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The Situation Room

U.N. Says, New Evacuation Convoy Heading to Mariupol As Battles Rage; Chief Justice Says, Leak of Draft Opinion on Roe Absolutely Appalling; Eastern City Reels from First Russian Strikes in a Month; Zelenskyy Tonight; Russian Shelling At Mariupol Steel Plant "Not Stopping"; Suspected Terror Attack in Israel Leaves at Least 3 Dead. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 05, 2022 - 18:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, as bloody battles rage on, a new evacuation convoy is heading to the besieged city of Mariupol on a mission to rescue civilians trapped in the city's bombed-out steel plant. Ukraine says attacks on the complex have been nonstop as Russians try to wipe out Mariupol's last defenders.

Also breaking, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, is calling the unprecedented leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion absolutely appalling. CNN was in the room as Roberts spoke out for the first time since Americans learned the high court is poised to overturn Roe versus Wade.

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.

And we begin with an urgent new operation to evacuate civilians trapped in the Mariupol steel plant where conditions are growing more dire by the hour. CNN's Isa Soares is following the battle for Mariupol from her post in Western Ukraine for us.

Isa, the U.N. now says another convoy is in fact heading to Mariupol. What more can you tell us?

ISA SOARES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very good afternoon to you, Wolf. What we're hearing, this after three days of intense and very brutal shelling, that what we know and promises really by Russia to create these evacuation corridors, promises that, by the way, have been broken time and time again, the U.N. now telling us that a new evacuation operation is underway for those civilians that have been holed up inside the Azovstal Steel Plant for some 60 days.


SOARES (voice-over): Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the Azovstal plant sing the army's battle hymn. It is sweeter for us to die in battle than to live in chains as dumb slaves, they sing in the darkness, a few of the dozens of Ukrainian fighters defending the last patch of Mariupol not in Russian hands.

Above them, the bombardment continues relentlessly. Later, one of the commanders with a message for the world, it's been the third day that the enemy has broken through the territory of Azovstal. Fierce, bloody combat is ongoing, he says, accusing the Russians of violating the promise of a truce and preventing the evacuation of civilians who continue to hide deep in bunkers at Azovstal.

The U.N. and Red Cross organized the evacuation of one group of about 100 civilians at the weekend. Since then, none has left. Now, there is hope of another convoy reaching Mariupol.

MARTIN GRIFFITHS, UNITED NATIONS SPECIAL ENVOY FOR UKRAINE: As we speak, a convoy is proceeding to get to Azovstal by tomorrow morning hopefully to receive those civilians remaining in that bleak hell that they have inhabited for so many weeks and months and take them back to safety.

SOARES: Speaking to me earlier, the military governor of Donetsk was much more cautious.

PAVLO KYRYLENKO, HEAD OF DONETSK OBLAST MILITARY ADMINISTRATION: I would like to be frank that with all due respect to the U.N. and their assistance and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the conditions that are such that they occupier keeps changing them.

SOARES: The Russians and their allies, the separatists of the self- styled Donetsk Peoples Republic are showing off their newly won territory, or at least the ruins they fought to seize. This commander points to a massive crater just outside the Azovstal plant. He says the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers are everywhere. We find more and more of them, he adds.

Amid the ruins of Mariupol, once a thriving city of 400,000 people, the new ports are changing the road signs into Russian. Ukrainian officials expect they will organize a parade on May 9th when Russia celebrates its victory in the Second World War. Whether the Azovstal complex is quiet and empty by then or still being pulverized, no one knows.


What's certain are the scars that will remain.


SOARES (on camera): And, Wolf, it's worth remembering as we look at these images that this is not a video game, this is not a movie, there are no special effects, this is happening right now in Mariupol, in Ukraine, and there are civilians inside, some 200 civilians and some 30 children, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's heart breaking just to think about it. Isa Soares, in Lviv for us, Isa, stay safe, we'll get back to you.

Now let's go to Eastern Ukraine where the city of Kramatorsk is reeling from the first Russian missile strikes there in a month.

