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Zelenskyy: Battle for Donbas Has Begun; U.S. Considers Declaring Russia a State Sponsor of Terrorism; Judge Strikes Down Biden Administration's Travel Mask Mandate. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired April 19, 2022 - 05:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KRISTIN FISHER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. It is Tuesday, April 19th. I'm Kristin Fisher in Washington. Laura Jarrett and Christine Romans are off today.

Russian forces have started what one Ukrainian official calls the second phase of the war, the battle for Donbas in the east.

Here's the Ukrainian official addressing his people a short time ago.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Russian forces have started the battle for Donbas, for which they've been preparing for a long time. A considerable amount of the Russian forces are concentrated and focused on that offensive. No matter how many Russian service men they're bringing into that area, we will keep on fighting and defending that, and we will be doing this daily.


FISHER: At the same time, Ukrainian forces are struggling to hold out in the southeastern port city of Mariupol after they rejected a Russian deadline to surrender. This video appears to show women and children sheltering inside a steel plant there. Ukraine says Russian forces are firing on the plant willingly despite knowing there are civilians inside.

Our coverage begins with CNN's Ed Lavandera with Kyiv, Ukraine.

Good morning, Ed.

What do we know about these recent movements of Russian forces and what are Ukrainians doing to prepare?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We know that Ukrainian forces have been adjusting and moving into this region to prepare for this renewed offensive from Russian forces there in eastern Ukraine and what we have seen from Russian forces in the last 24 hours, in the last few days is just constant bombardment of various -- especially small villages in that eastern Ukrainian area, and this is believed to be setting up the stage for a renewed ground offensive in that region, in that Donbas region in far eastern Ukraine where officials expect it to be a very tough battle.

This is an area under Russian separatist control for sometime, getting back to 2014. This is where the Russian forces have had the strongest footing in the country. So, that's why this renewed offensive here in the east is so significant. It is expected to be a very tough battle there in Eastern Ukraine, especially in some of the villages just east of here.

You remember the city of Kramatorsk, that's where the train station was bombed last week killing more than 50 people. A lot of those villages are under intense shelling right now. Ukrainian officials are desperately urging people to evacuate in any way they can from those small villages. But right now, Ukrainian are also saying that humanitarian corridors agreed upon will not exist.

So, essentially, that means civilians are on their own try to escape these very dangerous areas that are in constant bombardment from Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine -- Kristin.

FISHER: Ed Lavandera live in Kyiv, Ukraine, for us this morning. Ed, thank you.

So, now, let's bring in CNN global affairs analyst Kimberly Dozier, also a "Time Magazine" contributor.

Good morning, Kim.

You know, U.S. military sources saying that the Russian forces are really learning from their mistakes in the north and they're now applying those lessons learned in this second phase of the war, if you want to call it that.

Do you agree with that assessment?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Senior defense official did tell reporters yesterday that it seems now they're bringing in some of the logistics and communication type units that they didn't have before, things to fix. Their supply lines and to keep the actions on the battlefield more coordinated. They say that they're doing what they call shaping operations which means propping up some areas with artillery while bringing in more troops.

They estimate that there are more than 70 battalion task groups in the area. That means up to 70,000 Russian forces amassed for this fight. That sounds like a lot. That isn't, however, according to military experts and officials that I speak to enough to hold all of this territory that they want to take.

But it's enough to do a lot of damage. When you think about every artillery shell that they are firing right now can have a kill radius of 30 to 50 yards.

FISHER: At the same time, you have Ukraine receiving weapons from the U.S. and many other countries and here Ukraine's President Vladimir Zelenskyy saying that, you know, hey, his forces need these weapons now.


They don't need months of training to operate advanced weapons like tanks.

What do you think about this? I mean, how well do you think that Ukrainian troops have been able to utilize these resources on the battlefield as they begin to try to stave off this second Russian offensive?

DOZIER: So far, they've been able to quickly incorporate anything they've gotten into their battlefield plan and use it very effectively. And the Pentagon has stuck to recommending weaponry and ammunition that is easy for them to use. They are about to do a train the trainer program where they take some Ukrainians outside of Ukraine and teach them how to use a howitzer artillery. That is a very large artillery shell.

And then those will come back in and train more Ukrainian troops. You do have something like 40,000 Ukrainian troops, according to President Zelenskyy, who are already dug in on the eastern Donbas area. They are in trenches, they're garrisoned, they have been fighting there for a while and they're very battle hardened.

