Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Putin Announces Partial Mobilization, 300,00 Reservists Called Up; Millions Without Water, Power, Shelter in Puerto Rico; Texas Sheriff Investigating DeSantis' Migrant Flight to Martha's Vineyard. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired September 21, 2022 - 05:00   ET



KRISTIN FISHER, CNN ANCHOR: It is Wednesday, September 21st, 5:00 a.m. in New York. Thank you so much for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Kristin Fisher.

Russian President Vladimir Putin just escalated his invasion of Ukraine in a very big way, announcing what essentially amounts to a draft, calling up 300,000 military reservists starting immediately.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I think it is necessary to support the decision to partially mobilize citizens of Russian federation. I would like to underline this is a partial mobilization.


FISHER: Putin also made an ominous pledge to use all means to, in his words, defend his country.


PUTIN (through translator): This is not a bluff. The citizens of Russia can be sure that the territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and freedom will be ensured, and those that try to black mail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.


FISHER: Putin's rare national address comes amid a fierce counter offensive from Ukraine's forces and the Kremlin-backed push for referendums that could lead to Moscow annexing occupied parts of Ukraine.

Let's go to CNN's international security editor Nick Paton Walsh inside Ukraine. He's been covering the region for decades.

So, Nick, a partial mobilization. I mean, this sounds pretty drastic but could Putin have gone even further? NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, certainly

could have. This is not the mass mobilization which many during the 12-hour delay before the speech came out this morning were thinking might have been on the cards. He is, it seems, going to be looking towards a pool of at least what the defense minister called 300,000 people potentially at the start of individuals who served in the army, who have relevant military experience or other specialized skills.

Now, that is interesting because it does seem there are a lot of people who have been served have been called upon to try to solve the drastic manpower crisis that Russia has been facing to the extent where even mercenary groups have been going into prisons and asking prisoners to go to the front line in exchange for an amnesty.

So, it is unclear at this point this partial mobilization stresses this is not about taking students out of university or taking ordinary conscripts yet and forcing them to the front line or widening conscriptions. It's unclear how quickly they'll be able to turn this rhetoric into actual people on the front line. Remember, they have equipment problems, they have command and control problems, supply problems.

So, all of the problems of the last six months will be accentuated. There's a bit of unhappiness in Russia. This is even happening in the first place.

In terms of what happens in the weeks ahead here, and the threats we heard suggesting nuclear weapons, what Vladimir Putin did suggest that Russia was, in fact, a target of western threats of nuclear weapons. That is, of course, nonsense. But his packaging, his suggestion he might use weapons of mass destruction in that context, and it did feel like this was a big change in Russia's nuclear doctrine. He was simply saying that the territorial integrity of Russia, as it is now, as he's speaking, might, well, if attacked, use them -- cause them to use any means ahead at their disposal.

What's important, though, in the weeks ahead is that Russia's perception of where its borders are may change. That may not change what was said about nuclear weapons, but if these referendums, which have been called, in a very staged procedure over the past few days, in the areas that have been occupied by pro-Russian forces since 2014, and in the freshly occupied areas since February, if these referendums go ahead, which it almost certainly will and they almost certainly will produce a very positive result from Moscow, saying these people apparently want to be part of Russia.

This isn't a vote, by the way. This is happening under military occupation, and that may cause Moscow to say that these areas are now part of Russia. That may change some dynamics, but we're looking at a tense week ahead where Russia is going to have to do something internally to solve the manpower issues and this will have to happen out of pace if it changes any dynamics at all.

And now, Ukraine has a week to make good on territorial advances that it's already seeing and seeing at a slower pace at this stage and possibly try and disrupt the sham referendums. [05:05:06]

So, a big move here by Moscow. Not as big as they could potentially have made and certainly, I think, while Russia's tried to grasp narrative to show, it's in control of the story and the war again, it is doing so in a way which conveys, I have to say, weakness rather than a position of strength -- Kristin.

FISHER: So, Nick, this partial mobilization, how much of this do you think is going to change things in a real way on the ground there?

WALSH: Yeah, just remains to be seen how many people they're actually able to get to answer or forcibly answer this call. Reserves, people with military experience, it's highly likely that that relatively small number of individuals in Russia have already been called upon to try and solve the manpower crisis.

