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Putin Orders Blockade of Ukrainian Holdouts at Mariupol Factory; Putin Issues Warning to West After Test Launch of ICBM; DOJ Appeals Ruling Striking Down Transportation Mask Mandate. Aired 5- 5:30a ET

Aired April 21, 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 Thursday, April 21st. I'm Kristin Fisher. Laura Jarrett and Christine Romans are off today.

Vladimir Putin could be changing tactics to take the last pocket of resistance in that besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. The Russian president saying moments ago that it is no longer necessary to storm the Azovstal steel plant where the last remaining Ukrainian troops and hundreds of civilians are bunkered. Putin says he's ordering a blockade instead.

Ukraine's President Zelenskyy says his forces don't have enough heavy weapons to beat the Russians there. Top Ukrainian officials say they are ready to negotiate the evacuations of soldiers and civilians and four buses full of civilians managed to leave through an evacuation corridor on Wednesday.

So, let's go live to Ukraine with CNN's Isa Soares.

Isa, good morning.

What more do we know about the standoff in Mariupol?

ISA SOARES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Kristin.

Let me bring viewers up to date on what we've heard in the last hour or so. Now, Vladimir Putin has congratulated his defense minister, saying, and these are his words, that Mariupol has been liberated. So successful deliberation of Mariupol. Those were his words.

The defense minister, the Russian defense minister, however, has said that to take that steel plant that you were mentioning there, Kristin, the Azovstal steel plant, it could take three to four days. So, let's take those words from Vladimir Putin with a pinch of salt here. It hasn't been fully taken the city of Mariupol. There is a last hope of resistance and that steel plant which is huge, a huge complex, by the way.

We know from Ukrainian -- some of the Ukrainian people there they have waiting for weeks. They've seen a barrage of fire from the Russian side. There are wounded soldiers, civilian men, women and children, they have tried to get out as you mentioned, but only four buses were able to leave in that humanitarian corridor. Ukrainians blaming the Russians here.

But what we have seen is just a complete city just -- it's a city by name, really, Kristin, to be completely honest, completely shelled, there's only remnants of the city left.

Have a listen to what President Zelenskyy said about the massacre, about the killing that we have seen on the streets of Mariupol. Have a listen.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): According to our information, they are keeping 120,000 people in besieged Mariupol, crimes that are happening there are more scary and in largest scale than in Borodianka. I'm confident with the combined efforts we can bring all of those responsible to justice and I promise you, we'll find them all.


SOARES: And so, what we have seen -- very strong words there from President Zelenskyy. But I want to show our viewers some of the images that we've been coming in to us from Mariupol, and a warning to our viewers, if you're just waking up, when looking at these images, they're very hard to watch of just bodies on the street, piling up on the street. Some with bullet holes on their head.

I mean, the slaughter has been incredibly intense and for weeks now, as the Russians have surrendered and circled that city. Meanwhile, President Zelenskyy saying they don't have any serious or heavy weapons to re-defeat the Russians in Mariupol. So, the next few days will be critical.

But, of course, Kristin, if Russia takes the city of Mariupol, it will be big, strategic price for president Putin who has yet to really take any of the major cities as well. It will be a huge price because it would control that whole part of the coast of -- by the Black Sea, and it could obviously create a land bridge between Mariupol and Crimea, which is what we're talking about what he wanted all along, Kristin.

FISHER: Just heartbreaking to think as President Zelenskyy said, about 120,000 people still strapped that city.

Isa Soares, thank you very much. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, sending an ominous message to the West.

The Russian president test-launching a new nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missile, warning that it should make Moscow's enemies stop and think.

Clare Sebastian joins us from London.

Clare, what else did Vladimir Putin have to say after this test?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, good morning, Kristin.

You know, I think his comments were tailored for the West and for the domestic audience. He said that there is no missile like this anywhere else in the world and unlikely to be for a long time. He congratulated the military


And he had this to say. Take a listen.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): This truly unique weapon will strengthen the combat potential of our armed forces reliably and ensure Russia's security from external threats and provide food for thought for those who in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric try to threaten our country.


SEBASTIAN: So, that was a clear signal there to the West. But he's also doing this, in the domestic audience, the context here is that Russia has spent years, billions of dollars, trying to modernize its military. And it's taken a bit of a reputational hit throughout the conflict in Ukraine, because of the intense resistance put out by the Ukrainian military which has prevented Russia from any strategic gains so far.

And because of recently, the sinking of the "Moskva," the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet. All of that has been bad PR for the Russian military. This was a good opportunity to counter that.

Also though worth noting, finally, that the U.S. by contrast actually cancelled an ICBM test of its own earlier this month. The thinking was that might be misinterpreted somehow by Moscow.

FISHER: Yeah, the U.S. really trying to de-escalate there. Clare, thank you so much.

So, let's bring in retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis. He's a military expert and senior fellow at Defense Priorities.

Good morning, Lieutenant Colonel.

First of all, help us understand why this ICBM, intercontinental ballistic missile, is so dangerous?