CNN Senior International Correspondent Sam Kiley got a close-up look at the damage.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIOAL CORRESPONDENT: Kramatorsk was hit overnight with at least six missiles. Now, they have had clearly a devastating impact. This is a heating, a pumping station, sewage area. The size of the building would indicate that it was a no way could have housed any military equipment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just got lucky. I went to the bedroom. I heard a bang. I sat down on the bed and it hit me and all the furniture fell down.

KILEY: The scenes here are absolutely extraordinary. The way that these trees have been completely decapitated, torn to shreds, and the same goes also for these homes.

Now, amazingly, very few people here considering the scale of the damage were injured and none were killed. There were 25 injured, six have been hospitalized, one is in critical condition. And the reason for that is that at least two-thirds of the city of Kramatorsk have already left. But this, without any question, is yet another strike by the Russians on a civilian residential area.


BLITZER: Sam Kiley is joining us now live from Kramatorsk. Sam, what more are you seeing in this battle for Eastern Ukraine, which is intense right now?

KILEY: Well, at about 9:00 this evening, it's now in the small hours of the morning, there was another missile strike on the outskirts of the city, the only one as far as we're aware, a substantial missile strike. And nonetheless we felt it a couple of kilometers distant from us. And I think that's just indicative of what is anticipated to be a substantial uptick in the Russian efforts to try to pound their way forward in this battle for the east, Wolf.

They have not made the sort of progress that they had hoped to, very clearly. They are unable to capture towns like the town like Lunan (ph) where we reported from or close to just the other day. The line of artillery frontline is really being held by the Ukrainians while they wait for the movement of the most sophisticated weapons that they have been promised by Ukraine, which they hope will tip the balance in their favor.

But everybody here is focused on this May 9th date, the Victory Day in the Second World War, anniversary for Russia, in anticipation that maybe this will be a point at which the Russians would try to really concentrate for one last effort to capture what they already said is their main aim, which is the whole of what they're calling the Donbas, and that includes the city that I'm in, Kramatorsk. Wolf?

BLITZER: Stay safe over there, Sam Kiley reporting for us. Sam Kiley, thank you very much.

Also tonight, we're told that Biden administration officials believe it's likely that Ukrainian forces have used U.S. intelligence to help them target Russian generals on the battlefield. Listen to the Pentagon press secretary, John Kirby, as he draws down on the intelligence the United States is and isn't sharing with Ukraine.


JOHN KIRBY, U.S. PRESS SECRETARY: We do not provide intelligence on the location of senior military leaders on the battlefield or participate in the targeting decisions of the Ukrainian military.

We do provide them useful intelligence, timely intelligence that allows them to make decisions to better defend themselves against this invasion. And I think the less said about that, honestly, the better.


BLITZER: All right, joining us now, the former CIA chief of Russia Operations, Steve Hall. He's now a CNN National Security Analyst. Steve, thanks for joining us.

As someone who's obviously handled a lot of very sensitive intelligence yourself over the years, just how much would the U.S. like to avoid discussing this topic?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Wolf, there's always a decision to be made as to whether or not to release information about intelligence-sharing relationships and precisely what intelligence is being shared and how.

And this particular administration, the Biden administration, has been very aggressive and forward leaning with getting intelligence out there to everybody, so that they can better understand what Russia is up against or what we're up against and what the Ukrainians are up against in dealing with Russia.

But this type of tactical intelligence, where specific Russian generals are located, that's the sort of thing that I don't think either side wants to talk about. And I think Admiral Kelly got it exactly right when he said, look, this is something we have a robust relationship.


We can't talk too much about it.

But I think it's best to think of intelligence as like providing weapons. It's a different kind of weapon. It helps the Ukrainians fight the invading forces of Russia.

BLITZER: Why has Ukraine been so successful so far at targeting Russian generals on the battlefield? They have killed a whole bunch of them. HALL: I think it actually has less to do with the intelligence and more with the incompetence of the Russian military effort. I think there's been a lot of analysts who have been saying I think correctly that the structure of the Russian military is not very flexible. They don't have a lot of battlefield decisions that are made right there by officers on the ground. A lot of times it has to go back to a more centralized command, which means when there's a problem, Russian generals have to go solve it. And when they go solve the problem on the front, of course, they expose themselves to the possibility of being injured or killed.

