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Russia and Ukraine; Critics Pounce on Obama; Ex-Ukraine Prime Minister Speaks; Interview with Sen. McCain; Russian Military Threatens Harsh Reaction; No Ultimatum for Ukraine; McCain Critical of Obama on Ukraine

Aired March 3, 2014 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, Ukraine and the world waiting for Vladimir Putin's next move. Russian troops are swarming through the Crimean Peninsula but deny they've given their Ukraine counterparts an ultimatum to surrender.

Also right now, new questions over whether a weak U.S. foreign policy contributed to the crisis in Ukraine. Senator John McCain says it did. He's here live with me this hour.

And right now, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is on his way over to the White House to meet with President Obama, where he may be receiving a blunt warning about Israel's future.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. There is a lot to tell you over the next hour on the deepening crisis in Ukraine. At the center of the conflict, Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula seen here in red. There you see it in the middle of the screen. Ukraine's defense minister says a Russian naval commander has warned Ukrainian officials there to swear allegiance to the new Crimean authorities, surrender or face an attack. But Russian media now saying reports of a Russian ultimatum are, quote, "utter rubbish." What we know right now is about 6,000 Russian troops are in control of Crimea. The European Union is demanding an immediate Russian withdrawal.

The secretary of state, John Kerry, he's due to fly out tonight to go to Kiev in Ukraine. He spoke moments ago at the State Department, and he condemned Russian's invasion of Crimea as an incredible act of aggression.

In Moscow, Russia's parliament is considering legislation that could ultimately lead to the annexation of Crimea as Russian territory.

The Russian President Putin appears to be taking a very active role in military drills in western Russia. The exercises involve about 150,000 troops, along with aircraft attacks (ph) and ships. Putin called for snap drills and surprise inspections throughout the region.

Let's go straight to the region. CNN's Anderson Cooper is now on the scene for us in Kiev. Anderson, Russian media denying they've issued an ultimatum but Ukrainian troops are clearly worried. What is the latest you're seeing and hearing on the ground? ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There is a lot of concern. It's obviously an incredibly tense situation here in Kiev. The central government, the new government, here is shaky, at best. There is an interim president, a new prime minister -- prime minister saying this country is on the brink of disaster. I can -- you know, most people here, certainly the government here, is hoping there is some sort of diplomatic effort that can solve this crisis, that can put an end to this crisis. They're saying, the government in Kiev, they are not willing to let Crimea go. That that will not happen.

But whether or not they could stop that is very much an open question. While they're hoping for diplomacy and looking to the west for some sort of diplomatic solution, they're also calling up their reserves, reserve forces. I was out in the square behind me today, earlier, it's now covered in fog so you can't really see it as darkness has come, a lot of people there giving their names to authorities, saying that they are willing to fight. Young men, old men, well beyond military age, saying they are willing to do whatever is necessary in order to keep Ukraine unified.

That's the message here that many people have. Whether or not that can happen, though, a lot is going to depend on what Vladimir Putin decides to do next, Wolf. As you said, they are all over Crimea. The big concern, although, many people have here is whether or not Russian forces might actually go into eastern parts of Ukraine, other Russian- speaking areas. If that happened, that would be a major escalation. No sign of that, at this point. But there's real concern about what the next step for Vladimir Putin is -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because it's clear to everyone that the Ukrainian military is really -- under the worst of circumstances, would be no match for the Russian military which is so much more powerful, so much more advanced. So, the key, as you correctly point out, and this according to U.S. officials as well, keep the Russian troops in Crimea, but if they start moving eastwards, towards where you are in Kiev, that would escalate the situation dramatically. Is there a real concern in Kiev with the Ukrainian government that the Russian military might actually move towards the east?

COOPER: There is concern. Basically, everybody here you talk to has that concern. For them, that obviously is -- would be the ultimate act of declaration of war. They already see this as a declaration of war. But to move into eastern parts of Ukraine -- And that's -- you know, the borders of Crimea are pretty -- are very obvious. Less so in eastern parts of Ukraine, which areas are Russian-speaking, which areas are not? So, if Russian troops were actually TO move into eastern Ukraine, that would be a major escalation. But that has not occurred yet and the focus is solely on Crimea.

