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The Situation Room

WNBA Brittney Griner Back In U.S. After Russian Prisoner Swap; Putin: More U.S.-Russian Prisoner Swaps "Possible"; Sen. Sinema Speaks Out About Switch From Dem To Independent; Source: Judge Declines To Hold Trump In Contempt Of Court; Putin: Russia May Scrap "No First Use" Of Nuclear Weapons Doctrine; U.S. Announces Another $275 Million In Assistance For Ukraine; U.S. Force Turns To Other Americans Held Abroad After Griner Freed. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 09, 2022 - 17:00   ET



KASIE HUNT, CNN HOST: David Culver, thanks very much for that report.

And coming up Sunday on State of the Union, Special Presidential Envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, who helped negotiate Brittney Griner's release. Plus, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, that is Sunday morning at 9:00 Eastern and again at noon.

Our coverage continues right now with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, WNBA star Brittney Griner is back in the United States, undergoing an evaluation right now after nearly 300 days in captivity in Russia. A top national security adviser to President Biden joins us to discuss the deal that led to Griner's release. We'll also get an update on efforts to free Paul Whelan and other Americans still held abroad.

Plus, we're breaking down CNN's exclusive interview with Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona about her decision to leave the Democratic Party and become an Independent. What does it mean for President Biden and for top Democrats just days after the party's critical win in the Georgia Senate runoff?

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

We begin with Brittney Griner's safe returned to the United States and what happens next for the American basketball star and for U.S.-Russia relations. Let's go to CNN's National Security Correspondent, Kylie Atwood. She's joining us from the State Department. Kylie, tell us what's been happening with Griner since she landed in Texas overnight.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, listen, Wolf. Brittney Griner is right now at an Army Medical Center, a facility where she can undergo some checks, some brief medical checks and then they'll determine what kind of support she actually needs. She and her family will make that determination. But the last 48 hours for her and her family have been incredibly intense and emotional.


ATWOOD (voice-over): This is the moment basketball superstar Brittney Griner stepped back on U.S. soil for the first time in nearly 10 months, leaning early morning in San Antonio, Texas and taken to Brooke Army Medical Center, the same facility where Trevor Reed was treated after his release from Russia earlier this year.

The Defense Department will offer what is known as post-isolation support activities. Griner was said to be in good spirits on the journey back to the U.S. despite being held in difficult conditions of a Russian penal colony.



BIDEN: Yes, she's on the ground.

ATWOOD (voice-over): The White House releasing this new video of Griner's wife and President Biden moments after the prisoner exchange in Abu Dhabi.

GRINER: It's such a good day.

ATWOOD (voice-over): WNBA coaches and players celebrate the release of one of their own.

VANESSA NYGAARD, PHOENIX MERCURY HEAD COACH: I think it is really a testament to their hard work, their energy, their commitment to keeping BG's name in the news.

ATWOOD (voice-over): But the Biden administration is also playing defense.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): It's made us weaker --


MCCARTHY: -- it's made Putin stronger and it's made Americans more vulnerable.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Amid criticism of the deal privately from DOJ officials and publicly from Republican lawmakers. That deal release notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is senior defense official says, could go right back to arms trafficking. Some fear he could help funnel weapons into the Ukraine battlefield.

JOHN KIRBY, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SPOKESPERSON: Nobody is doing backflips that Mr. Bout is back on the streets here. I think it speaks to our understanding of our ability to defend our national interest that the President was able to make this deal.

ATWOOD (voice-over): And though the administration was not able to free fellow U.S. citizen Paul Whelan from Russian detention and exchange, a senior administration official says the U.S. is now considering new offers to Russia that could help bring Whelan home.

PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN DETAINED IN RUSSIA: I don't understand why I'm still sitting here.

ATWOOD (voice-over): And despite extremely strained relations between the U.S. and Russia over Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, Putin not taking further exchanges off the table.

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translation): This is the result of negotiations and the search for compromises. In this case, compromises were found. We do not refuse to continue this work in the future.


