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Family Reunites After Harrowing Escape from Mariupol; Russian Military Forces Continue Shelling of Cities in Ukraine; Russian Forces Return Chernobyl Nuclear Facility to Ukrainian Control; Russian Forces Possibly Redeploying for Concentrated Offensive; Russia Reports Ukrainian Helicopter Attacked Target in Russia. Aired 8-8:30a ET.

Aired April 01, 2022 - 08:00   ET



VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The situation in the southern direction and in the Donbas remains extremely difficult. Russian troops are accumulating the potential for strikes, powerful blows.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So President Zelenskyy also sent a message to people he calls traitors within the Ukrainian military. He fired two generals, saying, quote, "If you don't decide where your homeland is, you will be punished."

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Russian forces attacking the city of Chernihiv in the last few hours here. We did speak with the mayor a short time ago, who says that they leveled a local hospital.


MAYOR VLADYSLAV ATROSHENKO, CHERNIHIV, UKRAINE (through translator): Some shells hit the regional hospital direct, and one of the buildings of the hospital, in fact the oncological unit, was completely destroyed.


KEILAR: In the meantime, Russia is redeploying troops from Georgia to reinforce its war effort in Ukraine. The U.K.'s Ministry of Defense says up to 2,000 soldiers are being reorganized into battalion tactical groups. Ukrainian forces are still making gains, retaking the city of Irpin, or what is left of it, you can see here in this video here. This is in the suburbs of Kyiv. This is an area that is still extremely dangerous and remains off limits to civilians.

And Russian forces have also handed the Chernobyl nuclear facility back to Ukraine, ending their five-week occupation. Today virtual peace talks with Russia and Ukraine are set to resume after limited progress was made earlier in the week.

BERMAN: Joining us now is CNN's Frederik Pleitgen who is live in the Ukrainian city of Kyiv. Fred, you're in Kyiv right now, but you spent a lot of time over the border in Russia, in Belgorod, watching Russian troops stream into Ukraine. And now you have officials in Belgorod saying that there was a Ukrainian helicopter strike on a fuel depo there. How significant would that be?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it would be extremely significant. And when we spent time there at Belgorod, we obviously got a feel for the lay of the land. In they really managed to do this with helicopters, it would be only brazen, it would be bold and certainly something that would be almost unthinkable to be able to pull off.

There was obviously that video that we say which appeared to be MI-24 helicopters coming in and then firing at that fuel depo. Now, essentially they would probably have to come from Kharkiv, which is the city on the Ukrainian side of the border. That's close to Belgorod, John, but it's not that close. It is still about 70 kilometers, or what is that, 50 miles from Kharkiv to get to Belgorod. You don't do that pretty quickly in a chopper.

And also, they have to fly over a highly militarized zone. The Russians have air bases there. The Russians have helicopter bases there. The Russians have Air Defense weapons there. It would be an extreme feat to be able to pull that off.

We don't have any confirmation yet from the Ukrainian side that they are actually behind this, that this actually happened. There is no confirmation from them yet. You guys mentioned that the Russians are saying that the Ukrainians are behind it and already saying that this could hurt those negotiations that are going on.

Again, it's very difficult to prove that that is something that really, that the Ukrainians really pulled off. But if they did, it would certainly be a remarkable operation. And you guys are also absolutely right that right here where I am in the Kyiv region, I'm actually a little bit outside Kyiv right now, the Ukrainian forces are making big headway, and they certainly have done so in the area of Irpin. But that area is still getting heavily shelled by Russian forces.

And we managed to get in there yesterday. It was extremely dangerous. You guys can have a look.


PLEITGEN: There is no safe way to get into Irpin. The only feasible route is on the back of a policy special forces pickup truck on dirt paths. But even here, the earth is scorched after Russian troops shelled the trail.

Ukraine forces are taking us into this area on backroads because they say taking the main roads is simply much too dangerous. They want to show us the damage done when Russian forces try to enter Kyiv.

Ukrainian authorities say this is still one of the most dangerous places in this war-torn country. And we immediately see why. We are driving right towards an area engulfed in smoke from artillery shelling. This is where Russian forces tried to push into Ukraine's capital but were stopped and beaten back by the underdog Ukrainians. The battles here are fierce. Authorities say 50 percent of the city has been destroyed. To us, that number seems like an understatement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have to keep moving quickly because this place can get shelled any time.

PLEITGEN: Ukraine's national police now patrols Irpin again, but their force frequently come under fire, the chief tells me. "Just yesterday, our officer searching for dead bodies, they were shot at with mortars," he says. "They had to lay under the bridge and wait for it to stop."


