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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

New Missile Strikes Overnight Across Ukraine; Ukraine Intel Chief: Putin Looking to Divide Ukraine into Two; Ukraine's President Zelenskyy Says He's Ready to Accept a Neutral, Non-Nuclear Status for Ukraine. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 28, 2022 - 05:00   ET



LAURA JARRETT, CO-ANCHOR, EARLY START: Good morning everyone, welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. I'm Laura Jarrett.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CO-ANCHOR, EARLY START: And I'm Christine Romans, John Berman is in Lviv, Ukraine. John?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to both of you. So really no question this morning that Ukraine has at the very least slowed Russia's advances in certain places. But an adviser to Ukraine's president says that multiple cities still being hit by missile strikes -- look, we felt it here in Lviv over the weekend, raging fires after strikes on a fuel depot -- a fuel storage center.

The Mayor Sadovyi said about 5 hours east of here reported two loud explosions overnight. And early this morning, CNN teams on the ground in Kyiv heard an explosion and sirens. The head of Ukraine's military intelligence unit says Vladimir Putin might be looking to carve this country into two, think like North and South Korea. He says that Russian operations around Kyiv have failed. Putin's forces are focusing on Ukraine's south and east, he says.

In the meantime, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he's ready to accept a neutral, non-nuclear status as part of a peace deal with Russia. But we begin though with the military situation here on the ground. CNN's Phil Black joins me with the very latest. These missile strikes now seem to be part of the Russian plan.

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is a clear trend we've seen in recent days, John. So yes, more overnight, at least, one more fuel storage site knocked out. This was near the city of Lutsk, about two and a half drive -- two and a half hour drive northeast of here. Once again, missiles hitting this time from across -- fired from across the border in Belarus, we understand. It is what we saw here in Lviv on Saturday, a fuel storage site there.

We've seen it in Mykolaiv, we've seen it near the capital, Kyiv. This is a clear campaign to knock out these support and logistics sites. They're also attacking weapons storage locations as well. All of this is important, obviously, because these are the sites that keep Ukraine's military forces moving around and allow them to keep shooting back. If you hit these sites enough, interrupt that supply chain, then Ukraine's defense falters.

More broadly, the situation on the ground looks pretty similar to what we've seen with Russian forces still largely stalled, although, Ukraine's military believes Russia is in the process of resupplying, reorganizing, getting ready to launch new offensive operations. But we have also had this suggestion from the head of Ukraine's military intelligence, who says that with Russia clearly incapable of now taking the whole country, it could be looking to partition the country in some way.

Essentially draw a line down the middle, like he says, North and South Korea. The question there is, where would President Putin be prepared to draw that line, and would the Russian-occupied half include the capital, Kyiv? There's another important question, too, would the Ukrainian people accept it? And I think we know at the moment, the answer would absolutely be no.

BERMAN: Yes, I think the answers from the Ukrainian perspective are no and no to that. But we'll have to see. This fifth round of negotiation begins today between Russia and Ukraine and Turkey. Phil, great to see you here, thank you very much. I want to bring in retired army Brigadier General Kevin Ryan; a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. General, thank you so much for being with us.

This idea -- this Ukrainian official said he thinks what Russia wants to do is to divide the country in two. What can Ukraine do to prevent that? I mean, would that mean the Russians leaving some of the areas where they are right now?

KEVIN RYAN, SENIOR FELLOW, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL'S BELFER CENTER: No, I don't think Russia is going to give up any territory that it's occupied now, at least not unilaterally. That might come as part of some concessions made, some deal made towards the end. But dividing the country in two, the idea of a Korea-style ending is an interesting analogy. Because it would say for example, maybe divide the country along the line of the Dnipro river which runs through the center of the country and create a two-zone situation.

If Russia were to do that, and for example unilaterally, once it gets all that territory, unilaterally halt military operations. And then they could say, well, we are going to stop the firing for now while we conduct peace talks with Ukraine, that would leave the war in a kind of suspended animation state.


And would allow Russia to continue strikes along the line of contact, wherever it wanted.

BERMAN: And allow them to continue the types of missile strikes that we've seen for instance here in this city in Lviv, where they shoot their precision missiles well into the western part of the country, the area where they don't even occupy. How effective do you think these Ukrainian counter offensive operations can be, and how far can they push the Russians back?

