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CNN TONIGHT: Biden: "Putin Is The Aggressor. Putin Chose This War"; Blinken "Convinced" Moscow Will Try To Overthrow Ukrainian Government; Zelensky Says Russian Sabotage Groups Have Entered Kyiv. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired February 24, 2022 - 21:00   ET




ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: I'll be back, three hours from now, live at midnight, for a special edition of 360, to bring you the latest from Ukraine, in the overnight hours.

The news continues right now. Let's hand it over to Wolf Blitzer, and CNN TONIGHT.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Anderson, thank you very much.

And we want to welcome our viewers, here in the United States, and around the world. I am Wolf Blitzer. And this is CNN TONIGHT.

We're watching history unfold, before our eyes. The largest invasion in Europe, since World War II, is now around 24 hours in.

President Zelensky says at least, get this, at least 137 Ukrainian soldiers already have been killed, so far, another 316 wounded. He says, he suspects Russian sabotage groups have already infiltrated the capital of Kyiv, and have marked him as their Target #1.

President Zelensky has ordered a general Military mobilization, and he's banning all male citizens, ages 18 to 60, from leaving the country.

It was this very hour, last night, when Russia started its full scale invasion, of the sovereign nation, bombarding cities, with missiles, and long-range artillery, targeting Military installations and airports, like this one, in southeastern Ukraine.


BLITZER: Russian ground forces invaded the country, from three sides, from the north, south and east. Among the targets seized today, the Chernobyl power plant, in Northern Ukraine, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster.

CNN's Matthew Chance had an up-close encounter, with some Russian forces, at an airport, about 50 miles, from the capital of Kyiv.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: These troops you can see over here, they are Russian airborne forces. They have taken this airport.

You can tell they're Russian. I've spoken to them already. You can tell they're Russian. They've got that orange and black band, to identify them as Russian forces. I've spoken to the commander, on the ground there, within the past few minutes. And he said, they are now in control.


BLITZER: The Ukrainians are now living in a very, very different nation, than only one night ago. Some subway stations have become makeshift bomb shelters.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, many citizens don't know what to do, or where to go, or how this is going to end, as they told CNN's Clarissa Ward.

So, what can the world do to stop Vladimir Putin? President Biden assures this. Putin is now a pariah on the international stage, he says, and Russia will pay a very heavy price.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences.

America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.

Make no mistake: Freedom will prevail.


BLITZER: President Biden announced the new series of strong, very strong sanctions that you're about to hear, more about, from the White House. He's also sending some 7,000 more U.S. troops, from the United States, to Europe, to help bolster NATO's defenses.

Biden says NATO is now more united than it's ever been. And when this dark period, is looked back on, in history, he says, Russia will be left weaker, and the rest of the world stronger.

But there's so much suffering, right now. And the future of Ukraine is very much uncertain. So, let's keep focused on that, and get the very latest, from the frontlines, also from Moscow, and from the White House.

Let's begin with CNN's Clarissa Ward. She's joining us from Kharkiv, in Ukraine, right now. Clarissa, what, first of all, what more can you tell us, about this very dire message, from the Ukrainian President Zelensky, tonight?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf. He said he is Target #1, his family is Target #2.

But he also said that he is not going anywhere, that he intends to stay in the capital city of Kyiv, for the moment. One can only imagine how difficult a position that will be, to maintain, as we continue to see Russian forces, continuing with this assault.

Here, in the city of Kharkiv, Wolf, you could see, it's a very different scene, than it was, last night. Last night, this is the big middle of the town square, behind me. It was all lit up. It was tense, and it was quiet. But nothing like it is today.

Because, we're just over 20 miles away, from that Russian border, where there has been that huge buildup, of artillery, armory, also personnel. They have been coming across the border, engaging and fighting with the Ukrainian army.


And the people here now are basically waiting to see at what point they potentially arrive at this city. And nobody knows, what, will they do, if they do arrive at this city. Will they surround it? Will they try to lay siege to it? Will they potentially enter it?

We've heard from the Mayor that there's a curfew in place, from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. They've also been asking people, Wolf, to donate blood, obviously, in, for seeing the potential worse situation. 400 people came out today, reportedly, and waited in long lines, to go ahead and donate blood.

