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Inside Politics

Ukrainian Military Retakes Ground From Russian Forces; Biden Heads To Brussels As Putin's Invasion Turns 4 Weeks Old; Pentagon: Indications Ukrainians Are Going "More On The Offense"; U.S., NATO Officials: Belarus May Soon Join Russia In War; Pentagon: Russia Used Hypersonic Missiles "At Least" Once; NATO To Reinforce Eastern Flank As Biden Travels To Brussels; Zelenskyy Continues Highly-Tailored Diplomatic Pressure Campaign; Russian Forces Target More Residential Areas In Kyiv. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 23, 2022 - 12:00   ET



ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm Abby Phillip in Washington. John King is off. Tonight, President Biden lands in Brussels after promising new sanctions and new diplomatic pressure on Vladimir Putin. Before leaving, he gave this warning.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President, how concerned are you about the threat of chemical warfare right now, that Russell will use chemical weapon. How high is that threat?



PHILLIP: We are now in week four of the Ukraine invasion and a near constant Russian barrage against military and civilian targets in Ukraine. In Kyiv, damage to homes high rises, and a shopping mall. The Russian aerial assault is growing more indiscriminate by the day, but also there are reports that the tide is turning towards Ukraine. This is dramatic video of a firefight on the capital's outskirts.

In Mariupol, pure devastation. This is drone footage that we're showing you, showing the awful toll of Russian bombings. But we'll start our coverage in Lviv in western Ukraine. Where CNN's Phil Black is. Phil, in Kyiv, the capital, there's an intense firefight and air raid sirens are happening all the time now. What's the latest?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, Abby, around Kyiv and other places too, but particularly around the capital, we are seeing Ukraine's fierce resistance turning into something more, turning into counter attacks. And they are effective counter attacks that in particular have regained territory to the west and northwest of the capital Kyiv.

This is extraordinary really. This is not a scenario that people were talking about a month ago when this war began. The idea of the Ukraine, the Ukrainians actually fighting back and regaining ground and territory in this way. And it's potentially significant. If they're able to hold this ground, perhaps consolidate those gains, but that is a big if.

It's significant, because it would allow them to then slow down and even prevent Russia's plans to encircle get close to, and then ultimately take the capital, which analysts still believe that is Russia's intention. These sorts of games slowdown that effort.

The key question is, can they maintain them because the Russians are adapting their tactics too. They know the fight isn't always going well for them when they're up close against the Ukrainians. And so, what we've seen and increasingly see, a Russian munitions being fired from a great distance. So, even the Ukrainians acknowledge the positive steps that have been taken in recent days. They still know there is very much a tough fight ahead.

PHILLIP: And Phil, we're also getting some new information out of Mariupol, a city that's been really under siege since the beginning of this crisis. Tell us what's happening there?

BLACK: Yes. Abby, some new pictures too, some extraordinary pictures. I think aerial video that shows what weeks of bombardment and blockade have done to Mariupol. It looks lifeless, it is ominous. But down there, among those buildings, there are still hundreds of thousands of people. What you can't see from those pictures are, what they're feeling and experiencing the fear, the hunger, the suffering.

They are in an extraordinarily desperate situation. It is why every day through a narrow and very specific humanitarian corridor, thousands of people are making their way out by car. It's only a few thousands a day through Russian territory into Ukrainian territory. There are efforts to try and get more out all the time. No buses have been allowed out so far.

Today, a fleet of buses tried to get in, empty buses to help more people live. But they were stopped at a Russian checkpoint just on the western outskirts of the town of the city, I should say. And they were taken away, along with their drivers, along with emergency services personnel on board. And the Ukrainian government says, they don't know what's happened to them. They don't know where they are, Abby.

PHILLIP: A horrifying situation there. Phil Black, thank you. Let's go now to CNN's Kaitlan Collins in Brussels where President Biden will land later tonight. Kaitlan, huge stakes for President Biden this week and for all of NATO. But you have some new reporting.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It's likely, Abby, to be the biggest trip that President Biden takes while in office. He's got these urgent talks scheduled, as soon as he gets here in Brussels, a full day of meetings tomorrow, where he's going to start meeting with NATO allies, leaders in the morning to talk about what they are going to do next in response to this Russian invasion that is now stretched into a month here.

