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More Than 2 Million People Have Fled Ukraine To Poland; Biden To Deliver "Major Address" Tomorrow After Meeting Refugees; New Task Force To Reduce Europe's Dependency On Russian Oil & Gas; Biden: I Think Putin Is A War Criminal; Ukraine: 300 Killed In Russian Airstrike On Mariupol Theater; Ukrainian Forces Push Back Russians, Retake Territory East Of Kyiv; U.S. To Accept As Many As 100,000 Ukrainian Refugees. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 25, 2022 - 12:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST, AT THIS HOUR: You're talking about the impact of march making, you're going to have an impact too. For more information on how you can help the people of Ukraine. Go to CNN's coverage of Russia's war on Ukraine continues on Inside Politics, right now. Thanks for being here, everybody.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm Abby Phillip in Washington. John King is off. Thank you for sharing a very busy Friday with us. We're going to go - we are watching what is happening in Poland where President Biden is right now receiving a briefing about the mushrooming refugee crisis. And we will dip back in there.

As soon as he starts speaking again, he said earlier, though, that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. He says, he wouldn't need that definition under the law, and he calls the devastation, and the Ukrainian city of Mariupol is like something out of a science fiction movie.

The briefing follows a morning visit with American troops, just 15 miles from the Ukrainian border. There, he said that the U.S. and the world are now at an inflection point in the fight against democracy and autocracy.

We're going to begin our coverage in Poland, where President Biden is, CNN's chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is in Warsaw. Kaitlan, some important meetings for President Biden today. But he made a little bit of news just now, speaking to reporters at the top of this meeting with refugees.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And what he's doing right now is talking and essentially getting briefed on the humanitarian crisis that's not happening on the ground, given, of course, that Poland has had to deal with so much of this influx of refugees from Ukraine, Abby?

Millions of people have left Ukraine, over 2 million of them have come to Poland. Obviously, it shows a huge border with Ukraine. That's a big part of the reason why. And we saw in the early days of this invasion, how people were coming in by train, by bus with nothing really, but the clothes on their back.

And so, President Biden is getting briefed right now by these humanitarian officials who have been dealing with this every day, day in day out on the ground. He did just say he is disappointed that he himself personally cannot go into Ukraine and see this refugee crisis firsthand, from the people who were there that humanitarian issues, of course, with difficulties getting food, water, medicine, basic needs like that.

He said that he wanted to go, but he said understandably, he is not allowed to go when given it to warzone. So clearly, there have been some kind of discussions behind the scenes about that. And that was a big question, when we were about to embark on this trip was whether or not, President Biden would try to go and how close he would get to the border with Ukraine.

Given we've seen the secretary of state himself crossover, just to the few footsteps, really as a symbol showing that he would go over across, but President Biden making clear he doesn't believe he'll be going personally on this trip, Abby? And he's getting this briefing right now after earlier he met with the members of the 82nd Airborne Division here in Poland, of course, there is about 100,000 troops.

Now, U.S. forces now in Europe, that is a higher number than you have seen in any time in recent history. And of course, that has been a surge due to this Russian invasion and Russian aggression. And his attempt to try to bolster NATO's eastern flank these countries that share borders with Ukraine with Russia, given they're understandably concerned with all of the aggression from Russia, just because of this invasion. And so, President Biden was giving this message earlier, talking about how he believes this is more than just the moment with Ukraine, but say what he thinks this means overall.


JOE BIDEN, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PRESIDENT: We're in a new phase, your generation, we're at an inflection point. I don't want to sound too philosophic here. But you're in the midst of a fight between democracies and an oligarchy.


COLLINS: Tomorrow, Abby, I should note, President Biden is going to meet with Ukrainian refugees while here in Poland, but also give what the White House says is a (Inaudible) us.

PHILLIP: Thank you, Kaitlan Collins, in Warsaw, Poland. CNN's Melissa Bell is in Rzeszow, Poland where President Biden stopped this morning. Melissa, President Biden is going to get an opposing view of how really dire this refugee crisis is, as you have been reporting. What is he likely to see?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that meeting is going on at that airfield just behind me here in Rzeszow. He's been meeting with those humanitarian groups to talk about the dire humanitarian situation just across the border, just 60 miles from here. It's not very far for those many millions of Ukrainians, Abby, who desperately need humanitarian aid inside.

But you're quite right, it's on this side of the border here in Poland that we've been seeing some really harrowing scenes over the course of the last few weeks. Women and children since that's what we're talking about arriving with terrible stories of what they've had to flee. And he's going to meet some of them tomorrow and worse.