And there's also a lot of morale and discipline issues. I mean, we've seen the young Russian soldiers using their cell phones to call their girlfriends and their buddies and that, of course, makes it extremely easy for the Ukrainian Intelligence Services to collect that information and use it for targeting purposes.

BLITZER: How does the Russia view this U.S. intelligence sharing with Ukraine?

HALL: I'm sure they view it just like they view, again, the weapons transfers, that they see it as assistance that is being provided not just by the United States, mind you, but it's by -- you know, not only NATO allies either, it's really western democracies across the world to try to help the Ukrainians and that includes intelligence.

And so I think that's very much how the Russians see it. They see it as similar to providing the sort of weaponry and other things that the Ukrainians need to rebuff the Russians, Wolf.

BLITZER: Steve Hall helping us appreciate what's going on, thank you, Steve, very much.

Just ahead, will Vladimir Putin use next week's Victory Day celebration in Moscow to launch a new phase of his war against Ukraine? I'll discuss that and more with the U.S. ambassador to Russia. He joins me right after the break.



BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, Ukraine's President Zelenskyy warning that the Russian shelling of a massive steel plant in Mariupol where civilians have been trapped for weeks is, quote, not stopping. And as Russia's offensive in Eastern and Southern Ukraine intensifies, there's strong concern about what Vladimir Putin's next move might be.

And joining us now, the United States ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan. Ambassador Sullivan, thanks so much for joining us.

As you well know better than me, of course, Russia is just a few days away from marking what they call Victory Day, commemorating the end of World War II. Are the -- the U.S. assessment is that Putin potentially could use that day to formally declare war against Ukraine. What are you expecting from the Russian leader this coming Monday? JOHN SULLIVAN, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Well, thanks, Wolf. It's good to be with you. That's an important question. Yes, May 9th, Victory Day, is a very important holiday celebration in Russia, in Moscow in particular, celebrating the allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

There's lots of speculation about what -- how president Putin could use this holiday to promote his aggressive war in Ukraine. There's been speculation, as you note, of potential declaration of war and escalation of hostilities. Kremlin sources, the Kremlin spokesperson, Mr. Peskov, has denied that.

And I can't predict what President Putin is going to do, but it's certainly a very important day and a very important platform, public platform for him to use to promote his aggressive war in Ukraine.

BLITZER: Ambassador Sullivan, what is the extent of the U.S. diplomatic relationship with Russia right now? How limited is the diplomatic contact?

SULLIVAN: It's -- there's barely contact, Wolf. It's not business as usual. I have contact occasionally with the foreign ministry most particularly about our American citizens who are detained here. That's one of my principal occupations these days is trying to keep track of them, engaging with the foreign ministry to make sure we get access to them, check on their status, their condition. The operations of our embassy, another topic that we are engaged with the Russian government on.

But apart from that, very little other contact. NASA still has engagement with Roscosmos and the operations of the International Space Station. But compared to even six months ago, Wolf, the level of engagement is greatly, greatly diminished.

After the release of the American, Trevor Reed, from Russian custody just last week, where do the talks stand now on freeing these two other detained Americans, we're talking about, Brittney Griner, the WNBA basketball star, and Paul Whelan himself, a former U.S. Marine?

SULLIVAN: Sure. Now, we -- my colleagues and I at the embassy spend a lot of our time dedicated to keeping track not only of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner but the other Americans, and there are a number of others who are detained here in Russia. Some of them are not in the Moscow area and it's difficult for us to physically get access to them.


But every American here gets close attention from this embassy.

Paul Whelan, of course, has Trevor Reed did. I spent a lot of time working on Trevor's case from when he was, you know, first detained through his ultimate release recently. And it was quite a -- working on these cases, Wolf, has been probably the most challenging, emotionally challenging in my experience as ambassador. I've gotten close to the Whelan and the Reed families. I've gotten to know Paul and Trevor well. I've spent more time in Russian prisons and labor camps than I ever imagined I would.

Unfortunately, Brittney Griner within the last several months has joined the roster of wrongfully detained Americans here, and we're working very hard on her case to gain her release.

