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New Explosions Inside Russia Near Ukraine Border as War Expands; American Killed Fighting Alongside Ukrainian Forces; Commander Inside Steel Plant is Interviewed about Conditions; Estonian Prime Minister is Interviewed about Ukrainian Counter Attacks. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired April 29, 2022 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to viewers here in the United States and all around the world. It is Friday, April 29. I'm John Berman, with Brianna Keilar. We do have breaking news from the battered port city of Mariupol.

The Ukrainian president's office announced an operation against civilians out of the Azovstal Steel plant. They say it is planned for today, but the plan has already hit a snag.

Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are blocking part of that complex. This site has become something of a last line of defense for Ukraine in that city. Officials say it was hit by 50 air strikes in the last 24 hours. The situation is critical. We are scrambling to get the latest information.

In just a few moments, we will hear from a Ukrainian Army commander inside the plant. We're told there are hundreds of people there, including dozens of children. The youngest is just 4 months old.

Also breaking at some point, more signs of Ukrainian counter strikes in areas controlled by Russia or inside Russia itself. This is a fuel depot, attacked and set on fire in part of the Donetsk region that's controlled by Russian-backed forces. Ukraine is not commenting on that.

Also, a strike at a checkpoint up here near Kursk. I can show you also where the attack in Donetsk was. These are areas where the Russians are saying the Ukrainians are striking back. Again, no comment from the Ukrainians themselves. BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: New images in to CNN of the damage in Kyiv. President Zelenskyy is accusing the Russians of launching five missile strikes in the capital on Thursday, all while U.N. Secretary- General Antonio Guterres was wrapping up his visit there.

Several residential buildings were hit. And in the East, U.S. officials acknowledged that Russian forces are making progress, but they're describing it as slow and uneven. President Biden is asking Congress for a $33 billion aid package for Ukraine to cover the next several months.

And an American citizen, 22-year-old Marine veteran Willy Joseph Cancel of Tennessee killed while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces there in Ukraine. According to his family, he was working with a private military contracting company when he was killed on Monday.

His mother tells CNN he believed in what Ukraine is fighting for and wanted to help contain the conflict, quote, "so it didn't come here and that maybe our American soldiers wouldn't have to be involved in it."

Cancel's body has not yet been found.

I want to get live now to Lviv and bring in CNN's Scott McLean.

Scott, let's start with these Russian targets that came under fire overnight. What can you tell us about that?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Brianna, well, look, the Russian foreign ministry just yesterday said that strikes in Russia will come with a harsh response, and then Moscow's patience should not be tested. Well, now it is.

As you mentioned earlier, overnight there was a strike on a fuel depot in Russian-controlled Donetsk. A pro-Russian official in that area said that there were also four electrical transformers that were damaged, as well.

Now, Ukraine has said nothing about this one in particular, but it is the latest, really, in a series of attacks on fuel depots. Also, in a village about ten miles inside of the Russian border in Russia's Kursk region at a checkpoint in a small village there, there was also shelling there.

A local official says that no one was killed and that nothing was damaged, but this is the same region that has been the target of several recent attacks.

Now, Ukraine has not taken responsibility for these, but the latest one on Wednesday, they seem to heavily imply that they were behind it, with the Ukrainian presidential adviser saying karma is a cruel thing.

You also mentioned that American citizen killed on the front lines here in Ukraine. Willy Joseph Cancel, just 22 years old.

According to his mother, he left his job in Tennessee as a corrections officer to join this private military contractor fighting in Ukraine. He had been inside the country for less than seven weeks when he was killed.

Now, of course, his family would like to get his body back to the United States, but his mother says that she has been told that it is simply too dangerous to actually retrieve it.

His brother-in-law also spoke to CNN, said that he was the kind of guy who always put others ahead of himself and really stood up and fought for what was right.

But here's the real tragic part of this story, is that Cancel leaves behind not just a wife, Brianna, but also a 7-month-old baby.

Now, the U.S. State Department has not commented on this. They're citing privacy concerns, but they reiterated their message to Americans that they should not travel to Ukraine at this time. If they're here, they should get out as soon as they can, particularly because they say that Russian security officials are specifically singling out American citizens -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Scott, thank you so much for that report from Lviv.

BERMAN: I want to bring in CNN military analyst, retired Army General James "Spider" Marks.

