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Ukraine & Russia: Major Evacuation Today Out Of Mariupol; Heavy Shelling In Donbas Region As Russia Redirects Military Efforts; Ukraine: At Least 20 Dead In Russian Strike On Mykolaiv Govt Building; Zelenskyy: If Ukraine Loses, Putin's Tyranny Will Come For The West; Ukraine Asks U.S. For Drones, Aircraft & Medical Supplies; GOP Lawmakers Urge WH To Speed Up Weapons Transfers To Ukraine; Pentagon: Putin "Not Fully Informed" At "Every Turn" Of Invasion; U.S., NATO Leaders Call Out Russia's Empty Pledge. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 31, 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 time today. Today, seeing through the fog of war. There are conflicting signals about Ukraine battlefield momentum. And what comes next, is Vladimir Putin's invasion now is in its sixth week.

In and around Kharkiv, you see it here heavy shelling, producing scenes just like this, bright orange fires, burning in craters throughout the region. The aftermath of 47 mortar and tank strikes according to Ukrainian military officials. In Kharkiv suburb, pictures of pushback, burnt out Russian tanks, frontline evidence of Ukrainian forces retaking a critical road.

in Kyiv this morning, a familiar routine booms and smoke from Russian strikes. U.S. defense official says, Russia has dramatically upped the number of tacks over the past 24 hours. Just miles from the capital and overhead glimpse here of hard-won progress, buildings bone apart everything, everything caked in ash, but Ukrainian soldiers now in control.

Overnight, a pressure release in the southern city of Mariupol. The deputy mayor telling CNN, as many as 2500 may get out through humanitarian corridor. Today Ukraine's President Zelenskyy delivering another warning to the west, that Putin and his tyranny will come for their freedom next.

Moscow's military is now regrouping, and a resupply is coming, so are, effective today 135,000 more Russian military conscripts. But there are now doubts, some of those soldiers in the trenches will actually follow their orders. British intelligence says, troops have outright refused Russian battlefield commands.

Let's get straight to our coverage. Beginning on the frontlines here, we start in Zaporizhzhia this hour. In Ukraine southeast, CNN's Ivan Watson is there for us. Ivan, what's the latest?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's a note of optimism coming from the city council of the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. That's where hundreds of thousands of people were trapped by the Russian military, which has then pummeled that city from land, sea and air while trying to push out Ukrainian defenders who were still fighting there.

The Ukrainian government said that it received word from the international committee of the Red Cross that the Russians had agreed to allow a partial evacuation of the city. So, the Ukrainians have sent 45 buses from Zaporizhzhia where I am now, headed down towards a port town occupied by the Russians just outside of Mariupol.

The city council saying that the buses have arrived to that town and telling people, friends, relatives to get excited that some of their loved ones may be allowed out. Now anybody who makes it to those buses, there's still a long journey up here. The Ukrainian say that they are going to guarantee a ceasefire.

So, we're going to keep an eye on whether or not these people are able to make it out. We've watched other people escaping in their own vehicles and they arrive in this city quite shell shocked from the trauma of what they've endured in that city under siege.

There's another wrinkle to this story, and the leader of one of the Russian backed separatists' regions in eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk People's Republic, so called has announced that he is ordering the formation of an administration for that city of Mariupol, basically saying that he's going to help govern that city. That to me sounds like the first step towards annexation of another Ukrainian city by Russia and its allies here in Ukraine, even though there are still Ukrainian troops holed up - holding out against that siege. John?

KING: Important something to keep an eye on. Ivan Watson, grateful for the live report. You and your crew stay safe. Let's move on now to Mykolaiv, where officials estimate at least 20 people were killed in a Russian strike on a government building back earlier this week. CNN's Ben Wedeman is live for us there. Ben, just before we came on the air raid sirens behind you, what is the situation?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Normal, actually. John, we've been hearing the air raid sirens go off about every hour all day long. We did hear too distant thuds, but nothing reported. So, yes, really sort of life as usual, in a city very close to the front lines. Now, regarding the death toll from the strike on the regional governor's office, the death toll of 20 is still tentative because they are still, more than 24 or 48 hours after that strike took place trying to dig more bodies out of the rubble.


