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Empty Strollers In Lviv City Center For Every Child Killed Invasion; Russian Fire Missiles At Lviv, Miles From NATO Territory; Putin On Invasion: "We Haven't Had This Unity For A Long Time"; Ukrainian Army Major Claims His Battalion Killed 200+ Russian Troops; Today: Biden, Xi Spoke For Nearly 2 Hours On Putin's War In Ukraine; U.S. General: Russian Soldiers Don't Appear "Particularly Motivated"; Russia's War In Ukraine Looms Closer To NATO's Doorstep; Zelenskyy: 130 Rescued From Theater, Hundreds More Under Rubble. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 18, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, everybody. Welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. Today inside Ukraine, sobering confirmation that Vladimir Putin's missiles in touch every town and every life. This morning dense smoke billowing, you see it there from an aircraft repair plan after six missiles were fired toward Lviv.

Ukraine's air defense intercepted to for though, did get through. Until today the city in the western, half of the country had been relatively untouched by bombs now, no longer. In Kyiv, the capital at least one person is dead, four more hurt after a downed Russian rocket tumbled into a five-story building.

In Kharkiv, a Russian rocket set the city's market ablaze, smoke blacking out the sun. In Mariupol, a city besieged by the worst horrors of this war. Traces of hope. Ukraine's president says, 130 survivors have emerged alive from a destroyed theater, where hundreds of families had taken shelter.

Today a fuller picture of the staggering losses. Ukrainian officials say 60 civilians have died in Kyiv alone, including four children since the beginning of this war. Ukraine wide, United Nation says 816 people have been killed and 1300 plus injured. Across Ukraine signs of tragedy simply everywhere.

You can see here, 109 empty strollers and neat lines that Lviv's city center. One stroller for every dead child, murdered in Putin's war. And we start our coverage right there in Lviv. In western part of the country, CNN's Scott McLean is there. Scott, those strollers' part of a remarkable, simply remarkable backdrop behind you today.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You're absolutely right, John. This is meant to send a message. The Ukrainian say that more than 100 children have been killed and the people who put these strollers here, say that they would like the adults to protect the arrest of the children in the country, to protect them by closing the skies.

They would also like Lviv to remain a relative safe haven amidst the country in the midst of violence. But after today's attack, it seems like that is becoming less and less likely. This has been a wakeup call for people in the city who have enjoyed the relative safety of this city. Of course, air raid sirens go off on an almost daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day.

But today's attack, the bombing near the airport was the very first times the bombs touched down within city limits. We went out to that area earlier today. We were able to get a vantage point right near the runway of the airport and we could see the heavy smoke coming from just beyond the runway. We understand that this was an aircraft repair facility according to local authorities.

The big question given that this city has been such a safe haven for some 200,000 plus people, is will it send a whole new wave of people flooding for the borders? Well, for a lot of people who live in Lviv, will take a lot more than that. I spoke to one woman earlier from Kyiv where this city still seems extremely safe and comparison. Listen?


MARGARITA, LVIV RESIDENT: I felt really nervous about my daughter. If not for her, I wouldn't come. I wouldn't go - I wouldn't leave Kyiv because my husband is there. Why? Because I was born there. I want to be at home. I don't want to be refugee. That's normal, I think.


MCLEAN: It is normal. It's the answer that we've heard from so, so many people, John, that this is their home. They don't want to leave unless they absolutely have to. The shelling though continues across the country. The barbershop market in Kharkiv is one of the largest in the world think, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul on that kind of a scale, took shelling yesterday. Several fires broke out, they even spread to the residential buildings there.

And as of earlier today, a couple of hours ago, those fires were still trying to be extinguished. There were also 21 people killed, 25 injured in the town of Murafa. That is not too far from Kharkiv, maybe 15 or 20 miles away. One of the sites that was hit, a school. It seems like in Ukraine these days, John, nothing is off limits.

KING: Nothing is off limits. Scott McLean, leading us off from Lviv. Scott, appreciate the live report. Three weeks into this invasion. The Russian military has taken startling losses as many as 7000 dead by Western estimates. Yet today, listen here Vladimir Putin says all as well.



PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA: The best proof is the way our boys are fighting in this operation, shoulder to shoulder, supporting each other and if need be, protecting each other like brothers. Shielding one another with their bodies on the battlefield. We haven't had this unity for a long time.