Remember, the United States has suggested that as many as 80,000 casualties may have been inflicted upon Russia. That's dead and wounded, unclear where they get those numbers from but certainly anecdotally here, we hear a lot of Russian losses. That's why we're seeing very irregular forces being pushed towards the front line.

So many of those on the front line are not regular Russian units. They're kind of militia from the so-called separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, that are basically controlled and occupied by Russian forces. They are private mercenaries. It is a huge mix and one that crumbled around Kharkiv.

So the big challenge for Moscow is to try to make this possible mobilization solve their manpower issues, possibly change the climate in Russia about how much the population is involved in this war. Remember, in most Russian cities, life carries on as normal as if there isn't a war going on. And see if they can do anything to change it on the battlefield which frankly has been atrociously going in the wrong direction for Russia -- Kristin.

FISHER: Nick Paton Walsh, live in Ukraine for us -- Nick, thank you so much.

Meanwhile, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace says that Putin's latest moves are an admission that Russia is failing in Ukraine.

Clare Sebastian has the latest from London.

So, Clare, how are other people reacting to this latest address from President Putin?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESONDENT: Yeah, Kristin, reactions coming in swiftly. It seems to be a trend that many are drawing on, this is proof of Russian weakness, not of strength.

I want to bring you that quote from the UK defense secretary. He said: President Putin's breaking of his own promises not to mobilize parts of his population and the illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine are an admission his invasion is failing, he says. Continuing the amount of threats the propaganda can't hide the fact that Ukraine is winning this war.

A similar reaction from the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bridgette Brink, who said in a tweet as the speech was still going on, sham referendum and mobilization are signs of weakness, she said, of Russian failure. The United States will never recognize the reports of the annexed territory and we'll continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.

These reactions important in the context we saw both President Putin and the Russian defense secretary rebranding this conflict as one not with Ukraine but with the west.

I want to bring you one reason saying This is the 210th day of the three-day war, a reference to the fact that Russia thought this was a much shorter war. Russians who demanded the destruction of Ukraine ended up getting, one, mobilization, two, closed borders and blocking bank accounts, and three, prison for desertion.

Everything is going to plan, right? Life has a great sense of humor.

Of course, the problem for Ukraine in all of this is this likely signals that the conflict is no closer to an end -- Kristin.

FISHER: Yeah, precisely.

Clare Sebastian live in London for us, thank you.

So, later this morning, President Biden is going to be delivering his annual speech to the United Nations. But he's really going to be addressing one man in particular who will not be in the room, Vladimir Putin.

CNN's Richard Roth has more.


RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR U.N. CORRESPONDENT: It's rare for a U.S. president to adjust his speaking slot at the U.N. general assembly high level debate, but that's what Joe Biden has done. Instead of going in the traditional U.S. slot second behind Brazil which was yesterday, he will go later today. In fact, he will be going several speakers after the president Iran.

U.S. officials say President Biden will condemn Russia strongly for its invasion of Ukraine and also comment on the Security Council reform. Many world leaders criticized Russia during their speeches on Tuesday. The French president denounced Russia for its invasion and condemned those who were trying to remain neutral on the affair.

EMMANUEL MACRON, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translator): Those who are keeping silent today actually are in a way complicit with the cause of a new imperialism, a new order that is trampling over the current order and there's no peace possible here.


ROTH: The French president denounced as fake the planned referendums announced in Eastern Ukraine yesterday.

As for Iran, the French president also met with Iranian President Raisi yesterday. The two men discussing the stalled nuclear deal that died after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement. The Iranians want guarantees, the Western countries feel they've gone far enough. The French president said the ball is in Iran's court.

Richard Roth, CNN, United Nations.


FISHER: Hurricane Fiona gaining strength, now a major category 4 storm.

Plus, thousands of people across Iran rising up in protest after the death of a young woman.

And Ron DeSantis sued by the migrants he shipped to Martha's Vineyard. Now he's responding.