But if I could give you one example when I say how -- what an impact this work has had on me, if I could recount for you just a story about Trevor and his detention hearing, he was actually in pretrial detention in Moscow. And I was visiting with him. This is probably a year and a half ago. And we were sitting in a dingy greeting area where the inmates are allowed to meet with visitors.

We had a glass partition between us, and we were talking about his legal case and his family and things he needed. And out of the blue, Wolf, he just looked at me and he said, sir, I want you to know one thing. I'll never do anything to embarrass the United States. And I was thunderstruck that out of the blue after he -- this is at a point where he had been detained for a year.


SULLIVAN: He didn't know how much longer he was going to stay in prison in Russia. And that's the way he was thinking. He wanted to reassure me. I was there to reassure him. He wanted to reassure me that he would never do anything to embarrass the United States. And I've told this to his parents and I wanted to tell you and your viewers --

BLITZER: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: -- that the Reed family and United States marine corps produced one heck of an American in Trevor Reed.

BLITZER: Yes. You're absolutely right. The U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, thanks for all your work and thanks for joining us.

SULLIVAN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And coming up, another urgent operation is now under way to evacuate civilians, men, women and children from the Mariupol steel plant. A key Red Cross official is standing by to discuss what's going on. Stay with us. You're in The Situation Room.



BLITZER: Tonight, President Zelenskyy of Ukraine is warning that Russian shelling at a steel plant in Mariupol is not stopping. This comes as the United Nations says a new evacuation convoy is heading to the besieged city of Mariupol with the hopes of rescuing civilians tomorrow.

As these breaking stories unfold, we're also getting a gut-wrenching look at the pain and the suffering that the Russians left behind in other parts of Ukraine. Let's go to our Senior National Correspondent Sara Sidner. She's joining us now from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Sara, I know you visited a village earlier today. You learned about the missing men from the village. What can you tell us?

SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Ivankiv is about one hour from Kyiv and what we saw there was an extremely bombed-out, bombarded area, one area that was so destroyed, it was hard to determine exactly what was there before.

But we were also listening to stories from mothers and from wives who said that, at some point, Russian soldiers came in and captured their husbands and their sons. There were at least three different stories in the same village from three different people, all of them saying that they were taken at gunpoint by Russian soldiers. Of course, Russia has said that they have not been doing this sort of thing.

But we listened to them over and over again and they are still waiting, hoping beyond hope that they're going to be able to be reunited with their loved ones.

We also heard from a man who said he knows where at least one of the missing men is. That man, he says, police have determined was tortured and killed, yet they cannot find his body.

So, throughout this entire village, there is so much destruction, but there's also a lot of heartache and a lot of uncertainty with some people waiting to be reunited, hoping that they are going to be able to meet their loved ones again, their sons and their husbands, others just trying to find the body to give it a proper burial. Wolf?

BLITZER: These are such heartbreaking stories indeed. Sara Sidner, thank you very much.

Let's discuss the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine with Laetitia Courtois with the International Committee of the Red Cross. She serves as the group's permanent observer to the United Nations. Laetitia is joining us now from the U.N. Thanks, Laetitia, very much, for joining us. Thanks for all that you and the ICRC are doing right now.

The United Nations just announced, as you well know, another convoy is now on the way to try to rescue Ukrainian civilians, men, women and children trapped at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.


What's the latest on this operation? I know the ICRC, the International Committee for the Red Cross, is going to be involved, right?

LAETITIA COURTOIS, ICRC PERMANENT OBSERVER TO THE U.N.: Yes, absolutely. The ICRC has been working hard to obtain the parties and the U.N., in coordination with the U.N., this authorization to carry out those safe passage operations. This is the third one in a few days that is happening, and we will communicate as soon as the people reach safety in Zaporizhzhia. But for the moment, the operation is ongoing. It's the third in a few days that has allowed for almost 500 people to exit this area under tremendous circumstances and difficulties.

BLITZER: How many more convoys, Laetitia, will be needed before every civilian trapped at that steel plant can be evacuated, and how long do you think this is all going to take?

COURTOIS: Well, it will take as much time as necessary and we are committed to continue and make this operation one time after another until all people that need to be evacuated from the area reach safety.