[12:05:00] And we do know that at the end of the day, President Biden is expected to announce new sanctions on Russia. This time it's going to come in the form of sanctions on hundreds of Russian lawmakers' members of the lower house of parliament there are in Moscow, that is going to be something.

But also, the White House national security adviser says, they are going to be talking about efforts to go ahead and try to enforce those already existing sanctions, to make sure that Russia is not able to evade them or undermine them or weaken them by working with other countries. And so, they would say they'll be part of the effort that President Biden is going to announce as well.

And one thing we do expect him to try to finalize while he's here on the ground, is whether or not they're going to be sending more U.S. forces to those NATO allies here in Europe. You've already seen a lot of them go over here, Abby, on that eastern flank trying to reassure these NATO allies who feel threatened by this, of course, increase the level of Russian aggression, given the comments that you've seen coming from Russian officials and the actions that Putin is taking in Ukraine alone.

And while we do hear the head of NATO saying today, that they do expect NATO to increase his presence overall. It remains to be seen how many of those are U.S. forces. What the actual numbers look like? That we do know that the Pentagon provided President Biden with options before he got on Air Force One and made his way to Brussels, which he is doing right now.

But of course, Abby, we know that these meetings are going to be incredibly critical. They are very urgent. They have been very abruptly scheduled, but the White House knows this is not the end of this war. They don't expect it to end rapidly. They don't expect it to end easily, of course. And so, this is just another step in the effort to try to show solidarity with European allies, while President Biden is making this trip, of course, before eventually going on to Poland, Abby.

PHILLIP: Kaitlan Collins, on a very important assignment in Brussels. Thank you. And the Pentagon says that Ukrainian troops are going more on the offensive. So, joining me now to talk about this is retired Major General Michael Repass, the former commander of U.S. special operations forces in Europe.

General, the Russians have been encircling Kyiv now for weeks. So, they've been attempting to at least, and they are in some of the suburbs over here to the east, some of the suburbs to the north and west. But by no means are they actually encircling the city. Why is that?

MAJ. GEN. MICHAEL REPASS (RET.), FORMER COMMANDER. U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS FORCES IN EUROPE: Well, they run out of combat power effectively. They've run out of the number of troops that they need to be able to do that. And there's been a very stiff resistance by the Ukrainian armed forces, particularly the uniformed forces in the territorials that have repulsed a lot of the attacks and attempts to encirclement.

The encirclements are very difficult maneuver, very difficult to achieve. You need a lot of combat power for that. But the Russians have diluted their capabilities on three different axes. So, if they want to do encirclement in Kyiv, they have to go get forces from somewhere else, they certainly don't have enough on that axis.

PHILLIP: And to that point, getting forces from somewhere else. There's some talk that the Belarusian troops could be coming to join the Russian troops. They would presumptively be coming from the north up here to help fortify the Russians. You have some questions about whether that will actually happen and is the fact that we're even talking about this a sign, that Putin is getting desperate.

REPASS: I'm not sure that he's getting desperate, but he's certainly pulling out all the stops. He realizes he didn't have enough, when he crossed the border, back on the 24th of February. Now he's scratching around, see where you can get additional capabilities from whoever will come. In this case, the Belarusian, they have a little bit to contribute. They've got about 20,000-man military or army. They've got two active and full brigades. And then, you get two that are partially man.

So, they don't have a whole lot to add to the capabilities that are on the ground already in Ukraine. However, they can threaten the western approaches along to resupply route in the western border of Ukraine and the NATO nations over there. That would be a significant challenge, I think, for the Ukrainians to be able to handle that.

However, I do know that they have defenses out there that are watching this very carefully. So, I think they'll be able to handle two brigades if they come across. There's more to it, and we're going to be challenged out that way.

PHILLIP: You heard earlier our reporter talking about what's going on in the city of Mariupol. The Russians have been besieging that city over here along the Sea of Azov for weeks now, no food, no power. It's a very dire situation. But they've been doing it the Russians, by firing missiles from the sea. What's your read on the situation in this part of Ukraine, in the southern part of Ukraine, where Russians are still struggling to capture these cities?

REPASS: Right. So, I heard a guest earlier talking about what the objective is in Mariupol. They want to have a land bridge from Russia, unimpeded all the way down to Crimea. So, they're going to read the entire population from that swath of land in eastern Ukraine (CROSSTALK)

PHILLIP: Just to show for some of the highlights that there. Yes.