ATWOOD: Now the question, Wolf, is what will it take from the United States for President Putin to agree to a future prisoner swap for Whelan and his talk to U.S. officials? They were frustrated in recent months because there was a Russian who is serving a life sentence in Germany because they murdered someone in the country. That's someone that the Russians were continuously asking the United States to release.

U.S. officials said they simply couldn't do that. So the question is, do the Russians now engage effectively productively in any future talks? Wolf?

BLITZER: Good question. Kylie Atwood, thank you very, very much.


Let's get some more on Russia's take on this prisoner swap. Joining us now, CNN's International Security Editor Nick Paton Walsh. Nick, how are they playing all this in Russia?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: I think after months frankly of Vladimir Putin getting a very tough time on the world stage because of the disastrous move to invade Ukraine. There's something of a moment of him accepting possibly even basking in the disparity and who was exchanged for who here a man called the Merchant of Death for a basketball player, who received a wrongful act smuggled cannabis oil, who was in possession of cannabis oil.

To some degree on the sides of Bishkek security forum, he held out the possibility of further discussions with the United States. Here's what he had to say.


PUTIN (through translation): As far as exchanges are concerned, this topic was led by the Federal Security Bureau, the Federal Security Bureau negotiated and achieve the results that you have learned about. Contacts continue, they have never stopped through the special services. Are other swaps possible? Yes, all is possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP) WALSH: Now, he went on, in separate comments to say that these talks had created a certain atmosphere, but it seems to be an atmosphere about further prisoner swaps, perhaps not the idea of broader diplomacy that might alter the course of the war in Ukraine. The U.S. very clear that it's up to Ukraine to engineer its own just peace.

Viktor Bout, the man exchange and all of this as Griner, he's back in Moscow. He gave an interview to Russian state television, where he said that in jail he hadn't experienced the risk of phobia that Russian state media is so keen to suggest is prevalent in the United States. But did say the U.S. wants to finish the job of getting rid of the Soviet Union after the 90s.

And he talked about how his return was an example of a slogan that Russia likes to use in its war in Ukraine, they don't leave anybody behind. Often that's pointed out as absurd given the number of Russian bodies strewn on the battlefield. But at this stage, it is quite clear what Russia wants next. That's bad in classic cough, a Russian held in Germany for murder. And that may be the reason why Paul Whelan wasn't part of this exchange.

The next steps potentially quite clear. The point being that U.S. can't re-tell Germany who to let out of prison. Wolf?

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh there, reporting for us. Thank you very much.

Let's discuss what's going on with the Principal Deputy National Security Adviser to President Biden, Jonathan Finer. He's a key member of the team that secured Brittney Griner's release. Jon, thanks very much for joining us. Thanks for all you're doing. First of all, can you give us any update on how Brittney Griner is actually doing now, now that she's back on U.S. soil?

JONATHAN FINER, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, I want to be very respectful of Brittney Griner's privacy at this time. But what I can say based on the reports we've heard from our colleagues who have both accompanied her and been present for her reunion with her family in Texas, that she's very high spirits, very positive. And I think very happy to be home.

BLITZER: That's good to know. You just heard those remarks from Vladimir Putin. How do you interpret that victory lap from Putin? And his suggestion that more exchanges with the U.S. are in fact possible?

FINER: Well, look, I think at this point, we should all have experienced enough Russian propaganda in the course of this conflict and before, to not take too much that President Putin says at face value. As for his statement about openness to work toward the release of Paul Whelan, that's something that as you know, President Biden is very focused on, takes very seriously and that we are very committed to trying to do as we have also discussed at length with with Paul Whelan's family and directly with Paul in the course of recent days.

BLITZER: As you know, Jon, Russia clearly wanted a prisoner in Germany, in German custody, which was a non-starter as far as the Germans and the U.S. were concerned, and they rejected U.S. offers of other Russian prisoners. I know you were very deeply involved in all these negotiations. Was Russia negotiating in bad faith when it came to Paul Whelan?

