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Tom Nichols is Interviewed about Putin's Unholy War; Alexander Kamyshin is Interviewed about Ukrainian Railways; Wildfires Force Evacuations in Arizona; Pressure on Biden over Border. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired April 21, 2022 - 06:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jim Sciutto, live in western Ukraine.

The Russian orthodox church is playing an important role in Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine. Its leader, Patriarch Kirill, firmly in favor of the invasion, publicly blessing Russian generals, echoing the rhetoric Putin uses to justify the invasion.

Russia expert Tom Nichols writes in "The Atlantic" this week about being an orthodox Christian himself and the anguish of watching the Russian orthodox church blessing the slaughter of other orthodox here in Ukraine.

He writes, quote, and for what? For the messianic dreams of a small man, a frightened and delusional thug who believes that he is doing God's will.

Tom Nichols joins me now.

Tom, it's fascinating here because Putin has harnessed religion, not just to justify the war, but to motivate the Russian public.

I wonder, do you believe he truly believes it, or if this is opportunistic on his part, propaganda?

TOM NICHOLS, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, "THE ATLANTIC": We've known for some years that he's had a click of right-wing nationalist and religious advisers around him. And I think at some point, whether he believed it initially or not, I think he believes it now.

[06:35:06] I think when you spend enough time in that bubble with people telling you that you are the instrument of God's will, that you are the person who is going to repair and heal the fractured Russian world, and that God will smile on your endeavors, I think you come to believe that.

I mean Putin, of course, was a KGB agent and nominally in an atheist country, but there were a lot of secret believers in the old Soviet Union and I suspect some of that has come back to replace -- maybe the new religion has replaced the old religion of the Soviet Union. But, yes, I think he believes it.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Sadly, we have parallels in the U.S., right, where people over time believe their own lies or choose to believe their own lies.

I wonder then, if Putin does believe he's doing God's will in this war, if this is a religious conflict in his view, why will he ever give up?

NICHOLS: Well, that's part of the danger. And it's important to point out, it's not a religious conflict in the sense of two different religions battling it out, but rather that he thinks he's putting together one people, one faith, one former empire that, you know, should be controlled from Moscow at which the Kremlin -- where the Kremlin sits in the center of it. And I think that's -- that is highly dangerous. And I think that's one of the reasons you've seen this incredible obstinacy about his sense of mission here that I think has really mystified a lot of people, but I think that explains a lot of it.

SCIUTTO: Well, he seems to be claiming to be the true representative of the religion. It reminds me of covering sectarian war in the Middle East, right? I mean, you know, same religion but claiming to be the only true believers.

This symbiosis between the religion itself, Patriarch Kirill of the orthodox church, and Putin is powerful. It's worrisome. I mean Kirill's called the Putin era a miracle of God. How did that come to be?

NICHOLS: Well, Kirill and his predecessor, his patriarch, have -- were always pretty comfortable with state power and with the intelligence services. That was part of the deal the Russian orthodox church made during the Soviet period to survive. Now, in this post-Soviet new Russia, there's just this continuation of this very cozy relationship with the authorities in power, which is, again, for the rest of the orthodox world, I mean obviously I don't represent the orthodox church, but for many in the rest of the orthodox world, it's heartbreaking because there was an assumption after 1991 that the Russian church would finally be free. And, instead, it has willingly subjugated itself back under the halls of power for influence and money and greed and power.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes, I mean, and we have cheerleaders here in the U.S. who have cheerleaded the religious aspect of -- or claimed religious aspect of Putin's leadership in Russia and called for kind of an alliance in effect.

Tom Nichols, fascinating read. Thanks so much.

NICHOLS: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Well, trains have been a lifeline for civilians in this country who have been evacuated from the war zone in Ukraine. But Russian forces keep attacking them more and more, killing civilians as they do. We're going to speak with the CEO of Ukrainian railways about the lifeline it has now become.

And Vladimir Putin tells his Russian soldiers, seal off all exit routes from the steel plant that's become a lifeboat in Mariupol so that a fly cannot get through. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy just responded, calling it a terrorist operation.



SCIUTTO: Throughout Russia's war in Ukraine, railways have been a lifeline, essential to evacuating millions of civilians to safety. They've also sometimes become targets, the site for deadly attacks by Russian forces. According to Ukrainian officials, Ukraine earlier this week and earlier this month, a Russian missile strike killed at least 50 people, including five children at a train station in Kramatorsk.

Joining me now is the CEO of Ukrainian Railways, Alexander Kamyshin.

Alexander, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.


SCIUTTO: We know Russia is attacking the railways here. Do you believe they are attacking railways deliberately to kill civilians who are trying to flee?

KAMYSHIN: Well, there is not a chance to attack stations, tracks, bridges, and all the rest by accident, you know.


