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Russia Dropping Bombs Despite Claims It's Scaling Back War; Survivor Describes Horrors of Mariupol Theater Bombing; Desperate Mother Returns to Ukraine to Try and Rescue Son. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired March 30, 2022 - 07:00   ET



VANESSA YURKEVICH, CNN BUSINESS AND POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: But, John, in turn, that means that mortgage rates are going to rise, potentially pricing many Americans out of homes. John?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN NEW DAY: Yes, so many people trying game out the timing, but it's just so hard because you get it from the other side then too. Vanessa Yurkevich, terrific story, thank you so much.

New Day continues right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN NEW DAY: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. It is Wednesday, March 30th. I am Brianna Keilar here in Washington and John Berman is live for us in Lviv, in Western Ukraine this morning.

We do begin with breaking news. Bombs dropping overnight on cities across Ukraine despite Russia's claim that it is scaling back the war. Skeptical western leaders are calling for more action and less talk from the Kremlin.

Just last night, artillery and rocket fire heard in Kyiv. A senior Ukrainian official telling CNN there were no areas without sirens overnight, in fact, and the Pentagon says, don't be fooled by Russian forces pulling back from the Capitol. They are just repositioning.

Moments ago, the mayor of Kyiv confirming that the Russian military is not letting up.


MAYOR VITALI KLITSCHKO, KYIV, UKRAINE: We received yesterday information right now, the Russian forces moved away from Kyiv. It is not true. All night, we listened to sirens, that means there's attack and we're listening to huge explosions east of Kyiv and north of Kyiv, it means bombs there, the people still died.


BERMAN: So, that was the mayor of Kyiv. Earlier this morning, I spoke with the mayor of Chernihiv, another area where Russia specifically says they were reducing their military operations. They specifically said they would back off there. But that's not what the mayor told me. Listen.


MAYOR VLADYSLAV ATROSHENKO, CHERNIHIV, UKRAINE: They are saying about reducing intensity. They actually have increased the intensity of strikes. Yes, today we have had a colossal mortar attack on the center of Chernihiv. 25 people have been wounded and are now in hospital. They're all civilians. So, whenever Russia says something, this needs to be checked carefully.


berman: So, we have new graphic footage from Irpin outside Kyiv. This is the first we have seen from this key battle ground in weeks. The Ukrainians say pushed the Russians back from there but you can see the cost. It's unrecognizable, rubble, dead bodies lying in the streets.

In the port city of Mariupol, new satellite images show entire city blocks, homes and buildings obliterated.

We want to go to the capital of Kyiv and bring in CNN's Frederik Pleitgen. Fred, so importantly, Kyiv is an area where the Russians claimed just yesterday they would be reducing the scope of their military operations. What have you actually seen?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have actually seen an increase or an apparent increase in military operations. In fact, as I'm speaking to you right now, John, we can still hear what we believe are artillery cannons thundering across the sky here in the capital of Kyiv. We're also hearing rockets being fired and certainly a lot of impacts as well.

So, there certainly does seem to be a pretty high-intensity battle that's going on and it's really something that we saw the entire night. I mean, the amount of firing that we saw last night was certainly a lot more than anything that we have seen since we got here to Kyiv.

Now, the big question is, what is actually going on there? And, yesterday, when the Russians came out and made that announcement that they were going to withdraw some of their forces, they were going to reduce the intensity here around Kyiv and Chernihiv as well, we actually went towards the area of the frontline. You can see some of the video there that we filmed yesterday. There's obviously, a lot of destroyed buildings there. And there was a lot of shelling going on.

We managed to speak to some fighters from the territorial defense forces there, who have been there for a very long time. And they did tell us that they have been detecting this uptick in firing over the past couple of days and believe it may be connected with the Russians moving some units out of the area. They didn't know where those units were moving to and they certainly didn't believe that it was something that the Russians were doing to create trust with Ukraine. But they said they simply beat the Russians here on the doorsteps of Kyiv and that some of the Russians were being pushed back this morning. I also got in touch with the defense ministry and also interior ministry of the country. They also said that they are getting intelligence that some units appearing to moving towards Belarus. But they're also saying they believe this is more of a rotational thing and possibly repositioning thing rather than the Russians really decreasing the intensity of the attacks here on the Ukrainian capital, John.

BERMAN: Fred, you bring up such a good point. Where the Russians are moving, it is largely because they have been moved by Ukrainian forces who have pushed them back.