But the grim task of finding and taking out the many dead continues, more than two dozen on this day alone. Some have been laying in the streets for weeks and can only now be removed. When Russian forces invaded Ukraine, they quickly advanced on the capital Kyiv, all the way to Irpin. Here the Ukrainians stood and fought back.

Vladimir Putin's army controlled large parts of Irpin and the battle laid waste to much of this formerly wealthy suburb. And this was the epicenter where we find burned-out Russian trucks and armored vehicles.

So this is the area where some of the heaviest fighting took place in Irpin. And as you can see, that there was a Russian-armored vehicle which was completely annihilated. We do have to be careful around here, because there still could be unexploded munitions laying around.

We meet Volodymyr Rudenko, a local resident who says he stayed and took up arms when the Russians invaded. "Always there was not a single day when I left town," he says, "even during the heaviest fighting." It must be difficult, I asked. "Just so you understand," he says, "Once there were 348 impacts in one area in one single hour."

And the battle here is not over. Suddenly Irpin's mayor shows up with a group of special force saying they are looking for Russians possibly still hiding here. I ask him how it's going. "We're working," he says. There's information that there are two Russian soldiers dressed in civilian clothes with our group, we're going to clean them up." Ukrainian forces say they will continue the fight and further push Russian forces away from their capital. The deputy interior minister saying they need the U.S.'s support to succeed.

What do you need from the United States?

YEVHEN YENIN, UKRAINIAN DEPUTY INTERIOR MINISTER: Everything. Military support, first of all.

PLEITGEN: Weapons to help the Ukrainians expel the invading army, they hope, and finally bring the suburb out of the reach of Vladimir Putin's cannons.


PLEITGEN (on camera): So as you can see there, John, some massive destruction up there in Irpin as, unfortunately, this situation in large part is toward the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Of course, that's really where that main thrust of the Russian army tried to come through and literally blast their way into the Ukrainian capital. One thing that we saw is that the Ukrainian troops are on the ground there, their morale is extremely high. They certainly understand that they faced off against an army that was much better equipped and much more firepower, but they say they still managed to beat them down and beat them back, John.

BERMAN: It seems like they have every reason to have high morale now, given the success that they've had. Frederik Pleitgen, thank you you so much for that reporting.

We want to bring in retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, former director of European affairs for the National Security Council and author of "Here Right Matters, An American Story." Thank you so much, Colonel Vindman, for being with us. Look, there are these reports from the Russian side, mind you, of a Ukrainian helicopter strike in Russian territory. First off, how skeptical are you of the veracity of such a thing? Would the Russians make this up?

LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, (RET) FORMER EUROPEAN AFFAIRS DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Well, I think there are some interesting precedents from these five weeks of war. The Ukrainians have gone after some targets. They used their short range, or these are rockets about 90-to-120 kilometer range, to fire on bases in Russia, in Rostov, in an airbase called Millerovo not very far away from Kharkiv.

So the fact that something like this could occur is reasonable. The motives here are kind of interesting. Of course, the Russians have some reason to galvanize the Russian population to indicate the war is coming home to bring more attention to this, to bring more solidarity around this issue. And Ukrainians have the reason to strike out and go after critical logistics nodes, so depots, arms depots, fuel depots, those are all legitimate targets.

I would like to see -- frankly, there's probably not a lot of reason for the Ukrainians to claim this. That might inspire the Russians to start to target helicopters and planes that remain. But until Ukrainians come out and say this, I'd remain skeptical.

Either way, it's a pretty bold move. I know that the Ukrainians are thinking in this direction. They are thinking about going after targets. In a way this is an important message to the west and NATO allies that this war is not going to be fought purely on Ukrainian territory, and that whether the U.S. supplies Ukraine or not with these long-range fires with the ability to employ unmanned combat aerial depots, the Ukrainians are going to attempt to take the fight to Russia. So the gates are opened. This is now precedented. And it's going to continue, and it might be a message to say, hey, give us more of these weapons so we can take the fight to the enemy and try to win this sooner rather than later, turning into a really protracted war. KEILAR: Colonel, we have also seen Russia after five weeks now turn

control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which, by the way, is not operational, but it certainly poses a risk, turn control of that back over to the Ukrainians. What do you make of this?

VINDMAN: I think that it didn't really have a huge military or critical infrastructure value. It was really, the major reason to take it was that it was not very populated. It was an open area, and vacuum requires Russia to move through their uncontested area pretty quickly and seize it within the first several days. It's not something that they want or need. There are some interesting reports of several hundred or more troops that were suffering from radiation poisoning.