LT. COL. DANIEL L. DAVIS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, the main reason is because it's one of the hypersonic variety which can fly, you know, in orders of magnitude, faster than a lot of the other missiles. It can also change directions. And it's extremely difficult to track.

But we also have to understand that nearly every ICBM is already hypersonic in speed and they're virtually impossible to defend against already. That's -- not many people are aware of that.

So, kind to your correspondents' comments here, I think that may be more to the domestic audience than the military ones international because, you know, our defense is well aware that the ICBMs are nearly impossible to defend against. I think this is Putin trying to just threaten people and make a scare more than we are.

But we do need to recognize that the nuclear threat is very real and something that Biden is right to take concern about.

FISHER: Yeah. So, let's turn to the battle for Donbas. I mean, so far, the Ukrainians have really been able to hold their positions so far. But, you know, there's a lot of folks wondering exactly how long that can last. I mean, how long do you think it will last?

DAVIS: Yeah. What we're seeing already from various reports I can put together is actually Russia had started to take a number of smaller towns in key positions, as they're bringing in substantial and saturating bombing into other positions.

And so far, what Russia is doing is a classic called shaping operations where they're softening up, so to speak, some of the concentrations of Ukrainian military forces. Their primary objective is not really the capture of large cities, as much as it is the destruction of Ukrainian forces. And what we're seeing so far is that there's lots of probing attacks and reconnaissance enforcement where Russia is trying to identify where the weak spots are.

And we have to understand this is an area of almost 300 miles and it's virtually impossible to capture, keep all of that consistent line. So, if Russia identifies a weak gap somewhere, and they're later able to penetrate through there, that's going to put a lot of Ukrainian forces at greater risk.

And that's what we'll be washing for, does Russia exceed these large penetrations where they can cordoned off certain portions of the Ukrainian army. Or do they have the ability to interdict those penetrations when they come and move and against hem them in the rear and cut them off. That's where we determine how the battle goes.

FISHER: So, in Mariupol, what do you make of Putin's last-minute decision not to storm the Azovstal steel plant. He said the tactic is now a blockade, instead of trying to storm it. What do you make of that?

DAVIS: Yeah, militarily, that absolutely makes no sense there there's no point ratcheting out and going in for each individual person in very labyrinth complex, the Azovstal complex. There's no reason to do that all they have to do is keep that last piece cordoned off. Virtually, the city is already theirs.

But at the same time, there's also reports both from Zelenskyy's office and from the Kremlin that they're negotiating even right now to try to get those last remaining troops withdrawn, because, even though the Russians don't go after them, because they have them surrounded, they can't get either food or water, much less ammunition.


So, the risk to the soldiers is they would slowly die if they don't get some help. So, I think in probably in the coming hours or days, you're going to hear that the troops are finally negotiated out.

FISHER: Yeah, I'm not sure what's worse. Storming the steel plant or blockade, because as you just mentioned, I mean, you're starving them out.

DAVIS: Right.

FISHER: And President Zelenskyy says there's about 120,000 people trapped in that city. Just heartbreaking.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, thank you so much.

DAVIS: Always my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

FISHER: So, coming up, first hand stories from Ukrainians who survived horrible brutality at the hands of Russian forces.

Plus, the moment America's treasury secretary got up and walked out on a Russian counterpart.

And next, what's really behind the government's bid to bring back masks on planes, trains and buses?



FISHER: The Justice Department now appealing a judge's ruling that struck down the federal transportation mask mandate. The CDC says the mandate is necessary to protect public health.

Listen to what the White House press secretary told CNN's Chris Wallace.


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We think it's entirely reasonable as the Department of Justice for the CDC, the health and data experts, health experts most importantly in our administration to be able to have that time to evaluate. But also because they want to fight to ensure the CDC's authority and ability to put in mandates in the future remains intact. We know there's going to be ups and downs in the pandemic. We're ready

for it to be over. But we want to ensure that our public health experts are able to take steps in the future.


FISHER: CNN's White House reporter Kevin Liptak joins us now.

Good morning, Kevin.

So, based on what Jen Psaki, it really sounds like this appeal is more about trying to protect the CDC's authority than it is about the state of the pandemic right now?

KEVIN LIPTAK, CNN REPORTER: Yeah, that's exactly right, Kristin. Certainly, the White House is concerned about the public health factors about this. The animating concern is the CDC's ability to enforce the rules going forward. As administration officials were debating what to do after this ruling over the past 48 hours, that was really their overriding concern.

And the strategy does come with the risk, of course. If the higher course upholds this ruling, it would potentially undermine the CDC's ability going forward. The higher court is the 11th Circuit. That court does have a conservative bend and that could end up with the Supreme Court.

So, this is certainly not a strategy without legal risk. There's also potential political risk as well. The president could face backlash from those travelers who suddenly felt liberated after the mask mandate came off. What the White House says at best public opinion is split on this. There have been several polls that show more Americans support the mask mandate than oppose it.

Now, right now, nothing has changed. The administration hasn't asked for an emergency stay. They could still do that.

