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Blinken Austin Make Unannounced Trip to Kyiv as War Intensifies; Russia Strikes Five Railway Stations in Central and Western Ukraine; Wall Street Journal Reports, U.S. Holds Off Sanctioning Putin's Girlfriend Due to Escalation. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired April 25, 2022 - 07:00   ET




JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to viewers here in the United States and all around the world, it is Monday, April 25th. I'm John Berman with Brianna Keilar.

And breaking news, we begin with the very first readout of the high- stakes visit of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Kyiv. This was the first time that high- level U.S. officials visited Ukraine since the Russian invasion. They're meeting with President Zelenskyy lasted 90 minutes, major announcements include that the U.S. will send diplomats back to Ukraine for the first time since they pulled out for safety just after Putin launched this war.

President Biden will now nominate a new ambassador to Ukraine, Bridgette Brink, who was the current ambassador to Slovakia. Also decidedly different language from the secretaries about the future of the war.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: In terms of our -- their ability to win, the first step in winning is believing that you can win. And so they believe that we can win, we believe that they -- we can win -- they can win if they have the right equipment, the right support and we're going to do everything we can, continue to do everything we can to ensure that that gets there.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We don't know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign, independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene.


BERMAN: Now, notably, and I believe for the first time, a senior U.S. official, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, said that he wanted to diminish Russia's military power going forward, not just now, but in the future so Russia could not do this again. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AUSTIN: We want to see Russia weakened to a degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine. So, it has already lost a lot of military capability and a lot of -- a lot of its troops, quite frankly, and we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Also breaking overnight, missile strikes in the Lviv region, this is in Western Ukraine. Officials say Russian forces struck five railway stations in the west, also in the center of the country, all of this within an hour, and there are casualties, we have learned here.

In the meantime, Russian forces are bombarding that steel plant in Mariupol, the Azovstal steel plant, the last holdout where Ukrainian forces and hundreds of civilians are sheltering there and this, of course, despite the fact that Russia said that they would be laying siege, not bombarding, as we understood it, the steel plant.

According to The New York Times, Ukrainian forces say they're willing to leave the factory and to evacuate the city if there is a guarantee of safe passage for them and those trapped civilians. A top official telling The New York Times there is no agreement to allow anyone to leave the plant and Ukrainian forces at the plant are still fighting.

In Kherson, an ominous warning from a top Ukrainian military official who says Russian forces are preparing an offensive strike formation near the city, an attack anticipated there within days.

BERMAN: We want to go to Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, in the east, and bring in CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward, standing -- my goodness, Clarissa, where are you?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, we are in what remains, John, of the regional state administration building. And, you know, you had just talked about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying it's possible the Ukrainians could win this if they have the right equipment.

Well, this is what they're up against and I want to take you around so you can get a feel for the full scale of the damage that was done here when two massive missiles landed in and around this building last month. You can see just out what's left of the window there, that is Freedom Square.

And this city has been getting pulverized day in, day out. Just today, we have heard pretty much a constant stream of bombardment since about 4:30 in the morning, often it goes on all night. And the mayor here says that 25 percent of the buildings in this city have been hit during strikes, 25 percent. Just try to get your head around the enormity of that figure. 67 schools have been hit.

[07:05:00] Look at this. This was once a palatial grand staircase now completely destroyed.

According to authorities, only ten people were killed here, which is extraordinary, although I've just been talking with one of the soldiers who is in charge of looking after this space, and he says they believe there are many more dead under the rubble. I'm going to show you what some of that rubble looks like over here. People were rescued as well.

But going back to those statistics that the mayor gave us, 67 schools, 54 kindergartens, 16 hospitals, that's just here in the city of Kharkiv. You can see the defenses that they had tried to implement to protect themselves from attack, but, obviously, sandbags no match for this -- I don't know if you can hear that as well, some bombardment again in the distance.

And you can see outside the scale of the devastation, cars completely scorched, there's actually an office over there to the side that we can't get into easily from this point, which we saw yesterday, where an entire car has literally been thrown into an office by the force of that blast.

And what people here fear in this city is that Kharkiv could be the next Mariupol, because of the amount of bombardment and the real intensification that we've seen of that bombardment, especially in the last week.

Now, I just want Cameraman Scottie McWhinnie and Producer Brent Swails to be a little careful here, but I do want to show you this because it gives you a real feeling for just the enormity of that blast, I mean, absolutely astonishing. It literally took out six stories.

And that's why as you can probably imagine we're hearing from authorities here that they do believe some people are still trapped under that rubble, but that it is just simply impossible for them at this stage with bombardment continuing day in and day out in this city for them to try to dig down underneath that and get a sense of just how many people may have lost their lives here.