And what we've also seen today is that city workers have come out. They're cutting down these massive trees on one of main boulevards of this city. The point is, they're going to use these very big trunks to reinforce trenches on the front lines, and also to put them on the barricades that surround the city and the smaller branches they'll be using to provide firewood for troops on the front line. And what we've also been seen in the last hour or so is ordinary citizens coming here to take wood as well. One elderly gentleman and a friend of his have been coming back three times now, filling their car with firewood because as the gentleman told us, he's hosting displaced people in his business, and he's using this firewood to keep them warm. John?

KING: Remarkable bravery and resilience and ingenuity behind you. Ben Wedeman, we appreciate the live report from Mykolaiv. We will stay in touch. Please you and your crew stay safe. Today a rare speech by the head of British intelligence, that included this startling accusation that Russian troops are committing treason on the battlefield.


JEREMY FLEMING, DIRECTOR U.K. GOVT. COMMUNICATIONS HEADQUARTERS: We've seen Russian soldiers, short of weapons and morale, refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment, and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft.


KING: To Brussels now, CNN's Nic Robertson. Nic, a remarkable revelation there from the head of British intelligence.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes. Putin's army not as strong as he thought in part as we heard from U.S. officials yesterday. And Fleming went on to talk about it as well, that the military commanders, defense officials around Putin are afraid to tell him the truth. He doesn't know how incapable inept, ill-supplied, ill- equipped, ill-motivated his forces are.

The evidence now he sees, they didn't take Kyiv in that rapid land grab that they originally intended. They're getting bogged down. They're reequipping and refocusing their forces. Putin today, pertinent to that announced a recruitment drive for about 160,000 conscripts, that's about the number that Russia recruits twice a year.

This is about the time of year it would do it. Of course, Putin legally not allowed to put conscripts into Ukraine, but in fact, he has been and many other families who have complained about it, Putin also going on the offensive against the European Union today, saying that as of tomorrow, all gas and oil supplies to what he calls unfriendly nations, European Union nations will have to be paid for in rubles.

Now, the Germans, the French and others here are saying, no way. The contracts were in euros, will pay in euros. Putin seems to be indicating that if they don't pay in rubles, then they will get cut off from energy supplies. The German economic economy minister today, saying that there will be a knock-on economic effect, and certainly, that's a concern in Europe at the moment.

I think on top of that, as well, we've heard from Putin, at least from state media agencies in Russia in the last few minutes saying, Putin and the Kremlin will put sanctions on top E.U. officials. This is the day Putin fights back against Europe.

KING: And a reminder, we have what's on the battlefields most importantly, but also these economic and diplomatic back and forth war of words as well. Nic Robertson, grateful for the live report from Brussels. We also did hear directly this morning, as Nic noted from President Putin, Russia's leader complaining about western sanctions and get this. Vladimir Putin says, he's the victim here.


JOHN BOLTON, FORMER TRUMP NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think the disastrous performance of the Russian military has caused such a reputational blow that, I think it's an added reason why Putin has no incentive, you know, from his perspective to negotiate. The bad news is, I think, actually---


KING: That's actually the former Trump National Security Adviser, John Bolton. We'll get to that Putin sound in just a moment. Let me bring into share her reporting and her insights, Susan Glasser, of The New Yorker. The control room, let me know when that sound is ready. Susan, but you did hear from Putin this morning, saying that the western set - the west is trying to punish him. And I could read what he said.

These are sanctions to punish us for our right to be free independent for our right to be Russia, for not wanting to dance to their tune and sacrifice our national interest and traditional values. That is Vladimir Putin being quite transparent. His national interest and values, includes stomping into a neighbor's territory, stealing it, killing its people and devastating its culture, its building, its infrastructure.

SUSAN GLASSER, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Yes. I think that's right. I mean, look, he has an inverse reality here field in which the war is a war somehow to denotify a country run by a Jewish president, where there are - it should be said no Nazis. The Russian propaganda inside of Russia has created this alternate reality.


Putin is speaking in part to his own people with these, you know, sort of absurd fantasies of Russian encirclement and the idea that, you know, Russia itself is basically under attack. This has always been a tactic of Vladimir Putin and other leaders in the Kremlin to distract their own people from the dictatorship and the economic hardships inside Russia by creating an enemy of the west, and he is certainly resorting to that time on our playbook once again.

