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U.S. Monitoring Reports of Possible Russian Chemical Weapons; Military Governor of Donetsk Region is Interviewed about Russian Incursion; U.S.: Putin May Seek Revenge by Attacking U.S. Elections; Some Refugees Returning from Poland to Ukraine; Russian Hearing for U.S. Marine Veteran Who's on Hunger Strike. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired April 12, 2022 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers in the United States and around the world. It is Tuesday, April 12. I'm Brianna Keilar in Lviv, Ukraine, with John Berman in New York.

And it is day 48 of the invasion, and the war is entering a new stage of terror against Ukraine. That is the words -- those are the words of president Volodymyr Zelenskyy as fear is growing about Russia resorting to chemical or biological warfare.

A Ukrainian military unit in the battered Southern city of Mariupol is accusing Russian troops of already using chemical weapons there. CNN cannot independently verify that claim, but we did just speak to the head of the military in that region, the Donetsk region. And he said that there were three people who are being treated for illness after the attack. Their injuries are non-life threatening. He says authorities are investigating further to figure out what this is.

The Pentagon monitoring this development, we are told, and an urgent investigation by the U.K. is already under way.

And then breaking moments ago, new video showing fierce fighting in Mariupol. Plumes of smoke from shelling seen in residential areas on the hills above a shipping yard near the city's port. Even though Russian forces have retreated from the Kyiv area there is still danger in Northern Ukraine.

President Zelenskyy describing the region as one of the most contaminated by mines in the world. He says retreating Russian troops deliberately targeted civilians, an act that he says is a war crime.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The invaders left mines everywhere: in the houses they took over, just on the streets, in the fields. They mined people's property. Mined cars, doors. They deliberately did everything to ensure that the return to these areas after de-occupation was as dangerous as possible. Due to the actions of the Russian army, our territory today is one of the most contaminated by mines in the world.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So because of that, you can see this morning this huge effort by the Ukrainians around Kyiv to uncover and clean up the unexploded mines from the areas that had been occupied by the Russian troops. Those troops might be gone, but the destruction very much left behind.

Overnight, reports of heavy shelling by Russian forces in the East.

Now, Ukrainian military officials are hoping that heavy rain in this area, the Donbas region, could slow down the Russian plans for an offensive there. The rain is expected to last for several days, creating acres of mud, which would keep the Russians on the road system and make them easier targets.

Meanwhile, we are told intense discussions are under way between the Biden administration and the Ukrainians about a new round of security assistance. The U.S. package is expected to center around more drones and anti-tank Javelins.

We want to go first to the Pentagon this morning and bring in CNN's Barbara Starr. And Barbara, I want to start with you this morning on these reports, these investigations into the possibility of chemical weapons use by the Russians. What have you learned?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, last night the Pentagon issued a statement. The press secretary, John Kirby, saying that they were looking into all of this.

One of the difficulties is going to be getting samples from the area on the ground, getting a really thorough understanding of the symptoms that people may be suffering. Both the U.S. and the U.K. very urgently looking into all of it.

And, John, this news of the acceleration of the Russian campaign is just really underscoring the urgency of getting more weapons to Ukraine. Right now, the U.S. and Ukraine behind the scenes are in intensive talks about the next round of arms transfers. This is getting weapons right to the front line where they are most needed.

The Pentagon says it is going as fast as it can.

Listen to John Kirby about this.


JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Eight to ten flights a day are coming into the region. Not just from the United States but from other nations, as well.

In some cases, stuff comes from the United States takes no more than four to six days from the time the president authorizes draw-down authority until it gets into the hands of the Ukrainians. That's an incredible rate of speed. (END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: But it has got to change, according to the Ukrainians. Now as the fight moves South and East, it is different terrain than where they have been around Kyiv and North of Kyiv. This is an open area, as you point out, multiple roads.

What the Ukrainians say they need is artillery, long-range radars. They need these long-range weapons so they can attack the Russians at distance.

This is not the wooded areas that we've seen before, where they've been very successful in ambushing the Russians. This is much more open.

So how do they get that armor and artillery? They're not trained on U.S. systems. Now the U.S., again, going back to European partners and allies in Eastern Europe, trying to encourage them to transfer those systems to the Ukrainians. They don't need the training; they can get right out in the field with them.

And that is the urgency right now. Where do you get the armor, artillery, the armored vehicles that the Ukrainians need so urgently in that area that you're pointing out -- John.