I'd like to have you'd have listened to what woman told us yesterday at medical crossing, not very far from here. She arrived with her daughter and her two grandchildren after a difficult journey from the besieged town of European and she described their journey through other occupied towns. As she described them, have a little - have a listen to what she had to say about the conditions in those towns.



BELL (voiceover): People can't get out says, Larissa. It's too dangerous because even if a woman walks out with a white flag and a child, they don't look, they just shoot, kill, they spare no one. Anyway, we can't go home now. She says, because there is no home.


BELL: And for the desperation of these women and children crossing this border, tired, fearful, many of them traumatized by what they've lived through these, Abby, are the lucky ones. The unfortunate ones are those still trapped in those towns. Of course, President Biden here looking at what can be done for them, what can be done for those who have crossed, but it is really also the symbolism of this visit. Here he is, where NATO meets Ukraine to 60 miles from that border. I'm in this country, that's been so impacted by what's been going on, Abby?

PHILLIP: Melissa Bell, thank you so much for all your great reporting on this story. And for more information about how you would at home can help the people of Ukraine. Go to And joining our conversation now is former deputy U.S. assistant Secretary of State, Heather Conley. She's also the president of the German Marshall Fund.

Heather, I wanted to start with some of the big issues that have been dealt with, by the Europeans and the United States this week, one of them is oil. The U.S. says, they are forming a task force with the Europeans to wean them off of Russian oil. And President Biden says that the oil funnel is driving the Putin war machine, and in effect, allowing them to withstand these enormous sanctions. How significant is this latest stab? And do you think it will have any near-term impact?

HEATHER CONLEY, PRESIDENT, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND: So, Abby, I think this really is a major decision. For decades, the United States has been trying to get Europe, particularly Germany to diversify its energy resources at a curve that heavy dependency on Russia. So, the fact that the U.S. is now focusing a clear plan on helping Europe to reach that diversification is really important.

I think there was also an equally important announcement today by the German Vice Chancellor, Robert Habeck, who was basically saying, look, we are taking extraordinary measures by mid-summer, Germany will cut in half its dependency on Russian oil, this is not gas, oil, and perhaps by the end of the year, almost eliminating it. So, we are really seeing transformation. But again, it's a race against time. And our fear is Russia will again escalate this conflict, and both be required to do even more.

PHILLIP: Heather, standby for us. We're going to work on your audio. But in the meantime, I'm going to take it into the room here with our panel. So, just to discuss a little bit of what President Biden said earlier. He made some comments about Vladimir Putin and this issue of war crimes. What do you think is significant about his doubling down on this and saying, you know what, based on what we've seen, we believe this will meet the threshold?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Biden administration had been very clear that they do believe that Putin has been committing war crimes with his indiscriminate targeting really, of civilians in Ukraine. And I think going forward, the administration is hoping that there are ways to hold Putin accountable for this, as they are seeing him really launch these attacks with zero concern for the deaths of civilians in the country. And the possible use of chemical weapons or nuclear weapons and really escalating this conflict.

PHILLIP: The options are somewhat limited, right?

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNG, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes, absolutely. I mean, right now, I mean, that's one challenge when we've spoken to administration officials as well. You know, they've had this tranche system of sanctions as Putin escalates and continues to move further into Ukraine, you continue to move further with sanctions. But now we've had, you know, the many government officials that have been sanctioned at this point, you know, Putin directly as well.

One option that's still on the table and what might be a reason for continuing to heighten the rhetoric against Putin and increase public pressure is convincing European allies as well to continue to cut off energy from Russia. And that directly relates to another announcement we saw from the president today along with the E.U. right, to try and get them to not be so dependent on Russian energy.

PHILLIP: I think we have Heather Conley back. Heather, if you're with us, I wanted to get back to one of the things that that the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is talking about now, which is that he is worried that this - when it comes to sanctions, all of this has happened too late. The United States waited until after the invasion began to put them in place, but Zelenskyy, right? At the end of the day, did Europe and the United States act too late?

CONLEY: Well, there was a lag time certainly, and in some ways the most punishing sanctions are really only going to begin to have effect in the mid to long term. I will say the most effective sanctioning we have done was the sanctions against the Russian central bank. The Russians did not anticipate that, that put them into a bit of tailspin. But look the Russians are finding loopholes.


