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Biden Says Putin Cannot Remain In Power; Russian Strikes In Lviv While Biden In Neighboring Poland; Interview With Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT); U.N.: More Than 3.7 Million Have Fled Ukraine War; Multiple Russian Airstrikes Rock Western City Of Lviv; Ukrainian Official: Private Fighters In Ukraine To Kill Zelenskyy; Ukrainian Teen Survives Blast That Killed His Mother. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 26, 2022 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, a very dramatic close to President Biden's visit here in Poland as he declares Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power.

We're breaking down President Biden's trip and his intensifying message to Putin. He is now calling Putin a butcher after hearing horror stories from refugees who fled Russia's aggression.

Also breaking, new Russian airstrikes on NATO's doorstep unleashes fire, smoke, and fear. The missiles falling on the western Ukrainian city of Lviv while President Biden was in neighboring Poland. We'll have a live report on what's happening there this hour.

Our correspondents are on the frontlines in Ukraine and on the ground here in Poland for CNN's global coverage of Russia's war against Ukraine.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Warsaw and this is a Special Edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: We're live here in Warsaw as President Biden heads home from Poland. He is now flying back to Washington after his powerful declaration that Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power.

We are getting new reaction to what the President said about Putin, the war in Ukraine, and the broader threat to NATO, indeed to the world. Let's go right to our senior White House correspondent, Phil Mattingly. He is here in Warsaw. Phil, a very, very strong message from President Biden about Putin that apparently was not planned. Tell us the latest.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was a forceful and carefully calibrated speech designed to send an unequivocal message about the power and strength of United Western democracies. But it was an off the cuff remark at the very end that may have given the best window into the urgency President Biden sees in this moment.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For God's sake, this man cannot remain power.

MATTINGLY (voice over): Tonight, President Biden delivering a forceful and dramatic condemnation of Vladimir Putin.

BIDEN: A dictator vent on rebuilding an empire will never erase the people's love for liberty.

MATTINGLY (voice over): The White House later clarifying Biden was not calling for regime change, but an unmistakable message.

BIDEN: Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia.

MATTINGLY (voice over): As Biden delivered a clarion call to Western democracies at the moment of the highest stakes, drawing parallels to Eastern Europe's emergence from Soviet rule.

BIDEN: It was a long, painful slog fought over not days and months, but years and decades, where we emerged anew in the great battle for freedom, a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression.

MATTINGLY (voice over): The speech a capstone of a European swing, defined by unity in the face of searing images of disaster, just a border away.

BIDEN: Ukraine and its people are on the frontlines fighting to save their nation and their brave resistance is part of a larger fight for essential democratic principles that unite all free people.

MATTINGLY (voice over): Biden's remarks coming just hours after new Russian strikes in Lviv just 40 miles from the Polish border, and as Biden's caustic view of the Russian President grows even darker.

QUESTION: You're dealing every day with Vladimir Putin, I mean, look at what he's done to these people, what does it make you think?

BIDEN: He's a butcher,

MATTINGLY (voice over): And his warnings to the Russian leader of NATO's commitment goes even sharper.

BIDEN: Don't even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory. We have a sacred obligation, we have a sacred obligation under Article V to defend each and every inch of NATO territory for the full force of our collective power.

MATTINGLY (voice over): In the final day of an urgent and hastily arranged trip to Europe that brought Biden face-to-face with dozens of Western leaders, he sat down with Polish President Duda pledging close ties for a NATO country housing 10,500 U.S. troops. BIDEN: We do acknowledge that Poland is taking on a significant

responsibility that I don't think should just be Poland, it should be the whole world -- all of NATO's responsibility.

MATTINGLY (voice over): And more than two million Ukrainian refugees, Biden meeting some firsthand.

BIDEN: Can I hug you? You're so brave. You all brave, brave, brave.

MATTINGLY (voice over): And just hours after a surprise meeting with the Ukrainian Foreign and Defense Ministers.

DMYTRO KULEBA, UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: The only thing is that since the beginning of the war, I learned how to sleep under any conditions.

MATTINGLY (voice over): A face-to-face sit down where Biden pledged even more U.S. support, a welcome commitment for a country under siege in western democracies facing a challenge now reshaping European power dynamics.


BIDEN: It will not be easy. There will be a cost, but it is a price we have to pay.


