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Russian Military Forces Continue Invasion of Ukraine; Reports Indicate Russian Forces Close to Ukrainian Capital City of Kyiv; Russian Spokesman Says Representatives May Meet with Ukrainians in Minsk, Belarus, to Discuss Possible Peace Terms; Russian Airfield Targeted by Ukrainian Forces Near Border; Ukraine Blows Up Bridge Near Kyiv to Stop Russian Advance. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired February 25, 2022 - 08:00   ET



JULIANNE SMITH, UNITED STATES PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE, NATO: Escalation and diplomacy, the United States has no plans to engage diplomatically with President Putin at this time.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: We do understand that NATO is flying missions over NATO nations right now, protecting NATO airspace, but there have also been discussions and calls, frankly, from within Ukraine to protect the airspace of Ukraine, something of a no-fly zone. Any kind of consideration for that right now?

SMITH: The focus right now here at NATO headquarters is to make sure that we're taking all the necessary steps to protect NATO territory. We are doing that in the air, at sea, and on the ground, and that will very much be the focus of today's summit with President Biden and all the other 29 leaders of the alliance.

BERMAN: Ambassador Julianne Smith, I appreciate you being with us.

SMITH: Thank you.

BERMAN: CNN's breaking news coverage continues right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. It is Friday, February 25th, and I'm Brianna Keilar with John Berman as we are tracking our breaking news here. Russian forces pushing closer to the capital of Ukraine. They are now just a few miles from the city center of Kyiv. New reporting in moments ago that U.S. intelligence officials fear that the capital could fall within days.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy releasing a new video message appealing directly to Vladimir Putin. He says, there is fighting all over Ukraine now. Let's sit down at the negotiation table to stop the people's deaths. In the meantime, citizens of Ukraine are being asked to make Molotov cocktails and take down the occupier. Overnight, Kyiv was hit by missile fire. Ukraine's foreign minister calls it the worst attack on his country since the Nazis invaded in 1941. And Russia is denying all of this.

BERMAN: Overnight, a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down over Kyiv, fragments from the jet believed to have hit and set fire to a two- story private home. Ukraine says it has inflicted 800 casualties among Russian forces. CNN cannot independently confirm that. The Ukrainian defense ministry says it blew up a bridge north of Kyiv to keep Russian forces from advancing toward the capital.

And I want you to listen to a recording of Russians ordering 13 Ukrainian guards to surrender. But these guards, they weren't going to go down without a fight.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I am a Russia military ship. Propose to put down arms or you will be hit. Acknowledge.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Just in case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Russia warship go -- yourself.


BERMAN: Russia warship, go f yourself, sort of the thematic motto right now of the Ukrainian resistance. All of those Ukrainian soldiers who are defending snake island, that's where they were, it's an island just off the Ukrainian coast, they were reportedly killed.

Russian forces have also seized control of the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine. That's the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster. They are reportedly holding the staff there hostage. There have been protests of support of Ukraine in Israel, Paris, Berlin, and London, also very importantly in cities across Russia. Police have cracked down on that, making hundreds of arrests. These protests an unusual show of dissent there.

CNN has reporters covering this crisis across Ukraine and Europe. Let's get right to CNN's senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, who is live in Kyiv. Matthew, go ahead.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thanks. As you just came us to there, there was another loud explosion behind me here in the center of Kyiv. I'm in the center of Kyiv. The explosion was on the outskirts of it. But that couples with the fact that we have been seeing reports of increased numbers of Russian forces on the outskirts of the city, some of them have entered the city, we're told, in a distance in a region to the north of the city where I'm standing right now.

And there have been reports of fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces there. That is something that has been repeated across the entire country. And there has been a social media statement issued by President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, saying that because of that fighting, appealing to Vladimir Putin of Russia, let's sit down at the table of negotiation so we can stop people from dying. It's not clear what the Russian response to that has been so far.

But earlier today I got the chance to ask a question of the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, as the artillery strikes and the air strikes were sort of raining down, essentially, around Kyiv.


I got this opportunity on a Zoom call to put a question to the Russian foreign minister. Take a listen.


