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Isa Soares Tonight

Chaos Engulfs The Once Peaceful Nation Of Ecuador As Drug Gang Violence Fuels A Complete Breakdown In Civil Order; NATO's Ukraine Council Meets In The Wake Of Intensified Russian Airstrikes; Haley-DeSantis To Go Head-To-Head In Presidential Debate; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Makes Surprise Visit To Lithuania To Bolster Support; DeSantis And Haley Go Head-To-Head In CNN Debate; Southern And Eastern U.S. Hit By Strong Storms; Kremlin Critic Alexei Navalny Makes Court Appearance From Siberian Penal Colony. Aired 2-3p ET

Aired January 10, 2024 - 14:00   ET



ISA SOARES, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: A very warm welcome to the show everyone, I'm Isa Soares. Tonight, chaos engulfs the once peaceful nation

of Ecuador as drug gang violence fuels a complete breakdown in civil order. I'll speak to the country's former vice president at one time presidential

candidate in just a moment.

Also ahead, NATO's Ukraine council meets in the wake of intensified Russian airstrikes. Can the allies help replenish Ukraine's dwindling military

stockpile. My exclusive interview with NATO's Secretary-General on that. That is coming up this hour.

And U.S. Republican rivals Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis will battle it out in tonight's CNN debate. Each seeking to become the sole challenger to

Donald Trump. But first tonight, Ecuador in crisis. The president says the country is in a state of internal armed conflict, authorizing the military

to, quote, "neutralize the gangs behind a spate of recent violence."

And it comes after a shocking scene that really we showed you yesterday roughly at this time here on CNN, playing out on a live news broadcast

around this time yesterday. Hooded gunmen storming the TV station and then taking hostages. That attack as well as several others appears to stem from

a prison break in Guayaquil.

A notorious gang leader escaped from jail there, throwing the country's biggest city into utter chaos since. Our Patrick Oppmann has the latest for



PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These cameras broadcast live armed gunmen take employees of a TV station in Guayaquil, Ecuador,

hostage. The journalists are threatened and forced to the floor at gunpoint while viewers watch. The latest scenes of out-of-control gang violence

plaguing the South American nation. Ecuadorians say they are in shock.

LUIS ARTURO BELTRAN, WAITER (through translator): All citizens are afraid. Today, there were attacks in Quito, Cuenca, Quevedo, everywhere.

OPPMANN: On Monday, Ecuador's President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency a day after the government said notorious gang leader Adolfo

Macias, known as Fito, escaped from prison in Guayaquil before his transfer to a maximum security facility.

DANIEL NOBOA, PRESIDENT, ECUADOR (through translator): The time is over for when those convicted of drug trafficking and murder tell the government

what to do.

OPPMANN: The government implemented a curfew and mobilized a manhunt of 3,000 police officers and members of the armed forces to search for the

escaped gang leader. The gang struck back on Tuesday, raiding the TV station, taking police and prison guards hostage, setting off bombs and

attacking a university.

Ecuador had long been spared of the epidemic of violence carried out by drug cartels throughout much of the region, but as the country has

increasingly become a key trans-shipping point for illegal drugs heading to Europe and the U.S., local gangs have partnered with cartels, have battled

each other and the government for control.

In 2023, presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated after naming individuals he said were involved in the drug trade. And then

the six alleged hit-men arrested for his killing were apparently murdered in prison as well. Villavicencio's running mate on Tuesday called on the

country to unite to defeat the gangs.

ANDREA GONZALEZ NADER, FORMER RUNNINGMATE FOR FERNANDO VILLAVICENCIO (through translator): This is the moment that Ecuador stands and leaves

behind political terrorism.

OPPMANN: The country's president Noboa on Tuesday declared several of the gangs terrorist organizations, and ordered the armed forces to, quote,

"neutralize the violence". Police at the TV station said they had arrested 13 alleged gunmen and rescued the hostages. As the government declares war

though, there is no sign the gangs are backing down.


SOARES: And Patrick Oppmann joins me now with much more. So Patrick, these were incredibly frightful scenes that were playing out for so many in

Ecuador. The country I understand is still under a state of national emergency still. Just bring us up-to-date with the very latest. How much

does the government have control, full control of what is happening in the state of the civil -- of the country right now?


OPPMANN: Well, you know, you talk to people in Ecuador today, and people are still in a state of shock. Even though it seems the government and the

military for the time-being has regained control of the streets, and you've not seen so far the scenes of just wanting violence of gang members

attacking public places and attacking people in broad daylight.

