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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Russian Exiles Condemn Putin's War in Ukraine; Russia's New Offensive in Ukraine; Moldovan President Accuses Russia of Coup Plot. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired February 19, 2023 - 10:00   ET



BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Bianna Golodryga, filling in for Fareed Zakaria who is off this week.

On the program this week marks the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In that year hundreds of thousands dead. Tens of billions of dollars in damage. And there's no end in sight. We'll look at how Russia views this grim year with the anchors of exiled Russian broadcaster TV Rain.

Then we'll examine the present and future on the bloody battlefield. Is the war in a stalemate now and how might it finally end? I'll ask the experts.

Also, while all eyes are cast upward looking for more Chinese balloons, which of Beijing's other actions are we missing on the ground and in the cyber realm? We'll explore.

In the 360 days since Russia's invasion, Ukraine has become the frontline in the global battle for democracy. It's a fight that is being fought in the airwaves as well as on the battlefield. Putin's minions are working overtime to control the message overseas and at home.

Under a law passed last year journalists in Russia can be jailed for up to 15 years for reporting what the Kremlin considers fake news about what its military is doing, and to wit, calling the war in Ukraine a war could land one in prison. And because of this crackdown many in the industry have fled including my guest today who run the Russian independent TV news station TV Rain.

In 2022 the network famously ended its last newscast with an anti-war message before cutting to an old performance of Tchaikovsky's ballet "Swan Lake." Today TV Rain operates in exile broadcasting its content on YouTube.

Tikhon Dzyadko is the network's editor-in-chief and Ekaterina Kotrikadze, an anchor and news director.

Welcome, both of you. It's good to see you.

Katya, let me start with you. You are at the Munich Security Conference where the first time in the conference's history no Russian officials have been invited. Instead the chairman of the conference tweeted this. "We want to discuss Russia's future with Russian opposition leaders and exiled people. Their voices need to be heard and amplified."

Katya, you and TV Rain are among those exiled Russians. What is the mood there one year into the war now?

EKATERINA KOTRIKADZE, NEWS DIRECTOR AND ANCHOR, TV RAIN: Well, Bianna, it's very complicated to talk about Russia here on Munich Security Conference. It has just been closed. During these three days I was talking to Russian liberal, you know, dissidents, opposition leaders, representatives of the civil society, and also with European politicians and experts, and all of them are saying that Russia should be relaunched as a country, as a state, that after this invasion of Ukraine everything has changed.

And these people, European, Western leaders, are looking for a different approach to Russia and are asking themselves the questions about whether it is really possible to see this new country, to see Russia as a democratic state, which is, I mean, not obvious for a lot of people here. So the representatives of Russian Civil Society, all of them, they are all in exile. They fled the country just as we did.

They were trying to explain that there is a chance for Russia to rebuild a democracy. And I truly believe in this, too.

GOLODRYGA: Tikhon, I guess the question is, are you and other exiles outliers or does this speak to a larger issue that many Russians are dealing with right now who remained in the country? We saw people flee the country at the start of the war and more fled last year when more military conscripts were announced, about 300,000. That having been said, it has remained quite muted and one can't depend on how people feel in surveys among Russian society. What is your take?

TIKHON DZYADKO, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, TV RAIN: People are speaking about Russians who left the country. I think the majority of them are thinking and are waiting about the moment when the situation changes, when the regime changes in Russia, and when they will be able to return back home, just like we did for example and our colleagues on TV Rain. It's wonderful to have an opportunity to work from exile in Latvia and the Netherlands and in Georgia but we have our hope. We have Russia.

But a different Russia from what we have after February 24th. And speaking about Russian society in Russia, Russian society is depressed.


A lot, a lot, a lot of people are against this war but they don't have any chance to speak out because it is too dangerous.

GOLODRYGA: Katya, back to you there in Munich, how significant was it there at the conference to hear Vice President Harris for the first time say that the United States has formally concluded that Russia has committed crimes against humanity?

KOTRIKADZE: It is really very important, Bianna. Definitely. And everyone was quoting Kamala Harris and other representatives of the United States. You know that the delegation is really big, congressional delegation, representatives from Congress.

