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Ukraine Says, Russians Tried to Break Through Frontlines in Three Regions; Russian Forces Attacking Ukraine's Frontlines in East; U.S. Ditches Mask Mandate for Travelers After Judge's Ruling. Aired 7- 7:30a ET

Aired April 19, 2022 - 07:00   ET


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: As you can see here, where we believe a lot of this fighting is going to happen in the Donbas region.


This could be a potentially significant turning point in Russia's unprovoked war and it could create the ultimate test for the Ukrainian military. This battle will almost certainly be the bloodiest to date, with Zelenskyy still vowing, though, that his Ukrainian forces will fight on.

And we're already seeing some of the efforts to breakthrough Ukraine's frontlines in three regions. If you look at this video, a column of these Russian military vehicles heading from the Russian border toward the city of Izyum, where Russian troops have already been gathering.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Sadly, we're told this war is going to get bigger, it's going to get bloodier. In Mariupol, the Azovstal steel plant has now become a holdout a refuge for some of those remaining in the city. The fate of that city currently in the hands of an unknown number of defenders. Two hours ago Russian forces issued a second deadline to surrender. No word on what Ukrainians are going to do there. It includes civilians, by the way.

This comes as video shows hundreds of people sheltering in the basement of that burning steel plant you see there. We are told that Russian forces are firing at the facility willingly. These are some of the people who are hiding inside, dozens of women, children, the elderly, they have been there now four weeks. These mothers say conditions for their kids are desperate. There's not a lot of food. Their children's teeth are starting to spoil. As a parent, just imagine going through that.

This morning, President Biden will hold a call with U.S. allies and partners to discuss how to hold Moscow further accountable. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki indicates the U.S. is preparing to impose some new sanctions, expand current ones against the Kremlin. Will those make a difference? Will those deter Putin the way the previous ones have not? We'll see.

Matt Rivers here with me in Lviv this morning. Listen, this is already been a bloody war. It's been huge. There's been deliberate targeting of civilians. What I'm being told by U.S. officials is that as we see Russia ramp up for the east, it's going to get bigger and worse, frankly.

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No question. I think, Jim, yesterday was really a turning point in a lot of ways because we have been sitting here talking for days, if not weeks, about this shift to the east. We have been waiting for this offensive to begin. And I think yesterday was the first time that we kind of heard uniformly first from regional officials out in Luhansk and Donetsk but also then now from President Zelenskyy in his address last night that this offensive has actually begun.

And so we're seeing large-scale fighting after Russian forces took the city of Kreminna. That city has now fallen. There's fierce fighting in other cities in that area, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, these are the kinds of names that I think will become household names and cities that maybe our viewers haven't heard before, but as this battle for Donbas plays out, these are the things that we're going to be talking about moving forward.

SCIUTTO: Listen, we have been used to the sort of David versus Goliath battles in victories for Ukrainian forces, particularly around Kyiv, but the fact is Russian forces are making advances in the east and the south.

When you look at the situation in Mariupol, that steel plant, which has become sort of a lifeboat, right, both soldiers and civilians, what's happening there? Is there any path out for these people?

RIVERS: As of now, no. I mean, no humanitarian corridors have been agreed to. This is the second deadline that the Russians gave for everyone there to lay down their arms and surrender. That deadline has come and gone. The first one was over the weekend. The next one was this morning. And it's come and gone.

So, the future of all those people -- you know, the fighters their lives have always been at stake. But I think what we really found out yesterday and the video that we showed off the top, there are civilians there. There are children there. And that's something we weren't so sure about before. Now, we're seeing that. Where do those people go? And now that this deadline has been passed, what do the Russians do next? And does that include bombing civilians? We have seen them do that before.

SCIUTTO: Listen, their choices aren't great, right? You can expect Russian forces will not treat Ukrainian soldiers well and the story of civilians who have left, some have been forced to go to Russia, not particularly attractive either.

Matt Rivers, thanks so much.

Kaitlan, goodness, I mean, just another measure of who is paying the price for this war and consistently civilians.