All those same people are shocked and horrified by what is taking place and certainly, any sense of safety is going to take a long time to return.

You've heard the government overnight, saying that they will treat these gang members, members of gangs that are fueled by other drug trade that

have become increasingly violent over the years as terrorists.

And that they will hunt them down one at a time. Of course, first on their list is this gang leader known as Fito. And you know, we've heard President

Noboa on the radio today saying that essentially, he doesn't know where Fito is, and even know when he escaped. It seems like he might have had

quite a head-start before they realized he was in fact missing, which only took place on Sunday.

And of course, it appears according to the president that it was an inside job. That officials within that prison helped him to escape.

SOARES: That raises so many questions. Patrick Oppmann there for us, thank you very much, Patrick. Well, Ecuador's former Vice President Otto

Sonnenholzner joins us now in Guayaquil. Otto, thank you very much, welcome back to the show. Let me start off briefly by asking you what the state is,

what it's like right now where you are, situation is like in Guayaquil on the ground after those terrifying scenes.

OTTO SONNENHOLZNER, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF ECUADOR: Thank you, Isa, for the invitation, glad to talk to you again. It was a hard day yesterday for

Guayaquil and the whole country. The violence is mostly concentrated here in my city in Guayaquil, it is the main economic city in Ecuador.

It has a great movement of the port because of the banana and shrimps export. So the volume of cargo that Guayaquil moves is huge even for Latin

American standards comparing it to countries like Argentina or Columbia. Guayaquil is one of the biggest ports in Latin America, and that makes it

a target for drug traffic.

That makes the city a target for drug traffickers. What happened yesterday, it's a clear declaration of war from the mafia, from the war -- from the

drug gangs, against the state, against the government. And what the president decided in my opinion is a correct decision. These declaration of

internal armed conflict allows him to enable the cooperation between the military and the police so that he can almost doll(ph) the forces that he

has to solve --

SOARES: Yes --

SONNENHOLZNER: This internal conflict. Yes, this --

SOARES: Yes --

SONNENHOLZNER: Is a short term solution. It's not a myth or long-term definition in terms of what we need to do. But to bring back peace and

order, it was necessary and it was correct. Today, we have this new normality in terms of nothing has happened, in terms of violence, still the

country is in the middle of crimes that weren't common before like kidnapping or extortion. This didn't happen two, three years ago, and now

it has become normal.

SOARES: And we did hear from the president, President Noboa, like you said, declaring a state of internal conflict. He actually named 22 armed gangs,

he called them terrorists. I mean, how does he do this, Otto? How does this 36-year-old president quell this wave of violence? He's been in power for

what? Since October? How is he going to achieve this?

SONNENHOLZNER: Not even. He's been in power for 45 days. He won the election in October. So, again, it's a brave decision, but it's a hard

decision to implement, right? One thing is to make a declaration, another thing is to make that work and achieve results.

And that's where he needs to concentrate his efforts now, together with the leaders of the armed forces in Ecuador. They need resources, they need

Intelligence, they need to capture the leaders who organized these attacks yesterday and terrorized the Ecuadorian population. It is clear that the

drug gangs in our country, about two or three years ago stopped just dealing with drug trafficking and began this internal war among each other


And extended it to the population in terms of these new crimes like kidnapping, extortion and assassination that has six toppled in the last

two years in Ecuador. The murder rates in Ecuador went from six violent deaths, each 100,000 citizens in 2020 to 45 last year. It is the biggest

increase in the world. And it is just --

SOARES: Yes --

SONNENHOLZNER: A little show, a little demonstration of what's going on in Ecuador. It's biggest crisis we have seen in many years.

SOARES: And really making the most of this crisis fueling this violence and this crisis is drug violence, right?


This guy called Fito, the notorious gang leader who escaped from prison. The government says, Otto, that he escaped on Sunday. But there are

reports, and I wonder if you can give me any more insight from what you're hearing, that he escaped much earlier. What are you hearing on that?

SONNENHOLZNER: There is no clear information yet, not even the president has explained so far what happened. But what we suspect is that he had

access to combing and leaving prison as he wanted, which is unbelievable. And they are saying that around the 25th of December, he left on a medical

checkup and never came back. That's what they're --

SOARES: I mean --

SONNENHOLZNER: Saying, but it's not official yet.

