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Russian Hacking Controversy; Syria Cease-fire; Feared World Leaders Love Trump; Major Cities Tighten Security for New Year's Eve. Aired 12-12:30a ET

Aired December 31, 2016 - 00:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Russia takes a wait-and-see approach. Vladimir Putin holds off on retaliating against U.S. sanctions and decides to take his chances with Donald Trump.

Syria's cease-fire in its second day but sporadic violence is keeping the country on edge.

Plus: cities around the world find new ways to increase security in preparation for New Year's celebrations.

Hi, everyone, thank you for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier in Atlanta and your CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


VANIER: U.S. diplomats in Russia will not be kicked out of the country after all -- at least not yet. President Vladimir Putin on Friday said he will wait to see what Donald Trump does when he gets to office. That's just three weeks from now.

Putin's move stunned Washington and the Kremlin had been expected to respond in kind to the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats from the U.S. The tit-for-tat is, of course, over the alleged Russian hacking during the U.S. presidential campaign.

Trump applauded the Russian leader's decision in a tweet.

"Great move on delay by Vladimir Putin. I always knew he was very smart!"

For the latest, here's CNN's Jim Sciutto.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Russians vacating compounds shut down by the U.S.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, dismissing Washington's payback, instead wishing President Obama and his family a happy new year, saying in a statement, quote, "We will not stoop to the level of irresponsible diplomacy. It is a pity that the President Obama administration finishes its work this way, but, nevertheless, I congratulate him and his family a happy new year."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recommended Putin expel 35 American diplomats from Russia after the U.S. ordered 35 alleged Russian spies to leave the U.S. by this weekend.

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): We cannot let such escapades happen without a response. The Russian Foreign Ministry, together with our colleagues from other departments, have made a proposal to declare 31 staff from the embassy of Moscow and four diplomats from the general consulate of St. Petersburg as persona non grata.

SCIUTTO: President Putin, likely waiting for a far friendlier administration under Donald Trump, did not take that advice, saying in his statement, "We will not create problems for American diplomats. We will not send anyone away."

With a stroke of drama, Putin even issued this invitation to American children.

"In response to the new U.S. sanctions, I invite all children of the U.S. diplomats to the new year and Christmas children's show at the Kremlin," signed, "Yours sincerely, Vladimir Putin."

The U.S. shut down two Russian government-owned compounds, one in New York, where law enforcement was seen outside and another in Maryland, a 45-acre property purchased by the Soviet government in 1972. Today, vehicles were seen leaving the Maryland estate and returning to the Russian Embassy in Washington. The White House says the Russians working at the compounds were spying on the U.S.

Russia, however, refutes that the estates were being used for espionage.

VITALY CHURKIN, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: I think it's quite scandalous that they chose to go after our kids, you know?

They know full well those two facilities which they mentioned in their notes, they are vacation facilities for our kids and this is Christmastime.

SCIUTTO: Four of the Russians sanctioned by the U.S. are part of the Russian military intelligence unit known as the GRU. One of them is the unit's chief.

MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's assigning blame to Russia's military and intelligence service, but the actual perpetrators of these hacks are contractors, if you like, people who have been found by the Russian government to do their dirty work for them.

Keep in mind that election hacking is not the only issue of disagreement between the U.S. and Russia. You have the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Ukraine, bombing of civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere Syria. Those are issues that Donald Trump will have to face as president as well -- Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: Russian malware has been found on a computer belonging to an electric company in the U.S. state of Vermont. This is bound to raise further questions about the extent of Russian hacking in the U.S.

Burlington Electric said the computer was not connected to its power grid system. The malware was detected after the U.S. State Department alerted U.S. power companies about the malware code linked to Russia.

Burlington Electric released this statement, "We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding. Our team is working with federal officials to trace this malware and prevent any other attempts to infiltrate utility systems."


VANIER: And Vermont senator Patrick Leahy just released a statement moments ago. It says, in part, "This is beyond hackers having electronic joyrides. This is now about trying to access utilities to potentially manipulate the grid and shut it down in the middle of winter. That is a direct threat to Vermont and we do not take it lightly."

Richard Anderson is a professor of political science at UCLA. He joins us from Los Angeles via Skype.

We have been talking about this since yesterday, Richard. Yesterday you were telling us that the back-and-forth of sanctions between the U.S. and Russia was mostly political theater with little real impact. Let's talk about this new development.

If it does turn out that Russia is trying to hack into electrical grids here in the U.S. doesn't that move the needle?

RICHARD ANDERSON, UCLA: No. I don't think so. My guess is that both countries are hacking into each other's grids. Part of political theater is to promise to protect people against war and, you know, if a war happens to, in fact, want to be prepared.

