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Putin Orders Russian Troops into Two Breakaway Regions; Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) is Interviewed Regarding Putin Ordering Russian Troops into Donetsk and Luhansk. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 21, 2022 - 17:00   ET



PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: Nice job setting a good example, coach. Well, I'm Pamela Brown in for Jake Tapper. Our coverage continues with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. The United States is preparing sanctions in response to a major new provocation by Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader just recognized separatist areas of Ukraine as independent, escalating fears of an imminent war.

The U.S. is warning that Russia could launch an extremely violent invasion in the coming hours amid new information that Kremlin forces have a kill list of Ukrainians to target if they attack. CNN is on the scene in Russia, Ukraine, here in the United States, as this crisis unfolds this hour.

We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report.

And let's get to the breaking news. Major reaction unfolding right now to the new developments from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance is on the scene for us. Matthew, Putin's move today, a dramatic powerful move, escalating, escalating concerns of an imminent Russian invasion.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They certainly are, Wolf. In fact, there are dramatic developments taking place tonight because within the past few minutes, the Kremlin has said that it's ordered the Russian defense ministry to "maintain peace in those Ukrainian rebel republics," potentially paving the way for Russian forces to roll in. It all come after Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, made that stunning announcement earlier today to recognize those two republics, plunging this region into an even deeper crisis.


CHANCE (voice-over): This is the moment Vladimir Putin further escalated this dangerous stand-off with Ukraine. Signing a presidential decree that would unilaterally redraw Ukraine's borders and set back any prospects of diplomacy.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translation): I consider it necessary to make a long overdue decision to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic.

CHANCE (voice-over): For years, those self-styled rebel republics backed by Moscow have been the focus of Ukraine's bitter civil war. A peace deal called the Minsk Agreement was meant to end the fighting and re-integrate the break-away regions into Ukraine. Now Russia and the entire region is on a war footing once again.

And President Putin who has massed tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine's borders has made it clear. There will be no quarter given if the government of Ukraine attempts to resist.

PUTIN (through translator): And from those who seized and hold power in Kyiv, we demand an immediate cessation of hostilities. Otherwise, all responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine.

CHANCE (voice-over): But it may be Russia that's planning more. Even manufacturing a reason to attack. This is what Russia says a Ukrainian armored vehicles that crossed its border and were quickly destroyed, killing five Ukrainian troops inside. Ukrainian officials have strongly denied this ever took place. There was no crossing. No Ukrainian casualties, they insist. All this is just a pretext they say to ratchet up tensions.

Earlier, there was more Kremlin theater on state television. A carefully choreographed session of the normally closed Russian security council discussing eastern Ukraine. And then called on one by one to tell the Russian leader what he wanted to hear.

The situation there is tense, the Russian defense minister says, serious provocations are being prepared, he alleges, to impose a forcible solution on the region. The implication is that Russia should act.

Basically, Ukraine doesn't even need these territories now, said Dmitri Medvedev, the former Russian president and prime minister. The residents have not been receiving any support from Ukraine in years, he added. On the contrary, they are subjected to mass repression.


On Russian state media, these were the jubilant scenes in Donetsk, the main city in one of the break-away regions when news filtered back that Moscow had recognized the territory as an independent state. Russian flags and fireworks set to a blaring national anthem.

But for the U.S. and its allies, this is yet another unilateral Russian violation of Ukrainian sovereignty to be punished.


CHANCE (on camera): Well, Wolf, so far tonight the Ukrainian leader has spoken to President Biden and convened his own security council with his own security officials to discuss what the possible response could be. But events on the ground as we've been hearing are moving very quickly indeed and there are renewed concerns tonight about what more an increasingly belligerent Kremlin is likely to do, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, this crisis has escalated big time. Matthew, I want to you stand by. I also want to bring in Jim Sciutto. He's on the scene for us in Ukraine as well. You have new information I understand, Jim. Tell our viewers what you're learning.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. With Russia's recognition of these eastern provinces, but also, declaration that Russian peace keepers will be going in, the U.S. military believes that Russian forces will enter Donbas as soon as tonight into tomorrow. This would be the first movement of Russian forces into Ukraine since this build-up that we've been talking about for a number of weeks now, crossing from Russian territory into what is unilaterally declared by Russia as independent territory.

