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Barrage of Russian Strikes Across Ukraine after Warship Sinks; Head of Donetsk Region Military Administration is Interviewed; China Conducts Military Drills Near Taiwan and U.S. Lawmakers' Visit. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired April 15, 2022 - 06:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:59:39]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to viewers in the U.S. and around the world. It is Friday, April 15, and I'm Brianna Keilar in Lviv, Ukraine, with John Berman in New York.

Air-raid sirens sounding across all of Ukraine overnight and this morning, along with a barrage of strikes hours after a Russian warship sinks. A warship the Ukrainians claim to have hit with a missile.

The sinking of the Moskva, the crown jewel of Russia's Black Sea fleet, would be an enormous achievement for the Russian military and a devastating setback for the Kremlin war machine.

The Pentagon says it has no reason to dispute Ukraine's claim, calling it plausible and possible. Overnight the Russian military claimed it struck a military facility on the outskirts of Kyiv with a cruise missile.

The Kremlin threatened to hit the capital two days ago. Worth noting. And Russian forces are also rapidly building their presence in Eastern Ukraine.

Widespread shelling already being reported in the region. And there are also reports of active hostilities and shelling across Ukraine, around Izyum and Kharkiv, as Russian troops are continuing their advance towards the Donbas region, prompting a chilling warning from CIA Director William Burns, who says the potential use for Russia -- the potential for Russia to use tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine cannot be taken lightly.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The United Nations is now calling for the safe passage of civilians after two aid workers and their relatives were killed in the ravaged port city of Mariupol. We will hear from the military governor of that region in just a moment.

And this from the "Washington Post." Russia has sent a former diplomatic note to the United States, warning that U.S. and NATO shipments of the most sensitive weapons systems to Ukraine are adding fuel to the conflict, and that could be -- could be, they say, unpredictable consequences.

What does that mean? Does that mean that the Russians will target these convoys of aid and support military equipment that had been going into Ukraine.

They haven't really hit them, not even in Ukraine. Well, what about in Poland? Is Russia threatening to hit them before they even cross the border?

Meanwhile, the top prosecutor at the International Criminal Court has declared Ukraine a crime scene after visiting the devastating towns of Bucha and Borodyanka -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. I want to bring in CNN's Matt Rivers, who is here with me in Lviv.

First, let's talk about this ship that has sunk, because we woke up yesterday to Ukrainians rejoicing, including with memes that said this war ship had been promoted to a submarine.

Then you had Russia saying it's still afloat. This morning, it really has sunk.

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And as a singular event goes, this is one of the most important and impactful events that we've seen throughout this campaign so far.

So what happened overnight, and we got word finally from the Russian ministry of defense, and were forced to admit that this ship sunk as it was being towed to port. The Russians were trying to get the Moskva to port for maybe repairs, but they said that the hull had so much damage in it that it couldn't hold up under that towing and it sunk. And now one of Moscow's most important naval vessels is at the bottom of the Black Sea. It is a staggering development.

Now, in terms of how that happened, the Ukrainians continue to say that they launched several cruise missiles called Neptune missiles that were developed here by Ukraine, brought into service last year. They say that that's what caused the ship to sink.

The Russians have not confirmed that. The United States says that what the Ukrainians are saying is credible. They have medium confidence, according to one of our sources that -- that is, in fact, what happened. But they said they made no solid verification of what the Ukrainians are saying.

KEILAR: It's interesting because a U.S. defense official said that the other ships that had been around the Moskva have now moved South. So they are actually moving away from Ukrainian-controlled territory, which is pretty significant. RIVERS: It shows that this kind of capability that the Ukrainians have, at least what they say they have, is going to perhaps alter the tactics that the Russians have to engage in in the Southern part of Ukraine.

I mean, it shows that, if they have this capability to strike and ultimately sink one of Russia's most important warships, what can they do to other ships. It's going to have an impact on how the Russians operate.

KEILAR: Yes. Certainly, we're seeing that already.

Matt, thank you so much for that report. We do appreciate it.

Fifty-one days here into Russia's invasion, and the focus has shifted to Eastern and Southern Ukraine as Russian forces regroup in the East and the South of Ukraine.

Officials are urging residents to leave before it's too late.

Earlier today I spoke to Pavlo Kyrylenko. He is the head of the Donetsk region military administration, and he's the military governor of the Donetsk region. And here's part of that conversation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: Governor, thank you so much for joining us this morning. Can you give us an update on Mariupol and if Ukrainian troops control any part of it still?

