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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Retreating Russians Left Behind Thousands of Bombs & Mines; Appeal Hearing for Marine Veteran Imprisoned in Russia; White House: Putin May Increase Efforts to Interfere with U.S. Elections. Aired 5- 5:30a ET

Aired April 12, 2022 - 05:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Christine Romans in New York. Laura Jarrett has the morning off.

Again, Brianna Keilar is in Lviv, Ukraine.

Good morning, Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Christine.

The threat remains this morning long after Russian troops retreated from the outskirts of Kyiv amid debris and corpses. They left behind hundreds of unexploded bombs. Ukraine's president says they also deliberately planted thousands of mines, something that he calls a war crime.

Ukraine's prosecutor general telling CNN Monday that her office is building more than 5,800 cases of war crimes committed during Russia's invasion.

There are also unconfirmed reports of a chemical attack in the southern port city of Mariupol. CNN cannot independently verify any kind of chemical strike there. Locals and U.S. officials stressing that the report is unconfirmed. The U.K. and other nations are investigating and President Zelenskyy says the possibility should be taken seriously.

We do begin on the ground with this report from Fred Pleitgen near the capital.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): The tour is a sad routine for the body collectors in the outskirts of Kyiv. Finding cops have become eerily normal here. A house destroyed by an artillery strike, a body burned beyond recognition. A mangled car wreck, two bodies burned beyond recognition. A house that was occupied by Russian troops, an elderly dead in the bedroom.

These bodies evidence of a brutal Russian occupation and then a fierce fight by the underdog Ukrainians to drive them out.

A fight 81-year-old Kateryna Bareshvolets witnessed up close in her village

There were explosions, explosions from all sides. It was scary, she tells me. I am in my house. I cross myself and lie down, and then I hear how it thunders and all the windows in the house were broken.

The Ukrainians tell us the Russian troops didn't even bother collecting most of their own dead. More than a week after Vladimir Putin's army was pushed out of here, they showed us a body of what they say was a Russian soldier still laying in the woods.

And that's not all they left behind them. This demining unit says they found hundreds of ton of unexploded ordinance in just a matter of days, including cluster munitions like this boomlet, even though the Russians deny using them.

These weapons are extremely dangerous for civilians who might excellently touch them, the commander says. There about 50 such elements in one bomb, he says. This is a high explosive fragmentation bomb to kill people, designed just to kill people.

They blow up the cluster bomblet on the spot and then move the heavier bombs to a different location for a massive controlled explosion.

The body collecting, mine sweeping and clearing wreckage are just starting and yet this pile of demolished vehicles, both military and civilian, already towers in the key suburb of Irpin.

If you have to picture Russia's attempt to try and take the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, it would probably look a lot like this -- destruction on a massive scale and absolutely nothing to show for it. Russia's military was humiliated by the Ukrainians and caused a lot of harm in the process.

And they've devastated score of families. At Irpin cemetery, the newly widowed weep at funerals for the fallen. Ala Krotky (ph), her husband Ihor fought alongside their 21-year-old son in Irpin and died in his arms on the battlefield. Yulia Skutina (ph), wife of Dmitrio Pasko (ph), killed by a Russian mortar shell. And Tetyana Lytkina (ph), her husband Alexander promised he would come back in a few hours but died defending his neighborhood.

I'm very proud of him, Tetyana says. He's a hero. We have many people in Ukraine who have not fled and are defending their homes. Sasha died just 200 meters from our house where we live.

Laying to lay the dead to rest, another sad task they have become all too efficient at performing in this area. Close by, the next funeral is already under way.


KEILAR: I want to bring in retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Foggo. He's the dean of the center for Maritime Strategy at the Navy League of the United States.

Sir, first, I just spoke with the person in charge of the military in Donetsk, and he told me about this -- we heard of this reported chemical attack.


He said what they've heard is that three people were sickened, not life-threatening but they felt unwell after something was dropped from a drone in Mariupol. What that might mean? How cautious should we be with this?

ADM. JAMES FOGGO, U.S. NAVY (RET.): Good morning, Brianna. Great to be with you this morning, and thanks for your great reporting and the same from Fred Pleitgen on the scene.

I think the reports of potential use of chemical weapons, needs to be investigated and we have to do forensics to verify that. I find it coincidence with the arrival of a new commander on the scene. And this is one that you have talked about in the last couple of days with General Dvornikov.

So, Dvornikov has a reputation from Syria where chemical weapons were used. And if not facilitated by the Russians, then they certainly tolerated Syrians and Assad using those against this regime. When I was working in NATO and the southern flank, we actually retaliated against the use of chemical weapons twice and '17 again when I was there in 2018.

It was a pretty serious threat. It just seems characteristic of the tool kit that General Dvornikov might have brought with him to the battle space.

KEILAR: So, we are hearing from defense official that a Russian military convoy is attempting to resupply and reinforce its forces in the Donbas. This was an assessment that this wasn't a new offensive, this convoy that we're seeing.

What do you make of that? And can you just talk about some of the resupply issues for both the Russians and the Ukrainians there?