KING: And easier now in central Ukraine, our CNN's Ivan Watson is there and he's getting a firsthand account of life. In the trenches. Ivan, what are you learning?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I've been speaking at length with an officer in the territorial defense, injured in combat operations and recovering from his injuries here in Vinnytsia in relative safety. He commands a battalion of about 400 men who've been defending Kyiv on its northwestern border and frontline.

And he described the Russian troops, not being the superpower that Ukrainians had feared, saying that they were poorly equipped with food and water and fuel, though they have an abundance of ammunition. He described tactics of his forces of aggressive resistance. Breaking up into groups of ten fighters at a time, armed with, in most cases, Soviet era rocket propelled grenades to try to ambush columns of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers and succeeding in holding the line, but at quite a cost. Take a listen?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As your battalion had casualties.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People killed, people wounded.

MAJ. TAMARIN: Yes, I prefer not to tell the number of people, but we have - I already lost my friends and people who serve with me, we have people who wounded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is the weapon that is hurting your man?

MAJ. TAMARIN: Is the most dangerous, it's artillery.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does your battalion have an estimate for how many Russians they killed?

MAJ. TAMARIN: For now, we destroy almost 200 Russians and captured live closer to six or eight soldiers.


WATSON: Now, John, this officer is a veteran of the 2014 war in southeastern Ukraine against Russian backed separatists. And he says, the big difference between them and now is the sheer size and scale of the Russian invasion force, and also the airpower, the helicopters and aircraft that he says is, excuse me, not a company accustomed to fighting against.

And though, his men are lightly armed, relatively speaking, they are not elite forces. Most of them are volunteers since the invasion, who signed up to defend their homeland. He says they have adequate weaponry to fight back. And they have already started to receive some weapons from friendly countries that are supporting Ukraine, including shoulder mounted missiles, shoulder launch missiles that are so lethal against Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers. John?

KING: Ivan Watson, fascinating, fascinating reporting on the brave efforts the resistance by the Ukrainians. Ivan, thanks so much. Let's come back to Washington now for a critical agenda item for the American President this morning. President Biden convening a call with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, task one for Biden, dissuading Beijing from dispatching any military help to Moscow during the Ukraine invasion.

Let's get straight to our CNN chief White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, what more do we know about this call?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, we know that it lasted an hour and 15 minutes. And even when you take into account the time for translation, that's still a pretty long phone call for President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to have their first conversation, we should note in four months since they last spoke in November when they held that virtual Summit.

Now, of course, this invasion has happened. We are now in the fourth week of it. And so, really the first goal of this call was the White House wanted to get a sense of where the Chinese leader stood on this invasion and invasion that he is not referred to as an invasion, yet an invasion that China has not condemned yet, either.

And second, the White House wants to know if China is prepared to respond to this Russian request for more military equipment, more economic assistance. But of course, the military equipment would be so critical for Russia at this time, as we've seen how their Russian forces in Ukraine have struggled with their strategy of this invasion as they have been short staffed, and they've not had a lot of the supplies that they need. That's why they reached out to China for this help even asking for those MREs, those ready to eat meals that soldiers often have. That is how desperate Russia was making this request based on a CNN reporting.

And so, that is what the White House wanted to get a sense of what does China plan to do here. Because yesterday, Secretary of State Blinken said, that they did have a real concern that China was prepared to grant that request by Russia for more military equipment. Then you saw these appeals from the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on CNN earlier, urging China to be on the right side of history when it comes to this.


And John, I should note, we're still waiting on a White House readout of this call, their version of what was discussed, but we didn't get an early readout from Chinese state media. The official broadcaster, they're saying that President Xi told President Biden "the Ukraine crisis is something that we don't want to see" Of course, what the U.S. version of that is, what their takeaway is, from this hour and 15-minute-long phone call remains to be seen. But of course, this is a call that could not come at a more critical time during this invasion.

KING: Incredibly delicate moment, Kaitlan Collins, come back if we do learn more about this important conversation. Appreciate the live report from the White House. And for us, we map out the battlefield. A closer look at what's happening on the ground in Ukraine. We know, there's intense shelling by Russian forces. As Putin's focus seems to be broadening to the West.




KING: A straight forward and not complimentary, American assessment today of Russian troop morale. This is General Frank McKenzie, the commander of Central Command. He says Moscow's military is flailing.