FINER: Look, what I can say without getting into the details of the negotiations is that we are very confident that the deal that we ended up making with the Russians was the only one that was available. So what the President was faced with was a choice between getting Brittney Griner home, which we are very pleased that we were able to do or not bring any Americans home at all at this time.

And so, we took the deal that was available. And as for Paul Whelan, as I said, the President is fully and wholly committed to getting him out of this horrible situation of wrongful detention in which he is in and too many other Americans are in around the world. The President has said this is a high priority for him, for this administration, and that we're going to stay laser focused on trying to bring Paul home.

BLITZER: Yes. Paul Whelan has been held by the Russians for almost four years. His brother David, by the way, who I'll speak to in the next hour, says he thinks that we're at a point where, quote -- and this is a direct quote from him -- the U.S. government doesn't have any concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul. Is he right?


FINER: Well, so, I think we're going to test that proposition in the coming days and weeks and we're going to continue to go back at this, we're going to continue to negotiate, and to talk to the Russians about Paul's release. And frankly, to demand it, because this is an American citizen and should not be held, as he has been now for several years. And, you know, we will not rest on this until we can reunite Paul with his family the way we were able to with Brittney just this week.

BLITZER: Yes, he's also a former U.S. Marine. On the release of the arms dealer, Viktor Bout, Jon, the former President of Ukraine tells CNN, that Bout could still potentially represent a threat when it comes to Putin's war in Ukraine. How do you respond to that?

FINER: Look, there's a security assessment that's done anytime, you know, you're contemplating releasing someone like this from U.S. custody and exchanging them for American who's wrongfully held. That was done in this case, the decision was made that we were comfortable moving forward, in light of that assessment.

And frankly, we're going to stay vigilant, we're going to continue to monitor this entire situation. But at the end of the day, this is somebody who has been in jail for quite some time, well over a decade at this point and out of the game for quite some time. And so, you know, whether Viktor Bout, you know, continues to comply the trade that he once did is something that we're going to be paying close attention to.

BLITZER: So you'll watch that, obviously, very, very closely. What is the Biden administration's message to the loved ones of other Americans who are still being detained abroad, including not only in Russia, but in Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and elsewhere?

FINER: Well, I hope the message that those families take from what transpired this week is that we are willing to go to great lengths to get their loved ones home. One of the challenges you face in situations like this is you're dealing with countries whose justice systems are not as credible as ours, and countries, frankly, that don't value often human life to the same extent that we do, and particularly the lives of our citizens.

But I think the message that the President sent by this action is that placing American citizens lives at the top of our agenda can yield results. It brought Brittney Griner home this week. And we're going to continue to work very hard on all the other cases of Americans who are wrongfully detained in places like Russia, Iran and elsewhere.

BLITZER: Jonathan Finer, the Principal Deputy National Security Adviser to President Biden, thank you so much for joining us. We'll stay in close touch with you.


BLITZER: Coming up, why Senator Kyrsten Sinema believes her new switch from Democrat to Independent makes sense. You'll hear some of her exclusive CNN interview that's coming up next.



BLITZER: Tonight, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is talking exclusively to CNN's Jake Tapper about her bombshell announcement that she's leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an Independent. The White House and top Democrats are downplaying Sinema's decision saying it won't impact the Democrats Senate control just days after the party won an outright 51 seat Senate Majority. Sinema says she expects to keep her committee assignments and to keep doing what she's been doing.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Your voting record is pretty capital D Democratic, I mean, your views are generally that of a moderate centrist Democrat. How does leaving the party change how you do your job?

SEN. KYRSTEN SINEMA (I), ARIZONA: Well, I don't think anything will change about how I do my job. Arizonans sent me to the United States Senate to be an independent voice for our states. And I'll continue doing that. What I think is important about this decision and this move is that I'll be able to show up to work every day as an independent and not be, you know, stuck into one party's demands of following without thinking.

And as we've seen, in recent years, both parties have created this kind of requirements or a pull towards the edges, that you just unthinkingly support all of one party's viewpoints. It's made it difficult to find folks who are willing to work together and solve problems.