REPASS: Yes. They don't want any resistance there whatsoever. So, the idea is to make Mariupol unlivable, which they've achieved so far. What they haven't done as they haven't destroyed the defending forces that are in there and whatever civilians are left. But eventually, what they'll do is, they'll force all the civilians out, and the only people that will be left will be lawful combatants. That way the Russians can complete the destruction of the city. That city is permanently in for our lifetimes and then beyond uninhabitable because of what the Russians have done to it.

PHILLIP: I want you to take a quick listen to what Senator Angus King said this morning.


SEN. ANGUS KING (I-ME): I think one of the things that this war has shown is the weakness of the Russian army, which, you know, people, they're 10 feet tall. Well, they aren't. They're being stopped, essentially, by, you know, by a much smaller force of Ukrainians. The Russians have almost their whole army in this fight.


PHILLIP: This has obviously not been a shining moment for the Russian military. But do you think that they have a crisis on the horizon?

REPASS: Yes. The military does have a crisis in their presence at the moment and that they've been degraded significantly in Ukraine. But to the larger point that I think Senator King was making was that, you know, the Russian veiled of disability that's been pierced. We all thought during the Cold War, that the Russian was a big bear in the east.

They were capable of doing all kinds of things to NATO and our partners, it turned out not to be true. They turned out to be somewhat weak in several areas. What is surprising about this campaign is the weakness of not only the maneuver aspect, but also the logistics aspect. So, they've had to rely on what they've traditionally and historically relied on since World War II.

And that's the force of their artillery, their long-range rockets, bombing and now in the modern age, precision strike missiles. Their fire-based army, as opposed to what the western militaries are based on maneuver. So, they backed off and started to rely upon their fires to make up for the incompetence that they have at the tactical level there.

PHILLIP: And that's why we are seeing as much destruction as we are. Major General Michael Repass, thank you for joining us today. And coming up for us right now, President Biden is on route to Brussels for an emergency NATO Summit. What will his message be to European allies when he arrives?




PHILLIP: And right now, President Biden is on his way to Europe for a high stakes diplomatic summit. He will land to a new announcement from NATO's chief, that more troops are headed to the alliances eastern flank.


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: I expect leaders will agree to strengthen NATO's posture in all domains. With major increases to our forces in the eastern part of the alliance. The first step is the deployment of four new NATO battle groups, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.


PHILLIP: And here to share their reporting and insights CNNs Kasie Hunt, and CNN's MJ Lee, Dan Lamothe of The Washington Post, and Susan Glasser of the New Yorker. And Dan, I didn't mean to picture your name there. But tell us a little bit about what this NATO change of force posture really means? It seems like a particularly clear escalation of their presence in the east and a clear signal to Putin, but is it permanent? Should we expect that this is the new normal?

DAN LAMOTHE, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think this is going to be an ongoing question for weeks, months and possibly years, is how long do you keep these temporary deployments temporary? We've already escalated as the United States from about 80,000, a couple months ago to 100,000.

And these deployments may not all be American, you're likely to see NATO deployments, German deployments, that sort of thing, also filling in some gaps here. The countries that have come up so far, the ones that really have not had major American presence added on, like Poland, in the last month or so.

PHILLIP: And the White House is saying that this is just a signal of, you know, the commitment to Ukraine. Take a listen to Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: For the past few months, the West has been united. The president is traveling to Europe to ensure we stay united, to cement our collective resolve, to send a powerful message that we are prepared and committed to this for as long as it takes.


PHILLIP: Unity is the most important objective in part for this NATO Summit. But there are definitely some disagreements about what is the nature of the U.S. and NATO commitment to the Ukrainians to help them actually win this war?

SUSAN GLASSER, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Well, that's right, Abby. I mean, you know, a unity and alliance focus has been from the beginning, the hallmark of President Biden's approach to Ukraine. And this summit, by the way, is extraordinary. I mean, you know, flying into essentially the middle of a conflict with no clear and insight increasing troop deployments, this is really a serious, a crisis summit, as I can remember.

But to your question by unity, I mean, just today we saw the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz saying, there shouldn't be German sanctions on Russian oil and gas because that would cause Germany in his view to pay a bigger price, perhaps then even Russia for banning those imports.


And so, you see, again, Putin very interestingly timing, a new decision today saying, you have to pay in rubles and not in Euros for your gas if you want it. That's designed to cause a rift between the allies as they head into the summit. And again, you come back to the question of, what if anything is an end game that anyone can see that makes any sense right now.

