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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

UK: Ukraine Repels "Numerous Attempted Advances" in Donbas; Sources: U.S. Unable to Track All Weapons Sent to Ukraine; DOJ to Appeal Ruling Striking Down Mask Mandates if CDC Determines Mandates Are Still Necessary. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired April 20, 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. I'm Kristin Fisher. Laura Jarrett and Christine Romans are off this morning.

Ukrainian forces holding the line this morning on at least two fronts, but for how long? British intelligence says Ukraine's troops have repelled numerous attempted advances by Russian forces in Donbas, even as Russian shelling and attacks escalates. The U.S. says Ukraine had years to prepare trenches for ambushes in the east. But Russia retains a huge advantage in military technology and overall might.

Meantime, the situation in Mariupol growing more desperate by the hour. A Ukrainian commander tells CNN time is running out at the Azovstal steel plant, one of the last sites in that city still under Ukraine's control. He says hundreds of troops are wounded. Food and water supplies dwindling, and he's begging world leaders to work together to get them out.

Joining me now from Lviv, CNN's John Vause.

And, John, good morning.

Russia's defense ministry says that it has offered a ceasefire to let the last remaining Ukrainian fighters escaped. Do we think Russia will actually honor that? And what's been the Ukrainian response?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: Well, the Ukrainians don't think the Russians will honor that, Kristin. So, basically, they are saying, no, they'll continue to fight. They're not giving up.

Now, whether you call it a cease-fire, whether you call it an ultimatum, the Russians have been putting this offer out there almost every other day. There was one on Friday, there was one on Sunday, there's another one obviously today.

And one of the main reasons why the Ukrainian fighters inside that steel facility, that steel plant there are refusing to lay down their weapons is because while they control that piece of real estate, essentially, they're tying up thousands of troops. There's also a firepower that's preventing Mariupol from falling and they're stopping the Russians from creating that land bridge from Crimea into the Donbas region. It's mostly about tying up Russian forces.

If Mariupol falls, that means thousands of Russian soldiers will be able to join the offensive in the east. There is a complicated factor in all of this. Intercept indicates that the Russians may be planning on leveling that iron and steel facilities, four square miles. So, that won't be easy, but they do have the fire power and the problem is, Kristin, there are thousands of civilians also holed up inside that steel facility, that steel production facility.

There's also 500 or so wounded Ukrainian fighters. So, the concern obviously is if the Russians go in and level this, then you got a thousand dead civilians, 2,500 dead Ukrainian fighters soldiers, 500 dead wounded soldiers as well.

So, that's the concern, which is why we're now hearing from that Ukrainian commander there, asking for world leaders to try and negotiate safe passage for everybody in that steel facility through third country, maybe evacuate them by helicopter or boats, that kind of thing.

FISHER: Yeah, you can really hear the desperation in that Ukrainian commander's statement as he tries to get his troops and all those civilians out.

John Vause, thank you so much.

So, the Biden administration is preparing another $800 million aid package for Ukraine.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand joins us live in Washington.

Good morning, Natasha.

If this latest package is approved, I mean, it would bring the total of the U.S. assistance is more than $3 billion. Do you have a sense of what's in this package and when we might hear an announcement?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we don't know exactly yet what is actually in the package. We know that the administration has been wanting to provide Ukraine with different types of heavier weaponry, because, of course, the fight has moved further east where the terrain is different. So, things like artillery and longer range systems for the Ukrainians.

So, we expect to see a bit more of that material, just what the Ukrainians have been asking for. But it is going to be around $800 million worth of weaponry, we are told. And, of course, it would bring the total to $3 billion in aid to the Ukrainians.

Now they say this is really welcome obviously of the amount of weaponry that's been sent to Ukraine to help them fends off the Russians. They say it is still not enough. They're running out of weaponry very quickly.

And so, the Biden administration has been kind of trying to keep up with the demand here, obviously the nature of the conflict is going to change dramatically over the coming months as that war shifts east. We expect to hear more about this in the next 24 hours.

FISHER: And, Natasha, as you know, sources are telling CNN that the U.S. has no way of tracking the military equipment that it is sending to Ukraine. So, what do we know about where it is going and how it is being used?

BERTRAND: Yes, this is really interesting. So, obviously, the fog of war makes it difficult for the United States to track the weaponry once it crosses the border over Poland, where so much of that equipment is kind of staging ground really for that equipment to cross over into Ukraine.


And once the Ukrainians pick it up and bring it back to the border, the U.S. has little visibility into where it actually goes. It's just very difficult to track every single weapon especially, the smaller shoulder fire missiles as they enter Ukraine. What we do know is the Russians have not really been successfully intercepted those weapon shipments, those convoys. And it remains unclear why they have not tried harder to intercept those weapons, but largely they believe is because Russia still has no superiority over Ukraine. They still do not have control where those shipments are coming in.

So, defense officials we spoke to are confident at this point that the weapons are going where they need to go.

FISHER: Lots of good news there. Natasha Bertrand, thank you so much.

So, Ukrainian soldiers are risking their lives on the front lines, being pounded by escalating Russian bombardment and the sheer force that these Russian missiles is sending many troops to hospitals with injuries that are not always obvious.

