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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Crisis in Ukraine; Ukraine versus Russia; Russian Reaction; Warships Crossing Key Channel

Aired March 4, 2014 - 12:30   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: The president said a sovereign people like those in Ukraine can make decisions about their own lives and their own future.

Secretary of State Kerry, who is in the Ukraine right now, accused Russia of just making reasons up, just making them up, in order to go into the Crimean part of Ukraine. He said that there is no evidence to support a single claim that Russia is making that they need to protect Russians who live there. He also said that the United States is reaffirming its commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty.

And on a base in Crimea, Ukrainian soldiers did something pretty incredible. They're standing up against the Russian forces who've moved in there, and they're doing it in a nonviolent way.

I want you to take a look at some video that was shot earlier. It's pretty astounding, Ukrainian troops who are unarmed, marching and carrying their flag, as well as a flag of a former Soviet, too, singing and marching right up down that road to go face-to-face with the Russian forces who are just down the way. You can see them all down that road.

That could have been a very dangerous situation, but as they got closer, the Russian forces raised their guns. They even fired warning shots into the air.

But you've got to check out the back-and-forth that went on between these two sides.

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BANFIELD: Just in case you're wondering what it looked like in a wider, you know, view from the sky, apparently the numbers that were facing off against one another, 300 Ukrainian soldiers, and we're told that they were facing off against 16,000 Russian troops.

Our Ben Wedeman is in that area. He's live now on the phone to report on what this was like.

Ben, take me there and walk me through how that did not escalate into something much, much worse, especially once those warning shots were fired.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Yes, Ashleigh. This really shows how dangerous this situation is, when these two groups met.

I mean, basically what you saw there was the commander of the base, his name is Yuri Mamchur, who was leading his men, unarmed, to the positions that were taken up by these other men in uniform, I think we can safely say Russians, and as they approached, warning shots fired over their heads.

Now, what's interesting, the Ukrainians, who were unarmed, approached the Russians. They did not stop. They marched forward, and one of those Russian soldiers, you can clearly hear him shout, "Stop, or I'll be forced to shoot at your legs. I will shoot," he told them.

And then this commander, Commander Mamchur, he said you're standing there with machine guns, and we're standing here without weapons.

Then both sides, on the Russian side and on the Ukrainian side, their commanders told them to calm down, put your guns down, because their guns were raised and ready to fire at the Ukrainians. And the situation somewhat calmed down.

Really, this shows you what a hair-trigger this situation is, certainly on this base of Belbek.

Now, we were there later at that base, and you definitely felt that it was very close. And it's important to point out that at that base, it's not just soldiers, it's not just officers. It's also families, as well.

So for them, it's a very tense time, a very dangerous time, because it's not just the Ukrainian forces that are in the firing line, potentially. It's their families, as well.

And it's a very good thing that there were no injury, nobody was killed today, there was no bloodshed, because this just underscored how very touchy, Ashleigh, the situation is here.

BANFIELD: Ben, what's so remarkable for -- I think -- I hate to say for those of us over a certain age, we remember well when Ukraine was just another Soviet, and the Russians and the Ukrainians were Soviets. These were all part of the USSR.

And at one point in this confrontation, and you'll have to validate this, one of those -- at least one of those Ukrainian soldiers was said to have said, "We are all brothers," and they were actually flying, or at least holding not only the Ukrainian flag but also one of the former Soviet flags, as well.

Was there any kind of sense between these two sets of forces that, yes, in fact, we were, and maybe that feeling isn't so far gone? And perhaps that's what deescalated this?

WEDEMAN (via telephone): Well, I think what -- we went through this tape very closely. They underscored that we're all soldiers, and though the flag, the banner they were carrying, I believe, was the regimental banner from Soviet times.

And I think they brought that specifically to make the point that there was a time when they were brothers-in-arms, that they were part of one political entity, and that may have been one of the points that stops this thing from escalating much further.

Ashleigh?

BANFIELD: It's just a remarkable scene.

Again, for so many of us who look at Russia and see the vestiges of the old Soviet Union, and wonder how different these people really could be, having been one for so long, and watching them point guns at one another, especially since those guns didn't go off in the way they could have.