PHILLIP: To that point, the European council president dealing with this very question of, how much pain is Europe willing to take?


CHARLES MICHEL, EUROPEAN COUNCIL PRESIDENT: We do not have exactly the same situation in Europe, and in the United States. We are much more dependent in Europe in comparison with the situation in the United States. That's why we must be intelligent. The goal is to target Russia. The goal is to be painful against Russia. The goal is not to be painful for ourselves.


PHILLIP: How do they create pain for Putin, but not hurt themselves? I mean, the United States is already facing this question when it comes to gas prices.

MJ LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And interesting that you brought up the German chancellor's comments on that issue. On that particular issue, the U.S. has been pretty clear. And the president himself has said, look, we don't necessarily expect that everybody else in Europe is going to be able to follow suit. Because we are an energy producer, we understand that other European countries may not be able to make the same decisions that we are.

But I do think in the big picture when we have heard White House officials talking about this issue. Look, there is literally no good news to come out of this invasion and this war. But the one area where administration officials have consistently shown confidence is when they're talking about, again, just in the big picture, sort of this united front that the U.S. has had with its allies.

I remember it was just back in early February, right, before the invasion began. There was that moment with the German chancellor and President Biden at the news conference where President Biden said, if Russia were to invade, Nord Stream 2 is going to go away. Olaf Scholz in that conference would not even say the name of the project. And it triggered a lot of questions for us about well, is this a sign of things to come? I think, again, in the big picture, the U.S. feels at this moment that that united front has been actually a strong moment.

PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, it's leading a lot of the rallying of Europe is actually the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has been giving these speeches in country after country after country, tailoring it to each audience and saying to the world, this is your moment to stand up.

KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Well, he's been doing the work for some of these politicians in European countries, right? He has shown the people of Europe, the people of the United States. What a cause this is? How dedicated his people are to this and that his is a cause worth fighting for, because they're not going to let us down, quite frankly, in the fight for democracy.

And you know, it was a turn - there was a turning point when he addressed the European council, and there were people in tears at the very beginning of this invasion. So, I don't think you can underestimate his continued strength. And don't forget, he resisted calls from many a nation to leave Ukraine, right?

PHILLIP: For his safety and that of this family?

HUNT: Exactly. And instead, both he and his wife are still in Ukraine. His family is at risk, just like every other Ukrainian family, albeit under protection, because losing them would be also so critical and terrible. So, you know, I think that his continued presence and his continued way of using both local and western media to rally the world to his side is going to continue to be a central piece of importance here.

PHILLIP: Absolutely. And he's expected to address NATO this week as well. Just before we go, big questions here about what Putin's end goal as Charles Lane, at the Washington Post says. We might still not be taking Putin quite seriously enough. He has been preparing for this war and associated diplomatic initiatives for years, his goals extend beyond Ukraine. Do you think that that is still true given how much trouble they're having on the ground?

GLASSER: Look, Vladimir Putin is not focused on the kind of political calculus that we're focused on, right? And he is defined almost a messianic goal here, which is not only the reunification of what he sees as two peoples that are one, Ukraine and Russia. But essentially, the reassembly of parts of the Russian and Soviet empires and the restoration of a different kind of Russian great power status in the world. It's very hard to argue with messianic maximalist objectives.

Now, again, because he's willing to use tactics of brutality that go beyond what his western counterparts can even conceive of. He is destroying cities. He will continue to do so.

PHILLIP: And threatening to use chemical weapons, threatening to use nuclear weapons as well. Thank you all for that conversation. Up ahead for us, President Biden's trip includes a visit to Poland, where he will come face to face with the growing refugee crisis. We are live on the border of Poland and Ukraine. Coming up next



PHILLIP: Russia is targeting more residential areas in Ukraine's capitals. Firefighters working this morning to put out lanes across Kyiv after its stripes on a shopping center and private homes in two different neighborhoods. And there's also new satellite images showing smoke and destruction in Mariupol.

Russians seized a convoy of buses driving to try to evacuate people from that city according to Ukraine's government, and meanwhile, the global backlash against Russia is growing. France freezing $800 million worth of oligarchs' assets. Poland expelling 45 Russian diplomats suspected of espionage and this, sailors blocking this yacht