FOGGO: Right. Well, your listeners and viewers will remember six weeks ago this campaign started with an approach from four different axes with four different armies and four different chains of command. Logistics was the key and the Russians did it poorly. Their supply chain for disrupted, they did not have sustainment for their troops. Now, as I said, a new commander on scene and he'll be the commander at

the top of the pyramid. This guy should not be taken lightly. You know, a lot of people have descriptions for him. I liken him to, you know, that the cold classic movie "Pulp Fiction", a character played by Harvey Keitel, the hitman they called the cleaner.

This guy is coming into clean the general's mess, and the way he's doing that is consolidating forces. You know, they lost anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 troops. Ukrainians said they killed over 19,000 Russians. So, let's just say it is half of that. You know, you can probably multiple the number of wounded soldiers, wounded Russian soldiers by two to three times the number killed in action.

So, there are gaps and scenes in that Russian army. They're licking their wounds right now. They're consolidating their forces and they're filling in those gaps, it seems. They're acting more strategically and more tactically than they did before.

You are seeing the columns that are heading into the Donbas region spaced out on the roads. They can't be hit in groups of clusters. That's a sign of a more professional commander.

They will use eastern Ukraine as a base and any army officer with result will tell you that you can take territory which the Russians did initial part of this campaign, but the most difficult thing to do is to hold that territory. They found they didn't have any troops. They weren't well-trained, and their sustainment was insufficient.

I think Dvornikov got the mandate from Putin, he's going to try to turn that around. If he fails, you know, it's his head.

KEILAR: We obviously pay a lot of attention to the land campaign. You are a navy man. I know you are saying we should pay attention to maritime aspect of this war. What are you focused on?

FOGGO: Yeah, thanks for that question, Brianna, and you are absolutely right. As a naval officer, I get about 39.5 years of United States Navy. The thing we're not talking about is the maritime campaign and the security and navigation of the Black Sea.

We've effectively and unfortunately lost the Sea of Azov. That's where Mariupol is. The Russians brought their Caspian Sea fleet down and they dominate in that region. We may never get it back.

But we can't allow that to happen in the Black Sea. These are international waters. And, you know, as we say in America, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Well, what happens in the Black Sea doesn't stay in the Black Sea.


There are trade routes, transit lanes, and it is important to the economies of Black Sea nations, Bulgaria and Turkey and Georgia and also the nations who are inland and landlocked because they use the Danube River to ship commercial goods and military goods down to Danube and into the Black Sea and out from Bosporus and around the world.

There have been reports, isolated reports of mines floating around in the Turkish Straits, in the Bosporus. That's very concerning to me. I remember a decade ago, Moammar Gadhafi was able to shut down the straits into Misrata, a humanitarian relief campaign for the people of Misrata with just four mines. So, I hope that we have a maritime strategy to get back into the Black Sea.

During the attack on Georgia in 2008, it wasn't long before the United States Navy had near command ship not with me and into the port to provide relief for the Georgians after that port and many of their cities have been destroyed.

And the most important thing about this is other people are watching us and I mean China. So, if we're not able to open up those routes and restore the security and the sanctity of the Black Sea, I'm sure the Chinese are wondering, would we do the same in the South China Sea or the Straits of Taiwan. This is a high stakes gamble here and we need a maritime strategy to address the issues and get back in and establish a presence at the Black Sea.

KEILAR: So many ramifications of that as you are laying out there.

Admiral, thank you so much for being with us.

FOGGO: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: Just ahead, new U.S. intelligence suggesting Putin may take more aggressive action against the U.S.

Plus, how is Russia's war -- how Russia's war is bringing the world to the brink of a food crisis.

First, though, what's next for imprisoned American Trevor Reed? What we know of a hearing scheduled any moments in Moscow.


KEILAR: Just wrapping up here moments ago in Moscow, an appeal hearing for former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed who had been held in Russia since 2019. Reed was later sentenced to nine years in prison for endangering the life and health of Russian police officers in an altercation.

I want to bring in CNN's Claire Sebastian.

Claire, what do we know?

CLAIRE SEBASTIAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Brianna, that hearing has now ended. The motion to sort of overturn the verdict that sentences him to nine years in prison, they haven't decided it yet. They've essentially kicked the can. They remanded the case to a lower court to go over the evidence.

Again, this is according to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, he was there at the hearing. He said afterwards that justice that Trevor so deserved has been denied. He said it's very disappointing, but he did say there was one silver lining, that was Trevor Reed was able to participate in the hearing via video from the hospital, the prison hospital where he is now at his prison, you know, in Russia.

And he said that because of that, he was able to see him and he was able to assess his health and believed according to his parents and according to the U.S. ambassador that he's suffering from tuberculosis. He's been in very poor health. His parents also believe that he might have a broken rib. So, John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador, was able to see him and, look, there were very few hopes for a good outcome with this hearing and especially now with the war in Ukraine, very much complicates his case going forward.

But that hearing is now over and it moves to a lower court, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Claire, thank you so much for that update.

I do want to go back to you, Christine, in New York, I text with Trevor Reed's mother quite often. She is so, so concerned about his health, and both she and his father are doing everything they can to talk to everyone to try to elevate his case.