COLLINS: Yes. We talked so much about what military equipment is going there, what the strategy is going to be from the Russians next, but at the end of the day, this is such a personal story for so many.

And this invasion is constantly ripping Ukrainians away from their families. In Kharkiv a mother's heart just crushed after she is mourning the loss of her 15-year-old teenage son who was killed in Russian shelling. She sobs over her child before his body is taken away. And crying that he was all she had to live for.


And, Jim, that video, it's so hard to watch. And I know some people might not want to watch, might want to turn away, but it's also important because it shows what is really happening and people's children are being killed in this. And she's saying, called him my bunny, my sunshine. You can see a mother speaking to her son saying they had just talked earlier that day.

SCIUTTO: Listen, we have to take a moment to remember this is not an accident of this war. Russia has deliberately targeted civilians. There's enormous evidence of that. That is one small window into the Russian military strategy here. It's to terrorize people, try to get them to break. It's heartbreaking to watch but it's a fact.

Earlier this morning, I recorded questions for Igor Terekhov, he's the mayor of Kharkiv, one of the hardest-hit cities here. And just after his city sustained more serious shelling, here is how he responded to those questions.


SCIUTTO: I wonder, are Russian forces making a new push to capture the city and are they gaining ground?

MAYOR IGOR TEREKHOV, KHARKIV, UKRAINE: Well, in fact, the Russian aggressor has never stopped trying to capture Kharkiv. It has tried since the 24th of February, day and night, since the start of the invasion. And they try every night, but the Ukrainian Armed Forces are repelling them.

SCIUTTO: The Russians, of course, have been accused of deliberately bombing residential areas where crowds of people were gathering, including hospitals. How many civilians were wounded or killed in the city, in these new attacks? And do you have any doubt that civilians are Russia's deliberate targets there?

TEREKHOV: Since the first days of the invasion, I have been saying that the enemy is carrying out genocide against the Ukrainian people. And these horrific bombardments that we have seen against Kharkiv and other peaceful cities just shows that that's true.

Since Sunday, we have had nonstop bombardment of civilian districts. In the past, before the very recent time, we have had this shelling and bombardment around the outskirts. But recently in the last few days, this has been in the center and is targeting peaceful civilians. And the enemy is targeting civilians. Many people are wounded and some unfortunately dead. In the past day and a half we have had 15 people kill and more than 50 wounded. And those 15 killed was just in one attack.

I'll give you an example, just in one shelling in the center of Kharkiv alone on Sunday, 15 people were wounded and five killed. And that's just one attack, and we have many such attacks every day.

SCIUTTO: Despite the recent bombardments, Kharkiv has been facing, Ukrainian forces still managed to push the Russians back east of the city. I wonder, how are they managing that?

TEREKHOV: So, the heroic action of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and thanks to their skill, they have managed to push the aggressor in one direction. And that is very good because that is reduced attacks on land on the outskirts of the city. But as I said, unfortunately, there are now attacks in the center. And today, we have had new shelling and new bombardment in the center of the city.

SCIUTTO: President Zelenskyy told CNN that Ukraine will not agree to any land concessions to Russia in the east. But given that Russian forces are advancing in the east and the south, is that a realistic stand?

TEREKHOV: I must say that I support President Zelenskyy and he has shown himself to be a very effective leader during this Russian invasion. And I agree with him that Ukraine will never agree to any territorial concessions and we'll continue to fight for every bit of land, its own land.


SCIUTTO: Over the weekend, Russian missiles destroyed a hub for the World Central Kitchen, the charity run by Jose Andres, in the city of Kharkiv. I wonder, how dire is the food situation in your city today? Are people facing starvation there?

TEREKHOV: No, there is no risk of starving because we are getting a lot of humanitarian aid, including from the president's office, and we received aid. I've also appealed to the mayors of other cities, including European cities, and we are receiving humanitarian aid from them. That's medication, hygiene products, basic necessities and, of course, food. And we understand how to organize distribution and basically know there isn't such a threat at the moment.

