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U.S. Doubles Down On War Crime Talk As Russia Hits Civilians; Survivors Emerging Alive From Rubble Of Bombed Theater; Russia Brutalizing Ukraine As Putin's War Enters Fourth Week; Russian State Media: Griner's Arrest Extended Until May 19. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired March 17, 2022 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. Russia targets Eastern Ukraine's biggest market in fiery new attacks on civilians. President Biden says Vladimir Putin is a murderous dictator waging an immoral war, as the U.S. doubles down and accusing Putin of war crimes and warns of the horrors he may unleash next.
In Ukraine tonight, there are urgent concerns about children being targeted after the bombing of a theater used as a shelter. But there is also a ray of hope. Survivors are emerging from the wreckage alive.
CNN is on the frontlines in Ukraine. Our correspondents are also standing by in Poland, here in the United States, as Russia's brutal war enters a fourth week.
We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in The Situation Room.
This hour, the civilian death toll in Ukraine is climbing and climbing. The United Nations now estimates more than 700 people have been killed, including dozens and dozens of children.
CNN's Sam Kiley is in the war zone. He's getting new information about a Russian attack where an American was among the dead.
But, first, let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, as more and more civilians are directly targeted by Russia, the Biden administration is now ramping up its rhetoric.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They certainly are, Wolf. And one day after President Biden labeled President Putin a war criminal for the first time, we're seeing other officials here at the White House follow his lead, as they are also warning about China aligning itself too closely with the Kremlin that the president is now referring to as a murderous dictator, all as President Biden is set to speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping tomorrow for the first time tomorrow in four months.
COLLINS (voice over): President Biden unrestrained tonight in his assessment of Russian President Putin.
JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: A pure thug who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.
COLLINS: With the Kremlin's bloody invasion of Ukraine entering its fourth week, U.S. officials are no longer hesitating in branding Putin a war criminal.
ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY: BLINKEN: Yesterday, President Biden said that, in his opinion, war crimes have been committed in Ukraine. Personally, I agree.
COLLINS: Russia calling that unforgivable rhetoric and pushing back as survivors were being pulled from the rubble after Russia bombed a Ukrainian theater where hundreds of civilians have been sheltering in the basement. Satellite images taken before bombing show the word, children, spelled out on two sides of the theater.
JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If that is not considered a war crime by human beings, what is?
COLLINS: As the civilian toll grows higher, the U.S. says Putin shows no signs of relenting and may be growing more desperate with Secretary Blinken warning about his possible next steps.
BLINKEN: We believe that Moscow may be setting the stage to use a chemical weapon and then falsely blame Ukraine to justify escalating its attacks on the Ukrainian people.
We believe Russia will bring its mercenaries from private military groups and foreign countries to Ukraine.
COLLINS: President Biden will hold a critical call tomorrow with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time since November.
PSAKI: This is an opportunity for President Biden to assess where President Xi stands.
COLLINS: The call comes as the U.S. is warning that China is considering answering Russia's request for more military equipment in Ukraine.
BLINKEN: We're considering that they're considering directly assisting Russia with military equipments to use in Ukraine.
COLLINS: China has refused to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine so far or even call it an invasion as they have amplified Russian conspiracy theories instead. PSAKI: The fact that China has not denounced what Russia is doing in and of itself speaks volumes. And it also speaks volumes not only Russia and Ukraine but around the world.
COLLINS: The U.S. promising consequences if China helps Russia without saying what those repercussions will be.
Can you say without saying what they are that they will be sanctioned if they do help Russia with military equipment for this invasion?
PSAKI: I'm just not going to outline what the consequences will look like and the president obviously with speak with President Xi tomorrow and he'll speak directly about that.
COLLINS: And, Wolf, during that press conference that Secretary Blinken held earlier, he did also confirmed that an American citizen has died in Ukraine. He did not offer any other details besides confirming the death that we know Ukrainian police had put out a statement earlier saying that the death was a result of several other civilian deaths, as well as the result of Russian artillery fire. And we have now learned that man's name was James Whitney Hill.
BLITZER: All right. Kaitlan, thanks very much, Kaitlan Collins at the White House.
Let's go from the White House to the Ukraine capital. Our Senior International Correspondent Sam Kiley is on the scene for us.
