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Biden and Putin Begin High-Stakes Meeting in Geneva Soon; Biden Projects Wester Unity Ahead of Putin Meeting; Biden and Putin Likely to Discuss Prisoner Swaps; Putin Wants to Keep Navalny Off Meeting Agenda; Israel Launches Airstrikes in Gaza over Incendiary Balloons; China Sends 28 Warplanes into Taiwan's Defense ID Zone; Russia Expert: U.S. Wants to Avoid Giving Putin a Big Platform. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired June 16, 2021 - 04:30   ET



FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN HOST: Welcome back everyone to our special coverage of the very important summit between President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. And of course, before heading here to Geneva for this summit President Biden met with European leaders, talks with the G7, NATO and the European Union were all designed to show Western unity ahead of the face-to-face with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Biden discussed the summit at least two dozen European leaders and separately President Biden declared America is back and vowed to repair relations that were strained during the Trump administration.

All right. I want to bring in our own Jeff Zeleny who has been with President Biden at really every step of the way, Jeff. How much momentum do you think that President Biden is carrying into the summit with Vladimir Putin after shoring up that support for Western countries, for European countries and also hearing their point of view on the summit as well?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF U.S. NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well Fred, I think the trip was designed exactly for this reason. To have this summit between President Biden and President Putin at the very end. Because President Biden really has talked with most every world leader. He has met with both at the G7 in Cornwall, England, as well at NATO headquarters and at the EU Summit in Brussels about President Putin, trying to get some buy-in for this meeting.

As you know very well, Fred, there's been a decent share of criticism for why is President Biden meeting with President Putin so early in his term? Why is he meeting with him without a specific strategy for a Russia outline? Well, the reason is he is, you know, wants to begin this dialogue. But he was trying to get, you know, bits and pieces of information from world leaders along the way -- from Angela Merkel to the leaders of Baltic countries.

So going into this meeting there's no doubt that President Biden has significant momentum at least in terms of his standing among the leaders of democracies. The question is what will that mean for his meeting with President Putin? Is he, you know, going to -- you know, is that going to change how he operates? Probably not, but at least in a public relations way it certainly builds the, you know, the momentum that he is the new American president. And of course he is taking all of these messages into this summit today in Geneva.

PLEITGEN: 5And you know, one of the things that you've been reporting that I found so fascinating over the past couple of years -- because you've reported on President Biden and Joe Biden before he was president for such a very long time. Is that many people have been asking why does he need this face-to-face meeting? Why was it so important for him to sit down face-to-face with Vladimir Putin? But that is really the core of who Joe Biden is, isn't it, meeting with people face-to-face and getting his point across, right?

ZELENY: It absolutely is particularly after, you know, about a year and several months of virtual meetings and telephone meetings, he really wanted to get out in the world and have some of these conversations and have some of these one-on-one meetings. Now when you say the word reset, is President Biden trying to reset relations with President Putin? The White House says, no, no, not trying to reset, just trying to, you know, essentially frame what could be a cooperative partnership with limits obviously with Russia or not.


I mean, President Biden is trying to see -- at least according to his advisers -- you know, by looking President Putin directly in the eye if there can be areas of cooperation on nuclear arms, on climate, on the Iran nuclear deal. That's about it. Obviously, there are many other areas of a dissent, but President Biden believes his time on the world stage -- really for the better part of his public life -- can lead to a better result than the last four American presidents. Healthy reason for skepticism on that, Fred, but we will have to see how this summit here today plays out.

PLEITGEN: Thank you very much for that. Jeff Zeleny right near in Geneva. Of course, we'll be hearing a lot more from you also in the next couple of hours, really throughout the entire day as this summit unfolds.

One of the key areas that many people are going be looking at and certainly many -- or some families in the United States are going to be looking at -- is possible prisoner swaps between the U.S. and Russia. Of course there have been a lot of names that have been put out there. Trevor Reed of course being one of them. But then also the former Marine Paul Whelan. He was arrested in Russia in 2018. He was then convicted in 2020 on espionage charges. Which he says are trumped up -- which his family says are trumped up. The big question is whether or not any sort of headway can be made there.

It was quite interesting, because over the past couple of days the Russian foreign ministry said that they had been in talks with the U.S. about prisoner swaps but that Paul Whelan's case was specifically excluded. However, the Kremlin has said in the form of a spokesperson for Vladimir Putin that the two presidents would have to discuss that issue. They said that speculation about it would be inappropriate but it could be discussed by the two presidents. Now, CNN managed to speak to Paul Whelan's brother and he had this to say about the upcoming summit.


DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER IMPRISONED IN RUSSIA: It's difficult because on the one hand you want him home more than anything, you want him to come back to our family and to Michigan. But I don't know that anybody is willing to have him traded for the merchant of death or some other terrible person who is sitting in a U.S. prison. So I think it's a very difficult situation. The president is responsible for all of the American citizens wherever they are and so it's a very difficult situation for him to have to decide about.