It is really interesting, Wolf, when you're out there just talking to people, how many men are talking about signing up, how many men are talking about being willing to fight, being willing to die to keep Ukraine together. They see everything that Russia has done as a provocation. They see that everything that Vladimir Putin has said they call lies. The idea that Russian people, Russian descent were in any kind of danger in Crimea, they see as nothing more than an excuse for Russian forces to try to -- to try to flex their muscles in Crimea.

BLITZER: Anderson Cooper reporting from Kiev in Ukraine right now. He'll be anchoring "A.C. 360" tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern from Kiev as well. Anderson, thanks very much.

President Obama spent the weekend working the phones. He spoke with Putin for 90 minutes on Saturday. On Sunday, he spent the day reaching out to U.S. allies for support on Ukraine.

Let's bring in our Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, the White House says it won't be sending a presidential delegation to the Paralympic games in Sochi, --

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

BLITZER: -- Russia that are about to begin. Is this more of a tie to boy cots? What's the latest because it looks like the G8 summit in June that the U.S. was, of course, planning on participating in? That may be gone, as well.

ACOSTA: That's right. And you heard secretary of state, John Kerry, say, Wolf, that it may become the G7. It may not be the G8 anymore, that Russia may be expelled from the G8 because of its actions in Ukraine. I want to pick up on something you were talking about with Anderson Cooper about that alleged ultimatum from Russia to Ukrainian forces about Crimea.

There is a State Department conference call going on right now, Wolf. And a State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said that they don't have any independent confirmation that that ultimatum has been issued. But, at this point, if that in fact had occurred, it would, in their view, constitute a dangerous escalation. So, that quick response from the White House to those events, even though the Russians are saying that that did not occur.

You mentioned the word from the White House earlier this morning that, yes, they are no longer sending a presidential delegation to the Paralympic games in Sochi that begin on March 7th, just a few days from now. The athletes will continue to go and the president will cheer them on, according to the White House, but there will not be a U.S. delegation as part of that.

One thing that we should also mention. You talked about phone calls. The phone call that occurred this weekend between President Obama and president Putin. We should mention that vice president Joe Biden did call the Russian president -- excuse me, the Russian prime minister, Medvedev, earlier this morning. And he made clear, in that call, Wolf, that -- and quoting a senior administration official here, that if this situation is not resolved, Russia will face increasing political and economic sanctions.

And so -- and we heard that all weekend long from administration officials that if the Russians don't pull back, respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, that we're going to see these sanctions. We're going to see the diplomatic levers at the White House and that the administration can pull -- they're going to start ratcheting those things up in response to force Russia's hand out of Ukraine -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A real crisis unfolding right now. Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.

The president getting ready to meet with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, later this hour over at the White House. The president expected to make on-camera comments at the beginning of that meeting. Netanyahu, will as well possibly -- at least the president will be speaking about the situation in Ukraine. Once we get that, video, of course, we'll bring it to you here on CNN.

Arizona Senator John McCain is not holding back on his criticism of the president in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Here's what he said just a little while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZONA: The fact is, that this is a blatant act on the part of Vladimir Putin and one that must be unacceptable to the world community. It cannot stand ---

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN: We can enact economic sanctions. We can have -- there's a broad array of options that we have.

Why do we care?

Because this is ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And Senator McCain is here with me right now.

Feckless foreign policy, you're a -- that's directly related to the president of the United States.

You're criticizing him, right?

MCCAIN: Look, from the beginning, from the beginning, when he refused to criticize the Iranian government when people rose up and died in the streets of Tehran all the way through this incredible misreading of Vladimir Putin, his intentions and the world as we have it today. They keep denying, the president and the secretary of State, this is not East-West, this is not a return of the cold war.

Well, it isn't on our part, but it certainly is on Vladimir Putin.

Putin wants to restore the Russian Empire, which Ukraine is the crown jewel. There are pressures on the Baltics, on Moldova, on other countries in the region. And we continue, and, of course, Russian planes continue to fly into Syria loaded with weapons for Bashar Assad.

And this president tell my famous overheard conversation, tell Vladimir that I'll be more flexible when I'm reelected. Well, look -- what has this flexibility gotten us?

BLITZER: But -- but...