TAPPER: Well, there's going to be a lot of noise about this from the Democrats, from Progressives, from the left. You know this, that, because of your position, working with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to push back on some of the efforts, of legislative efforts and change them in moderate them, you've already been a target of the left, and people have been very critical of you.

They're going to call you every name in the book after this comes out. They're going to call you a traitor, they're going to call you ingrate, what are you going to say?

SINEMA: Well, I think I'll do what I always do with, Jake, which is keep doing the work that I know is important for my state. You know, I just not worried about folks who may not like this approach. What I am worried about is continuing to do what's right for my state. And there are folks who certainly don't like my approach. We hear about it a lot. But the proof is in the pudding.

You know, in the last few years in the Senate, as you and I've just mentioned, I've been honored to lead historic efforts, from infrastructure, to gun violence prevention, to protecting religious liberty and helping LGBT families feel secure, to the CHIPS and Science bill, to the work we've done on veterans' issues. The list is really long. And so I think that the results speak for themselves. It's OK if some people aren't comfortable with that approach.


BLITZER: Let's discuss Senator Sinema's decision and what it means for the Democrats. So joining us now CNN's Senior Political Correspondent, Abby Phillip, she's the anchor of Inside Politics Sunday, and CNN Congressional Correspondent Lauren Fox. You know, Abby, what do you think? What does this move mean? It's pretty dramatic for her to say she's not going to register as an Independent as opposed to being a Democrat.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's a warning to her fellow former Democrats, that she's really going to strike her own path. And she's already been doing that. I think that she's trying to get out of this paradigm in which she's always being asked, what does the left flank of her party want her to do?

And some of that is about the practicalities of operating within the Senate and being more independent when it comes to the agenda, what she votes for, what she doesn't, what she works out with the other side of the aisle, on what she doesn't, but a lot of it has to do with the politics of her state and her seat and whether or not she can make a credible case to Arizona voters if she runs for reelection, that she truly is independent.

[17:20:15] About 40 percent of the electorate in Arizona back in November, they call themselves independent voters. That's at the very least what she would need to lock up in order to make this work.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Lauren, and you cover the Congress for us, she has not formally said she will caucus with the Democrats like Bernie Sanders as an Independent, but he caucuses with the Democrats. Angus King of Maine is an Independent, he caucuses with the Democrats but the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says she will continue to have all of her committee assignments.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I thought his statement today was really interesting and revealing because he said first off, that she had asked to stay on the committees and he had allowed her to stay in her committee positions. That signals that if Democrats are empowering her to be on the committee she's on, that doesn't practically change the operation of the Senate in a 51-49 majority.

It means that in the committees, you still have more Democrats than you have Republicans that gives them power to issue unilateral subpoenas. It gives them power to advance nominees more quickly through the committee process. That's all what was most important to Schumer when he was celebrating on the Hill on Wednesday after the Georgia special election.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a good point. You know, Abby, over on the House side, Kevin McCarthy's fight for the speakership seems to be intensifying big time right now. A lot of Republicans, though, are bracing for what they're calling some sort of doomsday scenario that's unfolding. What is unfolding?

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean, Kevin McCarthy is struggling to get these votes. He has a handful of holdouts, and then more coming out and saying that they want their own demand. This is really devolving pretty quickly. And the question is, which side is going to blink first?

Right now, you know, our reporting from our Hill colleagues is that this might go into a multiple ballot situation, which is a one in 100- year event on Capitol Hill. But McCarthy is notably saying he is not going to drop out, whether he holds on to that is is unclear, but one side has to say we're done.

And I'm really not sure where we stand here today. And maybe Lauren knows more. But it doesn't seem clear to me how this is going to end. The one thing I will say is that the Freedom Caucus folks who are pushing back on McCarthy, they have nothing to lose, but they also don't have an alternative to McCarthy. And that is always going to be a major sticking point if they want to sell to the rest of the conference and alternative when they haven't really put up anyone who's credible.

