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Today: Biden, Xi Spoke For Nearly Two Hours On Putin's War In Ukraine; Polish PM To Submit Proposal For Peacekeeping Mission In Ukraine; Blinken: Russia May Be "Setting The Stage" To Use Chemical Weapons In Ukraine. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired March 18, 2022 - 12:30   ET



KEVIN RUDD, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA: Right now, I think that's true. The real question though, John, is would he ever do so.


RUDD: Remember Xi Jinping's equities, his investment in the Russia relationship, the Putin relationship with formidable. This joint declaration they signed on for February in Beijing together, like it takes the breath away of people like myself have been reading this stuff for 20 years. It's so big, broad, and deep. And then, of course, the abiding Russian strategic interest -- Chinese strategic interest is to have a benign border with the Russians, so that the Chinese can focus on their genuine, regional, and global adversary, namely the United States.

So then there's the personal chemistry, they see themselves as great men of history and fellow authoritarians. So for Xi to pick up the phone my judgment, John, is this. You would have to conclude that Putin had reached absolute stalemate or possible defeat in the battlefield, or that Putin was somehow in risk of falling himself politically in Moscow.

KING: And so, Xi is going to make this decision, as you smartly note, based on what he thinks is in his best interest and China's best interest, but his best interests first. What is your assessment today? As of today, does this war, Putin's war, help or hurt Xi Jinping in the sense that, number one, you've watched the NATO alliance, the reawakening of the West to the threat from Putin?

So NATO is now going to spend years reinforcing troops putting more U.S. military, more NATO military assets in Europe, after we've spent the last 25 years saying there's about to be a pivot to China? Does that free things up for Xi? Or does he see this global coalition and say, Wait a minute, now I'm on notice I cannot touch Taiwan?

RUDD: You know, something, John, I've been reading what the Chinese have been saying politically and ideologically internally about their contest with U.S. and the West for some time now, including everything that Xi Jinping has been writing. They've assumed that their rhetoric internationally is reflects the reality. They call it, the rise of the East and the decline of the West. And that means China up, U.S. and its allies down against most matrices or matrix of power, economically, militarily, technologically there is.

But I agree with your assumption implied in your question that when Xi and those around him look with cold, hard realist eyes of what's unfolded on the battlefield in Ukraine, thanks to President Zelenskyy's extraordinary leadership. And then secondly, what's happened in Europe, where rather than just crumbling, which is what I think the both the Russians and the Chinese expected, there has been unprecedented unity.

And in particular, the new resolve in Berlin on the part of the social democratic chancellor of Germany, I think the Chinese would say, whoops, this is going the wrong way. That's my judgment.

KING: And if they say, whoops, this has gone the wrong way. The question is, then the next question is, would Xi in some quiet or public way try to change the arc of where we are today? And that's the unanswered question, right?

RUDD: Yes, I think their analysis will be this is trending negatively for China's own interests. But it's a huge call for Xi Jinping to be seen in Moscow to be pulling the rug in any way from under Vladimir Putin's position, because you can't just make a discreet call from Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, to Putin and the Kremlin without someone knowing about it.

And if this became known, internationally or nationally within Russian politics, that the Chinese were now qualifying their support for Moscow. I would think this creates an -- a very dangerous set of political circumstances locally for Putin. But I don't rule this out. But I think we're not yet there in those circumstances, Putin will have to do a lot worse yet in the field and his politics become more brittle in Moscow before Xi Jinping will try and save Chinese face by being seen to moderate later in the process, or mediate later in the process.

KING: One of the many fascinating questions we need to keep an eye on. The former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, sir, grateful for your time on this important day. Appreciate it.

RUDD: Thank you.

KING: Thank you.


Ahead for us, the struggle as Ukrainians flee to neighboring countries for safety. We were live on the ground assessing the refugee crisis, next.


KING: Just a staggering number. More than 3.2 million people have now fled Ukraine. Over 90 percent of those refugees, the United Nations reports, are women and children. And upwards of 2 million people have escaped to one country, Poland. CNN's Melissa Bell is there for us and joins us now live from Poland. Melissa, what are you seeing today? MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, more trains arriving from Lviv from other Ukrainian towns even as of course those Russian strikes start to hit further and further west. And I think that parsing of the 2 million by the 2 million Ukrainians who have now crossed into the -- into Poland, of course an important moment. But it is important to remember, even as we look at that scale, John, even as we look at that figures, what is happening individually to all those people who've been coming off the trains have a listen to a one woman told us as she stepped off the train from Lviv.


MAYOR WOJCIECH BAKUN, PRZEMYSL, POLAND: We react very quick, but we can do this for three, four weeks, not for a long time. So we just wait for reaction our government as well as the E.U. countries.