It is not voluntarily that the Russians are leaving in some places because they are losing in some areas to Ukraine.

Fred, also, we are seeing these new images from Irpin, and I think this is interesting, because even in areas where the Ukrainians have had some success pushing the Russians back, we are now seeing the cost. It is just devastating the damage the Russians have left behind.

PLEITGEN: Yes, it is absolutely devastating. And when you make the point to say that the Russians were beaten back, that they are not doing this on their own accord, of course, Irpin was really the place where those two forces clashed. Remember that video of that bridge that the Ukrainians blew up in order to stop the Russian advance, and then they started pushing those Russian forces back.

And you can see what happened then. We see a lot of those destroyed buildings there, a lot of them, quite frankly, flattened. There still are, unfortunately, dead bodies laying in the street there as well. And the Ukrainian forces this morning told us that it is still far too dangerous for the civilians to be able to get back into that area because they believe there is still so much unexploded ordinance laying there and, of course, also because there still is that shelling going on by the Russian forces, especially on that part of Kyiv and on the outskirts of Kyiv towards the northwest, where a lot of intense battles are taking place.

But, Irpin, in so many ways, unfortunately, is symbolic of what happened here and what is happening here in Kyiv, with the Russians not being able to move forward but then just shelling those places and leaving that utter destruction that what we just saw there on our on our screens, John.

BERMAN: All right. Frederik Pleitgen for us in Kyiv, Fred, please keep us posted.

KEILAR: All right. Jim Sciutto with us right now, our Chief National Security Correspondent. You're, I see, concurring, as Berman was describing it there. The Russians say they're moving. Actually, they're being moved.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Let's discount what Russia is claiming here, saying that this is -- we are moving back, this was always the plan, to focus on the east and the south. The reason they are changing tactics around Kyiv is because they ran into a brick wall of Ukrainian military resistance there. They wanted to encircle the city quickly and take the city and decapitate the government. They've been prevented from doing that. And they absorbed enormous losses in personal and equipment.

So, what U.S. intelligence assessments are showing is that Russia is taking some troops away from there. They are not going to send them on home on vacation, right? And even if they send them out of a country for a short period of time, like we've seen some going to Belarus, they're going to reposition them elsewhere, redeploy elsewhere in Ukraine, the south and the east, because they have to shore up operations there that have also run into resistance.

And what you may be seeing, and the question is the short-term or long-term is a shrinking of Russian ambitions, at least for now, in Ukraine, because their ambition was to take over the country, right? They haven't been able to do it. So, for now, they focus on the south and the east.

KEILAR: At least for now. That is, I think, a very important thing. Because history shows that Russia, for instance, in Chechnya, when confronted with challenges and a strong resistance, they might pull back a little to regroup and come back in. So, what does the future hold for Kyiv? What does the future hold for the country broadly?

SCIUTTO: For the near term, my sources tell me that the greatest danger to Kyiv is passed for the near term. And as you say, Russia can always change. And I always remind people the invasion of Ukraine started eight years ago in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and then later parts of Eastern Ukraine. So, Russia's intentions for Ukraine have not changed.

Now, they may retreat for now to the east and the south and then later -- and they might even make an agreement, right, that says that we're going to retreat to the east and the south and that's as far as we're going to go, but Russia breaks agreements. Russia changes its mind. Putin, if he senses an opportunity, might very well attack again.

And, by the way, as you are seeing this aerial bombardment of Kyiv and other places continue, even intensifying in some places, that's also what U.S. intel assessments show, that as ground operations stalled or moved back, that they would cover that with greater attacks from the air.

KEILAR: Yes, very good point. Jim, thank you so much.

SCIUTTO: Thank you.

KEILAR: Berman?

BERMAN: So, one of the most brazen attacks on civilians of this war was the bombing of a theater in Mariupol, where officials say more than 1,000 people have sought refuge. The Russian word for children was written clearly twice outside the building. Still, the Russians attacked it. At least 300 people died there. Now, until now, we really haven't heard from people who were inside at the time, but CNN's Ivan Watson spoke to a survivor who was sheltering there with her family.

Ivan now joins us live. Ivan, tell us what you learned. What did you hear?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I'm going to introduce you, John, to a woman who says that her apartment was destroyed by the Russian siege of Mariupol. She then, with her mother and sister, spent six days hiding in the hallway of a friend's apartment amid constant shelling and having only some cookies and water to drink, no heat.


