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Russia's Show of Force; Russian Troops On The Move; Why Ukraine Matters So Much; Ukraine's Deep Divisions Explained; What's Behind Putin's Actions?

Aired March 3, 2014 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news, crisis in Ukraine. Russia's show of force -- thousands of troops hold war games as President Putin watches. Thousands more are already in control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, as Russia issues an ultimatum.

So what are America's options?

President Obama says the U.S. is looking for ways to isolate Russia.

But will that stop Putin's push against Ukraine?

And what makes Putin tick?

One world leader says he's in another world. And does Putin -- or does President Putin want to restore what he sees as Russia's place in the world?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Russia flexing its muscles with a military exercise, as President Vladimir Putin looks on. Thousands of Russian troops are already on the ground in neighboring Ukraine, in control of the strategic Crimean Peninsula. Things are moving quickly.

Here are the latest developments.

Ukraine sources say Russia has issued an ultimatum to Ukrainian forces in Crimea, with a Navy commander warning surrender or face an attack.

Russian media are quoting a military spokesman as calling those reports, quote, "utter rubbish."

Ukrainian defense officials say up to a dozen trucks full of Russian troops have crossed into the Crimean city of Kerch and others have arrived from Russia by ferry, attacking a border post.

President Obama says the United States is examining a series of steps to, quote, "isolate Russia." The State Department says sanctions are being prepared even right now.

We have the kind of coverage that only CNN can deliver, beginning with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly, the administration is getting ready to act. We're told that they began drafting specific language for possible sanctions over the weekend.

No decision made yet on whether to impose those sanctions or, indeed, which sanctions to impose. But they want to have the options ready.

And today, we heard the president warn that his goal is to isolate Russia and make its actions in Ukraine very costly.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): With Russian troops now swarming sovereign Ukrainian territory, tonight, Washington is preparing likely sanctions against Russia, President Obama vowing today to make Russia's military intervention, quote, "a costly proposition."

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What we are also indicating to the Russians is that if, fact, they continue on the current trajectory that they're on, that we are examining a whole series of steps, economic, diplomatic, that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia's economy and its status in the world.

SCIUTTO: The possible sanctions include freezing the overseas assets of Russian individuals and companies, banning travel for Russian leaders and businessmen, and, at the more extreme end, blocking some Russian banks and businesses from the international financial system, an enormously costly scenario for Russia.

All of these measures, however, require unity within the Western powers. And today, a sign they could be divided. This official document, caught on camera by a British photographer as it was carried into Ten Downing Street in London, refers to Britain's support for visa restrictions for key figures, but it adds, quote, "The U.K. should not support, for now, trade sanctions or close London's financial center to Russians."

CHARLES MOVIT, SENIOR PRINCIPAL ECONOMIST, IHS: These actions would have to be multilateral. The cooperation of the European Union is absolutely necessary because Western Europe is the major trading partner for Russia.

SCIUTTO: And Russia has its own economic leverage. It controls more than 50 percent of the natural gas supply to Europe, and many of the key east-west pipelines crisscrossing Ukraine, cutting off or reducing those supplies in the winter, a tactic Russia has used before with Ukraine, could be a costly proposition for Europe.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SCIUTTO: One key decision now is who, which individuals to target with sanctions. And the administration is still deliberating. But since the response would be to the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the likely targets would be top Russian government and military officials, to focus, for now, not on Russian companies or businessmen. But this has the potential of being very costly. A lot of money moves around Europe. If we're talking about travel and their finances and their assets, that has power.

BLITZER: And it would be especially costly to a lot of countries like Germany in Europe, who get a lot of their oil and natural gas from Russia.

SCIUTTO: No question. And they also do a lot of business with Russia. So European countries will pay a price for this, as well.

BLITZER: And John Kerry is heading -- leaving later tonight for Kiev. He'll show a statement of solitary with Ukraine tomorrow when he gets there.

Don't go too far away.

Jim Sciutto reporting.

Let's get back to that alleged ultimatum from the Russians. Ukraine sources say Russia's Black Sea fleet commander has warned Ukrainian forces in Crimea to swear allegiance to pro-Russian authorities or face an attack. Russian media are quoting a military spokesman as calling that report "rubbish"

So what's the reality?

Joining us now by phone is Christopher Miller.

He's editor of Ukraine's "KyivPost."