BELL: Apologies. That was of course the mayor of the town I'm speaking to you from where so many of these British refugee -- told me these Ukrainian refugees have been arriving. This is a town that has shown extraordinary solidarity. But of course, is just being overwhelmed in terms of the amount of people that have been arriving here.

Another reminder, of course of how Poland is being affected not just by the numbers of refugees that have been heading into this country, and the difficulty that it's finding and dealing with finding shelter and water, we've been hearing from Poland's Prime Minister clearly rattled by the fact that these bombs have clearly falling closer and closer to Poland's borders.

And what we understand, John, is that he's going to use a NATO summit next week to officially ask for a NATO peacekeeping mission to be sent to Ukraine. Now that of course would be a huge step. What he said in a press conference this morning was that look, the bombs are now falling on our doorstep. And of course, Poland has been leading the charge for NATO to act more and more forcefully. John?

KING: Remarkably moving today. And a big question for that NATO summit next week. Melissa Bell, grateful for the live reporting from Poland.

Some new reporting here in Washington today on the struggle to break through Vladimir Putin's propaganda firewall, the American government and a cast of international hackers, Hollywood stars activists, using telegram, a social media platform to ferry outside information to Russians inundated with Kremlin lies. CNN's Kylie Atwood is at the State Department tracking this. Kylie, walk us through it.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, what we've learned in our reporting is that these efforts to really break through the disinformation that Russia is putting out to try and censor what Russians are receiving, information they're receiving about the Ukrainian war are quite widespread. First, you've got the U.S. government involved. Just one example of what they're doing is that they set up a telegram account, that's a very popular Russian messaging app.

And the State Department now has an account there. They are talking about this being Russia's war. They're being very explicit that the Kremlin is sharing disinformation with the Russian people putting out those messages. And then you have independent folks getting involved too. These hackers who are based in Ukraine and around the world being called the Ukrainian IT army, and what they're trying to do is to hack into Russian news websites.

Now, of course, those websites are state backed information. So they're trying to hack through that and post information about the number of Russian deaths that are occurring as part of Russia's war in Ukraine. Now, the other thing that we're watching is independent folks go out on their own and send messages trying to break through to the Russian people. One of those is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He posted a video, quite a long video, John, on Twitter this week talking about his love for the Russian people and his experiences traveling to Russia and being very clear to him -- to them that he wants them to know what they are hearing isn't the truth, talked about the Russian attack on the maternity ward in Ukraine this week. John?

KING: Atwood at the State Department, fascinating effort. We shall see how successful it is.


Ahead for us, Vladimir Putin today saying all is well. But U.S. officials worried, worried issuing a chilling new warning about what Putin because he is actually struggling may do next.


KING: Today, a glitch in Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine. The Russian President was addressing the nation celebrating his 2014 annexation of Crimea. But his big speech cut off before he was finished. You'll see it right here, the shot abruptly cutting through group of singers. The Kremlin says it was just a technical glitch, and the speech was later replayed in its entirety.

The Kremlin is also reacting angrily to tough and personal words from President Biden about Putin. The number two official at the State Department today promising a thorough effort to document possible Russian war crimes, but said Putin's hold on power was not a factor in administration policy.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The United States support regime change in Russia.

WENDY SHERMAN, DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: That is not what we are about. We are not -- this is a decision for the people of Russia.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: With me now to share their reporting and their insights, CNN contributor David Sanger of The New York Times, Vivian Salama of The Wall Street Journal. So David, let's start with you. You wrote a fascinating piece today about how, this is President Biden's instinct. He makes big things personal, right? And so let's just listen, Wendy Sherman there saying we're not about regime change. But she also knows that post Putin, the President of the United States his words in recent days directly poking Putin.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Other Republic standing together against a murderous dictator, a pure thug, who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is Putin a war criminal sir? Are you ready to call him a war criminal?

BIDEN: Oh, I think he is a war criminal.


KING: Pros and cons.

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So the pros here is the President saying what seems evident to us watching the video that you've been playing throughout the whole show, John, you take a look at civilians being targeted. That's the definition of war crimes. And the more he says this, the more the message is going to make its way out, including to the Russian people. They have to say that this is not about regime change. And in the short run, it's probably not.

But in the long run, of course, the previous times that we have talked about leaders like this or Saddam Hussein, right, Bashar al-Assad who was still in power but we accused of war crimes and said we couldn't imagine Syria going on with him as a leader. Well he's still a leader. The downside that a cornered Putin if he is failing on the battlefield, and believes whether it's true or not, that the United States is trying to stoke opposition to him at home, is much more likely to reach for extreme measures.