Ben Wedeman, live for us, some remarkable reporting from you, as well. Thank you for that at Sevastopol for us.

The troops are on the move. The navy warships are sailing into action. Is this going to lead to a military action between Russia and Ukraine, once brothers in the Soviet Union?

The war games may be over, as Putin called back those troops, but are the war games about to become the real thing? Could it happen?

You're going to find out just how these militaries stack up against one another, next.

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BANFIELD: We are following the fast-moving developments in the crisis in Ukraine at this hour.

We just heard some pretty strong words from both the president, President Obama, and the secretary of state, John Kerry.

President Obama said that Russia has violated international law by intervening in the Ukraine.

And the secretary of state, John Kerry, said Russia simply made up reasons to go into Ukraine, and that there is nothing to support Russia's claims as a reason for why they are there, specifically, that Russians who live in Crimea could be in peril.

One reason the situation may be so terrifying is the size, the virtual size of Russia's forces compared to Ukraine's forces and if you need an image in your mind, think David and Goliath.

I'm joined by Tom Foreman to help us break down the actual numbers of Ukraine's military might versus that of Russia's.

You've got the wall up show exactly what we're looking at right now, Tom. TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They have to use sharp words right now, because honestly, nobody wants to see this turning into a shooting war, most of all, Ukrainians.

Think about this. This is the border that Russia has with Ukraine on the land, all of this. All of these areas Russia has easy access to Ukraine with tanks, with artillery, whatever it wants, with troops.

Russia controls the sea. They have a much more extensive navy.

So they also control all of this border and this is Crimea down here, the part they already seem to have seized here.

So what does this mean? It means that roughly 60 percent of the borders of Ukraine are controlled by the Russians. And let's talk about how much they control, because it is really quite vast.

Let's look at the military here. If you talk about their navies alone, because we have seen ships moving today, here are some numbers from GlobalFirePower.com. Here's what they have.

Total number of ships in the Ukrainian navy, 25. Total number in the Russian navy, 352. Destroyers, zero. Submarines, one. Small craft, only two. Over here, 13 destroyers, 63 submarines, 65 patrol craft.

The Russians are completely in charge of the sea, and I'll guarantee you, all of this hardware is in better shape than this hardware. The Ukrainians can put on a show, but they don't care actually engage the Russians.

And when you look at land forces, this is from Jane's. Look at their numbers here. Troops for Ukraine, 139,000. Russians, 774,000.

Much bigger reserves, as well. Under a million over here, according to Jane's, for the Ukraine. Well over 2 million for Russia. And, again, the quality of their troops and reserve troops, much stronger on the Russian side.

This is a world-class military. This, in many ways, is not (inaudible) up against this.

So the only way that Ukraine would dare engage Russia in a military confrontation would be if they had the support of a lot of other nations.

And all these sharp words out there are one way of these nations saying, look, we want to talk about sanctions, we want to talk about economics, we want to talk about politics.

But we do not want to talk about shooting, because shooting would be a very bad thing for everyone involved.

And, again, if you go beyond this, to look at our original map here, one other thing to bear in mind, this area out here, the area where in red there is the most Russian support in Ukraine for Russia, the people who speak Russian as their native language, who spoke at first -- who have ties to Russia, they may not be real keen on Russia right now, but they're not real keen on the rest of Ukraine, at least many of them.

This is also a lot of flat farmland, land that is absolutely made for tanks and artillery and troops.

BANFIELD: Fifty percent, right, Tom?

FOREMAN: Yeah, in terms of the number of people, and down here even more, 60 percent in Crimea. More like 60 percent in this dark-red area here.

So, there's at least some political support, and this is good fighting territory for a big army.

BANFIELD: You know what, though? Even as you put those numbers up and it looked like -- literally, looked like David and Goliath, one of our producers reminded me, the senior leadership in the military, in the Ukraine, was once part of the leadership, as well, in the old Soviet forces.

And thus, the senior leadership in the Russian forces have grown up at the same rate, so they know each other. And they know their m.o., as well. And that's got to count for something, you think.

FOREMAN: Bear in mind, what the Russians have been saying, as they have approached the Ukrainian soldiers down here, Ukrainian navy members, they have said to them, you know this battle is lost. Come join us.