You know, the people here in Munich and especially representatives of Ukraine were looking forward to hearing not just statements, however, but also the promises about delivering weaponry, the fighting jets, and you know, long-range systems to Ukraine. And nothing about that has been said. But, still, the accountability is one of the main questions here, really. I mean, what I saw is that everyone was talking about not only the reality but also trying to plan the future and answer the question, how will the world look like and if we want a normal world after this terrible war, then we need to make Vladimir Putin and others accountable for what they did.

And this is a crime against humanity. This is a crime of aggression. And, you know, all of us we think that there's going to be a tribunal, something similar to Nuremberg, and this is one of the main questions here.

GOLODRYGA: So, Tikhon, that's post-war planning. We have to get the war to end first. And it doesn't look like Vladimir Putin is willing to go to the negotiating table in earnest at this point. What will it take to finally get him there? Because the Russian economy has remained resilient up to this point. His holdover society and his suppression has worked in terms of we don't see mass protests on the street. What will it take to get him to say enough is enough?

DZYADKO: Well, I think we have several directions. The first direction is the situation on the battlefield, on the ground, and that's what Katya was telling now about sending weapons to Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin, he's not doing well on the ground in Ukraine.

Also, I think we will see, and that is what experts say, we will see the consequences for the Russian economy because of the sanctions. That's too early to see these consequences that will happen soon. And the third thing, very important, is the fact that even the polls, which could not be trusted with its digits but we see the trends, that the support of this war is becoming lower and lower in Russia.

People are not happy with the fact that Russia is isolated now and that they cannot see any future. So I think that the world should work in these three directions. And first supporting Ukraine of course, then sanctions, and then supporting Russians who are not supporting this terrible war.

GOLODRYGA: Katya, quick -- yes, Katya, quickly, let me just talk about what TV Rain is doing right now because the Russian propaganda remains firm inside the country. I know you're trying to change that and broadcast objective journalism. It's very difficult to do that while you're in exile, while viewers can only find you on YouTube. And that is with a VPN.

You've had your own challenges as well with some mistakes that you have made on air and you've owned those. That having been said, how are you convinced that there is an audience large enough that wants to watch what you have to offer?

KOTRIKADZE: Well, it is important to underline, Bianna, that YouTube is still available without VPN in Russia. It is eventually, you know, undeniable that this ban will be there, of course. I mean, we know that they will ban YouTube someday. But, still, on this stage we can be openly working on YouTube for Russians and we have 14 million unique viewers monthly only on YouTube which is a huge thing. And we can do more. We can do twice more.

This is a big potential that we have. And, you know, as long as they give us an opportunity, the whole, you know, the whole world, give us an opportunity to work, we will work. And we can convince people. We see the messages. We hear, you know, people talking to us, the audience talking to us. We know that they are against this terrible war and they are supporting democracy. So, yes. We are optimistic about that.

GOLODRYGA: Well, it is important to break through to those Russian viewers.


That is what's going to put the pressure point on Vladimir Putin. That is for sure.

Ekaterina Kotrikadze and Tikhon Dzyadko, thank you so much for joining us and thank you for what you're doing.

Well, next on GPS, what is happening on the battlefield in Ukraine and what's to come ahead? I'll talk to the experts when we come back.


GOLODRYGA: Western officials say close to 200,000 Russians may have been killed or wounded in the last year of fighting in Ukraine. Ukrainian casualties are estimated around 100,000 not including civilians.

Now after a relatively quiet winter on the front a new Russian offensive appears to be under way in the east. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says he also expects the Ukrainians to mount their own offensive in the spring.

So which side is better positioned to make gains?

Joining me is Ryan Evans, founder of the media organization War on the Rocks, and Michael Kofman, who hosts the "Russia Contingency" podcast at War on the Rocks and is a research program director in the Russia Studies Program at the think tank CNA.


Thank you both for joining us. You are my go-tos on all things war related. So I appreciate your time today. Mike, I'm going to begin with you because as noted it appears that

Russia's offensive has begun. You believe that it will remain largely focused in the east in Donbas. As you know there have been reports that Russia has far greater ambitions, perhaps even making another attempt at Kyiv. Why do you think this offensive will be more muted?

MICHAEL KOFMAN, DIRECTOR OF RUSSIA STUDIES, CNA: So I think the offensive actually began several weeks ago and has been in progress for some time. It's really focused on the Donbas. There are at least five different axis of attack that the Russian military is pursuing right now. It appears the Russian war aim remains capturing the Donbas.

