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Obama: Russia Can't "Violate Basic Principles"; Kiev: Pushing For Peace, Bracing For War

Aired March 3, 2014 - 14:30   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Bottom of the hour. I'm Brianna Keilar. We have some breaking news that we are following on the escalating military standoff between Russia and the Ukraine. But first want to listen to some tape we just got, President Obama meeting in the Oval Office with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: -- their own destiny. Russia has a strong historic ties to the Ukraine. There are a lot of Russian nationals inside of Ukraine as well as native Russians as there a lot of Ukrainians inside of Russia. There strong commercial ties. And so all of those interests I think can be recognized. What cannot be is for Russia, but what cannot be done is for Russia with impunity to put its soldiers on the ground and violate basic principles that are recognized around the world.

I think strong condemnation that it's perceived from countries around the world indicates Russia is on the wrong side of history on this. We are strongly supportive of the interim Ukrainian government. John Kerry is going to be traveling to Kiev to indicate support for the Ukrainian people to offer very specific and concrete packages of economic aid because one of the things we are concerned about is stabilizing the economy. Even in the midst of this crisis.

And what we are also indicating to the Russians is that if in fact they continue on the current trajectory that they are on, that we are examining a whole series of steps. Economic and diplomatic that will isolate Russia. They will have a negative impact on Russia's economy and the status in the world.

We have already suspended preparations for the G8. I think you can expect that there would be further follow up on that. We are taking a look at all range of issues that John Kerry mentioned yesterday. The question for Mr. Putin who I spoke to directly, the question for the Russian government generally is if in fact their concern is that the rights of all Ukrainians are respected.

If they in fact their primary concern as they stated is that Russian speakers and Russian nationals are not in any way harmed or abused or discriminated against, then we should be able to set up international monitors and international effort that mediates between various parts. That is able to broker a deal that is satisfactory to the Ukrainian people, not to the United States, not to Russians, but to the Ukrainians and we should be able to deescalate the situation. So we are very specific with the Russians about how that might be done by the ostriches of either the United Nations or the OSCE or some other international organization.

And John Kerry referred to that further when he arrives and so there are really two paths Russia can take at this point. Obviously, the facts on the ground in Crimea are deeply troubling and Russia has a large army that borders Ukraine. But what is also true is that overtime this will be a costly proposition for Russia.

Now is the time for them to consider whether they can serve their interests in a way that resorts to diplomacy as opposed to force. One last point I would make on this, you know, I've heard a lot of talk in Congress about what should be done, what they want to do.

One thing they can just right away is to work with the administration to help provide a package of assistance to the Ukrainians, to the people and their government. When they get back in, assuming the weather clears, I would hope that that would be its first order of business.

Because at this stage, there should unanimity among Democrats and Republicans that when it comes to preserving the principles that no country has the right to send in troops to another country unprovoked. We should be able to come up with a unified position that stands outside of partisan politics. My expectation is that I'll be able to get Congress to work with us in order to --


KEILAR: You are looking at pictures from the oval office. That was the press pool there getting some words from President Obama as he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But top of mind there for the president was talking about what's going on in Ukraine with Russia and you also saw there the vice president and the secretary of state in the oval office.

That doesn't happen for every meeting. It certainly speaks to just how important the relationship with Israel is and really just how significant the events going on in Ukraine are. Let's go ahead now and bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He is here in Washington and Russia analyst, Jill Dougherty, my former colleague, longtime CNN correspondent and Moscow bureau chief, now a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Jim, I want to start with you this. Explain why this matters. Why Ukraine is so crucial globally and to the U.S.?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think one thing we were always trying to remind viewers is that one, it's in Europe, right? It's not some distant land. It is part of Europe and remember on that western border of Ukraine are four close U.S. allies, all NATO members. You got Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania in the South Bay.

If they are threatened and the U.S. is required by the NATO treaty to respond, to defend it. Now Ukraine not a member of NATO. There have been talks in recent years about closer ties with the group, but it's not far away that's one thing.

Plus what's going on inside Ukraine right now is really a battle between east and west. The president has said he doesn't want this to be a cold war chest game. But there are echoes of the cold war certainly that heavily Russian, ethnically Russian, Russian speaking eastern part of the country leaning towards Russia. Not everyone, but many there.

And then the eastern -- the western part of the country, Ukrainian, ethnic Ukrainian, Ukrainian-speaking leaning more towards the west. Those divisions have played out in recent elections there.