That's going to be a hard mass for the Russians to surround and essentially trying to pounce. What the Ukrainians have to do right now to get access to all of these weaponries that 30 countries are rushing in. They got to keep the supply line opened. When you look at the vast area that's being contested, they'll probably be able to get a lot of that will equipment to their forces, but then it becomes force on force pounding each other and seeing which ones has continued supplies, plus the world to survive.

FISHER: Yeah. And, Kimberly, President Zelenskyy is saying that he believes this war for Donbas, this renewed Russian offensive have officially begun.

Kimberly Dozier, CNN global affairs analyst, thank you so much.

DOZIER: Thank you.

FISHER: Yes. So, in one of the eastern cities now endangered by the Russian offensive, Kramatorsk, the street is mostly empty. A small number of residents stayed and they tried to get on with their lives despite the risk.

CNN's Ben Wedeman on the ground in that city, and the filed this report.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The playgrounds are empty. There are no children here. The pigeons indifferent to the air raid siren and so it would seem, are the people.

I close my ears when I'm walking around, says Nicolay, because it's all the time.

As fighting flairs to the east, north and south, the few residents left in Kramatorsk carry on.

The train station seen ten days ago of a Russian missile strike that left almost 60 dead is closed. Trains don't come here anymore. The buses, oddly enough, still run.

A deep hole marks where overnight a Russian missile struck. There were no injuries this time.

Nearby, signs of an earlier bombing.

After almost two months of war, Konstantine is fatalistic. I'm not suicidal, he says, but as long as other people stay here, I'll stay here.

Kramatorsk's Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko is blunt about the perils his city faces.

MAYOR OLEKSANDR GONCHARENKO, KRAMATORSK, UKRAINE: It's not safe. It's dangerous in each part of the city. They can be attacked in every place of the city.

WEDEMAN: Alisa and her husband strolled through the city's main square.

ALISA KRAMATORSK RESIDENT: It's very bad and terrible, but we want to live in Ukraine.

WEDEMAN: For now, they have most of their city to themselves.

Under normal circumstances on a mild spring evening here in the main square in Kramatorsk, there would be lots of people here. Now, it's just me and the pigeons.

Curfew approaches and dogs abandoned by their owners roam the empty streets of an almost empty city.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Kramatorsk, Eastern Ukraine.


FISHER: Ben Wedeman still finding time to feed the pigeons.

Coming up, new images of the doomed Russian warship's final moment before sinking.

Plus, possible new penalties for Vladimir Putin over Russia's war in Ukraine.

And the court ruling that has airlines now lifting mask mandates.



FISHER: This morning, the U.S. State Department is looking at the possibility of labeling Russia as state sponsor of terrorism.

Let's bring in CNN's Clare Sebastian.

Clare, I mean, there are only four countries that currently have that designation, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Syria. What would it mean more Russia if the U.S. added that to the list?


A very small group of countries so far has been designated by the U.S. as states sponsor of terror. This would, of course, be somewhat of a humiliation for Russia, a blow to its reputation. In practical terms, not a lot would actually change. Usually, these designations triggers a raft of very strict sanctions, things like restrictions on foreign assistance, bans on defense exports and sales, controls of exports dual used items, things that can be used and military uses.


But in actual fact, CNN has been told this morning by the U.S. National Security Council special adviser that it would not change, the severity of the sanctions already imposed by the U.S. and its allies during the course of the Ukraine conflict mean that most of the sanctions under this designation are already in place.

So, yes, it would be a blow reputationally. It would cement the relationship with the U.S. has now plummeted. But in practical terms, in reality, not a lot will change in terms of sanctions.

FISHER: Yeah. It's still -- I mean, any time you are added to that sort of list where you have only North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Syria on it, it's certainly not a good sign for that country if the U.S. does indeed decide to do that.

Clare, thank you so much.

At this time, you have new images appeared to show the final moment before the prized Russian warship Moskva sank last week. You can see the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet badly damaged, kind of tilting to one side with the huge plume of smoke rising. You can see black mark from a possible puncture that would support Ukraine's claim that it attacked and sank the ship with anti-ship missiles.

The Kremlin claims a fire started on board and that the ship went down in bad weather as it was being towed back to port.

Still ahead, a CNN team goes inside the battle trenches left by retreating troops in Ukraine.