But again, as I said, they expect those moves to begin as soon as tonight into tomorrow. And I should also mention Wolf that the U.S. military continues to see indicators that Russian preparations for a much broader invasion of Ukraine continue today and tonight. I'm going to give you a couple of examples of that.

They have seen loading of amphibious ships. They've also seen loading of aircraft supplies for airborne units these far away from Donbas, indications that at least the preparations are continuing for Russian military action, far broader around the borders of Ukraine.

Of course, the kind of military action we've heard the president, secretary of state, vice president talk about in very dramatic terms, alarming terms over the last several days. So one, expecting Russians forces to move into those newly declared supposedly independent republics as soon as tonight and tomorrow, but also preparation continuing for broader military action. That is the latest U.S. intelligence assessment, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, very, very ominous developments indeed. Jim, I want you to stand by as well. I want to bring in our chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, so how is the White House responding to these latest very, very powerful ominous moves by Putin?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they say that they were expecting it and President Biden is now condemning it. He almost immediately was on the phone with the Ukrainian President Zelensky talking about this, talking about what the United States' response to this is going to be.

And the White House has said he is going to sign an executive order imposing limited economic sanctions on these two pro-Moscow territories which the White House is referring to, saying that Putin today recognized the independence of them, of course, making sure to put that in quotations given this is a step that Putin has taken that the White House had warned against saying it would be in defiance of the agreements that they had settled on. And so with Putin now taking this step though, we should note, the White House is not imposing that full sanctions package that they had prepared in anticipation of a full-scale Russian invasion. They say that this is separate with the step that they are taking on what President Biden is expected to sign in this executive order today from those sanctions that they have been talking about for weeks now, trying to use as a deterrence for Russia from going into Ukraine.

And so I think a big question now is what the coordinated response looks like because that's what they've talked about time and time again if Russia did take these steps. And the president was also on the phone with the German chancellor, with the French president who we know spent hours on the phone with Putin yesterday, trying to put together some kind of a summit between Biden and Putin.

Something that the White House later said that Biden had agreed to in principle saying that, yes, he's open to talking to the Russian leader, but hopes of that summit happening seem to be fading even further tonight, Wolf, with this step taken by Putin today because they said that summit would be dependent on a Russian invasion not actually happening.

And with what Jim and Matthew are reporting there saying that now Putin is preparing to send these peace keeping forces into these areas. You know, a lot remains to be seen about what the response further is going to look like from the White House because they said in response with this, with these targeted economic sanctions, they can be taking other steps.

But they haven't really detailed what those steps would look like, Wolf. And we know this comes just hours earlier. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, was saying that this full-scale Russian invasion could happen within hours, within days. And so I think a big question now is everyone had been looking to that meeting scheduled for Thursday between Secretary Blinken and the Russian foreign minister that is supposed to happen in Geneva.


And so I think people will now be looking to see whether or not that still goes forward. Of course, here at the White House, they are monitoring those moves very closely though we have not heard from President Biden, we should note, in person on this, yet.

BLITZER: And as you point out, the White House specifically said Putin's latest moves represent a blatant violation of Russia's international commitments. A blatant violation of Russia's international commitments. I want to you stand by Kaitlan as well.

I also want to bring in our CNN international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson. He's in Moscow. Evelyn Farkas is the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia is joining us and CNN military analyst, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. Nic, is Putin now on the brink of starting potentially the biggest war in Europe since World War II? NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: He is certainly

giving indications that he's moving in that direction, Wolf, by authorizing the Russian army to go into Donetsk and Luhansk as peace keepers. He is escalating the military environment there. His decision on recognizing these areas as independent is a further step away from a diplomatic solution.

It's putting him at a greater variance with NATO and the United States, making it much less likely that his demands that Ukraine can never join NATO. That NATO go back to its 1997 lines, making it much more unlikely that those could actually happen through diplomacy because essentially, having threatened to get this far, it would be an even greater backdown for the United States or any NATO nation to turn around and give him what he wants, which they've already said not.

So, I think that level, it creates a much bigger diplomatic gap. But to your point, is this getting closer to a big war? I think if we look at the body language and the facial expressions and the real anger that was in President Putin this evening when he gave that hour-long address, when he built up to the moment of signing these declarations, there was so much pent up anger and frustration about not being understood, but laying out his view, his view that historically Ukraine is part of Russia.