If you look at the electoral map there, the folks in the east voted for the president who just left the office. In the west they voted for Julia Tymoshenko who was just released from prison after those elections. You know, that's the kind of division that is playing there.

I think you also have and Jill will know this better than me. You have Russia which wants to, you know, exert influence and not recreate the Soviet Union, but exert influence again over areas that it has historical and cultural ties to.

KEILAR: And Jill, to that point, we just spoke to one military expert who said this actually isn't irrational behavior. This is what we have seen recent so many times most recently in 2008 when you saw Georgia and you saw Russian incursion into Georgia. When you saw this starting to happen in Ukraine, is this what you expected? Does this seem sort of, I guess, logical when you consider Russian behavior and the behavior of Vladimir Putin and his stance recently?

JILL DOUGHERTY, FELLOW, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL OF GOVERNMENT: I didn't expect Russia would go this far. That said, I don't think it's really out of character if you try to put yourself into the mind of Vladimir Putin. I mean, when that election took place, I should say when the uprisings took place on the streets of Kiev, and the president, Yanukovych basically turned and ran very quickly.

It was a complete dilemma for Vladimir Putin. He was essentially the person that they were counting on. They thought he would stand and you know, fight and that they could quickly put down those demonstrators. When it didn't happen, it was a stinging rebuke. Putin has been trying to figure out what to do.

So now he is taking these steps. I think that you have there -- he probably believes that they are carefully calibrated, but he really is playing with fire. For example, he says, the Russians who were there, the Russian speakers, the people who already were on the military bases that Russia had are in danger. That their lives are in danger.

There is no indication that that's true. That he is saying that that is a reason that they have to send in extra reinforcements. Then he would also say that look, that up rising on the streets of Kiev was completely illegitimate. The government in Kiev he would argue is illegitimate.

It is run by a bunch of Nazis and although this sounds like obviously an exaggeration to Americans and westerners. It does play in Russia and it does play in those areas in the east of Ukraine. Certainly in Crimea where they really do, some people there really do think that NATO and the west are just a step away from running in and taking over the government, and moving on east to take over Russia.

I am not exaggerating. That is the belief. So when you listen to President Obama and he was talking about protecting the rights of Russians speakers, that's important. The Kiev government has to make sure that Vladimir Putin has no excuse, no reason for going in to protect those people.

And if he as the president said is really concerned, then let the international community go in there and try to iron it out, but in a united peaceful fashion.

KEILAR: Jim, talk a little bit about the concern here from the perspective of the administration. Russia is so key in so many discussions when you are talking about Iran, when you are talking about Syria. So key but also such a thorn in the side of U.S. diplomacy in the U.S. reaching some of its objectives. What does this mean for those other efforts?

SCIUTTO: Well, this is another point exactly that brings it beyond. It shows that there are really regional and global implications from this as you say. Russia is central to any solution, any possible solution in Syria. Russia is central to the nuclear deal being negotiated, still negotiated, and still a very difficult one with Iran.

And as the relationship runs into trouble over Ukraine, you know, the State Department has said that Russia is good at compartmentalizing these issues so it can focus on one or not on the others. But you know, these relationships are personal. There is a breach of trust here.

I mean, that has to bleed over into these other negotiations and I think that's a real a concern. Also to Jill's point, she mentions -- I think it's very important. President Obama referenced this. You heard this from the NATO secretary general earlier in the week and you heard it from Secretary Kerry offering in effect an off-ramp.

Saying, OK, you have your concerns, President Putin, about ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the country. Let's get monitors in there. Let's address those concerns so that, you know, one, to remove that excuse if it needed an excuse to allow all these troops to come in.

But also a face saving move. A way forward to move out. In the meantime as well, the president referenced punitive measures, which are still being worked out. We know from the State Department that they are now preparing a list of sanctions that may target individuals in Russia but also entities.

I think that's where the real leverage is. If you go after Russian companies and Russian banks. Talk about denial to the financial system in London and New York. I mean, these are big steps. That's where there is real power. We are not talking about military action here. We are talking about economic sanctions that might have a real effect and could have influence.

KEILAR: Yes, he said economic and he said diplomatic and there was no mention of military for sure there, Jim. Jill, I wonder when President Obama is considering this, this is not obviously just about the moment. This is about in a way history, I would say. You and I were in Russia in September for the summit when President Obama had called off his meeting with Putin in Moscow. Decided not to make that part of the trip. He just went to St. Petersburg.