And then they finally heard during a moment when they had cell phone service that there was safe harbor and possible evacuation from the Mariupol drama theater, an icon, a symbol of the city that has since been destroyed.


WATSON (voice over): This was the Mariupol drama theater before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, a cultural and architectural symbol of the city. And when the Russian military laid its deadly siege of Mariupol, the theater became a safe haven.

MARIA KUTNYAKOVA, FAMILY SURVIVED MARIUPOL THEATER BOMBING: Six people, what a cat, we go to the street and Russians started shooting at us. And we were running. It was craziness. And then we go to this theater. And you know what? In this theater, there was a lot of people, there was like, be okay, we have food, they give us tea. And they said, like, you should find a place where you could -- like a bed.

WATSON: This woman and her family recently escaped from Mariupol.

KUTNYAKOVA: Name is Maria Kutnyakova. I am from Mariupol. I'm Maria from Mariupol.

WATSON: On the morning of March 16th, Maria, her mother, sister, and cat joined hundreds of other civilians sheltering in the theater. Footage from March 10th shows families huddled there in the dark, feeling protected perhaps by the signs, deti, children in Russia, that volunteers posted outside the building.

Shortly after arriving, Maria went to check whether an uncle who lived nearby was still alive.

KUTNYAKOVA: Now, I hear the noise of the plane, like bombs from the plane. We know how it's -- how it's -- this noise because it is bombed every day.

WATSON: She returned to the theater to find it destroyed. KUTNYAKOVA: So, I understand that my family is in the theater. And everyone screaming their names, like mama, papa, Losha, Sasha (ph). And started to calling, like, mom.

WATSON: Footage of the immediate aftermath shows civilians covered in dust, while the roof over the main auditorium had completely collapsed.

KUTNYAKOVA: When the theater was bombed, my sister was standing in the window and the window like blew up and she had fallen down. And my mom was in another part of the theater and the wall fell onto her.

WATSON: Maria's mother and sister were wounded but survived.

Your sister, is he doing all right?


WATSON: Really?


WATSON: She's got a concussion?

KUTNYAKOVA: Yes, yes, yes.

WATSON: shortly after the initial strike on the theater, Maria says, what was left of the building came under a fresh artillery attack.

KUTNYAKOVA: Everyone started scream that the theater is on fire, so we should run. And we were running but Russians bombed it. So, we were running from the theater and bombs were like this, this, this.

WATSON: It eventually took nine days for Maria and her family to get through Russian checkpoints and reach relative safety in Ukrainian- controlled territory.

You seem very positive and upbeat right now.

KUTNYAKOVA: I understand that I'm very lucky. You understand? Like thousands and hundreds of people still in Mariupol and they're bombed. They have no food, no water, they have no medicine, nothing. And I understand I'm very lucky, like I have my arms. I have my legs. I don't need any more, nothing.

WATSON: And your family.

KUTNYAKOVA: Yes, and my family. My cat is safe.

WATSON: This is little Mishka (ph). She's two-year-old cat and she survived the bombing of the Mariupol theater with her family. And they are now headed to Western Ukraine in this bus.

But no one knows how many people may have died under the rubble. Russia has denied that its forces bombed the theater and Russian state T.V. recently showed what was left of it after Russian troops moved in to this part of the city.

Judging by the damage, the Russian reporter claims, it was bombed from the inside. He alleges there is information that Ukrainian nationalists organized a terrorist attack here, a claim that people inside the theater strongly reject.

Are you angry right now?

KUTNYAKOVA: No. I want Russia to just go away. This the Ukrainian territory. I don't understand why they come and tell me that it is not my land. They are not fighting with the army. They are fighting with every citizen, you know? They bombed hospitals. They bombed kindergartens. They bombed the houses of peaceful people. They're not fighting with the army.

WATSON: Maria and her family rushed to a waiting van. The driver will take them for free to Western Ukraine, where Maria hopes her sister can safely recover from her injuries.



WATSON (on camera): Now, John, Maria and her family are like many evacuees from Mariupol. They come here to Zaporizhzhia, which is safe. So far, it has been spared the ground war but it' is only 30 miles from Russian tanks right now. And they don't want to stay here. Many of them try to move on if they have the resources.

And the talk of Russia deescalating in the north of Ukraine to focus on the Donbas region in the southeast, those are ominous words for this region. This is the southeast. This is a city that could potentially be drawn in and has so far been spared from the grinding deadly conflict. John?