SOARES: That raises so many questions in terms of, you know, how does a --


SOARES: A high-profile prisoner escape? Who has oversight over these prisons? Is corruption --


SOARES: Playing a part here, Otto?

SONNENHOLZNER: That's where it begins. And only two or three weeks ago, the Attorney General of Ecuador presented a case that showed and shocked the

country, showed the world how these drugs gangs have infiltrated all the prison system, the justice system, they have links with big and important

political parties. They have influence in Ecuadorian politics and institutions.

SOARES: Yes --

SONNENHOLZNER: And on this -- on this case, called the Metastasis case, you can see, you know, chat, how they have controlled everything. Since the

first riots in 2021, three years ago, it was clear that the government and the state doesn't control the prison system anymore.

That it is the gangs who decide what happens, what comes in -- what comes in and what goes out of prisons. And if you look back into that, you will

know that the beginning of the median and long-term solution starts with taking control of the prison system.

SOARES: Yes, and we -- I was looking at some of the numbers that the "New York Times" was saying a total of 210 tons of drugs were seized in a single

year. That was a record at least, 4,500 killings last year, also a record, right? So, let -- you know, I -- let me ask you this, how much then, Otto,

is the world's kind of insatiable appetite for cocaine, the U.S. and Europe --


SOARES: Apparently the biggest markets here driving the terror that you are seeing in your country?

SONNENHOLZNER: It is important that you mentioned that. Because if you check on the statistics on drug trafficking, captures, seizures of the

government, of the military and the police in the last five years -- in the last four years, it also increased almost at the same rate as the violence.

It was 50 tons per year in 2019, and it came up to 220 last year.

So what happened is that these criminal organizations started facing bigger effort from the government to stop drug trafficking. And began first, a war

amongst them for this territory that they were losing. And then they spread their criminal activities to other activities that affect the citizens more


This being said, it is important to reflect as leaders, as media, as citizens of this world, since the 1970s, the world started a war against

drugs that has failed everywhere. Drug trafficking is bigger every year. These gangs are more violent every year, and governments all around the

world are losing control.

Look at Costa Rica, which is also --

SOARES: Yes --

SONNENHOLZNER: Like Ecuador. We were two countries that were clearly peaceful territories in the middle of the violence --

SOARES: Yes --

SONNENHOLZNER: Last year, Costa Rica almost doubled its homicide rate, almost doubled. It is the second highest increase --

SOARES: Yes --

SONNENHOLZNER: After Ecuador. And this is incredible. Costa Rica, like Ecuador, we were two countries that were synonymous of peace --

SOARES: Yes, because --

SONNENHOLZNER: Right, and this is --

SOARES: So long -- because so long --

SONNENHOLZNER: This is no longer the case --

SOARES: You were immune to that. Ecuador was immune to that. But this is such important context and analysis, Otto.

SONNENHOLZNER: It needs -- it's not only a problem from Ecuador. It's -- all I want to be clear, it's a problem for the whole region and the world.

And we need to solve it together because these ports, all the institutions, the democratic system, democracy as we know it, it puts it to a test that

it's almost impossible to successfully complete.

SOARES: Yes, Otto, appreciate you taking the time to speak to us there. Otto Sonnenholzner, well, you're welcome back on the show any time, Otto.

Thank you very much.

SONNENHOLZNER: Thank you for the invitation, my pleasure --

SOARES: Thank you --


SOARES: Thank you. Well, now to growing concerns about a widening war in the Middle East after the biggest attack by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea in

months. The U.S. military says it shot down 21 Houthi missiles and drones launched from Yemen on Tuesday.


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the attack in a vital shipping lane during a visit to Bahrain. He is on a world-wide trip across

-- a whirlwind trip across the region, trying to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spreading beyond Gaza's borders. Blinken accused Iran of aiding

and abetting the Houthi attack. Have a listen.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE, UNITED STATES: If these attacks continue, as they did yesterday, there will be consequences. Again, this

represents a clear threat to the interests of countries around the world, and it's important that the international community come together and

respond to them.


SOARES: Let's get more on this from our Jeremy Diamond who is this hour in Tel Aviv, and Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon. Jeremy, let me start with

you. This visit to Bahrain by the Secretary of State speaks no doubt to the growing concerns over these Houthi attacks that have been ongoing and have

been sustained now for weeks. What is the Secretary of State hoping to get out of this visit? What assurances is he looking for here?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly, he delivered some very strong messaging in addition to his meetings with Bahraini officials. Those

words from the Secretary of State warning of consequences for the Houthi rebels if they do not stop their attacks on these shipping lanes, perhaps

among the strongest comments that we have heard so far from U.S. officials, who for weeks now have been trying to find a way to allow shipping to

resume in that area, to allow those shipping companies to feel safe.