In terms of Russian military offensive potential it's rather constrained and just looking over the last couple of weeks they're having a pretty hard time in this offensive and have not made significant gains.

I likely think it's going to go on through March, although it may increase in overall intensity. It's not clear that the Russian military has yet committed reserves to try to exploit any one direction from which they're attacking.

GOLODRYGA: And on that point, Ryan, over the past few months there have been changes in military leadership in Russia. There have been more conscripts thrown in, as many as 300,000 going back to last September. Obviously Wagner Group is putting in convicts into battle as well and there's talks of even more conscriptions to come.

That aside here is how Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley characterized the situation this week. Here's what said, he said, "Russia has lost strategically, operationally and tactically, and in addition Undersecretary of Secretary Victoria Nuland has called this new offensive very pathetic. Are they right or in your view is that a premature assessment?

RYAN EVANS, FOUNDER, WAR ON THE ROCKS: I think this war has clearly been a disaster for Russia but Russia's theory of victory, such as it is, is that it can outlast the Western coalition that is backing Ukraine. And there are some signs that that coalition is starting to crack and I think a lot depends especially if this war drags on more, what happens in our next election cycle in the United States as well as elections among key European states that are our partners and also backing Ukraine. So Putin thinks he can just outwait that coalition. Whether that's true remains to be seen.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. Time perhaps is on his side is how he is viewing it at least.

Mike, what are some of the biggest challenges that Ukraine is facing right now?

KOFMAN: So I think for Ukraine the challenges right now, how to defend against the Russian offensive while keeping a substantial amount of forces in reserve to conduct their own major operation later this spring. I think as always they're working with issues of force quality. Both sides have significant levels of casualties. As the war goes on often you lose your best people, your best equipment. So it's a challenge to replace those individuals in order to be capable of conducting offensive operations.

I think like any military they face shortages when it comes to equipment or ammunition. And if you look over the past year, a lot of Western military assistance has been critical but it's come at a point where we're sort of just in time for Ukrainian needs rather necessarily leading them. And I think that remains an enduring challenge in this conflict.

GOLODRYGA: And Mike, sticking with you, Ukraine has finally gained those Western tanks and that has received a lot of media attention, though you view this as more of a symbolic gain for the country. Going back to the ammunition and the air defense that Ukraine desperately needs as well, how concerned are you about the quantity that can be delivered and in the time in which it can be delivered for Ukraine?

KOFMAN: Sure. So first and foremost I think air defense, air defense ammunition, artillery ammunition remain the top two priorities for Ukraine. And everything else is probably secondary relative to that. In terms of quantities, you know, Ukrainian military is an artillery heavy army so it requires substantial amounts of artillery ammunition just to sustain the war but especially if they're going to go on for the offense in the spring, same thing goes for air defense to make sure that Russian air power does not become effective in this conflict at any point.

With regards to the military equipment and the assistance package that was provided in January it will take some months for that equipment to not arrive but for Ukrainians to be trained on that equipment in sufficient quantities.

GOLODRYGA: And Ryan, there is a legitimate concern about the stockpiles available both in reserves and Western countries, and the ability with which defense companies can produce them in time for Ukraine, particularly regards to for ammunition. Is Russia facing similar shortages and issues?

EVANS: Russia is absolutely facing similar shortages and issues but unlike the United States Russia doesn't have to worry about other fronts and other global commitments, whereas the United States has to hedge and able to conduct operations elsewhere, let's say, for example, if China attacks Taiwan. But what this has really drawn attention especially among a lot of my colleagues is how brittle the U.S. industrial base is especially when it comes to producing things like artillery, ammunition, and other forms of ammunition, and even gun powder.

I think a lot of your viewers would be surprised how few facilities actually produce these things in the United States.

GOLODRYGA: Ryan, Putin has toned down his wildly exaggerated and I would just say irresponsible nuclear threats that we had heard a few months ago.


That having been said, I know you are one to argue we shouldn't dismiss the threat of a tactical nuclear weapon being used. What do you see in the months ahead in terms of the threat assessment that Putin could in fact return to that?

EVANS: I think Putin's strategy is primarily first and foremost driven by his sense of regime security. And if he views that security at risk I think he is more likely to take reckless acts. And one thing that we've seen from Putin is he is actually a very poor judge of how his adversaries and even his partners like China will react to his risky gambits. So I think that he's still got a few really bad decisions left in him and I wouldn't put it past him to escalate to low-yield nuclear use on the battlefield.

