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U.S. Toughens Rhetoric Toward Russia as War Hits Critical Point; Russia's Lavrov Warns of Nuclear War Risk, Don't Underestimate; Judge Blocks Biden From Ending Border COVID Restrictions. Aired 7- 7:30a ET

Aired April 26, 2022 - 07:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Our thanks to all reporters all around the world, and New Day continues right now.

Good morning to viewers here in the United States and all around the world. It is Tuesday, April 26th. I'm John Berman. Brianna is off this morning. Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins with me in Washington.

And we do have breaking news this morning. Win, win, win, it's a word appearing in U.S. official statements in new ways and really more than ever when it comes to Ukraine. Ukraine can win. Ukraine is winning. We're hearing it in ways that we did not before, including moments ago from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Listen to what he just said in Germany.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Ukraine clearly believes that it can win and so does everyone here.

Ukraine needs our help to win today and they will still need our help when the war is over.


BERMAN: It comes as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insists that Russia is committed to lowering the risk of nuclear war but he says the danger is real.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

The danger is serious and real and it should not be underestimated.


BERMAN: At this moment, Lavrov is meeting with the U.N. secretary- general who notably is in Moscow, before going to Ukraine. In a couple of hours, the secretary-general will meet face-to-face with Vladimir Putin.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: And, John, U.S. officials say that the next few weeks are going to be critical in determining the ultimate outcome of this battle, as Secretary Austin says that Putin's war is, quote, indefensible and a war of choice.


AUSTIN: Russia's invasion is indefensible and so are Russian atrocities. We all start today from a position of moral clarity. Russia is waging a war of choice to indulge the ambitions of one man.


COLLINS: And breaking overnight, Ukrainian authorities say that two guided missiles were fired at the city of Zaporizhzhia in Central Ukraine. A state Ukraine energy company says that two cruise missiles flew over the nuclear power plant near Zaporizhzhia, which plant officials say puts the world and their own safety at risk.

Meanwhile in Moldova, two blasts have hit a village in Transnistria, knocking out two radio towers.

In Mariupol, the mayor said a third mass grave has been found near the city and that the Russians, get this, made locals work for hours on those graves in exchange for food and water.

Weeks after occupying Kherson, Russian troops have taken control of the city council with the mayor described the scene as, quote, armed men entering the building, taking the keys and replacing Ukrainian guards with their own.

BERMAN: All right. Joining me now Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. John, thank you so much for joining us. We heard just a short time ago from Germany, where you are, from the defense secretary, saying that Ukraine can win. My question to you, what is winning?

JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: I think winning is very clearly defined by a Ukraine whose sovereignty is fully respected, whose territorial integrity is not violated by Russia or any other country for that matter. And they can win, as the secretary said. And they certainly believe that they can do it. And these countries here, all 40 of them that are here to talk about Ukraine's defense needs, also believe in that. So, winning is certainly in the cards.

Now, ultimately, whatever the victory looks like, it's going to be defined by President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people, appropriately so. But you can see from the meeting today, it's not just the west, John. It's not just NATO. There are countries from all around the world, including the Indo-Pacific region, who are dedicated to helping Ukraine win this war.

BERMAN: Is Ukraine winning?

KIRBY: They have certainly defeated Mr. Putin's strategic objectives thus far. He did not take Kyiv or Chernihiv or any other city in the north. They have had some limited progress in the south and there is an active fight going on in the east, in the Donbas region.

But it's hard to look at this fight, which is clearly not over, John, and I think we need to be mindful of that. But it's hard to look at this place and preclude that Russia has won, that Mr. Putin achieved his objectives. He has not. The Ukrainians have beaten him back at almost every turn. And what we're trying to do here today in Germany is make sure that the turns to come that Ukraine can continue to beat them back.

BERMAN: Does winning include winning Russian troops including from the region where separatists and Russians were clearly occupying before the most recent invasion?


KIRBY: I think President Zelenskyy has spoken to this himself. And, ultimately, he has to define what victory ultimately looks like. But he has said himself he wants no Russian forces, no Russian troops in any part of Ukraine. And, of course, we've not -- the international community has not approved of, or authorized or accepted their occupation in Crimea, or in the Donbas region. Mr. Zelenskyy has been clear, he wants all Russian forces out of his country. It is a sovereign state.

BERMAN: So, you are in Germany now with the defense secretary. Yesterday, you were still in Poland. The defense secretary said that a goal of the United States is to see Russia weakened militarily going forward. What exactly does that mean? Explain that.

KIRBY: I think he was reiterating what the administration has been saying now for quite some time, that Russia continues to isolate itself. Its economy is in tatters. Its military has been depleted in many ways, not completely, but, certainly, they have suffered casualties and they have suffered losses in this invasion of Ukraine. They are a weaker military. They are a weaker state right now and, again, further isolating themselves.