Christopher, thanks very much.

You were there. You actually heard this ultimatum, this threat being issued by this Russian commander, is that right?

CHRISTOPHER MILLER, EDITOR, "UKRAINE KYIVPOST": I did, yes. That's correct. There was a group of about a dozen or so of us journalists and some fixers with other journalists. And we were at the bay in Sevastopol when the Ukrainian ship Ternopil was docked there with several dozen Ukrainian soldiers, armed soldiers on board.

They ran around frantically, as a Russian ship did circles in the bay in front of the ship. From that ship, there was a loudspeaker blaring an ultimatum, essentially saying, lay down your arms, come to our side, join us.

This went on for the better part of an hour, hour-and-a-half, in which this message was blurted out about every five to 10 minutes.

BLITZER: All right, so Christopher, so tell us precisely what you heard this Russian commander say. MILLER: Well, the Russian commander just -- I mean it's unclear whether or not this was a Russian commander from the ship. Obviously, this was just a voice coming from the speaker. But the message was clear -- lay down your arms, come to our side, join us.

And in response to that, we saw these troops frantically running around the Ukrainian ship. They were laying out mattresses on top of the railings. They were preparing water houses to repel a potential attack.

BLITZER: So what was the reaction on the ground when this ultimatum, in effect, was issued?

MILLER: It was extremely tense on the ground. The people we spoke with in the Ukraine military that are here currently on the bases, those who have not defected and say that they will protect the bases, were in a very serious, tense mood today. Certainly, they were fearing an attack. Some thought that it might be imminent.

There have been numerous ultimatums throughout the day from the Russians, reportedly, and some that we haven't heard -- that we have heard. But those ultimatums have come and gone. There was one at 5:00, one at 6:00 p.m. local time, 7:00 p.m. local time. And now we're waiting for another one, supposedly at 5:00 a.m..

So we'll see what happens.

But everybody is on edge here on both sides.

BLITZER: Christopher Miller, the editor of "KyivPost" joining us on the phone.

Christopher, thanks very much.

Tensions between the U.S. and Russia also reached a fever pitch over at the United Nations Security Council today.

Here's what the Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, said just a little while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VITALY CHURKIN, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.N. (through translator): It's well-known who created the crisis in Ukraine. And disputing the absolutely legitimate actions of legitimate authorities, some of our partners have taken a course to support anti-government statements. They have encouraged their participants, who have moved to aggressive actions of force in capturing and setting fire to administrative buildings, attacking the police and stealing from warehouses and making -- mocking officials in the region, the crude intervention into churches. The center of Kiev and many towns in Western Ukraine have been taken over by armed national radicals under extremists anti- Russian and anti-Semitic slogans being used.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Anti-Russian, anti-Semitic slogans, he's accusing those forces in Ukraine of engaging in.

Moments later, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, fired right back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: It is a fact that Russian military forces have taken over Ukrainian border posts. It is a fact that Russia has taken over the ferry terminal in Kerch. It is a fact that Russian ships are moving in and around Sevastopol. It is a fact that Russian forces are blocking mobile telephone services in some areas. It is a fact that Russia has surrounded or taken over practically all Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea. It is a fact that today Russian jets entered Ukraine air space. It is also a fact that independent journalists continue to report that there is no evidence of violence against Russian or pro-Russian communities.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Strong words from the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Our own Anderson Cooper is now joining us from the Ukraine capital of Kiev -- Anderson, what are you seeing, what are you hearing there about the next steps?

Because this exchange between the U.S. and the Russian ambassadors at the U.N. Security Council, we haven't heard these kinds of angry words going against each other, making opposite points, in a long time.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, and also, the Russian -- the ambassador at the United Nations reading an extraordinary letter, what he said was a letter from the former president, the president who fled here a little bit more than a week ago, essentially asking for Russian intervention in the country that he was formerly president of. The president asking Vladimir Putin for Russian troops on the ground in the Ukraine. An extraordinary letter from the former president here.

You know, there's a lot of tension here, Wolf, to say the least. There's a lot of concern. You talk to people on the streets, you talk to people down in the Square, Independence Square, below, where there are still protesters sleeping overnight and have vowed to stay there until the new government here in the Ukraine follows through on the promises that they've made. You know, there's a lot of pride in the country, a lot of pride in what they've been able to achieve just in the last week, with the overthrow of the president, with the president leaving.

