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Austin: U.S. Wants To Stop Russia From Bullying Neighbors; Putin Meets With U.N. Chief In Moscow; Intense, Constant Shelling By Russia In East, South Ukraine; Mariupol Mayor Claims To Uncover Third Mass Grave; Lavrov: Ukraine Not Interested In Negotiations; Pentagon: Russia Is Already Seeing "A Weaker Military"; Top U.S. General To CNN: Aim In Ukraine Is To Weaken Russia; Source: VP Kamala Harris Tests Positive For COVID-19. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 26, 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. Last hour a blunt message, very blunt message to Vladimir Putin from the American Secretary of Defense. Lloyd Austin, highlighting new commitments from Germany, from Canada and from others to get heavier weaponry to Ukraine. And Secretary Austin making clear, a significant American strategy shift. The goal he says is to make sure Vladimir Putin not only loses in Ukraine, but that his military is significantly degraded in the process.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We do want to make it harder for Russia to threaten his neighbors and leave them less able to do that. They are in fact in terms of military capability weaker than when it started. We would like to make sure again, that they don't have the same type of capability to bully their neighbors that we saw at the outset of this conflict.


KING: That new statement from Secretary Austin, follows a promise alongside 40 other nations to as the secretary put in, "keep moving heaven and earth to meet Ukraine's military needs. That is just one of two big international meetings today. The United Nations secretary general in Moscow, his long shot mission to try to get Vladimir Putin to back down and to broker a deal to let starving Ukrainians out of Mariupol.

And a potentially decisive battle for Ukraine's east looms already, Moscow including today pulverizing targets from the air. CNN has resources across the globe to cover this more. And we start our coverage where Secretary Austin is at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, CNN's Oren Liebermann right there. Oren?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin certainly got quite a bit of attention when he talked about weakening Russia. He expanded on that saying, look, this isn't about a fight between the U.S. and Russia. But it's clear as we've watched this war now entering its third month, that is it's been the Ukrainian military that has weakened Russia.

First, through attrition, this war lasted much longer than Russia plan, and then through Ukraine successes on the battlefield. But it is also the U.S. goal to make sure that Russia can't carry out this sort of aggression against its neighbors in the future.

And that part of the U.S. strategy, the strategy we're seeing from the E.U., NATO and the west, is through sanctions to essentially weaken and make sure that Russia's economy isn't capable of supporting this type of war, and that its defense industrial base isn't capable of carrying out or building or manufacturing the sorts of weapons that we see Russia using in Ukraine.

One of the other interesting points that Austin announced in his closing remarks today before his press conference, was that this meeting that we saw here today between the U.S. and more than 40 other countries will become monthly. And that gives you a sense of the sort of timeline that the U.S. and others are looking at when it comes to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This is no longer being talked about in terms of days or weeks. This is months.

Now part of that is of course, in the short term and the medium term. What weapons does Ukraine need to stay in the fight against Russia and to succeed in the fight? But also, in the long term, what is the sort of situation? What is the weaponry that Ukraine needs to defend its own sovereignty? If and when we finally see an end to this conflict.

And that's a bigger question. It's not only a question of, of what is the weaponry but it's also transitioning Ukraine away from the Soviet era weapons they have now, to more modern weapons, the sword that U.S. uses and other western countries, and that involves training. So, it is a complex discussion, one the U.S. is having with dozens of countries and that discussion will very much continue, John?

KING: Oren Liebermann, live for us at Ramstein Air Base. Oren, thanks so much. In Moscow today, President Putin hosting the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. That visit coinciding with new tough rhetoric from Russia as well its foreign minister warning today about the prospect of nuclear war. Let's bring in CNN's Nic Robertson. He is live in Brussels with more on the that. Nic, the American defense secretary talking tough, but so as Russia's foreign minister.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes. Sergey Lavrov has spoken about the deterrence of nuclear weapons that no nation would want to use it, but then he goes and says, look, these are dangerous. They need to be taken seriously in Russian speak, that really can be interpreted just one way that they are saber rattling on the issue of nuclear weapons.

This is not about talking about that no nation should actually use them. Although he did say that it's to say that they're out there. They need to be taken seriously and they're dangerous. And certainly, Chief of Staff Mark Milley responded to that as well in conversations he's had today. Lavrov also telling the U.N. secretary general that Ukraine is not interested in negotiations indeed, again pointing the finger at the United States as he did a number of times today, saying that those nations that want to see Russia defeated and here he means the United States who are stuffing Ukraine full of weapons.


That here he means United States and partners at NATO are in essence stopping Ukraine wanting to hold talks what Lavrov seems to be beginning to perhaps the grapple where there's that all these nations are doing what they told Russia they would do in the first place, which is support Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty with weapons systems.

