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Crisis in Crimea; John Kerry Speaks with Modolva's Prime Minister; Russia Denies Ultimatum

Aired March 3, 2014 - 12:30   ET



ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: A little more breaking news to give you on the crisis in Ukraine that we're following here at CNN.

I'm just getting word from the European Union. The Swedish foreign minister has just left one of the meetings in order to speak with our CNN staff. He was on location there.

And this is what the minister, his is Carl Bildt, has told CNN, that the E.U. just agreed that Russia's actions are, quote, "an aggression," this is important language when you're talking about diplomacy, adding that what President Putin is doing now is damaging Russia's future.

He went on to say that Russia's move in the Crimea was the, quote, "worst threat in Europe since 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and that Russia must escalate, withdraw their forces in the Crimea and engage in dialogue.

If it doesn't happen fairly quickly, he added, that it would -- that would, quote, "take down E.U.-Russian relations."

So, the war of diplomatic words is escalating, that, again, from the E.U. minister's meeting. The person who passed that on to CNN was the Swedish foreign minister who was part of those meetings and stepped out of those meetings in order to give CNN that information.

In the meantime, we're still waiting on the secretary of state, John Kerry, who is at any moment about to speak about the situation and answer questions. We're told it's going to be a dialogue with reporters, a lot of questions, because there have been so many changes just this morning.

Earlier today, Russia issued what could only be considered one of the strongest ultimatums yet.

According to Ukraine's defense officials, anyway, they're saying that a Russian commander told Ukrainian forces in Crimea to surrender, lay down your weapons or else face an all-out attack.

And that's by tomorrow at 5:00 a.m., the day after senior U.S. officials said that Russian forces have complete control of the Crimean Peninsula. So far, no shots have really rung out in this. It's been described by one of our staffers on the ground as a laid-back invasion, if that makes any sense, but so far, it's just a lot of soldiers and posturing.

Thousands of Russian ground and naval forces are in that region. Again, it's Ukraine and the Russian forces in it. They are unmarked troops, believed to be Russian, guarding military bases, Ukrainian military bases in Crimea.

Ukraine's interim prime minister has said that that amounts to a declaration of war, having troops, boots on the ground, in his country, and his country will not give up that region.

It's a critical region. Crimea has been for centuries. Russia may have different ideas, though, because it is now drafting legislation of its own that could help it to annex Crimea, on paper, anyway.

And the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, went to see some pretty significant military drills in western Russia today, this according to the Russian state media, not just small drills. Major Russian drills, including a lot of assets, as well.

And this morning, the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, got on the telephone with Russia's prime minister, urging that country to pull the forces out of Crimea, all of this in the effort towards diplomacy instead of war.

And just a little bit ago, the White House also issued a little bit more diplomatic front here, and that is that the United States won't be sending its delegation to the Paralympics, those games in Sochi, and those are supposed to get under way this week. In fact, I think they're scheduled from March 7th to March 16th.

Our Diana Magnay is live in the Crimean region of Ukraine. So I think it was you, if I'm not mistaken, in the myriad reports I've been hearing throughout the morning, Diana, that you called it this sort of a laid-back invasion.

Does it feel as though it's still that way, even though moment by moment there seem to be so many changes, especially this very significant ultimatum for the 5:00 a.m. lay down weapons and surrender or else?

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I called it a low-key ultimatum.

It does feel a bit like that, simply because the atmosphere around these military bases, which is surrounded now by Russian troops, even if they are troops without any kind of markings to signify they're Russian, has been pretty amicable, pretty relaxed.

You've had locals coming up and chatting to these soldiers, and there hasn't been any tension that we have been able to see from our newsgathering there. I think, this ultimatum, we have to be very careful with it. This came through the Ukrainian's (inaudible) news agency. We have talked to the press center at the Ukrainian ministry of defense here in Crimea, and they have said, listen, the Russian troops around these bases have issued ultimatums to our staff, to our military before, over the last few days of this occupation (inaudible) and deadlines have passed and nothing has happened.

