a Russian vessel in an area more or less under control by the Russians.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST, AIR FORCE COLONEL (RET.), FORMER MEMBER OF PENTAGON JOINT STAFF: Yes, that's a big deal, John. This is an Alligator-class landing ship. It's called the Orsk. And it's a 370-foot long vessel, so this is not a small tugboat. This is one that they would use to put in tanks and it was probably used to resupply Russian forces who are surrounding Mariupol. So, what the Ukrainians are doing is engaging in very good

intelligence work and very good sabotage work, acting on that intelligence.

And currently, the Russian state media had used footage of the Orsk in port -- showing it -- and the Ukrainians were able to geolocate that. And on the basis of that, at least according to some reports, they were able to blow it up. So this is certainly something that the Ukrainians can be very proud of.

BERMAN: It does show that -- we've been putting up these maps or the last month -- in red, you can see the areas where the Russian troops are operating. It doesn't mean they have complete control. It doesn't mean in those areas the Ukrainians can't fight back.

Now, there are other places where the Ukrainians are having some success, they say, pushing back Russian troops -- inflicting, NATO now estimates, thousands of casualties including perhaps -- NATO suggests -- as many as 14,000 Russians killed in action?

LEIGHTON: Yes. That's an extraordinary number John and it would indicate that when you add the supposed number of killed in action to the number of supposed wounded in action, those results could top over 20 percent of the Russian forces that were a raid (ph) against Ukraine at the start of the invasion.

And if that's the case, that is an attrition rate that is not sustainable. Anything above 10 percent for a military commander is the kiss of death when it comes to offensive operations. And normally, we try to keep our attrition rates as low as possible, at least in the Western militaries. The Russians obviously don't work that way. But it's a big deal.

BERMAN: I should note the U.S. suggests it's a lower number than 14,000 -- still, significant. We should also note that when the Ukrainians claim success in some areas, the Russians say that they are making gains in others. So there is a push-and-pull here on the ground still.


Colonel Leighton, always a pleasure to have you on. Thank you very much.

LEIGHTON: You bet, John -- absolutely.

BERMAN: Happening now, President Biden meeting NATO leaders in Brussels. New announcements expected on NATO troops and sanctions today.

And we do have breaking news. North Korea launching what could be a new type of ballistic missile. This is the first kind of test they've done like this in years.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: There is more breaking news we are following. Get this -- North Korea launching a possible ballistic missile. That, according to the Japanese prime minister's office.

Let's go live to CNN's Paula Newton -- Paula Hancocks, I should say. She's joining us from Seoul, South Korea right now.


So Paula, tell us what's going on and what do we know? This is significant coming right in the midst of this NATO summit.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. North Korea always looks at timing when it does things like this.

Now, according to Japan's Ministry of Defense, they believe that this could be a new type of ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) which could have the capability of hitting mainland United States.

Now, what we have seen so far from the figures that both Japan and South Korean officials have given us is that compared to its last ICBM back in November 2017, the altitude is more significant. The amount of time it is spent in flight is longer -- 71 minutes in flight -- and the range also longer. So, certainly, it is of concern.

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in strongly condemned it. The South Korean military fired five missiles as well in response. We also had a response from the White House condemning it, saying that it needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region.

Now, we know also that North Korea was planning to do this. We heard from Kim Jong Un himself saying he wanted to perfect his ICBMs -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Paula, that all this is going on in the midst of a war in Ukraine that the Russians have launched. And over these past several weeks and months we've seen North Korea repeatedly undertake some new missile launches.

HANCOCKS: That's right. There was one in February and one in March, which North Korea claimed was to do with its reconnaissance satellite that it wanted to put up into space. What we've heard from the Pentagon -- they believe both of those launches were to test out new elements for this new ICBM. There was also a failed launch last week, which North Korea did not mention, of course, but that could potentially have been part of this as well.

And you look at the timing. You have to always look at timing with North Korea. This comes on the same day that you have the U.S. president, that you have Western leaders meeting in Brussels to have a security meeting. It can't be a coincidence that they are launching this on the same day -- once again, trying to get the international attention.

But again, Kim Jong Un has said that he has a wish list of weapons capabilities. An ICBM that can hit mainland United States was one of those on the wish list that he gave back in January 2020. He is ticking them off one-by-one.

This is a significant launch and certainly, is being widely (ph) condemned across the world -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Paula Hancocks, thank you very much.

The first time in five years a North Korean ICBM has been launched. I know that the NATO allies meeting here in Brussels are watching all of this very closely as well.

President Biden -- he's in these meetings right now. He's working with the 29 other NATO allies. They're trying to deal with some new steps to deal with what the Russians -- the Russians are doing in Ukraine.

Much more of our special coverage coming up right after this.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BERMAN: Good morning to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. It is Thursday, March 24. I'm John Berman in Lviv in western Ukraine.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar in Washington. And we are joined by Wolf Blitzer in Brussels where we begin with breaking news -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's very -- it's very important what's going on, Brianna and John.

Right now, here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, the President of the United States, President Biden, is here in Brussels. He's attending this truly historic and extraordinary summit of NATO leaders. Twenty- nine other NATO leaders are here with the President of the United States and they're deciding what to do -- what kind of steps to take to deter -- to deter Vladimir Putin from continuing this brutal invasion of Ukraine.

It's an awful situation that's unfolding right now. We're watching all of these developments. We expect to hear from the president at some point this morning. We will, of course, have his remarks.

Chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is getting some new information for us right now. The 30 NATO allies are here but they also are listening to someone else.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there is a special guest, of course, who is here -- part of this -- who is not part of NATO, and that is Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. He is not here in person, of course. He is in Kyiv, in Ukraine, where he has been as this invasion has happened, now stretching into a month. But he is appearing via videoconference at this extraordinary summit.

A summit that typically would take months to put together, Wolf -- this is something that NATO has now put together within days, which speaks to the urgency that they are applying to this situation.

And, of course, with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, we know these appeals that he has been making to the very leaders who are meeting in this room right now -- meeting privately behind closed doors with no cameras in the room. And he has asked for things that they have said they're not prepared to give him. They have done a lot of other things when it comes to assistance, when it comes to sanctions, when it comes to the other stuff that he's called on them to do.

There are two requests, of course, that he has -- that have gone unanswered and that is the call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and for more fighter jets to Ukraine. Whether or not those things change over the course of the next few days or weeks -- that remains to be seen.

But we do know that at the end of this summit today we do expect President Biden to announce new sanctions on hundreds of Russian lawmakers. They'll also talk about steps that they're taking to help shore up Russian -- or shore up European energy so they're not as dependent on Russian energy which, of course, has been a big factor in how this response has gone.

And so, these are critical talks that are happening right now. They're trying really, though, overall, to put together this picture of solidarity, showing Putin that they are meeting here together.

BLITZER: It's really significant what's going on with the President of the United States and with Zelenskyy.