But there's also a lot of concern about what happens next and about what Russia's desires are, what Russia intends to do, whether they intend to move into eastern parts of the Ukraine.

As you know, they've called up reserve forces today. It's going to be a 10 day training period for those reserve forces. And you also talk to people, you know, I had a 555-year-old, 65-year-old man come up to me and say that he was ready to volunteer to fight, even though he was beyond military age. He wants to fight, if it comes to that. He want -- they want to do whatever it takes to try to keep Ukraine together, a country they believe very strongly in -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Anderson Cooper reporting from Kiev.

Anderson will have much more later tonight.

He'll be reporting live from Ukraine, "A.C. 360," at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Financial markets around the world are also feeling the impact of the crisis, including right here in the United States, where the Dow plunged more than 150 points today amid concerns about the escalating tensions. All of the major European markets closed sharply lower, as well. Stocks in Russia took the biggest hit, though. One index in Russia there tanking almost 11 percent on this one day.

Up next, Russian troops, they are on the move. They enter another town and consolidate their hold on Crimea.

So how far will Russia go?

And how far will the U.S. and its allies go to stop Russia?

I'll ask the former NATO supreme allied commander, retired General, George Joulwan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now, it looks like Russian forces are moving to consolidate their hold on Crimea. Ukrainian defense ministry spokesman says up to 12 trucks full of Russian troops have now crossed into the eastern city of Kerch from Russia. And a border officer describes Russian troop movements by ferry and an attack on a Ukrainian border post. So, how far will Russia go?

Joining us now, the former NATO supreme allied commander, retired U.S. army general, George Joulwan. General, thanks very much for coming in. If you take a look at Russian forces versus Ukrainian forces and just in terms of 845,000 Russian troops, 129,000 Ukrainian troops, tanks, two to one, combat aircraft, nearly 1,400. Russian combat aircraft, 221. Ukrainian aircraft combat vessels 171. There's no match between these two militaries, right?

GEN. GEORGE JOULWAN, (RET.) FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: No.

BLITZER: So, if it came down to a war between Ukraine and Russia, it's over.

JOULWAN: But Ukraine has -- is part of a much larger organization in the European community and I don't think it will just be Russia against Ukraine.

BLITZER: Wait a minute. So, let's talk about that.

JOULWAN: All right.

BLITZER: Let's say the Russians decide, I hope they don't, we all hope they don't, to move beyond Crimea and moving eastward toward Kiev, arguing that the President Yanukovych, he's still the president, he needs help to -- because of what we just heard Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the U.N. Security Council say, "You think if the Ukrainian military took up arms and started to fight the Russians, they would get the backing of NATO?"

JOULWAN: There is a provision in what is called the partnership for peace framework document 1994, heads of state summit, President Clinton was there. Ukraine is a partner as is Russia. In that document, it says that that nation, Ukraine, can come to the North Atlantic Council of NATO if their territorial integrity is threatened, their security is threatened, it can come and say, we would like to bring our attention.

BLITZER: Would NATO come to the defense of Ukraine?

JOULWAN: I think if the U.S. would invoke that to the North Atlantic Council because that is part of the agreement, I think that the united actions by NATO could have an effect to deter what Russia may or may not do with troops.

BLITZER: But they would need a consensus, all the NATO allies, they have to agree. You've got to get Germany. You've got to get all of the NATO allies on board. And some of them are right now as much as they may not like Putin, they're hesitant to act.

JOULWAN: They are -- many of them are very concerned that this is a portend of the future. Look, there are ethnic Russians in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia. There are ethnic Russians in Kaliningrad which is a western outpost in Europe. This can have an effect, I think, if action isn't taken not just military, political, diplomatic, economic.

BLITZER: I'm going to show our viewers, by the way, some new video just coming in. These are Russian troops. They're now fully operational. They're dressed in Russian military uniforms. They are now on the ground in Ukraine in Crimea.

JOULWAN: So you have -- you have -- I don't know if there's any fighting yet. I haven't heard of any fighting taking place.

BLITZER: The Russians say they're being warmly welcomed by the ethnic Russians in Crimea.