FISHER: Fiona has strength to a category 4 hurricane and is moving north, with wind gusts of 155 miles per hour for Turks and Caicos. But the Caribbean Island is still feeling the sheer force of the storm with damaging winds, pounding rain.

Let's get right to meteorologist Pedram Javaheri.

Pedram, gosh, that does not look good behind you. How bad is it going to get?

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: The storm is going to strengthen. It is going to get larger as it approaches farther across the north. But for areas across the Turks and Caicos, the worst is coming to an end.

And, Kristin, when you look at the storm system, talking about a cloud field from the northern fringe to southern fringe with a span that expands 560 miles. To put that into perspective, super imposes over the state of Alaska, essentially from the northern tier of Alaska to the southern tier of Alaska, that's how large of a storm we're talking about.

And just look at how organized, how symmetrical in all quadrants of the storm, very impressive at this hour, 136-mile-an-hour winds near the eye wall. Here's the Turks and Caicos on the southern fringe of the storm system. But, again, moving away and moving north at about 8 miles an hour.

So, conditions are going to going to be beginning to improve across areas to the south. The eye itself, 40 miles across. Another area of perspective, take Puerto Rico, you can put it right into the eye of the storm system, the northern part of Puerto Rico would stand towards the northern part of the eye wall, the southern part, area of the eye wall, again, show you how warm of a storm it is.

And it is going to traverse over warmer waters into the middle 80s. So, generally above 80, 81, 82 agrees, that's what you need to maintain a hurricane, a tropical system. This is going to work its way above those temperatures. So, we did expect this to strengthen futures, potentially pushing just west of Bermuda within the next 48 hours.

The good news is all model guidance want to keep the storm system a couple hundred miles, maybe 200 miles west of Bermuda as it approaches early Friday morning.

Now, the wind field stands about 200 miles out. It could see some tropical winds on the western event and given the fact this track usually gets typical characteristics. There's a massive frontal boundary that kind of shifts the system away from the United States and possibly far enough away from Bermuda to not have any direct impacts on it.

But, again, gusty winds, heavy rainfall in store before the system weakens. And, look at this, Kristen, winter weather forecast radar speaking to how cold it is going to get for parts of Canada.

This system in a couple of days the moisture associated with it will bring in snow showers to parts of Canada. Guess what? Today's the last day of summer.

FISHER: Oh, man, you end with that. Last day of summer, snow, wow, double whammy.

Pedram, thank you.

All right. Now, millions of people in Puerto Rico are without running water, power and shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona as hundreds of FEMA personnel are deployed to the island. FEMA's administrator already on the ground to assess the damage and try to determine what other resources are going to be needed.

CNN's Leyla Santiago has more.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hurricane Fiona wiping out power to the majority of the roughly 3.1 million residents here, 60 percent without water and about 1,200 people housed in shelters.

Five years ago, Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. Now barely recovered from that catastrophic storm, the island and its people are suffering again. Officials say at least two have died on the island as a result of the storm. One man swept away by a flooded river beside his home. Another man died while trying to fill his generator with gasoline, setting it on fire.

We traveled with the National Guard as they tried to clear roads in the mountainous of Cayey. Their goal access and start moving in much needed supplies to isolated areas.

In the island's interior like Cayey, a very mountainous municipality, this is part of the problem, the mudslides that block the road and block access to that power substation.

Hector Rivera Santiago was gathering drinking water off the mountain side.

So he came to the mountain side to get water because there's no water at his house.

CARLOS VARGAS, CAYEY, PR PRESIDENT: Power. We know that we're going to face that and we can deal with that, but the biggest concern is water -- can't live without water.

SANTIAGO: Carlos Vargas lived just beyond a big mudslide that blocked access to the road. The National Guard had to evacuate about 35 elderly patients from a facility here before the mudslide demolished the building.

LT. COL. JOSUE FLORES MORALES, PUERTO RICO NATIONAL GUARD: We carry the elderly, their chairs and their beds, and we just ran over and carried them over the landslide so we could get him out before the house collapsed.

SANTIAGO: The recovery ahead not without its own set of challenges.


GOV. PEDRO PIERLUISI (D), PUERTO RICO: The hurricane and now the storm, the related storm has impacted the whole island. So, we're still in the middle of this event. We're basically responding at this point. The next step will be recovery. We're not there yet.


