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THE SITUATION ROOM
Ukraine Accuses Russia Of "Armed Invasion"; Interview with Sen. John McCain
Aired February 28, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.
We're following the growing crisis in Ukraine, where tensions are rapidly escalating. And the president of the United States, President Obama, is about to walk into the White House Briefing Room to make a major statement.
The Ukrainian government is accusing Russian Black Sea forces of trying to seize two airports in Crimea and cutting off communications between the Russian majority region and the rest of Ukraine.
Russian troops also are said to have surrounded the state television facility. Some are calling it -- and I'm quoting it now -- an armed invasion of the country.
All this coming just six days after the Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovych, was driven from the capital following deadly demonstrations against his pro-Moscow government.
As we wait for the president to walk into the Briefing Room, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta -- Jim, set the scene for us.
JIM ACOSTA, HOST: Well, this was a hastily called statement by the White House for President Obama. We do expect him to be out here in a few moments. He was supposed to be out here 15 minutes ago, so he is running a bit late.
And he was expected to be over at the Democratic National Committee at this hour, Wolf, laying out his midterm strategy for his party. But instead, he'll be here in the White House, in the Briefing Room, talking about Ukraine.
We've been pressing White House officials all day long as to what is going on on the ground in Crimea, just who those forces are with the blacked over concealed insignias on their uniforms, are those Russian forces. And while there are some indications that they may, indeed, be Russian forces, it will be interesting to hear what the president has to say about that. And, Wolf, you know, we've been hearing all day long from White House officials all the way over to secretary of State John Kerry that the United States has been warning Russia that it would be a grave mistake to intervene militarily in Ukraine. And if that is, indeed, what has happened here, then this is going to be a test for the president.
The president said just last week in Mexico that he doesn't view his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as an international chess match. But that appears to be what is happening.
The pieces on the board are moving, Wolf. And it's going to be fascinating to find out what the president has to say in just a few moments.
He is going to be using the power of his presidency, the force of the Oval Office, to warn Russia as to what their move should or should not be. And at this point, you know, we've asked White House press secretary, Jay Carney, you know, what are the U.S. options if Russia has, indeed, intervened militarily?
Earlier today, at the briefing here at the White House, Wolf, Jay Carney just did not have a good answer to that. At this point, they're just not going to speculate what the options are if Russia has, in the words of this White House, crossed a line and invaded -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And as we wait for the president, I want to just play the remarks we just heard from the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.
She had some very strong words.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The United States stands with the Ukrainian people in determining their own destiny, their own government, their own future. We are gravely disturbed by reports of Russian military deployments into the Crimea. The United States calls upon Russia to pull back the military forces that are being built up in the region, to stand down and to allow the Ukrainian people the opportunity to pursue their own government, create their own destiny and to do so freely, without intimidation or fear.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
BLITZER: Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
It's not every day, late on a late Friday afternoon, the president of the United States, unscheduled, makes a decision to go into the Briefing Room and make a statement on the -- on a situation around the world, this time the escalating tensions in Ukraine and the escalating tensions with Russia -- Jim Sciutto, we're only seconds away from the president of the United States. This is a big deal.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No question, it's a big deal. The U.S. now believes these are Russian troops. They are observing movements of these Russian troops on the ground. And this is what we spoke about a number of times.
You don't need a full scale, Georgia-style invasion, for Russia to do military intervention in Ukraine. You could do the smaller special forces led black ops. And that appears to be what we're seeing there.
The other point I would just say, we've had a lot of communication between the U.S. and Russia at the most senior levels the last 72 hours and the last week -- the president to Putin, Kerry to Lavrov every day, including this morning.
When those -- when American leaders got assurances from Russian leaders they would not do something like this and they repeatedly warned them not to make moves that could be misinterpreted as military intervention, and that appears to be see -- what we're seeing happening right now despite those assurances, I think, Wolf, you can say, you know, we're looking at a relationship in peril here.
BLITZER: It has all the feelings, even though the president, only a few days ago, said it didn't have the feelings of another cold war type of situation, it certainly reminds me -- and I covered the cold war -- of what was going on then.