MATTINGLY (on camera): And Wolf, the President is back on Air Force One on his way to the United States, but that doesn't mean this is going to be leaving the front burner for the White House anytime soon.

White House officials very candid, this is a long road ahead, and it was a primary reason the President wanted to give the address he gave tonight to underscore that the unity we've seen over the last month is not something just for now. As he said in the speech, it's for tomorrow, the day after, years and decades ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It is indeed. He did say that. Phil Mattingly reporting for us.

Phil, don't go too far away, I want you back in just a couple of moments. But right now. I want to go to the war zone in Ukraine and the new airstrikes on the western city of Lviv. Russia hitting a fuel storage facility while President Biden was in neighboring Poland. CNN's Don Lemon was on the scene shortly after the attack.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: We move back a little bit because you could hear the flames roaring in and what they're concerned about is another one of these tanks exploding, so they're pushing people back until they can get control of this blaze.

You were mentioning how close it is to a neighborhood, it's really close to a neighborhood. It's on the other side, there's a little valley in here and another side of a retention wall.

And Pete, if you can just go around just a little bit and show them how close this is to a neighborhood quickly, and then we'll get back in the flame. So it's really, really close.

This is a neighborhood where everyone has gathered, all of the rescue people and they have done this on a number of different streets. So, if you'll come back here, so we are, you know, just within a 10th of a mile or so from where this is happening.

But again, look at those flames. They are just roaring, black smoke coming out of there.


BLITZER: And Don Lemon is joining us now live from Lviv. Don, tell us more about what you saw after that attack.

LEMON: Oh, I saw chaos. People, as you saw in some of the video running away from their neighborhoods. Obviously, if your neighborhood is being bombed or hit by rockets, people were running away. There were emergency officials there trying to get people out of their homes, to leave, to get to a safer place and trying to move the media, quite frankly, to a safer place as well.

The emergency officials on the scene, the Mayor tonight calling on people here in Lviv to go into shelters and to stay there. And I quote, he is saying: "Because we don't know what's going to happen now."

Lviv in western Ukraine was seen as a relatively safe spot. People from further east in the country that had been bombarded from Kyiv and Kharkiv and so on were coming here to take shelter. And now the concern, of course is can this happen more? Or will this happen more now? They don't know.

But Wolf, it was a frightening scene earlier. Just moments after those air sirens went off, we heard blasts here from our facility. And apparently, according to the Mayor, there were two sites that were hit: A fuel storage facility and a military infrastructure site.

The Mayor is saying tonight, there is damage to an elementary school. He is saying, there are five people who were injured. So far, they don't believe anyone is dead, but they're still trying to put out those flames.

BLITZER: All right, Don, thank you very much. Stay safe over there. We thought it was relatively safe in western Ukraine. Not necessarily.

Don, thank you very, very much.

Let's go to the capital of Ukraine right now for more on President Biden's new comments about Vladimir Putin. Our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen is in Kyiv for us right now.

Fred, the White House clearly walking back the President's direct message that Putin cannot remain in power. But how did his remarks land where you are in Ukraine and in Russia?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly didn't land very well among the Russian leadership, among the Kremlin. In fact, right after President Biden made those remarks and as he was finishing his speech, I texted the spokesman for the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, and he wrote me back within seconds and that is not something that he usually does.

And he immediately said, look, it's not up to President Biden who is the President of Russia, it is up to the Russian people to decide that. So certainly the Kremlin pretty angry at that. And also, they've shown to be quite angry at some of the remarks that President Biden has been making over the past couple of days, calling Vladimir Putin a butcher, calling him a brute, and several other things as well.

They are now saying that they are not sure whether the relations between the U.S. and Russia can be salvaged. Of course, they fail to acknowledge the fact that they have invaded this country and that is the main reason why the relations aren't very good at this point in time.

If you look at here, the reactions, there are some Ukrainian politicians who have come forward who have said they would have expected more from President Biden's speech, but the country's leadership certainly has said that they are very grateful for the help that has come from the United States the way that President Biden has united the West against this invasion that has come from Russia and especially of course, Wolf, for those weapons deliveries that have taken place.

They've made a big difference on the battlefield especially around the area here in Kyiv, where the Ukrainians appear to be pushing Russian forces back.