JOULWAN: Of course. The ethnic Russians and that's a large number, a percentage. But I truly think there are some actions that the U.S. can take, but particularly, more with the united NATO and --

BLITZER: So, what I hear you saying, general, is not what I'm hearing Obama administration officials saying. You're saying all options should be on the table including the military option. What I hear from members of Congress, including critics of the president and from the Obama administration, no one is thinking U.S. boots on the ground. JOULWAN: I don't think -- I'm not talking boots on the ground at this stage. I think what we need to be able to do is shore up this alliance that we've been a member of since 1949. If it takes the president getting into a plane and going to Brussels to convene showing that leadership, it, to me, is worth it. But I think you've got to get the NATO alliance behind you what you're doing here.

BLITZER: You also have to get the American people behind such a move and I suspect after Iraq and Afghanistan, here and united, there's no great desire to dispatch NATO and U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine right now.

JOULWAN: I agree. No troops. But there's a lot more you can do besides --

BLITZER: Well, you know, it starts with air power, shall we say, but that can quickly escalate.

JOULWAN: No air power, but I think that the larger -- look, we've fought two world wars in the last century over Europe. If we don't have a vested interest to try to deter or prevent this from escalating, I think I fear for our future generations of Americans.

BLITZER: General Joulwan, thanks for coming in.

JOULWAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: General Joulwan, the former NATO supreme allied commander.

Coming up, does the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, think he's winning in this showdown? I'll speak with one columnist who says yes. That's coming up. You're watching a SITUATION ROOM special report.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now, the Obama administration is preparing sanctions. Some allies are readying steps of their own, but as Russia tightens its grip on Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula, why is this such a deep concern for the United States, indeed, for the entire west.

Joining us now, our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, along with "New York Times" columnist, Nicholas Kristof, and Miriam Elder, of "BuzzFeed," has spent years in Moscow as bureau chief for "The Guardian." Guys, thanks very much. Let's go to Jim Sciutto first. You've got a big map over there. Why should the U.S. be carrying as much as it clearly does?

SCIUTTO: Well, the first point is Ukraine is not some distant land. It is right in Europe here. We got Ukraine here. And just a reminder, these countries neighboring Europe, they're all NATO allies, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, in fact, all these countries in green are NATO countries. And just look at the distances, you know, Kiev to Frankfurt, it's only a couple hours flight.

Kiev down to Rome, a couple of hours, little longer to London. This is not some distant land. To have this kind of division, violent division right in the middle of Europe causes instability. It's a real worry to all these countries and to the U.S. because we're so close to them. Why does Russia care? Let's look at this next map. We've heard a lot about Sevastopol. This is the black navy -- the Black Sea fleet for the Russians.

It's their only warm water port. All their ports up here in winter time often not accessible. And this one here so key because it gives them access to the Mediterranean and then out to the Atlantic here. And this is the key national security for interest really when it comes to Ukraine and Crimea. And that's why when those 6,000 troops first moved in to the Crimea, this is where they went first. Right around Sevastopol. And it shows, this is key issue. It's not just for the west, certainly for Russia.

BLITZER: Yes. And Nick Kristof, let me bring you into this conversation, because I'm sure a lot of Americans are watching right now. Given the awful experiences with sending hundreds of thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, the last thing they want to hear right now is that the U.S. and NATO may start using military force. There is a growing isolationist tendency in the United States right now, isn't there?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes, I think there is. But I mean, I think you don't have to be an isolationist to think that NATO is not the right vehicle. I disagree with your last guest on that issue. You know, I think that our first issue here is try to avoid a deterioration in situation. And there is some real risk of fighting in Crimea and that Russian troops will push into Eastern Ukraine, and I think NATO is not going to be helpful in that sphere.

You know, we can talk about banking sanctions. We can talk about other things. I don't know that we have a lot of leverage, but I don't think NATO is the right vehicle here.

BLITZER: Well, Miriam, what do you think would deter Putin from actually moving his troops out of Crimea and eastward towards the rest of Ukraine?

MIRIAM ELDER, BUZZFEED: I'm actually not sure that much would deter him aside from military force. That's not to say I'm arguing from military force, but he's not a man who responds really well to diplomacy. Sanctions don't seem to be much of a threat in the short term, so I actually don't think that there's very much that can be done.

BLITZER: So what do you -- so we just stand by and watch what happens? Miriam, is that what you're saying?