And Russia now, understanding that and complaining about it for specifically, the secretary general, though putting as a priority, getting Russia to end the war, and putting as a number one priority above that, trying to get humanitarian assistance in humanitarian corridors to the beleaguered civilians inside Mariupol.

And the Ukrainian forces there, offering U.N. and Red Cross to be part of that process to do that. Russia that seems to be tin eared towards that in part because its strategic objective is to have no Ukrainians there whatsoever. And certainly, not an international presence of some bridgehead that will stop them controlling the whole area. John?

KING: Nic Robertson, live for us in Brussels. Nic appreciate that. And today's battlefield developments support what Nic just said about Russia's goals, new Russian attacks across eastern and southern Ukraine on this day 62 of Vladimir Putin's invasion.

In Zaporizhzhia, three explosions just this morning. Missiles killing Ukrainian officials say at least one person. In Luhansk, heavy fighting and claims Russian forces, "keep raising everything to the ground." And in Odessa, an important road and railway destroyed, part of what Ukrainian officials see as a Russian campaign to trap people inside major cities, and then bombard them into submission.

In Kherson, a strategic southern port, Russian forces have seized the city council building. To Lviv now in western Ukraine, CNN's Scott McLean, they're live for us, tracking the latest on the battlefield. Scott?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, perhaps one of the most significant developments in the last 24 hours is that bridge near Odessa that you mentioned, it is significant because it is the only road or rail link between the southwestern corner of Ukraine and the rest of the country. Any other route that you might take by road or by rail would take you through Moldova. Elsewhere in the country, the military chess pieces are moving around, and they are at work.

In Kharkiv, there is a Russian buildup of troops there. According to the Ukrainians, they are trying right now to attack a very strategic town, which would give them access to go further west toward Kramatorsk. You remember that just a couple of weeks ago, Kramatorsk was the place where the train station was attacked, killing of any civilians.

In the capital Kyiv, Russian troops had been gone for some time, and yet a new curfew announced by authorities there is meant to ward off or prevent provocations by Russians. And in Mariupol, John, well, new accusations now of mass graves that were found. You'll recall that not long ago, the Mariupol city council had said that two mass graves had been found in a village to the west of the city and another one to the east, will now this one is in the village just north of the city limits.

They say that this first showed up on satellite images when Russians first occupied this village and then it grew into April. And then the latest satellite images, not long ago show that this trench that has been dug, the series of trenches that had been dug is around 200 yards or so long.

And the most disturbing thing that the mayor of Mariupol said, is that local people had been enlisted to actually help build those trenches or dig those trenches in exchange for food and water. Now CNN is not in a position to confirm any of this. But of course, if that does turn out to be the case, it means that that situation in Mariupol, just when you think it can't get worse, it does.

KING: Another on a long list of alleged atrocities to be investigated. Scott, also curious developments in Moldova across the border from Ukraine. The government there are now responding to recent explosions in Transnistria, that's a breakaway region, pro Russia breakaway region. What can you tell us about that?

MCLEAN: Yes. So, there was one explosion yesterday at the ministry of state security. And then earlier this morning, there was another one that hit two radio or two other explosions, I should say, that hit radio towers there. Now the Ukrainians, they're blaming the Russians for these attacks, saying that they are trying to - there are false flag attacks, trying to gin up anti Ukrainian sentiment.

The Moldovans which don't control this separatists statelet of Transnistria, they convened their security chiefs, chiefs earlier today to discuss how to respond to this. And the Moldovan president condemned the attacks, calling them provocations aimed at drawing the country into actions that can endanger peace. That's her words.


She said that there were forces inside Transnistria that would very much like to destabilize that region. She also mentioned that even before these attacks, even before these explosions, there had been previous bomb threats against schools and medical facilities.

KING: Scott McLean, live for us in Lviv. Scott, appreciate the update from there. Up next, we continue on the Ukraine story. Now stirring cold war like rhetoric. Russia stopped in that warning, do not estimate. Do not underestimate the threat of nuclear war.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: The sooner the better. Those words today from the United Nations secretary general, who is in Moscow today and pushing hard for a ceasefire. The secretary general embarking on that trip, facing considerable skepticism from Ukraine. He landed to an equally IC reception from Russia's top diplomat who insists it is Ukraine, that is not interested in peace.


Joining our conversation, Andrea Kendall-Taylor. She's a CNN national security analyst and a former Deputy National Intelligence Officer. Grateful to see you here in person. So, the diplomats want to meet. They want to try to broker a ceasefire, but it seems, forgive me, but it seems a fool's errand at this moment that Vladimir Putin is willing to back down.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor: Yep, I agree. It's a fool's errand. And first, let's remember the context in which the visit takes place. So, the U.N. is already under heavy criticism for its relatively feckless presence in this conflict. They've really, you know, been absent on the humanitarian front, and obviously, the U.N. security council of what Russia is a member, hasn't even come out to condemn the conflict.