That decision that were made back by the Bolsheviks in 1918 that were made by Lenin, that were made by Stalin, were mistakes. That the history of today says that Ukraine is part of Russia. That anger and frustration that he showed is a side we just rarely get to see. And if that underpins the depth of feeling that he has, this seems set to escalate.

BLITZER: It certainly does. Colonel Leighton, I want -- I'm anxious to get your reaction to the breaking news. Putin ordering these peace keeping troops into these separatist held areas of Ukraine.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Wolf, the fact that they're peace keeping troops I think has to be put in quotation marks. What they're doing is they're moving forward the Russian front line and, you know, although there's been a simmering battle for that area since 2014, now it's getting much more active.

And I see this as basically the first step in a broader invasion that would potentially include going after the capital of Kyiv. And if that happens, of course, then it goes to the scenario that you were speaking about with Nic which would include the possibility of a war that is as great as we've seen since 1945.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly does. You know, Evelyn, how do you read these dramatic developments and how does the U.S. coordinate a response with its allies?

EVELYN FARKAS, FORMER U.S. DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RUSSIA/UKRAINE/EURASIA: Well, Wolf, it's really disturbing. I mean, I think many of us thought given all of the troops he had arrayed around Ukraine, it was not likely that Vladimir Putin would withdraw them. But still we all hoped there would be diplomacy. That somehow he could be deterred.

And clearly, he is ratcheting up the tension here and he's going to occupy this territory. Now that's going to put tremendous pressure on the government in Kyiv, but I'm afraid, as you all said, that there is likely more military action. It's going to be bloody. It's going to look like the Balkan Wars. I mean, you remember Bosnia in the 1990's. That war went on at a full-bore pace, you know, for over two years until we were able to bring to it an end. I don't know how we do this because normally you would go to the U.N. Security council, but we don't know whether China will join us in condemning this or not.

BLITZER: You know, Jim, the Biden administration, the White House calling this, what Putin announced today, a blatant violation by Russia. But the response has been limited at least so far in these immediate few hours. What's happening behind the scenes to coordinate a much more forceful U.S. and NATO response?


SCIUTTO: Well, the White House says it has more coming and it will be in conjunction with allies. What they've announced so far, sanctions against these two republics where it's not clear how many American individuals or entities actually do business and to what dollar value, it's a small start.

This is a test. It's a test for the U.S. It's a test for NATO. And it may over time be broader than Ukraine frankly. Right now, the military resources focus on Ukraine, but when you listen to Putin's statement, he was not just challenging Ukraine's independence. He seemed to be challenging the former Soviet Republic's freedom to have left the Soviet Union.

And the trouble is that group includes current treaty members of NATO including the Baltic States. And from a military perspective, given there are now Russian troops in Belarus and he may as soon as tonight have Russian troops here in Ukraine, more of them, they will be right on NATO's frontier. They're going to be right up against NATO allies such as Poland.

They were already very nervous before this. This is -- it's a challenge for NATO going forward. And the question will be after sanctions are imposed, what security measures? What force deployments will the U.S. and NATO order to counter that?

BLITZER: You know, Nic, you're there in Moscow. Is the sense there that the Russians accepted proposals of diplomatic meetings simply as a pretense to buying more time for this military build-up?

ROBERTSON: You know, I think if you were to speak to Russians on the street here, they would have really not paid attention to what the leadership was saying by and large. I think the situation has become much more real for them over the past few days because there's so much more propaganda on state television about these alleged acts by the Ukrainian forces, that there's no verifiable evidence put forward.

So, I think, you know, at the street level, the answer is probably, the point is largely passed people by. But certainly that has been part of the discussion that been going on around as we've been watching what President Putin has been doing, building up these forces. At the same time keeping a narrative going of wanting diplomacy.

There definitely seemed a period where President Putin by his demands in December, by his insistence on these written security guarantees or demands that he issued to the United States and NATO back in mid- December. That he could get his way by creating this pressure of military force, and it appears that there was potentially on his side, a genuine feeling that that could be achieved.

But it became very clear as we came into 2022 that that wasn't going to happen. And I think there has become a period where perhaps towards the end of January where there's been a continuation of the military build-up and less, less realistic commitment on his part to trying to get to a diplomatic end point because he is recognizing the past several weeks that the answer for what he wants has always been no, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a critical moment right now. I want everybody to stand by. We're going to continue our breaking news coverage and all these dramatic critically important developments right after this.