CHANCE: I'm in Kyiv right now, and it is under attack, Mr. Lavrov, from Russian forces. And I'd like to know what your plan is for the leadership of this country. Do you intend to decapitate the leadership of this country? Why are the Russian forces now entering Kyiv, surrounding the capital, and battling with Ukrainian military? Do you intend to decapitate Ukrainian leadership? Can you give me a simple answer please, sir?

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): Nobody is going to attack the people of Ukraine. Nobody is going to somehow degrade the Ukrainian armed forces. We are talking about preventing neo-Nazis and those promoting genocide from ruling this country, because the current regime in Kyiv is under two external control mechanisms. First, the west and the U.S., and second neo-Nazis, those who are imposing their culture, and it is flourishing in Ukraine today.

As for your feelings as someone who is in Kyiv at this very moment, I will stress, read what Putin said. No strikes on civilian infrastructure. No strikes on the personnel of the Ukrainian army, on their dormitories or other places not connected to military facilities.


CHANCE: John, we have got some potentially significant breaking news that is just coming through to us now from Russian state media, quoting Dmitry Peskov, who is the spokesperson for Vladimir Putin, telling them that Moscow is ready to send representatives to the Belarusian capital of Minsk to talk with officials from Kyiv, according to the readout from Dmitry Peskov. Here it is, here is the quote now, "Following President Zelenskyy's proposal to discuss the neutral status of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin will send representatives of the Russian ministry of defense, the foreign ministry, and his administration to negotiations with the Ukrainian delegation."

So that sounds like that following the appeal of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president for peace talks to save people's lives in this country, the Kremlin has responded saying, OK, let's do that, let's talk about the neutrality of Ukraine, and we'll send delegations to the capital of Belarus, Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to discuss that further. It is, I think, a significant diplomatic development in a conflict

that has been extremely dynamic over the course of the past 48, 72 hours, with those barrages of air strikes and troops now, Russian troops surrounding the Ukrainian capital. At this point the Russians have for the first time indicated that they are prepared to sit down at the negotiating table to talk peace with Ukraine.

BERMAN: Matthew, I just put up the map of NATO, because I think that's pertinent here to the language you just used. Obviously, Ukraine, which is right here, has wanted to join NATO. NATO is not ready to let Ukraine in. But what Russia has asked for is a demilitarized pledge of neutrality from Ukraine. When Dmitry Peskov says he's willing to go to Minsk in Belarus, which I should say is up here, and talk about Ukrainian neutrality, is that a poison pill? Is the definition he's providing for these talks to even begin a poison pill for the Ukrainians?

CHANCE: That's a good question. Look, it will be politically very hard indeed for any Ukrainian leader at this point to renounce any desire to join the western military alliance, to join NATO. It has been what they have been pressing time and again about the future strategic direction of the country. They want to be part of the family of sort of western nations, or at least a significant majority of the country wants that.

And so to step back from that at the end of a barrel of a gun, as it were, quite literally in fact right now, would be a huge step back, a huge concession by the Ukrainians.

At the same time, I think it is fair to say that joining NATO membership, joining NATO, rather, NATO membership, was not a realistic -- it was not on the horizon anyway for Ukraine. And certainly, since Russia started building up its military forces and sort of stamping its feet about that even being a possibility, it has already become a situation in which when you talk about Ukraine joining NATO, it's just a dream. It's not going to be something that there is even a medium- term possibility of happening.

And I think Ukrainian officials privately will confide in you that they acknowledge that that's the case. But that's very different, saying it privately, admitting it privately, to actually conceding it on the international stage as official policy, that will be an important, big concession.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Let me ask you, Matthew, one more question that comes at this from a little bit of this from a little bit of a different angle right now. Obviously, we have seen this Russian invasion of Ukraine, this really full scale Russian invasion in Ukraine in all directions.

CHANCE: It is.

BERMAN: But over the last few hours we have had reports of some success at the Ukrainians pushing them back. Down where Nick Paton Walsh is in Kherson, Ukrainian forces said to have pushed the Russians back over a bridge. I know there is fierce fighting around Kyiv. Is there any sense that this is maybe bloodier than the Russians had anticipated, and maybe that's why they're opening the door at least a little bit to diplomacy again?