PLEITGEN: And we just have to keep in mind how amazing that is because a lot of people thought the city would be taken within a couple of days. We visited some checkpoints and some of these Territorial Defense Forces today, they are obviously still very much on a war footing. However, it does seem as though in the city right now, even though I am hearing some outgoing artillery at this point in time, it has become a little more -- I would say, the people here have a little more room to breathe, they feel as the Russian Army is a little bit further away.

There are some more cars that are on the roads. You do, however, see these Territorial Defense Forces still making Molotov cocktails and prepare just in case the Russians do invade. But they also acknowledge that there is just that little bit more life in the city right now.

Let's have a listen to what they said.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Old businesses are returning to work, where more and more shops open every day and you can see even, you know, even traffic is becoming much, much more than dense even two or three days ago.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a strong city with strong citizens, and we defended a lot because this is the capital, and this is like logical that they would try to attack us more once again and again.

PLEITGEN: But you will win?



PLEITGEN: So you see a little more confidence among those Territorial Defense Forces, obviously volunteers who have signed up to defend to the city, however, of course, they are very well aware of the fact, Wolf, these gains are fragile and that there still is a gigantic and very dangerous army very close to the city -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly, Fred, stay with us.

I want to bring back Phil Mattingly as well, along with the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor.

Ambassador, let me quote exactly what President Biden said today at the end of his remarks. He was ad-libbing, but he said this: "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power." Should the White House now be trying to say he didn't really mean what he obviously clearly meant?

WILLIAM B. TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: So Wolf, the White House is going to do what it's going to do. The President said what he was going to say and he clearly said it directly, and there was no doubt about what he felt. The thing that I would recognize is that the Russian people are going to hear this. The Russian people have heard him talk about -- President Biden talk about Putin as a thug, as a brute, as a war criminal, as a butcher, and now he has made this comment about he shouldn't be in power.

So the Russian people, Wolf, are going to be hearing this and it is hard to get through to the Russian people, and they're going to start figuring out that their President is doing something wrong.

They are going to start figuring out this may be part of that process.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, I noticed that when President Biden the other day first called Putin a war criminal, the White House issued some sort of clarification saying he was simply speaking from his heart. He wasn't speaking officially, legally. Then the State Department, the Secretary of State a few days after that said, yes, he is a war criminal.

He has called Putin all of these things: A dictator, a butcher, and all of that. Butcher he called him earlier today. President Biden doesn't want Putin to remain in power, right? TAYLOR: Well, that's right. President Putin is a threat to not just

Ukraine. I think President Biden made this point that Putin is a threat to Europe. It's a threat to us.

President Biden made the clear point that the Ukrainians are on the front line. They are the front line. They are fighting the Russians. They are fighting Putin. He's after them.

But if he is allowed to win, and Biden said he would not win, Biden said that the Ukrainians would win. But if Putin were allowed to win, then that's a challenge to and a real threat to NATO and Europe.

So that's why President Biden, I think said, it is not going to be possible for the Russians to win in Ukraine.

BLITZER: You know, Phil, just as President Biden was about to make his address from here in Warsaw, Russia struck the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, just only about 60 miles or so from the Polish border. Is that a reminder of the incredible risk to Ukraine and to NATO for instance?

MATTINGLY: Yes, Wolf, I think the risk to Ukraine has been acute and very real, obviously, for the last four weeks, pretty much for the last eight years based on what has been happening in the eastern part of the country.

But I think from the NATO perspective, it was a large reason why you saw the President visit with members of the 82nd Airborne near the border about 50 miles from the border yesterday. They are the tip of the spear. It's not just Poland, it's the eastern flank in general.


MATTINGLY: And I think it also underscores why you have seen, Wolf, a total pendulum swing when it comes to NATO posture, and perhaps most importantly, NATO membership, about the role, the broader role of the Alliance has always been understood for what it was. But there has been kind of a shift away, you know, U.S. troop levels have dropped, Europeans have tried to figure out whether or not they need to be taking more control of their defense away from the United States. That has shifted back.

And I think very dramatically, and I think we've always talked about the near term, what's happening now in the moment. What is happening with NATO in terms of troop deployments over time, potentially even permanence, as well as rotational, this is changing the face of Europe and the structure of Europe and how the U.S. and its allies operate in Europe, compared to where it was six, seven, eight months ago, and it's not changing for a week or a month. It's going to be changing for years ahead. No question about it.

BLITZER: Yes, no question. You know, Fred, what's the view of this strike? This Lviv strike? Is the fear that that Russia will turn its sights on western Ukraine as the ground invasion clearly falters?