Now, the secretary general goes to Russia, trying to broker a peace agreement, but the timing is so off, in part, because it's clear that we're so far away from any sort of negotiated settlement. Russia has just embarked on its second major offensive in Ukraine. Putin clearly feels emboldened that they can accomplish things on the battlefield. So, we're very far away from any kind of negotiations. And so, you know, again, a fool's errand, as you said.

KING: And as you see the Russian propaganda machine in full force here in the sense that Foreign Minister Lavrov, saying this is the United States, pushing an anti-Russia campaign. The Ukrainians are the problem. We want peace, he says of Russia, not the Ukrainians, and he throws this into the mix. Now raising the prospect of nuclear war.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The danger is serious and real. And it should not be underestimated.


KING: Who's he talking to there?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: Well, I think he's talking to the United States in particular, but the west more broadly. But I think what, you know, three quick points on that comment. Number one is just to remember that this nuclear rhetoric has been prevalent all the way through this conflict. At the beginning of this war, Russia puts its nuclear forces on heightened alert. And it was just last week that Russia tested Sarmat or it's Satan 2 nuclear missile. So, this has been a persistent narrative. Second point, we should expect this rhetoric to continue if not grow in the coming weeks. And I say that, especially if Russia faces more resistance in Ukraine. We all want Ukraine to win. It's critical that Vladimir Putin is defeated in Ukraine. But that's the scenario in which I worry most about the risk of nuclear escalation. So that's really the third point, which is, it's not just the rhetoric that will grow. But I do think that the risk of a nuclear confrontation rises, as Russia faces more problems in Ukraine.

You know, this is an existential threat for Vladimir Putin. I don't think that defeat is an option. And so, if he is facing defeat, that's the scenario in which I worry most that we could see the use of chemical weapons, more massive cyberattacks, and potentially a nuclear weapon. And he would do that because, you know, either to try to reverse the momentum on the battlefield, or to distract the Russian public from this relatively weak performance.

KING: And you make that point and it's a sobering one, a chilly one at a time where, if you listen to Secretary Austin today, we're going to meet these 40 nations, we're going to be monthly. Germany major policy shift, Germany is going to send in heavy armor anti-aircraft weapons. Canada sending armored vehicles. Secretary Austin essentially saying, yes, this may last month, but we are not going to blink. How does Putin process that?

KENDALL-TAYLOR: I think, in the next couple of - yes, it's a long-term confrontation. But as we've heard repeatedly from the administration, we are in a critical period. This the next couple of weeks, will shape I think, the outcome of this conflict. So, seeing the United States doubling down, sending more weapons, the Germans now stepping in. The west being able to show their commitment and their support for Ukraine in this critical moment is going to be key.

KING: Andrea Kendall-Taylor, grateful for your insights. Appreciate it very much. And ahead for us, inside the Pentagon's new endgame, not just a Ukraine victory, but a weakened Russia.




KING: The top American military brass interestingly trying to send a very clear signal to Vladimir Putin. Washington wants Moscow's military to wind up worse off. Today, the Pentagon Chief, Lloyd Austin, sounding that message from Germany. And this morning, in an exclusive interview here on CNN, the top U.S. general echoing what is now a very clear U.S. objective.


GEN. MARK MILLEY, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: The Russian aggression has been halted and stopped. And at the end of the day, I think that it's going to involve a weakened Russia, a strengthened NATO and wars a two-way street. There's action reaction counteraction. And the first part of this operation, the strategic attempt to seize Kyiv in a lightning strike, the attempt to - on top of the Zelenskyy government failed. And now what the Russians are trying to do is essentially envelop and then crush about half of the Ukrainian army down around the line of contact. The Ukrainians are set. They're ready for this fight.


KING: With me to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Kasie Hunt, CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, and Hans Nichols from Axios. Hans, you covered the Pentagon. Of course, you're in a fight with somebody or you're supporting somebody to fight, of course you want the other side to come out weaker. Of course, you want the other side to lose.

But the way in the last 24 hours or so, they seem deliberately to be making this point, almost a poke at Putin. You're going to lose. You're not going to get the territory of Ukraine, whether it takes months, but you're not - not only you're going to lose, you're going to come out of this way worse off. Wy?


HANS NICHOLS, POLITICAL REPORTER, AXIOS: A deliberate is the key point there, right, when this first started getting message from various officials that were in the region. The secretary of state, the secretary defense, there's almost an open question. Was this intentional? It's clear that it's intentional now. And I think to peel back a little bit and look at what the intent is and what the strategy is.