And for many years the Russians have been engaging in a variety of covert operations in Western Europe, in the United States, to prepare in advance for the possibility of a conflict.

That doesn't mean that they mean to conduct such a conflict. It just means that they are going through the preparations. Armies train; weapons are produced. Everybody gets ready for the war that they hope will never happen.

VANIER: OK, but let's consider potentially the political impact for Donald Trump.

Do you think the president-elect, soon to be president, can stick to his line of better relations with Russia after this? ANDERSON: I think he can. I think the thing to say is that part of his negotiation with the Russians will be to get an agreement on both sides to stop doing this sort of thing. I think that agreement will be very hard to enforce. I think it will be carefully worded so as to allow a lot of it to go forward.

I also have always thought that there are limits to how close the United States and Russia can cooperate. Those limits are set by the bad news that's going to continually come out of Russia: bad news human rights violation, bad news underhanded conduct, crime, corruption.

All of these things are going to make that relationship tense all the time. But it doesn't have to degenerate. It just will be a certain amount of stress.

VANIER: How do you interpret Vladimir Putin not taking new measures, new retaliation against the U.S., despite dozens of Russian diplomats being expelled on Thursday?

ANDERSON: Well, one of the things that's happened in the former Soviet Union and Russia in particular has been a religious revival. And, you know, the Russians are Christians or that's the state religion, at least, and Christianity tells you don't hit back.

So this is a chance for Vladimir Putin to grab the moral high ground and, I think, he's taking it.

VANIER: All right. Richard Anderson, professor of political science at UCLA. Thank you very much for your insights.

By and large, Syria's cease-fire seems to be holding. There have been clashes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports at least 10 people were killed on Friday, nine of them just northeast of Aleppo. Still, though, officials are hoping that this could be the beginning to the road to peace in Syria.

Our Muhammad Lila has the latest on the fragile cease-fire.


MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have now officially passed the 24-hour mark since the cease-fire began and all of the indications on the ground are that the cease-fire, however fragile it might be, is holding at the moment. There were reports of sporadic clashes around the country, outside of Damascus and in the countryside, in other locations but none of the groups on the ground, the militant groups that were fighting or Syria, Turkey, Russia, Iran consider those sporadic clashes to be a violation of the cease-fire.

And this is critical because the first few hours and the first few days of the cease-fire will determine how well and how deep this cease-fire is taking hold. So the first day, if it's any indication, is certainly a positive sign.

Now if the cease-fire does hold for the next several days and weeks, the plan is for there to be long-term peace negotiations and those talks will involve Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iran.

Of course, those are the major players with very deep interests in how the Syrian conflict plays out. The Kremlin earlier on bypassing U.S. President Obama and speaking directly to U.S. President-elect Trump, saying that Trump would have a seat at that negotiating table if he chose to take it.

And at that negotiating table, they are expected to discuss the prospects for a long-term and --


LILA: -- and a permanent cease-fire as well as the future of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad.

We know in the past that Bashar al-Assad has been a red line for the Iranians, the Syrians and the Russians, saying that he is the leader of that country and should not have to step down.

Turkey, of course, since day one, has said that Assad's future is nonnegotiable. They insist that he needs to step down in order for there any kind of political settlement.

Now Assad's future aside, the most important thing that all of the observers are watching is whether this cease-fire will hold and so far, based on just the first 24 hours, it appears that it is holding -- Muhammad Lila, CNN, Istanbul.


VANIER: CNN military analyst Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona joins us now from California via Skype for more on this.

Rick, under the terms of the cease-fire, fighting may continue against terror groups. That's to say the Syrian government and Russia and their allies can continue to fight against what they deem to be terror groups.

But when you know that the Syrian regime considers all opposition fighters to be terrorists, does this just mean that they have got a blank check to keep fighting against whomever they want?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, in the past, this was really a problem because both the Russians and the Syrians continued to bomb whoever they wanted and when challenged, they said, well, we deemed these groups to be terrorists.

And I saw this today. If you look at the bombing that was going on in the suburbs of Damascus, technically those groups could be considered terrorists. And I think that's why the overall feeling is that the cease-fire is holding.

But this is going to be a problem down the road because the Syrians are going to bomb whoever they deem to be anti-regime and they would just call them terrorists. But there's a difference here this time. This cease-fire has much

better chance of holding because I think the rebels realize that this may be their last chance before they suffer a really devastating military defeat. So I think we're going the see more leeway in -- when they complain about being bombed and being labeled terrorists.

VANIER: I wanted to ask you about this precise notion that you're referencing here.

For the first time since the civil war began, most major players are now on board. That's Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Syrian government, half a dozen rebel groups.

So how much of a turning point is this then?