We don't know exactly how many people are still trapped in the steel plant and in the area but we know that there are thousands of people that remain under tremendous circumstances, very difficult situation, and that needs immediate support, be it in Mariupol, in the area, or to get access outside of the area.

BLITZER: We do know, Laetitia, that some of these aid convoys have frequently come under Russian fire, even as they're trying to save people. How dangerous and difficult is this kind of work for your Red Cross teams on the ground, because I know the ICRC is very much involved in these operations.

COURTOIS: These operations are tedious, they are complicated. It's about crossing frontlines. It's about going to areas that are under active hostilities. And it's making sure that the decisions that have been agreed upon by the parties in conflict are trickling down to all the levels, to all the boots on the ground that are supported at every checkpoint, every area that we progressively advance in, that the roads are clear, and that the teams are understood and the humanitarian action and supported in reaching out to civilians and back to the place of departure.

So, it takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience as well to make sure that all the operation is carried out in the safety that it's necessary to make it a success.

BLITZER: And it's clearly a very critically important but also a very, very dangerous operation. Laetitia Courtois, thanks so much for joining us. More importantly, thanks for what you and your International Committee for the Red Cross teams are doing, saving Ukrainian lives. We appreciate it very, very much.

COURTOIS: Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, is now speaking out publicly for the first time since the stunning leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe versus Wade. We're going to have details of what he said and what it means for the credibility of the U.S. Supreme Court.



BLITZER: There's more breaking news this hour. The U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts, strongly condemning the leak of a draft opinion that would strike down Roe versus Wade. CNN Supreme Court Reporter Ariane de Vogue is working the story for us. Ariane, Chief Justice Roberts spoke publicly for the first time about this leak at a judicial conference where you are in Atlanta, and you were there in the room when he spoke. What exactly did the chief justice say?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Right. It's the first time he's talked publicly about this leak. And he said it was absolutely appalling. He said that he hoped that one bad apple wouldn't change the public's perception of the court. He really praised the court's personnel, but he also said that it would be foolish to believe that this is going to have a big impact on the court's work.

But, Wolf, he can say whatever he wants. This was a stunning leak and it's also a really broad draft opinion. Alito in that opinion calling Roe v. Wade egregiously wrong, saying the issues have to go back to the states. That's very bad news for supporters for abortion rights. And basically they're beginning to ask what's next.

Because in this opinion, Alito worked very hard to say this is just about abortion, but a lot of the reasoning in that opinion, Roe v. Wade, matches -- has the same threads of other opinions, for instance, that opinion that upheld same-sex marriage. So, people here, supporters of abortion rights, are really worried and wondering what's next. But Roberts today, he was only talking about the leak and he said it was appalling.

BLITZER: Ariane, I want you to stand by. I want to continue this conversation. I want to bring in our Chief Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey, the chief justice, John Roberts, is clearly concerned about the impact this is going to have on the credibility of the U.S. Supreme Court. Is he right to be worried?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, I don't think the court is in any grave danger. You know, my favorite quote about the Supreme Court comes from Justice Robert Jackson, who said we are not final because we are infallible. We are infallible because we are final. They have the last word on what goes on in American government. That's going to be true whether they're embarrassed or not by this leak.

I thought what was most interesting in the chief's announcement, though, is that he gave the assignment to investigate the leak to the internal operations of the court.


He did not call in the FBI. And that suggests that he does not want to see this be a criminal matter. I don't think it is a criminal matter. I think he wants to keep it within the Supreme Court family. And I think that means they'll probably never find who did it, but it will also low key the resolution, if there is one, as opposed to turning it into a big criminal case. BLITZER: As you know, Ariane, Justice Alito, who wrote this draft opinion, canceled a scheduled public appearance today. What does that say about the very unusual level of scrutiny these justices are under right now?

DE VOGUE: You're absolutely right because this comes at a really fraught time for the court. They have finished oral arguments but now they're racing to finish up with opinions. First of all, they have to finish this abortion opinion, right? That was just a draft. They have a big case on the second amendment. They have another one on the environment, immigration, religious liberty. They're working through all these and that takes frank conversations back and forth between the chambers.