PAVLO KYRYLENKO, HEAD OF DONETSK REGION MILITARY ADMINISTRATION (through translator): The Ukrainian troops are in control of the city of Mariupol. The Ukrainian flag flies over the city of Mariupol, no matter whatever anyone may say.

And the Ukrainian troops are courageously defending Mariupol. The street fighting, tank fighting is continuing in the streets of the city, in the territory of the city. But as I said, our defenders are verry courageous, and they are holding Mariupol.

[06:05:02]

KEILAR: The goal for the Russian forces is to get Mariupol and create a land bridge to Crimea. How would that change the war that we are expecting to grow in the East?

KYRYLENKO (through translator): Well, I will start by saying that the enemy cannot seize Mariupol. The enemy may seize the land that Mariupol used to stand on. But the city of Mariupol is no more. The city of Mariupol has been wiped off the face of the earth by the Russian federation, by those who will never be able to restore it.

And I will say this with full responsibility as a -- as a representative of the Ukrainian government. Because to restore Mariupol, that's only something Ukraine can do with the leadership of the head of state and the whole presidential and governmental hierarchy. Because I was involved in restoring Mariupol's infrastructure and building the European standard infrastructure there. And that is something the Russians will never be able to do.

So the city of Mariupol is no more.

However, as for the land bridge, the so-called land bridge with Crimea that the Russian Federation is talking about, well I will stay there's still fighting in Zaporizhzhia region. There's still fighting going on around Kherson, in Kherson region. The Ukrainian troops are pushing the enemy.

And the so-called land bridge to Crimea, that is something that is an illusion of the enemy, as is the blitzkrieg that they were planning to take over Ukraine. That is all an illusion.

KEILAR: Sir, we are hearing some different estimates on when -- we know there is fighting in Donbas. We know there's fighting in the East, but we're hearing different estimates on when the large-scale battle is going to begin. The French have said maybe it's here in the next few days. Right now, America is projecting sometime in the next couple weeks.

Can you give us a better sense of the timeline?

KYRYLENKO (through translator): So the enemy has been able to regroup on all the main directions. And we have seen attempts to break through from the north on the border between Donetsk region and Kharkiv region. And we have been repelling these attacks, and the enemy has suffered some losses in armor and personnel.

But we have not yet seen a full-scale offensive from all directions as we expected. Now, there are a number of factors that impede such an offensive at the moment. One of them is the weather. The current -- the kind of weather we've been having impedes the passage of heavy armored vehicles.

And -- but I believe it is a matter of several days rather than weeks and therefore have been calling on all the population in the area to evacuate as soon as possible. Because -- and we are taking practical measures to enable this evacuation, because the enemy is not going to wait.

They have a column of heavy armored vehicles waiting with personnel that is exposed to our efforts to destroy it. And they will continue heavy artillery strikes on civilian populations. So that is something they are going to do.

KEILAR: Governor, there have been many weapons that have been allocated to Ukraine here very recently. Are you going to get those in time for this broad offensive by the Russians?

KYRYLENKO (through translator): We are very grateful to our partners in the U.S. and Great Britain and those E.U. countries that have been actively involved in providing military assistance.

We are always going to need weapons for a while yet. According to the list -- the wish list that Ukraine has provided, we will need this in the battle for Donbas. The battle for Donbas will be one of the -- will be the decisive battle of this war.

And, however, even during and after the battle of Donbas, we are going to need weapons for some time. Because we need to send the enemy back. We need to send -- we need to repel the enemy right until the moment peace is established on the terms that will maintain Ukraine's sovereignty.

KEILAR: Can I ask you, what is your message to not the governments of Europe and America. What is your message to the people, to the citizens of Europe and America?

KYRYLENKO (through translator): So my message is please support us in every way you can. Morally or with -- by giving any sort of help that you can give.

Because the Ukrainian people have united around its government and -- and the leadership of Ukraine. We are standing as one against the very powerful enemy.

So all we ask is please understand us. Please hear us, and please us and trust our government. Any information that is coming from Ukraine, from the Ukrainian official sources and government sources, is very fine. It is truthful and is clear.

And please do not believe any fakes that are coming from the enemy's side. And please trust our official information.

KEILAR: Governor, we really appreciate your time this morning. Thank you so much for speaking with us. We'll be checking in with you here in the coming days.

KYRYLENKO (through translator): Thank you and stay safe.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: All right. Joining me now is retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the former assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs under former President George W. Bush.

General, nice to see you. A lot to go over.

First, I just want to talk about the sinking of the Moskva in the Black Sea. It's at the bottom of the Black Sea. How it got there, at this point, who knows?

