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Russia Widens War With First Airstrikes On Western Ukraine; Biden Says U.S. Will Not Fight World War Three In Ukraine; United Nations Says, 2.5 Million Ukrainians Flee War-Torn Country; New Video Shows Attack On Apartment Complex In Southern Ukraine; New Details Of Americans Detained By Russia. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 11, 2022 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Be sure to be tune in this Sunday's State of the Union. My colleague Dana Bash is going to talk to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, plus the mayor of Kyiv. That's at 9:00 A.M. and noon Eastern.

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Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll see you Monday.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, fiery attacks as Russia widens its war in Ukraine, including the first air strikes in the western part of the country. This hour, we're getting reports of new assaults and new advances by Kremlin forces.

President Biden is making a solemn vow that the U.S. will not fight World War III in Ukraine. He's warning that a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia would be catastrophic.

Our correspondents are standing by as we bring you CNN's global team coverage of Russia's war against Ukraine.

We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight we're seeing Russian forces intensify their bombardment of multiple cities across Ukraine. New explosions -- listen to this -- erupting just a little while ago in Mykolaiv, a southern city now under heavy bombardment.

In Kyiv, CNN's Clarissa Ward is standing by with an update on the Russian advance toward the capital. But first we have a wrap of all the breaking news on the war from CNN's Oren Liebermann.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, the Russian military is expanding its invasion of Ukraine, increasing its attacks on the western part of the country. Fire and smoke seen in the aftermath of strikes on airfields near the Polish border. It's a scene that played out in cities all across the country as Russia unleashed a barrage of attacks in the early morning hours.

In the central city of Dnipro, fire poured out of a destroyed factory, the ruble littering the ground. And another strike near a preschool and an apartment building. In Chernihiv, an isolated city north of Kyiv, an explosion destroyed a soccer stadium in a nearby library. This crater shows the force of the impact.

In Izyum, a city near the border with Russia, a strike destroyed a home for the disabled, many of whom are elderly. And there's growing evidence that the town of Volnovakha in eastern Ukraine has fallen to Russian forces and their separatist allies.

Russian troops are seen running through the decimated streets. The Russian advance is closing in on Kyiv. It is slow progress against a fierce Ukrainian resistance that has turned the capital city into a fortress.

The Pentagon says one Russian approach to the city is about ten miles outside the city's center. Satellite images show the convoy of Russian tanks stalled outside Kyiv for days has now largely dispersed, but it's unclear what the movement means for the capital.

JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: The people of Kyiv would tell you they're under assault right now. There's Russian bombardment and shelling going on quite violently as we speak. I don't want to make too much of the fact that there's satellite imageries talking about this convoy moving off into tree lines or dispersing. That could just be force protection because the Ukrainians have continued to threaten that convoy and its progress.

LIEBERMANN: Russia has falsely accused the U.S. of supporting experiments in Ukraine with biological and chemical weapons. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says it's a sign that Russia itself intends to use such weapons.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: This makes me really worried because we've been repeatedly convinced if you want to know Russia's plans, look at what Russia accuses others of.

LIEBERMANN: President Joe Biden didn't go as far as drawing a red line on the use of chemical weapons by Russia, but he did issue this threat.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: I'm not going to speak about the intelligence, but Russia would pay a severe price if they use chemicals.

LIEBERMANN: Oren Liebermann, CNN, at the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Oren, thank you very much.

Let's go to Kyiv right now. The Pentagon says the Ukrainian capital is under assault quite violently right now. Our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward continues to do amazing reporting for all of us.

Clarissa, you went to a suburb, the suburb just outside of Kyiv that's been pounded and pounded by Russian forces. Tell us what you saw.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Wolf, we went to the bridge which our viewers are now, I think, very familiar with, that destroyed bridge where you've seen this tide of humanity pouring in every day, escaping from those heavily hit suburbs.

Today, much quieter in terms of the flood of civilians coming out, but still a lot of heavy bombardment going on in the not too distance.


We actually went there to link up with a group of volunteers. These are some of the most extraordinarily brave people I have spent time with, Wolf. Daria was a lawyer up until two weeks ago. Her friend Anton was a scientist. And now what they do is drive deep into the suburb of Irpin' to try to evacuate people who are stranded and who might need help.