Sam, the civilian death toll clearly is mounting across the country. Tell us more, first of all, about the latest bombardment on a northern city in Ukraine where this American was killed.
SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a journey of which you'll recall, Wolf, was the first town in the line of advance of the beginning of the Russian invasion, when they came in from Belarus.
But the Ukrainians have held out all the way through now into the third week of this fight, and as consequence of that, wherever there has been a stiff Ukrainian resistance, there have been civilian casualties at the hands of the Russians. And Chernihiv has been a place that has never been spared. And in the last 24 hours according to the local government, 53 people have been killed, including Mr. Hill, the latest American casualty, and ten people who were queuing at a bread queue yesterday. They were lining up to try and buy bread. In both cases, it's understood they were hit are artillery. And it's the use of artillery against civilians, which has now really begun to characterize operations, exceptionally almost here in Kyiv.
There was a civilian death today but it was a result of a cruise missile being shot down here by the Ukrainians, a caliber cruise missile that clearly intending precision weapon for a change heading for a different target, because one of the issues here, Wolf, has been the increasing use by the Russians of dumb bombs and of area weapons, like multiple rocket-launching systems. So, when they do use a precise weapon, such as they used in Mariupol, you know that they really meant to hit that target. Elsewhere, it is just profligate disregard for civilian life, Wolf.
BLITZER: It certainly is. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, as you know, was pretty powerful, made an explicit reference to the Holocaust today when he addressed the German parliament. Tell our viewers what he said.
KILEY: Well, President Zelenskyy has gone around the world pressing the right red buttons, Churchill in the United Kingdom, Martin Luther King and others in the United States. But in Germany, he chose, because of how very frustrated he is by the German response to the plight of Ukraine both economically and militarily, frustrated over the lack of supply of weapons to support his effort here in Ukraine. And so, almost inevitably, though, he invoked not only the iron curtain but the Holocaust.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: Every year, politicians say, never again. Now, I see that these words are worthless. In Europe, our people is being destroyed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KILEY: Now, that very explicit reference there designed to make the Germans feel very uncomfortable. It is the Germans who have, over the last year-and-a-half, for example, supplied more weaponry to the authoritarian regime in Egypt than they have to the democracy here in Ukraine. Now, they have their own reasons for that. Not the least constitutional but he is anxious to see some weapons coming its way from the Germans and everybody else, Wolf.
BLITZER: Sam, President Zelenskyy, he went out in Kyiv, and we're showing our viewers some video, and he met with some of the victims of these brutal Russian attacks against civilians in the Ukraine capital. That was a dramatic moment, wasn't it?
KILEY: Very dramatic. He is being very kind of very skilled indeed about going out and meeting people and but constantly broadcasting over social media to his population. A couple of days ago, he went out and met wounded soldiers. Now, he's been out meeting civilians. He's very much out on the ground, Wolf.
BLITZER: He certainly is. To his credit, he's a courageous leader indeed. Sam kiley in Kyiv for us, thank you, stay safe over there, as I tell you every day.
Let's get some more now on all of this. Joining us, the principal deputy national security adviser in the Biden administration, Jonathan Finer. Jon, thanks very much for joining us. Let me, first of all, get your thoughts on this. As you know, the U.S. and other western countries assess that thousands, thousands of Russian troops have been killed since the war began about a month ago, with a range from as low as 3,000 to as high as maybe 10,000. Where on that range does the U.S. best estimate fall? Can Russia sustain this war with such high losses?
JONATHAN FINER, PRINCIPAL DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Thanks, Wolf. So, we don't have a precise number of Russian casualties to give you, but what I can say is that I think that the casualty number is probably much beyond what Russia expected, particularly just in the early days of this conflict.
And, look, we're taking a two-part approach to this. The first part is providing the Ukrainians the tools that we think they need on the battlefield to be most effective against the Russian army. That is predominantly anti-aircraft and anti-armor weapons.
The president laid out in some detail yesterday exactly what we're putting in to Ukraine to support the Ukrainian defense forces.
And then second, pressing the Russians, pressing them diplomatically and most importantly pressing them with our sanctions, which have taken an enormous bite out the Russian economy in just a few weeks.
BLITZER: It certainly has. We've also now heard from the secretary of state and the president, they both accuse Russia of war crimes publicly. Practically, how does that change the U.S. response because Putin won't be tried in The Hague any time soon, right?