What the Russians should have realized is that the area around the nuclear power points remains highly radioactive. They have these very surreal red forests that have a high degree of radiation there. And these troops operating in there without being warned have suffered some illness from it. The Ukrainians will take it back, continue to maintain the nuclear power plant, make sure that there is no nuclear accident. It is still going to be radioactive for decades and decades. But they won't be putting a lot of troops in there to secure it either, because it's a risk to human life.

BERMAN: So, Colonel, we keep on talking about how the Russians may be trying to reposition their forces to the east in the Donbas region. I'm curious what that means for the Ukrainian side, if there is anything they can do. If that's what the Russians really do plan to do, can the Ukrainians do anything to counter that? Should they change where and how they're operating?

VINDMAN: They should. This is a particularly dangerous phase in Russia's change in tactics, because what you could end up seeing is a really significant concentration. Right now, they're all over the place. They're attacking from the north, from the east, from the south. That's not a focused attack. That's not where they are weighting their main effort with all the artillery, all the air power, all the infantry and armored vehicles that they need to achieve their military objectives.

If they focus in on a much, much smaller piece of terrain, the Russians have actually demonstrated some effectiveness is small scale contingences. If they can pull themselves together, move with their logistics, move with their fuel, food, and ammunition right behind them, they could achieve some gains.

And I don't think that's the end of the war. If the Russians were, for instance, successful in the east, that might inspire them continue to press on major cities like Kharkiv and eventually threaten Kyiv. So we should not have any wishful thinking that it could end with a negotiated solution just because Russia gets a small piece territory that achieves the facade of a win. This is not why Putin started this war. He started this war to subjugate Ukraine. I think this is just a recipe for a protracted war.

So what we need to do is we need to focus on helping the Ukrainians defeat this next assault, that means replenishing them with the artillery that they've lost, the armor that they've lost, with the air defense systems that they've lost so it doesn't turn into a protracted war with some Russian victories. As long as Russia continues to suffer the blows, it will reduce its appetite and press towards diplomacy. If they win, they're going to press an advantage.

KEILAR: Our Stephen Collinson, Colonel, has a very interest analysis piece out today looking at how the U.S. and the U.K. have really used intel, in a way weaponized it psychologically, trying to drive a wedge between Vladimir Putin and some other officials in Russia, including military officials. News of how Putin and his generals don't see eye- to-eye, for instance, that's something that is very much in the narrative right now that is being very much controlled by the U.S. I wonder what you think the effect of that is?

VINDMAN: I think the face is that U.S. just operates under a completely different premise, which is there has to be some substance, some truth to this. It wouldn't be just putting out a false rumor to sew discord. This has to be actually a fact.

And in a way it doesn't surprise me that presidential administration, Putin's administration, is looking for scapegoats. They're going to blame this on the military, military corruption, ineffective military operations. But in fact, the conception of this whole campaign had to start at the top.


There was no question that the military built its initial battle plan off of Putin's own assumptions that the Ukrainians wouldn't resist, that this would be a couple day operation. It would be replacing the leadership and leaving. And if you build a battle plan like that, if you build a battle plan that doesn't expect a stiff resistance, then you're going to roll through large swaths of territory and not protect your supply lines.

You're not going to prepare the logistics required to sustain a long- range campaign. So I think there's going to be shifting of blame. This is kind of natural. It will happen anywhere, more so in a dictatorial regime, but it's something that is probably there, it's being picked up on by our own intelligence and I think there's going to be growing discord between the political class and the military. A lot of finger- pointing and so forth.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, thank you so much for being with us. Appreciate it so much.

Thousands trapped inside the besieged city of Mariupol. And officials there say Russian forces are blocking buses from getting all the way in. CNN's Don Lemon spoke with a family who was able to escape. He joins us next.

Plus, more on the breaking news. These reports of a Ukrainian airstrike inside Russia overnight. We have new details coming in.


BERMAN: There is a humanitarian catastrophe happening in Mariupol. This is what one city official told me about the potential death toll in his city.


MAXIM BORODIN, MARIUPOL CITY COUNCIL DEPUTY: I think it's numbers is in the tens of thousands. It's very terrible and --

BERMAN: Ten thousand people killed?

BORODIN: Yes. I think the real numbers are near here. Because a lot of people are dead, a lot of people under rubbles, and no one before the Ukraine take control over the Mariupol, no one can count the real situation on the civilian deaths.


BERMAN: There's no way to count. One person there told me the entire city is like a mass grave.

CNN's Don Lemon sat down with a family who escaped that city and has now been reunited.


OLEG KADATSKIY, ESCAPED MARIUPOL, UKRAINE (through translator): There was one day when I went out to call my son, and he said, leave the city. And my wife was cooking over an open fire and there was an explosion and she started shaking. I just couldn't do it to my wife anymore. I would never forgive myself if something happened to her.