This isn't just the Ukrainians saying be nice to us, because we were once comrades. It's also the Russians saying, you know at heart you are part of us. You need to be with us.

So that's an advantage that I don't think goes to either side, necessarily and, depending on the circumstances, could favor either side.

BANFIELD: It's a remarkable -- and makes you think, with that kind of force, maybe it's sort of understandable why President Putin thought that he could just send in the masked soldiers without insignias, knowing full well that it wouldn't lead to war right away. But that's probably why we've got countries like Poland and Moldova and Turkey that are on edge right now. They're very close by. And they also have smaller fighting forces, presumably, than Russia.

FOREMAN: They're on edge, yes. They're smaller. And one thing that's worth bearing in mind, it's a measure of how much nobody wants this to be a fighting war. Nobody's done anything. For all of this noise, nobody has done anything, including Ukraine so far. Nobody has tried to push back against the Russians because they know this battlefield belongs to the Russians and taking it from them would be very, very difficult and very costly, even if you could accomplish it.

BANFIELD: It's a beautifully illustrative way of seeing this as a strategic plan. If you're in the leadership, when it's that simple, it makes a lot of sense.

Tom Foreman, great work. Thank you for that. Always good to see you.

FOREMAN: Thanks so much.

BANFIELD: Love Tom's work.

Coming after the break, we are watching all of these developments, the president speaking, the secretary of state visiting Kiev and speaking live, as well. Condemnation from around the world, as well as to what President Putin is doing in Ukraine. Does it matter? Does he care? Are we headed towards a war? The story's next.

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BANFIELD: President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry just spoke on the crisis in Ukraine, issuing some very strong words to Russia. Right now, John Kerry is in Kiev, Ukraine, and he appeared at the memorial there just a few hours ago, in fact. And less than an hour ago, he spoke, saying that Russia's reasons for going into Ukraine just simply are not valid.

And then, President Obama spoke, shooting down Russia's reasons for going into the Ukraine as well, and saying that there's just no evidence of these serious threats against Russian nationals that President Putin says is the reason for sending his troops next door. President Putin said Russia is not trying to claim Crimea. He did this in a live news conference earlier. He also denied that Russia's military is even playing a role at all. Let me repeat that. President Putin, on live television, said that Russia's military is not in Crimea.

I know you've been watching the pictures alongside the rest of the world, and you just shook your head when I said that. But he said if Russia does take any action, any action it would take would be completely legitimate because he says it's in line with Russia's duty to protect people with historic ties to Russia and that Crimea is a heavily Russian area of Ukraine.

President Putin declared a pro-western protest that toppled the Ukrainian president, he called it an illegal coup, said he reserves the right to use force as a last resort to protect the ethnic Russians who live in the Crimean peninsula. President Putin also insisted that he doesn't want war.

And as for the estimated 16,000 Russian troops now occupying the Crimean military bases, President Putin says they're not Russian troops. Not at all. He called them local defense forces. I kid you not. When he was pressed on that, about the uniforms that they're wearing, albeit without any insignia, he actually said, look at the uniforms of other post-Soviet countries. You can see such uniforms in the shop. They were self-defense teams.

Pretty remarkable stuff. In fact, when the secretary of state was briefed on that and asked a question about that, he shook his head. He couldn't believe that President Putin denied having forces in the Crimea.

Phil black, our CNN correspondent, joining me live now from Moscow.

Obviously, the war and the rhetoric - the war of words and the rhetoric has been flying furiously in the last hour, Phil. Is there any reaction? I know the hour is late where you are, but is there any reaction from the Russians as to what the Americans have said, specifically the president and the secretary of state, about what they believe to be an illegal incursion on behalf of the Russians?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ashleigh, not to these latest comments from the president and secretary of state. No. But the Russian view generally towards a lot of the heated language that has been coming from the United States in recent days has been simply to say, it is unacceptable that Russia has accused the United States and continues to do so of pandering to Cold War-style cliches and that sort of thing. So, no, no specific reference.

There have been calls from the Russian parliament to actually withdraw Russia's ambassador to Washington, D.C. Today, President Putin said he's not willing to do that just yet. That would be a final -- really a last resort. Not prepared to do that just yet. But warning against the United States and the west before they embark upon any sort of sanctions or diplomatic isolation because Vladimir Putin says that those sorts of moves could come back to bite them.

Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: And, Phil, any surprise that the Russians have declined the invitation to actually attend talks about this in Paris? You know, Secretary of State John Kerry plans to go. But what we're hearing is that the Russians just aren't interested. But at the same time, we hear that there are conversations between congressional members of the Ukraine and Russia. I'm not sure what to make of that.

BLACK: Well, Vladimir Putin today said that while they do not recognize the government of Ukraine, they believe it's illegal, the result of a coup and so forth, they cannot be negotiations or any sort of contact at the highest level. What he's talking about there is president to new acting president.

But what he said is that because of the situation, Russia is trying to be reasonable, and so there are still contacts going on at some level, government to government. He wasn't specific. We don't know precisely what that means. But what Putin said today is that he sees the parliament of Ukraine as being effectively legitimate, it's just this new interim government and this new acting president that he does not recognize.

The extent to which he is now prepared to negotiate, well, there's been no obvious sign of that so far. Because as we've been talking about his version of events about what is going on, on the ground in Ukraine varies so very much from what the United States, from what Europe is seeing, and even from what our own CNN correspondents and teams on the ground have seen. We're not seeing that imminent threat, and we are seeing Russian soldiers. Vladimir Putin is telling the complete opposite story to that (ph).

BANFIELD: Phil Black reporting live for us from Moscow and doing an excellent job, as are all of our team members from CNN in these regions that are so critical right now for this story. Phil, thank you for that.

Coming up, if you want to see what it looks like, ships passing in the night, have we got a report for you. Only these aren't just ships, they're warships, and they're on the move across the Black Sea. We're going to take you right to it. Our Ivan Watson is on the water. It's coming up next.

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BANFIELD: If you have an interest in naval warfare, I have some war games I want to show you that are real right now. I want to pop up the map of the area we're looking at. In the center of your screen is the Black Sea. Towards the northern part of the Black Sea, you see the Kerch Strait? There are reports right now that the Russians are blacking that and making it real difficult for the Ukrainian ships to get around.

Cross all the way down to the south part, to the Bosphorus Strait, that's Turkey right there. Well, our Ivan Watson is actually on the water at the Bosphorus Strait and he is witnessing, as we speak, ships from the Ukraine being called back to Crimea in the event that they need to engage against the Russians. Have a look.

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IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're steaming up Istanbul's Bosphorus Straight. And this has been a channel used by a number of warships throughout the day. Early in the morning on Tuesday, two Russian warships, using this unique passage to get back to the Black Sea, and presumably to reinforce the Russian military and naval presence in the Crimea.

In the distance here is a Ukrainian warship, the Hitlin Savadachni (ph). It is a frigate in the Ukrainian navy. It is the flagship of the Ukrainian Black Sea fleet.

As you can see here, there are a number of demonstrators right off the coast who were there to meet that vessel, that warship, which the Ukrainian diplomats stationed here say is an important symbol of the unity of the Ukrainian armed forces, despite the Russian military occupation of Crimea. These people gathering here to cheer and to show that their military is continuing to be united, despite the defection of the commander of the Ukrainian navy, within the course of the last week.

Ivan Watson, CNN, reporting from Istanbul's Bosphorus Strait.

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BANFIELD: Sort of fascinating to watch as these military movements are happening right before our live cameras. There's a lot else that's going on, as well. The money has started to rain in on Ukraine, as well. The Americans coming over and suggesting a billion dollars in loan guarantees. That right after President Putin suggested he would be financially helping Ukraine in the future. And all of that as other nations try to put economic pressures on President Putin, suggesting he will be isolated by sanctions if he continues this incursion into Crimea.

So there are a lot of moving parts in all of this. What is unknown at this time is what is the way out for all parties, how to save face. So that story will be the negotiating ticket that many are looking at right now to try to avoid any kind of gunfire as the crisis in the Ukraine continues.

My colleague, Wolf Blitzer, is watching things very closely from Washington, where the president has just spoken, and the secretary of state overseas, sending a message from America, as well. Continued coverage here on CNN with Wolf.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. We have lots to cover this hour and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and there are major developments.

The secretary of state, John Kerry, was in Kiev, Ukraine.