RYAN: Well, I don't think any of us know yet, even the Ukrainians, how effective they'll be, because Ukraine's military as you say is struggling to stop advances in the east, while, then, theoretically, turning around in the north, say, and trying to dislodge Russian forces near Kyiv. These are two different kinds of operations, from the dislodging of forces, the offensive operations require far more troops than the defensive ones.

So, it's yet to be seen how successful they'll be. The important thing is that the Ukrainian military cannot allow itself to be encircled or destroyed because then there's nothing stopping the Russian military in the country. Ukraine is fighting them alone in terms of personnel and people and units.

BERMAN: Yes, so far, the Ukrainians have been able to maintain flexibility and maneuverability. It is their strength. Obviously, essential for them to keep that the case. General Ryan, thank you so much for being with us, I appreciate it.

RYAN: Thank you.

BERMAN: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking out ahead of talks with Russia. What he says he's willing to accept, next. Plus, the slowing flow of refugees out of Ukraine. The latest from the Polish border.



BERMAN: A new round of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine set to take place in Istanbul. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy laid out his conditions for any potential agreement.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, PRESIDENT, UKRAINE (through translator): Our priorities in the negotiations are known. Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity are beyond doubt. Effective security guarantees for our state are mandatory. Our goal is obvious. Peace and the restoration of normal life in our native state as soon as possible.


BERMAN: Arwa Damon joins us live from Istanbul. And Arwa, I think it's safe to say, no one expects any major breakthroughs, still, I think everyone watching closely to see how the two sides even talk publicly about these discussions.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And also, John, to add to that, everyone will be watching to see on what points can both sides come closer together. You know, you just played that sound there from Zelenskyy, talking about how all they want to see is a restoration to some sort of normal life. And the tragic, almost unbearable reality is that normal life in Ukraine is going to look very different than what it used to for quite some time, moving forward.

But of course, one of the key steps towards even beginning to achieve that is going to be some sort of a negotiation. Whether it's about peace in the long-term or at the very least, at this stage about some sort of a ceasefire, we have been hearing that both sides do appear to be closer on some issues. Ukraine, for example, indicating that it would be willing to accept a non-nuclear status. That it would be willing to accept a neutral status.

What does that mean at this stage? If Ukraine were to accept a neutral status, it would effectively, at the very least, in the short-term, mean that any sort of discussion regarding becoming a member of NATO would be off the table, keeping in mind that this is one of Russia's big grievances and claims and justifications for launching this invasion of Ukraine, even to begin with. But President Zelenskyy has also been very clear that any sort of agreement that is reached between both sides would also have to somehow be put to a referendum to the Ukrainian people.

The logistics of that, potentially quite complicated. But at this stage, these are some of the key points that we're hearing. Another, of course, big issue right now is the opening of multiple humanitarian corridors. That, in fact, will be in reality, safe and secure, John.

BERMAN: That's right. It's one thing to say you have a corridor, it's another thing to allow those corridors to operate without shooting at the people coming through them. Arwa Damon in Istanbul, thank you, Arwa, so much, for being with us. Please keep us posted. Christine, Laura, back to you.

ROMANS: All right, thanks, John. Coming up, the White House back- tracking after the president had this unscripted moment where he ad- libbed that Putin should not remain in power.

JARRETT: And speaking of unscripted, the smack, the cursing, the tears at the Oscars. What in the world happened between Will Smith and Chris Rock, next.



JARRETT: The final four is now set, and we are going to see something for the first time ever in New Orleans. Andy Scholes has more in this morning's "BLEACHER REPORT". All right, Andy, what's happening?

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good morning, Laura. So, despite all the upsets during this tournament, in the end, we're going to get four of the most storied programs in college basketball in that final four. Kansas, Villanova, North Carolina and Duke. And this will be the first time ever that Duke and North Carolina are going to face each other in the NCAA tournament.

Now, the clock finally striking midnight for this year's Cinderella's St. Peter's yesterday against the Tar Heels. North Carolina leading by as many as 27 in the second half, on their way to the 69-49 victory. This is going to be the 21st final four for the Tar Heels, most of any team ever. And head coach Hubert Davis getting UNC to the final four in his very first season.


HUBERT DAVIS, HEAD COACH, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA: I just desperately wanted this for them. And I love these guys so much. They trusted me in my first year. They allowed me to coach them and allowed me to be in their lives.


And I'm here because of them. And it has nothing to do about coaching. It's all them and I'm just -- it's tears of joy being able to be in their lives. It's just awesome.