BLITZER: It's -- because it's really significant, he needs McCarthy 218 votes to become the next Speaker of the House. But there are a bunch of Republicans who are refusing to say they will support him. FOX: Yes, I mean, it really doesn't take that many, right? It just takes a handful because this majority is going to be so narrow for Republicans. One of the challenges for a lot of Republicans who are saying I want to support McCarthy, I think that he's the guy that we all need to be rallying around, is they do not want a scenario where they feel like they did not perform the way they wanted to in the midterms. And yet they're going to start out the Congress with this disarray on the floor.

What does that say about their ability to govern in this country? And a lot of Republicans are thinking, whoa, whoa, whoa, do we need to come up with a backup plan? Do we need to do something else here? Because we cannot go into January 3, that's the day they vote on the speakership and not have a clear identity of who our speaker is going to be.

BLITZER: It's a good point. All right, with January 3 is coming up very, very soon. Guys, thank you very much.

And be sure to join Abby for Inside Politics Sunday, 8:00 a.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

Up next, we have new details of the closed-door hearing on the U.S. Justice Department's request to hold former President Trump in contempt over classified documents taken from the White House. Stay with us.



BLITZER: We have breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. A source telling CNN a federal judge is declining to hold former President Trump in contempt over his handling of classified documents. CNN's Senior Crime and Justice Reporter Katelyn Polantz is working the story for us. So Katelyn, update our viewers. What are you finding out?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, this comes just now from my colleague Kristen Holmes, and she is hearing from a source that this judge didn't hold Donald Trump in contempt of court today at this hearing. Now we do know a hearing took place.

We also know from an ABC News report that the judge was urging the two sides, the Justice Department and lawyers for Donald Trump, to go and try and reach some sort of consensus between the two of them. The Justice Department four months has been trying to make sure that there are no federal records, no national security secrets still in the possession of Donald Trump post-presidency.

But other than that, about this hearing today, we don't know much. It was entirely conducted behind closed doors. There were more than a dozen members of the media standing outside of the courtroom. We had a lawyer there, we asked to be heard, we asked for transparency. We were not even invited in to be able to make that argument. But the court did acknowledge that a hearing took place at the end of the hearing. And after about 90 minutes, the lawyers from both sides, they disappeared out of the courtroom through some back hallways. So we do know that there was a hearing today, there was some sort of decision by the judge at least today that she wasn't going to be holding Donald Trump in contempt right now.


And so that is what we have. And other than that, Wolf, we just know that there has been this subpoena. The Justice Department has been quite unhappy with how Donald Trump's team responded to it for several months now as they're trying to make sure there are no federal records still out there. Wolf?

BLITZER: Important development indeed. Katelyn, stay with us. Don't go too far away.

I also want to bring in CNN Legal Analyst and former Federal Prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers. Our Senior Political Correspondent, Abby Phillip is also back with us as well. Jennifer, so what's your reaction to this judge's decision rejecting, at least for now, the U.S. Justice Department's attempt to hold Trump in contempt?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, usually what this means is that while DOJ may be fed up, and while they may say, we don't have any reason to believe he will comply, he should be held in contempt, the judge isn't fully convinced. You know, Trump's lawyers were there. So presumably, they made some promises. They may have said, we're not done, we can convince him, we may get a custodian, we can do these searches properly.

So they must have said enough to convince the judge that they weren't yet at a dead end. And I think the judge will hold them to those promises. Probably she told DOJ, go back, try to make it work. If it doesn't work, come back again, with another contempt motion. We'll see where we are, then.

BLITZER: You know, Abby, it's interesting. The Justice Department clearly believes that the Trump team, the legal team and the others involved down on Mar-a-Lago, they still haven't handed over all the relevant classified documents. That's my assessment.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, and who can blame them because they've gone back multiple times. And each time, they found more documents, the Trump team commissioned their own search, in recent days found more documents. So there are some real questions about whether they even know what may or may not be there, and whether they're doing a sufficient enough job of going through what is in the former president's possession, and combing it truly for these documents.