SCIUTTO: You recently called on citizens of Kharkiv to leave if they could manage it. In your view, for civilians there, is it a question of leave or die?

TEREKHOV: No, I have not appealed to citizens to leave because what I have said is that it's a choice, it's a personal choice. And if people decide to leave, then they should do so. But if people have decided to stay, that is their choice and I respect that. And I'm grateful for that choice because that means that together we can defend the city and we can make sure the aggressor doesn't enter.

And, secondly, I wanted to say that, no, this isn't a question of leave or die. There is no such question at the moment. We have shelters. We have metro stations where people are sheltering and we're delivering food and basic necessities there. So, no, I wouldn't say it is a question of leave or die at the moment.

SCIUTTO: The next question is can people leave or is Russia attacking them as they go? I mean, is there even a safe passage possible?

TEREKHOV: I cannot guarantee them a safe passage because that's just the way it is. But if people want to leave, there are certain routes available and they can take those routes.

SCIUTTO: Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov, thanks so much and please be safe.

TEREKHOV: Thank you.


COLLINS: And this morning, President Biden is going to hold a video call with allies to discuss, quote, support for Ukraine and efforts to hold Russia accountable.

Joining us now is the special adviser for the White House National Security Council, Matt Miller. Matt, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

And we would like to just start with what is the latest White House assessment of what's actually happening on the ground in Donbas? And do you believe this second phase of this invasion, of this war, has started?

MATT MILLER, SPECIAL ADVISER, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Well, it's clear the Russian forces have stepped up their attacks in the east, in the Donbas. They've increased the amount of artillery attacks in the last 24 hours or so. And it's clear, as we have been warning for several weeks now, that they are repositioning forces and preparing to launch this new offensive. Whether that offensive has begun or whether they are conducting shaping activities to prepare the battlefield to move forces in an additional (ph) manner, I think, remains to be seen. But that attack has been escalated in the last day or so.

So, what we will do and what the president will continue to do in this call with some of our allies and partners today is to continue the rally the world to stand up to Russia's aggression. That means two things, as we've said for some time, number one, increasing the amount of weapons and ammunition and other security assistance that we get into Ukraine so the Ukrainian military can defend itself, and number two, continue to impose costs on Russia to limit its ability to finance this war and to limit its ability to project power over the long-term.

COLLINS: Does that mean we should expect new sanctions on Russia this week from the United States?

MILLER: Well, I don't want to preview any announcements when they come. But as we've said, we have more measures we can take. We always look at the sanctions we impose and look at what additional measures we can take to target specific sectors of the Russian economy, especially sectors that are important to President Putin, and to tighten the impact of the sanctions that we've already had.

If you look at the impact of those sanctions, they had a devastating impact on the Russian economy. You saw the Russian Central Bank head out yesterday talking about even more devastating consequences to their economy to come. So, we're going to continue to look at ways that we can tighten and heighten the impact of those sanctions.

COLLINS: And a big part of this also comes from Europe. And so what is your sense of where they stand on potentially cutting off Russian oil, given winter is over they may not need it as much?


What is the sense from the white house of what that looks like?

MILLER: Well, we continue to have conversations with our European allies about that very question. Obviously, it's a much more difficult challenge for them. They don't produce the same amount of oil as the United States does and they are much more dependent on Russian oil. The president several weeks ago announced the U.S. will not import Russian oil or Russian gas, but at the same time, we are cognizant of the different challenges that our European allies face.

So, what we have tried to do to help them with these issues is to increase the amount of liquid natural gas that we provide from the United States to the European Union so we can lessen their dependence on Russian oil and gas in the short term while we help them take measures to break that dependence completely in the long-term.

COLLINS: And when it comes to repercussions for Russia, we know that President Zelenskyy directly asked President Biden to use one of the most powerful tools that the U.S., has by adding Russia to the U.S. list of state sponsor terrorism. And so why has the U.S. held off so far in adding them?

MILLER: Well, I will say, that is a process that the State Department undergoes. There's a statutory definition that a country has to meet to fall into that category. But I will say, if you look at the consequences that flow from naming a country as a state sponsor of terrorism, they are export controls and sanctions.

