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U.S. intel: "Major" strategy shift by Russia; Moscow: will "Drastically Reduce" military assaults on Kyiv & Chernihiv; This morning: Biden spoke with European allies on Ukraine crisis; U.S. intel assesses Russia to shift focus from Kyiv to south, east; Blinken: U.S. hasn't seen signs Russia as serious in talks with Ukraine; WAPO: Trump call logs show 7 hour, 37 minute gap on Jan 6; New video shows destruction at university in Irpin. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 29, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello everybody, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. So major developments today in the Ukraine war. There is perhaps a glimmer of diplomatic progress. Plus, plans we are told for a major shift in Russian military movements. Ukrainian and Russian negotiators, you see them there, meeting for several hours in Istanbul today. Both sides reported some progress.

The diplomats went as far as saying, the talks might emphasis on might clear the way for a meeting between President Zelenskyy and Putin. And just as those talks concluded, the Kremlin announcing it will drastically reduce military activity around the capital Kyiv, and in Chernihiv area in northern Ukraine, up near the Russian border.

Senior U.S. officials tell CNN, they see this as part of a significant shift in strategy and they believe Russia plans to pull back forces in the north and focus on areas where it has made gains in the south and in the east. Russia, though has said one thing and done another throughout this past month plus. So, we watch with considerable skepticism.

But the White House did see enough to juggle the president's schedule today. President Biden leading a call with key European allies, to discuss the Istanbul meeting and next steps. That discussion ran for just shy of an hour and it came just before one of those allies. President Macron of France had a separate call with Russia's Putin.

Fresh images from across Ukraine remind us though sadly, that actions do speak more loudly than words. This morning before the talks began, at least nine people were killed by a Russian striker on a government building, Mykolaiv and we are also getting a new look at the devastation and destruction in the southern port city. Mariupol, heavily bomb city. You see they're now largely in ruins.

We'll get the latest from Istanbul in the White House in just a moment. But let's get first to Ukraine and the latest on the battlefield, CNN international correspondent Phil Black, joins us now live from Lviv. Phil, what is the latest?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, by the Russian telling these moves to remove some of its units from around the capital Kyiv, from around the northern city of Chernihiv. These are a response to progress being made at the talks in Turkey. Russia's ministry of defense says, this is all about helping to create an atmosphere where the proposals on the progress that had been acknowledged so far, can evolve further perhaps into a peace deal that can be acceptable to all parties.

What the Russians don't mention is that, in these particular areas, Russian forces had effectively come to a standstill. They had failed really in what was thought to be their primary mission of swiftly taking the cities. And in the area of Kyiv, they've even been beaten back as Ukrainian forces mouth counter offensive operations.

Meanwhile, they do not even mention in the east and the southeast of the country, where they are still pursuing maximalist military strategies, in the hope of taking and controlling all of the eastern Donbass region, including the port city of Mariupol, and indeed much of the south of Ukraine as well.

And the point to remember is that whatever reduction in force, Russia is pointing to or claiming to make at the moment, it is not even remotely close to being a ceasefire. Ukraine's efforts to try and negotiate that so far have gone nowhere, even for humanitarian reasons.

And we saw that Russia is still very willing to use its firepower to apply pressure on Ukrainian forces and indeed civilians, when it struck that government building in the southern city of Mykolaiv this morning, punching a hole and causing immense damage to that structure and killing at least nine people, John?

KING: I'm always stopped seeing pictures like that, we will then consider progress in the diplomats. Phil Black important reporting from Lviv. Thanks for kicking us off. Let's get to Istanbul now. Both the Russian and Ukrainian delegations at today's negotiations did report a better tone and some progress. But let's put it to the test. CNN's Arwa Damon joins us now live. Arwa, what did we learn?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, let's put it this way, a better tone and constructive talks and the bar is pretty low sadly, but some sort of progress is most certainly better than nothing at all. That being said, you know, both sides did talk about the need for humanitarian ceasefire, but they were unable to even agree on that.

So, what is everyone were referring to at this stage? What we do know is that the Ukrainian side has put forward what has been described as a series of concrete proposals to the Russians, they are now going to be taking that back, discussing it even further. Among them are things like and this could potentially be quite significant if it is, in fact, accepted by the Russians the fate of Crimea annexed by Russia in 2014.