And you can imagine that some of the justices now after this leak, they feel worried, skeptical, wondering how much of their work product is going to end up out in the public. So it comes at a hard time. Alito, definitely, he was scheduled to appear at a different conference today. He canceled. They didn't say why. But here, we had Chief Justice John Roberts, he was willing to talk about it. And tomorrow Justice Clarence Thomas is also here in Atlanta and he's going to give remarks.

BLITZER: We'll see what he has to say. You know, Jeffrey -- go ahead.

TOOBIN: There's this mythology that the Supreme Court always gets along with each other. You know, they have a history of poisonous relationships. Before World War II, there was a justice named James McReynolds who was such an anti-Semite that he wouldn't sit in the same room with Justice Brandeis or Justice Cardozo. You know, Justice William O. Douglas got along with nobody. I mean, so the idea that the court needs to get along well to function is just not true. It's a more pleasant environment if they get along, but, you know, the history there is of a lot of rancorous discord.

BLITZER: Yes. That's interesting indeed.

Jeffrey, the chief justice also alluded to what he called one bad apple who might be behind this leak. Does that tell you anything about the status of the investigation?

TOOBIN: You know, not much. I mean, I certainly don't know who leaked it. Like a lot of people, I've noticed that there's a stapled corner. Apparently, it was a stapled opinion, so there was a piece of paper leaked as opposed to an electronic file.

But the good news for us journalists is that leak investigations usually fail. And the Supreme Court's internal monitor has no experience in this sort of thing. I expect that this investigation -- even though the Supreme Court is a very small place. You're talking about four law clerks for nine justices, that's 36 law clerks, nine justices, 45 people. I mean, this isn't a big universe in which to inquire but I just don't think they're going to find out who did this.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, Ariane de Vogue, guys thank you guys very much. Coming up, why is Mariupol so essential to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and how would fully capturing the besieged city actually help Putin's war plans? We're going to break down the latest battlefield developments. That's next. Stay with us.



BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, saying just moments ago that the Russian attacks on a steel plant in Mariupol sheltering civilians, including women and children, are nonstop. Adding, and I'm quoting him now, just imagine the hell.

CNN's Brian Todd and CNN military analyst, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, are working the story for us -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. Well, this Azovstal iron and steel works plant considered the Alamo of Mariupol, as it sits there on the southern coast of the city.

It's the only part of the city, Colonel, that is not in Russian hands tonight. As we look at some of the images of the constant bombardment of the Azovstal steel planting. As we look at this, what makes Mariupol so strategically crucial for both the Russians and Ukrainians?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: In one word, it's the land bridge. It's the land bridge from Crimea all the way through the Donbas into Russia. The other thing that's really important about this, Brian, is that this allows the Russians to move most of their forces from Mariupol into the Donbas area and fight the Ukrainians. They can also potentially move forces to the west of Kherson and then eventually potentially to Odesa. So that's why Mariupol is very critical to this.

TODD: The Russians have only two battalion tactical groups left in Mariupol so they're doing that big shift northward. Let's look at the Donbas area with a more finite detailed look at the map here.

Where are the Russians -- excuse me, the Ukrainians making their biggest gains? We do know the Ukrainians have recently captured the town of Molodova. Where are the Ukrainians making their biggest gains?

LEIGHTON: That's right, Brian. Molodova is critical, but they're also making gains in these areas. In the towns of Kreminna, Rubizhne, and Severodonetsk. In Popasna, they're having a bit of a battle in this area where Russian forces are actually taking Ukrainian prisoners capture -- they're capturing them.

So, they are also making an area right in through this area.


That's going to be a critical element for the Ukrainians to hold. If the Ukrainians can hold this, they'll do a much better job of keeping the Russians out of here, and that's going to be a critical area before it gets to the other parts of the Donbas.

TODD: And back to the areas near Kharkiv, Colonel, this -- the fact that the Ukrainians have pushed the Russians back this far back, again, this town, Molodova, only 13 miles from the Russian border, does it help with the ability to prevent to shell Kharkiv more immediately?

LEIGHTON: Yes, it does, because what it does is it takes the Russian artillery out of range from Kharkiv so they can't hit civilian targets as well as they were able to, just a few days ago. So, this is critically important and saves civilian lives and saves Ukrainian soldiers lives as well.

