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Irpin Mayor: Ukraine Has Retaken Town From Russian Forces; Mariupol Mayor: Russia Controls Parts Of Besieged City; U.S. Deploying 6 Navy Electronic Warfare Jets To Germany; Zelenskyy: Ukraine Ready To Accept Neutral, Non-Nuclear Status; Biden Says He Was Not Calling For Regime Change In Russia; Diplomats To Meet In Turkey As Bloody Stalemate Continues; Russian Forces Have Conducted More Than 1,370 Missile Launches; Russian Airstrikes Disrupt Some Ukrainian Supply Lines. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 28, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. We'll start this hour with the bloodier by the day war in Ukraine and some an important battlefield chase (Ph).

In Irpin, just northwest of Kyiv, the mayor says they've retaken the town from Russian forces. CNN cannot yet independently verify that claim. In Mariupol, a key city on the opposite side of the country. The mayor there says, Ukraine has lost control, "we are in the hands of the occupiers."

Today is say 33 of Russia's onslaught. Tomorrow in Turkey, Ukrainian and Russian diplomats will meet face-to-face for the first time in weeks. That following a warning from Ukraine's military intelligence chief, who sees a possible Kremlin plan now to divide and conquer the south, with the goal of splitting Ukraine in two.

In Lviv, in the western part of the country, fire and artillery. You see there, Russian attacks shatter buildings and shatter a sense that that city might be out of harm's way. Today schools in Kyiv, the capital are back open online, but it is far from a normal day.

This hour, worry Russia may soon cut off supply routes to the capital. You see smoke from fresh Russian attacks, turning the sky the color of ash, a reminder of the ceaseless fighting. To walk through Kyiv is to walk through a nightmare. Buses mangled by Russian firepower, apartment buildings slit exposed, you see them their walls torn clean off.

CNN is on the frontlines of this war. We begin our coverage this hour in Lviv, in western Ukraine with CNN's Ed Lavandera. Ed, what's the latest?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, you get a sense there from all the storylines that you've mentioned, just how volatile and quickly changing the situation is here in Ukraine. This on the eve of Russian and Ukrainian sides coming together for peace talks supposed to happen on Tuesday.

But here in Lviv, airstrike over the weekend, and also overnight to two more airstrikes in cities nearby here, hitting fuel depots. And that really kind of gets to the sense that Russian forces targeting those much-needed supplies that Ukrainian military troops need to fuel the convoys and all of the machinery there.

And also, the major headline today that you touch on is that the mayor of Irpin, that suburb of Kyiv, that has been besieged for weeks by Russian forces has been the sight of some of the most tragic stories we've seen so far in this war, saying that that city, at least for now has been liberated that. But the mayor is also urging people that they cannot come back to the city right now that they still expect to continue being attacked, but they are trying to move forward, and push Russian forces out of other cities nearby Irpin as well.

And then at the same time you move further south and you see the tragic story unfolding in the continuing tragic story in Mariupol, where the mayor there says today that Russian occupiers are basically taking control of that city, and that the city that once had 400,000 people in it, now still has about 160,000 people, and the mayor says they are focused on trying to evacuate those civilians to safety as best they can but that is proving to be very difficult.

The mayor there says that there is great deal of concern over. The buses being brought in to evacuate, civilians being attacked by Russian forces. So, all of these situations quickly changing. And the situation on the ground in virtually every corner of Ukraine is very dynamic and still very much dangerous. John?

KING: Ed Lavandera, grateful for the live report from Lviv. Right now, we're hearing more American troops and American war planes are headed to a key NATO ally. Let's get straight to the Pentagon. CNN's Barbara Starr. Barbara, what are we learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, we had a briefing a short time ago from a senior defense official, six electronic warfare planes and about 200 troops expected to land in Germany at Spangdahlem Air Base later today. These airplanes specialize in electronic warfare in essentially sending electronic signals to jam or confuse enemy radar and enemy air defenses.

That is their job. They are being sent. We are told as part of the ongoing deterrence mission along NATO's eastern flank. We are told they are not going to engage the Russians directly, that it's all about deterrence but make no mistake. They have that very crucial capability if needed to jam adversary air defenses to make them unable to operate.

It's an interesting tidbit sidelight, Russian missiles, their air launch missiles have been suffering very high rates of failure. Nobody's saying it's because they're being jammed, but nonetheless, Russian missiles are failing at launch at very significant rates, we are told. Now, 200 additional troops added to the U.S. mix in Germany. The Pentagon not saying yet about any schedule for troops rotating out for troops being able and when they will be able to come back home. John?