KING: And the scary part of that, and the point John Bolton was making in that sound in the introduction. Is that, in a democracy, if things aren't going well, you reassess, or you answer public opinion, which tells you, you shouldn't be doing this. But in Vladimir Putin's world, when things are not going right, we see both in the indiscriminate bombing in Ukraine. And now Putin's words lashing out, saying he may, you know, try to punish, cut off energy supplies to Europe and the like. You back him into a corner, and you get an even worse result.

GLASSER: Well, look, escalation is in Putin's playbook, it's in the Russian and before that the Soviet playbook. And I think that again, because he has failed to achieve so far any of his stated objectives for the campaign, it's hard to see any negotiated solution right now, given that he wouldn't even have anything he could plausibly claim as a victory.

And he certainly has not hesitated to use energy as a weapon with Europe in particular before. And that's why for years, American officials of many previous administrations were literally begging the Europeans to take their own energy security much more seriously. They failed to do so in a timely fashion. And so, Putin does have a weapon over them at this moment in time.

And so, you know, we'll see how far he's willing to take it. There are further sanctions that the United States could impose on Russia, and many people want them to. More banks being cut off from SWIFT, more sanctions on Russian oil and gas. And so, we'll see if we are in an escalatory spiral on that soon.

KING: And of the many surprises, Vladimir Putin is experienced the last six plus weeks. It has to be. The rise of President Zelenskyy as a global icon of freedom, a global icon of defiance. We just want to put up a calendar here, just in the last month in the month of March. President Zelenskyy has spoken to parliaments and legislatures around the world. You see all the flags here of the countries.

And today, saying, you know that, again, issuing his warning, essentially what you see happening in Ukraine now, could come to other places in Europe. Give me your sense of, A, President Zelenskyy's effectiveness and getting the world to come to his aid. And B, the impact that must have because Vladimir Putin has so repeatedly belittled him.

GLASSER: I think you're absolutely right. To focus on that, I was really struck in the latest Pew global survey and Pew survey of our world leaders and how they're viewed in the United States. Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the single most trusted leader. Vladimir Putin is at the very bottom. I think was something like 73 percent of Americans thought he would trusted him to do the right thing.

You know, this is a guy who wouldn't have registered in international polls two months ago literally. So, that must infuriate Vladimir Putin. But has President Biden, has the west actually done what Zelenskyy wants on the military stuff, on the economic sanctions. They have delivered him a lot more equipment than they were willing to do just a couple months ago.

But they have not moved on this inflexible idea that he's not a member of NATO. He's not going to become one anytime soon. And they're not going to be drawn into further military escalation. In that sense, they have not managed - Zelenskyy has not managed to move Biden.

KING: Susan Glasser, grateful as always for your time and insights into your last point. When we come back, senators get a briefing on the war and U.S. efforts to help Ukraine, and they get Ukraine's wish list, which includes hopes for attack planes and more drones.




KING: Ukraine is sharing an ambitious wish-list with the United States Congress. New requests for military assistance include more drones, missiles and other equipment. The pace of delivering that aid was a big topic, when administration officials came to Capitol Hill yesterday to give senators a closed door briefing on the Russian invasion.

Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, of Colorado joins us now. He is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator, grateful for your time at this important moment. In that briefing, give me your take, is what the United States can send getting there fast enough? And if not, what's the hang up? And what about from the region? There's a lot of Russian made equipment that NATO allies have, that the Ukrainians are more familiar with. Is that getting across the border fast enough?

SEN. MICHAEL BENNET (D-CO): Well, that's the stuff that needs to get there. And I think it's moving as fast as we can move it. Everybody yesterday in that meeting underscored how important it is to move quickly. I think the administration is committed to moving quickly. I'm sure that here and there, there have been logistical hang ups that are getting smoothed out. But it is urgent for us to make sure that the Ukrainian people have the benefit of both humanitarian supplies, and also lethal weapons to continue to fend off Putin's terrible aggression.

KING: Do you believe the lines drawn by the Biden administration, and John, in part to keep the NATO allies together? Are the right lines now or as this goes on day 36 and beyond? Do they need to be reconsidered? One of our military analysts yesterday, for example, said what about a NATO humanitarian corridor inside Ukraine, but that would put NATO troops on the ground there.

BENNET: I think this is something that has to be reconsidered literally every single day of this conflict. We need to make sure that we are giving the maximum assistance to the Ukrainian people and to the Ukrainian military. And at the same time, we don't want to inadvertently break up the coalition that got us to this incredible point or inadvertently set up World War III. This is a delicate, delicate balancing act, but a thing should not be etched in stone, and we shouldn't leave things off the table. This is an evolving situation every single day.