FINER: Look, I think we'll leave those questions to another time. But the most important thing about what they said is that these are not just rhetorical statements, these are descriptions of what we're seeing on our televisions, what Ukrainians are seeing up close with our own eyes, what your correspondents are reporting about day in, day out. Deliberately targeting civilians in a conflict is a war crime, and that's why the president and the secretary of state have said what they've said.
BLITZER: So, does that mean there is not going to be anymore summits between Putin and Biden, the president calling Putin a murderous dictator, a pure thug, a war criminal. I take it meetings are not off the table. The president is not going to meet with somebody he brands as a criminal.
FINER: Wolf, we have ways to convey messages to the Russians when need to. Jake Sullivan spoke with his Russian counterpart just the other day to convey some pretty strong messages on behalf of the president and our administration. I have nothing to report to you at this time about any upcoming conversations between the president and President Putin.
BLITZER: Secretary Blinken, as you know, is warning Putin that -- he says Putin is growing more and more desperate. Does that raise, Jon, the risk of a chemical weapon attack by the Russians or, God forbid, the use of nuclear weapons?
FINER: Wolf, I'm not going to characterize President Putin's mindset. Far be it for me to try to do that. I'll leave that others. But we've been clear about the fact that we are concerned about the potential for Russian use of chemical or biological weapons. And, partly, that concern is fueled by exactly the fact that the Russians themselves are coming out and warning with a high degree of irony in our view that the Ukrainians might be on the verge of using these weapons.
First of all, we know that the Ukrainians do not possess those weapons. Second, we know that the Russians have a long history of saying what they are concerned about when it is actually a predictor of what they are about to do. So, we are very concerned about this possibility and are working with the Ukrainians to make sure they have what they need to be able to mitigate and defend and providing any information that we've got.
BLITZER: What about tactical nuclear weapons?
FINER: Look, Wolf, that would obviously be an extraordinary escalation, beyond anything that we have seen in recent history. We have no immediate indication that that is something that the Russians are looking at doing, but all escalation in this conflict is something that we oppose. We think that Russia should be taking the opposite approach, de-escalating inside of Ukraine, particularly given how this conflict is playing out for them, and seeking diplomacy to try to de- escalate this.
That does not seem to be the path they are on. And so, again, we are sticking with our strategy of making sure that we are strengthening the Ukrainians' hands on the battlefield and pressing the Russians by this extraordinary pressure we've been able to place on their economy.
BLITZER: President Biden will attend the extraordinary meeting of all the NATO leaders in Brussels next week. Can we expect these leaders to announce new specific support for Ukraine?
FINER: The president is very much looking forward to being out in Europe. As you and others have rightly pointed out, there is a high degree of unity and alignment among the western allies, NATO allies in this case.
And the president is looking forward to seeing his counterparts face- to-face. I suspect they will have a number of new measures that they will be able to disclose and rule out during those conversations, but I'm not going to get ahead of them a few days I advance.
BLITZER: John Finer at the White House for us, the principal deputy national security adviser to the president, thanks, as usual, for joining us.
FINER: Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: Just ahead, is Ukraine close to getting a critical air defense system that they desperately are seeking? I'll ask the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I'll ask him what he's learning.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, Russia's increasingly deadly invasion of Ukraine and Secretary of State Antony Blinken now echoing President Biden that Vladimir Putin is violating international law with attacks on civilian targets and is a war criminal.
Let's get some more with the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
So, as you know, the secretary of state now joining the president, saying he believes Russia is committing war crimes and blaming Putin personally. Putin may never though face accountability, but how significant is it, from your perspective, to label the Russian leader a war criminal?
REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): Well, first of all, it is correct. He's killed civilians. He bombed a maternity hospital and a theater with children on it. All of the civilian casualties that we've seen, the mass graves, he's in violation of the Geneva Convention and should be designated as a war criminal.
I think it is very significant in terms of Putin's psyche. He wants to be known as his legacy is everything to him. The only reason he's in Ukraine is to basically reclaim the glory that of the old empire. But if his legacy is going to be a war criminal, that is going to be from a psychological standpoint, a very damaging and I think a correct path forward.