We went along with them for the ride to see. The streets of Irpin', I can't even tell you, Wolf, you could hear a pin drop. The only thing you can hear is the steady boom of artillery. It's extraordinary to see actually the few parts that they can still move around in that have not been taken over by the Russians, have not been completely decimated by the shelling, although you do see some bad destruction along the way.

But what you don't see is human life because there's no power. There's no water. There's no gas. There's no heat. We went to one apartment complex. Basically they go around and knock on doors and shout. They have a list of addresses of people whose relatives have said, listen, can you help us find these people? And they go and try their luck place after place.

We went to one apartment complex, Wolf, where it was extraordinary to see an elderly couple basically had started a fire outside to keep warm, but also to cook their food. They told us they were not leaving. I asked them why they were not leaving because of the obvious danger of staying. And they said, you know, where would we go essentially? We have nowhere to go. And so for us, it's easier just to stay here.

Again, that kind of extraordinary courage. This is our home. We're going to stay. We're going to stick it out.

On the way back, we also ran into volunteers, not just Ukrainian volunteers, but one American, in fact. His name is Dwight Crow. He's from San Francisco, California. Take a listen to what he said about what he's doing here in Ukraine. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DWIGHT CROW, AMERICAN VOLUNTEER HELPING TRAPPED UKRAINIANS: When I saw the invasion, I honestly bought a plane ticket and got here as quick as I could. This feels like the biggest fight for freedom I've seen in my lifetime.

WARD: Have you ever been in a war zone before?

CROW: Not like this.

WARD: For most Americans, this would be a little out of their comfort zone.

CROW: This is a little out of my comfort zone. It's scary when you hear the bombs going off. At the same time, there's people a lot closer to it than us, and they're really the ones in harm's way, and we're just doing our part to get them out of here.


WARD: He went on to talk about how inspired, Wolf, he has been by all the Ukrainian volunteers. He is working with people who had ordinary jobs just a few weeks ago who are now stepping into extraordinary roles as they try to help fleeing civilians escape safely, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, and you know this better than I do, Clarissa, the Russian forces are only about ten miles or so outside of Kyiv. You're there in the Ukrainian capital for us. What are you learning about this new Russian advance on the capital?

WARD: Well, this has been the real concern always is that Russian forces would seek to encircle the city. Previously they had really been focused on the northwest and the west of the city and certainly we heard a lot of activity going on from that area.

But what the Ukrainian authorities are focused on right now is this push towards the east. We heard today from the brother of Kyiv's mayor, who said that he believed that Kyiv could be encircled any day now although it's very difficult to sort of put a timeline on these things.

He also warned that there was only food sufficient for roughly two weeks if a real siege did begin. And previously the mayor had warned that they still believe this is Russia's objective, to cut off the city, starve the people, bombard them until they can implement the toppling of the government, Wolf.

BLITZER: And for what, the Ukraine represented absolutely no threat to Russia at all, and now we see these Russian troops, the third week of this war, simply going in and pounding and pounding and pounding these residential areas, killing a lot of men, women, and children.

Clarissa Ward, stay safe over there. We will be in touch. Thank you.

And as this war in Ukraine grows more and more dire, President Biden has sent an emphatic new message about the conflict and his determination to prevent a third World War.

Let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, certainly some of the strongest words yet from the president of the United States about what the U.S. is not willing to do to defend Ukraine.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. This was incredibly emphatic language from President Biden, echoing a lot of what he has said privately about U.S. Involvement in Ukraine. As you have seen certain lawmakers call on the United States to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, you've certainly seen that from the Ukrainian president himself, who President Biden spoke with today, we should note.

But President Biden, while speaking with House Democrats today, made clear that if Putin goes after a NATO country, the U.S. will have no choice but to get involved, something, Wolf, that he said today could lead to World War III. But when it comes to Ukraine and it comes to U.S. forces being on the ground or in the skies there, the president was very clear where he stood on this.



JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: We're going to make sure Ukraine has the weapons to defend themselves from an invading Russian force although we will not fight the third World War in Ukraine. The idea that we're going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand and don't kid yourself, no matter what you all say. That's called World War III.


COLLINS: Wolf, a very firm no there to Democrats, including not just Democrats, but also Republicans this week who pressed Pentagon officials about why the United States was not sending aircraft to Ukraine as they have requested or establishing a no-fly zone. But President Biden very clear there, where he believes they belong.

BLITZER: The president also made it very clear that Russia, in his words, would pay a severe price, severe price, if they were to use chemical weapons in Ukraine. He didn't, however, say what that severe price would be, right?