PLEITGEN: Yes, I think it is something that the Ukrainians have been expecting. I think it is something that the U.S. has been expecting, as well. It is quite interesting, if you read some of the assessments from the U.S. and the United Kingdom, they are saying that the Russians are having real problems here around Kyiv, also in other areas of Ukraine as well.

And you know, one thing that I always point out very often, I think we need to point out again, is that we are well over a month into this war and the Russians still have not managed to take a single large population center here in this country.

They have Kherson, that's the only city they have. Mariupol, of course, they have surrounded, they still haven't taken that city either. So what the U.S. believes and what others believe and certainly Ukrainians believe is that as this goes on, the Russians are going to continue to target other places with longer range weapons, like exactly what you've seen today.

Now of course, for them, a fuel depot is a strategic target. It's very important for the Russians to try and take out some of those places, but we've seen similar strikes yesterday. They hit the Air Force Headquarters. Yesterday, they hit a fuel depo here around Kyiv, it's something that we've seen before, but at the same time, the momentum, if you look at it and you can feel this from Ukrainian officials as well, they believe the momentum is clearly on their side here in Kyiv and in other areas as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right guys, thank you very, very much. Don't go too far away.

Just ahead, I'll ask a key member of the House Intelligence Committee, a key member if President Biden was correct. Does Vladimir Putin have to go?

We're live here in Warsaw and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: We are back with our live coverage from Warsaw after President Biden's fiery speech here and his declaration that Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power.

Joining us now Congressman Jim Himes. He is a Democrat. He serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. Let me get your reaction first to President Biden, what he said today. He said, and I'm quoting now, "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power" referring to Putin, what's your reaction?

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): Well, Wolf, I guess I have two reactions. Number one, the reason the world is rallying to Ukraine's cause here is because much of the world, the Western world, NATO, Europe, the United States, much of the world believes in democracy. The definition of democracy is that the people get to decide who rule. So I can tell you, Wolf, as a fairly senior member of the House of

Representatives, that it is not the official policy of the United States government and that there are no overt programs or covert programs to bring about regime change in Russia. That would be my first point.

My second point is that, think about who it is that the President was talking about? A man who has impoverished his own people, who has raped a vulnerable neighboring nation without provocation, who is responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Russians, who doesn't allow the Russian people to do exactly what I was talking about, to select their own leaders.

Here is a country, Russia, and I think the President made a point like this. This is the country that produced Tchaikovsky, that produced Solzhenitsyn, that produced Tolstoy, and today it is led by a thug, by a gangster. And so you know, maybe it's easier for me to say it than it is for the President of the United States to say it, but the Russian people and the world deserve a Russia that is not led by Vladimir Putin.

BLITZER: Yes, well said, indeed.

You know, Congressman, the White House is trying to argue this wasn't necessarily a call for regime change, but the President couldn't have been more clear.

Is there concern, what he said could raise the risk of Putin actually escalating this war? Potentially retaliating in some way against the United States?

HIMES: You know, I think words don't matter to Vladimir Putin. He may try to use this to sort of buttress the argument that he has made, which is completely wrong that the United States has sort of for decades now tried to bring about change in power in Russia. That is completely wrong.

But words don't matter to Vladimir Putin, actions matter. And we know that because, you know, he lied to the world for weeks prior to this invasion. His Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov lied to the world, you know, and then they invaded. Actions matter to Vladimir Putin. All that matters to Putin right now is whether or not he succeeds in Ukraine and so, he is not succeeding.

The fact that he is not succeeding is the part that makes us all a little bit nervous about where he goes from here not what Joe Biden may or may not have said.

BLITZER: Yes, that's another good point. The President today said the U.S. stands with Ukraine, but after the NATO Summit in Brussels, and I was there, one Ukrainian official said that they quote, "Expected more bravery and bolder decisions from the NATO Allies." Does the U.S. still need to do more right now to help Ukraine militarily?

[18:25:06] HIMES: We need to do everything we can. And yes, I believe that we can

do more. And of course, the President in his speech in Warsaw announced a lot more, announced support for refugees, announced an effort and this is really key from a strategic standpoint, an effort to wean the world and Europe in particular from Russian oil.

But yes, I think we need to keep the arms flowing, we need to support these heroic Ukrainian fighters. Look, I don't blame them Wolf, for asking for more. Their country, their very existence is at stake and they should ask for everything.