When you look, and we have pictures of this, and as we play these pictures, folks at home, I have to warn you, they're shocking. It's just a measure of the war here.

The attack on the railway station in Kramatorsk, as you had hundreds and hundreds of people boarding trains to leave, that does not happen by accident, does it?

KAMYSHIN: And there were thousands of people.

SCIUTTO: Thousands of people there when that attack took place.

Is there any way to protect the railways better to prevent this? KAMYSHIN: Actually, we introduce all the available security measures. But, you know, in such areas, they shelled not just stations, but they shelled kindergarten schools, civilian buildings and all the rest. So, people flee and people get to the station as the most safest place. So that's why there is no way how we could avoid people coming to the station.

SCIUTTO: There were cruise missiles strikes here in Lviv on Monday. And I've been told it's believed Russia was trying to destroy the rail tracks here but they missed.

Have you been surprised that Russia has not been more able to attack rail lines, rail cars more successfully to stop them?

KAMYSHIN: Actually, no, our military troops are becoming stronger and stronger. And Russians do not become more precise in their shelling.


And I believe that the more west will help us with closing the sky, the more chances we will leave for people to survive.

SCIUTTO: Has the west closed the sky enough in your view?



KAMYSHIN: Until people die, you see it's not enough.

SCIUTTO: Russia is saying that it will target more weapons shipments into this country. The weapons that the U.S. and NATO are getting to the Ukrainian military.

Does that worry you about more attacks on the railways?

KAMYSHIN: So far I'm more worried that they target stations, they target tracks, they target bridges and they kill people all over the country, you know. And it's always quite different between what Russia is saying and what Russia is doing.

SCIUTTO: What is your feeling -- Ukrainian Railways have saved lives. You could argue millions of lives because many of the millions who have left this country or moved within the country took the trains.

Do you believe Ukraine will win this war?

KAMYSHIN: There is no chance for us to stop this war as of winning (ph). And, you know, you will not hear from people that the war will be stopped, we will win the war. The only point is whether the west will help us enough with closing the skies and we save lives and infrastructure. Infrastructure, we care (ph), but we're sure that we will restore it. The only thing that matters is lives.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Yes. Those cannot be replaced.

Alexander Kamyshin, thank you for the work you're doing. And we wish you and the people who work with your safety.


SCIUTTO: Take care.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, the only thing that matters are lives. Very true words there.

Back here in the U.S., why President Biden just got an earful from his own party on a controversial decision that he made at the border.

Plus, Johnny Depp takes the stand, accusing his ex-wife of severing his finger.

But first, the unbelievable true story of the man who took on Putin and lived to expose the truth. The Sundance award-winning CNN film "Navalny" airs Sunday night at 9:00 Eastern here on CNN.


ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): Vladimir Alexandrovich. It's Alexei Navalny calling and I was hoping you could tell me why you wanted to kill me?

NAVALNY (on camera): Hung up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Remarkably, Vladimir Putin faces a legitimate opponent, Alexei Navalny.

NAVALNY: I don't want Putin being president.

NAVALNY (through translator): I will end war.

NAVALNY (on camera): If I want to be leader of a country, I have to organize people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Kremlin hates Navalny so much that they refuse to say his name.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Passengers heard Navalny cry out in agony.

NAVALNY: Come on, poisoned? Seriously.

We are creating the coalition to fight this regime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you are killed, what message do you leave behind to the Russian people?

NAVALNY: It's very simple, never give up.

ANNOUNCER: Navalny, Sunday at 9:00 on CNN, and streaming on CNN Plus.




KEILAR: A rapidly moving wildfire in Arizona destroying dozens of structures and forcing hundreds of people from their homes. The Tunnel Fire has scorched more than 19,000 acres and is zero percent contained at this point. Strong winds and low humidity have been fanning the flames.

So let's get now to CNN meteorologist Chad Myers with what we can expect here in the time ahead for this fire.


CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, more wind today. And there are dozens of fires out here in the west. Category two out of three for fire danger today. It gets worse tomorrow.

This weather is brought to you by the Tractor Supply Company, providing pet food, animal feed, backyard and grilling supplies.

So, let's get to it.

Here's the storm system here that we're seeing this morning. A few thunderstorms across parts of the Midwest.

But what we're truly worried about is the wildfire potential. Some of these reds up here, 50 miles per hour today.

But look what happens tomorrow. There will be wind gusts over 70 -- 70 miles per hour right over these wildfires. And then, eventually, this weather gets into Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma as well.

Extreme fire danger tomorrow. This happens two or three times of year. This is three of three. The worst it could possibly get for tomorrow here through the plains, parts of west Texas, even into Colorado as well.

The storms move to the east. The weather warms up. The East Coast looks pretty good for the weekend. In fact, temperatures are going to be fairly nice. Ahead of a little bit of severe weather today. It wasn't much yesterday. That's really good. And then, for the weekend, look at you, Brianna, well up into the 80s -- 80s. We'll take that.