There are actually the measures we already imposed on Russia already. So, while that is a tool that is in our tool box, if you look at the actual consequences that would flow from that designation, we have already imposed those consequences on Russia and that's why you've seen the damage to their economy already.

COLLINS: But don't their actions so far fit the criteria to be labeled this?

MILLER: Well, as I said, that is a review that the State Department undertakes. It's not something that we do here at the White House. It's not a label I'm going to apply here on live television. It is a careful review that they undertake, where they look at the definitions in the statute, look at the actions that Russia has taken or if any other state has taken for that matter and see if it applies. But as I said, the consequences that flow from that we have already imposed on Russia. And when it comes to calling out Russia's actions on the battlefield, no one has been more clear about the way Russia is behaving and what it means we will do in response than President Biden.

COLLINS: Right. But if they did get this label of state sponsor of terrorism, you talked about actions that would be a result of that are already in place, talking about sanctions, export controls but also the dozen of foreign countries that do still trade with them, they would face economic penalties. And it would kind of also make Russia this pariah even more so than they already become if they actually got this label that so few countries have gotten before.

MILLER: Well, I will just say if you look at Russia's status in the world right now because of the actions we have taken, because of the way we have rallied the world against Russia, they are already a pariah look at the overwhelming vote in the United Nations to condemn their action and countries have withdrawn business investments from Russia, look at the sanctions that have been imposed not just by the U.S. but by the European Union, by Japan and other countries in Asia. We made Russia an international pariah because of their actions. We have imposed consequences on their economy.

So, are there other tools that we can look at? Yes. And we always will and we will continue to do that. But the actions we have already taken have imposed severe, severe consequences on Russia.

COLLINS: And matt, before we let you go, what's the latest on the status of the discussions about sending a senior official to Ukraine?

MILLER: Well, that's not something we would announce publicly for security reasons. We do want to be back in Ukraine. We want to have a presence in Ukraine but we have to assess the security situation on the ground. And so we will continue to do that. And when it's safe for us to be back, we'll be there.

COLLINS: And if you sent someone, what is the message that you would hope to send by having a top Biden official in Ukraine?

MILLER: Well, I would say with respect to whether we send someone or not, we are always sending the message to Ukraine that we stand with them. President Biden talks to President Zelenskyy on a regular basis. Secretary of state, other senior officials talk to their Ukrainian counterparts. And we have sent the message from day one, even really before this invasion began, that we stand by Ukraine, that we will rally the world to support them, that we will get them the weapons and the ammunition and the other security assistance they need to defend their country. That hasn't changed and that will not change. That would be a message we would deliver in person. It's the message we deliver in one-on-one phone calls. That's the message we delivered really at every level of our government from the United States to Ukraine.

COLLINS: Special Adviser for the National Security Council Matt Miller, thank you for joining us this morning. MILLER: Thank you.

COLLINS: Meanwhile, two British nationals are fighting on the front lines for Ukraine have been captured by Russian troops.

And breaking news from another part of the world, we are getting word of multiple explosions targeting schools in Kabul.

Plus, back here in the U.S., plane passengers are throwing out their masks moment after a Florida judge struck down President Biden's public transportation mask mandate. Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us next to discuss what you need to know if you've got a flight ahead of you.



SCIUTTO: I'm Jim Sciutto, live this morning in Lviv, Ukraine, and there's more breaking news.

Ukraine says that Russian forces are, as we speak, bombing and shelling the factory compound, you see it there, in flames in Mariupol, the port city in the southeast of Ukraine that has been besieged by Russia for weeks now. The last remaining Ukrainian forces defending Mariupol along with some 1,000 civilians, including women and children are taking refuge inside that compound, surrounded by Russian forces.

In fact, a second deadline imposed by Russia for surrender has passed, just over two hours ago. This is a city that many officials expect could fall to Russian control and soon. We will keep you updated as we get the news. Kaitlan?

COLLINS: Yes, we'll stay in touch with you on that.