BLITZER: Yes, good point. I know you've been pushing, Congressman, for Ukraine to get these S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems. Slovakia, as you know, Slovakia, a member of NATO, says they are willing to provide them immediately as long as they have a proper replacement. So, what is the latest? What can you tell us about this?
MCCAUL: So, the S-300 is a Russian anti-aircraft missile system. It is similar to our Patriot battery but not on the same scale. We can't put out Patriot battery it in there for the security reasons. We don't want the Russians to get one of those. And the Ukrainians know how to operate all Russian military equipment.
This is -- and Zelenskyy asked for a no-fly zone, and you know the argument that the Russian and NATO aircraft in the skies is going to be a direct head-on collision and potentially start a world war. But what we can't do is give him the tools to provide his own no-fly zone. And that is primarily the S-300, which is very effective. They know how to operate this. And also the lethal drones, the hellfire missiles that, quite frankly, the Russians are terrified about these drones that, again, are very effective. A combination of those two, I think, would give Zelenskyy what he needs, what he wants to establish the no- fly zone.
BLITZER: Yes, I think you make an excellent point. President Biden, as you know, will speak with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, tomorrow, as China considers how much support to throw behind the Putin's war. What message does President Biden need to send in that phone conversation?
MCCAUL: Well, I think he needs to be very strong. And that if he's assisting Putin's war machine in any way with weapons or with economic assistance to get around the sanctions, that they run the risk of getting sanctioned themselves with what we call secondary sanctions that would impact China itself. And I think that would be a strong deterrent.
Now worried about China, this unholy alliance between President Xi and Putin, we saw at the Beijing Olympics, and also as it pertains to Taiwan, and we know President Xi is looking at Taiwan very carefully and as he watches this conflict in Ukraine to make his calculation whether to proceed with an invasion of Taiwan.
BLITZER: Congressman Michael McCaul is the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thanks for joining us.
MCCAUL: Thanks always, Wolf. I appreciate it.
BLITZER: There is more breaking news just ahead. More than 3 million people have now escaped Russia's brutal and totally unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, many to Poland. But where do they go now? We're going to get a live update. We have got new information when we come back.
BLITZER: More now on the breaking news, the refugee crisis sparked by Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine growing by the hour. Tonight, the United Nations now says more than 3.1 million people have fled the horror unleashed by Moscow, the majority of them to Poland.
CNN Senior National Correspondent Ed Lavendera is there for us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): When Ukrainian refugees step off the train in Prsemyzl, Poland, there is a sense of relief. They've escaped the war zone, but now these families must navigate a whole new world. Some are lucky they have family or friends waiting for them.
But for most others, this tunnel leads them to the main train station hall where they start making sense of the overwhelming confusion on their own. They have no plan, it is improvised from here. When the refugees finally make their way off the platform and into the station, one of the first things that greets them is this sign in Ukrainian and Polish that says, here, you are safe.
Families emerge from the train with endless with endless questions.
About 20,000 refugees a day are endlessly moving through this one small Polish city on the border with Ukraine, filling the halls of this train station built in the 19th century. While parents figure out train rides to destinations across Europe, exhausted children find baskets of treats and toys.
This is what it is like to figure out your next steps when you're world has been unraveled by war. Confusion fills the air.
These refugees have made it out of the first maze, onto a bus that will take them to Warsaw. And there, the questions will start all over again.
LAVANDERA (on camera): And, Wolf, as tens of thousands of Ukrainians continue to leave the country. The state border guard service in Ukraine announced today that they have accounted for 320,000 Ukrainians that have actually returned back to the country to help in the fight against Russia. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right. Very important, Ed Lavendera on the Polish border with Ukraine, thank you very much.
Let's get some more on breaking news. Joining us, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor. Ambassador, thanks for joining us.
You see the struggle these refugees are facing. Today, the homeland security secretary here said the U.S. expects most Ukrainian refugees to stay in Europe. But plenty of them, as you know, they want to reunite with family or friends here in the United States. So, what needs to happen for them to get permission to come to the U.S.?
WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: So, Wolf, first of all, it is a tribute to the Pols. Let's give them credit. The Pols have opened their arms, opened their homes, opened their train stations and they're welcoming these Ukrainians when they come in off the train in Ukrainian. We were talking about the language. It is close but not the same. And it is so welcome for these Ukrainians to come off the train and see something in their own language and be welcomed into their that country.