BLITZER: Breaking news this hour, a major escalation in the Ukraine crisis. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, ordering what he calls "peacekeeping troops" into separatist areas of Ukraine after earlier recognizing them as independent. We're joined now by Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California. He's a key member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, the U.S. now expects Russian troops could move as soon as tonight or tomorrow into the Donbas area of Ukraine. Does that amount to an invasion of Ukraine?

REP. TED LIEU (D-CA): Yes, it does. And this action by Putin further confirms that Mitt Romney was right when he called Russia the number one geopolitical foe. Now, depending on where their forces go, it could determine whether we enter a very large war or not. If Putin merely sends forces into the existing regions in Donbas where the Russian-backed separatists already control those regions, that will different that he sent his forces into the regions of which the Ukrainian forces currently control. That could be very bad.

BLITZER: I mean, it could be bad either way. Is this part, though, Congressman of Putin's play book to create an alternate reality to justify war?

LIEU: What you saw in Putin's speech today is a revisionist history, and he is not only saying that these regions should fall under Russian control. He's basically saying the entire Soviet Union should not have collapsed and he wants to rebuild Russia back to what the Soviet Union was. That is very dangerous. And that is why I support the Biden administration's inaction of sanctions on these two separatist regions and I urge the administration to look at further sanctions against Russia and these two regions.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect these sanctions are only just beginning right now. The White House promising what they call a swift and firm response. So, should the U.S. announce more sanctions on Russia right now immediately?

LIEU: I think the Biden administration and our allies are looking at that issue right at this moment because if you launch all your economic sanctions right now all at once, you don't really have any other escalatory steps to take if Putin decides to take additional escalatory steps. So I think that's what they're trying to calibrate, but I do urge the administration to do more than just the sanctions on American people for these two regions in Ukraine.


BLITZER: In his hour-long speech today, and I listened to it, Putin essentially questioned Ukraine's right to exist as an independent state. Is it naive to think Putin would stop in eastern Ukraine, in these areas where he recognized their independence today? Will he try to take over eventually the whole country?

LIEU: If you follow Putin's speech, what he's basically saying is that Ukraine doesn't have the right to exist as a sovereign nation. So if you look at his build-up of troops along the border. If you look at his speech, then it looks pretty clear to me that his goal and intent is to take over all of Ukraine. And that's why Biden and the allies that we have all need to respond in unity and to make sure that Russia understands a severe economic and diplomatic cost it's going to incur.

BLITZER: Yes. It's going to be huge. How big of a threat, congressman, is this not only to Ukraine but also to the entire region, in fact, to the world?

LIEU: Starting a land war in Europe could have very, very bad ramifications. I do want to note at this point that Russia has a lot of weapons, it has a really large military, it has nuclear weapons, but its economy is quite small.

In 2020, Russia's economy was less than half the size of California's economy. So, you have a country that is quite susceptible to economic sanctions, and that has to go into the calculus of Putin. So if the west does impose strong sanctions that could be a powerful deterrent for us.

BLITZER: Well, let's see if that happens. Congressman Ted Lu, thanks so much for joining us. And we're following the breaking news. We'll have much more on all of the news coming out of Ukraine right now. Stand by for that.

Other news we're following including a jury now deliberating in the federal hate crimes trial for the man who killed Ahmaud Arbery. How soon to expect the verdict and what it will mean, much more on that, coming up.



BLITZER: We're following breaking news in the Ukraine crisis. The Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering self-proclaimed so called peacekeeping troops into separate areas of Ukraine after early -- earlier recognize those areas as independent. Our Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann is working the story for us as well. Oren, so what are you picking up over there?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The Pentagon is, of course, watching this very closely as Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered these troops under the guise of peacekeeping into the regions there to monitor what's going on. Now, so far, and I realized this is just in the few hours after Putin's declaration, there is no change to U.S. force posture in Europe. And it remains some 5,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne to the 101st Airborne Corps in Poland as well as 80,000 troops spread throughout Europe in their -- in the force posture where they remain at this point.