ELDER: I'm not sure that we stand by and watch what happens, but what the administration is proposing, sanctions, visa bands, these are things that are not going to work in the short-term in terms of stopping what Putin is doing in Ukraine. What they are going to do is potentially isolate him in the long term, but what the administration is considering is not something that's going to stop what's happening right now. BLITZER: And as you know, Nick, a lot of folks have said, for Putin, the Crimea, especially, but all of Ukraine is so strategically important. He's willing to see sanctions. He's willing to see that G-8 summit in June go away. What's so much more important is to have that grip over Ukraine.

KRISTOF: Yes. That's true. I mean, I think that at the end of the day, there are various things we can do that will annoy him at the margins. But he cares about Ukraine much more than about these other things.

I do think, though, that he may be concerned that, you know, it's one thing to seize a town like Ganetz (ph) in Eastern Ukraine. Trying to figure out how you occupy all of Eastern Ukraine over the long run, you know, where you stop, what you do with your gas pipeline, I think all of these issues are really difficult ones for him that present him with a lot of difficulties.

And, of course, today the -- both the Russian stock market and the ruble voted against Putin. And he does have to be concerned to some degree about the long-term economic consequences.

BLITZER: You know, Jim, the whole country of Ukraine is pretty divided right now, and I want you to explain to our viewers how that unfolds.

SCIUTTO: No question. You can see it right here on your map. Here is Eastern Ukraine, bordering Russia. These are the percentages of ethnic Russians. Here, 75 percent speak Russian. Here 75 percent. Here, all over 50 percent.

Once you get into the Western part of Ukraine bordering, remember these NATO allies here, here and here. We're looking at only 5 percent ethnic Russian up here in the western parts of Ukraine, and that is also reflected in the pull between east and west. Many people here feel the pull towards Russia, deep cultural, historic ties; language ties.

Many people here feel the pull towards the E.U. and the West. And which reflected in their elections, as well. In 2010, when voters went to the polls, this part of the country voted for the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. This part of the country voted for the pro-European candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko, who until a week ago was in prison.

BLITZER: And very quickly here, you think Putin believes he's winning, right?

ELDER: Absolutely. Not necessarily that he's winning this. I wrote this column at the very beginning of this conflict. I think that he started this because he thinks he's winning.

We have to remember that, in Ukraine in 2004, 2005, there was an Orange Revolution that also ousted a pro-Russian candidate and put in place a pro-western president and prime minister. Putin didn't start a war then. Why is he starting a war now? Because he feels emboldened. Because he knows that the United States and Europe, nobody is going to challenge him on this at all.

BLITZER: Miriam Elder, thanks very much.

Nick Kristof, as usual, thanks to you.

Jim Sciutto, stand by. We need you for more coming up.

When we come back, inside Vladimir Putin's mind. A closer look at what this unpredictable president's next move could be.

Plus, is Putin to blame in the crisis? Why one leading analyst suggests the western media are getting this whole thing completely wrong.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: His moves seem unpredictable. But does Russia's president really have a clear goal and a strategy to get there? So what makes Vladimir Putin tick? Our own Brian Todd has been taking a closer look -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that is such a crucial question right now, because we're all trying to figure out what Vladimir Putin is going to do next.

At the moment, Putin is setting the pace. The rest of the world is reacting, and that seems to be just the way he likes it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): He's on the scene as his army rehearses for war. The world is hanging on scenes like this, wondering what could be next, what's inside Vladimir Putin's mind.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered her own chilling assessment. After speaking with Putin in recent days, Merkel said she wasn't sure he was in touch with reality, according to "The New York Times." She reportedly said he was, quote, "in another world."

ANGELA STENT, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: He really believes, President Putin, that somehow Crimea is in danger from what the Russians call fascism terrorists who are in Kiev. This means maybe he isn't as well-briefed on the real situation as he could be.

TODD: Others believe Putin is very much in touch with the reality he sees. The upheaval in Ukraine, they say, is a threat to his goal of asserting Russia's power in places it used to dominate.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Putin wants to restore the Russian empire, which Ukraine is the crowned jewel.

TODD: And Crimea, with its historic ties to Russia, is the shining core of that crowned jewel, a region crucial, analysts say, for two reasons. To Putin's goal of uniting the Slavic people who were once under Soviet control and for strategic access to the Black Sea.

Critics say what also drives the former KGB colonel is an open resentment over the way the Cold War ended.

CHARLES KUPCHAN, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: He's famously noted for saying in 2005 that the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century was the fall of the Soviet Union.