MCCAIN: And I don't want a military action is off the table right now. But let's go back to peace through strength.

What kind of a message are we sending when we're slashing our military and at the same time, the world is as disruptive and dangerous as any time since the end of the war.

BLITZER: Putin, as you know -- and you -- you've met with him...

MCCAIN: Yes.

BLITZER: -- you know, he's a tough guy.

MCCAIN: Yes.

BLITZER: He sees Russian interests...

MCCAIN: That's right.

BLITZER: -- over there, whether in Ukraine or, in 2008, in Georgia, when he moved...

MCCAIN: Yes.

BLITZER: -- Russian troops into Georgia. President Bush was still president at that time. You can't blame President Obama for in...

MCCAIN: Oh, I blame President Bush...

BLITZER: But...

MCCAIN: -- for not doing more, although, when you compare it to what's happening in Ukraine, there's a -- it's still a matter of principle. But...

BLITZER: The only point I was trying to make is...

MCCAIN: Yes?

BLITZER: -- and I'm anxious to get your reaction to this...

MCCAIN: Sure.

BLITZER: -- Putin doesn't care about, you know, sanctions or pulling a delegation from the Paralympic Games or ending the G8 Summit in Sochi. He sees Ukraine, at least the Crimean Peninsula, effectively as part of Russia. He sees a strategic interest just like he saw in Georgia in 2008, when he moved Russian troops in.

Any of these steps that you're recommending -- and we spoke on Friday -- do you think would really make a difference as far as Putin...

MCCAIN: In the short-term, probably not, because we have to regain our credibility, which we have none. And, by the way, again, there are significant Russian populations in many countries -- in Poland, in Romania, in the Baltic countries.

Does this mean that we will now acquiesce to Putin acting on behalf of the Russian population in parts of all these countries in the region?

BLITZER: So if -- if it's not...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: -- Putin, what should the U.S., the Europeans, the NATO allies, really do that might make a difference and say to him, you know what, all right, you're in Crimea, you're effectively in control of the Crimea...

MCCAIN: Yes?

BLITZER: -- and there are a lot of Russians -- ethnic Russians who speak Russian. They're welcoming those Russians, as you know.

MCCAIN: Yes.

BLITZER: You've been there.

But what do you -- how do you stop him from moving eastwards toward Kiev and taking over the rest of Ukraine?

MCCAIN: But, first of all, cdi remind you, the reason why the majority are the population of Russia is because Stalin deported...

BLITZER: Moved them. I know.

MCCAIN: -- I mean and slaughtered half of them.

BLITZER: Right.

MCCAIN: And second of all, in 1994, in exchange for Ukraine getting rid of its nuclear weapons, there was a guarantee by Russia that we -- they would respect their territorial integrity in part of Ukraine.

BLITZER: Because Ukraine had nuclear weapons...

MCCAIN: Exactly.

BLITZER: And when they disbanded...

MCCAIN: Exactly. So...

BLITZER: -- those nuclear weapons, they got that commitment.

MCCAIN: -- Vladimir Putin obviously has no respect for agreements signed by his country. We need to do economic sanctions in a broad array of areas. Another thing we need to do is expand Magnitsky. Magnitsky will target individuals who have been engaged and involved in this decision-making and carrying out these orders.

The Russians love to go to London and Las Vegas. They love to raise their families. They love to have buy -- the oligarchs buy land and property here. We could hit them hard. And we could also...

BLITZER: So the same targeted sanctions along the lines of what the U.S. has done to Iran, is that what you want to see happen...

MCCAIN: I'd like to see...

BLITZER: -- in Russia?

MCCAIN: -- like -- I'd like to see that and probably more, because of individuals who are responsible. I think when we hold individuals responsible...

BLITZER: But give me an example...

MCCAIN: -- but, also, we need to...

BLITZER: You mean...

MCCAIN: -- also, we need...

BLITZER: -- Putin -- you mean Putin...

MCCAIN: I would say Putin...

BLITZER: (INAUDIBLE) Putin...

MCCAIN: -- I mean anybody who gave the orders that there are sanctions against them or carried out these orders.