It's clear that the Trump team because they've -- I mean, unwilling to sign an attestation basically saying that they have handed everything over, not even the Trump team is confident enough in that to put their name on a legal document attesting that they've done their best to find all these documents. And I think the Justice Department is frustrated with that. And they want there to be consequences to the inability of Trump World to really wrap their hands around this problem and find what is missing and bring it back into the government --

BLITZER: Yes, you're absolutely right.

Katelyn, so where do things go from here?

POLANTZ: Well, Wolf, there could be several implications now. I mean, if there would be the Justice Department coming back into court and still wanting some sort of resolution. If there could be a contempt proceeding in the future, perhaps, those are the sort of things that could result in fines. I mean, it doesn't look like that's where things are today as they are now.

But one of the things to remember whenever you're looking at all of this is that it factors in to whatever case Special Counsel Jack Smith would be building at this time, every single thing that happened around the subpoena in May trying to collect all of the classified or documents or documents with markings on them about national security.

All everything that has happened becomes part of the reason that the Justice Department wanted to do that search and seizure at Mar-a-Lago in August. The reason they continued to come visit Mar-a-Lago and the continued discussions that the Justice Department prosecutors have been having with Trump, this criminal investigation continues on. We have no indication at this time that it is over. Wolf?

BLITZER: That's interesting, Jennifer. As Abby mentioned, the Trump team just recently found yet more classified material in those searches of other Trump properties. So what is the Justice Department's next step here from your perspective?

RODGERS: Well, they've always been proceeding on two tracks, Wolf. One is to try to collect all of the presidential and classified documents in the former president's possession as a national security matter. And the second is this criminal investigation. So on the criminal investigation side, really on both sides, they're probably thinking about search warrants.

You know, do they have enough evidence that there are classified documents or presidential documents at these other properties that they can now go in and get a search warrant for? And then, you know, as far as just trying to force the team, Trump's team, to be more diligent in terms of turning things over, providing them with more information, you know, on both of those tracks, I think they're going to want to make sure that there are no more documents out there.

But also building this criminal case, because that evidence, as Katelyn was saying, is terrific evidence of consciousness of guilt. You know, it's not just about he had these things in his possession, but look how he hid them, look how he refused to talk about them and turn them over. So all of this kind of goes into the mix, both for getting them back and for ultimately for charges down the road. BLITZER: And Abby, as you know, Trump is facing an enormous amount of legal pressure right now and a whole range of issues. But right now, is this a small reprieve for him?

PHILLIP: Well, it certainly could have been worse. He could -- his attorneys could have been held in contempt. I think that this is a small issue in a bigger sea of problems for the former president.


He -- when you look at what he's been saying over the last few days, seems totally unrepentant about all of this. And from a political perspective, he's going to take any small win and try to use it as an example to his supporters and people who believe him and -- believe in him and listen to him, that he's being persecuted.

Now, that's not really what is being adjudicated in this case, because as Katelyn pointed out, this is just but a small part of a much broader potential investigation that could really embroiled him from a legal perspective down the road, and that is by no means over. And that was by no means, even frankly, set back by this decision made by the judge there.

BLITZER: Yes, good point, Abby Phillip Jennifer Rodgers, Katelyn Polantz, guys, thank you very much.

Just ahead, we'll have the latest on Ukrainian efforts right now to push back Russian invaders in the eastern part of the country. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, calling the situation, quote, very difficult.



BLITZER: Very disturbing new saber rattling tonight from the Russian President Vladimir Putin suggesting that Moscow may abandon the doctrine of, quote, no first use of nuclear weapons. CNN Senior International Correspondent Sam Kiley is in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv for us tonight. Sam, how is this being viewed where you are in Ukraine?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well I think here in Ukraine, because of their experience with Russia, there's nothing new under the sun, Wolf, in that. They have been the target, if you like, of earlier suggestions coming out of the Kremlin or hints at potential use of a tactical nuclear weapon.