I just want to put a picture up of this so people can see. What's the significance of this going forward? I mean, no question, a huge moral victory for the Ukrainians.

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AND MILITARY AFFAIRS: Yes. Really, as the French used to say, the moral is to the material as 5 is to 1. The notion that this will maintain public support. The notion that this shows that they're capable of reaching out and touching those Russian ships. Strategically, though, I don't think it's going to have a big effect.

BERMAN: Why not?

KIMMITT: Well, let's take a look at what's happened in the Falklands, the British lost six ships in the Falkland War. Again, it was devastating to those families that lost these sailors, but it didn't really change the outcome of that war at all.

BERMAN: I want to ask you about the "Washington Post" reporting, this official letter, diplomatic letter to the United States warning the United States about the armed shipments into Ukraine. These supply lines, I don't know that these are the exact supply lines here.

But just metaphorically speaking, they're coming here from Poland, from Romania perhaps.

Now John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, I've asked him. Have there been any Russian attacks on these supply lines, meaningful attacks even in Ukraine. He says no.

This Russian cable, do you think this is a warning that these supply lines will become a target in Ukraine and maybe, maybe even over the border in Poland?

KIMMITT: Well, first of all, of course it's a warning. But is it a credible warning? Probably not.

I am surprised, and a lot of us have been surprised at this point, that the Russians have not attacked those supply lines inside Ukraine. We've talked about logistics a lot, John, how important they are. But I think they have a hard time going after the ones inside Ukraine.

That would be a strategic move if they went outside Ukraine. It would have nothing to do with trying to hit the supply lines and everything to do with sending a message.

BERMAN: It's surprising they have not hit them in Ukraine.

KIMMITT: Yes.

BERMAN: What would be the difference be if they hit them in Poland or Romania, NATO countries, Article 5 countries?

KIMMITT: Well, that's the dilemma. That would be, either through miscalculation, mistake or mischief on the part of Vladimir Putin, he'd be thrown by the gauntlet at that point. He would be saying, All right, I just shot at you. What are you going to do back to me?

BERMAN: On the subject of the gauntlet, Bill Burns, CIA Director William Burns, warning that a cornered Vladimir Putin might be willing to use tactical or low-grade nuclear weapons. So just so people understand that, that means literally what it sounds like. Nuclear weapons that don't have the impact of some of the larger weapons, but they also, ironically, don't necessarily ensure the mutual assured destruction that people have assumed for you know, the 70 years of the Cold War.

KIMMITT: You know, John, at the end of the Cold War, we got rid of all of our tactical nuclear weapons. We had them in our own tactical units: 155 artilery.

The artillery that we're sending to Ukraine right now used to be capable of firing artillery rounds with a tactical nuclear shell in it.

So in our doctrine, after the Cold War, we -- we draw a very high cliff between conventional war and nuclear war. In Russian doctrine, they don't. They just see it as another weapon.

BERMAN: What is a tactical nuclear weapon? Explain the difference between that and, you know, an intercontinental ballistic missile.

KIMMITT: Well, I think it's easier to explain the difference between a normal artillery shell and a tactical nuclear artillery shell. They look the same. The tactical nuclear shell has to be assembled in a very specific way.

But essentially, it looks no different. We have very, very important rules to release it. But you wouldn't -- you wouldn't be able to look at a line of shells and say that's a nuclear weapon. That's not.

BERMAN: But it would open this whole new type of warfare that we haven't seen in practice yet.

[06:15:07]

KIMMITT: In -- Not in the minds of the Russians.

BERMAN: I want to ask about Mariupol also. Because conflicting reports about how close it may or may not be to falling completely into Russian's hands. It's been besieged for some time here.

KIMMITT: Right.

BERMAN: If the Russians do gain full control, does it really make that much of a difference for them?

KIMMITT: Again, we talked about morale. That would be a significant victory for the Russians. But the real issue is it would be the second to last step before Ukraine becomes a landlocked nation.

They will be able to supply the Crimea from Russia alone without having to go through the water. And then I would suspect it will continue on and take Odessa.

And at that point, Ukraine has no access to the sea, and their agricultural exports is what funds that treasury.

BERMAN: General Mark Kimmitt, great to have you here. Thank you very much.

Ukraine is a crime scene. That's what the world's top war crimes prosecutor is calling the country after seeing firsthand the devastation in Bucha and Borodyanka.

Plus breaking this morning, China conducting military drills around Taiwan just as U.S. lawmakers visit Taiwan's president.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:20:28]

KEILAR: Breaking news this morning, China conducting military drills around Taiwan amid a visit from U.S. lawmakers to Taipei. The Chinese admit the drills were organized in response to what they're calling the U.S. wrongful signs of support for Taiwan.

As Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, puts it, China is not happy about the visit.

And joining us now with more is CNN political analyst and columnist for "The Washington Post," Josh Rogin.

Josh, you may have American lawmakers there. But it seems like China is very much taking advantage of the fact that America's attention is on Ukraine and Russia.

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's right. The entire world is understandably distracted by Putin's horrific war. In Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin's close ally is using that distraction to advance his strategy.

We see that with Taiwan. We see that in the South Pacific. We see that all over the world, where Putin wants the world's attention, but Xi Jinping wants the world to not pay attention to what he's doing. And our job is to pay attention, because what he's doing is he's rearranging the chess board in Asia to China's advantage, not ours.

Talk to us, Josh, about the Solomon Islands, which may not be in the forefront of many people's minds. But there's something going on there. And I don't know if we have a map so we can show people exactly where they are. That should be a major concern for the U.S. and strategic terms.

ROGIN: Right. Well, if you're not following closely the Solomon Islands, a small former British colony in the South Pacific, you're like most of the policymakers in Washington, who have been ignoring this country for so many years.

But Beijing has not been ignoring it. They realized its strategic value, and they've been buying it with bribery, investment, and aid and coercion.

And now they're about to sign a direct agreement that could see Chinese People's Liberation Army troops on the Solomon Islands. That's way closer to us than ever before. And they negotiated this deal in secret while we weren't looking.

Now the U.S. and Australian governments are scrambling to try to convince the government of the Solomon Islands not to sign the deal. But it may be too late.

And this just shows you that, you know, China has global ambitions. And they're trying to advance in many, many places. And we've got to confront them in many, many places. And we can have all of these alliances and pivots to Asia. But if China keeps scooping up influence in all of these places close to us, then what's it all for?

KEILAR: Josh, we've seen U.S.-Australian cooperation increase here in recent years. We've seen that in Northern Australia as a counterpoint to Chinese influence in the region. What is the role of that, and might we see more?

ROGIN: We will see more. We have to see more. I think in the last three years, we've seen a huge shift in Australia, in places like India, all over Asia which are looking at the situation in Ukraine, saying that Taiwan could be next and our region could be next.

And you know, if Vladimir Putin, when he got to totalitarian full dictatorship power, he went a little nutso. What happens when Xi Jinping gets his third term and there's nobody left in China who can stand up to him. That's a really big situation.

So everybody knows that we need to build our alliances to support freedom and democracy and the rule of law in Asia. Everybody knows it's really important. Everybody knows that China is attacking those things.

But it's tough. It's complicated, and we're way behind. And I think the Solomon Islands shows that. I think the Taiwanese know that. And we can't just afford to put out the fires that are burning now. We have to spend time making sure that we're ready for the fires that are going to burn tomorrow.

BERMAN: What about the fires that are burning now, though, Josh. Because so much of U.S. diplomacy has been on focus and trying to limit the support that China gives to Russia in its war in Ukraine. Any of that -- any of that working?

ROGIN: Well, to be sure, John. It could be supporting Russia more. They don't want to get sanctioned. But this crazy idea in Washington that China is sort of neutral on this whole Ukraine thing or that could even be a mediator to help solve the problem and is not bearing out.

It's become very clear that Beijing is all in with Moscow. That's how it's always been. Totalitarian dictatorships stick together. They're on the same team. We're on the other team.

So it's worth trying to make sure that China doesn't do the worst things, like send Russia weapons. But we can't believe they're going to be a positive actor in Ukraine. They've made their bet. Their bet is with autocracy. Our bet is with democracy. The best outcome is that we win and they lose.

KEILAR: Josh Rogin, thank you so much for being with us this morning. We appreciate it. [06:25:03]

Ahead, a U.S. congressman directly targeted by three Russians as part of their propaganda and disinformation campaign. How successful was this scheme?

Plus breaking news this morning, Russian forces claim they just struck a military facility near Kyiv just hours after their flagship in the Black Sea sunk. This is CNN's special live coverage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Federal prosecutors unsealing an indictment that charges a high-ranking Russian politician and two of his staffers with targeting U.S. lawmakers in an orchestrated propaganda and disinformation campaign. CNN's Kara Scannell joins us with the story. What's going on here?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John. So this indictment was unsealed yesterday as part of the Justice Department's klepto-capture initiative. They're really targeting anyone in Russia who is close to Putin or pro-Putin.

So this indictment charges the deputy chair of the Russian state Duma. That's like their legislature.