And you have, in fact, Russia -- also quoting the Russian ministry of defense now as saying the whole thing is rubbish.

So, we will be definitely very much, you know, on the lookout at that time tomorrow morning, but I don't think -- I think that we have to be careful with that ultimatum. It is not necessarily an official one.


BANFIELD: And Diana, in the same vein, there seems to be a constant war of words and rhetoric, a lot saber-ratting and a lot of trumping up of accusations, as well.

So, in the same vein that the Ukrainians are saying that the Russians are giving ultimatum, the Russians are saying that the Ukrainians have been quashing the human rights of the 60 percent demographic of Russians who live in the Crimea.

Is that also trumped up? You're there. Have you seen evidence that -- that Russians are somehow being mistreated by the Ukrainians or the authorities or anybody else, for that matter, in that region?

MAGNAY: Well, Russian is the master of using this kind of propaganda. Just look at President Putin himself. He hasn't said a word about this whole crisis, and yet today on this Monday, we see images of him present at these huge military exercises.

You know, the picture says it all. It is a show of strength to his domestic audience. It is a show of strength to the Russian-speaking people in this part of the world. And it is a show of strength to the rest of the world.

Now, the grievances that the Russian-speaking people here feel are primarily language-related. When this new authority came into place in Kiev last week, it immediately cancelled a law which they felt safeguarded their language rights, Russian, as the primary language here.

In fact, Kiev has since turned around and said we didn't mean to. It's fine. But that message hasn't really trickled down here.

They are also being told that there is a threat from ultranationalists and radicals coming from Kiev. We haven't seen that at all.

But they are, you know -- but that is of major, major concern for certainly the pro-Russian ethnic majority in this part of the world.

BANFIELD: Diana Magnay, live for us in Crimea, thank you for that. We've got, essentially, assets all over the ground in Ukraine, in Russian. You saw Diana in Crimea. So, we're watching this very closely.

And what Diana just said is so critical. How much of this can we actually believe? Ultimatum or no ultimatum? Is it true? Is it just a lie? Is it just propaganda?

No matter what you think, the pictures don't lie. There are boots on the ground in Crimea, and it is most likely they are Russian.

But what else is there? And what about American assets? Do we have assets nearby? Would we be willing to use them?

All of the military story, coming up next.


BANFIELD: Welcome back. We're following breaking news of Secretary of State John Kerry, who is speaking live right now at the State Department.

He is with the prime minister of Moldova. He just referenced how Russia has put pressure on that nation, as well, regarding energy and trade. And he's also speaking of Ukraine.

Let's listen.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: ... as I depart this evening for Kiev, and I'm very grateful for the prime minister taking the time to come visit. Thank you.

IURIE LEANCA, MOLDOVAN PRIME MINISTER: Mr. Secretary of State, I am delighted to be back in Washington this day and delighted to be back in the State Department, and thank you very much for this invitation to come and to have a chance to discuss bilateral deliberations.

We are indeed extremely grateful to the U.S. administration, to the U.S. people, for the generous support you have provided us in almost 23 years in building a functioning institution, a pluralistic society, a tolerant society, and making sure that we are able to ensure the benefits of independence to the citizens of Moldova.

Today, we are supposed to launch the strategic dialogue, which I'm sure will be an extremely important element in building a more functioning and more democratic society in Moldova and to address the various challenges which Moldova and the region is facing.

We are happy that we are able to resume the activities of the trade commission between Moldova and the U.S., because we are indeed very interested to expand the access to new markets and to the U.S. market of our goods to see more American investment in the economy from Moldova. And the response which we got today from the USDR (ph) is extremely promising. So we are very - (END LIVE FEED)

BANFIELD: So I would like to, if I can for you, I want to break for a moment in what the prime minister of Moldova is saying so that I can take you back to what happened during commercial break because the secretary of state came out and began his remarks while we were in commercial break, so I'm actually going to replay that tape for you right from the very beginning so you won't have missed a moment of his comments. Have a look.