And also, to try and avoid a broader regional escalation of this war between Israel and Hamas. We know, of course, that the Houthi rebels have

been firing these missiles and attack drones, not only at the shipping lanes, but also in the direction of Israel in response to the war that we

are seeing in Gaza.

But the Secretary of State today making clear that if these attacks do not stop, that the U.S. will respond. He didn't say exactly how and whether

that includes military action. In fact, the White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby moments ago, was also asked about this, and he

didn't say whether a military response would be in the offing.

But you can definitely feel that the United States and other countries in the region are starting to say enough is enough, and perhaps a more

forceful response will come. Now, the Secretary of State has been on this, you know, multi-country tour of the region, aiming to not only prevent this

conflict from escalating into a broader regional war, but also meeting with Israeli officials about the next phases of the war in Gaza, post-war

governance and reconstruction in the Gaza Strip.

And the Secretary of State is now on his way back to Tel Aviv. We don't know if he has more meetings here, but certainly, there has been a lot on

his agenda during this multi-day trip.

SOARES: And Oren, we did hear Secretary Blinken warning, as Jeremy was saying, of the consequences, right? For these Houthi attacks. And we've

also learned that on Tuesday, the U.S. Navy shot down 21 Houthi missiles and drones. I mean, this is the largest, right? The largest Houthi attacks

to take place in the Red Sea in recent months. I suppose the question is, when will there be consequences? What is the red line here?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the U.S. and others at this point have gotten from sort of cautioning of consequences to warning,

to what appears now to be open threats, and perhaps even promises of consequences against the Houthis. There has been political pressure on the

Biden administration to go further than what we've seen so far, which is effectively defending international shipping in the Red Sea. Obviously, a

critical waterway.

Going further than that and carrying out offensive actions. Here is what John Kirby from the National Security Council had to say a short time ago.



direct threat to the lives, to freedom and navigation and to global trade, in one of the world's most critical waterways. And despite what the Houthis

may say, they are threatening and targeting commercial vessels with ties to countries all over the world.

Many of which have no connection to Israel whatsoever. These attacks are unlawful, they're reckless, and they're escalatory.


LIEBERMANN: The Houthis have claimed they're attacking ships with connections to Israel, whether that's ownership or coming from or going to

Israel or something like that. But the Vice Admiral in charge of U.S. Navy Central Command is pointing out that the last dozen or so attacks have had

no connection to Israel at all.

The ships that were in the way or targeted by these missiles and drones, as they launched the largest one yet here, 18 drones, two anti-ship cruise

missiles, one anti-ship ballistic missile, it was three U.S. destroyers, fighter jets, an aircraft carrier, and a U.K. destroyer that intercepted

this massive barrage here with no signs that these attacks will obey.

And that while we're seeing the U.S. looking at all of its different options, including the potential use of military options, which appears to

be what the U.S. and others are threatening at this point.

SOARES: Oren and Jeremy at this hour, thank you to you both. Meantime, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says Gaza is an integral part

of the future Palestinian state, and any efforts by Israel to divide it after the war are unacceptable.


Abbas met with Secretary Blinken in Ramallah today as you can see there, urging U.S. to do more to stop what he called Israel's aggression against

Palestinians in Gaza at the West Bank as well as Jerusalem. The State Department says Blinken discussed ongoing efforts to minimize harm to

Palestinian civilians.

And still to come tonight, the NATO Secretary-General tells me allies are stepping up military aid to Ukraine. We'll have that exclusive interview

coming up. And still ahead, the son of President Joe Biden makes a surprise appearance in Washington. We'll tell you why some were not happy to see

him. Both those stories after this very short break. You are watching CNN.