TODD: Putin's been trying to grab that global influence back ever since then, analysts say, and sees America and its allies as a threat to that.

ANDREW KUCHINS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: To the degree that I think he is paranoid, it is that he sees the west as out to do in Russia. Whether it's Libya or Syria or Iran or Ukraine, he sees western actions as uniquely attempting to undermine Russian power.

TODD: But Putin could also be feeling emboldened in Ukraine. Emboldened from his rival's recent failure to strike in Syria.

KUCHINS: Mr. Putin basically thinks that President Obama and the Americans and the Europeans are kind of wimps. And that he can roll them when he sees fit.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Between that bravado and his alleged paranoia, there's now a real fear about how far Vladimir Putin will take all of this. Will be -- will he be the bold and ruthless commander who pushes this further west in the Ukraine and ignites a war? Or will he park his forces in Crimea and stay there, satisfied with the frightening statement he just made -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thanks very much.

In the latest issue of "The Nation" magazine, the Russian expert, Professor Steven Cohen is sharply critical of the American news media; the coverage of Russia and Ukraine, including Putin. He joins me, along with our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, and our "CROSSFIRE" co-host, Newt Gingrich.

Professor Cohen, let's talk about your article, a powerful article. What's wrong with the way the mainstream American new media have covered Putin?

PROF. STEVEN COHEN, RUSSIAN EXPERT: Well, let's put it like this. What people are witnessing right now, we're watching the descent of a new Cold War divide in Europe. This time, not in Berlin but right on Russia's borders in Ukraine through the heart of Slavic historical civilization.

That's going to affect adversely our kids and our grandkids for decades to come. And the American explanation, the American media political explanation, is that Putin alone is entirely to blame. And simply, that is not so. We played a large role in bringing this horrible situation about.

BLITZER: Well, what is that role? Explain why -- you're saying Putin is partly to blame, right?

COHEN: Well, you know, Reagan says it -- said it took two to tango, and that's absolutely true. I'm pushing back against the American narrative.

The long story is -- and I'll give it to you short -- in the 1990s, President Clinton decided to begin to expand NATO toward Russia. Russia is now on NATO's borders. That's a military alliance.

To make the short story in the foreground, in November, when this current crisis in Ukraine began, Putin said to Washington and to Brussels, to the European Union, why are you forcing Ukraine to choose between Russia and the west? Why don't we do a joint economic aid to Ukraine? And our answer was, "No, it's either/or. It's our way or the highway." And now you are where you are.

BLITZER: Let's let the former speaker, Newt Gingrich, respond. Go ahead.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": There's a lot to what he just said.

BLITZER: A lot of accuracy?

GINGRICH: A lot of accuracy. The United States and Europeans have been trying to pull Ukraine away from Russia at a time when half their natural gas and oil comes from Russia. They're deeply in debt to the Russians. Crimea is, in fact, a Russian naval base. It was a Soviet Union base. It goes back 300 years as Russian territory. And I think Putin sent a lot of signals that he was going to do something sooner or later.

I worry about this both in terms of Crimea and what happens to Ukraine but also in terms of what lessons does he learn about dealing with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who are members of NATO and are on the northern Russian flank? It's very important that Putin understands there are consequences to this kind of aggressiveness, but I do think that the United States and Europe did a lot to set up the crisis.

BLITZER: Christiane, go ahead.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wow. Well, here's the thing. Nobody is taking into account what the Ukrainian people themselves actually want. And they have voted over and again for a much different relationship than what Russia wants to do, which is pull them into its sphere.

And, as you know, I know what Professor Cohen is saying about this zero sum game, but the Europeans, they say, "Well, actually, we didn't say that. Why don't we -- why aren't we able to have an association with Ukraine and Ukraine remain friendly and with its own associations with Russia, as well?"

As you know, what happened on February 21 with the three foreign ministers from France and from Britain and from Poland who signed that agreement with Yanukovych, all of that happened. And then there was a terrible order to kill dozens and dozens of people. That is what happened after that.

And so where does this lead? It's very difficult to say. Clearly, nobody wants to have a war over this.

But I spoke with Yulia Tymoshenko today, the former Ukrainian foreign minister, a big, big player, and she basically is begging. She used that word "begging" for help, knowing that there's no way Ukraine can stand up to Russia on its own, if Russia decides to expand its military intervention.