CNN's Ben Wedeman has more.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Bomb disposal technicians collect the pieces of a Russian missile. It slammed into a warehouse at the Kramatorsk Tuesday afternoon.

The missile killed a 40-year-old worker and injured three others. Doctors patched up one of the wounded from the afternoon strike. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, almost two months ago, the staff here has had no rest. We were not prepared for this, says Dr. Vytali Kyrylenko. Now we are

doing only urgent surgeries. One operation ends and another begins, this time a soldier wounded on the front line. Even here, glass doors must be taped to minimize shatters in case of bombings. Sandbags cover the windows.

The director of this hospital say thanks for help from abroad they do not lack of equipment and medicine, what anyway need is neurosurgeons.

That in the war where intense bombardment is the norm.

These men are recovering in a special unit specializing in treating concussion sustained in artillery and bombardment. When shelling is just steps away, the damage is invisible but it is there. They suffer from intense headaches, nausea and dizziness and disorientation.

Am I tired? A bit, says Roman, who twice suffered concussions. Not all wounds bleed.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Kramatorsk. Ukraine.


FISHER: Well, just ahead, the race against time to get the weapons to Ukraine. Could the Kremlin target these crucial shipments?

Plus, two theater artists in Kyiv leaving behind the bright lights for the battlefield.

And what the Biden administration now says about appealing the new transportation mask ruling.



FISHER: As the U.S. and allies send more weapons to Ukraine, there's word that Russia may target the supply routes used to get weapons and supplies into the country.

Let's bring in CNN's Nic Robertson.

And, Nic, you know, a U.S. defense official is believing and saying that Russia will try to disrupt the shipments into the Ukraine.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yeah. We heard yesterday from the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaking about how important the operations, the Russian military operations, the war is in Donbas, the region that's contested right now and it is important to Russia that it is able to try to target those heavy weapon systems coming in because this phase of the battle is very important because how the war goes over the next few weeks will determine whether Russia's military gets bogged down or whether it is able to take more ground or even if it falls back and the Kremlin can't afford for their army to be routed again as they were around and Kyiv and the north. They are desperate to take and secure more territory in Donbas and elsewhere in the country.

So, targeting these weapon supplies become bigger and more obvious for any Russian spies it may be operating within Ukraine, becomes a essential component of the war. Not just fighting at the front lines but stopping the Ukrainians to get their supplies to the front line. And also today, you have Charles Michel, the European Council president, he represents the actual leaders of all EU nations. He's the one hammering out their joint proposals and responses and support for Ukraine. He's in Kyiv today expected to meet with President Zelenskyy reassuring of the European Union humanitarian commitment and its financial commitment and its commitment towards a future piece eventually but also military commitment as well.

So, all of that up for discussion. But for Russia, absolutely vital that they try to hit those supply lines, but they're not effective at it because they don't have the ability to really target the convoy while they're on the move.


They have to wait to get somewhere and target the warehouses or the front lines where they are.

FISHER: That's a great point. Nic Robertson, thank you so much.

So, let's bring in Bobby Ghosh. He's a foreign affairs columnist for Bloomberg. Bobby, good morning. Thanks for joining us.

You know, the Biden administration is now considering sending $800 million to Ukraine. That'll bring the total to more than $3 billion since the start of the war. Is that too much or not enough?

BOBBY GHOSH, COLUMNIST ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, BLOOMBERG: Well, from Ukraine's point of view, that's not enough. Ukraine is bleeding and hemorrhaging money in addition to the cost of human lives with this war. By our calculation, the deficit that Ukraine is running in its budge is about $5 billion every month. So, $3 billion doesn't quite make it.

But it is not just the United States have to step up and help here. It's the Europeans. It's Ukraine's neighbors. A big part of that responsibility should lie on Germany. Germany should be, could be doing a lot more than it is now.

FISHER: One of the other things we heard recently, President Zelenskyy saying in his nightly address that if Ukraine, quote, had access to all the weapons we need, we would have already ended this war. Do you agree with that?

GHOSH: Well, he's leading a country in the middle of the war. He has to keep spirits up and he has to say things like that.

How this war ends is very hard to define. I mean, you notice he's not using worlds like victory. Ending the war, this war will end when Vladimir Putin is persuaded to stop the fight. This is now a war of attrition, it is a question of one side trying to out last the other. Yes, the West, the rest of the world has to help Ukraine and provide

Ukraine with the weapons to keep fighting, to keep fighting until Putin has reached that decision. So, it is a terrible thing to say because the longer Ukraine fights, the more Ukrainians lives will be lost. But that's the war of attrition is like.

So, the world has to keep providing weapons, better, strong weapons, different kinds of weapons, as the nature of the war changes. So, what was necessary a few weeks ago, well, now, things are different. Now, we are in a long range artillery war. The Russians have withdrawn from Kyiv, bombing from a distance.