The city is so quiet right now. And it's deeply eerie, because people just have, as you said before, no sense of what's to come, and where to go.

The thing that was so striking, walking around these streets, earlier on today, mostly deserted, but a few people sort of wandering around, with suitcases or bags of groceries. And you almost had the sense Wolf, that they didn't really know where to go. They didn't really know where it's safe.

I asked one woman, "Do you have a car? Is there somewhere you can go to?" And she said, "I have a car. But where is safe in Ukraine, anymore?" And that's something that really stuck with me, Wolf, because I think it speaks, not just to the fear and the anxiety, but the confusion here, about what is actually happening, Wolf.

BLITZER: Reporting today, Clarissa, from inside a subway turned bomb shelter, where citizens were sheltering from the attacks, what did they have to say?

WARD: Wolf, these scenes, to me, were like scenes that I've seen, of World War II, and The Blitz, and people hunkering down, underground, for hours, on end, trying to keep their families safe.

There were so many families, down there, so many children, babies, people brought their pets there, their parents, just desperately trying to escape the strikes that had been falling down. Some people were angry. Many of them were sad. But mostly, honestly, Wolf, they were just scared.

Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We never really believed that our, like, neighbor, can just come, and just grab our land, and tell us what to do. And we are independent country, Ukraine. And we are totally not same as Russians. And we don't want to be a part of Russia, or any other country. It's really gets me emotional (ph).


WARD: And you see, Wolf, it's people are overcome, honestly. It's so much stress.

And so few people here ever imagined that this was actually going to happen. We've been talking about it, for weeks, if not months. But for Ukrainians, there really was a state of disbelief. They couldn't imagine that Russia could do this.

Another man, I spoke to, Vladimir (ph), said, "Russia is our brother. But what kind of a brother treats his brother, in such a way, as this?"

And some of those people are still sleeping in that shelter tonight, Wolf, waiting to see, what tomorrow will bring.

BLITZER: Yes, from President Zelensky, on down, people of Ukraine didn't want to believe that Russia is capable, Putin is capable, of ordering this kind of invasion.

Clarissa, stay safe, over there. Clarissa Ward, in Kharkiv, appreciate it very, very much. We're going to stay connected with you, get back to you, as soon as there are some more developments. And I suspect there will be.

Let's turn right now to CNN's Nic Robertson. He's joining us, live from Moscow.

So Nic, what's been the reaction there, in Moscow, to Putin launching this totally unprovoked war?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, there were protests, later in the day, not just here in Moscow, but in more than 50 cities, across Russia. And we went down, and witnessed, some of those protests. More than 900 people arrested by Riot-clad Police, at the protest.

The government said these protests weren't allowed, that there was no authorization for them. Indeed, the government went beyond that. It warned people that "If you come to the protest, you could get arrested. And if you get arrested, then you could end up with a criminal record. And if you have a criminal record, then that's going to blight your future job prospects, your work prospects."

So, it's a really harsh message from the government. And it seems very clear, from what we saw that President Putin is not brooking any dissent, from people, who disapprove of him, going to war in Ukraine.

And I spoke to some of those people, who were down there. And they were desperate. They were frustrated, with their government. They were angry, with their government. They didn't know what to do. They didn't expect the country to go to war. They don't want it to go to war.


They don't want to be at war, with people, in Ukraine, who they feel are their brothers and sisters. One young lady told me, she was close to tears, she said, "I want to leave." And I said, "You want to leave Russia?" She said, "Yes." She said, "It's my country. I'm heartbroken. But I just don't support this leadership."

I have to say, Wolf, despite the fact that there were so many people arrested, there's still a large percentage of the population here, 50 percent or more maybe that actually support President Putin, and support what he's doing, in Ukraine.

But having - again, this number of people, getting out on the streets tonight, short notice, knowing that they could be arrested? That's still quite a relatively large number, for Moscow, and the rest of the country.

BLITZER: That's quite a statement, indeed, from these folks, over there, in Russia. President Biden, as you know, Nic, announced more sanctions today, against Russia, says Putin will be a pariah, on the international stage.

Does that resonate, those kinds of words, where you are, in Moscow?