They want to sort of force Putin to recognize the facts on the ground, because there's been a lot of reporting in the last few weeks on just how, is Putin getting the right information, or the generals telling him what's actually happening. They want to make it abundantly clear to Putin and his inner circle that he is losing. And that this is, as you're saying, a one-way street, a one-way street back to Moscow, because it's hard to see how they move forward now.

KING: And we just mentioned, Lloyd Austin, the Defense Secretary, General Milley, you just saw there on CNN. It's not just that, it's the entire Biden team sending a very clear message.


JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: We want Russia not to be able to threaten their neighbors again in the future.

MATTHEW MILLER, SPECIAL ADVISER, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: We want this war to be a strategic failure for Russia.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We are going to do everything we can to push back on President Putin's aspirations.


KING: Again, it seems to be not only a message to Putin, as Hans said, and make sure other generals telling you this, you know, do you all get this. But also, you said, Secretary Austin with 40 plus nations, who says Germany changing its policy. We're going to send anti- aircraft tanks or armored vehicles that shoot planes out of the sky, shoot missiles out of the sky. Canada sending eight armored vehicles. We're going to meet every month. And we're going to keep doing this until it's over.

KASIE HUNT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: And this is, of course, a strategy that Biden administration has been very careful to make sure that they were aligned with our European allies as they talked about this kind of thing. So, I think all those things that you just lined up, really underscore that. I think, also, this is something we started with clear up in the beginning, because there seemed to be more of a concern about a potential nuclear confrontation.

We weren't clear on where the Russians were in terms of using tactical nuclear weapons or something else that we hadn't yet seen. And that concern seems to have faded a little bit to the background. And they're more comfortable taking this footing. And in some ways, this is the frame that Putin wanted, right? This is Russia versus the United States of America. Now, we seem to be lining up that way.

KING: Right. Well, to interrupt this conversation and bring you some major breaking news just into CNN. A source telling CNN, the Vice President of United States, Kamala Harris, has tested positive for COVID-19. Let's get straight to our White House correspondent, Arlette Saenz. Arlette, what do we know?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, Vice President Kamala Harris has tested positive for COVID-19. A source familiar with that told our colleague Jasmine, right? And then, just a short while ago, the press secretary for Vice President Harris also put out a statement that she tested positive for COVID-19 on a rapid and PCR test today.

Now it's important to note that she has not been a close contact of President Biden because she has actually been traveling for the past week. Vice President Harris had been spending some time in California. She flew back yesterday, and she had been slated to participate in a classified briefing, receiving the president's daily brief with the president this morning at 10:15. But according to her office, she has not been a close contact of the president due to their travel schedules.

Now, the Press Secretary Kirsten Allen for Vice President Harris, said that Harris has exhibited no symptoms. She will isolate and continue to work from the vice president's residence, and she will follow the CDC guidelines and the advice of her physicians. And she will return to the White House once she tests negative.

But at this moment, the vice president has tested positive for COVID- 19. She is the highest-ranking administration official within the Biden administration to do so. You'll remember a few months ago, her husband, second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, had also tested positive for COVID-19. But now, we have learned that Vice President Harris does have COVID-19.

KING: Arlette Saenz, appreciate the hustle on the breaking news. Let's bring the conversation back into the room. On the one hand, this is part of our life now. As part of our life that we've seen after west people resumed their travels. So, we saw our big recent dinners here in Washington D.C. to see this happen. But to have it happen to the Vice President United States who is vaccinated, who is boosted, but who is in proximity, not recently to the president United States, but the people of power all the time plus out on the road.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: An you have seen the White House kind of lay the groundwork for this. As you said, there have been a number of positive tests around the president, around the White House. And you saw the White House a few weeks ago, essentially said listen, the president himself is going to go about living his life. Essentially, he may get COVID, but listen, he is vaccinated and boosted.

And so, now you have the vice president in a similar situation, not a surprise in some ways because of what we know about this a recent variant because also they're sort of opening back up in terms of being on the road, not wearing masks in the way that they were months and months ago. And so, it's no surprise. We of course, wish her all the best and a speedy recovery.

KING: At no symptoms, I've going to take the precautions again part of your life, but it still knocks you back a little bit when you see it moving high up levels of power.

HUNT: Yes, it is. And you know, I think for all of us, you know, hopefully, as we've noted, the vice president vaccinated boosted. It's unlikely that this is going to be a threat to her life, especially if she's asymptomatic. So, assuming that's how it plays out, I mean the question is always the president of United States. She's an older person who is at more risk of significant side effects from COVID.