KING: You have access to information that most of us don't. When it comes to this question, that's been in the forefront in recent days. The United States declassifying some intelligence to make the case that Putin has been misled by his advisors about how bad things are going in Ukraine. And because of that, there's some stress and tension.

As you all know, the west, including the United States have misjudged and miscalculated when it comes to Vladimir Putin a lot over the past 20 years. What is your sense of his state of play, his political standing at home right now?

BENNET: Well, I think his political standing at home right now is unchanged. It would be dishonest to me to say anything else, but that could change. I mean, as the economic sanctions bite, as people begin to realize in Russia, what actually has happened here, which is in their name and the Russian people's name, Vladimir Putin has invaded another a peaceful democracy. That could change.

I wouldn't count on it changing but it could. And with respect to the intelligence, let me just say, I can't speak to the specifics of it. But it has been amazing to see how good the intelligence has been leading up to this invasion of Putin.

And one of the things that was very clear was that he was making massive miscalculations because of the totalitarian nature of his society and his leadership. He miscalculated massively on the quality of his own army, massively on what the Ukrainian resistance would look like, and massively on the way the rest of the world would come together in stand united, and isolate Putin and Russia as a result of this.

KING: One indication to me that the people will look at this most closely understand. We will be at this for months and months and months and months, is the legislation you've introduced with a Republican colleague, Rob Portman, requiring the justice department to essentially take fund seized from Russian assets and direct them to Ukraine in a relief fund, to use that money not only to support refugees, but then eventual reconstruction of Ukraine.

Number one, explain why that's important? And number two, am I right to read that as we are going to be at this for months and months, if not years?

BENNET: Yes. If not years, I mean, this is going to take a long time. And unfortunately, the Ukrainian people who are suffering, you know, the daily nightmare of this invasion by Putin, you know, are going to need our support to recover. And when that time comes to me and Rob Portman, my Republican colleague from Ohio, it seemed very appropriate that the things that were seized from Putin and his billionaires, the value of that ought to go to the Ukrainian people for reconstruction. We are going to be at this for a very long time.

I mean, the war itself could last a very long time. And the recovery is going to be a long time after that. You know, I am very happy that we've seen democracies, frankly, the free world, come together in the wake of Putin's aggression and remind us, what the President Zelenskyy reminds us, is at stake. He says, they're fighting to live their lives the way we live our lives. The world should live in peace, he told us, and the order should be as liberal as possible, which meant as plural.

They're fighting for freedom of speech, the right to self- determination, freedom of the press, for that matter. And those are enduring values, and we need to be with them through this, not just through this war, but on the other end.

KING: Senator Bennet, grateful for your time, sir.

BENNET: Thanks. Thanks, John.

KING: Thank you. Up next, the changing battlefield. Russia repositions some troops, but U.S. and NATO officials say, do not believe Kremlin talk of a significant de-escalation.




KING: The NATO secretary general today says, what the allies see on the Ukraine battlefield, simply does not match Moscow's public pledge of a significant de-escalation of military activity.


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: We see that Russia are repositioning some of the troops, moving some of them around, most likely to reinforce their efforts in the Donbass region. So, we need to judge Russia on their actions, not on their words.


KING: Plus, this today from the U.K.'s intelligence chief. He says, President Putin is pulling in mercenaries and foreign fighters to use as "cannon fodder" to try to limit Russian military losses. Let's get some insights and perspective now from retired Lieutenant General and CNN military analyst, Mark Hertling. General Hertling, grateful for your time today.

I want to begin, we just got some new information from a U.S. defense. He says, number one, that Kyiv is still very much under threat from airstrikes. That's the capital. Number two, it says the Russian strikes are focusing on four areas. Kyiv, Chernihiv, and then over here, and I know these areas of interest to you (Inaudible) and the Donbass. Why do you believe that in the coming days, we'll be spending a lot of time focusing on these areas over here in eastern Ukraine?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, John, I wouldn't say it may be in the coming days, but it certainly could be in the coming weeks and maybe even months. Russia is repositioning its forces. From the very beginning, I believe that their original operational and tactical approach was very misguided. It violated the principle of war of simplicity. They were attacking on too many fronts with not enough forces and not enough resupplies.