And not just one, but perhaps several especially if there's major setbacks for the Russian forces on the battlefield. I still think it's a low probability event but I think it's something that we have to take seriously and not just dismiss out of hand.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. It's not zero. And the probability is not zero that that could take place.

Mike, finally, I'll close with you. It doesn't appear unfortunately that this war is going to end any time soon. What will it take for that to happen? I would imagine you agree it's not probably going to be this year.

KOFMAN: Yes. I doubt it will take place this year. I mean, major interstate conventional wars of this kind, they tend to cluster broadly in two categories. Often they tend to be either short lasting a few months, or if they go on for this long they typically gone for at least several years.

What will it take for the war to end? Well, that's a difficult question to answer. I mean, it can range anything from the Ukrainian military success to a more pessimistic variant where at the end of the day what emerges is some sort of unhappy stalemate on the battlefield. Or, to be perfectly frank, the way the war could progress is that the ending doesn't resolve any of the fundamental issues in this war.

That's a (INAUDIBLE) they would happen in 2014 and 2015. This war is a continuation war of the original Russian invasion of Ukraine. And how it ends could potentially result in yet another war. Often these conflicts go in series when neither party is able to attain what they want. So the folks who push for an early negotiation, perhaps, a contrived armistice of some kind, on the one hand that's a laudable pursuit but on the other hand, at this stage it's clear that it would most likely result in Russia trying to rearm and then pursuing the war yet again. So an artificial peace is very likely to yield to yet another war.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. You're right to point out this war didn't start as many people may think it did last year. It started several years prior to that.

Mike Kofman, Ryan, thank you so much for your time. I'm looking forward to your future conversations in podcasts. Thank you.

EVANS: Thanks for having us.

KOFMAN: Thanks for having us.

GOLODRYGA: Well, up next on GPS another country caught in Putin's crosshairs. I'll tell you which one when we come back.



GOLODRYGA: I want to tell you now about a country that many fear may be the next in Vladimir Putin's sights. Indeed on Friday Secretary of State Blinken concerned deep concerns about Russian plots to destabilize the government there. It's a small poor nation just to the southwest of Ukraine that holds within it a Russian-backed separatist region.

The nation I'm speaking of is Moldova, and it happens to be my birth place. So what in the world is going on there?

Let's bring in Moldovan journalist Paula Erizanu to explain.

Paula, it's great to see you. Welcome to the program. So let's give our audience a sense of what's happened in just the past few weeks. Last week President Zelenskyy provided some intelligence and shared evidence with the Moldovan president of Maia Sandu of an attempted Russian plot for a coup to overthrow the government there.

Just this past weekend, she gave more evidence and said that was indeed the case. She described it as a hybrid warfare aimed to destabilize society. Can you give us any more insight into what's happening?

PAULA ERIZANU, MOLDOVAN JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Yes. So President Maia Sandu mentioned that the plot would involve people with military preparation, some of them coming from abroad, in order to provoke violence and break into state institutions and take hostages during opposition protests here.

Also Zelenskyy's adviser Mykhailo Podolyak confirmed this kind of -- the details saying that actually Russia's new plan for Moldova does not involve tanks but bandits. By this he meant the kind of leader of the opposition of the pro-Kremlin party Shor, Ilan Shor, who stands accused for money laundering in Moldova and has therefore fled toward Israel. But, meanwhile, his party in Moldova is organizing mass protests. We just had one today. And he appears via a video, live streaming during these protests.

GOLODRYGA: What makes this even more concerning we should note is that the Moldovan government, the current government, is a pro-Western government. Do we know if this coup attempt has been thwarted successfully?

ERIZANU: Well, state institutions over the past week have talked about not allowing about 60 foreign citizens into the country. Some of them, they said, had forged papers with like different names and different nationalities. And more police have been patrolling the streets and the kind of Ministry of Internal Affairs released this kind of plan for bomb shelters in case of any kind of emergency. So it does feel like state institutions have intensified both their actions and their communication which has been poor in the past.


GOLODRYGA: Russia has become a candidate for E.U. status -- I mean, Moldova has become a candidate for E.U. status. That haven't been said it is a very vulnerable country. It's a very poor country. I believe its military defense budget is just around $80 million a year. And I know that has led to a lot of internal strife as well and economic challenges. Inflation is about 27 percent.