FRANCONA: Well, it's a big turning point, because, one, the United States is not involved and it does not throw in that extra wrench of that red line on the United States' side that Bashar al-Assad has to go.

They're taken that out of the equation. The Turks still want Assad to go but they are willing to sit down at the table and talk about it. So I think the Russians and the Iranians have found a more pliable partner with the Turks.

So with that in the equation, I think there is a better chance that this gets to the next stage. We have never had one of these go to an actual conference. That's a good thing.

But like I said, the rebels are probably realizing that this may be their last chance and they're more willing to compromise. I think they are just looking for some survival mechanism now. I read all of the Arabic language tweets and press and announcements on Facebook, different social media.

And there is a definite change in the tone of their posts because of their loss in Aleppo. They're really feeling defeated.

VANIER: Now two players have been sidelined and they're major players, the U.S. and the United Nations. We're used to seeing those playing a major role in a major world conflict.

How much long-term damage do you think this does to their credibility?

FRANCONA: Well, I think the United Nations is suffering a problem all along because -- and, unfortunately, they catch it from both sides. Both sides are easy to complain about the United Nations.

It's the United States' piece that I think we've got to look at. And without the United States involved in this, we don't know how long this will actually last.

Can they actually come up with a long-term plan that will work without U.S. backing?

And I think what we're seeing now is kind of this confrontation between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. And as we've heard, Mr. Putin said that after January 20th, we may bring the United States back into that.

So I think that Putin is playing a real political game here and he's playing it very well. He was very effective. He used the Russian military to crush the opposition in Aleppo; he forced everybody to the table and now he's dictating who can sit at the table.

So hopefully after January 20th, we can get the United States back, involved in this.

VANIER: All right, Rick Francona, CNN military analyst, always a pleasure having your insights. Thank you for joining us on the show.

FRANCONA: Nice to be with you, sir.

VANIER: We're going to take a very short break. When we come back, Donald Trump praised by world leaders with iron fists.

Why are so-called strongmen smitten with the United States president- elect?

We'll be taking a look.





VANIER: Welcome back.

Police in Rio de Janeiro are calling the death of the Greek ambassador to Brazil "a crime of passion." Investigators are holding the widow of Kyriakos Amirides (ph). She's accused of ordering a military police man, said to be her lover, to kill her husband.

Police say the man's cousin also helped. Amirides (ph) had been missing since Monday. His charred remains were found in a burned car on Thursday outside Rio. Brazilian news reports that Amirides (ph) was appointed ambassador last January. So far no charges have been filed in his death but all three suspects are under temporary arrest.

British prime minister Theresa May is distancing herself from a speech by the U.S. secretary of state on Middle East peace and specifically on Israel. Her office says that it was not appropriate for John Kerry to have attacked the composition of a democratically elected ally and that this speech focused too much on Israeli settlements.

Kerry's office responded by saying this, "We are surprised by the U.K. prime minister's office statement, given that Secretary Kerry's remarks, which covered the full range of threats to a two-state solution, including terrorism, violence, incitement and settlements, were in line with the U.K.'s own long-standing policy and its vote at the United Nations last week."

Some of the most feared leaders in the world seem to have nothing but love for Donald Trump -- and the U.S. president-elect, as it were, praises them, too. Ivan Watson takes a look at the mutual attraction.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the aftermath of the election, messages of support come from presidents with tough-guy personas who have had tense relations with the U.S.

The Russian president calls Trump a successful entrepreneur, a man who is, quote, "probably clever."

Turkey's president jumped to the President-elect support calling anti- Trump street protests, quote, "a disrespect to democracy."

And then there's the President of the Philippines who not long ago told President Obama he could go to hell.

PRES. RODRIGO DUTERTE, PHILIPPINES: I would like to congratulate President Trump.

(Speaking foreign language).

WATSON: Why do these strong men seem to like Donald Trump?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would call it their capacity to provide simple answers to very complicated questions. That what we're seeing at the moment in the world today is a loss of threats and crises and uncertainty and what these leaders are providing is simplistic answers, black and white, close the borders, no more foreigners.

WATSON: Vladimir Putin first came to power in 1999, delighting many Russians with his promise to hunt down and kill Chechen rebels in their toilets.


WATSON: Turkey's fiery Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspires fervent pride among pious working class voters while often demonizing and persecuting his critics.

And in Europe, several far right politicians embrace Trump's tough talk on immigration and Islamist extremism hoping for their own Trump bump as they compete for the top job in Dutch and French elections scheduled next year.

But not everyone welcomes this new hunger for nationalist politicians. Here in the tiny Eastern European country of Latvia, U.S. soldiers are training alongside the Latvian military. It's part of an effort to better protect this NATO allies from its much bigger neighbor to the east, Latvia's former Soviet ruler, Russia.