ROMANS: Yeah, what an ordeal for that family.

All right, Brianna.

Ukraine's deputy prime minister says more than 4,000 people evacuated Ukrainian cities under fire Monday. But men in fighting age, of course, are not allowed to leave the country. Many of the fleeing families are made up of women and children now separated from their husbands and fathers.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz live just across the border for us this morning in Poland with more.

And, Salma, what do these families find when they seek refuge there, when they leave their country and arrive in Poland?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN REPORTER: So, Christine, I am at a train station here right along the border. And this train station has a room that's specifically made for women and children. You can see there is a changing table here. There's a play pen.

Now, I can't show you the children. You might hear them playing off my top mic here, because this is a safe haven so we don't want to show their faces. We want to keep this place safe and secure for them.

But what I can do is introduce you to Denise, a volunteer who's been here for three weeks.

Just give me a sense how important to have this room set up specifically for women and children.

DENISE SMITH, VOLUNTEER: Well, think about for women and children and you left your home. [05:20:00]

You don't know where you are going. And this is a place safe place for the mothers and the children to come. They arrived here on the trains and they're exhausted, they're tried, they don't know when the next train is out of town, they don't know where they're going. And so, we provide a place for them to come to relax, to kind of get their heads together and figure out what the next move is.

ABDELAZIZ: And just give me a sense of what their needs are when they arrive. What do you have to provide for these families?

SMITH: We try to think everything possible, you know, to provide for them. So, for the mothers, we have Pampers, we have bottles, we have formula, we have baby food. For the kids, we have juices and candies. We have water. We also have coffee and tea for the parents.

Any kind of little snacks we can think of to provide for them, it is here.

ABDELAZIZ: That's amazing that you are able to do that but really when they arrive here, they fled Ukraine but they still have a journey to go, don't they?

SMITH: Yes, of course, they do. And so, that's, you know, another important part of this room is that the children can play. We have stuffed animals. We have Legos, we have balls for the kids to play with that they can run up and down the corridor and they can get that energy out.

They don't have to think about the war. They don't have to think about what they fled. They can play with each other from different families that have arrived here. They all speak the same language and it's far from them.

ABDELAZIZ: Thank you so much, Denise. Thank you for sharing that with us.

As you can imagine, again, you started by explaining that men of fighting age can't leave Ukraine. So, these are children separated from their fathers, their grandparents, their uncles. They're trying to come to grip with the reality that they might never be able to go home again. So, this is a brief moment for them to be kids again.

ROMANS: Right. Trauma and separation on so many different levels and we don't know how long this will last.

Salma, so glad you're there to tell these stories for us. Thank you.

Up next, what Vladimir Putin could be willing to do on American soil and what President Biden is about to do to combat high gas prices.


[05:26:35] ROMANS: The Biden administration believes Russian President Vladimir Putin may escalate his attempts to interfere with U.S. elections, in retaliation for America's support of Ukraine, and that could include direct attacks on the U.S. election infrastructure.

I want to bring in CNN White House reporter Natasha Bertrand live in Washington.

Natasha, does the U.S. believe Putin has already started this election interference?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Christine, they're telling us they don't believe that that has actually begun yet. But they are anticipating it. A U.S. official told us that they believe this is certainly possible that because Vladimir Putin is so isolated right now from the global community, because of the war in Ukraine is going so badly, and, of course, because the West is supporting Ukraine with weapons and financing to defend themselves against Russia, that Putin could very well lash out here and feel as though that he wants to retaliate against the West for all of that.

So, what they are anticipating is a potential attack on the elections. Of course, Vladimir Putin has never really needed an excuse to attack American elections. He did that in 2016 and 2020 as well. But this time around, U.S. officials are very concerned that he could actually escalate those attacks to a level that they have not seen previously to include attacks on voting infrastructure itself.

Now, there is no evidence at this point that Vladimir Putin has made a decision to meddle in the election but, of course, the midterms can be top target for him. And the U.S. official that we spoke to are very wary that he could really up the antagonism here against the U.S. because, of course, that is one weapon that's fairly cheap and easy for the Russians to use.

Of course, it would not necessarily be simple for them to try to tamper with vote tallies. That would be very difficult, even we're told changing one or two votes or even not changing any and sowing chaos and doubt in the election system itself would be enough of a victory for Russia.

ROMANS: If he did choose to escalate the interference, when we see disinformation, this seems to be a whole new level here. How does the U.S. believer he would do it?

BERTRAND: Well, essentially, they believe he could attack the voting infrastructure, that's not something Russian intelligence service or Russian intel operatives have really attempted before. They have scan voter databases. They, of course, have conducted disinformation campaigns.

But they believe that Putin is no longer averse to actually directing his people to try to attack the voting systems itself. That's because his risk tolerance again up a lot, we are told, given how isolated he is at this point and how much he wants to retaliate against the West, Christine. ROMANS: All right. Natasha, it's something to watch. Thank you so

much for that.

Up next, European leaders considering a boycott on Russian oil and how Russia's war on Ukraine could lead to a global food crisis.