What is a bigger threat? Is it the domestic issues regarding the economy or is it the external threat perhaps from Moscow?

ERIZANU: Well, the two are interlinked. So, at the moment of course people are more concerned with their day-to-day economic struggles but at the same time the kind of pro Kremlin opposition is trying to capitalize on these economic issues. They are asking the government to pay 100 percent of the winter bills and so on. And obviously if a pro European government in Moldova was replaced with a pro Kremlin one, then Moldova would be used in the war against Ukraine by Russia because obviously we also have Transnistria in the east, a breakaway region where 1,500 Russian troops are stationed and where 20,000 tons of ammunition, Soviet era ammunition is still stored.

GOLODRYGA: And to this point Russia is still providing Moldova with gas and about 70 percent of electricity comes from the breakaway region, Transnistria, that pro Russian region, as well. I know western allies have been quick to come to Moldova's defense and provide more aid. Is it enough to get Moldova to finally leave Russia's grasp and perhaps join E.U.?

ERIZANU: So, foreign aid has been helpful in compensating people's bills this winter but they weren't compensated up to 100 percent, you know, that protesters today were demanding. And the government is saying that they want to invest in more green energy and diversify our gas and electricity kind of sources. But inflation at the moment is still the highest in Europe and people are struggling to pay their mortgages, to pay their bills, to kind of cover their basic costs.

And people that I have spoken to have said that they're thinking of emigrating. We already have a problem with very few kind of human resources here, a big diaspora that is looking for more economic opportunities outside Moldova in the E.U.

GOLODRYGA: Is there any concern as Russia has launched its new offensive that it could take a military action against Moldova? I know there had been fear of that early on in the war.

ERIZANU: I'm sorry. Could you repeat that? GOLODRYGA: Is there any concern now as Russia has launched a new offensive in Ukraine that it could make any sort of military attempt at Moldova? There had been concern of that early on in the war.

ERIZANU: Yes, there is a saying in Moldova that we depend on Odessa and Odessa depends on Mykolaiv but we also have the south that is vulnerable. So far Moldova has been protected by the Ukrainian army. And the fact that the Ukrainian army managed to move the front line further west has kind of appeased spirits in Moldova. People have become calmer as a result. But obviously we -- we are following the situation closely and hope for the best.

We have a large number of Ukrainian refugees here in Moldova and, you know, to them there is an obvious difference between Ukraine and Moldova at the moment. But, still, people are anxious.

GOLODRYGA: Well, I just have to say as an American who was born in Moldova it has just been so heartwarming to see how generous that country has been, a country of just a few million people, very poor country taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees. Paula, thank you so much for your reporting. We appreciate it.

ERIZANU: Thank you.

GOLODRYGA: Well, up next on GPS, the controversy over China's spy balloon has loomed over U.S.-China relations in recent weeks. But my next guest says there are far greater concerns when it comes to China's espionage.



GOLODRYGA: Secretary of State Blinken says that in a meeting yesterday with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi he condemned the incursion of the PRC surveillance balloon and stressed that it must never happen again. That balloon captivated the attention of the U.S. government, media, and American public. But my next guest reminds us that the threat from China runs far deeper than spy balloons.

Nicole Perlroth is an adviser to the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and is the author of "This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends" which is out this week in paperback. Nicole, thank you so much. Welcome back to the program.

So, big question, what is this whole balloon saga? Tell us about China's surveillance program.

NICOLE PERLROTH, ADVISER, U.S. CYBERSECURITY AND INFRASTRUCTURE SECURITY AGENCY: Well, I think this is just the most visible aspect of an ongoing threat that I and others have been covering cybersecurity and cyber threats have been tracking for more than a decade. And I think it clearly forced a pretty confrontational U.S. response and now we are seeing China call this hysterical, saying we over reacted, they are still maintaining that this was a weather balloon. But clearly this was a surveillance operation. [10:40:02]

I think the key thing to remember is that China has been hacking our intellectual property, our personal data, government agencies and workers for more than a decade and it is really important that Americans understand the breadth and depth of those efforts.

GOLODRYGA: So, given those capabilities including more sophisticated satellites, which orbit the Earth, why would China resort to a balloon?