COLLINS: No, he didn't. And, of course, you see his comments there about the military getting involved. It's not clear whether or not that would warrant a military response if Putin did conduct a chemical weapons attack, Wolf. He just said they would pay a severe price.

And he also wouldn't comment on the intelligence that they have, maybe if it is intelligence, showing that Russia is preparing to do this because so far what we've seen officials point to is a pattern, saying that they believe this is something Putin could be preparing to do with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations saying today that she had very serious concerns. This is something Putin was preparing to do, maybe to potentially use chemical weapons to assassinate people, to stage a pretext or a false flag operation, she warned here at the United Nations Security Council, this meeting.

Of course, Wolf, that was a meeting that was called by the Russians, at the request of the Russians, who have been pushing this false claim as Oren was noting earlier that the United States is developing biological weapons in Ukraine. That is something the White House and the Pentagon has said flatly is not true. It is false.

But you continue to see Russian officials push that. And as President Zelenskyy put it in Ukraine, you often see Russia accusing others of doing what they themselves are preparing to do Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Good point indeed. All right Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you very much.

There's more breaking new were following. Russia expands its assault on Ukraine to cities in the west very close to the border with Poland. Poland, of course, a key NATO ally. We're going live to western Ukraine when we come back.



BLITZER: Breaking news this hour, very disturbing new developments in Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Moscow now widening its unprovoked war with its first air strikes on western Ukraine.

Our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto is in the western city of Lviv. Jim, do these strikes on the airfields of the west close to the border with NATO ally Poland signify a new front in this war?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It does. It shows that this war is being waged across the country though the concentration of fire and forces had been in the east to date.

The other significant thing about this, Wolf, is that these strikes, two missile strikes to the northeast of Lviv where we are and to the south, both relatively close to the border with Poland, these were airfields, right? And it appears these were attempts to go after supply lines that the U.S. and NATO have been using to supply weapons to Ukrainian forces, those shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles, anti- aircraft missiles, stingers and others that we've been seeing have an enormous effect on the battlefield.

This strike on these airfields appears to be an attempt to try to cut that off as best that Russian forces can. To date, it's our understanding those weapons are still getting in, but the more you see these strikes, the more significant it could become over time.

It's interesting in Lviv, where we are has been relatively peaceful, but these air raid sirens, they woke us up last night. And it turns out in retrospect that these were those missile strikes on cities nearby.

BLITZER: You hear those sirens going off, you got to get nervous right away. I can only imagine. All right, Jim, stand by.

I also want to bring in Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. General, what does it tell you that Putin is now willing to launch an attack on a city just, what, about 70 miles or so from Poland, a major NATO ally?

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, I think both of you are on to something. It could either be the beginning of an offensive, what we call preparation of the battlefield, although I think at this point they've got enough on their hands inside of Ukraine right now with what's happening around Kyiv, the east, and down south, or it could be, as Jim says what they're trying to do is choke off that supply line of javelins, anti-aircraft missiles, other supplies so that they can hurry up this operation and starve the Ukrainian forces of the equipment that's proved so successful on the battlefield thus far.

BLITZER: And, Jim, I know you've been doing some excellent reporting. You've been doing a lot of excellent reporting throughout this war. But right now you're doing reporting on the weapons that Russia is using in this assault on Ukraine. Tell our viewers what you're learning.

SCIUTTO: That's right. With my colleague, our colleague Katie Bo Lillis, and what U.S. officials have noticed over these last 2 1/2 weeks since the invasion started is that the Russian air force in particular has been relying more on dumb bombs, as they're known, not precision-guided munitions, than precision-guided munitions, which leads the Pentagon to believe a couple of things. One, that this could be part of a broader pattern where Russian fire, they really just don't care if they hit non-military targets, right?


And sometimes, frankly, they're deliberately hitting non-military targets. But that the fire is indiscriminate. That's one factor here. But it does actually have an effect on the battlefield because Russian military jets, when they fly and drop so-called dumb bombs, they have to fly lower to the ground to have more accuracy.

But that also makes those aircraft more vulnerable to ground fire, to surface to air missile fire, which is factored into some of these shoot-downs we've seen by Ukrainian forces of Russian military jets. So the U.S. and NATO are watching the way Russia is using its munitions very closely.

BLITZER: General Kimmitt, about that, what do you think? Why wouldn't Putin and the Russian military, for example, use their most sophisticated weapons at their disposal?