ROBERTSON: He met with members of his business community, today. So, we can read into that, oligarchs included, potentially some of those, who are being targeted, with sanctions themselves.

And his message to them was, "Look, we knew this was coming. There's going to be some economic hardships. But we need to stick together, and remain united on this." That is, "You've need to be patriotic. We're all going to suffer." And it seems that, that's the message from the top-down.

This is the war that he's chosen. And it does seem that a lot of his security officials were not really - were not really listened to, in his calculations here. And it doesn't seem that he's going to put up with much dissent, from the business community.

And, as he said, today, there's, Russia, a new Iron Curtain cannot be put up, and to keep Russia behind it. And what he means by this is, the sanctions are going to come, but we will continue to survive. Wolf?

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, in Moscow, for us. We will, of course, stay in touch, with you, as well.

Right now, I want to go to the White House. Our White House Correspondent, MJ Lee, is on the scene for us.

MJ, the President, President Biden announced this wrath of sanctions, today, against Putin, and Russia. But the White House had to clarify some of his remarks. Tell us about that.

MJ LEE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The remarks that White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tried to clarify, was when President Biden said, during his remarks that nobody really expected the sanctions, to prevent anything from happening.

Those comments, when they were said, were a little bit puzzling, given the fact that this is a White House that has said for so long that the threat of sanctions, they hoped, would serve as a deterrent.

This is the reason actually why we didn't see sanctions, until this week, because the White House had said, all along, "We are going to wait, until Russia actually invades Ukraine. And then, we're going to roll out our whole slate of sanctions." The hope, again, was that the threat of sanctions would serve as a deterrent.

So, when Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, was asked to clarify this, at the White House press briefing, she essentially sort of drew a distinction, between sanctions, as a deterrent, and sanctions, after they have already been rolled out. She said, of course, sanctions could have a deterrent effect, after they have been issued.

So, that is certainly the hope. And this is what U.S. administration officials, are talking about now that the sanctions that have been imposed so far, could hopefully play some role, in scaling down, whatever Putin's ambitions, might be, in terms of a Military invasion.

But, of course, the timing is an important piece of this too, Wolf, because as President Biden said, himself, he said, these sanctions are going to take some time, to go into effect, and one of his advisers saying today that that really is up to Putin, that he is going to have to determine how much sort of economic suffering, he is going to be willing to accept, in the coming weeks and months.

BLITZER: Yes, will take some time to implement these sanctions. But they are tough indeed.

MJ Lee, at the White House, thank you very much.

We're going to continue, of course, checking in, on all of our correspondents, on the ground, in Ukraine, in Russia, and elsewhere, throughout this hour.

President Biden says "Make no mistake: Freedom will prevail." But how would Vladimir Putin be stopped? And what role will U.S. troops be playing with NATO States, as more prepare, to head overseas?

I'll ask the former U.S. Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel. There, you see him. We'll discuss, when we come back.






ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: Part of the Russian plan has been, to put Kyiv in danger, to assault the capital, to go after other major cities. We're seeing forces come in from the north, from the east, from the south, and that's all part of the plan that we've laid out, for the world, in recent weeks.

DAVID MUIR, ABC NEWS HOST, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT WITH DAVID MUIR: You're convinced Putin's going to overthrow this government.

BLINKEN: I'm convinced he's going to try to do that.


BLITZER: That's the latest, rather grim assessment, from Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, as Russia continues its multi-pronged assault, on Ukraine.

The U.S. in turn isn't just responding with sanctions, but adding additional Military moves, as well, deploying another 7,000 U.S. troops, from the United States, to Europe.

Let's get some perspective, from the former U.S. Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, who oversaw the Defense Department, when Russia invaded Ukraine, back in 2014, took over Crimea.

Secretary Hagel, thanks so much, for joining us.

Just a few days ago, you expressed hope, for a diplomatic off-ramp. And yet, here we are now, Ukraine, in the middle of a full-scale Russian invasion. What do you make of this moment?

CHUCK HAGEL, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, when we look back, over the last two weeks, and what the President has said, Secretaries Blinken, and Austin, or what our Intelligence has shown us that it was pretty clear, where he was going.