KING: Barbara Starr, important and as you know, somewhat curious deployment from the Pentagon. Barbara, thanks so much.

STARR: Sure.


KING: And important statements, Sunday from Ukraine's president just ahead of that fresh round of diplomacy. In a new interview with Russian journalists, Volodymyr Zelenskyy says, he's ready to give Russia's Vladimir Putin some, some of what he wants.


PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE: Security guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to pursue this. This is the most important point. This was the first point of principle for the Russian Federation, as I recall. And as far as I remember, they started the war because of this.


KING: To Turkey now, where Ukrainian and Russian diplomats are preparing for those face-to-face negotiation. CNN's Arwa Damon is there. Arwa, negotiations so far both in person and virtually not getting anywhere. Is there any reason to believe things are different?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, that's what so many are hoping. Although, what we do know if the war in Ukraine and other wars have taught us anything is that hope contend to be a very cruel beast. But based on the Ukrainian president's comments that you played just there, we are seeing perhaps something of more of a middle ground beginning to emerge.

And what does it mean, when Ukraine says that it is willing to consider the idea of being a neutral state, that means that Ukraine would not be getting involved as any sort of third party in any conflict. And effectively, that means that any sort of membership to NATO at this stage would not be happening.

Another key thing, though, to note in all of this, is that if that were somehow to be the agreement that was reached, whether it's during this round of talks, or round of talks in the future, Zelenskyy has also said that he would want to put that to a referendum to the Ukrainian people. That might prove to be logistically difficult.

But right now, that would be the intent to get the Ukrainian population behind this kind of a decision, this kind of a plan moving forward. Another key thing, of course, is the humanitarian corridors, more corridors, and perhaps more importantly, corridors that are actually safe and secure. John?

KING: Arwa Damon, for us in Istanbul. Very important conversations begin tomorrow, we will check back with you. Arwa, thank you. Let's get some expertise and insights now from Beth Sanner. She's the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence.

Beth let's start right there. You heard President Zelenskyy at the top, saying he's willing to pledge, Ukraine will be non-nuclear. He's willing to say, no NATO in the future. Is that enough? Is that enough? Or do you see this as you tried to put your best face forward, but diplomacy will against all?

BETH SANNER, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, it definitely lays bare that Putin's requirement for that is not enough, right? So, Zelenskyy is taking the high road here and saying like, this is what you asked for, you asked for neutrality, here you go. And it's not going to be enough.

I think it's also a little bit more complicated because the security guarantees that must go with that, which are completely reasonable. Otherwise, you know, the same thing could happen again, and Russia could invade again. That would have to be approved by the United States. I mean, there's no other party that could give security guarantees and that's almost like NATO membership. So, I think there's a problem there.

And I just want to mention that Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister kind of poured cold water on it already today and said, look, the world you need to stop indulging the Ukrainians. Lavrov and his group self as usual, but he also repeated those claims, those calls for demilitarization and denotification again. And so, it suggests that these talks were just not really ready to move forward, but they're important to have and hopefully the humanitarian aspect can be a focus.

KING: What do you make Beth, of what you just heard from Barbara Starr, the Pentagon sending more troops to Germany, but also sending in a squadron of EA-18G Growler, planes that fly essentially to disrupt radar, to disrupt air defenses. Is that to get in Putin's head? Or do you believe these planes are actually up in the air, doing something to help the Ukrainians?

SANNER: Well, they could be used to help the Ukrainians. I mean, it just depends on, you know, where they fly and what they're targeting. So, it is very possible that they could from the Polish side of the border, provide some sort of defense in the very western part of Ukraine. But, you know, it remains to be seen whether anybody's going to try to do that.

It certainly, it does play with Putin's head, and I will mention that Zelenskyy's remarks were not allowed to be published about neutrality. And President Biden's remarks about Putin cannot remain as president also have not been covered by Russian TV. So, Putin is worried about how things appear certainly.

KING: Also, let me get your take again, putting your intelligence cap back on. This is the Ukrainian defense intelligence chief, speaking on Sunday. There's reason to believe that he, meaning Putin is considering a Korean scenario for Ukraine. That his Russian forces will try to impose a dividing line between the unoccupied and occupied regions of the country. [12:10:00]

In fact, it is an attempt to create North and South Korea in Ukraine. Do you see that it is hard to follow 33 days in the day-to-day military developments? We've talked about this before and see a coherent Russian strategy. But do you see as a potential fallback, creating, you know, the Koreas of today or Germany of the cold war era, where Putin tries to expand what Russian already holds in the Donbass and then go down along the coast and take the port cities?