SANTIAGO: And in Cayey, the gas stations are busy. Lines are forming. People coming to get gas, diesel to power those generators they need to be able to turn the lights on at home since there is no power, but the governor says he expects that by tomorrow night a good chunk of the island will have power restored. One big exception though, the southern part of the island, one of the heaviest hit areas in Puerto Rico now.

Leyla Santiago, CNN, Cayey, Puerto Rico.

FISHER: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis reacting to a lawsuit just filed by the migrants that he flew to Martha's Vineyard.

And a quarter of a billion dollars stolen from a pandemic fund for hungry children.


[05:25:33] FISHER: A defiant Ron DeSantis is standing by his decision to fly dozens of migrants to Martha's Vineyard. The Florida governor claiming that they made the trip voluntarily. His office even releasing a copy of what it calls an official consent to transport allegedly signed by a migrant.

DeSantis the target of a class action lawsuit filed by the migrants and it claims that many of them were lured by a woman to sign a document in order to get a $10 McDonald's gift card.

More now from CNN's Ed Lavandera.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The streets around this migrant center in San Antonio are confusing and overwhelming for hundreds of migrants who have crossed the border seeking asylum and have stepped into the swamp of American immigration policy.

We met these men, one from Cuba, the other from Venezuela. They heard about the plane Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sent here to move some 50 migrants out of Texas last week.

They told us they had just been offered a similar deal on Monday.

Of course, he says. We're told there would be plenty of work and not so many migrants.

They offered you a flight to another state but you didn't know where it was going to be?


LAVANDERA: He says, they pulled up next to us in beautiful trucks. They offered us hotel rooms with a pool and a gift card for food, and they told us they could take us on a flight where we will be taken to a refuge.

They rejected the offer because they said it felt strange.

Attorneys for some the dozens of migrants transported from Texas to Martha's Vineyard have filed a class action lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in federal court claiming they were deprived of their liberty and due process over an unlawful goal and a personal political agenda.

This after the Bexar County sheriff in Texas says his office is opening a criminal investigation into the matter.

SHERIFF JAVIER SALAZAR (D), BEXAR COUNTY, TEXAS: If, in fact, these people were lied to and if they were taken under false pretenses to another part of the country, it could qualify as a human trafficking case.

LAVANDERA: Even though the migrants weren't in his state, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has claimed responsibility for sending them to Massachusetts and defended the process Tuesday, saying those migrants were treated poorly by the Biden administration.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: They were hungry, homeless. They had no -- no opportunity at all. The state of Florida, it was volunteer, offered transport to sanctuary jurisdictions because it is our view that one, the border should be secure. And we want to have Biden reinstitute policies like remain in Mexico, and making sure that people are not overwhelming.

LAVANDERA: State budget records show that the Florida Department of Transportation paid $950,000 to Vertol Systems, an aviation company based in Florida days after migrants were flown to Martha's Vineyard.

According to the Texas governor's office, more than 8,000 migrants have been bused from Texas to Washington, D.C., and 675 to Chicago, and 2,600 migrants to New York, a number that's expected to climb.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS (D), NEW YORK: I think the governor of Texas and others are at fault for creating this man-made humanitarian crisis.


LAVANDERA (on camera): Several migrants last week told us that there was a woman here in San Antonio named Perla who was involved in getting migrants on the flights into Martha's Vineyard. We've asked the sheriff here in San Antonio if they have identified the person. They know of several people who were involved but he would not identify exactly who these people are. He says right now, they're trying to figure out exactly what they were up to when they were hanging around this migrant shelter in the city.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, San Antonio, Texas.

FISHER: Ed, thank you.

Well, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he sees nothing wrong with Republican governors sending migrants to blue states.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): I personally thought it was a good idea. If you added up all of the illegals that have been taken to Chicago, Washington or Martha's Vineyard, it would be fewer than people down in Texas have to deal with on a daily basis.


FISHER: CNN's Daniella Diaz joins us live from Capitol Hill.

Good morning, Daniella.

So, we know how much Mitch McConnell obviously feels. How about other some other members of Congress?