Yes, moving forward, the Ukrainians, of course, have to look for where they're going to go next. The language is an issue. The Ukrainians are good at this. The Ukrainians have a lot of English and they have a lot of other languages that gives them the ability to integrate. And they've got a lot of people in the United States who is super supportive. So, that is going to be -- they're going to get a good welcome here as well.
The overwhelming response to President Zelenskyy, the other day, in the Congress, is a good indication of the kind of welcome that I think these Ukrainians will get when they get here.
BLITZER: If their allowed in because there is a lot of bureaucracy that needs to go forward. As someone, Ambassador, who served as a senior diplomat for so many years, how powerful is it to hear the secretary of state say, yes, he believes Russia and Putin are committing war crimes in Ukraine?
TAYLOR: Well, it is powerful and he was personally agreeing with his boss, also powerful statement when the president of the United States says that President Putin is a war criminal. So, it has an effect. It does have an effect on the reputation, on the self image of President Putin, who does want to see himself as a great historical figure. Well, he's going to be a great historical figure but not in the way that he wanted.
BLITZER: You mentioned President Zelenskyy. Today, he addressed the German parliament, saying, and let me read the quote, he said, this is to the German parliament, every year, politicians say never again. Now, I see that these words are worthless. In Europe, our people is being destroyed. Do you think that the west will look back on this moment and wish that they have done more?
TAYLOR: We could always have done more, Wolf, absolutely. Had we known what was going to come, we would certainly have increased the volume and the lethality and the types of weapons that we would sent in. We sent a lot. We could have and should have sent more. To, again, give the Germans their credit, they've done some real big changes over the last two or three weeks. They've come around. They're recognizing that they should have done more. They're recognizing that they should have cut off their -- that pipeline earlier. They're recognizing that they are too dependent on the Russians for their energy.
So, yes, there is a lot of looking back and but now that is helping them look forward. We need to do the same.
BLITZER: The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us.
TAYLOR: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: For information, by the way, about how you, our viewers, could help humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, go to cnn.com/impact and help impact your world, very important.
The breaking news continues next here in The Situation Room. The U.S. secretary of state said Russia may be, quote, and I'm quoting him now, sitting the stage for a false flag biological or chemical weapons attack in Ukraine. We'll have the latest on the crisis when we come back.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news, chilling new details of Russia's attack on a theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where as many as 1,200 people, including many children, were simply seeking shelter from the onslaught.
CNN International Security Editor Nick Paton Walsh has the latest.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Wolf, it is curious to think there can be such a thing as good news after an airstrike targeting a bomb shelter. And a city as besieged as Mariupol but still at this stage it appears to be survivors emerging from the rubble and not the corpses of the possibly as many of over a thousand people sheltering under the drama theater there in that heavily besieged city when the airstrike hit.
We don't know how many dead are in there. We don't know how many injures are being pulled out at this stage. But now, officials are repeatedly suggesting survivors are emerging. Now, the perilous task of clearing the rubble has been able to begin. Originally, first responders simply couldn't get there. They weren't sufficient in number given the conditions in the city and also intense shelling made any rescue efforts exceptionally hard.
But the news that emerges slowly bit by bit appears to be, for now, positive despite gaps in everybody's knowledge. Still, though, nothing to assuage people from the barbaric fact of Russia choosing to drop ammunition of that size on a well known established bomb shelter that had children written large all around it. It fits into a pattern of brutality across the south here.
And there is increasing anxiety here in Odessa, the third largest city in the country, Russian-speaking, a vital port, clearly somewhere Moscow would like to have ambitions to attempt to control.
And we've been hearing artillery anti-aircraft fire in the background along the coastline here. Local officials have warned that the social media postings of people saying there are ships on the horizon, yes, they could be Russian, a local official has said, but saying they're maneuvering, they should not cause people anxiety.
That isn't really helping though in a city that's intensely fortified along its streets with barricades and it's been hearing distant blasts, the building sense that possibly something is coming along the Black Sea coast here from the east, which may eventually threaten this thriving port city. Wolf?
BLITZER: CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reporting from Odessa, Ukraine, thank you, Nick.