It is, of course, the job of the President of the United States to make sure that the Russians don't win, but also to make sure that we don't find ourselves in a shooting war with Russia in what could ultimately devolve into a nuclear exchange. So the President -- I don't blame the Ukrainians for asking for everything, but it is the President's job and it's all of our jobs to make sure that we don't make a horrible situation worse.

BLITZER: Yes, the Ukrainians, they desperately need more military help, and I'm sure they're going to get it.

Congressman Jim Himes, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate it very, very much.

Coming up. We're going to have a live report on the growing refugee crisis that's unfolding just hours after President Biden was face-to- face with Ukrainians forced to flee their country.

Much more of our special coverage coming up from here in Warsaw, right after a quick break.



BLITZER: We're live here in Warsaw, Poland where President Biden just wrapped up a critically important visit that included a very emotional meeting with Ukrainian refugees. Our Senior National Correspondent Ed Lavandera is joining us right now. He's got more on the refugee crisis. He's here in Poland along the border with Ukraine. So what are you seeing, Ed?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it staggering to think that just a little over a month ago of the Russian army invaded Ukraine, triggering this mass exodus of Ukrainian refugees from their home country. And more than a month later, it seems like this continue to play out even at this late hour here in the town of Przemysl, Poland.

These are people who have crossed the border into Poland earlier today and they are now being moved around Poland on a system of buses. They're being brought to - from the border to the train station here in the heart of the city. These buses after they finished transferring and getting loaded up onto these buses will then move on to cities like Krakow and Warsaw as well. Many of these refugees will end up in the very stadium that President Biden visited earlier today. Now, city officials here in the city of Przemysl tell us that at the

peak they were seeing about 50,000 refugees come through this city. They tell us now that the number of refugees just simply coming to this train station is about a thousand per day. That doesn't include the several thousand that are still coming and crossing the border by foot a few miles away from here, which is where these people likely came from.

So it really just kind of captures the drama of this moment that even more than a month later, we are still seeing this flow of refugees coming. And what really makes many of the people here that you speak with now very different is that they have seen up close the horrors of this war.

Early on, there were people who escaped and left in the early days of the war. Many of the people you talk to now are escaping because they have seen some horrific things and they have been desperately trying to get out for days and days, Wolf?

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera, thank you very, very much. One quick follow up before I let you go. Is the situation there from the practical point of view adequate? Are people getting the food they need, the housing they need? How's it going?

LAVANDERA: It really is stunning to see that the system that has been created by eight organizations, when you walk across the border, there's several 100 yards of aid organizations, people from all over the world offering children, candy, whatever medical necessities they might need.

There's one guy that stands out, a gentleman from Scotland who's literally running up and down the path in a kilt handing out freshly- cooked pizza to children. He's kind of the hit of that area. There's every array of food that you might imagine, it really is stunning to see.

And then there's this network of transportation that is really crucial to a lot of these people, because it's getting them away from these border towns that are already filled with refugees further into Europe and that's helping them out a little bit more quickly, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Good work over there. Ed Lavandera reporting for us along the border between Poland and Ukraine.

Right now I want to bring in the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, who's joining us right now. Rabbi, thank you so much for joining us. I know you've organized the Jewish community here in Warsaw to help with these refugees and then, what, you're already housing about 500 of them, is that right?

MICHAEL SCHUDRICH, CHIEF RABBI OF POLAND: Correct. Correct. What I did was really a few days before the actual Russian invasion took place, it was clear that bad things could happen listening to Polish TV, listening to CNN and so I said we better start preparing.

So the Jewish community has four different facilities, which has housing capabilities. I call the different people responsible and I said, guys, be ready to empty them out from the people that are there now and make them ready for refuge. Everybody said yes. So when the invasion began, we were up and that's about 350 people could be staying there. People taking people into their homes and we're now actually starting to rent apartments and hotel rooms that nobody should have to sleep on the street taking as many as we can.


BLITZER: These aren't just Ukrainian Jewish refugees, these are all Ukrainians, right?

SCHUDRICH: These are all Ukrainians. Anyone who needs help, we're here to help. Clearly people that turned to us, we established a hotline on the second day of the war, we established a crisis management center on the second day of the war. We're clearly identified as Jewish, but anyone who comes to us will absolutely get help.

BLITZER: And what is the main problem? What are you hearing from these folks? I know you were just along the border meeting with some of them.