SCIUTTO: Absolutely. And just based on the conversations I've had in the last few days, clearly, higher anxiety today than there was yesterday, higher anxiety yesterday than there was the day before.
They've been watching these movements. And, really, these are the kinds of scenarios they did not want to see happen. I'm not going to say nightmare scenarios, because there are other further steps that Russia could have taken. But still, these are worrisome developments, no question. And you get...
SCIUTTO: -- you get that sense from the feeling and the comments you hear from U.S. officials.
BLITZER: Here comes the president of the United States.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody.
Over the last several days, the United States has been responding to events as they unfold in Ukraine. Now, throughout this crisis, we have been clear about one fundamental principle -- the Ukrainian people deserve the opportunity to determine their own future.
Together with our European allies, we have urged an end to the violence and encouraged Ukrainians to pursue a course in which they stabilize their country, forge a broad-based government and move to elections this spring.
I also spoke several days ago with President Putin. And my administration has been in daily communication with Russian officials. And we've made clear that they can be part of an international community's effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interests of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia's interests.
However, we are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has an historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties and a military facility in Crimea.
But any Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interests of Ukraine, Russia or Europe. It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people. It would be a clear violation of Russia's commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine and of international laws.
And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world. And, indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.
The events over the past several months remind us of how difficult democracy can be in a country with deep divisions But the Ukrainian people have also reminded us that human beings have a universal right to determine their own future.
Right now, the situation remains very fluid. Vice President Biden just spoke with prime minister -- the prime minister of Ukraine, to assure him that in this difficult moment, the United States supports his government's efforts and stands for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future of Ukraine.
I also commend Ukraine government's restraint and its commitment to uphold its international obligations. We will continue to coordinate closely with our European allies. We will continue to communicate directly with the Russian government and we will continue to keep all of you in the press corps and the American people informed as events develop.
Thanks very much.
BLITZER: So there he is, a short statement from the president, only three or four minutes. But a strong statement, effectively warning Russia, don't -- don't intervene in the domestic matters of Ukraine, an independent country, or there will be consequences. The president suggesting if the Russians were to do so, the president's saying the U.S. is deeply concerned. And he does confirm that Russian troops right now are inside Ukraine. And he says the situation remains very fluid, but it's clearly a dangerous situation, as we watch it unfold.
We have our correspondents standing by here in Washington, as well as in Ukraine and Moscow.
Jim Sciutto is our chief national security correspondent -- you heard those strong words from the president. As I said earlier, it's not everyday, the end of the day, end of the week, late Friday afternoon, the president decides to change his schedule, go into the Briefing Room and, in effect, issue a strong warning to Moscow.
SCIUTTO: No question, from the highest level now. But when you look at the content of this warning, it's very similar to the warnings that other officials -- Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel and others have been making over these past few days, we are deeply concerned by events on the ground, any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty will be deeply destabilizing.
But those warnings have already been made, but clearly not heeded, by the Russian side, if we believe that events on the ground are proceeding as they appear to be proceeding.
He also lays out his vision for Ukraine -- stabilizing the country, a broad-based government with Russia playing a part. That's a plan that's been on the table for some time and clearly is not satisfying the Russian side. They want more. They don't want to play a part, clearly, they want leadership on this.
I have to wonder what effect that's going to have on the Russian side.
BLITZER: But it's one thing for the secretary of Defense or the secretary of State or the vice president, for that matter, to make a strong statement like that. It's another thing when the president of the United States does it himself.
Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon -- so I guess the bottom line question, and it's a simple question, I don't know if the answer is simple, Barbara, has Russia invaded Ukraine?
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is the question, has Putin made his move to take over Crimea?
What I can tell you, Wolf, is the U.S. assessment at this point is that this arrival of Russian military forces -- and that is what they are calling it -- the U.S. assessment is it was an uncontested arrival. So that may not be an invasion. That may be a very sympathetic population in Crimea that was quite willing to support these Russian troops landing there.
What this has done now, it's given Russia three legs on which to operate, perhaps several hundred ground troops, perhaps as many as 2,000. The U.S. has no reason to doubt those claims.