Let's dig deeper right now. CNN Military Analyst, retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling is joining us. General, thanks for joining us. As you know, the U.S. and its allies estimate thousands of Russian troops have already been killed in Ukraine so far. The high end of these estimates 7,000 to 10,000 in just, what, three weeks of fighting. Those are incredible numbers. What does that say to you, general, about Russia's ability to wage this war?
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, what I'd say, Wolf, first of all, is I think those numbers are exceedingly conservative. I think there are casuals not only that are killed in action but Russians who have surrendered, who have deserted their equipment is much higher than that. Not, you know, focusing on a body counts or anything like that, but we are seeing a campaign where the Russian military was not prepared to conduct this kind of a conventional operation. Their soldiers have run away from the fight and the only thing left is some of the horrific and inhumane ways that Russia is using artillery and missile and rocket strikes to terrorize the civilians of the great nation of Ukraine.
BLITZER: The Pentagon says Russian forces haven't gotten any closer to Kyiv, the capital, but they are moving long-range artillery closer and closer. What does that tell you?
HERTLING: Yes, that is what concerns me. We have said for several days now, in fact, over a week, that force outside to the north and northwest and east of Kyiv is, quote/unquote, stalled. That tells me that they're trying to do something to get that force regenerated and moving again.
And as you know, Wolf, I've said from the very beginning, their logistics tail is dysfunctional, their maneuver and their training and their leadership and their force is unbelievably bad. So, it tells me that they can't get their soldiers on ground to move forward and conduct the missions that they want them to do. So, again, they're going to probably bring into Kyiv unfortunately the same kind of weapon systems that are long-range killers, like they've done in places like Kharkiv and Mariupol.
BLITZER: General Hertling, thanks so much for joining us.
HERTLING: A pleasure, Wolf. Thank you.
BLITZER: Coming up, new details emerging of WNBA Star Brittney Griner's arrest in Russia and concerning reports of the conditions she's held in. We'll share the latest we have when we come back.
BLITZER: We'll have much more on the Russian invasion in just a moment. But we're also following breaking news in the arrest of WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia.
CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us.
So, Brian, what are you learning? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just a few minutes ago, a State Department official told CNN that the department is insisting that the Russians give consular access to Brittney Griner. We have new information on the conditions she's facing and on the possible length of her detention.
TODD (voice-over): Her whereabouts inside of Russia are unclear. And tonight, it appears American basketball star Brittney Griner will be held for two month months. A court has extended the arrest until May 19th, according to the Russian state news agency TASS.
We asked a former top U.S. official about the chances of Griner actually being released that day.
EVELYN FARKAS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RUSSIA, UKRAINE, EURASIA: I'm afraid that on May 19th, they'll issue another delay. Maybe they'll have her appear if they want to make a bigger deal out of it, and get the media to take some pictures and elevate this issue farther. Clearly, it's not in the interest of her loved ones to have this elevated. But this is how the Russians operate.
TODD: Griner's been in custody since being arrested after her arrival at a Moscow airport a few days before the war in Ukraine began. Russian authorities say she had cannabis oil in her luggage, discovered by a K-9 team. They've accused Griner of smuggling significant amount of narcotic substances punishable by up to ten years in prison. TASS cites a Russian prisoner advocate as saying Griner shares a cell with to two other women and at 6'9", her bed is too short for her.
The timing of the Ukraine conflict, and the sanctions and America's tensions with Putin are likely working against Griner.
ANDREW HAMMOND, FORMER BRITISH ROYAL AIR FORCE INTELLIGENCE OPERATIVE: It complicated it enormously because the whole relationship is broken down across the board, diplomatically, economically, culturally and politically and even militarily.
TODD: Biden administration officials say Griner's case is a top priority, they're working diligently to secure her release. We asked a former hostage adviser what could be going on behind the scenes.
DANE EGLI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE HOSTAGE ADVISER: You try and grab something that you have to work with them on. Some avenue to start a conversation beginning with, you know, proof of life, proof of condition, location and anything to increase our hope and keep the dialogue going.
TODD: While a prisoner swap for Griner with the U.S. remains possible, one analyst says Putin could also be overplaying his hand. EGLI: This could back fire. As if a lot of the rest of the world
being against Russia is not enough, they could now have the global basketball community against them. If I was Vladimir Putin, I would be careful about how I played this.