PLEITGEN (on camera): And of course there is another really important prisoner that whose fate will most probably come up and that of course is the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Of course as you know, last year Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent Novichok. The United States holds Russia accountable for that poisoning even though the Russians have denied that. Now of course, the U.S. has also heavily criticized the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny. However, the Russians continue to say that that imprisonment is legit and that it is on embezzlement charges.

One of that things that we have seen from the Russians, specifically from Vladimir Putin, is that he has absolutely no intention about talking about this topic. In fact, when he was recently brought up in an NBC interview -- I want you to take a look at his reaction.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will you commit that you will personally ensure that Alexei Navalny will leave prison alive.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I perceive from the premise that the person that you have mentioned the same kind of measures will apply not in any way worse than to anybody else who happens to be in prison.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His name is Alexei Navalny. People will note that you --

PUTIN: I don't care. I don't care.


PLEITGEN: You see Vladimir Putin visibly irritated there. And joining me now from London Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of Alexei Navalny's anti-corruption foundation, which of course, has just recently been declared an extremist organization in Russia. Which is very, very grave for your organization. Mr. Ashurkov, what do you expect from President Biden in this summit and what do you hope he can achieve for Alexei Navalny? VLADIMIR ASHURKOV, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ALEXEY NAVALNY'S ANTI-

CORRUPTION FOUNDATION: Well, the U.S. president and the Russian president have a wide agenda, it includes security issues, Iran, China, climate change. I don't know what place will human rights issues, and the situation with Alexei Navalny take among this wide range of issues. but I hope it is prominently featured and it deserves the attention that it requires.

PLEITGEN: Well, it's been quite interesting because the Kremlin yesterday or senior aide to Vladimir Putin has said that they do believe that the Kremlin does believe that President Biden is going to raise the issue of Alexei Navalny, of his treatment, of his imprisonment. Do you believe that there's any chance that the treatment could get better or that he could even be released?

ASHURKOV: I think it's a long process. We advocate his release for a long time, for the last six months. And Mr. Biden and U.S. administration has been really supportive, raising its voice against this unlawful incarceration. Navalny really has become the most prominent political prisoner now globally.


So I hope there is some movement on this issue as a result of this summit.

PLEITGEN: As we've noted, your organization, Alexei Navalny's organizations have been declared extremist organizations in the Russian federation making it almost impossible -- pretty much impossible to do anything there. How are you going to try to continue your work or try to make a difference especially in the run up to the Parliamentary elections that are coming up in Russian?

ASHURKOV: It's not the first instance of pressure on our organization, on our activists. We have always regrouped. We evolved and we found ways to fight this regime. A lot of opportunities take place online and they will continue in particular the system of tactical voting that we employed in previous elections in Russia will now be used during the Parliamentary elections in September.

PLEITGEN: One of the things that I have to ask you is, do you have any update on how Alexei Navalny is doing on his health and how he's being treat there had in Russia in that jail?

ASHURKOV: Following his hunger strike which lasted three weeks, his medical treatment was improved. So he's now back to normal in terms of eating, even though his health issues still remain, but he's feeling much better.

PLEITGEN: Vladimir Ashurkov, I want to thank you for joining us this morning. Of course you'll be keeping a close eye on the summit, we'll be keeping a close eye on the summit. And we're going to have much more from here in Geneva and of course also, around the world, that's coming up after the break.


ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back, everyone. Well, now to developing news from the Middle East. Israel's military says it has struck targets in Gaza in response to incendiary balloons it says sparked fires in Israel. Just take a look at this new video showing the attack. This is the first major flare up since the ceasefire ended 11 days of deadly fighting last month between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The air strikes come just days after Natalie Bennett took over as Israel's Prime Minister.

So let's go CNN's Hadas Gold. She joins us live from Jerusalem. Good to see you Hadas. So what is the latest on these Israeli air strikes and could they perhaps trigger a new round of violence in the region?

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So Rosemary, the IDF says that they launched these air strikes after -- as you noted -- incendiary balloons were sent by militants from Gaza over the border and into Israel. And there are reports that these balloons caused at least 20 different fires.

Overnight, the IDF said that they struck training complexes and meeting facilities of Hamas. And according to Palestinian media there was material damage but no casualties have been reported yet. But it's a clear escalation of course and it goes to show you that the ceasefire that was struck after that 11-day conflict last month with Hamas led militants in Gaza is tenuous and is fragile and could change at any minute.

Now the militants said that they launched those balloons partly in response to a march by right-wing Jewish groups through Jerusalem yesterday, known as the flag day marches when these groups celebrate when Israel took control of the Western Wall in east Jerusalem in 1967. This march was actually -- it takes place every year, and it was supposed to take place last month. But as it was getting under way on May 10, Hamas began firing rockets towards Jerusalem in response to this march.