Spider, if I can, I want to focus on what appear to be Ukrainian counter strikes in Russian-controlled areas or Russia itself. Russia claims a fuel depot hit here in the Russian-controlled area around Donetsk, and then mortar attacks on a checkpoint inside Russia.

Again, the Ukrainians haven't acknowledged responsibility for this, but if this is the Ukrainians, what do they get out of this? How important are these counter strikes?

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: These deep strikes, as they are known, are absolutely critical for the Ukrainians to establish the initiative in terms of how Russia will deploy its forces.

Let's look at the map for a second. The strikes that you talked about were here and in the vicinity up there. What Ukraine needs to do and increase the pace of that is to strike deep into Russia and into Russian-held territory.

By doing that, that alters how Russia can then deploy its forces into the fight. Instead of a strong advance, what you end up with is a trickle of forces into the fight, which is exactly what the Ukrainians need to do.

If you can affect them deep, you can then cut down on how they echelon their forces into the fight. And the Ukrainian forces can now continue to engage on those close-combat engagements and do extremely well, because they've set the conditions. Absolutely critical that they continue to do this. BERMAN: Spider, I want to ask you about another development, another

movement, in fact, frankly. It's in Moldova, or toward Moldova. Moldova, of course, an independent nation outside the borders of Ukraine.

There is a breakaway region controlled by Russia inside Moldova where there are some Russian troops. And now the Ukrainians are saying they're concerned about them. They are moving some of their own Ukrainian forces closer to that border. What do you think of that decision?

MARKS: Yes, the thing that's concerning about that, and what you've just described is this area right in here that has been controlled by the Russians for the longest time.

The key is, although President Putin has indicated that he has this great aspirational expansion vision, trying to reclaim a Warsaw pact- like buffer zone, Moldova -- bear in mind, Moldova is this statelet landlocked with Russian-controlled little area right in here.

He, Putin, has not done anything other than talk about, the narrative is I want to control Moldova. I want to expand into what used to be the Warsaw pact region, but they haven't -- the Russians have not moved any other forces into this area.

So what the Ukrainians need to be aware of, if the Ukrainians start to reinforce their locations in Moldova, that takes forces from the fight down in here, which is inevitable and is critical for Russian success.

So the Ukrainians shouldn't look at this and start to maneuver too many forces in this direction, because there isn't necessarily a threat from the Russians, other than a narrative threat and what I would call kind of an existing opp priority presence of Russian forces.

BERMAN: You're talking about the East, that's where you say that the Ukrainian concentration needs to be in the Donbas there. And we've been hearing, including from U.S. officials watching this, that the Russians may be improving how they're operating there, moving along parallel lines in this area from Izyum here, maybe learning some lessons, Spider. What are you seeing in Donbas?

MARKS: Yes, what the Russians are clearly confronted with, and they have been over the course of the last month, is they've gotten some incredible beatings in the vicinity of Kyiv. They now realize that this is where their initiative needs to be and where Putin can claim a victory.

So the notion of lessons learned or going through what we call an after-action review process, is what the Russians are probably doing, but it's not likely that those lessons learned will have an immediate impact on the display and kind of the engagement of forces in this region.

No. 1, they have their battalion training groups, their battalion task groups, they had about 120 of those in advance of the war. They now have about 90 deployed.

And the remainder have been cobbled together. You have a number of losses in each one of these battalion forces. And then they try to bring a bunch of folks that have never trained together, never worked together, there is no readiness that's really associated with those numbers.

So you might want to talk about the numbers, but they don't have the readiness level in order to be effective. So certainly, Russia needs to learn, they need to adapt, but I don't think we're going to see the lessons being applied into this fight.

BERMAN: General James "Spider" Marks, always a pleasure to see you. Thanks so much.

MARKS: Thank you, John.


KEILAR: Mariupol is the symbolic center of Ukrainian resistance against the Russian invasion. And the Azovstal Steel plant, where Ukrainian military and civilians are holed up by the hundreds, is the site of the last stand there.

We got rare access to the military perspective inside of that steel plant, posing questions earlier to Major Serhiy Volnya, the commander of Ukraine's 36th Separate Marine Brigade. And here's what he told us about the dire situation inside.


KEILAR (voice-over): Commander, can you tell us what the current situation is where you are?

MAJOR SERHIY VOLNYA, COMMANDER, UKRAINE'S 36TH SEPARATE MARINE BRIGADE (through translator): The situation is critical. It's beyond a humanitarian catastrophe.