We're seeing that, whether it's in gold sales, they're pressing now for the payment of their energy contracts in rubles or in euros. They're trying to, you know, de-dollarize, you know, pain for their funding. So, we've got to be very quick and closing those loopholes.

PHILLIP: And Heather, the U.S. National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan said that there's no sign as of this morning that China is providing the military support to Russia that they've requested. How important is that?

CONLEY: It's really important. Look, we know Beijing is giving full throttled rhetorical support to Russia's objectives in Ukraine. They're certainly amplifying Russian disinformation. But the moment they begin to really provide that economic support, this is where the potential for sanctioning will begin. And truly the business community isn't ready for this step. So, it is really important that we watch this carefully. And once it happens, there's going to have to be some punishment. And again, the global economy is going to suffer for it.

PHILLIP: And one thing the Chinese government does not want, I think, is the prospect of European and American sanctions, major trading partners for them. Heather Conley, thank you so much for being with us and bearing with us, as we got your audio together.

CONLEY: Thank you.

PHILLIP: And thanks. And up ahead for us. New images out of Mariupol show the devastation after a Russian bomb destroyed a theater that was being used as the shelter, killing innocent women and children.




PHILLIP: Speaking moments ago in Poland, President Biden said, the devastation in Mariupol looked like something out of a science fiction movie. And now, we are getting our first glimpse inside that Mariupol theater that was hit by a Russian airstrike. Crowds of people trying to make their way down a staircase, just to get out. The floors are littered with debris. City officials are now believed that 300 people were killed in that strike.

Now, remember that that theater had the word children painted in large Russian letters on the ground in multiple places to warn that this was a place where innocent people were sheltering. CNN, Phil Black is in Lviv. Phil, what more are we learning about the aftermath of that horrible theater attack? PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Abby, that estimate of 300 killed. This has come more than a week after the attack itself. And that's from officials in the city, who are basing that upon eyewitness accounts. Remember, they don't know how many people were sheltering there in total, but it's thought it could have been thousand or more.

These new images, which have also taken more than a week to emerge, are really quite eerie to watch. They show those people covered in dust and debris very quietly, making their way out of that part of the building that is still standing after the strike. We also see video, a part of the building that was hit directly. And there is pretty much nothing left.

You hear someone saying, this is the center of the building. This is where people were lining up for water. It's there are probably still people trapped in the rubble beneath. It's worth remembering, why we're only seeing these pictures, learning these details a week or more later. Why those people were there in the first place. And that's because Mariupol is a city under siege.

And it has been for weeks, under blockade, under bombardment, under constant Russian assault to the point where there is very little civilian infrastructure left untouched. And so, in basements in buildings like that across the city, there is still thought to be hundreds of thousands of people sheltering, hiding out, cowering together with very little food or water and what are still very cold conditions. And still with no real sense of if or when they will ever feel safe again. Abby?

PHILLIP: Truly devastating attack there. Phil Black, thank you so much. We're going to go now to CNNs Fred Pleitgen. He's in the capital city in the heart of Kyiv, outside of a checkpoint. Fred, you know, there's fierce fighting on the outside of that city. What are you seeing about where you are and about the fighting that is happening in the region?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Abby. I mean, probably you're absolutely, right. There is still a lot of very fierce fighting, especially towards the north of Kyiv. And if you look here, in the center of Kyiv, where I'm right now, you can really see that this city, of course, is still very much on a war footing. I mean, you have this massive checkpoint, which is right in the center of the city. And those things are obviously tank barriers, those metal crosses that you see over there.

One of the interesting things, though, is that as this fighting is going on, it seems as though the Ukrainian forces might be pushing the Russian forces back somewhat. We're actually seeing a little bit more vehicle traffic here in the city center, as obviously the city is still very much in a defensive posture, a war posture.

But at the same time, it seems as though the folks here, feel as though maybe they have a little bit more room to breathe with Russian forces, maybe a little bit further away than they were, you know, the past couple of weeks. I can show you just how central we are here in the city and where the stick, where is actually right by the Maidan square, the Independence Square, which of course, is so famous and where that uprising took place in 2014. So, really right at the heart of the Ukrainian capital.

While at the same time, you're absolutely right, there's a battle going on. The Ukrainian forces, they don't want to reveal too much because obviously they feel that the gains that they're making might still be quite fragile, but they do say that they are making headway Borth (Ph) to the northwest of the city, where they say that they've pushed the Russian forces back in a place called Irpin, it's a suburb.