And yesterday this was seen as a very provocative move by these groups because thousands of these marchers at one point went to Damascus Gate Plaza, that is the main entrance for Muslim worshippers to enter the old city, to enter the Muslim quarter. Thousands of them were there waving Israeli flags, chanting. Some of them were chanting also incendiary slogans. At one point CNN crews heard "Death to Arabs." They were saying things like Jerusalem is ours.

Now this march was condemned by Palestinian leadership and it was seen as a clear test for this new government that was just sworn in on Monday, who allowed this march to go forward.

But I do think that these air strikes overnight show that the Israeli officials are no longer accepting things like balloons being sent over -- incendiary balloons being sent over that they will get a hard response. As where in the past sometimes things like incendiary balloons would not have received such a strong response from Israel, such as air strikes. That would have been reserved for rockets being fired. Now that's the sense that we got from Israeli officials after the conflict last month. That they are changing the dimensions and they are going to now be responding to any sort of provocation from Hamas with things like air strikes. But it just goes to show you how sensitive and how fragile this ceasefire remains -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right, Hadas Gold joining us live from Jerusalem, any thanks.

Well meet China's newest team of space farers. Beijing is sending three astronauts up in China's first human spaceflight in about five years. The crew is scheduled to launch Thursday morning. They will orbit the earth for a three-month stay as they work on China's space station. It's the third of nearly a dozen missions needed to get the station complete by 2022.

Well now to what appears to be an unprecedented maneuver by China's military. 28 Chinese war planes including nuclear capable bombers made an incursion into Taiwan's air defense zone on Tuesday. It's the largest such incursion since Taiwan began reporting on China's threatening flights last year. It comes just a day after NATO leaders warned of the military challenge posed by Beijing.

And CNN's Will Ripley is following the developments for us, he joins us now live from Taipei. So, Will, what message was China trying to send Taiwan and of course the rest of the world with these war planes?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think it's safe to say, Rosemary, the message is don't mess with China's sovereignty. But it may be aimed at multiple players here. Obviously, this act of military intimidation which did not violate international law because they didn't go into Taiwanese air space was meant to intimidate the island of Taiwan which China has claimed as part of its territory for more than 70 years -- since the end of China's civil war. Even though this island has been governing itself for that entire time. In fact, is the only Chinese speaking democracy in the world.

But also it's a message aimed at the United States analysts are telling me. This is a deliberate attempt to conduct what's called kind of a gray zone operation.


To have nuclear capable bombers -- which would not be needed frankly if there were to be a military conflict with Taiwan but could be used to target U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam. That analysts say is certainly a signal meant for the U.S.

And it comes at a time as you mentioned the G7 communique 48 hours or so before this incursion. And it was on June 6 when three U.S. Senators decided to fly into Taipei on a C-17 a military aircraft, another photo op for the U.S. Senators but a highly provocative action in the view of Beijing -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right, Will Ripley joining us live from Taipei, many thanks.

And we now return to our special coverage of the Biden/Putin summit. Our Fred Pleitgen in Geneva -- Fred.

PLEITGEN: Thank you very much, Rosemary. And coming up an expert on Russia tells us how Vladimir Putin is preparing for his meeting with Joe Biden. Stay tuned.



PLEITGEN: What you are seeing there are live pictures of the villa la Grange right here in Geneva, in fact, on the shore of lake Geneva. That is where Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden are going to meet very soon for several hours of talks. And one of the experts who helped prepare President Biden for that meeting says the decision to keep that meeting behind closed doors was intentional.


FIONA HILL, FORMER NSC SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR RUSSIA: Putin is always very well prepared. Every meeting that I have seen him he's thought ahead. He's thought one step, two steps, three steps ahead. He's often meetings prepared with note cards. And I think we've managed to diffuse potentially where the United States some of the mischief of Putin could get up to, by the fact we're not having a joint press conference. But Putin will have ample opportunity to have his own press conference and to give his own spin on the meeting


PLEITGEN: Fiona Hill, who is of course, one of the top Russia experts. She also reflected on that the 2018 meeting in Helsinki between then Presidents Trump and President Putin. And she was also a witness to that now infamous press conference that happened. And she said at the time it was so embarrassing that she was looking for a way, almost any way to try to make it stop. Let's listen in.


HILL: I first of all, you know, looked around to see if there was a fire alarm, but we were in a rather bland building attached to the presidential palace of the Finnish president who had lent it to us for the occasion. And I couldn't see anything that resembled a fire alarm. You know look, I had exactly the same feeling that Deborah Birx had during the infamous press conference where there was this suggestion by President Trump about injecting bleach, you know, to counteract the coronavirus. It was one of those moments where it was mortifying frankly and humiliating for the country.


CHURCH: Chances are things will be different this time. Stay with CNN for all of today for more of our extensive coverage of the summit between U.S. and Russian presidents. Thank you very much for joining us. Of course, our extensive coverage continues right now after this quick break with Wolf Blitzer and "EARLY START." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)