SANNER: Well, I think that taking that land bridge to Crimea, and securing that access to Crimea, overland as well as water supplies, which is what you need to do to take that territory there makes complete sense. It's something that Russia has wanted to do for a long time. And so, I think it's very logical, but it definitely is a fallback position because Russia wanted much, much more.

You know, one of the reasons why they're bombing Mariupol to nothing, is because that place is a large city that they would have trouble controlling, in my view. And so, depopulating it and turning it into nothing, allows you to control that territory a lot, a lot better, especially because that was the hotbed of resistance to Russia in 2014, where they push back the Russian invaders at that time.

KING: So, it's a brutal, brutal and devastating way to go about it. Beth Sanner, is always grateful for your important insights. Next for us, a big White House clean out effort after a big White House mistake by the president himself, just a slip of the tongue or will saying Vladimir Putin has to go, undermine the campaign to isolate and punish Russia for its Ukraine invasion.




KING: One word answer from the president last night hoping to clean up a mess of his own making.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, were you calling for regime change?



KING: The mess was caused by a nine-word ad-lib during a speech in Poland on Saturday.


PRES. BIDEN: For God's sake, this man cannot remain power.


KING: The president's words there in Warsaw, perhaps a gift for the Kremlin propaganda machine. The bigger question is whether they undermine the so far remarkable effort led by President Biden to keep the NATO allies and others on the same page in isolating Putin. With me now to share his insights is Ivo Daalder. He's the former U.S. Ambassador to NATO.

Ambassador Daalder, a great day to have some of your time. If you were still in that job, I assume your weekend would have been very busy. Look, this is a mistake by the president, a veteran in foreign policy. He should know better but does it matter?

IVO DAALDER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NATO: Yes. And I think my successor Ambassador Smith has been - was busy talking on CNN variety other places. And I think, you know, the reality is, he had a gaffe, which Michael Kinsley a long time ago, defined as saying out loud, what is true, but you're not supposed to say. Everybody knows that this crisis in the end, the real big crisis is not going to end until Vladimir Putin is no longer in power. But saying so as a president is a different thing.

Look, it undermined for at least 24 hours, the story that the president was hoping to come away with in Brussels, which was a completely united NATO and Western alliance, that he threw a droid diplomacy had been creating over the past three to four months. But the strength of that unity is real. It's not just something that can be undone by a few words, even these kinds of words.

And while there will be some topping around the place, I think everybody knows that what, that this is a war that Vladimir Putin started unnecessarily and unprovoked, and that the only way to really get to the end is for the West to remain united.

I also think that the idea that this somehow is going to influence Vladimir Putin. Putin has been thinking for 25 years that we were trying to get rid of him. So, for the president to say stroud publicly, really isn't going to change his perspective. And if he's going to escalate, he would escalate, no matter what, this is not going to change the situation on the ground.

KING: But most of the other key NATO leaders have tried to just move on and not stir this up. The French President Emmanuel Macron, listen here, when he says yes, he disagrees with the word choice, not just those about Putin stay in power, but other word choices by the president United States. Listen?


PRES. EMMANUEL MACRON, FRANCE: I think we must keep to the facts and do everything to not escalate things. I wouldn't use this type of wording because I continue to hold discussions with President Putin. What do we want to do collectively? We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine without waging war and without escalation.


KING: Again, the question, those of us who live in western democracies, we like debate. We like when people air out their differences. When it comes to keeping the NATO allies and others together. And to your point about Vladimir Putin. Does it matter that the French president, the American president have a different perspective?

DAALDER: Well, I mean, of course, they have different perspectives. And they'll have it on many ways. And it would have been, as I said, it would have been better if the words had been uttered, because we would have avoided having to talk about it.

And in fact, focus on what we all are in agreement. We're an agreement, not only that this word needs to stop but that Russia needs to withdraw its forces from Ukraine that the support - unwavering support for Ukraine's territorial independence and sovereignty, needs to be guaranteed, and that we stand together to affect that end.

And so, having a debate about a set of words that are being used by the president United States is a detraction from what's really going on, which is a very, very united response, unheard of unity among the Western allies in terms of economic sanctions, in terms of the attempt to politically isolate Russia and importantly a building up the military capability of NATO in the east end of the Ukrainians to fight directly against the Russians.


There's no question that everyone is 100 percent behind that strategy. It's a strategy that the White House has carefully laid out over the past few months and is starting to come to fruition. And that's really where the focus is, right now whether it is a diplomatic solution or something else, we will see. But the basis for this is the unity that is exists today.