Ukraine proposing that there'll be bilateral talks for the next 15 years, effectively pushing that issue out of this current set of negotiated points down to another time in the future. When it comes to what needs to happen right now? Well, as we have been reporting, Ukraine is saying that it is willing to consider take on being the - having the status of a non-nuclear neutral state.

This would mean that Ukraine would basically no longer be able to, in the foreseeable future become a member of NATO, because in being a nuclear state, that would mean that it would not be able to be party - the third party to any sort of conflict. But John, for Ukraine to be able to accept this, it wants security guarantees, and those security guarantees, not just from the Russian side, it wants them from a number of western nations, including the United States, as well.

KING: Even if you made progress on those fronts, that sounds like a process that takes a very, very, very long time and the bombing continues. Arwa Damon, grateful for the live reporting from Istanbul. Let's get to the White House now for this morning, President Biden did speak with key European allies, CNN's MJ Lee is there for us. MJ, what's the White House saying?

MJ LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are seeing, John, on a daily basis, the U.S. continuing to coordinate with its allies. The president just wrapped up a call with E.U. leaders, including the leaders of the U.K., France, Germany and Italy. This was a call that lasted almost an hour. So, we'll wait to see what the official readout from the White House says. This call, of course, coming on the heels of President Biden yesterday standing by his controversial comments from over the weekend, where he said that Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power.

And not only that he really downplayed some of the concerns that were raised by those comments, but they could escalate the conflict that they could be used by Russia propaganda. He said that he is not concerned about any of those things. We will soon see maybe if the E.U. leaders that he spoke with this morning agree with his assessment of those comments. John?

KING: MJ Lee, live with the White House, appreciate the reporting. Now let's get some important insights now from Angela Stent. She's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Putin's World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest.

Let's just start with Russia says, it's going to stop or at least drastically reduce military operations around Kyiv, and then more to the north along the Russian border in the Chernihiv region. It says it is doing that because there's been at least modest progress in diplomacy. You believe that for a second or do you think Putin is reassessing and cutting his losses?

ANGELA STENT, SENIOR FELLOW. BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think the Russian army has not been doing nearly as well as it thought it would. It hasn't been able to capture Kyiv. So, they're going to focus as they said last week on this Donbass region, on the extended Donbass region, and consolidating unfortunate that control over that devastated city of Mariupol. But what that means is, you could see a partition of Ukraine going forward if the Russians control that southeastern part of Ukraine.

KING: You can see that attempted a partition. The question is, would the west go along? Which is why at this moment, look, it is good to have diplomats at the table talking. It is frustrating when they keep talking and people keep dying because the bombs falling from the sky. This is the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying, sure, we will listen to Russia says, but what Russia says is not most important.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There is what Russia says and there's what Russia does. We're focused on the latter. I can't tell you whether these statements reflect some reorientation of the aggression, to focus only on the quotation marks, eastern and southern Ukraine or whether this is a means by which Russia once again is trying to deflect and deceive people into think he is doing. It's not doing what it is doing.


KING: You mentioned perhaps, Putin's plan B or plan C would be to just take a slice, take a bigger slice, do you already have Crimea, you've annexed it, take the Donbass region and try to create that land bridge along the southern ports. But would you he be open to negotiating that? If Zelenskyy says, we can talk about Crimea, but it's going to take 15 years. If you want to talk about the Donbass, we have to meet face-to-face. Is that something Putin would be open to doing? Or is this Putin is going to show force period?

STENT: I doubt it because from the very beginning, before the war started, Putin said, well, we're really only focused on this Donbass region and the "genocide against Russians by Ukrainians." He can't really step back from that. So, I think what we have to look for, I mean, we'll see if the Russians are serious about negotiations. First of all, if they start off with the ceasefire, and allowing the Ukrainians to have a humanitarian corridor, they haven't been willing to do that yet.

KING: That's a key point. We were talking before we came on the air. Again, it's good to have diplomats at the table. It's good that there's at least an avenue for communications, but you would want to see first a ceasefire and expanded humanitarian effort, then you at least know both sides are serious.