SCHOLES: All right, so the magical run is over for the Peacocks. The tiny school from Jersey City, New Jersey, with an enrollment of 2,600 students, first-ever 15th seed to reach the elite eight. Head Coach Shaheen Holloway says he's proud of the history his team made.


SHAHEEN HOLLOWAY, HEAD COACH, SAINT PETER'S: That group of guys came in here, no one gave a chance to them. No one believed in them, but the people in our locker room and the people, you know, that's in our program, you know, administration -- you know, us, and made history. St. Peter's did it. Point-blank, period. Amen on that. St. Peters made it to the elite 8. Great story. You guys write a lot about it. Thank you so much.


SCHOLES: All right, Kansas, meanwhile, the lone one seed to make it to the final four. The Jayhawks, they were down 6 at the start of the second half to Miami, but then they just flipped a switch, ended the game on a 47-15 run. They would win easily, 76-50. The 26-point margin of victory, the largest final lead in a team in 30 years. Now, Coach Bill Self's squad is going to play in the final four for the first time since 2018.





SCHOLES: All right, good times in the locker room. So Saturday's final four matchups are set. Kansas is going to take on Villanova in the first game just after 6:00 Eastern, and it's going to be Duke and North Carolina just before 9:00. You can watch them both on our sister channel, "TBS". The winners are going to play for the national championship game one week from tonight.

All right, half of the women's final four is set. Stanford's title defense is going to continue in the final four, they beat Texas to advance. Dawn Staley and South Carolina meanwhile also back in the final four after a win over Creighton. Two more spots on the line tonight. UConn is going to take on NC State and Louisville plays Michigan.

And guys, the U.S. men's national team is on the brink of clinching a spot in the World Cup. They routed Panama 5-1. As long as they don't lose to Costa Rica by 6 goals on Wednesday, they will be in the World Cup.

ROMANS: All right, Andy, nice to see you.

JARRETT: Thanks --

SCHOLES: All right --


ROMANS: A lot of basketball. All right, coming up, the two former Trump aides that could face contempt of Congress charges after today.

JARRETT: Plus, it was supposed to be his big night -- years in the making. Then Will Smith slaps Chris Rock on live TV. We will break down what happened.



BERMAN: The United Nation reports that more than 3.8 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion began a little more than one month ago. Still, more trying to escape the violence. CNN's Ed Lavandera with more on this crisis.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): We are now more than a month into the war here in Ukraine and the refugee crisis continues. I've spent a great deal of time in the last few weeks reporting from the Polish border city of Przemysl. City officials there tell us that they're still getting about a thousand refugees a day coming through the train station there in that city. At one point in the early days of the war, they were getting about 50 to 60,000 refugees a day in that region.

And so, even though the numbers have declined dramatically, there is still a steady stream of people arriving. Not only just there, the thousand or so at the train station every day, but there are still several thousand crossing by foot at the land crossing several miles away from there. So, the need for humanitarian care, the need for housing, for many of these refugees still moving into much of Europe is still very much needed. And right now, the focus on helping those refugees is to get them away

from the border region, putting them on buses and heading into cities like Warsaw, Krakow, deeper into Poland, and from there, they can start re-assessing and figuring out where they're going to go. And of course, the big question that so many of these people are facing right now is just how long are they going to be gone? Where do they set up?

Where do they find a place to live for what could be weeks, if not months. Those are the questions that are facing so many of these families. And it's a question that just continues to happen, as this refugee crisis continues, of folks leaving Ukraine, trying to find safe haven in other parts of Europe. Ed Lavandera, CNN, Lviv, Ukraine.


BERMAN: Our thanks to Ed for that. Christine, Laura?

ROMANS: Thanks, John, just millions of people on the move inside the country and also leaving the country. It's just been remarkable.

JARRETT: Yes, people on the move and so many Ukrainians have also put their everyday lives on hold, essentially, to help fellow citizens find refuge from these ongoing attacks. One of those people is Slava Balbek, an architect who has pivoted in a big way, now working with other volunteers to feed nearly 12,000 people a day. Slava, thank you so much for joining us. You have such an important story to tell. Explain just what the past month has been like for you. How your world has certainly been turned upside down.

SLAVA BALBEK, ARCHITECT IN KYIV: Yes, thank you, yes, my name is Slava Balbek, I am an architect from Kyiv as well, I -- coroner of two -- Katar(ph) and Kyiv. So, actually, the first days of war and first weeks of war, we're just trying to manage our safe -- our families are safe and afterwards, on the second day.