And right now, we're hearing from the intelligence community, quite publicly that those extreme measures are chemical and biological. And we're hearing from the Defense Intelligence Agency that they believe he will threaten the use of nuclear weapons. I don't think he's actually going to use nuclear weapons, unless NATO is actually in Ukraine. But those -- that's the downside.

KING: Well, so let's listen to the Secretary of State on that very point about possible Russian use of chemical weapons to hear this so publicly is startling. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We believe that Moscow may be setting the stage to use a chemical weapon, and then falsely blame Ukraine to justify escalating its attacks on the Ukrainian people, manufacturing events, and creating false narratives of genocide to justify greater use of military force is a tactic that Russia has used before.


KING: It is a tactic they had used before, Vivian. But one of the trademarks of the Biden administration over the last several months, has been getting way out ahead, disclosing intelligence publicly. The Russians are building up troops they plan to invade, the Russians are moving the troops here they plan to invade, they proved right. They were right in those declarations. So when you hear that, it gives you even more chills.

VIVIAN SALAMA, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Absolutely. And obviously, this has been part of the Russian playbook not just in this conflict, where we've seen sort of everything play out exactly as the administration has predicted. But Russia also has a pattern of doing this not just helping other dictators around the world use chemical weapons, but also going against their own adversaries, adversaries have the regime to use chemical weapons against them or, you know, any kind of chemical that would basically inflict severe harm.

And so this is something that the U.N. has expressed concern about, the administration, Biden administration now expressing concern about. And they continue to ramp up pressure. I spoke to an official this week, who was telling me, you know, a large part of the intelligence has actually been declassified and downgraded so that they could continue to ramp up public pressure against Vladimir Putin.

And so definitely, when we do hear the Secretary of State or anyone in the administration going out there and saying anything, especially given how spot on their track record has been with the intelligence in this conflict, you have to say, OK, this is getting really bad.

KING: Well, let me pick issue reporting before we go, we're waiting to learn more about this very important call between the President of the United States and his Chinese counterpart. What is the sense that the White House as we wait to learn more, do they, you know, the goal number one is keep the Chinese from directly helping Russia? The question is, is there any scenario under which the Chinese would then turn to try to do something to help the United States, Vivian?

SALAMA: Well, the Chinese, obviously do want to work with the United States, they want to have a trade relationship, they do want to engage to a certain extent, but at the same time, they also like playing both sides. And for them to have Vladimir Putin sort of coming out there with his hands out saying, can you please help us, it actually puts them in a very strong position.

And so they believe that having that kind of dual handedness where they on the one hand, say promise to work with Washington, on the other hand, don't completely slammed the door in Russia's face will be in the long run very beneficial to them.

KING: We always want to know the answer today. The Chinese tend to take a longer view.

SANGER: They do. But if you want the model here, John, look at how they've dealt with North Korea. You know, at various moments, they've cracked down on them about their nuclear program and then slowly they resumed trade, because they believe that staying engaged with them, gives them some level of control and influence. And who hates being dependent on the Chinese, Vladimir Putin, who does not want to enter this relationship, this new relationship as the vassal state, but that's where he is right now.

KING: That's a fascinating moment. Appreciate the important reporting from both of you.


Ahead for us, a heartbreaking story, an American killed in Ukraine, while trying to take care of his sick partner.


KING: The scale of tragedy in Ukraine these past three weeks is hard, beyond hard to fathom. So many have already died. Thursday, word an American among the dead, among those murdered by Russian forces while waiting in a breadline Chernihiv. James Hill was his name. He was 68. He was a teacher and he lived to wanderer his life, growing up in the Minneapolis suburb before winding his way through Europe. His landing spot was Ukraine. His last few weeks spent alive were spent in Chernihiv hospital, tending to his partner, Ira. Ira has multiple sclerosis, as do I.

And James or Jimmy was her helper. He was her hero. He walked to that breadline because Ira and others in that hospital could not. Last night, Jimmy's sister told Erin Burnett, her brother lived his last days bringing cookies to war fatigue nurses and keeping bite sized chocolate pick me ups in a pocket in reserve, his small way to cut through tension and sadness. Leaving Ira, his sister says, was never an option.


KATYA HILL, BROTHER JAMES KILLED IN UKRAINE: My brother was the helper that people find in a crisis. He was not going to leave Ira's side in her condition. The doctor thought she had a mild case of pneumonia and said well let's treat the pneumonia first and then start the MS treatments. And of course in two days the invasion started, but he was not going to leave.


KING: Jimmy was a hero long before Vladimir Putin's war took him from Ira and his family. May his memory be a blessing.

[13:00:07] Thanks for your time today and INSIDE POLITICS. Try to have a good weekend if you can. Don't forget you can also listen to our podcast download Inside Politics wherever you get your podcast. Pamela Brown, Anderson Cooper, pick up our breaking news coverage right now.