What we want, and, again, you've heard this from President Biden, as well as the national security adviser, we want Russia not to be able to threaten their neighbors again in the future. That's what we're talking about here.

BERMAN: But what that means, and forgive me, but it sounds different than what's been said over the last couple months, what that means, it sounds like the secretary is saying he wants to see Russia weaker than they were in December, for instance, true?

KIRBY: He doesn't want a Russia -- he doesn't want a Russia that is military capable to do these kinds of things in the future, so that he doesn't want to see a Russia that can invade its neighbors and threaten and coerce other countries on the continent and use rhetoric, such as what you've heard from Minister Lavrov earlier, about the potential specter of nuclear war. We don't want a Russia that's capable of asserting that kind of maligned influence in Europe or anywhere around the world.

BERMAN: Does that mean weaker than now?

KIRBY: It is already a weaker military, John, and we don't want to see Russia able to conduct this kind of invasion again in the future.

BERMAN: You brought up Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said, raising the specter of nuclear war. Do you think he was threatening the United States with those statements?

KIRBY: This is not the first time since this invasion that Russia has used that kind of escalatory rhetoric. It's obviously not help, not constructive and certainly is not indicative of what a responsible nuclear power ought to be doing in a public sphere, talking about the potential of nuclear war.

And one thing I can agree with Mr. Lavrov is that a nuclear war cannot be won and it shouldn't be fought. There's no reason for the current conflict in Ukraine to get that level at all.

And we're watching this very closely, John. As you know, we talked about this before. We don't see anything out there that would make us change our strategic nuclear deterrent posture and our ability to defend the homeland or those of our allies and partners. We're comfortable that we've got the right posture here. But that kind of rhetoric is clearly not called for in the current scenario.

What is called for is Mr. Putin ending this war, which he could do today, John. He just sat down in good faith with Mr. Zelenskyy, moved his troops out of the Ukraine and ended this illegal invasion.

BERMAN: I want to ask you about the reports we're getting out of Moldova of explosions in the Transnistria region. That's over here so people can see it on the map here. What do you think? What do you know about what's going on there? Who's blowing up what?

KIRBY: Yes. Obviously, we've seen these reports of these explosions. It's difficult to know at this early date, John, exactly what happened here or whose responsible. We're watching this as best we can. But it's too soon to know exactly the significance here.

BERMAN: And just so our audience knows, Moldova, of course, an independent nation. There's a breakaway region, Transnistri, which is more or less controlled by Russian-backed separatists. That's where the explosions went off. What's not known at this point is who set them off. Do you fear it could be a Russian provocation?

KIRBY: Well, certainly, we're going to be looking to see if f that's the case. I mean, we can't rule anything in or out at this time, John. But, look, we obviously respect Moldova's right to be a sovereign nation. As you just detailed, we want to see that sovereignty respected as well.

What's at stake here in Ukraine, and Secretary Austin this earlier, is it just Ukraine's sovereignty, although that's what everybody is most concerned with. It's the idea of sovereignty, John, it's the rules- based international order that so many nations, in fact, so many nations are here today around this table have helped put in place and helped provide security for, and stability for, and that's what we want to see continue here.

So, obviously, we'll watch what's going on in Moldova, again, too soon to know exactly what's in the offing here but, clearly, the whole world.


And you can see it today here in Ramstein. The whole world is standing up for the very idea of sovereignty.

BERMAN: John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, great to see you, thanks so much for joining us.

KIRBY: Thank you.

COLLINS: An incredibly close encounter for CNN's Clarissa Ward and her team as they were shadowing Ukrainian paramedics and ended up caught in the middle of Russian shelling. Clarissa and her team were following two incredibly courageous paramedics who are, on a daily basis, risking their lives to do their jobs.

Clarissa joins us now live with the story. Tell us what you saw because this video is truly amazing.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Kaitlan, these paramedics are operating in a part of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, it's in the northeastern outskirts and it's called Saltivka. And shells have been raining down on Saltivka for nearly nine weeks now.

And these paramedics are the ones who are responsible for going out, trying to take the wounded and take them to safety even as those shells continue to rain down and as they are increasingly also becoming targets.


WARD (voice over): It's the beginning of a 24-hour shift for the paramedics Alexandra Rudkovskaya and Vladimir Venzel. They prepare their ambulance for the carnage that Kharkiv residents face every day.

We have two tourniquets, Vladimir says. Alexandra's mother stops by the dispatch center to give her a hug. This is one of the most dangerous jobs. Every moment together is precious. A loud stream of booms signals the day's work is beginning. That's incoming now, this ambulance worker tell us. Alexandra and Vladimir answer the call.

Temperature, she says, the code used when someone has been wounded by shelling. Their flak jackets on, they're ready to roll out.

So, they said they've had reports one person at least injured in the shelling and they're rockets as well. So, we're going to see what's going on.