With Trump so focused on making America great people here fear the U.S. will no longer protect them. The rise of nationalist strong men leaves some of the little guys clearly worried -- Ivan Watson, CNN, Riga.


VANIER: Cities around the world have bolstered security ahead of New Year's Eve. What Berlin is doing in particular after this month's Christmas market attack.

That's all coming up after the break.




VANIER: Once again, Beijing and surrounding cities are dealing with choking smog and now the highest alert level of red has been issued for the region. Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri has been working on this.

Pedram, this seems to be just like this never-ending story.

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely. What's really concerning about this is it seems to worsen and what is ironic about this as well is they believe the increase is because factories are ramping up operations for the Chinese New Year and a lot of folks getting ready for the things needed for the holidays.

The perspective looks as such, Cyril. When you look at Friday and Saturday in portions of Beijing, this is the central business district and the perspective is just shrouded in smog. We see this over and over again in this region.

Here's a farm; if you look carefully, you can kind of see the outline of trees and the foliage in the background. But the air quality index now in the hazardous category. That is 10 to 15 times above what is considered fit to breathe.

And with the high pressure in place, Beijing has the prime ingredients to create the ideal scenario for hazardous fog. We have high pressure, sinking air, so the air becomes very stagnant, mountains to the west, highest population in the world and also highest area for factories and industry in place as well.

So all of this becomes trapped over a localized region and that's what is in place in this area even at this hour. Unfortunately, the weather pattern does not look like it is going the help much.

Historically speaking, here is a look at Beijing in 2015 every day in the calendar. And you notice about 150 to 200 days on any given year are unhealthy to breathe. You notice a lot of the gray.

And oddly enough, you think about a city like Los Angeles. Los Angeles in particular had a very similar setup. Oftentimes people forget in the 1950s and 1960s, the city of Los Angeles had one of the dirtiest air quality concerns in the world. But it was in 1975 they enacted that all new vehicles --


JAVAHERI: -- need a catalytic converter installed on them, other emissions restrictions in place. They used to have as many as 234 polluted days per year up until the mid-1970s.

Look at this. As of recent years about 92 days of polluted air. This is something that officials in China are fully aware of. They're trying with the restrictions, the red alert currently in place there, restricting vehicle usage.

But even since 2008, Cyril, you look at the large number, 50 percent of days since January 1st of 2008 in Beijing have been considered unhealthy. Another 20 percent or so are hazardous or very unhealthy.

So this is a very scary scenario there. They have done studies on life expectancy and seen that across the northern tier, where all the industry is, it is about 5.5 years lower than the southern portion of China where it's less industry.

VANIER: But if I follow what you're saying, they would have to act on the factory pollution as well as the transport and car pollution if they want to bring that down.

JAVAHERI: Correct. And the example was that you see within a couple of decades it is possible to see that in a place like Los Angeles.

VANIER: All right, Pedram Javaheri, thank you very much.

And clearly, 2017 is going to see as much pollution in Beijing as 2016. Thanks a lot.

With terrorism a constant threat, extra caution is being taken this year to protect New Year's Eve celebrations. Cities across the globe are beefing up security. CNN's Brynn Gingras has more from New York.


BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New York City is on high alert in anticipation of one of the biggest New Year's Eve celebrations in the world. Securing it takes an army; 7,000 NYPD officers are just one part of the enhanced measures being taken to protect the city.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is where everybody has got to be on their toes. I know complacency can set in at times but certainly not in an event like this.

GINGRAS (voice-over): In the wake of the ISIS-inspired attacks in Berlin and Nice, 65 sand trucks and 100 blockers will be stationed around the city, most being used as a protective barrier around the perimeter of Times Square to ward off a truck-style attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We live in a changing world now. And again, as I said before, it can't be just about what happens in New York.

GINGRAS (voice-over): The NYPD is in constant communication with foreign departments, gaining intelligence and sharing police strategy with cities abroad.

In London, there is added security at the changing of the guards. Heavily armed police were unavoidable in Berlin as they stood post behind concrete barriers at a Christmas concert.

Czech holiday markets were heavily patrolled. And, in France, the government announced a boost of 10,000 soldiers on the Parisian streets over the holiday period, adding to the officers working around the clock.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We are really giving of ourselves, of our time, but at a cost to us and to our families.

GINGRAS (voice-over): Nearly 2 million people are expected in Times Square. The extra police presence a noticeable addition to keep New York City safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you're coming down to Times Square, rest assured that it will be a safe venue.

GINGRAS (voice-over): Brynn Gingras, CNN, New York.


VANIER: That's it for now. I'm Cyril Vanier. I'll be back with the headlines in just a moment. Stay with us.