But again, officials are watching this very closely. What are we looking for over the course of the next few days? Certainly, we're looking to see if the Pentagon deploys any more troops to Europe. We're also looking to see if NATO activates its NATO Response Force, that hasn't happened yet. But the U.S. put 8,500 troops on heightened alert in case that did happen so they can operate under NATO command as part of that response force.

We're also looking for recon and surveillance overflights. I've been tracking these over the course of the last several weeks, and the U.S. has used Global Hawks and Rivet Joints to airborne intelligence gathering platforms to keep an eye on Ukraine. But, obviously, that only happened so long as it was safe to do so, so long as there was no risk of an encounter with Russian forces. Do they continue those overflights? That's one thing we're looking for.

U.S. officials here say Putin acted as was expected, when was expected. So the question now is, is this the beginning or is this just the justification for a wider invasion and that's what many officials here believe. And that's what they're looking for as they monitor continued Russian movement.

Just a reminder, Wolf, on Friday, it was 40 percent to 50 percent of Russian troops around Ukraine already in attack position. So he was ready for this, Putin, that is.

BLITZER: Yes. Certainly was all very, very ominous, indeed. Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Much more in Ukraine coming up. There's other important news we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM. A jury deliberations have begun in the federal hate crimes trial of the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery. Our National Correspondent Ryan Young is joining us live from Brunswick, Georgia. Ryan, you were there in the courtroom, tell us what you heard.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, I really wish we could show you some of the video from inside the courtroom but we know this is federal courts so you can't show video from this case. I can tell you on the inside, you can see the jury was really paying attention to how the prosecution was moving this case for it. And they did something that I was quite surprised about in terms of how they frame this. It's not just about the shooting now. We know, we played that video over and over for the last few years of showing the shooting.

But the prosecution really hammered home today what happened in the moments after the shooting and how all three men reacted as Ahmaud was there on the ground dying. And the fact that there was no empathy provided to him, even after they realized there was no weapon on him at all and even after they called the police. It seemed like everything was being -- where he was treated less than human that was brought up over and over again.

And then the prosecution really hammered home the words that were used by these men. They've been able to pull text messages and social media chatter and how they treated other people in the community. And the fact they've raised this racial component really sort of hammered home to the jury what they were trying to say over and over again that this was racially motivated.

I can tell you some of the testimony was so strong that Wanda Cooper- Jones inside court was weeping because, again, they were saying that Ahmaud was treated less than human the day of the shooting. That was almost two years ago. In fact, listen to Wanda Cooper-Jones talk about this case.



WANDA COOPER-JONES, AHMAUD ARBERY'S MOTHER: I think that the DOJ, they present the case very well. I think that, like I shared on Friday, that they did a very good job of presenting the evidence, and we have a very good chance of getting a guilty verdict on all counts.


YOUNG: Yes. Wolf, something that surprised me while I was watching this case on the inside, one of the defense attorneys was actually falling asleep as they were giving instructions to the jury. The jury was sitting on the edge of the seats, paying attention to the judge. And there I saw this defense attorney kind of rocking back and forth, closing his eyes.

And then from there, I've also talked to the family after court today. They feel very satisfied with the way the prosecution has moved this case for. Once again, I mentioned the fact that we're almost at the two-year anniversary date of this shooting. The family hopes that there's a verdict before then, and they believe this closing argument was so strong that they will get the verdict they want. It's something this entire community is paying attention to. Wolf?

BLITZER: Ryan Young in Brunswick, Georgia for us, thank you.

And let's get some more on the case. Joining us now our Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig. Elie, do you think prosecutors prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these defendants killed Arbery because of his race?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, because this is a federal hate crimes trial, the prosecutors have to prove not only that the defendants wrongfully killed Ahmaud Arbery, but they did so because of his race. To that end, no question prosecutors introduced extensive evidence of the racial motive here.

As Ryan just laid out, there was evidence that all three defendants had used racist language, racial epithets at times in connection with anticipating violence against racial minorities. And as Ryan pointed out, the prosecution stressed after Ahmaud Arbery was shot, he was -- the defendants said absolutely nothing to come to his aid, showing that they saw him as something less than human less than. And so that'll be up to the jury. They certainly have plenty of evidence. If they find it beyond a reasonable doubt, then we'll see guilty verdicts.