One more thing I think that's important to contextualize in terms of what I was saying about how people here fear that this could be the next Mariupol, Kharkiv is 30 miles away from Russia, it's in the northeast of the country, it's the second largest city. And Russian troops essentially have been launching this three-pronged offensive in the Donbas region, pushing down from the north, up from the south and in from the east.

Ukrainian forces have also been launching a series of counteroffensive, particularly around the strategic town of Izyum. So, Kharkiv is very close to a lot of the action, there are a lot of important supply routes for the Russians to get more ammunition and weaponry to places like Izyum, and that's why it's strategically important not to mention, of course, the symbolic value.

And you can imagine the symbolism of this building. You talk to the locals, this was a place people came to pose for photographs. This was a place you would dress nicely to visit. And now this is what's left of it. John, Brianna?

KEILAR: Clarissa, Kharkiv is just so emblematic of, I think, what Vladimir Putin expected and what the Ukrainians were not going to go along with. Like you said, it's so connected to Russia, it's right there near the border and, of course, there's strong resistance there.

What are people there telling you, even as they're enduring this, and they are remaining or fleeing?

WARD: Well, this is what's so hard to get your head around, Brianna, because if I lived in a city that was being bombarded in this way, I would probably flee. I'm not that brave. But the people of Kharkiv are staying put. This is a city of about 1.5 million. They estimate as many as a million people are still here.

Now, obviously, we have no way of being able to verify that number, but, certainly, you do still see that people are here, even in the hardest hit areas. There's a place on the northeastern outskirts called Saltivka that we spent some time in over the weekend, incredibly dangerous, relentless bombardment. There are still people living in those apartments.

And they live and they stay for different reasons. For some, it's an act of resistance, it's a way of showing defiance.


For others, it's a question of their elderly, they don't necessarily have any place to go.

And I'm wondering if we can just come down here to try to take a look at the size of the crater that is outside there.

So, a lot of people don't want to leave, Brianna. They do want to stay.

The interesting thing when you're walking around on the streets, though, what you don't see -- you do see some people. This here is sort of the grand entrance, if you will, to this building. But you don't see a lot of children. There are still children in the city, but the vast majority of them are living underground at the moment in the metro station.

So, this here was sort of the grand entrance to that building. You can see some workers have parked up a van here. They're trying to sort of remove some of the valuables, but, again, you can just see the scale of the damage, the devastation. There is a huge crater there behind that white van that you can't get such a good look at from this angle, but also the building behind, you can see the facade of it, has basically been torn off.

And so it's frankly astonishing to think that anyone is brave enough to stay here. And the question is how long is that sustainable? As I mentioned that area, Saltivka, where we were over the weekend, constant bombardment, there is no running water in most of those homes and a lot of them, they don't even have electricity and yet you talk to some of these women, I spoke to one, Brianna, she came to the door, she's wearing lipstick. What does that say? What kind of courage does that speak to that someone is still dressing themselves, putting their makeup on even in the face of this hellscape and continuing to live their daily lives to make a point that they will not be forced from their homes.

BERMAN: Yes, it says you lose, Vladimir Putin. Clarissa Ward, what a remarkable guided tour through destruction there. Thank you. And fact- check, false, I mean, frankly, you're brave enough for anything, I think we all know that. But the most important thing is that you're telling us these stories so the world can see. Clarissa, thank you so much.

Joining me is retired Army Major Mike Lyons. And, Major, if I can, I actually, because this has to do with what Clarissa was saying there and what she's showing us. I want to play some sound for you from State Department Spokesman Ned Price, where he talks about how he thinks this war is going. Listen.


NED PRICE, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: What we have seen from our Ukrainian partners is nothing short of victory on the battlefield. I think it's important to note that our Ukrainian partners won the battle of Kyiv. Right now, they are winning the battle for Ukraine.

This is going to be a victory for Ukraine. It is going to be a strategic defeat for Russia. However and whenever that happens, we are confident of that.


BERMAN: They are winning the battle for Ukraine. That's new language, frankly, from U.S. officials saying that Ukraine is winning.

Now, how do you combine that language from the U.S. now along with what Clarissa was showing us in Kharkiv, destroyed building, everything going on, how is it that Ukraine can win here?

MAJ. MIKE LYONS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): So, Ukraine wins by not losing, number one, and number two, Ukraine can win as long as Russia fails at two things. The first thing they have to fail at is their reorganization, which they seem to be doing. And the second thing they have to fail at is learning. We have not seen any indication that the Russian military has learned anything since this started.

But let's go back to reorganization. We know that in the Donbas region -- let's get real tactical. We know the Donbas region that Russia put about 20 battalion tactical groups here in order to reinforce what is an offensive coming down this way and then going in this direction. So, for the past eight days, I'm looking at intel and seeing. The bottom line is they haven't moved, they haven't really gone anywhere.