PERLROTH: I think that is the big question here. You know, forever really, over a decade ago the description of Chinese cyber threats at least was they're not as sophisticated as Russia, that they're certainly brazen in these efforts and occasionally sloppy but effective.

So, over 10 years ago they were hitting us with spear phishing e- mails. And if you knew what to look for you could catch them but often times they were just as effective. And really the key descriptor of China's surveillance operations or their cyber espionage operations was just that they were brazen. They didn't bother to hide these efforts. And I think the same is true with these balloons.

You know, clearly someone messed up here because this was so visible it forced a U.S. response, a very public response that broke off talks between Blinken and his counterparts in China and now we are dealing with the fallout.

GOLODRYGA: So is the U.S. capable and prepared to take on and fight back against some of these other threats that the China poses, perhaps much more sophisticated? Not a balloon, not something that you can see, but something that is just as dangerous?

PERLROTH: Well, I think we've seen China hack our pipelines for instance. A little over a year ago the U.S. government declassified its findings that China has been implanting itself in our network of pipelines not for intellectual property theft but to maintain a foothold in the event they would ever need to do something to those pipelines, in the event of some larger geopolitical conflict say over Taiwan. You know, we've seen them hacking our businesses for years.

I always say, if you could see a balloon over every American corporation had been hacked by China Americans would be flabbergasted. And we've seen them hack our personal data. They hacked the office of personal management several years ago which is where everyone submits their application who wants a security clearance. We saw them make off with tens of millions of fingerprints for every American government worker who sought a security clearance.

We've seen them hack Equifax. We've seen them hack Anthem. We've seen them hack Marriott, aviation companies. Ostensibly they are building out this large, personal database of Americans' personal information.

In the beginning I think the theory was that they could cross match which American government workers are traveling and staying in the same place as Chinese citizens as a counterintelligence effort to root out Chinese spies. But it has gotten much more broad than that. So --

GOLODRYGA: President --

PERLROTH: Sorry. Go ahead.

GOLODRYGA: I was just going to say President Biden has tried to avoid thwarting a relationship that was already at its lowest point in years. He said that he is planning to speak with President Xi in the near term. We saw Secretary of State Blinken speak with his counterpart over the weekend.

The president is adamant that this is a relationship that should be driven by competition and not another cold war. Is that realistic at this point?

PERLROTH: I think there is still hope for that. I think COVID had a huge downward effect on this relationship. You know, we are just starting to see China open up. And in the meantime, the relationship has been frosty at best.

I think that, you know, occasionally the U.S. government feels the need to confront China on this theft very publicly. They did so during the Obama administration with intellectual property theft. And actually what was interesting was they threatened Xi Jinping that they would announce sanctions on China ahead of his first visit to the White House. That -- you know, when he arrived at the White House they would announce sanctions just for China's intellectual property theft.

And just the threat of sanctions and that embarrassment caused China to agree to cut it out when it came to stealing American trade secrets. And so that agreement actually stuck for about 18 months until Trump came in with some of the rhetoric on the trade war and all bets were off. And since then we've seen China resume its intellectual property theft although it has gone pretty far underground. I think the balloon really forced this issue back into the open. And the question is, what will we do beyond black listing some of the aerospace companies and technology companies that went into China's surveillance operation vis-a-vis the balloon?


GOLODRYGA: Yes. Those were three companies and we have also instituted export controls and those Trump tariffs are still in place as well. Nicole, thank you so much. We appreciate your time.

PERLROTH: Thank you so much, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Well, up next on GPS, the latest from Syria where the earthquake was a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe. We'll be back in just a moment.


GOLODRYGA: Nearly two weeks ago a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck near Gaziantep, Turkey. Reverberations from this quake and its aftershocks could be felt as far as Jordan, Iraq, and Israel. But the greatest damage occurred in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria where entire city streets were leveled as people slept in the early hours of February 6th.

In Turkey aid has been rushing in to help the badly battered communities there. But across the border in Syria there's barely been a trickle of relief.


And after 12 years of a brutal civil war the country remains largely cut off from the rest of the world. To help us understand what has prevented this life saving aid from reaching those in need, I'm joined by Wa'el Alzayat. He focus on Syria as a senior policy adviser to Samantha Power when she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Wa'el, thank you so much for joining us. What is the situation on the ground there in Syria right now?

WA'EL ALZAYAT, CEO, EMGAGE: Thank you for having me. You know, I am a Syrian-American. I was born and raised in Damascus and it is very painful to think of what the Syrian people are still enduring after a decade of war.