BLITZER: Arbery's mother, as you know, says that she hopes to have a guilty verdict by tomorrow or Wednesday. Is this case from your perspective, Elie, clear cut enough that the jury could return a verdict pretty quickly?

HONIG: Well, Wolf, we never know how long a jury is going to take. I've seen juries come back with verdicts as quickly as one hour and as long as two weeks. Now, I think the best guideposts we have is if we look back at the state trial, in this case, back in November, that jury took about 11 hours of deliberation spread over two days.

So if we see the same thing here, we will see a verdict around midweek. But remember, juries are just 12 human beings randomly thrown together. It is unpredictable what they will do and when they will do it.

BLITZER: What kind of sentences will these three men be looking at if they're found guilty in this federal hate crimes at trial because as you know, they're already sentenced to life in prison following the convictions at the state level?

HONIG: Yes. Similarly, here, Wolf, in the federal system, they will be looking at life sentences if they're convicted. I do think it's important to point out though, this trial still is important. Even though these defendants may not get any additional time, you can't do more than life because there's a different interest involved here. We passed a law back in 2009, we, as a country, prohibiting violent crimes based on racial hatred. That is different than the state crime, there's an important interest to be vindicated here.

BLITZER: Elie Honig, as usual, thank you very much. Just ahead, more on the breaking news out of Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin has ordered so called peacekeeping troops into separatist-held regions in Ukraine. Also ahead, Queen Elizabeth test positive for COVID. How much risk the virus pose to the 95-year-old monarch despite being vaccinated?



BLITZER: We're tracking the breaking news. The crisis in Ukraine escalating as Vladimir Putin orders Russian troops into separatist- held areas claiming so called peacekeeping mission. We're also following other important news tonight, the FDA says it's carefully examining new data to determine whether healthy adults could benefit from a fourth COVID vaccine. One official telling CNN the extra shots could be rolled out as soon as this fall.

For more on that, let's bring in Dr. Megan Ranney, she's the Associate Dean of Public Health and Brown University. Dr. Ranney, thank you so much for joining us. Will a fourth dose be necessary? Do you think this coming fall will be the right time for most people to start getting a fourth shot.

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, ASSOCIATE DEAN OF PUBLIC HEALTH AND BROWN UNIVERSITY: So this is who needs a fourth shot today, people who are immunosuppressed. Those folks should be going out and getting their fourth shot because it is the equivalent of a third shot for the rest of us. For the rest of Americans, those of us that are relatively healthy, even those of us who are older, the third shot is enough to stave off severe disease, hospitalization and death.

Additionally now, thanks to the advances of science and the investments of our government, we have not just these vaccines that work well, Wolf, but we also have Paxlovid, a pill that you can take at home if you're diagnosed with COVID. And we have monoclonal antibodies. So maybe in the future, we'll need fourth shots. Certainly, we need yearly shots for flu. We need boosters for all kinds of diseases. But today is a bit early.

BLITZER: I asked the question because I get a flu shot every year. I'm sure you do as well. Our viewers do, as well. Do you think eventually we'll all be getting a COVID shot once a year?

RANNEY: I think it's highly probable that we'll be looking at annual COVID shots similar to what we have with flu shots, especially if COVID does keep mutating if we keep having to fight new variants. But I'll tell you that there was a lot of really encouraging news this week that the three shots, those two initial mRNA Pfizer or Moderna shots plus a booster have long lasting protection against Omicron and that there are signs that the antibodies and the other parts of your immune system may be strong enough to fight off variants yet to come. So quite likely that we'll have annual shots but a little too early to tell.

[17:45:17] BLITZER: Let me also, while I have your, Dr. Ranney, ready to get your thoughts on Queen Elizabeth's COVID infection. She's only experiencing, we're told, mild symptoms at the moment, but she is 95 years old, almost 96. How much risk does COVID pose to someone her age despite being fully vaccinated?

RANNEY: So she has both a great argument for the power of vaccines plus boosters. The fact that she is only experiencing mild cold like symptoms shows you just how strong these vaccines are. And, unfortunately, she is in that high risk group where if anyone is going to get sick despite vaccination, it would be older folks like the Queen. She is exactly the reason that we are spending so much time and energy on developing and making available these treatments like Paxlovid that are most effective in the first couple of days after you get diagnosed.

So I am hopeful that she will pull through OK. I'm sure she has an amazing group of doctors taking care of her and providing every preventive treatment in addition to that important vaccination and booster. But certainly at her age, even small infections can cause big problems.