SOARES: And shock today in Washington as President Joe Biden's son makes a surprise appearance on Capitol Hill. Hunter Biden unexpectedly showed up at

a House Oversight Committee hearing. That hearing was taking up the question of whether to hold him in contempt of Congress. He has refused to

testify privately in front of Congress, and his appearance quickly proved contentious.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: First off, my first question is, who bribed Hunter Biden to be here today? That's my first question. Second question, you are

the epitome of white privilege, coming into the Oversight Committee, spitting in our face, ignoring a congressional subpoena to be deposed. What

are you afraid of? You have no balls to come up here and --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Chairman, point of inquiry.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The lady is recognized --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the genial -- if the genial lady wants to hear from Hunter Biden, we can hear from him right now, Mr. Chairman.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And let it be -- I'm speaking --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's take a vote and hear from Hunter Biden. What are you afraid of?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are women allowed to speak --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you afraid of?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hold on, hold on, hold on, order!


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are women allowed to speak in here? No! Are --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Women allowed to speak in here? No --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because you keep interrupting me.


SOARES: Oh, sharp words and reaction in Washington. For more on this, let's bring in CNN's Annie Grayer, she's live on Capitol Hill. And Annie, I think

it's fair to say we're all used to drama, right? On Capitol Hill. But this was somewhat unexpected. Just talk us through what happened and the funfair

and the reaction around it.

ANNIE GRAYER, CNN REPORTER: This was absolutely unexpected. This morning we're expecting the hearing to start around 10:00 a.m. I got word that

Hunter Biden was expected to appear, and moments later, I look up and Hunter Biden is walking down the hallway with his legal team.


He entered the committee room and then chaos ensued because members were not expecting Hunter Biden to be there today. So, you had some Republicans

who were saying that Hunter should be arrested just for appearing in this hearing room.

And then you had other Democrats saying, well, now that Hunter is in the room, let's hear from him. Let's get his testimony. But Hunter and his team

took a very aggressive stand today and showed that they were going to take Republicans head-on for the attacks against him.

What's at stake here is Hunter's testimony. Republicans had subpoenaed the president's son for a closed-door deposition on December 13th. But Hunter

had said he was only willing to testify publicly. When Hunter missed that December 13th closed-door interview date, Republicans then started contempt

of Congress proceedings against him, which is what is still going on today.

So we -- that hearing is still happening. We're waiting for a final vote. We're expecting that to pass, but then, there is a long process that ensues

before Republicans get the opportunity to maybe even question Hunter Biden again. So today was completely unexpected chaos, but really a very public

showdown between Republicans and the president's son.

SOARES: Annie Grayer for us there on Capitol Hill. Thanks very much, Annie, appreciate it. And still to come tonight, Ukraine's President Zelenskyy

makes a surprise visit to Lithuania as he tries to bolster support. Plus, our exclusive interview with NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who

tells me there is an obvious need to step in military aid for Ukraine. That exclusive interview is next.




SOARES: Welcome back, everyone.

Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise visit to Lithuania today to try and shore up more support for their war effort. He met with

the country's president and discussed the integration into the E.U. and NATO, as well as Kyiv's desperate need for more military as well as

financial aid.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): That uncertainty of the partners' financial and military support to Ukraine only

builds up the bravery of the Russian Federation. Therefore we should not prolong this process anymore.


SOARES: Zelenskyy is also set to visit the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia, as it approaches the two year anniversary of Russia's


President Zelenskyy's visit comes on the same day that the NATO Ukraine counsel has been meeting in Brussels. They have been holding an

extraordinary session in response to the renewed attacks from Russia across Ukraine in recent weeks. One of the key aims of the meeting was to procure

more Patriot missiles to strengthen Kyiv's air defenses. Early in the week if you remember, CNN's Fred Pleitgen met one of the units working overtime

around Ukraine's capital. This clip shows how crucial these systems are.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This gun might not look like much but it's very important for the air defenses not just

here in Kyiv but across the country. When they get the call, they have to be ready in minutes to move out.

"The Russians are constantly changing tactics and trying to make their attacks more lethal, making air defense like a chess match," the commander

tells me. "They used to fly in a single trajectory," he says, "but now they are zigzagging.

"A drone can fly, circle, hover, go down completely, then rise about half a kilometer, then fly sharply down. They are now very maneuverable and must

be seen and destroyed. "


SOARES: I spoke earlier exclusively to NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg. He told me NATO allies are stepping up the military aid to

Ukraine in the wake of Russia's renewed assault. Have a listen.


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: So NATO allies strongly condemn the Russian air and missile attacks against Ukrainian civilians' critical

infrastructure. We met today in the NATO Ukraine council. And our allies have announced a new plan.

Stepping up further the provision or to provide even more air and missile defense capabilities, including Germany announcing more IST (ph) air

defense systems, the U.K. announcing a significantly increased delivery of ammunition for air defense systems and the United States also stepping up

their deliveries.