KEILAR: Sir, President Zelenskyy's office says an operation to evacuate civilians from the plant is planned for today. What can you tell us about that?

VOLNYA (through translator): I don't know the details, I know that a mission has arrived in Zaporizhzhia and that they are going to try and mount a rescue operation.

KEILAR: How many civilians are still sheltering inside of the steel plant?

VOLNYA (through translator): These are hundreds of people, and they have dozens of children with them. The youngest is 4 months old.

KEILAR: Commander, you say you're keeping track specifically of the children here. How many kids are there, and can you tell us their ages? VOLNYA (through translator): I know there are about 60 young -- young

people there, and the youngest is 4 months old, and the oldest is 17. I don't actually keep track of them, because that's somebody else's job. I've got a different job.


KEILAR: Are the children there at risk?

VOLNYA (through translator): All I can say about the children is that they're looked after by the marines, and as far as I know, they're fine and there is no risk to their safety at the moment. There hasn't been any direct threat to their safety. We're looking after them.

KEILAR: Sir, what is the food and the medical situation?

VOLNYA (through translator): The Mariupol garrison is fighting and has been fighting in the situation of full encirclement for 64 days. It's a very difficult situation. We have very little water, very little food left.

KEILAR: The chief of the Mariupol patrol police says a field hospital by you was hit by the heaviest Russian air strikes yet. Can you tell us how bad this was?

VOLNYA (through translator): Yes, yesterday was a heavy strike on -- a direct hit on the field hospital that is situated inside Azovstal Steel plant. And the operating theater was hit directly, and all the surgical equipment, everything that is necessary to perform surgery and has been destroyed.

So right now, we cannot treat our wounded, especially those with shrapnel and with bullet wounds.

KEILAR: Sir, you say that there are more than 500 people injured at the steel factory, both military and civilians, even before this field hospital was hit. Are medical personnel there able to treat them?

VOLNYA (through translator): We are looking after the wounded right now with whatever tools we have. We have our army medics, and they're using every skill they have to look after the wounded. And right now we don't have any tools, any surgical tools, but we have some basics.

But also we are in dire need of medication. We have almost no medication left.

KEILAR: I know you say you've spoken to or texted with President Zelenskyy daily for the last two months. What has he said to you?

VOLNYA (through translator): President Zelenskyy briefs us on the situation in Ukraine as a whole and around Mariupol. He tells us about enemy movements and is supporting us in every way and also keeps -- keeps our spirits high.

KEILAR: You have held out now for two months. How much longer can you hold out? VOLNYA (through translator): We cannot tell you for sure how long we

can hold on for. We -- that all depends on the enemy movements and also on luck. We have great hopes that we will be evacuated, that the president will succeed in either evacuating or extracting us, and we will just have to hope and see what happens.

KEILAR: What do you want to say to the world about your situation?

VOLNYA (through translator): I would urge the world and the diplomatic leaders and world leaders and religious leaders to listen to us and to give us a humanitarian corridor from Azovstal to give us an extraction procedure so that we can have a safe exit from Azovstal, either to a third country or to a territory controlled by Ukraine.

KEILAR: Serhiy Volnya with the Ukrainian army in Mariupol, thank you so much for joining us this morning.


KEILAR: This is what they've been weathering for months now, and we're finally getting a chance to get that perspective from inside this steel plant that has become the last vestige of Ukrainian resistance.

BERMAN: And look, I mean, a major announcement for the president's office today that an evacuation operation is planned in that plant for today or was planned. It's difficult to ascertain, because in your conversation right there, he didn't seem to have any knowledge of it.

And we're also hearing reports from the ground that the Russians are blocking access to that plant in Mariupol. So obviously, a very important situation. We're trying to get the details as best we can right now.

KEILAR: Yes, we're going to focus on those civilians, right, and the children. You're talking about kids from 4 months old to 17, he said there's dozens of them, about 60 of them. You know, their lives are hanging in the balance here. They already are, and they will continue to. They're really at the breaking point here.

There's a new warning from the Kremlin to the West as more areas under Russian control and inside of Russia itself are coming under attack. The prime minister of Estonia will join us live next on how her country plans to respond to the escalating rhetoric.

And we will find everyone. President Zelenskyy says Ukraine has identified ten Russian soldiers believed to have carried out war crimes in Bucha. How they plan to track them down, next.



BERMAN: Breaking overnight, attacks on areas under Russian control or Russia itself. This is according to the Russians.