The shells hit a residential apartment building. The paramedics need to act fast. Russian forces are increasingly hitting the same target twice. It's called a double tact, a horrifying strategy reality to take out rescue workers as they respond.

We see for ourselves. Get in, Vladimir shouts, faster, faster, faster. We take cover under the stairwell. Alexandra is trying to find the wounded person but there's no signal. At that moment, another barrage goes off, brace for the impact.

Is everybody okay, Alexandra asks. Our team member, Maria Avdeeva, has cut up her hands on broken glass. Vladimir treats her injuries, as Alexandra calls the dispatch again to find where the wounded are.

We've got no connection, we're sitting in the entrance, she says, and they're shelling the shit out of us.

The connection keeps dropping. Finally, she gets through to the person who called for the ambulance.

Tell me your damn house number, she says. I repeat, 12G, I told you a thousand times, he replies. The man is dying. We decide to try to make a run for it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go. Come on, Maria. Maria, come on. Come on, Maria, come on. Go, go. Get in the car. Get in the car.

WARD: So, we were just in an apartment building. They were looking for an injured man.


A bunch of rounds came in and hit the next door building. So, now we're getting out as fast as we can.

While we run out, Vladimir and Alexandra run back in. We find them treating the injured man on the side of the road. Their back window has been blown out by the blasts. He has shrapnel injuries and head trauma. Once they've stabilize him, they rush him to the hospital.

Vladimir asks about his pain. The man has been deafened by the blast. Arriving at the hospital, they've done their part. It's up to others now to save him.

I have to say, I think you guys are like the bravest people I have ever met.

Back at base, we asked them why they continue to do this work with all the danger it entails.

It's normal, this is our work. Of course, it's scary like for everyone, Alexandra says. Today, you were with us in the hottest place, in the oven, but we're still alive, thank God.

You feel it's your duty or obligation, Vladimir tells us, to help the people who are still here. And what do your parents say? What does your family say? Aren't they wanting you to stop this work?

VLADIMIR VENZEL, PARAMEDIC: No comments. It's very difficult.

WARD: You must be scared?


WARD: Proud but scared.

VENZEL: Go on all day, all night.

WARD: We saw your mother.


WARD: She's worried to the point of hysteria, Alexandra tells us. She says, you need to leave, you need to go to some safe place. Why are you doing this? I have only one child, stop it.

And what do you say?

I have to do it, she says, simply.

And with that, they go back to cleaning their ambulance, their shift only halfway through.


WARD (on camera): Now, we spoke to the head of the emergency services in Kharkiv. He told us that out of their 250 ambulances, 50 of them have been put out of commission because they sustained issues due to shrapnel and things of this nature, trying to navigate through areas where there's heavy amounts of artillery.

And there's also just a more general shortage of equipment, Kaitlan and John. You probably notice they're not wearing helmets. There's one helmet per ambulance and three crew members in any given ambulance. And they're not using a two-way radio system. They're relying on cell phone service. And as we saw for ourselves, when those rockets start falling, all cell phone service pretty much disappears for a while.

So, these are some of the bravest people that I have certainly ever seen but they do need a lot of support to be able to do their job in any day kind of safe way.

COLLINS: Yes. I mean, Clarissa, this is amazing reporting from you. And we are glad that you and Brent and Scottie are okay with that.

But seeing that and seeing the equipment shortage and the fact that they have ambulances that are out of commission, you saw that one, it had a window blown out of it, how are they able to work every day under these conditions where only one of them getting into the ambulance has an actual helmet to put on?

WARD: You know, Kaitlan, I think it's basically a different mindset. I can honestly say I've been covering wars for so many years in so many different places and the resilience of the people I spent time with, in Kharkiv, particularly, was just extraordinary.

And so, helmet or no helmet, two-way radio or old cell phone, they're going to get in the ambulances whether there's a back window or not. And they're going to go to these places and do whatever they can to rescue the people who are being wounded.

It's also just so extraordinary and you couldn't really see this in the piece because, obviously, we were in such a rush and it was such an intense situation, but there are people living in these buildings, in these areas that are still getting shelled. We saw a woman as we arrived trying to clear the glass from her window. There was another woman who came out when we entered the building asking who would called the ambulance. And when our team member, Maria, was having her hands treated for those cuts, another man came down with a cup of water to help the paramedics.

So, there are just a dazzling array, an astonishing array of seriously brave and resilient people who are willing to keep living in these places and willing to keep doing whatever they can to help their communities in the face of a ruthless, ruthless enemy.

COLLINS: Yes. It's such a testament to the courage of people like Alexandra, and Vladimir, and also really refutes those Russian claims that they are not going after residential areas.


Clarissa Ward, thank you for that incredible report.

Meanwhile, we have more news just in on America's plan to send diplomats back into Ukraine and, of course, the major security risks that are involved.