NATO allies as an organization have been agreed to actually acquire up to 1,000 additional Patriot air defense systems. That will enable them to also

continue to deliver that support to Ukraine. So allies are stepping up because it is extremely important to help Ukraine defend themselves.

SOARES: So the deliverables you have just outlined for us, how quickly will Ukraine be getting this?

STOLTENBERG: This is going on. Allies have delivered throughout last year and they continue to deliver systems. But perhaps as important as these

systems, the launching systems, is to deliver ammunition, spare parts and also training.

So this is an ongoing effort. The thing I welcome is that allies have outlined plans for doing more throughout 2024. And we see the value. We see

the urgency and the meeting of the NATO Ukraine commission today, the Ukrainian part outlined specific needs and specific urgency.

I think allies are very aware that this is something that really needs urgent action from allies. That's also why they made these new

announcements and decisions to provide more support.

SOARES: We have seen a barrage of missiles from Russia. Here on our show we talked about 500 missiles at one point I remember over a period of five


What is your assessment of how much hardware Ukraine has left?

How long Ukraine can sustain just the ferocity of these attacks?

What is your assessment?

STOLTENBERG: It is serious, of course, because it demonstrates that Russia has now been able to produce as well as acquire from countries like North

Korea ballistic missiles and, from Iran, drones, in large quantities.


And they use them to attack Ukraine. The good news is that Ukraine has demonstrated the skills and capabilities to shoot down a large portion of

those incoming missiles and drones.

So it demonstrates not only that the systems we are providing them with but also their skills to use them in an effective way actually provides them

with a defense against these air attacks.

Yes, they need more. I cannot go into the exact numbers of what they have because those are operational things, which are important to protect.

But there is an obvious need to sustain and to step up the delivery both of different deliver systems, Patriots, NASAMS, as well as ammunition and

spare parts to ensure the systems are working as they should.

SOARES: One of the things that Ukraine is doing or thinking about doing I should say as the war grinds on toward the two year mark, is to pass a new

mobilization legislation. That could potentially bring up to 500,000 more men into battle.

How vital is this to Ukraine's long-term success on the battlefield?

I know it's a political hot potato but, from a strategic point of view, how important is this?

STOLTENBERG: Of course, it is for the Ukrainians to decide how they mobilize people for the defense of their own country. Of course, everyone

sees that there's not only a need for equipment and ammunition, that they get from NATO allies but also training.

Most importantly, it's that you have the manpower, forces, the men and women in uniform, that can actually fight on the front lines and also be

part of the air defense efforts by Ukraine.

So there's a need for more people and therefore it is important that Ukraine does what is needed to ensure that they have the people they need

to defend their own country. We will continue to provide them with support of equipment and ammunition but without people you cannot defend your own


SOARES: Let's talk about aid that is much needed, both from the United States but also from Europe. secretary-general Dmytro Kuleba told CNN in

the last few weeks that there is no plan B. There is only plan A.

Does NATO have or is working on a backup plan, in case the United States and the crucial aid does not come through?

STOLTENBERG: I am confident and I also count on the United States, will be part of a big NATO effort to support Ukraine. The U.S. support is

important. We have to remember that European allies also are delivering, and Canada, are delivering substantial military support to Ukraine.

The U.S. is important and I'm confident that the U.S. will continue, because this is not charity. This is an investment in our own security to

support Ukraine because it will be challenging for the Ukrainians and for President Zelenskyy but dangerous for all of us.

So it's in the interest of the United States to continue to support Ukraine and I therefore count on the United States to do so.


SOARES: Our thanks to the NATO secretary general.

Our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen has been listening to the interview. He joins me now from Dnipro in Ukraine. I want his reaction.

Fred, what did you make of what you heard there in terms of deliverables from NATO first of all?

PLEITGEN: I think one of the key things we heard from Jens Stoltenberg there, which is something that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also said

today as well, as he was on his trip there, that air defenses are absolutely crucial for Ukrainians.

That is something we have been seeing here on the ground as well. I think one of the things that we do need to point out once again to our viewers is

what the Ukrainians so far are achieving in terms of their air defense and certainly also the partner nations that are giving them a lot of the

technology. That has already been immense so far.

If you keep in mind that when the war started out, many believed that the Russians would be able to fly their planes over Ukraine territory at will

and essentially own the skies.