GENERAL FRANK MCKENZIE, COMMANDER U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: In trained army, you can equip an army. What you can't give an army is the fighting spirit of the individual soldier. And they don't appear from where I sit, at least to be particularly motivated or particularly engaged in the campaign that they're undertaking.


KING: Still today, Russian bombs are pushing closer and closer to NATO territory. Russia launching six missiles at Lviv. That's in western Ukraine. Earlier today among the targets and aircraft repair plan. The city it's only 43 miles from the Polish border. Let's bring in from his important insights and perspective.

Our military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. General Hertling, great to see you today. When you hear General McKenzie here. That is a point you have made over the last couple of weeks, that the Russian army is demonstrating incompetence. And with that incompetence comes morale problems. And so, you have that on the table.

But yet, I also just want to bring up this close up of where we have seen progress around Kyiv, the capital. The Russians wanted to take Kyiv in days. We are in week four. They have failed, miserably at that task. And yet General Hertling, they are closer, and they have a bit of a circle. If you look at the places that have been struck in recent days, what does that tell you?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.) FORMER COMMANDING GENERAL, EUROPE AND SEVENTH ARMY: It tells me they can't sustain that fight, John. And again, as we've talked multiple times before, they do not have the logistic support and they're losing combat power on a daily basis. One of the things that general McKenzie mentioned, I think he failed to mention the lack of leadership in the Russian army. They have not planned this fight well. They have overextended themselves. And not only do they not have the will within the force, they have not led the force well.

So, as they attempt to get closer and closer to Kyiv, remember their main mission in making that as their primary objective was to take over the Ukrainian government. They are not going to be able to do that. The fight they're approaching in Ukraine, or excuse me in Kyiv, is going to be one of artillery battles, artillery duels, and continuous terror. But there doesn't seem to be an indicator that they have the force to actually overcome the Ukrainian government in the capital city.

KING: And because it has been such a slog for the Russians on the ground. One of the things you watch is, what are they trying to do from the air? One of the things we have seen, relatively quiet in the western part of the country. But in recent days, including recent hours, General Hertling, more Russian strikes out here in the West.

You see the city of Lviv here and you see the strikes around it. There are air bases there. There are military installations, including this aircraft repair factory today, where there's been a big debate about whether we should send more MiGs into Ukraine, a place where they repair their air force jets. Now, again, what does that tell you about the Russian targeting?

GEN. HERTLING: Well, it tells me something, first of all, about their campaign plan. They are shifting. What the Russians wanted to do, John, is what's called a battle of annihilation. They wanted to take the capital, and they wanted to surround all the forces and defeat them by just surrounding them from the north and the south, they have not done that.

Now they are transitioning, I believe, to a battle of attrition, which means they're trying to pick off targets. They're trying to do things. I actually think it's a little bit of desperation in terms of what they're doing in western Ukraine, because they're shooting missiles, dropping bombs, hopefully trying to take out the logistics from Ukrainian force, not only what they have in country, but also potentially the transfer of arms from NATO countries.

So, they're desperately trying to struggle to affect the Ukrainian logistics and supply support. Because in a battle of attrition, which now both sides are in, logistics become critical. And they know that the resupply of the Ukrainian forces is going to be important to the Ukraine's maintaining their active defense.

KING: The resupply is an issue you have brought up repeatedly as well. And I don't know if you were listening, when Ivan Watson was on the air, just a moment ago. He's outside Vinnytsia. He's in the woods and he's interviewed a Ukrainian commander, who says he is beginning to get more weapons sent in. You've talked about this repeatedly. Everybody wants to do more. There's political pressure here for President Biden to do more. There's political pressure that NATO companies do more. But you've made the point repeatedly that we are not seeing some of this because it's classified, because it's a military operation. When you hear that a Ukrainian commander in the field, saying he's beginning to get more shoulder fired missiles, for example, what does that tell you?

GEN. HERTLING: Well, first of all, I'd make the point that Ivan's interview was with a territorial commander too. So, that's the equivalent of their national guard, the militia that they've called up. So, the active force, the active Ukrainian army has been getting some really good equipment for a while.


When you're talking about the territorials, the folks who are standing up to defend their homeland, now getting some of those supplies, it tells me the supplies are getting through. I'd add to that, not only are the supply lines delivering the weapons, the kinds of things these forces need. But it's been interesting to me and from my sources, I've heard quite a bit of Ukrainian army and territorial forces taking over the abandoned Russian equipment.