I think, a number of us, including the President, Secretary Blinken, had hoped that there could be some off-ramping, at the last minute, to avert this disaster. But it was not to be.

[21:20:00] So, Mr. Putin has started something that he can't control. And every time that you start a war, you start an invasion, you start any type of Military incursion? You lose control of it. And everything becomes hair-triggered. It's like handling nitroglycerin.

And that's particularly dangerous here, because there are so many uncontrollables. NATO countries, on the eastern border, of Europe that were formally in the - behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union. You've got issues, economic issues. You got trade issues. You got energy issues.

The world is interconnected now. So, nobody is going to get out of this, without some difficulty. And the economy is going to be a big part of this, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. And as you heard Secretary Blinken says he's convinced Moscow is going to try to actually overthrow the Ukrainian government. President Zelensky says, he's Target #1, his family is Target #2.

Do you believe Putin's endgame is a full takeover of Ukraine?

HAGEL: I do believe that's his end game, now that he's started this. That would require his taking Kyiv, installing his own government, governments that was supportive of Russia, a puppet government. That means there's going to be an awful lot of bloodshed, for the Ukrainians.

But there'll be bloodshed for the Russians. There are going to be a lot of dead Russians sent back home. And this - Putin is going to have to deal with that, as well as all the other economic consequences.

And the fact that he will be, and is a pariah, international pariah, this is his, as all of your correspondents have said, and you've said, Wolf, this is the first time, since World War II, that one independent nation has invaded another independent nation.

So, we are at a very defining time in history. And I think that's going to come home to more and more people, in understanding why we're involved, what's the big problem, what's the big deal.

I was born in 1946, a year after my dad came home, from overseas, and World War II. Everybody, who was born, since World War II, has lived in a world, where the United States has been the dominant factor, in everything, economic security.

The last 20 years, that started to change. That doesn't mean that's bad. In fact, that's good. That's the world order that we had built, and we had hoped for, common interest, let everybody rise.

But we've seen things, over the last 20 years that have led us to this moment. And finally, you have a leader, in Putin, who is a KGB-shaped, molded, thought-provoking leader that specializes in disinformation, misinformation, lies, that thinks that this is the time that he can strike. I think it's a gross miscalculation. And I think there's going to be an awful lot of suffering. But, in the end, I think it's uncertain where we go. But I do believe what President Biden said today. This will - this will end not well, for Russia, and Mr. Putin.

BLITZER: You think Putin is a war criminal?


BLITZER: Should he be tried--

HAGEL: I do.

BLITZER: --as a war criminal?

HAGEL: I think he should. I think he should. We have been, the West, very lenient, over the years.

And, again, when I say this is a defining moment, a defining time, in history, in world history, this will be one of the questions that will have to be resolved, when this is over, however, it comes to an end. It will come to an end.

BLITZER: President Zelensky said that tonight, so far, it's only been one day, 137 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, since the invasion began. How much longer, do you think, Ukraine can keep up this fight? They obviously don't have the capability, to defeat a superpower, like Russia.

HAGEL: Well, I think they'll be able to put up a good fight, for a while. They have an army today that's - that they didn't have in 2014, much more sophisticated, much more advanced, much more capable.

But the overpowering weaponry and Military and cyber capacity that Russia has will overwhelm them, I'm afraid. Unless something stops that, unless something intervenes, that could happen. But eventually, if this thing is moving more and more toward the Military decision, of how it ends, then the Ukrainians will not be able to sustain it.


And I think that - I think that Mr. Putin wants more than just Kyiv and Ukraine. As he's said, in his demands, of NATO, "All those countries, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Baltic states, I don't want them, as a NATO country, close to my border, and threatening me."

Well, that's not going to happen. Those NATO countries will be reinforced. They're being reinforced, right now, with more American troops, more NATO troops. And I think that Mr. Putin is not going to be satisfied. And I think this will be part of the reason, this ends. Moldova, for example, as he tries to militarize that as well.

So, who knows? The question, the way this ends, the consequences that we know, are coming? I don't think anybody can predict. But there are some certainties that we can see that we are aware of, we know, and we control, and Putin doesn't. BLITZER: The President today, warned Russia, again, that if it engages, in cyber warfare, against the United States, the U.S. will respond.