KERRY: What time is it? (INAUDIBLE), I was about to say, good afternoon. I was going to say good morning, but I said what time. The morning has passed incredibly rapidly. But it's my very real pleasure to welcome the prime minister of Moldova. Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, to Washington on a snowy day. He welcomed me to Moldova. We had a wonderful visit in December. And at that time, I invited him to come here so that we could continue our conversation.

The prime minister is leading a transformation in Moldova. We're very pleased with the fact that they have continued their efforts to move towards their association agreement with Europe. We are pleased today to announce that we're going to add additional funding to their effort to develop competitiveness, which is key to their businesses and to their economic prospects and will add another $2.8 million to an already $4.7 million for a total of $7.5 million or so to help in this particular transition.

But the United States has provided very significant economic assistance, close to $1.5 billion over the course of this transition. We are very interested in helping the prime minister in his efforts to continue with his anti-corruption initiatives in the country. And we're very, very excited by the leadership that he and his government are providing as they really determine their own future and make clear their determination to be part of a larger global trading mechanism.

While I was in Moldova, I had an occasion to visit a really rather remarkable winery. Quite a spectacular underground facility. This is one of the great products that they are now exporting, and we're excited about the prospects of their ability to broaden that market.

There are challenges. I regret to say that Russia, in some of the challenges we're seeing right now in Ukraine, has put pressure on Moldova. There are challenges with respect to their energy sources and also their ability to trade. But we are committed firmly to the direction that Moldovans have chosen for themselves and their government has expressed a desire to pursue.

We will also, obviously, talk about the neighborhood, the region and their near neighbor, Ukraine, and events unfolding there. So I look forward to a very constructive conversation, a timely one as I depart this evening for Kiev. And I'm very grateful to the prime minister for taking the time to come and visit. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BANFIELD: And the secretary is still planning on making that trip to Kiev tomorrow. So that is a critical development, as well. All of this as the United States has announced it's bringing its delegation out of Sochi. It will not be sending its Paralympic delegation to Sochi for the Paralympic games. The athletes will continue to compete as the U.K. athletes will compete without their government's delegation present for those games.

And I've got something else I need to update you on, as well. It was just a few moments ago our Diana Magnay, our CNN correspondent who's based in Crimea, reported not so fast on the ultimatum news because that was coming from Ukrainian press that the Russians had issued an ultimatum, lay down your weapons and surrender by 5:00 a.m. tomorrow local time or risk an all-out assault. Well, we're now hearing from the Russians, or so to speak the Russians, at least an unidentified spokesperson for the Russian Black Sea fleet is now being quoted as saying, in fact, denying there are any plans, any plans at all to storm the Ukrainian military units based in the Crimea. And here's a quote, "such reports are utter rubbish. We have gotten used to hearing claims that we are conducting military operations against our Ukrainian colleagues."

Well, that's hard to stomach, as well, because there are clearly Russian soldiers, unmarked, no insignias, on the ground in the Crimea. However, this is very much a war of words, very much a war of propaganda, as well. But at this point, this news of the ultimatum from Russian is being tamped down by the Russians themselves. The accusation being that this is just the Ukrainians looking for some favor around the world, looking for help. The Ukrainians have admitted, they do not have the fire power to push off President Putin in the Crimea. That they very much would need the help of allies around the world in order to fend off any kind of military assault.

So what of this military assault? What of all this fire power? What kind of assets were actually amassing in that region and what about American assets? What do the Americans have in the region? What would the Americans be willing to use in the region, if anything? That conversation's next.


BANFIELD: Another update in our breaking news in the crisis in Ukraine. We've got some news out of the White House, in fact, via the American vice president, who had a phone call, a conversation with the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, earlier today. And now we're hearing via our Jim Acosta, our White House correspondent, that according to a senior administration official, Vice President Biden told Medvedev that if the situation in Ukraine isn't resolved, that Russia will face increasing political and economic isolation. Again, that courtesy of our Jim Acosta, our senior White House correspondent, citing an administration - a senior administration official, that the vice president had some tough words for Medvedev earlier on the telephone this morning.