CHANCE: It's a fair point. It could well be the case. The truth is we haven't really got a good view on the way the military situation is going. But you're right, there have been reports from the Ukrainian side of military successes. The Russians, as they are always very opaque about what losses they're incurring.

But something that was quite telling to me is we reported yesterday, or was it the day before, I have kind of lost track of time a little bit now, on those Russian special forces that had been deployed by helicopter to that strategic airbase on the outskirts of Kyiv. They were obviously a forward party there to secure an air bridgehead, as it were, to potentially bring in more forces to be reinforced to encircle the capital, do whatever they were going to do.

That doesn't seem to have happened. That group of Russian special forces do not seem to have got the reinforcements that you would expect a small group of soldiers like that would be sent there to wait for. Now, does that mean that the planned invasion of this city or the country has somewhat stalled, that there has been an underestimation on the Russian side of the strength of the Ukrainian military, their ability to resist, their will to resist?

And you're right, that could be one of the factors behind this apparent concession by the Russians, or apparent decision by the Russians, to meet Ukrainians for peace talks. But I think you have to bear in mind as well that the Kremlin does have the capability to double, to triple, to quadruple infinitely the amount of military power it brings to bear on this country to achieve its strategic aims. And so in the mindset that Vladimir Putin seems to be in at the moment, I wouldn't, if these negotiations don't happen or if they fail, and it is the decision taken that more military forces needed to get what they want to achieve in Ukraine, I don't think we should be ruling that out.

BERMAN: Look, and also the Russians clearly have the propensity to lie, at least at a government level also. So we have to watch that very closely. Matthew Chance, the breaking news you just reported, the Russians indicating at least some willingness for face-to-face negotiations with the Ukrainians. I'll let you get back to reporting, including on the situation in Kyiv, which is very intense right now. We'll talk to you again in a moment.

KEILAR: And joining us now, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, he previously served as European affairs director for the National Security Council. He's also the author of the book "Here, Right Matters." And also with us is CNN national security analyst and former deputy director of national intelligence, Beth Sanner.

I want to get your perspective, both of you, first on this news that is coming out from the spokesman for the Kremlin. He says that Moscow is now ready to send representatives to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to talk with Ukraine. He raises this idea that because Zelenskyy has talked about neutrality. What do you make of this offer, and is neutrality really enough for Russia?

LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, (RET) FORMER EUROPEAN AFFAIRS DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: I think the sides are really too far apart at the moment. I think if we -- even if parties meet, there is going to be very difficult series of negotiations. One of the criteria would have to be probably Russians holding -- freezing their forces in place. I'm not sure if the Russians are prepared to do that. Otherwise, there is no good faith measures from the Russians to even engage in diplomacy.

But the lines of how that might look are interesting, because I don't think they're going to be enough. It has to be more than neutrality. Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014 when Ukraine was neutral. There may be some sort of negotiation where Russia, where Ukraine strikes this aspiration for NATO from its constitution. There may be some discussions about minimizing or limiting military force and engagement with NATO. Those would have to be key parts of what the concessions that Russia is looking for. But it is close to capitulation than a negotiated solution.

And frankly at this point it is unclear. Facts on the ground might change that. If Ukraine continues to hold and continues to resist and more Russian soldiers are killed, Russia is not making the same gains, maybe there is a little bit more flexibility, especially with pressure building in Russia against Putin. This is not a popular move to invade. So these factors will definitely impact the this idea of negotiation, and what parties participate, it will be interesting to whether it's just Ukraine and Russia, or are other great powers involved. Some rumors about China being involved, the U.S. might be involved in those types of negotiations.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: What do you think of this? Is it a real overture because we've just been seeing Russia not operating in good faith up until now?

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think we have to remember that Zelensky actually proposed doing a referendum on neutrality on NATO membership just before the invasion, and Russia didn't bite. So I think that kind of reveals to us how unserious this is, at this moment. I think it's more an aim at psychological warfare to divide the Ukrainian people and make them worried about capitulation. This poison pill idea that John raised, we'll have to see how this unfolds. I mean, Alex is right. If things start going badly on the battlefield, maybe it's an off ramp. But at this point, I think it's more subterfuge.