STENT: Exactly. I think without that the Russians may be using this just as a delaying tactic. Let's sit down and talk. The people who are negotiating on the Russian side are not very senior officials. We don't know really what their mandate is. So, I think we really have to - I would wait for, can there be a ceasefire, even if it's for 24 or 48 hours and do the Russians honor that. Because the previous one that they announced, they then started shelling civilians. So, that's the kind of thing we do have to look for that. [12:10:00]

KING: And you can see Secretary Blinken, shares your skepticism. And he's saying, let's watch it play out. So, the president decides today to add this phone call with the European allies, knowing that President Macron is going to speak to Putin later this morning. And what is the challenge for the United States now? As Russia starts to say publicly, we are deescalating. We are stepping back. We are open to diplomacy, assuming it's Putin just reassessing and moving on or just playing bluffing. What is the challenge for the president United States?

STENT: The challenge is to keep the western alliance together. I mean, I think the U.S. has done very well so far, having unity with its allies, but you already see that allies thirsting at the bid for, let's any sign that Putin is willing to make compromises, let's think about maybe lifting some of these sanctions.

And then President Macron has this role now. He wants to be the chief European negotiator. He's on the phone all the time with Putin. He's trying to carve out this role. He's up for reelection soon. And so, of course, as you know, he criticized essentially President Biden for what he said about Putin.

KING: We'll see if Macron can get anything out of it or if that's just still talking as well. So, Angela Stent, grateful for your time. And coming in, CNN is on the ground at the site of destroyed homes and villages in Kyiv, a member of Ukraine's parliament. Look at those devastating pictures. A member of Ukraine's parliament gives us her first-hand account. The devastation, next.



KING: Some important breaking news today from the Washington Post, relating to the January 6 investigation. Reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, you see them there obtained White House logs detailing then President Donald Trump's many phone calls that morning and evening. And the post reporting puts a stunning new timestamp on something CNN was first to report last month, that there is a gap in the White House logs.

The post reporting that gap in the records turned over to the National Archives and now to the January 6 committee is get this, seven hours and 37 minutes long. Bob Woodward is with us live. He's the associate editor at the Washington Post, author of many books, including most recently, the book Peril. It's great to have you in.


KING: So, as you know, one of the frustrating things about being a great reporter as you are and your colleague Bob Costa are, is you uncover this great information, and it raises even more questions. You have this seven hour plus gap. The question is, do these records exist? Were they not taken that day? Are they hidden somewhere? Were they destroyed?

WOODWARD: But what's so important what the January 6 committee is doing is very aggressive effort to talk to everyone get every piece of paper, chase it down, like a reporter who has time. And I got to know Trump very well during the 2020 campaign when he would - I was talking to him and we did 17 interviews. He would call any time and he is an telephone addict. And the idea that nothing happened in the afternoon on the phone January 6, is unlikely is the sun not rise, quite frankly.?

KING: It's a critical point because we have great report. You have personal experience. We have great reporting about Trump's phone behaviors. We have CNN reporting that we know, Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey called him that day, went through the assistance not in the records we have here. So, the question is, do these records exist?

But you make a key point because we also know, if you do look at these logs that you have, we've printed them out. You see the name Dan Scavino several times. You see Nick Luna in some of these Trump's bodyman. We know if our own reporting that at times, the president would ask people to give them a phone. So, there were phones around.

He would either use someone else's phone or he would ask for a cell phone. That's the part that committee is trying to put together because this gap, seven hours plus is the critical moments, just before during the incursion, while the vice president Speaker Pelosi, all the lawmakers' lives were at risks, just after, that's the part we don't know.

WOODWARD: Yes. But they'll figure it out, or they'll get a part of it. And it is, I remember talking to Trump one afternoon, I called him, I had some questions. This is in 2020, before the election, and he said, oh, I can't talk, I have 20 generals waiting downstairs. And then, he talked for 25 minutes. You almost couldn't get him off the phone and it would appear any time.

So, to have seven hours and 37 minutes void, where in the morning, he's talking to 10 people, in the evening, he's talking to 12 people and then their calls that we don't know about that didn't go through. So, there is work to be done. But it's the context of making this assessment of how he did his job.

What he was up to, on this day, in many ways, the most important day of his presidency, an assault on the Capitol, unprecedented. And I have a lot, I think you and I talked about this very skeptical about what the January 6 committee was able to do and they are delivering in a way I did not expect.