And then just a few days ago, Vladimir Putin made a series of statements saying that they would never use nuclear weapons in an offensive capability. And in his words, they were not holding a knife against going around the world holding a knife against people's throats, although from the Ukrainian position, that's exactly what they've been doing with these hints of tactical nuclear weapons or first use. And now we have this sudden volt fast again, almost entirely predictable and predicted, I have to say, Wolf, in which Vladimir Putin is saying that he is considering not acting upon the looking at the doctrine of first use that he says the United States has that would allow, in a doomsday scenario for Russia to try to take out the nuclear capabilities of an enemy before it, the Russian motherland got struck.

He also said that only Russia in terms of nuclear power -- the only nuclear weapons that Russia had were inside the Russian Federation's territory. And also, and this is significant, I think, said that only Russia had these hypersonic missiles. We don't know whether or not he really does have them. But these beyond supersonic missiles that they claim to have used in the early stages of their invasion of Ukraine, again, being not hinted absolutely said as a boast by Russia, that it is something that they have, that the Americans don't have.

So clearly, trying to position himself there not quite as making an outright threat, but the threat of a threat, I think, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's very worrisome, indeed. Sam Kiley in Kyiv for us, thank you very much.

Let's get some analysis right now. CNN Military Analyst, Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander is joining us. General Clark, thanks so much for joining us. First of all, will the Ukrainians be able to withstand this most recent very aggressive push by Russia around Bakhmut in the East?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think they can hold it, I think they can envelop it, I think they can cut off the logistics for it. And I think they can prevail in this eastern fight. However, it's going to take more and more resources from the west. And neither the United States nor our European allies are actually doing enough right now.

They need more artillery, they need better drones, they switchblade 600, they need more artillery repairs, spare barrels, ammunition, they need tanks, and one tanks need to be put in there or German Leopards. This is a make-or-break moment for Ukraine, Wolf, because we know that Russia will be back in the spring with a rebuilt force.

They've got the manpower for it, they will mobilize it. They may not have the highest technology missiles, but they'll have plenty of old stuff that's very destructive. And if they come through Belarus, it's a completely new front. And that's what we have to expect. So this is the time that the allies should be really pushing the support into Ukraine to get Russia out of Ukraine. That's the best way to finish this.

BLITZER: The Pentagon today did announce that general another $275 million in U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. What do you see as the Ukrainians needing most from the allies right now is this war inches toward this one-year mark?

CLARK: Yes. So they still need 155 artillery ammunition, precision and the old stuff. They need more artillery. The HIMARS are good. We'd like to have the ATACMS launchers for them. They need a lot longer range, longer endurance drones, the updated Predator System, it's an old system there's nothing that's secret about it. We need to get that there.


We still need aircraft for Ukraine. They need air ground coordination when they do these attacks. Look, this is -- we're going to look back on this period a year or two from now. And we're going to say there was a window of opportunity where had we really reinforced what Ukraine was calling for, put it in there, give them the opportunity before the spring thaw.

They've got a chance to really change the operational dynamics in that theater, push Russia out, get their foothold into Crimea, and then negotiations are possible.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a critically dangerous moment right now. Retired General Wesley Clark, thanks so much for joining us.

CLARK: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, while Brittney Griner is home safe from Russian -- from that Russian prison, Paul Whelan and other Americans await their chance for freedom. The many stories of those wrongfully detained by foreign governments, that's next.



BLITZER: As Brittney Griner returns home from Russian captivity, the White House is shifting its focus right now to the release of other Americans. And that includes ex-marine Paul Whelan, who has spent some four years behind bars in Russia.

CNN's Brian Todd is following the story for us. Brian, Americans are being wrongfully detained not only in Russia, but elsewhere around the world as well.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Many may not realize there are dozens, several dozen Americans being wrongfully detained or held hostage, not just in Russia, but in places like Iran, China, Venezuela and elsewhere. Their families hoping the resolution of Brittney Griner's case doesn't make their loved ones fade from view.


TODD (voice-over): With Brittney Griner's arrival home, there's increasing focus tonight on dozens of others who've shared a similar fate.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also remember the other Americans that are being held hostage and wrongfully detained in Russia or anywhere else in the world.