How worried should U.S. industries, the infrastructure, the national security apparatus, be about, a major Russian cyber-attack, on the United States?

HAGEL: Well, I think we need to be worried about it. We need to be prepared for it.

The President said today, we've been working with businesses, not just this year, last few months, with over the years, last few years, to harden their capabilities, on cyber-attacks. And we have - we're not perfect. We have chinks in the armor. There are pieces that we don't have that we wish we did have.

I fully expect, Wolf that this will go cyber. I fully expect that the Russians will use their cyber capability, as we've seen them, in the past. They're excellent cyber warriors.

We're very good. I think we're the best. And, I think, Americans need to be aware that we're not going to be untouched by this, whether it's cyber-attacks, whether it's gasoline costs, right in the wake of inflation, from COVID, and supply chain problems. No, we're going to be affected as well.

BLITZER: Yes, I've been told, by U.S. officials that they're bracing, for a major Russian cyber-attack.

And the President said today, "If Russia pursues cyber-attacks against our companies, our critical infrastructure, we are prepared to respond." And he says the U.S. has sharpened, and I'm quoting him now, "Our ability to respond to Russian cyber-attacks." That could be a major, major development.

Secretary Chuck Hagel, thank you so much, for joining us.

HAGEL: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we're following the breaking news.

Matthew Chance is joining us, once again. He's in Ukraine.

Matthew, I understand, you're hearing explosions, once again. What's the latest?

CHANCE: Yes, well, we've heard one big explosion here, shatter the calm, such as it's been, over the past several hours, in Kyiv. Not quite sure where it's come from.

It seems to have come from the - from this direction, over here, which is to the south, of where I'm standing, right now. I'm not sure what kind of target there is over there. But clearly, it comes 24 hours, almost to the minute, after those barrages of cruise missiles, targeted air defense systems, Military sites, around the Ukrainian capital.

It's, at the moment, it's an isolated explosion that we've heard. We've heard the sort of smaller caliber weaponry, we think, fired as well. But we're not sure, whether that's from a different location, or whether it may have just been a sort of nervous reaction, to that explosion.

It's not clear whether that some sort of - is some sort of - start some kind of, battle for Kyiv. Although I have to say that we do know for a fact that there are Russian forces, Special Forces that have been airlifted, into strategic positions, around this - around this city.

And the concern is, and the belief is, amongst Ukrainian officials, is that within the - within a short period of time, the Russian plan, is to encircle Kyiv, to capture the city, and to target the leadership of it.

President Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, issuing a sort of national statement, on his social media platforms, earlier today, saying that this, "According to our information, the enemy has marked me as Target #1, and they've marked my family, as Target #2. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state."

He also said this information, they've got, of "Enemy sabotage groups" that have already entered Kyiv.


And so, a lot of concern, even amongst the Ukrainian leadership, right now, from, including the top person, the President of the country that they will now be targeted, by Russian forces, in the capitol, Kyiv.


BLITZER: Yes. And U.S. officials, for days now, as you know, Matthew, they've been saying that the Russians - that Putin has a hit list, or a kill list, not just of Zelensky, and his family, but of many other Ukrainian officials--


BLITZER: --that they want to go after, and either kill, or sent to camps, and put them away. We're going to watch that obviously, very closely.

Be careful over there, Matthew. We'll stay in very close touch with you.

Our breaking news coverage, of the war in Ukraine, continues. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, there you see him, he's standing by, live. We will discuss. And I'll ask him what he sees as Putin's end game.

We'll be right back.




BLITZER: Our team, in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, now reports hearing two large blasts, in the central part of the city, and a third loud explosion, in a distance.

Just a little while ago, Matthew Chance is on the scene for us. He's keeping us posted. Remember, it was right about this time last night that the invasion, the Russian invasion, of Ukraine, began.

We're going to go back to Kyiv, right away, as new information comes in. Standby for that.

Also, just in, a new audio recording has emerged, purporting to show an exchange, between Ukrainian soldiers, on an island, in the Black Sea, and an officer, of the Russian Navy. I want to show you a transcript, of what was said.


An officer, on the Russian warship, apparently approached, the island, and told soldiers, and I'm quoting now, "This is a Russian military warship. I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed."