But, also, we need to also reinvigorate -- say, OK, Georgia is on the path to membership in NATO. You -- you attack Georgia again -- and, obviously, that has the repercussions of attacks in NATO.

We need to increase our capabilities in order to shore up and for military operations, exercises, with these countries. We need to have a broad array -- and when people say we can't do much, then I don't agree. I think the strongest, most powerful nation in the world economically and every other way can do a lot of things.

BLITZER: Is the president on this program as Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany?

Because she seems to be less inclined to take some of these steps...

MCCAIN: But I...

BLITZER: -- that the president has taken?

MCCAIN: -- a great disappointment to me, whether it be German non- involvement in Libya or in other things. It's been Germany, the greatest and strongest nation in Europe. And they have backed off of everything. Yes, I was very disappointed in her comments. And, by the way, maybe Putin also, who knows Angela Merkel, thinks that he can get away with this.

BLITZER: He probably does.

MCCAIN: And my question is, who's next and what's next, Eastern Ukraine, you were just talking about.

Will there be mayors and city councils in Eastern Ukraine and they'll say, look, our allegiance is with Russia. We're inviting the Russians in. And if there is some acts of violence, then, therefore, that's being used as an excuse.

This is a very dangerous business we're in.

BLITZER: You...

MCCAIN: But we have to be steadfast. And it's all got to do with our presentation of what's acceptable for Russia to do and not. And right now, nobody knows what that is.

A key decision in the history of this administration was I'm going to strike Syria and then backing off of it. That sent a message all over the world.

BLITZER: Well, the president does say that on those chemical weapons, he, through diplomacy, is managing to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, he didn't need to use military force.

MCCAIN: Some of them...

BLITZER: And you're smirking and smiling.

MCCAIN: Well, I mean, of course, they've slow-walked it, the Syrians have. But the same Russians are helping them remove the chemical weapons while delivering conventional weapons, they're building these barrel bombs and slaughtering.

Now 140,000 people have died in Syria?

You've seen these pictures that have come out.

BLITZER: Sure. Let's...

MCCAIN: It's horrific.

BLITZER: Let me ask you one final question.

MCCAIN: Sure.

BLITZER: I know you don't have much confidence in the president as the national security leader of the United States, the commander-in- chief.

But what about the national security advisers who are helping him? The secretary of State, you know John Kerry well.

MCCAIN: Yes.

BLITZER: The secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, Republican, you know him well. Susan Rice, the national security adviser; the intelligence.

Do you have confidence in this team of national security advisers helping the president?

MCCAIN: Not a lot, because it's very clear that their advice to the president has been cut our military, we're never going to fight another land war.

By the way, do you know how many times we said that, that we'll never fight another land war after World War II, after Korea, after Vietnam, at -- and so I think there is a totally misguided attitude toward Vladimir Putin and what he's about. And an -- and the only thing that Vladimir Putin understands is steadfast strength such as -- there's an old phrase, peace through strength.

Do you remember who said that?

BLITZER: Yes. I remember also the timing of last week, when Chuck Hagel announced the defense cuts and troop levels. I guess that was sort of bad timing given what's going on this week.

MCCAIN: Not good timing. I still believe in America. I still believe we can be steadfast. But I think we've got to understand Vladimir Putin and what his ambitions are. I think that's a key element here. And I'm afraid that's been missing.

BLITZER: And I suspect you're right, though, that all of these steps the U.S. is now contemplating -- and there's no military operation...

MCCAIN: No.

BLITZER: -- being contemplated, no boots on the ground, no air flights, no no-fly zones, anything like that. These other steps will be significant, but probably, at least in the short-term, won't change what Putin has in mind.

MCCAIN: And there are elements of planning that NATO can begin, especially where these other countries are concerned, including members of NATO.

BLITZER: Because you've got to get NATO all in agreement. NATO acts by consensus. Whether NATO would be in agreement, that's another story.

MCCAIN: That's a tough call.

BLITZER: Yes.

All right, Senator, thanks very much for coming in. MCCAIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Senator John McCain.

Up next, Ukraine is just the latest international challenge for President Obama. Our own Gloria Borger gives us her take on whether the president has a creditability problem.