SCHUDRICH: Okay. So the first thing is they - I mean, it's impossible to understand what they've gone through to make this journey. Now, it's only a few days, but it's - they were spending X amount of time in shelters, in basements, sometimes in the dark, making the decision to leave their homes. Also very important to know that almost everyone left somebody behind.

Men between 18 and 60 are fighting the war. So basically you're finding women and children and I have no idea how a person makes that decision to make the journey. So I think first what they need is a place to sleep, to make sure they have something to eat. They also need psychological support and that's as much as we can try to do.

And so we have housing, we have food, we have medical care, also legal advice and then we're also working now, we've started - we have to do more psychological counseling.

BLITZER: This is a really painful experience. And for the Jewish community here, there's a lot of history going on, as well tell us about that.

SCHUDRICH: Well, obviously, as we know of the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust, half came from Poland. And I kind of reflected upon, we created a crisis management center, and I said you know over the last few hundred years, we Polish Jews were the crisis. Now, all of a sudden we're the management center.

And it's a tremendous sense of - we have a chance to give back and it makes me reflect also on the righteous Gentiles. Those non-Jewish poles and other non-Jews throughout Europe who risk their lives to save our lives and how we need to learn that lesson, because 80 years ago, when we needed help, there were non-Jews that stepped up and risked their lives and saved us. And now it's our turn to the step up, to save as many as we can, to help as many as we can, Jews or non- Jews. It's our challenge now, it's our time and it's our challenge to see that we've learned the lesson from the righteous Gentiles.

BLITZER: We are so grateful, Rabbi Schudrich, to you, to the Jewish community here in Warsaw for what you're doing and we will stay in touch. Thank you so much for joining us.

SCHUDRICH: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right. I appreciate it very much. And for information about how you can help humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, go to and you will help Impact Your World.

Just ahead, was Russia sending a message to President Biden with a provocative strike on Lviv while he was in neighboring Poland or is Western Ukraine about to become a major new front in Putin's war? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: The breaking news we're following today is Russian airstrikes on the city of Lviv are raising serious new questions about Putin's plans for Western Ukraine. For more than that, let's get to CNN's Brian Todd. He's alongside the retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton. He's a CNN Military Analyst. Brian, tell our viewers what's going on.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as we look at the hotspots of the battlefield tonight, as you mentioned, we're looking at a hotspot tonight, Colonel, that has not been a hotspot in recent days. That is the city of Lviv in the west. It has not seen a lot of action until now, but the Russians today strike a fuel storage depot and military infrastructure. What are the tactical reasons for the Russians hitting Lviv today?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Brian, this is really quite an interesting thing, because what they're doing is they're going after all the fuel supplies. Yesterday, they struck a fuel depot south of Kyiv, doing the same thing in Lviv and you can expect to see more of that in the near future.

TODD: All right. Well, we're going to look back at the map now and go to Kyiv, a senior U.S. defense officials saying that the Russians are basically entrenched in defensive positions around the capital city and are showing a little interest in getting their ground forces moving again toward Kyiv. My question to you is, is that a temporary thing? Could they get their ground forces going toward Kyiv? Again, will they become interested again in the capital?

LEIGHTON: They might very well become interested again, Brian. And it all depends on them getting their fuel supplies, their logistics, their food, all those kinds of things. Plus, of course, all the trucks that they would need to move forward. But having said that, we know that they had a lot of problems getting that 40 mile long cut (ph) way out there and never made it, right?

TODD: Right.

LEIGHTON: And because it never made it, I'm suspicious that they won't move forward on Kyiv at this point in time at least.

TODD: Okay. We're going to take a look at the eastern portion of the country now. A senior Russian general saying that they're going to focus their attentions now on the Donbas region. My question there is, is that a sign that the rest of this campaign was a failure?

LEIGHTON: I think it is. Now, Donbas was one of the war aims that the Russians talked about when they started this whole invasion. But the fact that they're focusing only on this right now and at the expense of all the other areas means that this is probably an area that, at least, they want to talk about as being part of their broader and only part of their war plan.


But they have this area right here. That's part of the Donbas that they've occupied but they haven't occupied the whole thing. In fact, the line that you drew right here is what they really want because they think they control that area. And as part of those two republics that Putin has recognized.