To which, a Ukrainian soldier responded, "Russian warship, go f yourself." It appears that may have been the Ukrainian soldier's last words. We are told all of the Ukrainian soldiers there, all of them, were killed.

Want to bring in the former European Affairs Director for the National Security Council, retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

Colonel, thank you so much, for joining us.

What's your take, first of all, on this state, of the battle, and how much longer Ukrainian forces potentially could hold off this massive Russian assault?

LT COL ALEXANDER VINDMAN, FORMER EUROPEAN AFFAIRS DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL, MILITARY FELLOW, LAWFARE: Wolf, I wrote up a lengthy piece on this, and kind of laid out much of the scenario.

I saw this coming, for definitely, for quite a few weeks. And one thing that I certainly got wrong was how, maybe overrated, would be a good way to put it, the Russian forces were, and underrated the Ukrainian forces are performing.

So, the Russians were supposed to land some very heavy blows, massive aerial bombardment, cruise missile strikes, really disrupt and destroy a lot of their command and control political leadership. They have not been particularly effective there. A lot of the Ukrainian Air Force is intact. And the Ukrainians are putting up a massive resistance. And this is going to be a slog. I don't think this is going to be as easy as the Russians think it is. And frankly, I don't know if this is going to turn out the way Vladimir Putin thought it would, certainly not without the costs. The costs now seem pretty heavy. Even amongst his domestic population, there are protests on the street.

And then, the stories of heroism emerging from that Snake Island transcript that you just offered, or the ghost pilot that's flying over Ukraine, Ukrainian Air Force pilot, may have destroyed four to six Russian aircraft. It's pretty amazing how hard the Ukrainians are fighting, to defend their homeland.

BLITZER: Having said that Colonel, how likely is it that Russia eventually, rather within a few days, or a few weeks, or whatever, will take the capital of Kyiv? And what will that mean for this conflict?

VINDMAN: Yes. So, it's interesting. Once the first shots are fired, the geometry train changes. And it's really very difficult, to see how things unfold.

Do the protests in Russia, the unexpected protests in Russia, materialize into something, far more challenging?

Do the Ukrainians put up such a significant resistance, that it changes the calculus, and Putin recognizes he may not be able to achieve his maximalist objectives or risk some sort of issues at home?

I think, those things are difficult. But yes, the numbers are on Russia's side. Russia has been preparing this, for this, for years. Frankly, this conflict was inevitable. Whether it was now or later, it was inevitable.

Because for more than two decades, Putin has preyed on his counterparts. He's preyed on his Western counterparts. As a Case Officer, he's identified hopes, and he's identified fears.

For the hopes, he promised greater cooperation, greater Russian integration.

And for the fears, he does what he always does. He does the saber rattling, to indicate that there is a potential risk of nuclear war. And frankly, that's what's keeping us, the U.S. position, so mild, at the moment. Yes, we're levying sanctions.

But, in reality, this is a democracy fighting, struggling, for its survival, struggling, for security, in Europe. So, it's way bigger than that. It's going to have a geopolitical impact. It's going to have impact on the U.S. population. Has a high possibility of spillover.

And I really think we should be doing everything, we can, to support the Ukrainians. But I think there is a deep fear, of the Russians somehow, spinning out of control, escalating, which is a mis - false premise. I wrote an article in "The Atlantic" today. The Russians have no more interest in a confrontation with the U.S. or NATO than we do. They are deathly afraid of a war with the U.S. They know they would lose. They would - don't want to go in that direction. There's evidence to substantiate this. When the Russians attacked us, in Syria, we killed 300 of them, without a response.

But we are still succumbing to those fears, because that Case Officer effectively understands, where he could prey on us, where we're vulnerable, and we self-deter.

BLITZER: Ukraine's President, as you know, Colonel, President Zelensky, says there are already Russian sabotage groups that have entered Kyiv, looking to target him and his family.

Do you think he is in immediate danger?


VINDMAN: Absolutely. I think he's in immediate danger. I think there's a target list of various priorities. The folks in government, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, heads of security services, they're in danger. Their families are in danger.