KIMMITT: Well, at this point they either may be low in that inventory because they just never produced it, or it could be that they're saving their good stuff for a little bit later. Look at the focus of their bombing campaigns and their artillery campaigns right now.

These are not key military targets. These are strikes in cities and infrastructure to basically cause panic among the civilians and get them to evacuate and to demonstrate what they're going to do when they start the big fights around Kyiv.

It could well be that they're saving their more sophisticated weapons for either the fight in Kyiv or for a period when the Ukrainian military is massed up enough where those precision weapons can hit key targets. But with the Russians, this entire campaign has fooled a lot of us in what they're doing.

BLITZER: It certainly has. You know, Jim, as you reported earlier today, this is your last night in Ukraine after a month covering this war. What has stood out to you the most during your time there? And let me just express my appreciation to you on behalf of all of our viewers for the amazing work you've been doing.

SCIUTTO: Well, thank you, Wolf. I'm lucky to be here with a great CNN team. I would say one of the biggest things frankly is a sense of disbelief, that we are watching a land and air war on Europe's largest country, 44 million people, by Russia, unprovoked, with consequences for those 44 million people. A good 10 percent of the population is now displaced.

Many of them leaving the country. Others moving to other parts of the country, mostly women and children, right? The men staying back to fight. Thousands have died so far on both sides frankly. Russia sustaining just tremendous losses.

But then also to see the way Ukraine is standing up to save its home, right? And that is soldiers fighting and dying, but it's also average people doing their part in a way that I think the world can admire, but also watch with some sadness because they're suffering. They're suffering as well.

BLITZER: Thanks again, Jim, for your really courageous reporting, you and your team. All of our reporters and photojournalists in Ukraine right now, we are grateful for all your excellent work. Jim Sciutto, thank you very much. General Kimmitt, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, the Ukrainian refugee crisis is personal for a Romanian family taking in dozens of people who have fled for their lives. We're going to hear their story and a lot more on the breaking news when we come back.



BLITZER: As Russia begins its third week of war, the number of Ukrainian refugees is now up to 2.5 million. 2.5 million and counting. CNN's Miguel Marquez is in Romania where thousands and thousands of refugees are pouring in. Miguel, what are these refugees telling you?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, that, one, they expect to return home. Then when you ask, when do you think that will be? They say, well, maybe two weeks, four weeks, a month, two months.

The uncertainty of these people's lives is unbelievable. But for all the horror of what is happening in Ukraine, the goodness of what is happening here in Romania and across many countries in Europe is astounding to see.

We visited the house of a Romanian family that has taken in right now 31 people while we were there. Three more are arriving later tonight. In all over the last two weeks, they've taken in 61 refugees. It takes a small army on their own part just to keep them okay.

We spoke to a mother and a daughter about what it's like to have gone from a normal life just a few weeks ago in a European city to being a refugee.


ALYONA BATOCHKA, REFUGEE FROM KHARKIV, UKRAINE: I never thought I would be here in other country without my whole family because my dad, my sister, my aunt's husband now in Ukraine, in (INAUDIBLE). So, it's really stressful.

OLGA BATOCHKA, REFUGEE FROM KHARKIV, UKRAINE: We have a beautiful government, beautiful country, beautiful cities. Now that all destroyed, and we have house. We have no families. We will start over. Life is a dark.


MARQUEZ: It is utterly heartbreaking to talk to these people, to hear their individual stories, and that's the difficult part. Every individual that comes here has a different path. Many of them find friends and family in other parts of Europe that they can stay with.


The more this goes on, though, the more that people escape from Ukraine as their homes are being destroyed, they have less money. They have less clothes. They don't even have documents sometimes. It becomes more and more complicated every single time. Wolf?

BLITZER: We see those images. 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees, once again, mostly women and children. Miguel Marquez in Romania, on the border for us with Ukraine, thank you very much.

Let's go to Poland right now where most of the Ukrainian refugees have actually fled. We're joined by Nancy Dent, Senior Communications Officer for the International Rescue Committee. Nancy, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for all you and your teams are doing.

Tell us what you're seeing on the ground in Poland right now and tell us how your organization is trying to help these folks.

NANCY DENT, SENIOR COMMUNICATIONA OFFICER, INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE: Thank you so much for having me. I mean, as your correspondents have said, it's mainly women and children arriving here, and they're arriving without their partners, without their fathers, without their sons.