KEILAR: So for now, I mean, for right now, the intelligence from the U.S., which has been good, right, the assessment of the situation there is that Kyiv could fall within days. Do you agree with that assessment?

VINDMAN: That was -- so I think that's consistent with U.S. assessments all along the way of how the Russians -- the Russians overmatch, how they would be able to contend with a much less capable Ukrainian military. But things have not gone to plan for Russia. Russia has underperformed. Ukraine is over performed.

Right now, you still have an Air Force in Ukraine, which is shocking, the 36 hours in you would expect Russia to have destroyed Air Force. Air defense capabilities for Ukrainians are still viable, a viable threat. The major armor formations, we thought that the Russians would degrade them where they would have to fight in much smaller groups than they are, that's not happening, command and control is still in place. They're communicating, internet's functioning, electronic warfare has not been in play. Some of these things are really kind of puzzling as to why the Russians wouldn't have spent the time at least the first 12, 24, 48 hours to try to achieve these effects and then fight a less capable Ukrainian military. They have not been paid the cost. Some of these reversals are really quite meaningful. They the airborne assault on this airfield, outside of Kyiv, very close to the city, and the Russians were obliterated. That's a shocking turn of events. The fact that the Russians have been held around at some of these major cities.

Now, Russia has overwhelming combat power, and they'll keep pouring in, like Matthew said, additional forces. But it might not be that simple. I mean, I think this could turn into a meat grinder in this phase of operation where we think that it should be easy for Russia. This is not even the part where we're talking about insurgencies, where the Ukrainians grind him down with territorial defense forces.

KEILAR: Deaths by 1000 cuts, Colonel.

VINDMAN: We're not even in that phase. And it's already difficult for Russia.

KEILAR: Look, even if the assessment is Kyiv will fall. And it's a matter of when. The issue of how it goes matters too.


KEILAR: You have Ukrainian citizens taking up arms by the 1000s, just regular everyday people getting weapons, right? Molotov cocktails, they're being told to give the Russians a fight just from everybody when they get there. I mean, that's also going to matter.

SANNER: Absolutely. I mean, we had today the head of the International Criminal Court, basically saying he's going to be looking at this in terms of a case, I think what the intelligence did was lay open, laid bare exactly what Putin's doing. And so the blood in the streets of Kyiv, which I really pray, there is not but I expect there will be. Putin is going to own that. And Putin will own those body bags that the Ukrainians claim going back to Russia, which will really, I think, it is going to become kind of a challenge for him at home. Just in terms of public opinion.

KEILAR: Speaking of at home, how much do these protests that we've seen across Russia matter? SANNER: You know, I don't think that they pose any threat to Putin and his regime right now. But I do feel like this is part of a broader miscalculation that Putin has made in approaching this whole thing. I mean, he has done all of this because he's trying to make Russia more stable and secure over the long run. And in fact, I think that we're seeing cracks in that plan.

KEILAR: Beth, and Alex, thank you so much for your insights this morning, REALLY appreciate it.

Fighting is underway in Kyiv right now. U.S. intelligence fearing that the city, the country could fall within days. And we have some brand new videos, our reporters are there on the ground. CNN's coverage continues, next.



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, the breaking news just into CNN, U.S. intelligence concerned that the capital of Kyiv in Ukraine could fall within the next few days. And we do have new video. Let me tell you where this is coming in from. This is the city center in Kyiv right here. This is the Obolon District in the northern outskirts of the city where we do understand there is now some fighting and we have this video I want to show you of residents there running for cover. Watch.


BERMAN: All right, you heard the gunfire there. Obviously, we've been speaking to Ukrainians who've been taking to the streets ready to defend themselves including the former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

I now want to take you to a different region right now, one of the other areas of concern has been Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Just over the border is this area of Belgorod in Russia. That's where our Frederik Pleitgen is. Fred give us a sense of what's going on, on the Russian side of the border?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, John. This, of course, is one of the staging areas and certainly also one of the areas where the Russian military has been going towards Ukrainian territory over the past day, day and a half since this offensive by the Russian military was launched. What you have today, however, you probably see this is that it's snowing really heavily and of course the big question is whether or not somehow that might impede some of the Russian forces that have obviously been striking Ukraine especially those air assets obviously the Russians also launching a lot of military aircraft here out of this region.