But also, civil society, the folks that made this country, what it is today, the folks that mobilized the street, in 2014, and resulting in - resulted in the Revolution of Dignity. The folks that are dragging Ukraine, or pushing Ukraine, towards the West, those are all on the target list.

We don't really understand how the Russian mindset is here. They're going to be barbaric. Right now, it seems like they're actually being restrained, because they think they could have achieved their objectives, without significant casualties or collateral damage.

As soon as it turns rough for them, they're going to do the things, they did in Syria. Bomb churches - mosques, in the case of Syria. They'll bomb churches. They'll bomb schools. They'll bomb hospitals. This will be a brutal campaign.

BLITZER: Very quickly, before I let you go, Colonel, as you know, Putin has used explosive words, in describing, what's going on in Ukraine. He says, his effort is simply to protect people, in Ukraine, from genocide.

He says that he's working to de-Nazify the country. He's talking about Nazis, in Ukraine, right now. President Zelensky, as you know, he's Jewish. What do you make of what Putin is saying?

VINDMAN: It's patently absurd. It's meant to influence his domestic population. There's really no merit.

Of course, Russia - the Ukrainians have been struggling, for independence, under the Soviet Union, under their Russian Empire, and most recently. And there are radical movements that tried to exploit that. But you pointed out that Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. When he came to power, the Prime Minister was Jewish. They were the only - one other country in the world, Israel, that a Jewish President - Prime Minister, the Jewish communities embraced. It's central to the country. And there is nothing to this Nazi narrative, fascist narrative. It's fabricated as a pretext.

BLITZER: Yes. Even the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, here in Washington, they condemned Putin, for uttering those kinds of words.

Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, thanks so much, for joining us.

VINDMAN: Thank you for having me on.

BLITZER: The breaking news coverage of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, will continue, right after this break.





BLITZER: The White House is now saying, the United States will accept Ukrainian refugees, fleeing the country. But tonight, refugees are flooding, into neighboring Poland.

CNN International Correspondent, Scott McLean, is on the scene for us.

Scott, what are you seeing there, near the border? And are they relocating, with expectations, of actually staying in Poland?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf. It is cold. It is miserable. It is 3:30, in the morning. And the people, who are crossing this border, could not be happier, to be on this side of it, fleeing what's going on, in Ukraine.

Let me just show you around here, really quickly. You can see people are gathered here, after having crossed the border. There's a little cafe there. People are huddled inside. You see a lot of men here. Some of them are driving taxis. Some of them are trying to get rides. Most of the men here are very likely foreign, at least the ones that we've met.

People are boarding these buses. They're going to reception centers, if people don't have another place to go. The authorities have been handing out these papers, which essentially says, "If you're Ukrainian, and if you're crossing the border, you're allowed to come here," and then giving them a little bit more information.

A lot of people, who've been crossing the border, Wolf, they don't know where they're going to go. They're just happy to be on this side. Most of the people, who we've met, do not expect to start a new life, in Poland. They think that they're going to be here temporarily, maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe longer. But all of them expect to be going back.

One other thing, down this pathway, the family coming out, that's toward the border. The reason that you don't see more people, I mean, there is a steady stream of them, but the reason you don't see even more, is because they are all stuck, on the other side.

There are two checkpoints, on the other side of the border. There is the Ukrainian one, where you get your exit stamp, and then the Polish one, where you're entered into the European Union, and the Eastern flank of NATO.

The holdup is at the Ukrainian side. We know that the Ukrainians are no longer allowing men, to leave the country, between the ages of 18 and 60. As I said, most of the men that we've met so far had been foreign, or held foreign passports. They are letting the women and children through much quicker. And so, we've seen mostly that.

And I am amazed, Wolf, I have to tell you, I am absolutely amazed, by the resilience of these people. Women with children, most of them very young, really difficult conditions, they've been waiting in line, for several hours, many of them. And I have not heard one single child cry or complain. They're just happy to be here. And they're all just getting through a very, very difficult situation.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. Scott McLean, on the border, between Poland and Ukraine, thank you very much.

A former NATO Commander fear scenes like the one you just saw, are only going to grow, and grow, with Ukrainians facing a humanitarian disaster. That retired Four-Star General standing by, to join us, right after the break.