The Ukrainians need weapons that can identify where the Russian fire is coming and eliminate fire. Different kind of weapons now. But at the same time, the world also has to act on other fronts. It has to keep on putting pressure on Ukraine -- beg your pardon, keep putting pressure on Putin to come to his senses and stop the fighting, keep putting pressure on the Chinese to use near leverage on Putin.

So, the world has -- there is more than one thing that needs doing, money to Ukraine and weapons the Ukraine and pressure on Russia. All of these things have to come at the same time.

FISHER: Right. So, I mean, Bobby, President Zelenskyy says he needs these weapons now. But we've also heard President Zelenskyy really encouraged President Biden to visit Ukraine. We heard him saying it to Jake Tapper.

But, you know, the White House says the plan was never discussed and President Biden says he does not know if he'll go. But should he go to Ukraine, what do you think?

GHOSH: Well, you know an American president does not travel light and so it will be hard for him.

FISHER: Especially in a war zone.

GHOSH: He'll be a much bigger target than any of the other leaders who have visited. It will be a difficult call from a security part of view.

I am sure Joe Biden wants to go and Zelenskyy wants him there and both of them, you know it is not just a question of -- it is an important signal to send to their own public. The Ukrainians need the reassurance that the world is on their side, and Biden needs to keep reminding Americans it's been two months into the fight, we are beginning to lose interest in the fighting. Biden needs to remind Americans why their tax dollars is going to Ukraine.

So, I can see the desire but whether it could actually happen, well, that depends on the calculus of security and making sure he's not at risk. Those things are hard to do even in peacetime. So, an American president is going into war is a much higher cost.

But again --


GHOSH: European should be doing more. Why Olaf Scholz, he's right there. He's the one should be the front of the line to go and show his support.

FISHER: Fair point. You know, Bobby, so many concerns, security concerns going to a trip like this. We'll see what the president and the White House decices.

Bobby Ghosh, "Bloomberg" foreign affairs columnist, thank you so much.


Just ahead --

GHOSH: Thanks for having me.

FISHER: You bet.

Just ahead, masks on planes, trains and taxis. Will the Biden administration trying to make them mandatory again?

And the faceoff in France today. Emmanuel Macron is about to debate his challenger for president.


FISHER: The Justice Department is planning to appeal a Florida judge's ruling that struck down a mask mandate for travelers.

But there is one major caveat, the DOJ will not move forward with the appeal unless the CDC determines that the mandate is still necessary.


So let's bring in CNN politics senior writer Zachary Wolf.

Zachary, good morning.

And you've got a pretty interesting perspective on this. You mentioned that you have tested positive for COVID. So, first of all, you look pretty good. But how are you feeling?

ZACHARY WOLF, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER: I feel pretty good. I mean, I'm vaccinated and boosted. I have nothing worse than allergies really and a little stuffy. I found out that I had tested positive shortly after getting off a plane, which means I was on one of the last flights where people were required to wear masks and it turned out I probably had COVID while I was in the air. So, this is a strange way to look at what's unfolded afterwards.

FISHER: Yeah, and you found out in the air this mask mandate had ended. What was that like?

WOLF: Well, it was on my flight, there was no -- you see these viral videos of people taking masks off and flight attendants announcing that. We didn't have any of that. We landed and I went out of airplane mode and it popped up when I was on the ground. There was no celebrating but it did certainly happen while I was in the air.

FISHER: So, the Justice Department yesterday released a statement saying it will appeal to bring back the mask mandate but only if the CDC determines that it's necessary. So, what do you think the CDC is going to do on this?

WOLF: Well, it's an open question, I think. Just last week, the CDC had said they wanted to extend the mask mandate because there's an increase in infections nationwide. They wanted to see if hospitalizations followed that as they have in the past.

But what's weird about this is essentially they have a federal judge making policy for the entire country after reading, you know, a dictionary from the 1940s. And if you read her opinion, that's literally what she did, is read a dictionary from 1940s to make the decision instead of the CDC with all its scientific background and medical knowledge coming to this decision because of where the virus was heading. It's instead because of a dictionary. It's a strange way to govern.

FISHER: It is. And, you know, whatever the CDC decides to do in the coming days, CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wolf told Wolf Blitzer yesterday that she's worried the CDC has now lost its authority. Listen to this. I'll get your take on the other side.


DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: The Biden administration has to do everything it can to preserve public health authority. Right now, I thin it's a bit up on the air as to whether the mask mandate really is needed to control the BA.2 variant. But there may well be a variant in the future that causes more deadly disease and that may evade the protection from our vaccines. We want the CDC to be able to respond at that point.


FISHER: So, do you agree with that?

WOLF: I do. I think at the very least it's an open question whether the government can impose this kind of requirement in the future now that it's been struck down. You know, the standing rule is that it violated the -- the CDC and White House have overstepped their authority to have the mask requirement.

So, if nothing else, they are crossing this decision, if they decide to impose it in the future, if a variant pops up that requires it.

FISHER: Zachary Wolf, thank you so much for joining us, especially since you have COVID. So, I hope you and your family feel better.

WOLF: Thanks.

FISHER: You bet. So, up next, real life drama for two theater artists turn soldiers in

Ukraine. And courtroom drama as the famous actor speaks on the witness stand.