BERMAN: Yes, Barbara, I put up a picture here so people can see. You're talking about the steppes here, literally, a big, giant flat area that goes on for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Hard to hide here, which is why you need the longer range weapons.

I hadn't heard that estimate from John Kirby, four to six days from when it comes out of the president's mouth to when it reaches those troops on the front line. That's fast.

The problem: the Ukrainians say they need a lot of this equipment yesterday, Barbara.

STARR: Exactly.

BERMAN: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Thank you very much -- Brianna.

KEILAR: This morning I spoke with the military governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, about these reports of a chemical attack in Mariupol, the Russian military convoy heading towards his region, and also the battle ahead. This is part of our conversation.



KEILAR: Mr. Kyrylenko, thank you so much for being with us this morning. I'm wondering if you can tell us about this report that a chemical attack of some sort has happened in Mariupol. Have you heard anything about this? Are you able to confirm this? PAVLO KYRYLENKO, MILITARY GOVERNOR OF DONETSK REGION (through translator): Yes, indeed, I have seen these reports. And I have the latest information from the scene. I have just been reviewing incident reports on this.

And we know that last night around midnight, a drone dropped some so far unknown explosive device, and the people that were in the area, in and around the Mariupol metal plant, these were three people. They began to feel unwell.

We know that the city is under siege, so it's very difficult to receive accurate information and to be in touch with the people, with the population.

And so -- but what we have heard is that they -- there were three people who were affected and that they were taken to hospital -- they were taken to hospital. They were received -- they were given medical assistance. And at the moment, their life is -- their lives are not in danger.

Now I must say that these are very -- they're literally recent reports from the scene. They're operative reports that I'm receiving, so I cannot 100 percent confirm or comment on them. I can personally confirm that there was this fact, that this has happened. And that it is fortunate that the people that were around there, our defenders, did not receive life-threatening injuries.

KEILAR: Sir, thank you so much for detailing that for us. Can you give us a sense of the casualties? Do you know how many people even approximately have died in Mariupol and Donetsk? And talk to us a little bit about the difficulty in being able to get an accurate count on that.

KYRYLENKO (through translator): Taking information from different sources, we can speak of tens of thousands of people who died. And to be more precise -- but this figure has to be checked very carefully -- we are currently discussing 20 to 22,000 people dead in Mariupol.

And this -- and what I want to draw people's attention to is that since the sanctions pressure put on the Russian federation by our Western partners, the E.U. and the U.S., and these very stringent sanctions packages, the enemy has changed tactics.

And they are currently -- they have blocked the city in such a way that they're not letting people leave on their private vehicles. And they're stopping people leaving -- stopping civilians leaving the city.

And what they're doing now is they're using mobile crematoriums -- mobile cremation machines, and also taking people out of -- taking bodies of the dead in the streets and the dead from collapsing buildings, they're taking them out into the territory not controlled by Ukraine and destroying the bodies there.

So they're hiding, since the emergence of the evidence of war crimes in Bucha and the evidence of genocide, they are now hiding the evidence and using these mobile cremation chambers. And they're taking bodies out of Mariupol into the territory controlled by Russia.

Now, that's for Mariupol. Regarding elsewhere in Donetsk region, the information we have is 237 people dead and 758 people wounded.

KEILAR: Mr. Kyrylenko, I thank you so much for speaking with us. Please talk to us any day. We would love to get updates from you there in Donetsk. We appreciate your time.

KYRYLENKO (through translator): Thank you very much. We'll hold on. Glory to Ukraine.


BERMAN: Joining us now, CNN military analyst, retired Major General James "Spider" Marks. He is the head of Geopolitical Strategy at Academy Securities.

And Spider, if I can, I want to start with the reporting we're getting out of Mariupol right now. The claims that the Russians are using chemical weapons there. Why would they do that? And what would the fall -- if they're able to fully take Mariupol, what does that give them strategically in this Donbas region?


MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, John, thanks very much for the -- for the question. The challenge with the use of chemical weapons anywhere, especially here in Mariupol, is that the Russians clearly have designs on Mariupol that do not include the repopulation or the use of that city.

Once you contaminate an area, it's going to take a while to decontaminate it. It will just be a large amount of time. And that will draw troops away from it.

So, what they want to do is deny this area to the Ukrainians, and at the same time, they deny it to themselves.