But what's happened is the Ukraine military has destroyed about 100 Russian tanks, 250 armored personnel carriers. So, we know we're fighting a numerical superior force but the bottom line is that's ten battalion tactical groups. So, they put in 14, they're losing 10, that's where we're coming to this calculus that they are winning.

If they can grind this down, now it's time and space, and if we can grind this down over the next few weeks, maybe one or two weeks, Russia will have no way to reorganize in that area and perhaps Ukraine military goes on the counteroffensive, bring in that artillery. That's an artillery battle taking place in Kharkiv. Let's bring that self- propelled towed howitzers. Let's get in there and fire back at the Russians. I guarantee the Ukraine military is itching to go on the counteroffensive.

BERMAN: Even if the Russians are taking some towns and making progress broadly along this line?

LYONS: Yes, and that's okay. Because, again, they're going to give that ground because they're eventually going to get it back because we bring the reinforcements up from Ukraine, both towed artillery, self- propelled artillery.


It's more than just what the United States is providing. There're NATO forces providing a lot of different things.

And so, again, I think that that's where he's getting that from. He's looking at that saying, we get a report that the Russians have put a pontoon bridge across Rubizhne or some other place, but this is not the kind of technical competence we expect from that military. Russia should be already in Kramatorsk. They should already be there based on the amount of people and amount of material they're throwing at this battle.

BERMAN: And when you look, broadly speaking, at all the territory that they're operating, we don't want to say occupying necessarily because they don't have full control of it, but they're operating in these, you don't think they can sustain this based on the resupply that you've seen?

LYONS: I don't and they don't have it coming from Russia. They're running out, the Ukraine army. It's got to do with American soft power, right, the lethality of the Javelins, the intelligence that we're providing them. We're giving the Ukraine military on the ground the places to go to where they can make the most amount of impact, the command and control that we're providing them.

Russia continues to fight this one-dimensionally. They fight it artillery, they bring troops, they don't have enough infantry to take any of these, because Russian soldiers want to stay in their vehicles, it's nice and safe there. Then they realize the javelins blow the tops off them.

So, all of those things are factoring now exponentially as this is going on, the word is getting through the troops, and that's why they're failing. BERMAN: Major Mike Lyons, great to have you here. Thanks so much. Nice to meet you. Brianna?

KEILAR: The U.S. has imposed sanctions on some of Russia's biggest companies and leaders including Vladimir Putin himself, but according to a new report in The Wall Street Journal, the government is holding off on sanctioning one person who could prove to be the ultimate slap in the face to the Russian leader.

The paper writing the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Mr. Putin's two adult daughters, moving against Ms. Kabaeva, that would be the mother of his children, believed to be the mother of his children, described by the U.S. government as the mistress, is among the actions deemed confrontational enough to further complicate efforts for a negotiated peace in Ukraine, an official said.

Joining me is Wall Street Journal National Security Reporter Vivian Salama with us. This is fascinating because not only is Alina Kabaeva the mother of at least three of Vladimir Putin's children, she is also a place where he positions a lot of his wealth as well as with her family, you write.

VIVIAN SALAMA, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Which is what the government says would be ultimately their justification for going after her, just as they did with his daughters a couple of weeks ago.

And so they have been looking into this and I can tell you that the Treasury Department actually prepared the sanctions. They worked on it. They got the intelligence that they needed to do it and they had it ready to go. But at the last second, the White House's National Security Council decided to pull the plug on it. And the reason they said and the exact word was that officials told us is it's escalatory.

Now, a lot of people out there might hear that and say, wait a minute, we want to escalate tensions against Vladimir Putin but there's different kinds of escalations. There's the kind that actually have an impact and can slow the war effort, the bombardment that we just saw from Clarissa and others in Ukraine, and then there's escalatory in terms of just completely damaging any prospect for a future relationship, which the U.S. still kind of clings, hope to. Like they still cling to that notion that they will one day be able to find a negotiated settlement and that relations will one day normalize with Russia, though not now.

KEILAR: They're clearly worried that he would have a very elevated and emotional reaction if they did this, right?

SALAMA: Absolutely. This is something that was deemed so sensitive that they decided to hold off because they believe that Putin's response to be so irrational, so angry that there would be some sort of backlash.

And so they sort of weighed the impact that the potential action could have versus Vladimir Putin's reaction and any kind of retaliation or whatever the cost would be for such an action and they decided that the best option was to hold off for the time being.

KEILAR: She kind of popped up here at the last minute, right, before you put this story out?

SALAMA: Oh, my goodness, we were in a scramble on Saturday night. Brianna, I can tell you we have been on a goose hunt looking for Kabaeva, trying to track her down. We knew that she had been living in Switzerland for quite some time. We he knew which houses, which cities she had been frequenting, although she was never really public. She was very much behind closed doors, no one would ever see her in public. The kids are believed to have home schooled. And so it was a huge mystery. And no one knew where she was. The Swiss government put out a statement that was a little bit shady where they said we believe she has left but we don't know where she is and they sort of left it at that.