BERMAN: And the Trump-era restriction on U.S./Mexico border crossings staying in place for now, the new ruling from a federal judge.

COLLINS: And the world's richest man will soon own one of the world's biggest social media networks. What's in store for Twitter with Elon Musk in charge?


COLLINS: A federal judge in Louisiana has just temporarily blocked the Biden administration from ending a Trump-era pandemic restriction on the U.S./Mexico border.


The Biden administration had been on track to end the public health ruling known as Title 42 in less than a month from today. It allows border authorities to turn back to Mexico, where their home countries, because of the public health crisis. Those several states said that by ending it, it would create chaos.

Joining us now to discuss this is CNN Anchor and Chief National Affairs Analyst Kasie Hunt. And so, Kasie, I wonder what you make of what this means for their plans, because the White House is already kind of in a bit of disarray with Democrats and Republicans, both critical of the fact that they were going to end this. And so what does the ruling from the judge mean for what they were planning to do next month?

KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I think if you're the Biden administration, it's a little bit saved by the judge, right? I mean, this is a situation where unlike the travel mask mandate problem, this is something where they're going to be potentially saved from a policy disaster, a political disaster, I should say, by this ruling.

I mean, it sounds like they're going to appeal it. But the bottom line is that this is going to take more time. And there was a very real risk from a political perspective that you were going to see lots of pictures of migrants coming across the border in larger numbers than we had seen. There were some very real questions about whether the Biden -- there still are very real questions about whether the Biden administration is prepared to handle that, and, I mean in a strictly logistical way. Are there places for them to sleep? Are there judges on the border that can deal with asylum cases?

And I think that that also plays into another political problem the administration has dealt with that started with the withdrawal of Afghanistan, and that's competence. If you have that swirling the summer before the midterm elections, that's really bad news for Democrats.

So, we're obviously going to have to see how far out this extends the timing, but I think, for them, there's a little bit of a sigh of relief that, okay, we now have more time to really wrap our heads around this.

COLLINS: And all of this has really put the DHS secretary at the center of all of this. Secretary Mayorkas, who, of course, has been talking about this, talking about what their plans were for, saying that they did have plans in place there.

I do want to note something that Kevin McCarthy, of course, said yesterday when it came to if Republicans do retake the majority, how they would potentially handle him.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): This is his moment in time to do his job. But at anytime, if someone is derelict in their job, there's always the option of impeaching somebody. But right now, he's got 30 days, his first response to us should be we should not lift Title 42. They're not prepared to protect. And we cannot sustain what will happen to this nation.


COLLINS: And, of course, Mayorkas is going up to the Hill this week. He is expected to be grilled by lawmakers. But what do you make of McCarthy saying, we're not going to rule out impeaching him?

HUNT: Well, one thing I would say, Kaitlan, is I'd love to hear if he called out the sources in and around Mar-a-Lago to find out the answer to that question, because I think that's the world where to talk like this is coming from. Kevin McCarthy can be pushed in a direction like this. I don't think this is his first choice as incoming speaker of the House necessarily.

But my sort of understanding of kind of lay of the land is that there's a lot interest in people like Jim Jordan, who is, of course, part of freedom caucus, others who are close to Trump in doing something like this. And I think it's kind of a preview of what you're going to see more broadly from a House that is controlled by Republicans. You're going to see investigations into Hunter Biden. You're going to see attempts like this around potentially Biden administration officials, anything to keep a spotlight on this particular issue.

I mean, republicans see this as a winning issue for them no matter from a campaign perspective. So, using hearings, using their position on the Hill to do something like that, I feel like that's what we're going to be in for in a Republican House after the 2022 elections.

COLLINS: Yes. And we're already hearing from the White House they're preparing for these Republican-led investigations if the Republicans do take over.

I want to ask you about something else though that's happening in Florida where Ron DeSantis is now one of the state's or one of the nation's only election police forces. Essentially, he has signed this into law. It's a voting overhaul bill that creates a new election police force that basically gives them this a tool which could be pretty powerful, depending on how he wields it, to investigate what's happening in elections in the state. And I wonder what lens you're viewing this through?

HUNT: So, I mean, this -- first of all, Republicans, we're seeing them across the country try to tighten their voter laws but also to increase the penalties in the event of voter fraud. I think it's really important to underscore that voter fraud, especially on a large scale, is extremely rare, if not basically nonexistent in the U.S. And I think Republicans across the board for the last couple of years, if there were instance of this, they would have made sure that we knew about it. And, frankly, the reality was they failed at all these court levels.

What's, I think, important to continue to watch in the case of DeSantis is that, especially in the American south, the history behind law enforcement groups that were focused on voting has a very dark and difficult past. And there is an intimidation factor regardless of what you actually are doing in terms of enforcing or -- part from the actual actions, of course, like this might take.