And later, an exclusive interview with the former Ukrainian leader, just released from prison. We're going to hear her plea for help from the west.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The crisis in Ukraine fueling more criticism of President Obama's foreign policy. The Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, blatantly ignoring the president's warning not to interfere in Ukraine, instead sending troops to the Crimean peninsula. Critics pounced on President Obama over his handling of this latest crisis. Let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

And, Gloria, credibility, that's a potential problem for the president in dealing with Putin right now.

GLORIA BORGER, CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, you just heard Senator John McCain come out forcefully on that issue. Look, there's no doubt that President Obama looked vacillating when it came to Syria. I think the question you have is, what are Putin's motivations here? He didn't need to have us look vacillating in Syria to do what he's doing in Crimea. He had his own reasons for doing that. He's got his naval base that and all other kinds of geopolitical reasons for doing what he's doing.

So what percentage of his reasoning was because he believed that President Obama would not be strong in retaliation or that he believed the allies, including someone like Angela Merkel, who you spoke to John McCain about, would not be strong in her response? What part of his calculation was that? It's hard to know. Clearly was a part of it. Was it a major part of it? I mean, don't forget, Vladimir Putin is somebody who lied to the president, said he was not going to do exactly what he ended up -- what he ended up doing. So it's hard to kind of figure out his motivation here.

I think the big problem is, how does the U.S. respond and lead a response that's very strong and that actually can have an impact in the long term. I'm not so sure there's much of an impact you could have on the short term if you're not going to amass troops on the border, which you're not.

BLITZER: I guess the key right now is to stop the Russians from moving outside of Crimea -

BORGER: That's right.

BLITZER: And move towards other parts of Ukraine.

BORGER: That's right.

BLITZER: You remember in August 2008, that's when Russia invaded Georgia.

BORGER: Sure.

BLITZER: President Bush was still president. And then President Obama took office in January 2009 and he wanted to - and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they wanted to reset relations with Russia and with Putin.

BORGER: Right. How'd that go?

BLITZER: How's that working out?

BORGER: Not really - not really working out well. And I think that -- as we all know. And the challenge for this president now is to lead NATO and to lead the G-8 and whether it's - you know, Putin doesn't care, honestly, if he's getting thrown out of the G-8. But the question is, what can we do in terms of these sanctions? As Senator McCain was talking about, what can you do to isolate Russia economically so that you revoke visas, you freeze assets. Those are things that will have a huge economic impact. And that's the way that the United States can retaliate at this point. But the president needs to spend his time convincing our allies. And that's the problem he's got on his hands right now.

BLITZER: Yes, he's got to get those allies on the same page.

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: It's not easy.

All right, Gloria, thanks very much.

Coming up, investors are getting their first chance to react after this crisis in Ukraine exploded over the weekend. Strong reaction from markets on Wall Street and around the world.

Up next, an exclusive interview with the Ukrainian leader just released from prison. What she wants western powers to do about this crisis in Crimea.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The former prime minister of Ukraine is calling on world leaders to do all they can to keep Crimea a part of Ukraine. Yulia Tvmoshenko spent the last two years in prison in Ukraine, being freed just over a week ago when the former president was forced from office. Today she met with our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, for her first international TV interview since her release.

A very important interview, Christiane. She's deeply concerned right now that the diplomacy might not work.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. It comes at an obviously very important time as Secretary of State Kerry is headed over to Kiev and as foreign ministers from Europe are meeting in session and NATO ministers as well trying to figure out what to do short of any military confrontation, of course, to rein back Moscow from the brink and also to try to make sure that the Ukrainians don't do anything accidental or intentional that would exacerbate the situation and provide Moscow with an even bigger pretext to incur an even bigger military intervention.

So I asked Yulia Tymoshenko about this. She's now the major political player in Ukraine, former prime minister, and has enormous influence there. She said that she had addressed the Ukrainian people, urging them to be calm, urging them to be cool. Nonetheless, appealed very, very strongly for Western help, and as she told me, begging to keep Crimea part of Russia - rather, Ukraine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YULIA TYMOSHENKO, FORMER UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER (through translator): But it's in hard times, Ukraine has left on its own and is given to Russia - and -- when Russia is allowed to take away Crimea, then the world will change and then not only politics and life in Ukraine will change, but politics and life will change practically everywhere in the world.