And look, you just heard what General Dowd (ph) said. Again, perhaps people will disagree with that, but the United States went to war and lost a lot of people, Wolf, over fighting in Europe for freedom. And that is it what the U.S. and the west stand for.

BLITZER: So let's -- I want both of you to respond. First, Newt Gingrich and then Professor Cohen. Go ahead.

GINGRICH: Look, the United States is not going to go to war over Ukraine. The Ukrainian -- Ukraine has to make some kind of accommodation. At the same time, we and the Europeans have to send some signals to Putin that are pretty clear that he cannot continue down this road.

AMANPOUR: Right.

GINGRICH: The world's going to become very dangerous. If Putin thinks he can flex his muscles and continue to encroach on Western territories that used to be in the Soviet Union.

AMANPOUR: That's right.

GINGRICH: This is a very serious question.

BLITZER: Hold on -- everybody, hold on for a moment.

Professor Cohen, stand by. We're going to continue this conversation.

Much more to discuss. Clearly important issues are coming up.

By the way, don't forget, you can see more of Newt Gingrich coming up later on tonight on "CROSSFIRE" 6:30 p.m. Eastern. Co-host Sally Cohen will be debating the crisis in Ukraine. That's coming up later.

Our panel stays with us.

When we come back, is the U.S. strategy sending the right message to the rest of the world?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Professor Stephen Cohen of New York University.

I want you to respond to what Christiane said, Professor Cohen, but I want to read to you what Peter Baker, "The New York Times" reporter, wrote in the lead story in "The New York Times" today.

"Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin, she was not sure he was in touch with reality. People briefed on the call said in another world, she said."

Is she right?

COHEN: I don't know if it's an accurate report. But let's remember she said that about President George Bush in 2010 when Bush tried to fast track Ukraine into NATO, and she stopped it.

What I do know is this. Putin doesn't trust Obama, doesn't think he's a resolute leader, doesn't think he can negotiate with him definitively. He trusts Merkel, he speaks with her in German. They have a certain rapport.

I would doubt very seriously that that was Merkel's end of the story. And I hope it isn't because I think Merkel is now one of the key players in ending this crisis if it can be ended.

BLITZER: It looks to me, Christiane, like there's a split developing between Chancellor Merkel and the president of the United States when it comes to what to do towards Russia and Ukraine.

AMANPOUR: Well, we really do have to see how this plays out in terms of unity in the West. But I think Professor Cohen is right. Merkel does have the closest relationship and the most intricate business and every other way relationship with Russia, so she is a very big player.

But I mean, look, I don't know. I mean, I just wonder whether Professor Cohen thinks Putin has overreacted. Look, we know whether it's in the playpen when we're kids, whether it's in school, whether it's in the workplace, whether we join the military, and certainly on the international stage, there are rules of engagement.

Putin has signed up, or rather, Russia has signed up to protecting the territory integrity of Ukraine. It was done under the Budapest Agreement in '94, and along with the U.S. and the UK. I mean, this is an international reality. And unless we're ready to see these precedents set, surely there must be some way to negotiate a way back from this brink. Obviously protecting the rights of the ethnic Russians in Crimea and elsewhere as well.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Professor.

COHEN: There is a way out, but not until we recognize a reality. Putin is not a thug. He's not trying to re-create the Soviet Union. What he is, is a historic Russian national leader. He's the most consequential leader of the early 21st century. He believes rightly or wrongly that he has a mission. A mission mandated by history, to take Russia, which collapsed in 1991 and had collapsed in 1917 and to restore its greatness at home, whatever that means.

And that includes securing its traditional zones of security. That means Ukraine. Putin said two years ago, three years ago, my red line -- you remember Obama's red line? My red line is former Soviet Georgia. We had a war there in 2008 and Ukraine. He has -- he has told us exactly what he thought.

AMANPOUR: Yes --

COHEN: And until we take that into account, the next thing that's going to happen is there's going to be NATO troops on the border of western Ukraine, and Putin's troops will flood into eastern Ukraine. And then all bets are off.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Look, obviously, Putin has his mission and he clearly does see himself in the way that Professor Cohen just outlined. But here's the thing, you know, obviously there's been, you know, a major sort of argument over Ukraine, but Putin and the Russians have by treaty their big Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea. There was no indication that the new Ukrainian government was going to change that reality at all. And you say that Putin has telegraphed, you know, what his aims are and that he's not a thug.