But meanwhile, back here in the United States, you're about to see a lot more faces on airplanes, subways and buses across the United States, that's because a federal judge in Florida has struck down the Biden administration mask mandate for travelers.

CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins me now.


COLLINS: Sanjay, good to see you this morning. We saw right after this came down that multiple airlines were already saying they're no longer going to require masks on flights. If you're a person who's on a flight, like I was last night, as this came down, do you think it's safe to go maskless on a plane now?

GUPTA: Well, this is a tough call because this was a legal decision, Kaitlan. We can put up the list of airlines, by the way, and Amtrak that is now at this point not requiring masks. TSA is not going to enforce masks in these places, but this was a legal decision, not a public health decision, and it was abrupt. As you point out, all of a sudden masks came off. Families or travelers who were fully anticipating they would still be able to travel in a masked environment suddenly could not. Children under the age of five, who have not been able to be vaccinated, again, feeling more comfortable in a masked environment, suddenly were not in a masked environment.

So, what we have known for some time is that airplanes are probably one of the safest places because of the high air exchange rates and we haven't seen significant outbreaks on airlines. We have been following this for more than two years now, Kaitlan. I think the question has been, with this most recent variant, BA.2, we know it's more transmissible, is it so transmissible that it will still spread in an airplane environment? I think that's what the CDC wanted to sort of figure out. They wanted until at least May 3rd to figure out whether or not they're starting to see some upticks in cases in those sorts of environments.

But, Kaitlan, I think the biggest issue is just if you look at the numbers overall, you still got over 30,000 people who are being diagnosed every day, a lot more than that probably because of at-home testing, more than 14,000 people in the hospitals and close to 500 people still dying. You know, this is almost more of a philosophical than a scientific question, what are we willing to tolerate at this point? If we're willing to tolerate these numbers, which would translate to close to 150,000 people dying a year of COVID, that's a lot. That's way more than flu, which people keep saying is sort of the metric maybe. That's around 60,000 people on a bad year die of flu.

So, I don't know. We'll see. We'll see how this legal ruling stands, if it's going to be challenged or not.

COLLINS: Yes. So far, the White House hasn't said that they are going to challenge it. The Justice Department hasn't. That's why they said this is still not in effect. And we know the judge had argued that the CDC exceeded its authority by putting this in place.

GUPTA: Right.

COLLINS: But I guess a big question and one we had for the White House yesterday, which is, right now, if you have a plane and you're sitting in an airport listening to this interview, what do you think people should do to stay safe when they are traveling, when they are going through airports or taking a long train ride?

GUPTA: Well, you know, I think the plane environment itself, because of the air exchange, is a safer environment. I think it's the terminal sometimes. People clustering together in large indoor spaces like that regardless of vaccination status, regardless of testing, that becomes a little bit more dicey, especially if you work with vulnerable people. I work in a hospital. If you have people who are under the age to be vaccinated in your household, I mean, you can still wear a mask.

I mean, the recommendation from the CDC is still clear, you should still wear a mask. And you and I have talked about this, Kaitlan, but I think if you're going to wear a mask, you should wear the best filtration mask you can, an N95 or KN95 mask. So, in my case I'll still do that because I'm working with vulnerable people all the time and I'd hate to potentially transmit the virus to them. I'm going to do all I can to prevent that from happening.

But, again, we'll see if the numbers continue to come down, if there's a challenge to this legal argument, we'll see if this changes over the next couple of weeks. But for now, TSA is not going to enforce masks. If you're worried, you can still wear one.

COLLINS: Yes, you can still wear one, just the people sitting next to you may not be wearing one.

Sanjay, thanks so much and good to see you.

GUPTA: You too, Kaitlan. Thank you.

COLLINS: Up next, why the United States believes that Russia has learned from its failures in Northern Ukraine as its forces begin their assault on Eastern Ukraine this morning.

Plus, we have new images of the Russia's prized sunken cruiser Moskva leaning on its side in the Black Sea with a black plume of smoke floating above it. This morning, new questions are being raised about what happened to its crew.