A fuel depot in the Russian-controlled region of Donetsk was hit overnight, as you can see right there, and a checkpoint over the Ukrainian border inside Russia in Kursk.

Now, in response to these types of alleged attacks, a spokeswoman for Russia's foreign ministry said, quote, "I would like Kyiv and western capitals to take seriously the statements of the ministry of defense of our country, the further provocation of Ukraine to strike at Russian targets will necessarily lead to a harsh response from Russia. We do not recommend further testing our patience."

Joining me now is the prime minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas. Prime Minister, thank you so much for being with us. It's a bit of a ridiculous statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense. Russia invaded Ukraine and is striking Ukraine every day. Why shouldn't Ukraine be able to respond on Russian targets?


KAJA KALLAS, ESTONIAN PRIME MINISTER: Well, exactly. This is kind of sad to -- sad to hear what Russia -- Russia is trying to do, it's trying to make us all afraid, intimidate us from making further steps in helping Ukraine, for example.

The threats that they are making, but also the threats that they are making towards Ukraine are a bit ridiculous, because as you perfectly said, they have moved to Ukraine. They have, you know -- their aggression, Russian aggression, is happening in Ukraine.

So -- so they should be able to respond, you know, strongly to defend their country.

BERMAN: Look, over the last few days, the Russians have halted gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria. They're up here, so people know. What concerns do you have that this war is starting to expand beyond the borders of Ukraine?

KALLAS: We don't -- we don't see that right now. Russia wants NATO to be part of this, because the big rhetoric has been that NATO is attacking Russia in its war between NATO and Russia, but actually, it's not. So -- so what they are doing?

They are threatening different countries and using the tools that they have. And they, of course, have a lot of tools in their toolbox. One is the dependency on gas and oil, so that, you know, they are cutting off certain countries, not all, to give a message to everybody that we can do this to you, as well.

But I think it was President Roosevelt who said that the only thing we should be afraid is fear itself; so we shouldn't be intimidated by their actions.

BERMAN: Do you have any fear that Russia has intentions toward you at this point?

KALLAS: No, we see a lot of threats that they are making towards different countries. What Russia is really good at is playing on our fears and knowing exactly what each and every country or the population of that country is afraid of. So for some countries, it's nuclear, so they are bringing in this

nuclear threat, whereas for some others, it's invasion. So they are playing those different -- different types of fears, but we should not fall into this.

BERMAN: One of the things that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says is that he wants to see the Russian military weakened from this war. What do those words mean to you?

KALLAS: These are strong words and correct words. We have done -- or made a mistake previously that Russia gets away with aggression. We saw it in Georgia, Donbas. We saw it in Crimea, that, you know, let them stay where they are and not move on. And they were not punished for -- for their actions. And they were not pushed back.

What happens is that they have a because of one year, two years to get their act together, and then everything will continue. Further aggression, but also further atrocities and torturing of people that we see right now.

BERMAN: It seems there's pretty rapid movement to have Finland, your neighbor, and Sweden join NATO soon. Is that something you would like to see in the very near future? And what do you want to see from NATO in terms of training, in terms of reinforcements? I know the U.K. is -- is putting some new troops in.

KALLAS: First of all, regarding Finland and Sweden, of course, we would welcome their joining NATO with open arms, because that makes our region much stronger, but it's up to them to decide whether they make this move.

I have heard my -- my colleagues there to say that it hurts to hear every time when, you know, U.S. leaders, U.K. leaders, NATO countries' leaders say that we will protect or defend every inch of NATO's territory. And that's why this -- this moment there.

The other question is how we can strengthen the Eastern flank, especially the defense of Baltic countries. We are expecting strong decisions from the Madrid summit this -- this June.

What it means, it means that we should have division-sized troops here, together with enablers, which means that air defense, also on the -- on the defense on the air and sea. Why it's necessary, although we don't see any military threat right now, it is necessary, because if Russia has raised the level of aggression, the threat is higher than the defense should also reflect the higher threats on the other side so that it will, you know, deter Russia from making any kinds of moves towards us.


BERMAN: Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, an honor to speak to you. Thank you so much.

KALLAS: Thank you. BERMAN: CNN getting new details about the American killed while

fighting alongside Ukrainians. Why he felt compelled to join the battle.

Plus --





BERMAN: That is the sound of people under lockdown in China, protesting what they say is insufficient distribution of daily supplies. CNN has a look at what life is like day to day inside of that lockdown.