So they have ground troops. They have air transport. They came in by airplane. And they have the naval forces at Sevastopol with that naval infantry unit, essentially the same as U.S. Marines, providing the third leg.
The question will be, of course, where does Russia go from here?
What do they do next?
Right now, it looks like they have established their base of operations for Crimea. The U.S., I think a really important thing here is the U.S. assessment that Russian military forces have landed uncontested is very key. This is not a conflict in this area of Crimea with the Russian-supported population, so where this all goes now remains to be seen.
How quickly will opposition to the Russian presence develop in Crimea?
How long will the Russians stay?
What will they do next?
How and when -- or will -- they even leave -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Let's go to Crimea, Barbara, right now.
Diana Magnay is our reporter on the scene.
So what's going on over there?
Are these Russian troops being warmly welcomed by the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea or is there some sort of resistance?
DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.
Well, we have no confirmation that there are 2,000 troops who have arrived on Crimean soil. And, in fact, the new regional administration here says that that is a rumor.
We have -- and I've been to the airport, to the facilities where we have seen masked, armed gunmen surrounding these facilities. But they wear no military insignia. They do not respond when you ask them where they're from, whether they're Russian.
They are highly organized, highly armed. It is difficult, therefore, to believe that they are anything other than Russian personnel.
But, you know, I mean we were talking to Jim Sciutto earlier. He said they look like they're special ops guys from Russia.
To be honest, Wolf, they look very young. I've been looking at their faces from behind their balaclavas. They look very young. It is difficult, though, to believe that they are anything other than Russian military personnel, or in the pay of the Russians, because of their organization.
They have been fairly peaceful. It's a threatening presence. They haven't halted airport operations. They are now surrounding a -- the main state broadcaster here in Crimea.
The director general at the state broadcaster told us that they were doing that for the broadcaster's protection.
And remember, this is a very pro-Russian part of Ukraine. The majority here are ethnic Russian. And the message from the president that they support this Ukraine government is not a message that will sit well with the majority of people in Crimea, who do not feel that their interests are represented by the Maidan, by the new Ukrainian government -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Stand by, Diana.
I want to go to Kiev right now.
Ian Lee is there.
That's the capital of Ukraine -- and I sense that there's a totally different attitude about these Russian troops in Crimea, in Kiev, as opposed to what we just heard from Diana Magnay in Crimea. In Kiev, there's a different attitude than in Crimea, given the hostility, if you will, Ian, to what Russia is up to.
IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf. As far as the officials here are concerned, they're saying that the Russians have gone in militarily to the Crimea to try to annex it. This is what we're hearing from officials here and the acting president, Alexander Turchinov, has said that not only have they gone in, they're trying to take over civil administration buildings as well as communication buildings. They're saying this is, frankly, as an invasion.
And the one thing that President Obama said was -- he told Russians that there would be cost for military intervention. The Ukrainian government is saying that military intervention by the Russians is taking place right now. They've said that at least 11 military helicopters have come in as well as roughly ten airplanes flying into the area.
This all coming from the government here. They see this as a somewhat of an invasion, although, they are saying that their military is showing restraint. The acting president has told the military do not engage in any sort of provocation that might come their way.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you're right. The president did say there will be costs to any military intervention in Ukraine. Ian, stand by. Barbara Starr is getting more information over at the Pentagon. What are you learning, Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I want to underscore something Diana Magnay just said, and she is absolutely right, of course. The intelligence is very sketchy for the United States at the moment. These are assessments the U.S. is coming to. They do believe absolutely that it is Russian military forces that have landed in Crimea. How many, their intentions, what their operational orders are at this point? This is something the U.S. is still trying to figure out.
I can tell you, all of this began in Washington early today with top level meetings with the intelligence community across the administration trying to come to some understanding of what the Russians are up to and trying to cope with the fact that the intelligence is very sketchy. To some extent, the U.S. Intelligence committee is watching all of this unfold on television just as we are.
I mean, for all they know, more planes could land at any minute. There is not the kind of real-time intelligence that they need so the information still tentative. Russian military troops, how many, their intentions still to be determined.