BERMAN: And joining me now is the anchor of CNN's "DON LEMON TONIGHT," Don Lemon.

Great to see you here.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR, DON LEMON TONIGHT: Hey, how are you? Good to see you.

BERMAN: Listen, you've been following this family for some time. And I think it's really instructive about the situation in Mariupol just how harrowing it was there.


BERMAN: And just how challenging it is to get out.

LEMON: Yes. And they didn't want to leave. One of them is a hospice worker, the uncle, I should say the dad of the young lady. Let me start from the beginning. The daughter and her husband, her husband is American, the daughter is Ukrainian, and they were living here -- they were living in Kyiv and then they moved here, to Lviv. Her family was in Mariupol. The family did not want to leave. And they had been begging them to leave.

They didn't want to leave because one was a hospice worker, the other one was a pastor. And finally they said, one day they were cooking in this big cauldron for all the people they were taking care of and the bombs came really close. And one of them said we've got to leave. The other one who's a pastor, someone said, you've got to get out of here because they know you're Ukrainian in the way you think and they're going to put you in prison and hold you captive if you don't leave.

And so they decided to leave. Seven of her family members in a car including her mother and her grandmother and so on, her dad and her uncle. Seven of them decided to leave. They went through 12 checkpoints in order to get here. Very little food. By the grace of God, they got here. Every -- almost every single checkpoint they went to was a Russian checkpoint. And the men in her family, her father and her uncle and the other men who were in the car had to take off their shirts, roll up their pants to the point where you can see, you know, up to the knee to look for Nazi insignia and tattoos. And so they told me about their journey here and also going to some of those checkpoints. Watch this.


LEMON: What did he say?

KADATSKIY (through translator): That he had seen Nazis at that checkpoint. They checked us for tattoos. And that's how they checked for Nazis.

LEMON: How many checkpoints?

KADATSKIY (through translator): Twelve checkpoints.

LEMON: And you had to do it every time?

KADATSKIY (through translator): It was only Russian military checkpoints. They said that they were mobilized. They didn't choose to go to this war. And they were made to do it and it wasn't their choice.

LEMON: What was -- how many people left with them?

KADATSKIY (through translator): Seven people in a car with us.

LEMON: Were they worried that they weren't going to make it?

KADATSKIY (through translator): Three times we were under fire. As we were leaving the checkpoint, shells were exploding everywhere. People dove into the field and covered their heads. One person was hit by shrapnel three cars ahead.

LEMON: Did you have food?

KADATSKIY (through translator): I didn't have time to gather food. We only had flat breads and two cans of fish. The whole journey took around five days.


BERMAN: You know, it's terrifying to stay, it's terrifying to leave. The people there left with almost no choices.

LEMON: Yes. They said they were happy that they got out, but you know, they feel bad for other families as they did before her family, meaning the young couple. For her family, they'd see the stories of people saying my family got out and they'd be happy for them. But they would be concerned about their own family.

A couple of things that I want to tell you. One, they said they had other interactions with Russian soldiers when they were in Mariupol. They would get bombed, families would run out, children, women, and they would ask the Russian soldiers why are you bombing us? And they'd say well, we were told that the place was evacuated. If the place are evacuated, why are being ordered to bomb it? Doesn't make sense.

Also the thing with the tattoos was just startling to me. And then when I was about to leave Ganadi, who is the uncle on the end, who was worrying and rubbing the side of the thing because he had so much on his mind, he grabbed me and held me for a long time.


He hugged me, and I was like, wait, what is going on? And he said, I want to thank you for coming here. You're so professional, you're so nice, and I want to you keep the integrity of CNN because you guys are telling our story. And I said, I will do that. And the other thing that he said to me, John, that was so profound, he said, I don't want -- will you please put this in the story, and I forgot to say it last night so I'm really sorry, Ganadi.

But I'm saying it now. He said, I want you to tell the people of Ukraine not to become cruel even in the face of all this. Do not become cruel. Do not hate the enemy, which I thought was just amazing.

BERMAN: It takes strength, given what they've been through.

Don, I'll see you in -- I can't count the hours.

LEMON: I have to shoot another story.


LEMON: Then I've got two afternoon shows and then I do my shows tonight.

BERMAN: I want to be a feature guest on your show in like 17 hours from now.

LEMON: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: All right, nice to see you.

LEMON: Thank you very much.

BERMAN: New information on the shadow military group that Russia has deployed in Ukraine. Who are they? What impact could they have?

Plus, the breaking news. Claims of a Ukrainian strike inside Russia, which would be a truly extraordinary development. Stand by.