Right now, the government's advice to travelers is that they should follow the CDC's recommendation to wear a mask on planes, but certainly, airlines are not enforcing that. This will play out in the courts over the next several weeks, Kristin.

FISHER: Yeah, definitely confusing for folks who are traveling right now. It's like, what do we do?

So, turning to Ukraine, Kevin, the U.S. just announced a new round of Russian sanctions. Who specifically do they target?

LIPTAK: Yeah, this is all about plugging holes in existing sanctions that were allowing Russians to evade this punishment that the U.S. and the West has been inflicting. And so the U.S. is targeting a major commercial bank in Russia that they say had set up this system that allowed Russians to avoid sanctions.

So, you remember, the U.S. cut off Russia from the international banking system called SWIFT. They say that this bank had set up sort of an alternative to that allowed Russians to go around those sanctions. They're trying to plug that hole. They're also going after what they call a sanctions evasion network run by an oligarch in Russia that had been looking at international business opportunities for Russians who had come under sanctions and trying to plug that hole as well.

And also very interestingly, they're going after a cryptocurrency mining operation and that is something that the White House had looked at with some concern, whether Russia would be using alternative currencies to get around this withering set of Western sanctions. They're going after that company as well. That could be a preview, some steps they could take in the future.

But that was very interesting. It was the first time they had gone after the crypto operation in all of this.

FISHER: Wow. That is so interesting.

Kevin, one more question for you about Ukraine, while we've got you. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen just participated in a protest of sorts along with some are foreign ministers. Walk us through what happened.

LIPTAK: Yeah, this is interesting. So, this took place at a meeting of the G20 finance ministers that was occurring in Washington. The finance ministers were on the meeting and when the Russian delegate, began speaking they got up and walked out. Some of the finance ministers participating virtually just shut their cameras off.

This is part of a coordinated to isolate Russia on the world stage. Ahead of this meeting, Janet Yellen said she wouldn't participate in any G20 meetings that Russia is participating in.

Now, this is sort of the preliminary G20 meeting. The major world leaders, G20 meeting isn't until November.


That's supposed to take place in Indonesia. The White House hasn't said whether President Biden would attend that. If President Putin is also at that meeting, he has said that Russia should be barred from participating in the G20. But White House officials are sort of realistic about the prospects of that, because it would require every country of the G20 to agree to it. China, which is also a member of the G20 doesn't show any signs that they would sign on that, Christine.

FISHER: Kevin, the Yellen walkout, one of the moments you wish you had on camera.


FISHER: Thank you for joining us this morning. Good to see you, Kevin.

LIPTAK: Good to see you. FISHER: So, just ahead, how a brief scare in the air caused moments of chaos at the U.S. Capitol.

And next, Ukrainians in the basement with Russians on the first floor. They're uneasy coexistence shattered in one instance.



FISHER: Ukrainian who have survived the onslaught so far are telling stories of terrible encounters with Russian forces. Now that the Russians have retreated from the capital region, Ukrainians who witnessed the brutality say they are forever scarred by the invasion.

CNN's Phil Black has more.


PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Andrey Bychenko says his life will forever be split in two -- before and after the day the Russians came.

He remembers the skies over his home in Hostomel, near Kyiv, suddenly swarming with dozens of attack helicopters.

He says they flew in a low formation, like they were on parade and soon after, he says, Russian ground forces approached his home. This is where, he says, they opened fire from a distance. An explosive round landed close by, fracturing his leg, shrapnel piercing much of his body.

But Andrey says he was lucky. He got to hospital before the Russians worked out. He used to fight pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine. He says many veterans from the east were deliberately killed during the occupation.

If I had not been wounded, I would have been shot, too, he says.

Vasiliy Hylko also survived Russia's occupation but at great cost. Vasiliy was shocked by the Russian numbers and firepower that rolled in to Bohdanivka, a tiny village northeast of the capital. So many tanks passed, he said, so much ammunition. Every house had 20 soldiers occupying it, including the house where he, his neighbors and family were sheltering. They stayed in the basement, the Russians moved in above.

One night, Vasiliy says, four drunk soldiers pushed open the basement door and screamed, everyone out by the count of 10 or all will be killed. Vasiliy says women were screaming, children crying, and as he was the last one through the door, he was blasted from behind with a shotgun.

He says nothing was left of the leg, all bones destroyed, just a puddle of blood in minutes. He says two days later, some Russian soldiers helped him get to hospital. He still thinks they're beasts, not people.

The Russian invasion of areas around Kyiv violently interrupted and ended many peoples' lives and some would somehow survive brutal intimate encounters, leaving them forever changed.

Phil Black, CNN, Bohdanivka, Ukraine.


FISHER: Can you imagine that, you're a Ukrainian and having to share your home with Russian soldiers? Just really tough stories to listen to.

So, meanwhile, back here in the United States, Governor Ron DeSantis really sticking it to Disney. But at what cost to the people of Florida?

And could Bernie Sanders run again for president in 2024?