Well, they are not able to do that at all. That is one of the reasons why they are reverting to the missile attacks that we are seeing so many of.

One of the things that we are also seeing is that there is indeed this cat and mouse game that we were talking about, where the Russians continue to

develop new strategies and tactics.

Also trying to refine some of the hardware they are using. If we look at the most recent strike we've seen, they've used everything from cheap

drones that are manufactured in Iran, to missiles that can take out an aircraft carrier, because they have that kind of payload.

The Ukrainians need to defend against all of this but they also need to do it in a very effective and cost effective way.


In other words, taking the drones out with those mobile units that we saw in our report, then using the really expensive hardware they are getting

from partners to take out some of the heavier stuff.

That is certainly something that is very difficult for the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians keep saying and I think the secretary general was saying it as

well, that air defense is definitely one of the most important things for them.

It certainly seems there was a real commitment that. You can also see that by some of the things the partner nations have been saying. But there have

also been delays. For instance, there was NASAMS systems that the Canadians were delivering. That has been delayed to this point.

One of the things he said that's very important, that we have been seeing from the Russians, is that they are now trying to target areas where the

air defense is not as strong as in some of the bigger cities and that will be the next big issue for the Ukrainians and one of the reasons they are

calling for more systems, Isa.

SOARES: Yes, and we saw today Russian forces dropping two guided bombs on the village near Kharkiv, eastern Kharkiv. So that speaks to the ferocity

of what we have been seeing in terms of the attacks in the last few days.

Fred, you have been in and out of Ukraine, covering this war for almost two years. I wonder how this current juncture in the war, how it's looking like

to you.

Are the results still there?

Or can you sense fatigue or even frustration?

PLEITGEN: I think there is a certain degree of fatigue and frustration on the part of Ukrainian soldiers fighting on the front lines. I think one of

the things we always have to point out is that a lot of troops that the Ukrainians have on the front lines, they have been fighting there for

almost two years now.

They have been fighting in some of the toughest battles this continent has seen since World War II. They are extremely costly on both sides. It's

certainly something that can sap the energy out of anyone.

What we hear from the Ukrainians is that they simply don't have any other choice. They have to keep fighting otherwise they say their country will

simply cease to exist and will be taken over by the Russians.

So there certainly still is that sense of purpose but the thing that looms, of course, is the support from Western partners, especially from the U.S.,

going to remain?

Will the U.S. get on track in Congress and OK the military aid that has been debated for such a long time?

So the Ukrainians are definitely waiting for that. There's certainly an ammunition shortage for Ukrainians as they try to fight off the Russians.

The Russians, I would say, on most front lines right now have the initiative. They are pressing but they have yet to make any substantial

gains. And certainly seem to be losing a great deal of people and armor as they try to do so, Isa.

SOARES: An important analysis there from our Fred Pleitgen, who's in Dnipro for us tonight. Thank you very much, Fred.

Still to come tonight, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis face off in a CNN Republican debate just days before the Iowa caucuses.

Can they cut into Donald Trump's huge lead?

We will preview that next.





SOARES: It's the final Republican showdown before the Iowa caucuses, now just five days away. The debate stage in Des Moines, Iowa, is set as you

can see there. CNN is hosting the debate between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis today.

Front-runner Donald Trump will skip the event and will hold a town hall on another network instead. Trump's election year calendar will be packed,

shuffling back and forth as you can see there between the campaign trail and the courtroom. Very busy, indeed. Here's CNN's national politics

correspondent Eva McKend.


EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The final GOP presidential debate before the Iowa caucus is tonight. And all eyes are on

the two leading contenders to challenge former President Donald Trump, Governor Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I like being underestimated. So you know, I could sit here and say this but you know what?

I think that, that being the underdog suits me better. So buckle up. I think it's going to be an interesting ride.

MCKEND (voice-over): This is the first and only time the two will debate one on one before next week's Iowa Caucus.

NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've done 150 plus town halls answering every question, shaking every hand, staying until the last person

leaves and it has come to this moment. don't complain about what happens in a general election if you don't play in this caucus. It matters.

MCKEND (voice-over): In the final days of campaigning, Iowans dealing with a massive snowstorm and possible below zero temperatures on caucus night.

DOUG STOUT, IOWA VOTER: It does make it more difficult, particularly for senior citizens. I think if we get a snowstorm on top of those type of

temperatures, it'll hold down turnout. Otherwise, I don't think it'll have much impact.