TODD: On the subject of Ukrainians making gains there, we're told the howitzer systems on the ground they're getting will be crucial for them making more gains in the east, why is that?

LEIGHTON: It's because the radar systems associated with the howitzers is critical. What that can do is they can actually find where Russian artillery is firing at the Ukrainians and then they can target that artillery and attack it and eliminate it from the battlefield.

TODD: It's incredible, they can actually hit the area firing at them, the very battery that's firing at them, hit when that system is up.

Well, Wolf, we'll toss it back to you with the final thought about Mariupol. Colonel Leighton, you said this is kind pyrrhic victory, right, for the Russians even if they take the town?

LEIGHTON: That's right, because there's not much left. It's basically -- over 70 percent destroyed, and it's one of the areas where there's nothing left and it's going to be absolutely zero capability there.

TODD: And, Wolf, as we toss back to you, what will be crucial in the next few days when the Russians finally kind of take that steel plant, to see the kind of casualties coming out of there, almost unknowable at this point.

BLITZER: It's heartbreaking just to think about it. Guys, thank you very much. Brian Todd, Cedric Leighton, Colonel Cedric Leighton, appreciate it very, very much.

There's more breaking news we're following tonight. The Food and Drug Administration has just imposed strict new limits on who should get the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine, in a statement just released, FDA said the change was being made because of a rare but potentially dangerous blood clotting condition that can occur after receiving the J&J shot. People age 18 and older can still receive the Johnson & Johnson shot if other COVID vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are not available or appropriate.

We'll have more on that coming up here on CNN. Thank you.

Up next, breaking news out of Israel now where a manhunt is now underway after a suspected terror attack left at least three people dead. We'll get a live report from the scene when we come back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


BLITZER: We're following breaking news out of Israel now where at least three people have been killed in a suspected terror attack.

CNN's Hadas Gold is working the story for us. She's joining us from Elad.

Hadas, what can you tell us about this deadly attack and the manhunt now under way?

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, on the day that Israel celebrated its Independence Day, this small, mostly religious quiet town not far from Israel's main airport was rocked tonight by an attack, police say around 8:30 p.m., two suspects began attacking people on a street near a park here in this town. They said they used likely a rifle, potentially an axe or a knife and three people were killed, and four people injured.

The suspects then fled in a vehicle and a massive manhunt under way, hearing police helicopters buzzing above us all night long, police set up roadblocks on the highways and roads all around this town checking every single vehicle coming in and out, still have caught the suspects. Police are calling this a terrorist attack. Now, no group has claimed responsibility yet for this attack, although Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza immediately put out a statement after the attack praising the attackers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: This is just the latest in a string of terror attacks in Israel, right?

GOLD: This is the sixth attack targeting Israelis since about end of March. Five of those attacks took place in Israel proper. One of those attacks took place in the West Bank, 18 people have been killed as a result of these attacks including the three people killed tonight. It's been a tense few months here in Israel and in the West Bank in response to those attacks in Israel, Israeli military increased operations in the West Bank, at least two dozen Palestinians killed as a result of those clashes and raids.

And we see periodic clashes at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound also known as temple mount in the old city of Jerusalem a place so holy to both Jews and Muslims. And while many hoping are hoping at the end of Ramadan would bring some calm, Israeli officials I spoke to said that they're still expecting some more weeks of tension and possibly violence because of days like today independence day and next week, the one year anniversary of the 11 day war between Hamas militants in Gaza, and the Israeli Army -- Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN's Hadas Gold in Elad, where this terror occurred -- Hadas, thank you very much.

And there's more breaking news out of the White House tonight. Karine Jean-Pierre, the principal deputy press secretary at the White House will become the new White House press secretary when Jen Psaki departs next week. She'll be the first black and LGBTQ person to hold the position.

During a very emotional moment in the briefing room earlier today, Jen Psaki called Jean-Pierre, and I'm quoting now, my friend, my colleague, my partner in truth. Jean-Pierre's family, by the way, includes her partner CNN national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux and their daughter.

Congratulations to Jean-Pierre.

And thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.