BLITZER: Those not (ph) and still a whole lot of confidence in what's going on right now. Barbara, stand by. Everyone stand by. We have our correspondents here in Washington, in Kiev, in Crimea. We're watching what's going on here in the United States. Only moments ago, we heard from the president. We'll take a quick break. We'll resume our breaking news coverage right after this. Here's the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Welcome back to the SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Once again, we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.
We're watching important breaking news unfold. Serious tensions erupting. Tensions not only between Ukraine, the government in Ukraine and Russia, but also tensions between Russia, the European Union, and the United States. Only moments ago, President Obama went into the White House briefing room unscheduled and issued a very strong statement to the Russians noting that the U.S. is deeply concerned that Russian troops are now inside Ukraine.
That would be in Crimea, said this is deeply destabilizing, and there will be costs of any military intervention in Ukraine. The president saying the situation right now remains very fragile. Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, was in the briefing room, still is in the briefing room. It's not every day, Jim, when the president of the United States issues a warning like this.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No, that's right, Wolf. This was pretty hastily arranged. This came very much at the last-minute. The president is on his way right now to a previously scheduled event over at the Democratic National Committee. And I think one thing to underscore, taking away of what we heard from the president just a few moments ago is just the caution that was in his voice, the caution that was in his words.
He talked about reports of military intervention, reports of forces on the ground and in Ukraine, in Crimea. He talked about how it would be a violation of Russia's commitment if it's, indeed, had taken place. So, it seems at this point this White House, Wolf, is still very much examining what is taking place on the ground here as we are all trying to figure out what is happening in Crimea, what is happening in Ukraine, what the Russians are up to.
It seems the White House is watching television and doing the same thing, making those same assessments, contacting intelligence officials, contacting -- you know, going through a diplomatic channels trying to figure out what is going on. You heard the president say -- well, he spoke to President Putin just a few days ago and they had a very long discussion that went on for about an hour.
But since then, U.S. officials have been in touch with Russian officials. The vice president has been in touch with the prime minister of Ukraine, and they are trying to move this process forward. You can tell from the president's words that he would obviously very much prefer a diplomatic resolution to all of this, but at this point, it seems very ad hoc. The president really sort of following events as White House really sort of following events on the ground in Ukraine and responding to them in real-time, Wolf.
BLITZER: Here's what the president said just a few moments ago. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties and a military facility in Crimea. But any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.
It would represent a profound interference and matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people. It would be a clear violation of Russia's commitment to respect the independence, and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All of our reporters are standing by to continue our special coverage here in the SITUATION ROOM. We'll go back to Crimea. We'll go to Kiev. We'll go to Moscow. We have our reporters here in Washington. Much more of the breaking news right after this.
BLITZER: Echoes of the cold war happening right now in Ukraine whether or not reports Russian troops have moved into Ukraine in Crimea. Specifically, only moments ago, the president of the United States unscheduled went into the White House briefing room to issue a strong warning to Russia. There will be cost, the president says, of any military intervention in Ukraine.
Let's go to Ukraine, Crimea, specifically. Diana Magnay is on the scene for us for CNN. Diana, most of the people who live in Crimea, you pointed out, others have pointed out, speak Russian. They're ethnic Russians, and they're actually sympathetic to Russia right now.
DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And they don't feel that their interests are represented by this new government or the people of the Maidan. And I was at the airport in the capital of Crimea today where it was being protected or patrolled by these armed gunmen I was telling you about but also pro-Russian local self- organized unit who said that they were trying to make sure that no radicals or extremists from Kiev came to just try and disrupt the peace in Crimea.
If you can call it peace, Wolf, because yesterday armed gunmen seized the parliament building and invited in pro-Russian MPs who duly dismissed the previous administration and appointed a new pro-Russian leader. So there are certainly turmoil here in a very ethnically, religiously, politically mixed up tiny peninsula here in the Black Sea where you have, as I said, a pro -- an ethnic Russian majority but you also have Ukrainians here and a small Muslim Crimean Tatar, ethnic Tatar grouping who all of whom want different things. So it is a real hotbed and right now the epicenter, as you say, of this divide between east and west which is a fault line in Ukraine -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And as the president says, there are now reports that Russian troops are in Crimea right now.