MCKEND (voice-over): Former President Trump will be back in Iowa tonight. He is shifting his attacks to his former U.N. ambassador. Trump's team

reportedly taking her strong showing in some polls seriously.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If Nikki Haley got away, most seniors would work their entire lives right up until the end and then not

live long enough to receive the benefits they earned and paid for.

MCKEND (voice-over): DeSantis also taking aim at Haley.

DESANTIS: You don't win as a Republican when you don't stand for anything. It's like, almost every day she answers questions, something happens where

she's putting her foot in her mouth.

MCKEND (voice-over): But on Trump, DeSantis avoids weighing in on his legal cases, instead criticizing his recent stance on abortion. DESANTIS: The

former president Trump, who said he was pro-life, he attacked pro-life legislation like the heartbeat bill here in Iowa and said it was a

terrible, terrible thing.

MCKEND (voice-over): And in New Hampshire, Chris Christie facing growing calls for him to drop out and help coalesce support behind Haley. Christie

is vowing to stay in the race and says Haley is already looking ahead to the next presidential election.

CHRIS CHRISTIE, U.S. REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She's not trying to beat him. She's hoping that lightning strikes. But how do you beat somebody

if you won't say why they don't belong being president. I'm making it really clear, he's unfit. She's playing for 2028.


SOARES: That is Eva McKend reporting there.

And be sure to tune in just hours from now as CNN hosts the Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, at 9 pm Eastern. That is 2 am for

early birds in London, at 9 am if you are in Hong Kong. It will be a one- on-one showdown between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis as they try, of course, to make up ground on front-runner Donald Trump.

Staying in the United States, thousands in the U.S. are recovering from a strong winter storm and preparing for a new one. In Connecticut, the storms

led to a dam partially breaking as you can see there. The break cost about 5,000 people to lose power when a substation had to be taken off line as a



Others were forced to temporarily evacuate. In southern states like North Carolina, reports of strong winds and even tornadoes. Homes were damaged,

power lines were knocked out and trees were downed.

And freezing rain and heavy rain along the coastal portions of the Eastern states while further inland snow has started to accumulate. Heavy snow is

expected to spread northeast through Sunday.

St. Paul, Minnesota, is making history with an all women city council. The seven member body was sworn in on Tuesday. A majority of the council

members are women of color, making the town the most racially diverse in the city's history.

This group also makes up St. Paul's youngest city council. All of the women are under the age of 40.

Wonderful to see that. Congratulations to all of them.

Still to come tonight, a first look at Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny from his jail in Siberia. We will have more on his latest court appearance next.




SOARES: We are getting our first look in a while at jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Navalny made a court appearance from the Siberian penal

colony on Tuesday. It was in relation to a lawsuit he filed against the prison over conditions at the facility.

He was moved there last month, if you remember, during which time, his team worried when they could not locate him for weeks. CNN's Clare Sebastian



CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alexei Navalny is making it clear that even being banished beyond the Arctic Circle will not stop his protest

against Putin's regime and the ills of the Russian justice system.

His court appearance on Tuesday was part of a lawsuit against the Russian prison service over one of his many previous stints in a punishment cell,

that's a strict form of solitary confinement. The lawsuit in itself is not significant. Navalny has long claimed, of course, that his imprisonment is

politically motivated.


So these separate court cases on the conditions of his detention are really more about keeping his cause in the headlines. He will likely appear again

at a separate scheduled hearing on Thursday.

The protests are not working, despite ongoing concerns about Navalny's health. The conditions of his detention have not improved, according to a

social media post by his aides on Tuesday. He has, once again, been confined to a punishment sell for seven days.

That apparently now includes only early morning walks in a place where temperatures are routinely sub-zero.

"It's never been colder than minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit," says one post on his social media channel. "Even at that temperature, you can walk for more

than half an hour but only if you have time to grow a new nose, ears and fingers."

You can hear the sarcasm there, of course. Well, Navalny's team saying none of this is coincidental.

His move to Siberia, coming around the same time that Putin announced his bid for an almost certain reelection to a fifth term as Russian president

and as Navalny's team launched their own PR campaign under the banner, "Russia without Putin" -- Clare Sebastian, CNN, London.


SOARES: And that does it for me for this hour. Thanks very much for your company. Do stay right here, QUEST MEANS BUSINESS with Richard Quest live

from Geneva is up next. I will see you tomorrow, bye-bye.