TODD (voice-over): There are some 60 Americans being wrongfully detained or held hostage by foreign governments, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates on behalf of American hostages and wrongful detainees. The New York Times citing a State Department official put the number at between 40 and 50 back in July. One of them is Marc Fogel. I spoke to his attorney Tom Firestone.

TOM FIRESTONE, ATTORNEY FOR AMERICAN DETAINEE MARC FOGEL: We're frustrated with the Russian judicial system which has given him 14 years.

TODD (voice-over): Fogel's, a 61-year-old school teacher who's been detained in Russia since August of last year after medical cannabis was found in his luggage at a Moscow airport.

(on-camera): Are there negotiations with Russia taking place right now for his release? And if so, can you tell us about them?

FIRESTONE: We don't know what's going on. Obviously, that's all done behind closed doors for very good reasons of confidentiality. The U.S. government has assured us that it is doing what it can to get Marc out.

TODD (voice-over): Marc Fogel has not been declared wrongfully detained by the U.S. government. Paul Whelan has. Whelan, the best- known American detainee has been held in Russia for almost four years serving a 16-year sentence for espionage, charges the U.S. government says. are bogus. Whelan spoke to CNN on the phone after Griner's release.

PAUL WHELAN, AMERICAN DETAINED IN RUSSIA: In these conditions, who knows how I'll come back or if I'll come back. What I don't understand is why nothing has happened to this point.

TODD (voice-over): The Biden administration consistently says it's doing everything it can to bring Whelan and the other Americans home. Several Americans are being detained in Iran, including Emad Sharghi, held there since 2018 on dubious charges of violating Iranian national security. His sister told CNN she's begging the Biden team for FaceTime and telling her brother to hold on.

NEDA SHARGHI, SISTER OF AMERICAN EMAD SHARGHI, WRONGFULLY DETAINED IN IRAN: When I talked to my brother, I tell him that all he has to do is survive every day, and to leave the work to me and to his family to bring him home.

TODD (voice-over): The cases are complicated, difficult and murky. American journalist Austin Tice vanished a decade ago in Syria. Last summer, President Biden said his team knows with certainty that Tice is being held by the Syrian government. The Syrians deny it. But experts say striking a deal with Syria, Iran, Russia or any country for the release of an American detainee carries risks.

TOM PASQUARELLO, FORMER DEA REGIONAL DIRECTOR FOR SOUTHEAST ASIA: I think this sends a message to any group that's interested in kidnapping a U.S. American, it puts a price tag on their head with the assumption of the U.S. when negotiate.


TODD: Tom Firestone and Jason Rezaian, an American journalist who was detained in Iran say that one person who could make a huge difference in many of these cases is Brittney Griner, if she chooses to do it after she gets acclimated. Rezaian wrote in The Washington Post that people with Griner's reach and visibility are really needed in this fight right now. Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Important work indeed. Thank you very much, Brian.

Coming up, focus intensifying on the case of Paul Whelan right now as American being held in Russia following the release of Brittney Griner. We'll talk to his brother David Whelan about what the family is feeling.

But first, a closer look now at this Sunday CNN Heroes, An All-Star Tribute.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sunday, it's the time of year to be inspired. And honor some of humanity's best.

CARIE BROECKER, PEACE OF MIND DOG RESCUE: We have found homes for almost 3,000 dogs.


TYRIQUE GLASGOW, YOUNG CHANCES FOUNDATION: Our communities, my center have used to be the community drug house.

BOBBY WILSON, METRO ATLANTA URBAN FARM: I want my grandchildren to have it better than what I have it today.

RICHARD CASPER, CREATIVETS: It has always wanted to serve other people.

TERESA GRAY, MOBILE MEDICS INTERNATIONAL: Human suffering has no borders. People are people and love is love.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Join Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa live as they percent the 2022 Hero of the Year.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- in honoring --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CNN Heroes, An All-Star Tribute Sunday at 8:00.



BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, a federal judge has declined to hold former President Trump in contempt of court. We're going to tell you what we're learning about today's dramatic closed-door hearing and what it means for the investigation of the classified documents siege over at Mar-a-Lago.