Fareed Zakaria, the host of CNN's "FAREED ZAKARIA: GPS" is joining us.
Fareed, to put it bluntly, this is an extremely complicated situation we're watching unfold right now, isn't it?
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: It's extremely complicated. Look, let's remember when we think of Ukraine. The western part of Ukraine is the part we've been hearing from Kiev, was historically Poland or ruled by the Austro-Hungarian, and by -- they were in the west. They in a sense wanted to just return to Europe which is where they had been for hundreds of years.
Crimea was part of Russia until 1954. So this really is when people talk about a divided country, it doesn't get more divided. You mentioned Russian troops. Remember, there are already Russian troops in Ukraine because the black -- Russia's Black Sea fleet is located there. So Russia doesn't have to send troops and they already are there and they could be probably a lot of those masked gunmen are actually Russian soldiers or in some way coordinating with Russian soldiers.
So Russia has so many ways short of invasion to be involved and to make trouble and in many parts of Ukraine, though not the majority, they do have the support of the local population.
BLITZER: And, Fareed, when the president of the United States says, as he just did a few minutes ago in the White House, he says there will be costs of any military intervention in Ukraine. You can define what those costs are but nobody realistically thinks the U.S. or the E.U. or NATO are going to get involved militarily in what's going on in Ukraine.
What is he talking about? Financial sanctions, if you will, political sanctions against Russia if there was a formal military intervention in Ukraine?
ZAKARIA: I think the president was wise to leave it vague because you never in international relations want to specify in advance, you know, what you're going to do. You want to leave all your options on the table but you're right, Wolf, probably there isn't a military option here for the United States or for Europe but there are economic sanctions. There is a G-8 meeting coming up. A summit.
Remember, the G-8 was the seven richest countries of the world invited Russia to be part of that exclusive club because it -- it's -- you know, it surrendered during the Cold War, became part of the international community. That could be -- that could something I would -- I would very seriously consider whether Russia's membership in the G-8 could be suspended.
There are those kinds of acts. Russia very much wants to be considered a leading power. And if it were to send troops in, in an overt invasion, I think Russia should be suspended from the G-8.
BLITZER: So I take it you haven't yet concluded, Fareed, that Russia has actually invaded Ukraine. The word invade obviously a very sensitive word.
ZAKARIA: I think it remains so unclear. Things are fluid. As I say, they have so many mechanisms. Russian intelligence is deeply active in all of Ukraine and particularly in Crimea. But I don't get -- you know, I don't get the sense that they have. The reports don't suggest that yet and the fact that the Russians are categorically denying it suggest that they also think that there is some -- you know, what is going on now is very low grade activity.
As you know, there was one report about 2,000 Russian troops coming on an aircraft but that has not been confirmed, even though it was rumored for several hours, and it does not -- again, right now does not appear to be true.
BLITZER: Stand by, Fareed.
Gloria Borger and Jim Sciutto are here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Jim, the Russians have already got some sort of explanation of why there are at least some Russian troops in Crimea?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, just saying to cameras a short time ago, less than hour ago, that this movement of troops falls within the agreement that Russia has with Ukraine. So they're saying that this is legal. Not invasion, but they're coming in under the auspices of a deal that they with Ukrainian authorities.
So they are creating a narrative here short of an invasion. But another thing that stands on my mind. I got some guidance earlier today before we have confirmation that these are Russian troops on the ground, and someone said to me -- you know, I asked the question about, is Russia planning a Georgia-like invasion? And it's --
BLITZER: A few years ago Russian troops actually did invade the neighboring country Georgia.
SCIUTTO: Exactly. And around the Olympics, too, you'll remember.
SCIUTTO: In 2008. And the source said to me, well, don't look for something necessarily that scale. Look for something smaller scale, Black Ops, Special Forces, something more of a pin prick, something that's more easily described as falling short of invasion. That's the thing. Invasion is --
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's a definition --
SCIUTTO: It's a big word.