We did have -- one of the folks working with us go around this area a little bit earlier today. And he said that he did see two fighter jets take off from a base. Also a lot of military convoys here, around the area as well. It certainly seems as though what the Russians are doing is they're continuously bringing assets in, but apparently also taking some assets back out of Ukraine, possibly switching soldiers out, because obviously, the fighting has been going on for a little bit of time.

One of the other things, though, John, that I did pick up from some of the conversations that you were having earlier with Matthew and with Col. Vindman, as well, is the question on whether or not this might be a little bit tougher for the Russians than they actually thought. Because one of the things that we saw late last night, and we were out at the last checkpoint, to about 3 a.m. local time, is there were ambulances with flashing lights going in and out of that area, going towards that Ukrainian territory towards Kharkiv. Does that mean the Russians are sustaining more casualties than would have thought, or sustaining casualties? They probably are. Impossible to say what exactly that means. But, of course, as we're trying to read the situation from the side of the border, that was certainly something that did stick out to us, as well.

Nevertheless, those convoys just keep rolling into Ukrainian territory from this area, from Belgorod. And, again, one of the big places where the Russians have their military staged, and really throughout the entire night, we saw armor rolling there. And we also saw some special forces close to the border as well, John.

BERMAN: All right. Frederik Pleitgen, again, over the border in Russia in the Belgorod region where he has seen mostly equipment and troops heading into Ukraine, but also some coming out and also some ambulances. I don't want to make more of that than we should. But there are reports of fierce Ukrainian resistance. We're trying to get more information on that. Frederik, please stay safe, keep us posted.

I want to bring in the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, former retired Lieutenant General Douglas Lute. General, thank you so much for being with us today. A lot going on with several new developments just in the last few minutes. Number one, the Russians claiming they're accepting an offer for some kind of negotiations face to face with representatives from Ukraine, from Kyiv. How much weight would you put in that?

LT. GEN. DOUGLAS LUTE, (RET.), FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR, NATO: I find it very doubtful. Look, we're only hours into this major campaign. President Putin has pushed all the chips into the center of the table here. I really find it suspicious that at this point he go for some sort of diplomatic opening. If anything, this could be subterfuge, this could be designed to portray a sense of reasonableness, right? Why not talk about this? All the time while his forces are advancing.

KEILAR: Do you think this is going right now is Vladimir Putin planned for it to go, sir?

LUTE: Well, look, he would have preferred the Kyiv regime collapse in the first 24 hours, that clearly hasn't happened. I do think that he's seen both a resistance from the Ukrainian military. Perhaps he underestimated a bit the Ukrainian military. But also, I think, some civil resistance from among the Ukrainian people that maybe he didn't quite anticipate. But the resistance so far has not been sufficient. And time has not been sufficient for him to make any big strategic changes. He's pretty much on course, to do what he wants to do. And I believe that's regime change.

BERMAN: And General, just to bring people up to speed, on the resistance you've been talking about right here, we did have reports, our own reporters saw Ukrainians push the Russians back over a bridge in the south in the city of Kherson. And then again, we're getting reports right now of at least civilians inside Kyiv, who are on the streets. These territorial defense forces, people with Kalashnikov, ready to fight if they need to. Here's the city center. This is the district where we know there's fighting. In your experience over the years, an armed citizenry, how much of a problem can that realistically create for an invading force?

LUTE: Well, look, the citizens are going to be overmatched in every dimension, by the Russian military, the firepower, the mobility, armor, artillery, and so forth. The citizenry have none of those military capabilities. But what they do have is a fierce desire to defend their own country. And in at the end of the day, over a long period of time, not days, but weeks, months, and even perhaps yours, that difference in will, can spell the outcome.

KEILAR: When you see some of these moments that have gone viral, the Snake Island even though those 13 Ukrainian guards were as we understand it, destroyed by Russian forces, they were destroyed saying, Russian warship, you know, f*** yourself. You have this Ukrainian fighter pilot who appears to have been having some success. These moments, how much does that help as you Move possibly towards the resistance phase for Ukraine?

LUTE: I think vignettes like that, give the Ukrainian military.