Well, look, I would like you to explain to me how he and us can justify the trumping up of this hysteria in the Crimea, which has given the Russians the ability to do what they're doing, whether it was the trumped-up change of government in the -- in the Crimean parliament, whether it was the trumped-up call by this government for Russians to come in and protect them when they were not being killed, Professor Cohen.

There was no violence in the Crimea. Whether it was the horrendous -- and I've done a lot of reporting on hate speech and nationalist speech and on incitement to war and hatred. And the state Russian media is very bad right now on this --

BLITZER: Go ahead, Professor Cohen.

AMANPOUR: No, no, this is the facts. And now you have the Duma debating an annexation law. All of this is trumped-up to provide Putin with what you say, and that his desire to protect their interests and to keep his sphere of influence.

BLITZER: Professor Cohen.

COHEN: The extremism didn't come from Russia. It was coming from western Ukraine. We've left the large part of the story out. There's a small but resolute and determined right-wing nationalist movement in Ukraine. It's quasi-fascist, and it is dictating terms to this parliament in Kiev, which is not legitimate in law, international or constitutional. This parliament, which is a runt parliament because they banned the two majority parties that represented the east, have been passing anti-Russian legislation. They banned the use of Russian as an official language.

It isn't Russia that's been spewing this ideological, destabilizing message, it's been coming from the West.

BLITZER: All right.

COHEN: And here the worst part is that has been -- that hatred has been supported by Washington and Brussels in embracing this west Ukrainian movement. That will -- that must stop.

BLITZER: We're up against the clock, unfortunately, but to be continued. An excellent conversation, Professor Cohen and Christiane Amanpour. Thanks very much.

And on that last point, you heard Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the U.N. Security Council, saying earlier today that at fault for all of this are what he called fascists and anti-Semites in Ukraine right now. To be continued --

AMANPOUR: You know, you've got to be really careful putting that across as a fact --

BLITZER: That's what Vitaly Churkin said.

AMANPOUR: He may have done.

BLITZER: That's what he said.

AMANPOUR: But that is the Russian position. He may have done.

BLITZER: But that's what I was pointing out.

AMANPOUR: But are you telling me -- are you saying that the entire pro-European --

BLITZER: Of course not.

AMANPOUR: -- Ukrainians are anti-Semite?

BLITZER: Of course I was only saying --

AMANPOUR: But that is what the Russians are saying.

BLITZER: Christiane, I'm only saying what Vitaly Churkin --

AMANPOUR: That's what the Russians are saying, and that's what Professor Cohen is saying.

BLITZER: He said and we heard Professor -- Professor Cohen saying it, and I was just pointing out that a Russian official at the United Nations today said what --

AMANPOUR: Right.

BLITZER: Who is responsible for all this? Fascists and anti-Semites in Ukraine.

AMANPOUR: Right.

BLITZER: Am I saying that? No, I'm not. But I am saying that that's what Vitaly Churkin said and I'll have the sound bite. AMANPOUR: Right. And we have to be very careful --

BLITZER: We'll play it for you. We played it for you earlier --

AMANPOUR: Not -- no, no, I heard it.

BLITZER: Yes.

AMANPOUR: I heard it. We just as a network have to be really careful not to lump the entire pro-European Ukrainians into what's some may well be --

BLITZER: We're not, I'm not.

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: -- which are nationalistic and extremist.

BLITZER: Christiane, we're not.

AMANPOUR: So that's what I'm saying.

BLITZER: We're not doing that all --

COHEN: Hey, guys, I'm an outsider. I hate to see a civil war break out on CNN.

BLITZER: It's not a civil war.

(LAUGHTER)

It's smart conversation.

All right, guys. To be continued. And I certainly wasn't lumping all of the pro-Ukrainians in the world.

(CROSSTALK)

COHEN: We've got to love the Ukrainians in the world.

AMANPOUR: OK. Good. Good.

BLITZER: I was only pointing out what --

AMANPOUR: At least we got that straight.

BLITZER: What Vitaly Churkin said.

AMANPOUR: Because, Wolf, we're in THE SITUATION ROOM, man.

BLITZER: Absolutely. All right, guys. We'll take a quick break. Much more at the top of the hour.

COHEN: Put it on the air and call it "The War Room."