BERMAN: Yes. It means the situation there might only get worse. And, Ivan, to hear Maria say, I have my arms, I have my legs, I'm okay, so many Ukrainians you meet when you ask them, how are you, the answer is, I'm alive. What a time.

Ivan Watson, terrific reporting, thank you so much.

Up next, we speak to a mother who risked it all on a dangerous journey returning to Ukraine to try to rescue here son.

Plus, just in, new CNN reporting that a Justice Department investigation into Hunter Biden and his business activities is heating up.


BERMAN: Don't come, mommy, he said, they're shooting, those words from a 12-year-old boy who was in Ukraine while his mother was desperately trying to reach him. She traveled from Poland for days, more than 1,000 miles across dangerous warzones to get to him. He was standing with his grandparents at the time that the war broke out. And she got so close, she came within two hours of him but was ultimately unable to go all the way. He remains here in Ukraine.

We first saw this heartbreaking story in the Wall Street Journal and we spoke to the mother, Olena Sirotiuk, a short time ago.


BERMAN: Olena, I'm so sorry you and your son are going through this. You were in Poland when the war started, your son all the way on the other side of Ukraine. Why did you decide to go and try and get him?

OLENA SIROTIUK, RETURNED TO UKRAIN TO TRY AND RESCUE SON: I was going to fetch him anyway because he used to live with me, but he was missing his friends and he was finding it difficult to learn Polish. So, he went back to Ukraine. And then I was going to get him because he wrote to me that he wants to come back and he wants to be with me and to learn Polish. And he didn't have -- his father died two years ago.

So, I was literally going to go and fetch him in three or four days when the war started, and then the war started, and then I had to go back and get him. I went as far as Zaporizhzhia. But then the rest of Ukraine was occupied and I couldn't get any further.

BERMAN: You got so close. You traveled a thousand miles and got so close but couldn't get the final two hours. What happened? Why not?

SIROTIUK: The journey was -- is very difficult there. There is the town of Vasylivka, which has been under fire from the very first days of the war and it wasn't possible to get through to Enerhodar. They blew up the bridge -- and the railway bridge, so it wasn't possible to get there by rail. And then you couldn't get there by car either because there was fighting going on, so nobody would take you there.

There is another road through Melitopol, but then there's fighting there as well and you just can't get any vehicles to get there. It's just not possible to get there.

BERMAN: We saw these text messages you were sending with your son as you were close. And one of them he wrote to you I love you, very, very, very, very much, which gets me in the heart as a parent. How is he doing now?

SIROTIUK: He's got one thing on his mind, how I can go and get him. He's not thinking of anything else. I'm trying to talk to him about other things but he has only got one though on his mind so that I could come and get him, because a lot of young people have left already. His friends have left with their parents. They have evacuated. And he is sitting there alone. He is worried that he will be left alone. He is there with my parents, but I just can't go, I just can't get him.

BERMAN: The Russians control the town that he's in. Are you worried for his safety?

SIROTIUK: Yes, I am worried. I have two brothers living in the village. And my brother says, we're not going to let him go on his own. Because, at the moment, even if there is a green corridor, a humanitarian corridor open, then the Russians may not let him go to Zaporizhzhia, they may take him to Russia or another occupied territory because that's what they do. They take people to their own territory and they use them as shields so that Ukrainian soldiers don't shoot them.

So, I'm worried about sending him anywhere with the humanitarian corridors because we have already seen that from people -- the children were taken from Mariupol and they were taken away and not found anymore. And even people have been brought to Enerhodar, the Russian-occupied territory from Mariupol, and they were put in the apartments that were left behind by the people who evacuated earlier.


So, I'm scared of letting him go because I may not find him again.

BERMAN: Olena, I'm so sorry, and I look forward, and I know you look forward to that day, where you and your son can be together. Thank you for being with us.

SIROTIUK: Thank you. Good-bye.


BERMAN: Our thanks to Olena Sirotiuk. Imagine having your worst fear being that your son is going to try to get out on his own across this warzone.

All right, breaking news this morning, Russian forces continue to lob missiles, explosives across Ukraine despite claims that they are scaling back military operations. We're going to speak live with a Ukrainian fighter on the frontlines around Kyiv.

And moments from now, NASA Astronaut Mark Vande Hei will land back on Earth along with two Russian cosmonauts. This rare display of unity, next.