The latest that we heard from the mayor from there that they've gotten about 80 percent of that suburb back, but the Russian forces were still shelling them. And then, also to the east and that's also extremely significant because it just gives them a little bit more room to maneuver. And the Ukrainians, we're hearing they're also trying to apparently encircle some of those Russian forces, but it's unclear how far they've come with that.

At the same time, you know, the war is still of course, ever present here in the city. A lot of people have fled. We slept air raid sirens that go off pretty much constantly throughout the entire day. And just before we went to air, we heard some pretty heavy would seem to us to be outgoing fire. So, anybody who's still here in the city certainly reminded all the time that this is a full-on war and that there is a dangerous foe, still very much outside the gates of the city, Abby?

PHILLIP: Fred Pleitgen, thank you so much for that fascinating look inside the heart of Ukraine's capital city. Coming up next for us. President Biden's trip to Europe is perhaps the highest stakes trip of his presidency. We will take a closer look at how he's doing so far.




PHILLIP: We're getting new and dramatic images this hour. This is satellite footage of the port of Berdiansk, in Ukraine. And it's a destroyed Russian naval ship. You can see the smoke billowing here. That port has been recently occupied by Russian forces. Ukrainians claim they were able to fire upon that ship.

But moments ago, President Biden called Vladimir Putin a war criminal. He says, he thinks he meets that legal definition. During one of the briefings that he had this morning on the growing humanitarian crisis inside of Ukraine. Now, this morning, President Biden spent some time also with U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division in Poland. And he delivered this message.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PRES. BIDEN: Rest of the world looks to us because, you know, we not only lead by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. We are the organizing principle for the rest of the world.


PHILLIP: Now here with me in studio is CNN's Arlette Saenz, Zolan Kanno-Youngs of The New York Times, and Sabrina Siddiqui, of the Wall Street Journal. So, you know, President Biden statement on the war crimes, he said it before. But in the context of what he is doing this week, he is trying to get European allies to say no to Russian oil. What do you think is the significance of those two things?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Well, I think it's important because we've heard the Biden administration really tough in its rhetoric against Putin, say he's a war criminal. And it's not just rhetoric, it really is embracing the idea that Putin effectively should be standing trial at The Hague. And it really bolsters their efforts to really use this moment to bake Vladimir Putin a pariah on the international stage.

And really put more pressure on countries to reduce their reliance on Russian oil and gas, and really send a signal to any other countries, for example, China or others who might be considering assisting Putin in this conflict. So, I think it really is amplifying, you know, these efforts to isolate Putin on the global stage.

And honestly, it carries implications for the future as well, because once you call someone to work the middle, there's no dialing back-back clock. So, it also has significant implications for U.S. Russia relations down the road, even if the Biden administration says that regime change in Russia is certainly not on their agenda.

PHILLIP: And he knows it will come with pain. This is not without cost for the United States and for Europe. But listen to how Joe Biden made the case to Europe this week.


PRES. BIDEN: I know that eliminating Russian gas will have cost for Europe. But it's not only the right thing to do from a moral standpoint, it's going to put us on a much stronger strategic footing.


PHILLIP: This is about the realization that even in this globalized world, you can't be beholden to your strategic enemies. And that is effectively what Europe is right now.

KANNO-YOUNG: No, absolutely. I mean, the administration has been a one central part of their message and strategy has been this unified effort. One way to continue to have a unified effort with sanctions is to send a message, not only to your allies, but to the public as well to residents in these countries of what the stakes are.

And a good way to do that, an effective way to do that is through the language that the president is using there. You know, if you're trying to basically persuade these European allies to basically - take a measure that will have an impact in their countries, as well as domestically here. One way to do that is to say, look, these are war crimes that are happening.

I think it was the vice president said a couple weeks ago, when she was asked about how long Americans would have to bear the burden of high gas prices. She had a quote, saying, "this is the cost of democracy." And that seems to be the main theme of this messaging here.

PHILLIP: Also, this week, you know, the White House and the administration announced they would - the United States would accept 100,000 refugees, perhaps not all this year over the course of the next several years. This has for - actually, for this administration, even for a Democratic administration been a pretty tricky issue. They have been at odds with the activists on this issue over how many refugees they take it.

SAENZ: And they certainly have, and also, just because they announced they're going to take in 100,000 - up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, doesn't mean that that's actually the number that's going to come to the United States. If you look for this year, they were targeting 125,000 refugees worldwide. And right now, there are estimating just about 16,000 coming in. So, this is all a tricky balance for the White House to play as they're trying to show that they are willing to accept these refugees.