And so we've been wondering and trying to hunt her trail down to see if she might be. And then on Saturday night, right before we were set to publish, she popped up at this festival in Russia. And so we had to do a lot of last minute editing to note that she had resurfaced, but that was a surprise visit and a rare one.

KEILAR: It is a fascinating read. I would encourage our viewers to take a look at your piece on his reputed girlfriend, mother of his children, mother of Vladimir Putin's children, just really interesting stuff, Vivian.


SALAMA: Very important to realize it's reputed, Vladimir Putin to this day denies there is a relationship.

KEILAR: Yes. The Kremlin is very official about that, aren't they? Thank you so much, Vivian, I really appreciate it.

We have more on our breaking news out of Ukraine. We are going to be speaking with the head of the military in Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, where the battle is raging.

BERMAN: Plus what Emmanuel Macron's reelection means for the fate of far-right nationalism in Europe.

KEILAR: And the big lie still proving to be the big motivator for Republican voters this midterm election season.


BERMAN: Major news out of Ukraine, in a high-stakes visit by senior U.S. officials to Kyiv, the first since the invasion, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that U.S. diplomats will return to Ukraine.


They were withdrawn for safety after Russia invaded.\ Also, the Russian offensive in the east in Donbas continues, but U.S. officials and others say, while the Russians might be making some gains there, they are not achieving their strategic goals. And U.S. officials using language they really haven't before saying that Ukraine can win. Ned Price at the State Department saying Ukraine will win.

Earlier this morning, we posed questions to Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk region military administration and military governor of the Donetsk region, that's over in the east. Here are the answers to his questions on the tense situation he's facing.


BERMAN: Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin announce that had U.S. diplomats would return to Ukraine this week. How significant is that step?

PAVLO KYRYLENKO, HEAD OF DONETSK REGION MILITARY ADMINISTRATION: Yes, this is a very significant step. This is a show of unity from the west and Europe and the U.S. in particular, show that the world community stands united with Ukraine and the leadership of the United States is ready to bring back and come back to life in Kyiv in these difficult conditions, but they're ready to come back to Kyiv and join in the effort of restoring normal life so that we can focus on the areas that where there are acts of hostilities, but in the meantime start restoring life where we can.

BERMAN: So how much ground would you say the Russians have been able to gain in the Donetsk region?

KYRYLENKO: The fighting is ongoing and that includes Mariupol. The Ukrainian flag still flies over Mariupol and the fighting is ongoing there. They have not taken it yet. So, the only place, the only town the Russians have taken is called Volnovakha, and that is now controlled by the Russians but they have not taken any of the key cities.

So, all the other places that you may have heard about fighting, active fighting is ongoing there and that includes the place, the city of Lymanske Hromada. That is a town bordering on the Kharkiv region and also the town of Dolyna. That's where the biggest fighting is on at the moment. But no key areas have been captured yet by the Russians.

BERMAN: The New York Times reports that one of the leaders of the Azov Battalion holding out in Mariupol has offered to evacuate the city, so leave in return for safe passage for themselves and hundreds of civilians. What can you tell us about that?

KYRYLENKO: I have seen this report through various media. What I can say at the moment is that there is no talk about any civilian evacuation or any -- anybody leaving. Asovstal is one of our best defended areas at the moment and Ukrainian defenders are courageously fighting for the city of Mariupol. They are inside. And there is no agreement about anybody leaving Azovstal as of this moment. BERMAN: So, you know there are those who think it would be a Ukrainian victory to push Russia back to where they were at the beginning of the most recent invasion but that would still mean that the city of Donetsk would be in their hands. How would you feel about that?

KYRYLENKO: My position is that all of the territory, including the temporarily occupied territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions is the territory of independent and sovereign Ukraine. And we shall defend.

At the moment we are defending and repelling the aggression from the enemy and we will repel this aggression. And then after that, we will talk about recapturing the -- liberating the areas that are temporarily occupied.

But we realize that this needs to be a gradual thing and as we receive support and additional weapons from our partners, but we have always declared and will continue to declare our goal is that we shall not give up an inch of Ukrainian territory, not a centimeter.

BERMAN: I understand your parents and elder brother are in the Russian-controlled region and siding with them. How hard is that for you?

KYRYLENKO: Of course, that isn't something easy for me, but my position is I'm not talking to these people. We have no dialogue. We haven't been speaking since 2014. And my position is that I am defending Ukraine and the indivisible and sovereign Ukraine.


And those who violate the law and who collaborate with the enemy will have to be held accountable.