BLITZER: We wish her only, only the best the speedy recovery, indeed. Dr. Ranney, thanks as usual for joining us.

Coming up, CNN is now on the ground in Ukraine and in Moscow as Russia's Vladimir Putin threatens to launch a major war. Also ahead, a rash of stabbings and slashings and one man allegedly brandishing a hatchet. All, all of this in one weekend on the New York City subway. What the city is doing to address the violence, that's next.



BLITZER: The breaking news we're following, the situation in Ukraine growing increasingly dire right now, as Vladimir Putin recognizes separatists back regions in order so called peacekeeping troops to move in. Stay with CNN, we're going to have much more on that coming up in just a few moments.

Other news we're tracking right now, New York City's new subway safety plan is now in effect following a weekend of violence, including at least six stabbings or slashings reported by the NYPD and subways since Friday alone. CNN's Brynn Gingras is joining us from New York right now. Brynn, so what's in this new plan?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this is a comprehensive plan involving multiple city agencies addressing the crime, mental illness episodes, people who are -- without a home all of these being seen on New York City subways right now. And after this recent rash of violence that New Yorker saw over the weekend, a lot of people are asking, is this plan going to work?


GINGRAS (voice-over): Tonight, a zero tolerance policy in New York City's transit system is in effect.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS (D), NEW YORK: No more smoking, no more doing drugs, no more sleeping. No more doing barbecues on the subway system. No more just doing whatever you want. No, those days are over.

GINGRAS (voice-over): This as the city recorded an alarming six stabbings or slashings over the weekend in the subway system. And two alleged assaults were NYPD officers were covered this, a hatchet, they say, was used in one attack.

STEPHEN GALLEY, NYC COMMUTER: Ever since the pandemic, there's been more mental health issues. And we see it a lot on the train.

GINGRAS (voice-over): The string of underground attacks started Friday evening, a man was stabbed at a station near Columbia University after police say he asked someone to stop smoking. It happened just hours after city and state leaders announced a multilayer plan to improve transit conditions.

GOV. KATHY HOCHUL (D), NEW YORK: I have one message for New Yorkers. We can and we will do better.

GINGRAS (voice-over): The 17 page safety plan begins with hundreds of NYPD officers canvassing stations and trains to enforce the rules of riding. They'll work as part of 30 response teams from several social service agencies who will address mental health needs and homelessness.

JASON WILCOX, NYPD CHIEF OF TRANSIT: Our officers are going to physically ride the trains with these teams. We're going to support them. We're going to be at the end stations to help them when they take people off the train to get them the services they need.

GINGRAS (voice-over): The plan already facing resistance and the mayor standing firm.

ADAMS: The vast majority of the unhoused and mentally ill are not dangerous. But we have to be honest about the numbers of individuals who are dealing with mental health crisis, they are dangerous to themselves and dangerous to New Yorkers.

JACQUELYN SIMONE, COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS: We are very concerned that it overly relies on criminalization and policing strategies to address which is -- what is fundamentally a housing and mental health crisis.

GINGRAS (voice-over): The crackdown comes a month after the killing of Michelle Go, a 40-year-old woman who was pushed onto the Time Square tracks by a man, police say, was experiencing homelessness. Calls for reform were immediate.

ALLISON FULLWOOD, NYC COMMUTER: Based on what's been going on lately in the subways, then I really think that's a good idea because people need to feel safe.

(END VIDEOTAPE) GINGRAS: And Mayor Eric Adams admits this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Different people are going to have different needs as they work to improve conditions underground, but he says it is so important not only to people safety, but also getting New York City back to how it was economically before the pandemic. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Brynn, thank you very much. Brynn Gingras in New York.

The breaking news coming up next, a major escalation in the Ukraine crisis. The Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering not what he calls peacekeeping. He's calling a peacekeeping troops into separatist areas of Ukraine possibly as soon as tonight.


We're going live to Kiev and Moscow for all the late breaking developments.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, Vladimir Putin orders Russian troops into separatist-held areas of Ukraine. He claims they're on a so called peacekeeping mission in regions he just declared as independent. The U.S. and its allies are scrambling to respond to Putin's provocation and fears that the war they've been trying to prevent may now become a reality.