I spoke to a woman today who had a close friend who was in the hospital that was attacked in Mariupol earlier this week. She survived, but it's very clear that compared to recent weeks, they're arriving more traumatized than ever, and they're arriving on foot with smaller suitcases, maybe a backpack or two. And it really does feel like people are fleeing for their lives now.

The IRC is here to help here in Poland and also on the ground in Ukraine. When people are crossing borders, especially ones like this, they're hugely vulnerable to risks such as exploitation, trafficking, and what they need most is information, access to psychological care, and the IRC on the ground in Poland working through partners to provide legal assistance, to provide trauma counseling and medical equipment as well for those teams who are working in the reception centers along the border.

BLITZER: As you know, western Ukraine so far has been relatively safe, a relatively safe place for Ukrainians fleeing these Russian attacks in the east. But now that Russia is actually targeting western Ukrainian citizens -- cities I should say, not very far away from Poland, do you worry that's going to make the humanitarian situation even a lot worse?

DENT: Exactly. And while there're plenty of people here to help in Poland, the majority of the humanitarian need is in Ukraine. You know, like you've mentioned before, there's 2.5 million refugees, but there's 1.85 million people who are internally displaced, and many of them have moved towards these western cities like Lviv and Vinnytsia.

I spoke to a mother today who told me that things could be much worse because of the time of year. She comes from a small village in Eastern Ukraine where there's grocery shops supplemented by the crops that they grow. It's winter. It's freezing cold. They can't feed themselves. Power has been cut off. They don't have water. And the health risks are huge, but, you know, people are at risk of hypothermia, infectious diseases, not to mention the mental health issues that come with enduring a trauma like this.

BLITZER: This is an awful war that the Russians started. Nancy Dent, of International Rescue Committee, thanks for joining us and once again thanks for everything you're doing to help these refugees.

And for information about how you, our viewers, can help humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, go to and help impact your world.

The breaking news continues next with more on the growing fear that Russia will use chemical or biological weapons in its brutal assault on Ukraine.


[18:35:00] BLITZER: More now on the breaking news, the growing concern that Russia will use chemical or biological weapons in an effort to conquer Ukraine. CNN Europe Editor Nina dos Santos is working that part of the story.


NINA DOS SANTOS, CNN EUROPE EDITOR (voice over): First, it was nuclear weapons Russia claimed Ukraine was working on. Now, the Kremlin, with no evidence, is suggesting Kyiv has a secret chemical stash too. These allegations have been debunked multiple times, but fresh talk of chemical weapons is giving cause for concern.

ZELENSKYY: What are these allegations of preparing chemical attacks? Have you decided to carry out de-chemicalization of Ukraine, using ammonia, using phosphorus? What else have you prepared for us?

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They not only have the capacity, they have a history of using chemical and biological weapons, and that in this moment we should have our eyes open for that possibility.

DOS SANTOS: The White House warns Russia could be setting up a false flag operation, laying the groundwork for a chemical attack of its own just as in Syria, where Russia was accused of providing cover for Bashar Al-Assad's regime to use toxic gas on his own people.

KENNETH ROTH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HUMAN RIGHT'S WATCH: You know, Russia has this indirect complicity in chemical weapon use, and indeed went out of its way to try to cover up the Syrian military's use of chemical weapons.

DOS SANTOS: Thus far, we haven't seen Russia engaging in full chemical weapons warfare on innocent civilians in large numbers. Have we?

ROTH: I mean, he hasn't done that so far, but it is part of what leads people to believe this is not beyond the realm of possibility.

DOS SANTOS: What weapons does Moscow have? No one knows exactly. There's no evidence that Russia has used most common chemical weapons, like chlorine and sarin, or are banned internationally for that cruelty.

BIDEN: Russia will pay a severe price if they use chemical weapons.

DOS SANTOS: That price is not yet clear, though.

How do you think the world would react?

BOB SEELY, BRITISH PARLIAMENT: It would be crossing a line, but it's not necessarily one that will spark a military response. If Putin knows that we will react militarily, then we know that he can decide when and on what terms the west enters this war or NATO enters this war, which would be incredibly unwise.

DOS SANTOS: At a U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday, the U.S. was in no mood for disinformation.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATION: Today, the world is watching Russia do exactly what we warned it would.


DOS SANTOS: Russia is already facing calls for a war crime investigation for its alleged use of other banned weapons. The mere mention of chemical ones is a worrying escalation.