Which means the Russians have conducted this operation in this area now. And as we know, and we've seen the videos of the movement of the forces from the area of Kyiv, relocating up here and then moving in this direction. We've seen -- we've seen those videos, and we've seen those convoys.

What that means -- and I think it's important to point this out. Let me take one step back. We haven't spent a lot of time talking about the Dnipro River. Clearly, what that does is it isolates the country, just as we can see right here.

And by doing that, what the Russians are doing is that they are creating a salient, a pocket right here. This is now their priority.

They're not going to do anything with Odessa for a while. Their flank is now protected. And as a result of the positioning of their forces relative to the river. So, any movement now is going to be in this direction. And the use of

chemicals here just really invalidates. It turns that into an isolation zone. Neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians will use it.

BERMAN: They want to take an area so they can claim a victory, which would be a political statement.

MARKS: Right.

BERMAN: Spider, you're just talking about this convoy here. You showed us where it was on the map. This is some picture of the convoy here in some more close-up video here.

To the amateur, like me, you look at this and you think, that's an inviting target for the Ukrainians. Isn't it? I mean, if there are pictures of all this Russian military equipment on the road, why can't the Ukrainians try to hit it?

MARKS: Yes, exactly, John. Let me pull up the -- let me pull up the same video.

Yes, clearly, what we see is this is an administrative move. As we've indicated on the map, these are forces that are relocating from up in the North and are coming back into the Southeastern portion of Ukraine.

When you look at these soldiers on these vehicles, these guys are tired. They've been on vehicles for a number of days. They probably don't want to be there. They're not at the best level of -- they probably have a level of readiness, but they're not necessarily aware of their surroundings because they're exhausted. This is a very inviting target.

And what the Ukrainians have been able to achieve, at least they did last week, was this strike into Belgorod, you know, the oil depot into Russia. They took attack helicopters and moved in that direction. Took a lot of planning, a lot of air suppression of the air defense weapons. That was done exceptionally well.

These targets are available for the Ukrainians. Long-range fires by the use of long-range artilleries, artillery, missiles, drones that they have, as well as attack platforms, both manned and unmanned, could go after that.

And I guarantee you, the Ukrainians need to do this as the fighting -- and let's go back here, then back. As the fighting continues in the Donbas area, those long-range fires, those deep attacks are absolutely essential in order to change the dynamic, increase pressure from the Russians. They've got the numbers on their side, and it must be done where the Ukrainians can reach out and shape that engagement.

BERMAN: Yes. These are the drones right now, the Turkish drones that the Ukrainians have used with great success at a longer range that have to do that quite a bit more.

And just so you know, there are reports that the Ukrainians have hit a Russian ammunition depot over the border in Russia. We're trying to verify that ourselves. But exactly the kind of attack you're talking about there.

Retired Major General James "Spider" Marks, great to have you with us. You'll be back later in the show.

MARKS: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: We have brand-new CNN reporting on Russia, that they could launch an offensive of the cyber variety against the United States, hitting U.S. elections in ways they never have before.

Plus, new reporting on the condition of WNBA star Brittney Griner, held in Russia since February on drug charges.



BERMAN: All right. This morning, U.S. intelligence officials warning that Vladimir Putin could launch new attacks on U.S. election systems in ways that he hasn't before.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand joins us live with her new reporting on this.

This would be in response to the U.S. support of Ukraine, obviously, Natasha.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Exactly, John. And in addition to that, U.S. officials believe that Putin's risk tolerance here has just gotten a lot higher in general, as evidenced by his invasion of Ukraine, which many, of course, in the West thought would be folly and, of course, has panned out that way.

And because of that, because he has been failing in Ukraine, because the West has been supporting the Ukrainians, and because Russia is really isolated right now from the global community, U.S. officials worry that Putin could lash out here, including by attacking the U.S. elections.

Of course, the midterms are coming up, and they could be a significant target for the Russians. Now, what we're told is that U.S. Officials are very worried that perhaps Russia could go further than ever before in its cyberattacks on the U.S. election by directly attacking voter infrastructure, election infrastructure, trying to -- trying to change those votes, actually.

Now, this is not something that Putin has actually attempted before. He has kind of scanned voter databases. He has conducted influence operations. But actually going to those lengths and trying to change voter systems, voter tallies, that is something that U.S. officials are very concerned about.


Now it's important to note that there's no direct intelligence, we are told, as of right now that Putin has actually made a decision to interfere in the elections.