TODD: We got about 20 seconds left, Colonel. We want to talk about the casualty figures, the Russian saying 1,351 of their troops are killed as we look at a burned out Russian tank. U.S.-NATO and Ukraine say it's much more between 7,000 and 15,000. What do you make of the disparity?

LEIGHTON: I would say the Russian figures are way too low. I think we were looking at about 7,000 but it could be higher. President Zelenskyy said 16,000. It could be that high. We'll see what happens with the with the casualty figures.

TODD: And there's also a chance, Wolf, that Col. Leighton and I were talking about the possibility that we may never really know the full amount, the accurate amount of the Russian casualties during the course of this entire war, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thank you. Col. Cedric Leighton, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, Ukraine says a group of private assassins, private assassins are inside the country trying to find and kill the Ukrainian president. We're going to have details on this stunning claim, that's next.



BLITZER: A senior Ukrainian official claims a shadowy group of military contractors with ties to the Kremlin is operating inside the country with a very specific mission, assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. CNN's David McKenzie has the story. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Foreign language).

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A Russian mercenary takes a selfie video in Syria. It's a recruitment style pitch, allegedly for the notorious Wagner Group. A brutal force believed to be linked to the Kremlin. In the shadows of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a senior Ukrainian defense official tells us that Wagner contractors were in the country and had a very specific mission.


MCKENZIE (on camera): What is the objective, do you think, in Ukraine right now?

MARKIYAN LUBKIVSKY, ADVISER TO THE UKRAINIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: They wanted to assassinate the leadership of Ukraine, our President and Prime Minister, so that was the goal and a couple of groups, a couple of people were sent to me to Ukraine without any success.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE (through interpreter): I am here. We are not putting down arms.


MCKENZIE (voice over): The primary target, he says, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Ukraine's military says documentary evidence gathered by intelligence officials and Special Forces outlines their alleged mission. He says several Wagner operatives have been eliminated, identified by the unique dog tags. CNN couldn't independently corroborate the account.


LUBKIVSKY: We need to find all these people and they need to go to the court. They're absolutely illegal.


MCKENZIE (voice over): Wagner contractors surfaced in eastern Ukraine in 2014, exposed by research groups and CNN investigations. Their operations span to Middle East and Africa. U.S. officials accused Wagner of multiple human rights abuses in multiple countries.

In this disturbing 2017 video investigated by CNN, Wagner mercenaries appear to be torturing and murdering a Syrian man as they make jokes.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Foreign language).


MCKENZIE (voice over): The Kremlin said the incident had nothing to do with the Russian military operations in Syria and they've repeatedly denied any links to Wagner. U.S. officials say that Wagner was started by this man, Dmitry Utkin, a veteran of the Chechen conflict and allegedly bankrolled by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. An oligarchy so close to Russia's leader, he's nicknamed Putin's Chef. Under multiple U.S. sanctions, Prigozhin denies any involvement in Wagner.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They want blood. They want to fight.


MCKENZIE (voice over): But the senior researcher at the Dossier Center says Wagner is Putin's private army. We agreed to hide their identity for their safety. They've spent years investigating Wagner's links to the Kremlin.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They operate without any law, without any rules. They can do whatever - either way - whatever they want. Then when there is a call to MOD or there is a call to Mr. Putin what your guys are doing in this particular country, the response will be the - these are individuals they have no link to the Kremlin.


ZELENSKYY: (Foreign language).


MCKENZIE (voice over): Despite the invasion and new allegations of an assassination plot, Ukraine's President says he isn't going anywhere.

David McKenzie, CNN, London.


BLITZER: Thank you, David. More news just after this.



BLITZER: We're back live in Warsaw. This week, CNN's John Berman spoke to a 15-year-old whose family was simply trying to escape fear shelling in Ukraine when their car drove over what he thinks was a landmine. His mother burned to death.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: What do you want the world to know about your mother?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Foreign language).


BERMAN: I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Foreign language).

ANDRIY: Excuse me. Thank you. (Foreign language).



ANDRIY, MOTHER KILLED IN BLAST (through translator): I want them to know that my mom was a very beautiful woman. She always liked things to be tidy and clean, and my father and I, we always understood that and supported her. And right now, it's very difficult without mother.


BLITZER: Wow. Andriy says he'd like to return to his hometown after the war is over. Just one of so many heartbreaking stories.

Thanks very much for watching. "CNN NEWSROOM" with my good friend Pamela Brown starts right now.