BORGER: It's a definition, as Fareed -- Fareed was saying, they've already got the Black Fifth Fleet. They've already got people there. And so as -- you know, as the U.N. ambassador was saying, we're not invading anybody. We have a bilateral agreement. We are allowed to be there and that's their story and they are sticking to it. I mean --
BLITZER: The government in Kiev doesn't accept that.
BORGER: No. No, it does not. And the president today, by the way, was careful to go out of his way to commend the restraint on the part of Ukraine and sort of said, OK, good, you're being restrained. We appreciate that. But then sent the shot across the bow and said, you know, no invasion here.
But again, as Fareed said, what can the president do at this point? Maybe expel Russia from the G-8 but economic sanctions? I mean, it seems that there aren't any really good solutions here or any immediate solutions.
BLITZER: But let's -- you know, we're going to hear right now from an influential member of the United States Senate. We'll speak in a moment with Senator John McCain. There you see him up on Capitol Hill.
When we come back, we'll ask him, what should the United States be doing right now?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I spoke several days ago with President Putin and my administration has been in daily communication with Russian officials and we've made clear that they can be part of an international community's effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community but also in Russia's interest.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President Obama, in the White House Briefing Room, only moments ago, issuing a strong statement warning that there will be costs of any military intervention in the Ukraine.
Once again we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're continuing with the breaking news coverage.
Joining us now is Senator John McCain. He's a key member of the United States Senate.
And I know, Senator, you've been watching this situation unfold very, very closely. To me it sort of has echoes of the bad old days of the Cold War but I'm anxious to get your assessment.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZONA: I think it certainly has those echoes as far as Vladimir Putin is concerned because he has -- he's the one that said the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
All of his actions for years have indicated his desire to rebuild the Russian empire, the so-called near abroad, whether it be the Baltics' invasion Georgia, Moldova. And so it's pretty clear that maybe the President of the United States has a bit been naive about Vladimir Putin and his ambitions.
And what we're seeing now is Vladimir Putin's commitment, an absolute belief that Ukraine is part of Russia and he's not going to let it go. And that is something we are going to have to understand in our relations with Vladimir Putin.
BLITZER: I know you've been briefed on what is going on. Is there, in your opinion, an invasion that has already started by the Russians of Ukraine?
In other words, what's the latest information you're getting about Russian troops in Crimea or other parts of Ukraine?
MCCAIN: Especially Ukraine, troops have come in, moving out of a very vital base to, at least in Putin's eyes, of Sevastopol into the area. They have taken control of the airport, the two airports and these people are paramilitaries.
As you discussed earlier, it's not going to be Russian tanks. It's going to be Russian special forces, special operations people, FSB, that will basically be taking over the country.
And when the president said that he told Putin there would be costs, I hope he was specific in some of those costs, because there are a number of costs.
You were talking to the panel before and maybe I could mention a couple of them.
BLITZER: Go ahead.
MCCAIN: One of them would be -- one would be a Magnitsky Act expanded, holding those who are responsible for this -- responsible for the actions that are taking place. Another would be economic sanctions that would be far-reaching.
Another would be to restart our missile defense capabilities in the Czech Republic that we canceled.
Another would be to expedite membership of Georgia into NATO.
And so there's a number of other actions we could take and obviously we're not going to be sending troops anywhere or armed conflict.
But I really believe that when Vladimir Putin looks around the world, sees what happened in Syria when the president -- when the red line turned pink and the president didn't act, our acquiescence to their occupation of Georgia, the -- all of the actions that have to do and indicate a decline of the United States of America, I think he's emboldened and he's acting.
BLITZER: Hold on for a moment, Senator, Jim Sciutto's our chief national security correspondent. He has got a question for you as well.
Jim, go ahead.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Senator, I wondered; one thing we have been attempting to do, day in and day out here, is explain to Americans what America's national security interests are specific to Ukraine.
Clearly a country of 50 million in the middle of Europe in the midst of immense internal conflict, instability bad for our neighbors, our good friends in Europe.
But how would you explain the direct connection to the U.S. national security from the situation in the Ukraine?