In the northwest part of the country, an area that has been brutalized because of the civil war primarily because of the ongoing bombings and starvation of the Assad regime and its allies including Russia. So, you have a region of 4 million people, half of them are children, who have been essentially almost cut off from the rest of the world and now have to endure this massive, massive earthquake.

Assistance to the area was very slow to get in. The United Nations took almost a week to start delivering support. And the reasons really come down to the fact that Russia as a member of the Security Council has prevented the United Nations from accessing the region except for one road. An assistance that has been flowing through the regime over 70 aircrafts landed in Damascus after the earthquake are prevented by the Syrian regime from crossing into the northwest because it is under opposition control. And that has really contributed and exasperated to an already very dire humanitarian situation.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, I was reading accounts from those there in the early hours of the earthquake thinking that it was just another bombing and not even realizing that it was an earthquake. That just gives you a sense of what life was like for them prior to this earthquake. It truly is a tragedy upon a tragedy. Can you explain specifically how the civil war, itself, has impacted aid going into the area?

ALZAYAT: Well, what you have is when the revolution began in 2012, the government of Bashar al Assad and its allies, Russia, the Iranian government, Lebanese Hezbollah mounted a scorch earth campaign against anyone who opposed them. And over time were able to really defeat the revolution in most of Syria except for this northwestern pocket of the country.

And there was a time when the regime would surround towns and starve them and force the people living there to move into this pocket. So, today you have this area now that is home to 4 million people, as I mentioned, half of whom have already been displaced and the infrastructure has been severely damaged because of over a decade of conflict.

GOLODRYGA: The question, then, turns to how come aid can go into war battered Ukraine, given that Russia launched this war against Ukraine, that aid can go there and yet aid can't get into Syria?

ALZAYAT: That's a very good question. Really the United Nations unfortunately has failed in this moment before the Syrian people and I am afraid there is a very bad precedent being set for the rest of the globe whereby, you know, the Syrian regime does not control these border crossings. Turkey and the opposition do.

So the United Nations is choosing -- choosing to accept Russia's dictates as well as Bashar al Assad and not move across the border. Independent organizations, some countries have been sending aid through the borders but the United Nations and its leadership has chosen not to until Bashar al Assad and Russia allow them to. And that is really dangerous.

And recently that is exactly what happened. They waited until the Russian government allowed the opening of two additional crossings for three months. And one should ask themselves, why is the government that is caring for its people only allowing the U.N. to access a severely hit area for three months? And that tells you everything you need to know about the nature of the government in Damascus as well as what is happening in the United Nations when it comes to these issues.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. That access point, we should note, requires a U.N. Security Council approval every six months. Now, this was the deal set up prior to this earthquake. You have Vladimir Putin and you have Bashar al Assad saying, listen, the aid should just come through Syria and through Damascus itself. Is there any sense that there is a possibility that that could actually happen, that they could follow through on what they say is what they are offering?

ALZAYAT: There is a possibility that is below zero. I would offer that. The history of the conflict shows us that for 12 years the Syrian regime has manipulated aid, especially U.N. aid. There has been a plethora of reporting. There's one recently that was conducted that cited over a hundred million dollars ended up in the regime affiliated organizations and designated entities close to Bashar al Assad through the United Nations.


Already, you know, the good will support that's flown into Damascus by many countries including western countries as well as Arab countries is ending up on the black market in regime held areas. And I am afraid the regime is capitalizing on this moment of crisis to fulfill its objective of coming out of these pressure points that were put on it to limit its death and destruction that has rained on its people. And I'm afraid it might be succeeding at that.

GOLODRYGA: You made that point so clear. Politics aside this is a humanitarian crisis and this is the right thing to do to bring aid to these people there right now. Thank you so much, Wa'el. We appreciate your time.

ALZAYAT: Thank you for having me.

GOLODRYGA: That is it for us today. Fareed will be back here next Sunday morning. You can also catch him posting a very important town hall on Thursday night to mark the first anniversary of Russia's war in Ukraine. He will be joined by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and USAID administrator Samantha Power. The two officials will take live questions from people in Kyiv and in Washington. So, you don't want to miss it. It's at 9:00 p.m. eastern on Thursday night right here on CNN.

In the meantime, thank you so much for joining me today.