We've got a lot of other new developments as well to report to you. And that is that the European Union said flat out via one of their officials who stepped out of a meeting to CNN that Russia's action is officially an aggression and that what President Vladimir Putin is doing right now is damaging Russia's future. So a lot of the same kinds of words from different countries around the world, all directed towards Russia at this time. And this is a day after a senior U.S. official told -- or rather senior U.S. official said that Russian forces have complete control over the Crimean peninsula.

To help us break all of this down, I want to get to CNN's military reporter, she's based at the Pentagon. Barbara Starr is standing by live. And then also Major General Spider Marks.

Barbara, let me begin with you, if I could. While there is all of this rhetoric and saber rattling going on between the forces who are on the ground in Crimea, the Ukrainians, and then also the Russians, what of the American position in all of this? Is it just words, or do we have assets nearby that actually might see action or engage?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Do not expect to see U.S. military forces being used, Ashleigh. There -- if you were coming to me, I'm sorry, I didn't hear at the beginning. The U.S. military is not going to get involved in any of this. In the next several days, you may see a U.S. Navy warship moving into the Black Sea, regularly scheduled deployment, regular Navy business. They're not going to pull back from that. But the clear word from the Pentagon, U.S. forces are not going to get involved.

BANFIELD: And, General Marks, if you could weigh in on this. Yes, there are assets of America nearby. Yes, we have regularly scheduled movements nearby. But ultimately, if President Putin wants to flex his military muscle and annex that little orange region, does America have to stand by? And if so, what are the implications?

GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, he has annexed it I think de facto is what you see right now. The United States has very few options that they can exercise right now. As Barbara has indicated, certainly the military has a presence, has some capabilities. The key thing among that would be intelligence collection. Let's make sure we have a really good sense of what we're seeing.

There's very little that we're getting out of Moscow. But, frankly, even if Putin was saying something right now, I don't think we really care. There's very little reason why we would listen to him anyway. So it's a matter of having a really good sense of what he's doing, so that's an intelligence mission. And then command and control capability if the United States had to get involved militarily, certainly we want to reserve the option to exercise some freedoms, and as Barbara has indicated, we can do that.

But Crimea has essentially gone to the Russians. The key mission being to isolate Sevastopol and not allow that to turn to - you know, that's where the Russian Black Sea fleet is located and not allow that to turn to Ukrainian forces and for Russia to lose its only warm water port. It would be devastating in terms of their national security and their trade. BANFIELD: So, Barbara, weigh in on this. Is the United States government, and the Pentagon in particular, watching Crimea specifically, or are they watching what happens after Crimea, specifically Ukraine and perhaps points north and westward?

STARR: Well, look, they're watching around the clock, the Russian military right now, looking to see how they're being positioned, where they are, the numbers of troops, what -- how they're outfitted, what kind of weapons they have, what kind of armored vehicles, artillery. That may be indications of what they may be capable of doing in the coming days if Putin were to order them to do it. Classic military intelligence problem. What has the enemy got, where is he, where is he moving to?

It's -- and the Russians are engaging in classic old-time Soviet military tactics. They've moved in, they've seized air fields, they have key control over roads and bases. They have isolated the peninsula and they've really cut it off from the rest of Ukraine. Now the real challenge on the intelligence front, look at the rest of Russian's military forces and see if any of them are on the move, if any of them look like they're getting into position to go into eastern Ukraine. That's going to be the problem because again, Ashleigh, they can move so quickly across the border, though U.S. probably would only see it as it's happening.


BANFIELD: Barbara Starr, thank you for that. Major General Spider Marks, always good to hear from you, as well. Thank you both.

And CNN is continuing to watch live as these developments come in. It almost seems by the moment. Stay tuned. My colleague Wolf Blitzer takes over the coverage right now.