MCCAIN: Well, I think the same way that you would explain that Afghanistan's independence, when they were invaded by Russia back during the Carter administration, was in our national security interest. It's in our national security interest not to see a country take over another sovereign nation.
It is in our national security interest to respond, not militarily, to acts that are clearly out of the boundaries of accepted normal international behavior.
It is also a situation where the people of Ukraine, obviously the overwhelming majority of them, although maybe not in Crimea, do not wish to be part of Russia and want to be part of Europe. So it has to do with our basic values and our basic principles of observance of international law.
BLITZER: Gloria Borger, Senator, has a question for you as well.
Gloria, go ahead.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Senator, you just talk about the president and the red line that he drew with regards to Syria that you believe was blurred.
And do you believe that there's a cause and effect here with Putin and the way he is behaving?
MCCAIN: I'm sure you saw the pictures of President Putin and President Obama sitting next to each other at their last meeting.
MCCAIN: The fact is that President Putin does not have a great deal of respect for President Obama. They do not -- they have a very chilly relationship.
Putin has made it clear many times he wants to restore the role of Russia, which means the near abroad, those countries I just mentioned, including Moldova, the Baltics and the Ukraine. And Ukraine is the crown jewel of that.
So when Putin sees the President of the United States say we're going to act if they cross a red line and we don't, and when he sees the President of the United States saying, tell Vladimir that when I'm re- elected I'm going to be more flexible, when we are pushing the, quote, "reset button," I think that Vladimir Putin, being the old KGB apparatchik that he is, does not have a belief that the penalty for this behavior will be very severe.
And I think it can be.
And, by the way, the Germans need to play a greater role in condemning this situation as well.
BLITZER: So what do you mean, Senator -- and I want you to be specific when you say the President of the United States, in your assessment, has been -- I think you used the phrase -- I might be paraphrasing -- "a bit naive" when it comes to Ukraine.
MCCAIN: Well, I think that -- as far as Putin is concerned is where I think he's been naive. I think he felt he could establish a cordial relationship with a person who would not behave in a manner which we have seen Vladimir Putin behave, and that is a person who is committed to the restoration of what he believes is the greatness of Russia.
Again, I repeat, he said that the worst event of the 20th century was when the Soviet Union broke up. And that's why he has consistently acted in ways of pressuring what he calls the near abroad.
That means we have to have a realistic approach to Vladimir Putin's intentions, and it doesn't mean reigniting the Cold War. It doesn't mean putting American boots on the ground. But it does mean taking actions that are firm and steadfast, in consonance with other countries and not thinking -- having any illusions about what he, Putin, is all about.
BLITZER: Well, what do you say to Vitaly Churkin. He's the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, who says that what the Russians are doing in Crimea right now are all within the bilateral treaty agreements that have been signed over the years between Ukraine and Russia?
MCCAIN: Well, as you know, it wasn't until -- I believe 1994 that Ukraine -- '84 when Khrushchev allowed Ukraine -- Crimea to be part of Ukraine. I may be wrong in that -- in that specific date. And so Putin obviously believes that he has a relationship which would allow them to, quote, "restore stability" in Ukraine.
But the fact is -- in Crimea. The fact is, Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine and for them to take over the way they are doing is in violation of any international standard.
BLITZER: John McCain is the senator from Arizona.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
MCCAIN: Thank you for having me on.
BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to follow the breaking news, important breaking news. Serious tensions erupting now, including tensions between the United States and Russia over reports that Russian troops are now in Crimea, which, of course, is part of Ukraine.
We'll continue the breaking news coverage right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world. And indeed the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The president of the United States saying there will be costs, not specifying what those costs will be.
We continue to follow the breaking news out of Ukraine. Reports are that Russian troops are now on the ground in Crimea which is part of Ukraine.
Joining us on the phone right now is retired U.S. NATO Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Army General Wesley Clark.
So what do you think, General Clark? What are the options right now for the U.S. in a rather tense situation that's unfolding right now?
GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FORMER U.S. NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Ukraine is part of the Partnership for Peace. They have the right under partnership for peace to demand NATO consultation. So if Ukraine were to demand NATO consultation in Brussels at the North Atlantic Council, it could convene tonight NATO itself could issue a strong warning. NATO could send ambassadors, diplomatic personnel to Kiev. NATO could send an observer mission in. NATO could take all kinds of strong measures that would be deterrent in nature without putting troops on the ground. And this would send a strong signal to Putin.
BLITZER: That would be a dramatic escalation, though, of this crisis if NATO started to get directly involved in Ukraine, wouldn't it, General?
CLARK: Under Partnership for Peace, nations that are members of Partnership for Peace are allowed to petition NATO. It's up to NATO to accept that petition. But this is a question of whether NATO can act strongly at the early stage to head off a crisis or whether we'd like to see it unfold.
Now the consequences of this as it unfolds would be quite significant. What's going to happen, this is phase one. Phase two will be lots of disorder in Ukraine and then spreading of these Russian paramilitary troops to seize key objectives throughout Ukraine and then the president -- the deposed president of Ukraine will say, I've had to ask for Russian assistance to maintain order, and then he'll come back in and take charge.
This will have a huge impact on NATO members in the Baltic states, in Romania, in Bulgaria. What they see is the shadow of exactly what Senator McCain was just mentioning. Putin is determined to restore the Soviet Union. He's been angling for this for 15 years. They've known it's coming.
The Poles came to me as early as November 1999 warning me what Putin was going to try to do. This is all part of a long-term strategy and we have to accept that.
BLITZER: Let me get your --
CLARK: So --
BLITZER: General, hold on a second, because those are strong statements you're making.
Fareed Zakaria is with us.
Fareed, I want to react to what we just heard from General Clark.
ZAKARIA: Well, I agree with General Clark's recommendation in the sense that I think what you need is firmness now to deter the Russians from doing something militarily provocative. I think that we want to send the signal that -- to the Russians do not try to create facts on the ground by using your military, by using paramilitary forces, by using intelligence forces, but I do think that the political situation here is more complicated because there is, in Crimea, as far as I can tell, an overwhelming majority of people who are ethnically Russian, who see themselves in many ways as Russian.
Remember Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 and was in a kind of weird way gifted to the Ukraine. And so it is quite possible that were you to do a referendum in Crimea, you would find that the vast majority of people would like to be part of Russia.
Now when General Clark was in office, when that happened in Kosovo, we supported the breakaway movement. And I'm not suggesting we do that in this case. I'm just suggesting, you know, this is a little bit more complicated because Ukraine is genuinely divided. So I would say there are two --
BLITZER: All right.
ZAKARIA: There are two things we should do. One, follow General Clark's advice. Deter the Russians from any military facts on the ground, any kind of invasion, intervention, anything. But the second is leave open the possibility that there will have to be some negotiations over exactly how the autonomy of some of these areas gets determined.
BLITZER: General Clark, go ahead. I want you to react.
CLARK: Well, I think that -- first of all, Fareed is exactly right that there is a very complicated situation on the ground. When NATO convenes a partnership for peace hearing, Russia can be invited to present its side. And all this should be aired out in the councils of NATO, as soon as possible.
And my guess is Russia will refuse to come. But Russia should certainly be invited and Ukraine should make its case and these very issues about ethnic confrontation and what these people want and so forth should be aired out. Russia has legitimate interests in Ukraine. They do have people there in a base. That base has been secured.
But Russia and Putin are certainly going to use this as pretext for action. It's very clear that people who took over that -- those government ministries and Simferopol are not -- or Simferopol are just street thugs. That would be the Russian Special Forces going in in civilian clothes. That's their method of operation.
So we can't be naive. I think you have to set a firm position. You have to get NATO involved where I think doing this to individual countries. As Senator McCain said, Germany has to take a strong individual stand in addition to what it says through NATO. Germany's softness on this issue was one of the reasons why it happened.
BLITZER: All right. General Clark, I'm going to interrupt you for a moment. Stand by. We're going to continue the breaking news.
Happening now a SITUATION ROOM special report. The breaking news this hour, Russian forces, they are on the move inside Ukraine.