We have seen things be so rocky leading up to this. Is it possible that this could be a huge disintegration of U.S. -- I mean, that that must be the concern, right? That this is sort of the turning point or a nail in the coffin of U.S./Russian relations, which are so key to all of these other foreign policy objectives that you heard Jim outlined.

DOUGHERTY: I do think that it is very important moment. It's a very dramatic moment because, you know, there is a lot of jockeying right now. Let's say before Ukraine, there was a lot of jockeying between the United States and Russia, but there was also a lot of cooperation. Now you have the possibility of actually having, you know, the Russian troops there and perhaps not wanting this to happen.

But let's say some Ukrainian troops are killed in the process of some unknown band trying to take over as just happened last night. Trying to take weapons depot or a base. That could set off a firestorm. That could set off a civil war. You have that right in the middle of Europe. It really forces Europe's hand and forces NATO's hand to decide what are you going to do? Nobody.

I don't think the Russians want that either. They don't want a war. They have to -- it has to be deescalated because tensions on the ground are high. Things are unpredictable. Person could drive this into a type of civil war or conflict.

You know, Brianna, just quickly, one other reason that I think Americans should worry about this and be concerned is that right now, the president also mentioned this, it is very important to backup and help economically the Kiev government because right now, they are essentially almost bankrupt.

They owe so much money it is not even funny and that is one of their dilemmas. If they are going down the tubes financially and then they have to deal with a military conflict on their own land. It's a recipe for disaster. So very quickly the international community has to come up with some sort of money and some sort of long-term and short-term funding to help, aid to help Ukraine. Otherwise there is really not a lot of hope. SCIUTTO: Brianna, if I can add on to what Jill is saying, if there is precedent for this. I mean, think Yugoslav war, you had a Milosevic saying that you know Serbs were calling out for military help and we saw what that kind of intervention sparked there and again right in the middle of Europe. I mean, real dangers, a real dangerous witch's brew of ethnic tensions and a lot of guns on the ground there.

KEILAR: Jim Sciutto and Jill Dougherty, thanks so much to both of you. And coming up, reaction is pouring in from one of the largest Ukrainian populations inside the U.S. We will take you there live.


KEILAR: In Ukraine's capital, public anger is growing while the army is calling up reservists and mobilizing troops, preparing for a war where the odds would certainly be against them. Protesters here in the U.S. are no less passionate, no less determined to see Russia pull out of Crimea. They rallied in cities against Russia land grab and demanded that the U.S. do something, anything to help Ukraine in its - time of need.

CNN's Ted Rowlands joining me now from Chicago, which has one of the biggest Ukrainian communities in the U.S. So Ted, you've been talking to some people there. What do they want the U.S. to do?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, it's interesting. They know that the military option really isn't on the table. So they want the U.S. to do everything they can and for NATO and other countries around the world to do everything that is possible. They know in their hearts that really military options are not available.

So it's interesting. You talked to people and yes, they are angry, but really they are also very, very sad and they are very worried about their friends and family in the Ukraine. Take a listen to a couple of people. They are emotional about this and very worried.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible). I think Ukraine is going to survive this. Hopefully.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not just upset, it's scary. Hitler and Europe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's a very sad thing, very sad. And because the people always -- everybody would like to come to our country. The big battle is Ukrainian. It broke my heart and 24 hours, I can watch on the internet what's going on in Ukraine.


ROWLANDS: About 50,000 people of Ukrainian descent live in the Chicago area. In fact, the neighborhood we are in right now is call the Ukrainian village, and Brianna, every one of them is very concerned about what is happening to their friends and family as the sit here in the United States helplessly watch it. KEILAR: And Ted, Russia has a long at times brutal history of involvement in Ukraine. Are people that you've talked to surprise by what's happened or do they feel it's characteristic and what they would expect?

ROWLANDS: They are surprised. They are surprised that it happened and it happened the way it has happened so quickly and so defiantly to just come in and take over, but then questioning the past Russia or specifically Putin. A lot of people of here believe that Putin is absolutely capable of this. They just didn't see it coming.

KEILAR: All right, Ted, thanks so much, really interesting insight. Ted Rowlands for us in Chicago.

Up next, we'll have more on our breaking news on the urgent situation in Ukraine. Tough rhetoric on both sides as Russia denies reports of an ultimatum that Ukraine must tell its military in Crimea to surrender.

We will talk military strategy, diplomacy and what President Obama should do. Anderson Cooper will be anchoring CNN's special coverage from Kiev, Ukraine right after this.