And that is been significant, not just tanks and personnel carriers, but artillery pieces and turning them around on the enemy. Armies throughout history have tried to do that with their enemies. It appears Ukraine has been very successful because of the lack of leadership, the lack of training by the Russian force coming into country.

KING: General Hertling, it's always so grateful. Very important insights. Really appreciate it. Thank you.

GEN. HERTLING: Thank you, John.

KING: Thank you, sir. And this programming note, on the issues just raised by General Hertling, be sure to watch tonight. Don Lemon's exclusive interview with the Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, airs tonight 10pm Eastern, right here, only on CNN.

When we come back, plumes of smoke in the skies of Lviv. The city wants a safe haven for residents fleeing the violence. The latest on the ground in Ukraine next. But first, by President Biden's call today with China's President matters so much. And whether Putin's war in Ukraine helps or hurts, Xi Jinping.




KING: Today the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, gave a tragic update on that theater in Mariupol bombed by Russian forces.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE: Rescue operations are continuing at the sites of the bomb theater, where civilians were hiding from bombs and using it as a shelter. We have managed to rescue 130 people from there. However, hundreds of the people of Mariupol are still under the rubble, despite all the difficulties we will continue the rescue operation.


KING: It is estimated 1300 people were sheltering inside that theater when it was bombed amid the ongoing Russian siege. In Kyiv, Zelenskyy visited injured civilians on Thursday, with Russian forces inching a bit closer to the capital. New drone footage shows up close damage to Kyiv residential buildings that after a Russian rocket hit. You can see personal belongings scattered everywhere, exposed by the blown out exterior.

In Kharkiv, billowing smoke from a fire still being extinguished after Russian forces shell the large market yesterday. Kharkiv mayor says one first responder died fighting that fire. And the sad reality Ukraine's civilians are preparing to treat the injured.

American veterans are teaching Ukrainians' battlefield survival skills, including how to treat wounds from shrapnel and punctures. The lesson is becoming more critical given limited medical supplies now across Ukraine. To it although, the best of humanity does shine. An Israeli volunteer on the border of Romania and Ukraine is welcoming refugee children with them with toys.

President Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, talk for nearly two hours this morning. We know the critical phone calls centered around Putin's war in Ukraine. Chinese state media reporting that Xi told Biden, China and the United States have a shared responsibility to work for peace. And the Ukraine crisis is something the Chinese official state media says, the government does not want to see.

Let's get some important insights now for someone who knows the China puzzle well. Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia. Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for your time today. We don't have a lot of information. I'm sorry. He's also the author of this forthcoming book, "The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping's China," a book that comes out at a remarkable moment.

Mr. Prime Minister, we don't know a lot, as is often the case in the moments just after these calls. But let's take it from each side's perspective. Going in, you know, the American president has intelligence that the Russians have reached out for help. He wants to tell Xi Jinping do not do this. Do not send military equipment. Do not even send meals for Russian troops, or there will be consequences. How is that likely to be received on the other end?

KEVIN RUDD, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA: I think, John, with difficulty and the Chinese end because of the nature of the Xi Jinping relationship with Putin, which is both structural, diplomatic, political, and personal. But the bottom line is, I think the administration has done the right thing here by sending out a very direct signal.

If you supply financial or economic aid to the Russians, that's going to invite the possibility of secondary financial sanctions from the U.S. and the West. And secondly, if you provide military equipment or support or even rations, then you are entering into a zone where it results in a fundamental breach and the entire fabric of the U.S. China relationship.

I think the presidents, as President Biden's mission was to convey that an absolute clarity to President Xi Jinping, I assume that's what's occurred. And if I look at the Chinese language readout, which I've just been reading before we came on air this morning, the tonality of Xi Jinping's readout is remarkably in my judgment, conciliatory towards the United States.

KING: That would be interesting. If that's the tone - it's the tone, at least they want the public to understand. The question is, what do they do in private and then in the relationship? Xi has called Vladimir Putin, his best friend, his best friend. Is he had not that he will, not that Xi would see it in his interest and in China's interest? But is he, is Xi perhaps the only world leader who could pick up the phone of Vladimir Putin and say, stop?

RUDD: Right now, I think that's true. The real question though, John, is what do you ever do? Remember Xi Jinping's equities, his investment in the Russia relationship, the Putin relationship is formidable.