And in fact, one U.S. official told us that, "While we do not have any direct intel that Russia is looking to target state, local or election systems more directly than before, we are certainly anticipating the possibility," John.

So clearly, they are preparing for any potential scenario here. A cyber operation targeting U.S. elections would be a fairly cheap, simple way for the Russians to retaliate against the West.

BERMAN: Yes. The fear is what else does he have to lose? What more does he have to lose? He could risk anything at this point.

Natasha Bertrand, thank you so much for your reporting on this.

Some Ukrainian refugees who fled to Poland are now boarding buses and returning home. CNN, live in Warsaw.

And a hearing in Moscow to determine what's next for imprisoned American Trevor Reed. We have a live update coming up.


KEILAR: Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees are returning home, despite Russia's escalating attacks. Many only plan to stay for a short time to check on their home or to grab more supplies. Others say they are tired of living in fear.

CNN's Kyung Lah is live for us in Warsaw, Poland, at a bus station where some refugees are heading back to Ukraine. What are you seeing there, Kyung?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, let me explain first where I am.

This is the West bus station in Poland's capital here in Warsaw. And it's place where we've seen a lot of Ukrainians arriving, fleeing from the war. You see the sign here that encourages them to head to a tent around the corner to get some warm food.

But as we step inside here and, you know, keeping in mind that this is a transit area, this is a very busy bus station. What you see over here to my left, this is a line to purchase bus tickets internationally.

And as you walk down the line, as you go through this bus station, we are hearing stories from Ukrainians who want to go home, even as the fighting gets worse. And they say that they have had enough.

I want to give you a sense of the overall picture, the numbers. Take a look at this graphic. From February 24th, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, to today, the Polish border patrol tells us 2.68 million Ukrainians -- people have crossed from Ukraine into Poland.

In that very same time period, nearly 600,000 people have crossed from Poland into Ukraine. Now, we don't know exactly the motivations for all of these people, but who are some of these people who are returning?

Well, we've walked around, talked to people. We've done this a couple of times over the last couple of weeks. And we met a woman, Elena Dvorskaya (ph). She is from the Vinnytsia region.

And she is a grandmother. She brought her daughter and her granddaughter here to Poland. And she tells us today she needs to go home, because she wants to be with her mother.

She lives in an area that is 90 minutes away from fighting. Her town is home to three military bases.

This trip is not without risk. It is a 14-hour bus ride. But she says at some point, you've just got to go home.

This is increasingly, Brianna, about separated families. Some who are able to stay here in Poland in safety. Others who are staying in Ukraine. And it is just a heartbreak when you talk to these people about what is happening inside each of these nuclear families -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, that really is the theme that you're seeing: separated from men who cannot leave and separated from the older generation who does not want to leave, does not want to leave their lives.

Kyung, thank you so much for that story. We appreciate it.

BERMAN: Overnight, an appeal hearing in Moscow to determine what is next for U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who has been jailed in Russia since 2019 and has recently been on a hunger strike.

CNN's Kylie Atwood live at the State Department with the latest for us. Kylie, what are U.S. officials saying about the hearing and efforts to get Reed home?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, this was an appeal to get the court to set aside the prison sentence of nine years in prison that Trevor Reed was given in 2020.

But of course, we're learning this morning from the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, that the decision was kicked to a lower court. Essentially, that there is no further answer for Trevor Reed and his parents today. There's no change to that nine-years prison sentence.

Now that is being met with disappointment from U.S. officials. The ambassador, John Sullivan, saying he is very disappointed that justice has again been denied.

And just to remind folks, Trevor Reed is a 30-year-old former Marine. He was detained in Russia in 2019. And one of the issues has been his health, in recent weeks specifically. And over the course of his time that he has been detained in Russia.

And I want to read to you what his parents said before this court hearing this morning, highlighting the problem of his health, saying, quote, "Over the past 970 days, Russian authorities have lied repeatedly about Trevor's health status and the care they allege he has received. To be clear, we don't believe there has been any meaningful improvement in Trevor's health and continue to believe he likely has T.B., tuberculosis, and is out of time."

We should note that a court previously rejected an appeal. So we are waiting to see, of course, what this lower court does.

BERMAN: All right, Kylie Atwood for us at the State Department. Kylie, I also know you have news about Brittney Griner. You'll come back and give us that in a little bit. Thank you.