KING: Right. And so, they're delivering in a way. Let's just put up some of who we did talk to in the morning because one of the challenges here when you have a gap as you see. He spoke to Kurt Olson, since one of the attorneys helping him with the cockamamie election was stolen idea. Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, Rudy Giuliani, again, all people helping him, trying to help him. [12:20:00]

Ignore the will of the people. So, you know, they say spoke to them in the morning, Bill Bennett, the conservative commentator. You see there as well, Stephen Miller and Senator David Perdue. The challenge is the committee can go back to all of these people and say is that the only time you spoke to him. Did you call him again? Did you call him in this period where we have this gap in the records?

That is what they've been doing meticulously, bringing people in. What was happening in those hours from general Kellogg, for example, who was Mike Pence's National Security Adviser, they learned that Ivanka Trump was one of the people who came in, trying to get her father to do more to stop it. How much progress are they making, and trying to fill in, what's not in the records with testimony?

WOODWARD: I think it's significant. And because the question is OK, you talked to the president on this day, or during this gap. And what was his posture? Well, we know, publicly, and from the calls that are there, he was the election was stolen at this moment. After the election being held, it is the day, most important day for the constitution to say, who's going to be president.

There is a certification process that's laid out in the constitution and the law. And this is a subversion of that by Trump, consistently, permanently. As we know, the January 6 committee has said, they had make a good faith conclusion that this was a criminal conspiracy by Trump and some of his aides. So, can you - the question here is, can you subvert the constitution and the law? That is the test for the January 6 committee, people in our business and for the country. And if you can, what do we have?

KING: That's a great question. One last question. There are two parties to every phone call. If you don't have the records from the White House, detailing in that gap period who the president was on the phone with. Do we know as yet, how successful the committee has been, getting records of the other parties who people who they think suspect might have talked to the president? Or know, said they talked to the president in those powers. So, you can piece it together and say, the White House may not have these records for whatever reason, but we have proven it from the other end.

WOODWARD: One of the lawmakers has told Bob Costa and I, that they have, I mean, take this call data records, that may be 2 million pages. And so, these are all avenues of inquiry that can be pursued. So, they're hot on the trail. And but everyone said, well, this is kind of a partisan paddle, this isn't hot on the trail for the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.

It is hot on the trail for, are we going follow the law and take it seriously. We had a president who was not only not taking it seriously he was actively working toward the (Inaudible). I mean, it's the people who believe in the constitution, the originalist suit and it makes it very clear what's at stake here. So, work to be done.

KING: Work to be done, but a dark day in history that must be recorded. Bob, appreciate your coming in to share the reporting.

WOODWARD: Thank you.

KING: We appreciate one of your colleague, Bob Costa, as well. Up next for us, as Russia makes promises to scale back attacks in some cities. You see it right there, brand-new video in the ground. This is Irpin, just northwest of Kyiv. Next?




KING: You're seeing some new video here just into CNN, showing the destruction of the university in the Ukrainian city of Irpin, that's just northwest of Kyiv. You can see blown out windows and debris on the ground. Yesterday the mayor of Irpin, telling CNN, Ukraine has reclaimed that city from Russian forces. CNN cannot independently verify that claim.

Russia today, says it will drastically reduce military activity in that very area, around the capital city of Kyiv. U.S. officials telling CNN, they believe this is part of a major strategy shift. With Russia now pulling back from areas where it has met fierce resistance and suffered by casualties.

Inna Sovsun, a member of Ukrainian parliament. She joins us now live from Kyiv. Miss Sovsun, grateful for your time. I know, and I understand why you don't trust anything Putin says, or Russia says. But when the Russian say they're going to pull back from the attacks on the capital area, are you seeing or hearing any changes today any different from yesterday?

INNA SOVSUN, UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT MEMBER: Yes. Today is different in a way that we are hearing more explosions from the northwest of the city. And that is the only way that I'm seeing the difference. I'm hearing the difference as we speak right now. Like not literally right now, but about 15 minutes ago, I was hearing the blast coming from the northwest of the city. And that means that there are battles taking place over there.

And we hope that this is the Ukrainian army pushing the Russians further because it did push them further from the city of Irpin and regain control over the city. But frankly speaking, I do not see any signs that the Russians are taking their troops away from Kyiv, and also, we had about four to five air raid alerts during the day today.