But, first, a closer look at the court ruling that has many airlines and some commuter trains dropping mask requirements this morning. You don't want to miss this before you head to the airport.



FISHER: A federal judge in Florida striking down the Biden administration's mask mandate for planes and other public transportation. The mandate is no longer in effect while the ruling is being reviewed.

And that's getting mixed reviews from air travelers and flight crews.


RYAN HOLLOWAY, FLIGHT ATTENDANT: I'm not wearing my mask. That's my personal choice. It is up to every single one of you all on board not to do that. I'm all for following. If the scientists tell me to wear, I'll wear it. But right now, they're saying not, so I will not.

DAVIDA WRIGHT, PASSENGER: I will always wear my mask. I lost my grandmother to COVID a year, so I'm very particular about the mask. So, I'm going to continue to wear them no matter what the mandates are.

RICHARD RIPLEY, PASSENGER: My personal opinion, they don't do much. So, yeah, I'm excited. If you want to wear them, wear them. If not, then don't.


FISHER: In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizell, a Trump appointee, said that the administration's mask requirement exceeded the legal authority of the CDC.

So, let's bring in Shan Wu, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.

Shan, I imagine some people are thrilled about this, others hate it. What do you make of the judge's legal briefing that the mask mandate exceeded the legal authority of the CDC?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I think it's a very weak legal opinion actually. It's important to note she used the arbitrary and capricious standard, which is normally a legal standard which gives great deference to an agency like the CDC, and it's hard to get past that standard but she found a way to do it. She's basically calling this ruling for masks irrational rule, that lacks rationale basis. So, I find that pretty incredible actually.

FISHER: So, what happens next? I mean, can her decision be appealed?

WU: It can be appealed. I mean, I think it should be. And also, it's possible the Biden administration will receive an emergency injunction basically against this ruling taking effect. And we understand from reporting that's what they're studying right now.

I think, really, you know, what's really missing in this opinion is any sense of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that were caused by COVID and the toll on ruined lives. There's nothing about that.

Instead it really seems like a conservative viewpoint of thinking of vaccines and masks as some sort of rallying cry. And it's really -- it's really an amazing opinion. That's extraordinary.

FISHER: But, you know, while we wait for this opinion to potentially be appealed, you know, the TSA already says it is not going to enforce the mask mandates. Many airlines are making masks optional.

I've got part of a list right here. I mean, Alaska Airlines, Delta, American, Southwest, all optional, masks optional on planes. United says it's not required for domestic but select international flights will still be required.

So, you really need to check your airline before heading to the airport. This is already happening. I know you talked about can the decision be appealed. But will it be?

WU: It's hard to say. I think it's an issue which really shows the tension between the public health emergency and the political considerations. The Biden administration, like many politicians and political entities, want the country to move past COVID and saying it's safe, you don't have to wear masks anymore is a big part of that. There are a lot of considerations in what they do.

And also, of course, they're going to be confronted by a conservative majority at the Supreme Court. And that court, that majority has certainly shown appetite to strike down vaccine mandates as well as mask mandates. So, it's not going to be an easy hands for them.


FISHER: Yeah, that's great point.

Well, Shan Wu, thank you so much. Really appreciate your insights this morning. We'll see you again soon.

WU: Good to see you.

FISHER: Good to see you, too.

So, the former Chicago police officer who was sentenced to 7 years in prison for the 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald will not face federal charges. Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm in 2019. In early February, he was released after serving just over three years. McDonald's shooting sparked an extensive DOJ investigation of the Chicago police department.

Three companies tied to right wing conspiracy show host Alex Jones filed bankruptcy. The move comes after courts held Jones legally responsible in three defamation lawsuits related to the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. For years, Johns baseless called the mass shooting a hoax, claiming that the victims and their families were actors.

Jurors in Texas and Connecticut will determine over the next few months just how much Jones owes. The bankruptcy will allow Infowars and two other Jones affiliated companies will reorganize and continue operating.

Coming up, on the ground -- CNN on the ground after Russia's retreat near Ukraine's capital.


PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There were 6,000 Russian soldiers bedded down through these woods in a camp that is so large, you can't see where it begins and where it ends.


FISHER: And coming up this weekend, the unbelievable true story of the man who took on Russian President Vladimir Putin and lived to expose the truth. The Sundance Award winning CNN film "Navalny" airs Sunday at 9:00 p.m. on CNN.