KEILAR: I'm switching from heat to air-conditioning, I see here, Chad Myers. Thank you so much for that.

MYERS: Just like that. You're welcome.

KEILAR: We appreciate it.

Pressure is mounting in the Biden administration as the president is getting an earful from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle over something called Title 42, which ends Covid restrictions on the border, or repealing it would. This is a move that's expected to spark a surge of migrants. And joining us now to talk about this we have CNN reporter Priscilla

Alvarez and CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza.

OK, let's talk first about Title 42 and what the tension is here, Priscilla.

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN REPORTER: So, to remind our viewers, this is a restriction that was put in place in March of 2020.


So it's been two years where they have allowed border authorities to turn migrants away at the U.S./Mexico border. And now the CDC said that they are going to end that on May 23rd.

And what this has sparked is tension within the Democratic Party. We have moderate Democrats who are telling the administration it is too soon and we want to see a comprehensive plan. In fact, some Democrats have joined Republicans in backing legislation to block this move.

There's also a lawsuit against the administration by more than 20 states to keep them from doing this. And then, you know, internally within the administration, they're aware that they have to juggle both the feelings of people in their own party about ending this, the plans to make sure they can handle a surge of migrants, as is expected when this end. And all of this is playing out in real time. In fact, I asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas just yesterday whether they were going to delay this decision, and he said that they're planning accordingly and sticking to it.

KEILAR: Do they have a plan for dealing with the uptick in migrants that is expected if this is repealed?

ALVAREZ: They say they do. They have released three planning scenarios with different numbers of how many people would be expected on a day- to-day basis. But, again, this strains resources. These could be record-breaking numbers. And it's certainly going to be a challenge for this administration.

KEILAR: It's interesting -- this is part of a larger picture that you have been talking about, Chris. And, as you say, that Biden probably would like to forget the last few days.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes. I mean it -- yes, maybe the last few weeks.

It's been a very difficult time for him. So, you are seeing as close to a full-scale political revolt within a party of a president aa you're going to see, right? Every day -- yesterday it was Steve Sisolak, the governor of Nevada, and Tim Ryan, Ohio congressman who's running for the Senate, coming out and saying, well, this seems reckless and I wish they had a better plan and I'm not for this.

Every day there's this drum beat of whether it's a senator or someone running for office on the Democratic side saying, this is not going well. And then throw into that the fact that, look, Biden, we know, this is

not new, Biden tends to veer off message. He's done it repeatedly as it relates to Ukraine and Vladimir Putin. He should be removed, those sorts of things. And he was asked in New Hampshire on Tuesday about the masking decision and said it's up -- people should do what they feel. You know, it's up to -- it's up to them I believe was his exact wording.

Well, that's not the administration policy, particularly because that was a time when they were trying to sort out the CDC and whether DOJ should appeal this federal court ruling. It just makes it feel directionless and that there isn't, to Priscilla's point about, is there a plan, on immigration and everything else, is there a plan going forward? Any administration that looks listless is problematic. And I think the Biden administration looks listless right now.

KEILAR: Surge of migrants on the border. What does that mean for the midterm elections?

CILLIZZA: Nothing good for Democrats. You know, in March there was already a record number of people arrested at the border. You have immigration at a two-decade-high in terms of people saying illegal immigration, undocumented immigrants coming into the country is a major problem that they're worried about. And that's before any of this. I mean, let's be honest, the average person is not like May 23rd. You know, they're not -- they're not focused on this yet, but they will be if you see a surge at the border.


CILLIZZA: So, it adds to what is already a really bad political climate for Democrats.

KEILAR: Yes, and they're worried. And rightfully so.

Chris, Priscilla, thank you so much to both of you.

NEW DAY continues right now.

Good morning to viewers here in the U.S. and around the world. It is Thursday, April 21st. I'm Brianna Keilar here in Washington with Jim Sciutto in Ukraine. John Berman is off today.

And we are beginning with breaking news.

Mariupol is on the brink of falling into Russian hands. The Kremlin declaring it can take control of the Azovstal steel plant here in three to four days. Moments ago, Vladimir Putin announced storming the area is no longer necessary. Instead, he says he wants to block anyone from escaping. Keep in mind, there are civilians there, as we understand it. This is a man whose troops are firing on women and children as they try to evacuate, slaughtering civilians, getting honored for it, in fact. Overnight, Russian forces bombarded the already battered port city again as a desperate push gets underway to save nearly 120,000 trapped civilians and soldiers. Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, likening the Russian siege

of the city to a terrorist operation. Zelenskyy also warning his forces simply don't have enough serious and heavy weapon to defeat the Russian army.


The Kremlin dismissing any possibility of a diplomatic solution.