General John Allen, will discuss, when we come back.





BLITZER: Nothing seems to be working, to deter Russia, from its onslaught, in Ukraine. For more on that, want to bring in retired Four-Star General John Allen. He's also the Author of the book, "Future War and the Defence of Europe." There's the book cover.

General, considering Russia's full-scale assault, how far do you think Putin is willing to go?

GEN JOHN ALLEN (RET), PRESIDENT, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION, FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND, FORMER COMMANDER, NATO INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE & U.S. FORCES, AFGHANISTAN, AUTHOR, "FUTURE WAR AND THE DEFENCE OF EUROPE": Well, only he knows. But I'm sure, Wolf that the campaign plan, that they're executing, is a phased campaign plan. They appear to be striking into Ukraine, on several different axes. One out of Belarus, one towards Kharkiv, one out of the Donbas, and one out of Crimea. So, there are multiple axes that are moving into the heartland of Ukraine.

And if he's to be to believe, if Putin is to be believed, his intention is to demilitarize the country, and de-nazify it, which is a ridiculous term?

But he doesn't believe that Ukraine is a real country. And with this kind of combat power, and this application of combat power, there's a very good chance that his intention, is to eliminate it as a country that can stand against him, or be a Western outpost.

BLITZER: As you know, other bordering countries, such as Latvia and Estonia, for example, they are NATO allies. Do you think Putin's bold enough, crazy enough, for that matter, to try to cross into one of those borders?

ALLEN: Sure. I'm always very reluctant, Wolf, to ascribe lunacy, to any world leader. He's operating off his own set of values. He's operating off his own timeline.

But he's been - he's been warned by the President of the United States. He's been warned by the Secretary General of NATO, that NATO is a absolutely solid Alliance, right now. It is committed to the defense of every square inch of NATO.

And Putin would crossover a NATO boundary, and NATO frontier, at great risk, because I don't think there's any ambiguity there that Article 5 of the NATO Charter of the Washington Treaty, indicates, an attack on one, is an attack on all.

And bringing the combat power, of 30 nations, led by the United States, to defend the NATO territory, is a pretty daunting and awesome threat to Putin. I think he would at great risk, crossover a boundary, into a NATO country.

BLITZER: Yes, it would be enormous risk. As you know, he's already launching cyber-attacks, in Ukraine.

Would NATO see cyber-attacks, on one of its members, as an active work? Is there some concern, if he launches some major cyber-attacks, in Western Ukraine, it could spill over, and affect Poland, a NATO ally?

ALLEN: Wolf, in the 21st Century, multi-domain warfare, cross-domain warfare, has been a feature, for some period of time. And when I say multi-domain, I'm not talking tanks, only tanks, artillery, airplanes, ships at sea.


I'm talking about operations in the information space, information in the cyberspace. And Putin's been operating, largely with impunity, in the cyberspace, the information space, for some period of time, softening up Ukraine, hopefully softening up the democracies of the West.

Now that, to your question, specifically, is a cyber-attack, an attack that could trigger an Article 5? I think we'd have to see what the size of that cyber-attack would be. That remains to be determined.

But if it's a major attack, upon critical infrastructure that causes dramatic harm, inside the NATO countries, and loss of life, et cetera? I believe, we're going to have a conversation, in North Atlantic Council, about whether that cyber-attack actually could trigger Article 5.

BLITZER: I think you're absolutely right. General Allen, thank you so much, for joining us.

We'll take a quick break.

ALLEN: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Much more of our special coverage, right after this.




BLITZER: Thanks very much, for joining us. I'll be back, tomorrow night, 6 P.M. Eastern, in the "SITUATION ROOM," and then, once again, here, on CNN TONIGHT, at 9 P.M. Eastern.

Our breaking news coverage continues, right now, with "DON LEMON TONIGHT."

DON LEMON, CNN HOST, DON LEMON TONIGHT: Wolf Blitzer, thank you very much. I'll see you tomorrow night.


Our breaking news, Russia waging war, on Ukraine. 24 hours ago, the war broke out, while we were on the air. Now, the second largest country, in Europe, after Russia itself, is a warzone. Kyiv, under curfew tonight.