DOS SANTOS (on camera): Well, Wolf, I must stress that experts haven't offered any evidence for this. This is just a word of warning from the west. But you can expect given the severity and the unpredictability of this situation in Ukraine, an increased focus on satellite imagery of Russian troops to see if they're moving anything around Ukraine's borders with the hope of being able to give the Ukrainian air forces and army a heads-up so they could potentially destroy anything brought into the country first. Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN's Nina dos Santos, thank you very much for that report. Important information indeed.

Let's get more on the breaking news right now. Joining us, the former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, former Defense Department General Counsel as well Jeh Johnson. Mr. Secretary thank you so much for joining us.

Over the last few days as you know, the White House has repeatedly sounded the alarm about potential Russian chemical weapons attacks. Does it sound like they know something we don't necessarily know?

JEH JOHNSON, FORMER DEFENSE DEPARTMENT GENERAL COUNSEL: Wolf, our intelligence community under the leadership of Avril Haines, a person I have a very high regard for, has in my judgment done an excellent job of declassifying intelligence, sorting through whether or not it would compromise sources and methods so that the public could understand exactly what Russia is up to.

They've been forward-leaning about interpreting the intelligence, and so anything that comes out of this intelligence community, I'd have to place a lot of stock in. I am concerned that the Putin regime might use chemical weapons on Ukrainian citizens.

I said on this show to you 13 days ago, when we were just two or three days into this invasion, that as the images of the slaughter of innocent civilians in Ukraine came to our attention on the international stage, on the domestic stage, there would be more pressure on the Biden administration to intervene more directly against the Putin regime.

If Putin uses chemical weapons against innocent civilians, innocent men, women, and children in Ukraine, I believe that will be crossing a line of sorts. Recall that during the Trump administration, we launched air strikes against chemical weapons facilities in Syria to prevent Assad from doing the same thing to his own people. And so if that happens, the Biden administration, NATO, the western world will have a very, very serious decision that they're going to have to make.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. As you know, President Biden said today that Putin would pay, in his words, a severe price if he were to use chemical weapons. If Biden is unwilling, though, to trigger a military confrontation with Putin, what severe price can he make Russia pay?

JOHNSON: We can continue to arm the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian government with weapons, with ammunition. I'm sure that there are additional sanctions that can be imposed. Sanctions will only work, though, over time. Sanctions have a delayed impact on wealthy Russians, on Russian oil and gas, on various companies.

And so if I were in the situation room right now, I'd be asking that very same question as a member of the NSE. What's next in the event that Putin goes to chemical weapons or in the event that he continues to target innocent Ukrainian civilians?

We're getting closer and closer, Wolf, to finding ourselves in a direct military confrontation with Russia. We're seeing more and more calls for no-fly zones. We're seeing more and more calls for the use of our air bases in Europe for air strikes against Russia. And this is a moment to remember that so often in our history, we find ourselves inch by inch escalating into an armed conflict with another nation, which is relatively easy to do and much harder to extract yourself from.

BLITZER: Another nation that has nuclear weapons as well. The former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, thanks as usual for joining us. We are grateful to you. Appreciate it very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, we're getting new information into THE SITUATION ROOM right now about WNBA Superstar Player Brittney Griner's detention in Russia and fears that she could be facing even more charges from the Russians.



BLITZER: This just coming in, more breaking news out of Ukraine, disturbing news, heavy shelling around the southern city of Mykolaiv. We have violent new video coming in. Watch this.


BLITZER: CNN international security editor Nick Paton Walsh is in nearby Odessa, Ukraine's third largest city.

Nick, so what is the city of Mykolaiv is facing right now?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: I have to say, Wolf, looking at that video, it looks like the worst bombardment that it's seen over the past two weeks or so.


We've been out here and seen on the horizon the volume of heavy artillery, that Russia occasionally throws at civilian areas. It seems possibly out of frustration at how badly the military campaign around the town seems to be going, but also I think possibly to generally terrify the inhabitants there who have been holding out quite well.

The regional head tweeted out on Telegram today to suggest that a cafe apartment block had been hit in this latest round of heavy weapons being used and saying essentially there was intense bombardment against specifically civilian areas indiscriminately. We've seen these tactics ourselves, seeing the cassettes sort of storage cluster munitions rockets landing in cars, in vegetable patches.