TODD (on camera): Now as worrisome as Brittney Griner's case is, there are two other Americans also being held in Russia whose cases are very high on be the agendas of officials, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Former U.S. Marines have been in Russian custody since 2018 and 2019 respectively. Both arrested and convicted for crimes they have emphatically denied and both we were told recently have suffered serious health issues there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Do we know, Brian, how Brittney Griner's family is handling this?
TODD: They're having a tough time. Her wife Cherelle Griner posted a message on Instagram this week and in the last few days, saying, that they're really in agony, that they're crying all the time. People tell them to stay busy but no amount of activity can keep them from thinking about her.
They're having a tough time dealing with this and the lack of information is frustrating.
BLITZER: Yeah, I hope they let her out and let her out soon.
Thanks very much, Brian Todd, for that report.
Coming up, Ukrainians whose families sheltered Jews in the holocaust find safety in Israel. We're going to share their moving story when we come back.
BLITZER: Tonight, Ukrainian officials are accusing Israel of denying shelter to people fleeing their war-torn country because of refugee quotas. Israel is defending its policy as some Ukrainians are finding safe harbor in Israel.
CNN's Hadas Gold shares this remarkable story of an Israeli woman who welcomed two Ukrainian refugees and the family history that brought them together.
HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For hours, Katya Gusarov waited anxiously for two Ukrainian refugees to emerge from Tel Aviv's airport.
Finally, she spots them. Alla Misiuk and her daughter Liza.
It's a warm embrace, but before today, they had never met.
Katya is a researcher at the Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum. Alla is the great-granddaughter of a couple deemed righteous among the nations by Yad Vashem for helping save the life of a Jew during the Holocaust. That act of salvation now paid forward.
Katya is hosting Alla and Liza after their terrifying journey out of Ukraine. They grow emotional recalling the last three weeks, including nearly 24 hours on a train that came under fire near Kyiv.
ALLA MISIUK, UKRAINIAN REFUGEE (through translator): We were told to turn off our phones and turn off the lights. So you understand how scary it all was, that even small children 2 or 3 years old, they understood that something terrible was going on and even they were silent. They were afraid. We lay like that for an hour and a half each on top of each other.
GOLD: Their family ripped apart by war. Liza and her mom forced to leave dad Arthur behind.
Liza, you're only 12 years old. Do you feel like you've grown up very quickly in the last few weeks?
LIZA MISIUK, UKRAINIAN REFUGEE (through translator): I may look the same on the outside, but my character has changed because I'm ready for war at all times. The fighting starts to go off and you realize that your life is in danger. You realize that you may never see your family again. That's what changed my character.
GOLD: Inside Katya's home, a chance to look over why Alla and Liza ended up in Israel.
More than 80 years ago in 1941, Alla's great grandparents, Ivan and Katyana Peremont (ph), saved the life of a young Jewish man and Soviet soldier named Victor Rudnik (ph). Documents detailed how they sheltered Rudnick after he escaped from a prisoner of war camp, at one point risking their own lives by pretending Rudnik was their own son, even while they were forced to host German soldiers in the same house.
A letter in the file written by Evan Peremont describes how their town near Kharkiv was bombed in 1943. The similarities down to the dates haunting.
KATYA GUSAROV, YAD VASHEM, WORLD HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE CENTER: The damn Germans bombed us from March 2nd to March 19th, every day from morning to evening. For three days, we were hiding in our cellar. On March 5th, a bomb hit our barn.
GOLD: Alla grows emotional over the parallels to what the Russian army is doing now.
ALLA MISIUK: They just destroy them. Destroy them deliberately. Destroy them ruthlessly. It is, well, because it's genocide. It's genocide of the Ukrainian people.
GOLD: Katya and Alla's bond started when Alla reached out a year ago via email, simply seeking more information about her family. Then the war started and Alla wrote again asking for help.
After days traveling by train, car, and on foot, they made it to Poland and soon onto the plane to Tel Aviv.
For now, Alla and Liza say they feel safe taken in by Katya's family, like Alla's did for Viktor so many years.
GUSAROV: There's some bonding. This bond of helping people, it's just normal. It should be because if you do a good thing, it will be back to you in one way or another.
GOLD: Hadas Gold, CNN, Modiin, Israel.
BLITZER: Thank you, Hadas, for that report.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.