KING: Right. And so now, when you have the Ukrainians and the Russians sitting across the table for the first time in a couple of weeks, in Istanbul tomorrow. Do you see in anything? Whether it's from the public statements from President's Zelenskyy, that I'm willing to be non-nuclear, I'm willing to put NATO membership off the table right now? Anything coming out of the Russians. Do you see anything that gives you any hope? Or are these just, you know, talks that are going to happen because of course, you want to keep talking?

DAALDER: I think it's the latter. I think President Zelenskyy is making very clear that he's not going to be an obstacle to a political solution. He's putting all kinds of feelers on the table. He's even talked about the status of the Donbass region. He's talking about neutrality, not joining NATO and not acquiring nuclear weapons. He's taking away all the excuses for Russia not to have a serious negotiation. But the Russians aren't interested in serious negotiation.

They're interested in taking what they want by military force, and they're doing it in a brutal way. And the Ukrainians are standing, ready to defend themselves and at the same time, opening up the door to diplomacy. The question is, will the Russians walk through? Or have to wait and see what happens in Turkey? But so far, I don't see any indications that they're even close to the door, let alone are willing to go through that door.

KING: Ambassador Ivo Daalder, grateful sir, for your insights. Thank you.

DAALDER: My pleasure.

KING: Thank you, sir. And up next to the ambassador's point, a closer look at the battlefield. Ukraine says, its forces are reclaiming some areas, and its military intelligence chief suggests Putin may be trying to split Ukraine in two, like the Koreas now or like Germany in the cold war.




KING: Just in the CNN, is senior U.S. defense official says, Russian forces so far have conducted more than 1,370 missile launches in Ukraine. That official also saying, the Russian ground offensive is largely stalled in several parts of the country. Meantime, the mayor of a key, suburb of Kyiv. You see Irpin, right here on the map. He says, Ukrainian forces have retaking control of his city from Russian invaders. Telling CNN " Irpin was fried last night."

Let's get some important perspective from retired Brigadier General, former Assistant Secretary of State, Mark Kimmitt with us. General Kimmitt, thank you for your time. You hear the mayor saying Ukrainians have taken back this key suburb. We've watching the Russian march to see if they could encircle Kyiv. You hear that? But at the same time, we also hear some Russian forces who are up in this area, regrouping in Belarus. On this day 33, General Kimmitt, what do you make of what you're hearing from the battlefield?

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.) FORMER ASST. SECY. OF STATE FOR POLITICAL-MILITARY AFFAIRS: Well, in terms of Irpin, I don't think that's unusual for a city fighting or even suburban fighting for areas to be taken and retaken by both. I don't necessarily think this is a major counter offensive being done by the Ukrainians but it's good news to see them pushing back.

In terms of what we're seeing in Belarus, I think that we're looking now at potentially the logistics, the artillery, the fuel or food coming in, because at this point, we've seen the Russian forces really under supplied with the logistics. If they're going to surround Kyiv, if they're going to see each Kyiv, they're going to need a lot of equipment and a lot of ammunition to do that and that may well be see what we're seeing there.

KING: The flip side is, is the mayor says some progress for the Ukrainians in Irpin, is down to the south. The mayor in Mariupol says the occupiers are there and you see this loop or various here. Do you buy in to the one of the top intelligence officials for the Ukrainian defense forces saying, he believes the Russians are looking at a plan B. Some kind of either take a slice here, or maybe take a slice like this and split Ukraine in two, that makes sense?

GEN. KIMMITT: Well, it could. I think that may be a little hopeful thinking on their part. I would not expect to see the type of long- range missiles and artillery being fired at the area in the West. If that was their plan, I think they'd be consulted a more behind the Dnipro or more inside the Donbass region. From their actions, it would indicate to me that they're still looking at taking Kyiv, taking Mariupol and continuing this fight.

KING: Right? That's a key point you make in the sense that you see a couple of things and you say, aha, it's this. But then you see the recent Russian strikes out here in western Ukraine, including on some fuel supply logistics and the like. Again, you know, it's the fog of war. You have might have different approaches on different days or by different Russian forces stationed in different places. But what does that tell you? Is that just reminding you were here or is there some strategic plan afoot?

GEN. KIMMITT: Well, I think both sides have realized that the Achilles heel in these operations are the logistics. It doesn't make a lot of sense to try to fight nose to nose. What you're trying to do is cut them out at the Achilles heel rather than box them and try to knock them out in the face.

KING: I want to get your take on what we heard from Barbara Starr at the top of the program, which is the United States is now sending more troops, and also curiously some new jets EA-18G Growler, essentially electronic warfare jets sending them to Germany