We've seen how airstrikes have targeted vegetable warehouses, innocent civilian homes, it's quite clear the pattern of behavior here.

The question is, is Mykolaiv the next place, after Mariupol fell to its east, that Russia is looking to encircle and slowly grind down into ruins? The suggestion has been that we have seen troops move to its north. We saw some of that ourselves in recent days. And there may be a bid to try to encircle it and cut it off from the western hand side.

It is unclear quit what tonight's violence means. But certainly, tomorrow, Mykolaiv will be waking up again with rubble in its midst, and a serious fear that this heralds yet another Russian bid to clumsily and often ineffectively try and move into the city center -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I don't know how many innocent men and women and children are being killed in the process.

Nick Paton Walsh, stay safe over there in Odessa. Thank you very much.

Also tonight, the escalating Russian assault in Ukraine is sparking growing concern for three Americans being detained by the Putin regime in Moscow.

CNN's Brian Todd is working this part of story for us.

I understand we're getting some new information, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are learning tonight that the condition that a former U.S. marine who is being detained in Russia has taken a downward turn and basketball star Brittney Griner, we are told, is basically cut off from access to U.S. officials. But the State Department says it is working diligently on her case.


TODD (voice-over): New concerns tonight about the fates of three Americans being detained in Russia. Basketball star Brittney Griner, we are now learning, has been held for three weeks, since February 17th, according to her hometown Congressman Colin Allred. She's had no access to anyone from the U.S. government, he says. It's not even clear where Griner is being held.

REP. COLIN ALLRED (D-TX): She should be allowed to come home as soon as possible and not be swept up in this larger conflict that's happening.

TODD: Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport with what Russian authorities said was cannabis oil in her luggage. They accused Griner of smuggling narcotics, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Members of Congress and veteran diplomats are worried tonight that the two-time Olympic medalist status as a star athlete might work against her, as is her sexual orientation. Griner is gay and married. Russia has very strict LGBTQ laws.

KURT VOLKER, FORMER U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVES FROM UKRAINE: What I would expect Russians to use the fact that her wife if making public statements and these are being reported in the media and social media as propagandization of LGBTQ plus rights, was then -- could be another crime that they could hold against her.

TODD: The parents of another detained American, former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed described themselves as panicked over his condition. Following a call with him yesterday, Reed's parents say his physical condition has taken a turn for the worse, that had already been dire.

JOEY REED, FATHER OF TREVOR REED, DETAINED IN RUSSIA: He says he is coughing constantly, coughing up blood throughout the day. Fever over 100 degrees and he has pain in his chest, just all the signs of tuberculosis.

TODD: In a new statement, Reed's parents say he was told he'd be sent to a prison hospital. But when they were on the phone with him yesterday, he was summon to a disciplinary commission, and quote, we fear authorities might send him back to solitary confinement, instead.

Reed and fellow former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan were convicted separately for crimes they both empathically denied and have been detained in Russia since well before the invasion of Ukraine.

Whelan's sister gave a CNN a fresh clue of his condition.

ELIZABETH WHELAN, SISTER OF PAUL WHELAN, DETAINED IN RUSSIA: He is doing as well as can be expected in a forced labor camp in the middle of Russia.

TODD: Tonight, experts are openly concerned about the futures of these three Americans, given the tensions with Vladimir Putin over the conflict in Ukraine are only intensifying.

How difficult will be to get them out? Is it even possible?

VOLKER: We are at such a different level of confrontation right now that they really are being used as pawns by Russia. He is not going to harm these three, but he's not going to get them out of jail either.


TODD (on camera): CNN has reached out to the Russian foreign ministry for information on Brittney Griner's whereabouts and her condition. We have not heard back -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Brian Todd, thank you very much. More news right after this.


BLITZER: Finally tonight, as our hearts go out to all those who are suffering because of the war in Ukraine, we want to share some news that we hope will raise your spirits as a certainly has raised hours.

Look at this beautiful new member of our SITUATION ROOM family. Her name is Emmeline Grace Filkins, and she's the daughter of our amazing producer, Courtney Pence, and her wonderful husband John.

Emmy was born Monday weighing just over seven pounds. Mom and baby are healthy. The family couldn't be happier and we know that at this moment in the world, how very, very fortunate they feel.

Courtney, John and Emmy, all of us here at CNN wishing nothing but the best.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll be back once again tomorrow for a special Saturday edition of THE SITUATION ROOM from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.