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THE SITUATION ROOM

The Latest on the Crisis in Ukraine; Pentagon Acts on Ukraine Crisis; Germany's Merkel Speaks with Putin; Germany's Merkel Speaks With Putin; Hillary Clinton Tries To Clarify Hitler Comments; Hilary Likens Putin to Hitler; Reporter Climbs Wall of Ukraine's Naval Base; GOP Leaders Piling on Obama over Ukraine

Aired March 5, 2014 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news -- crisis in Ukraine. A U.N. envoy threatened and blockaded by a group of armed militiamen, forced to leave Crimea. Secretary of State Kerry meets with counterparts from Ukraine and Russia and says all involved will try to resolve this crisis through dialogue.

And what is Vladimir Putin really thinking?

I'll speak with someone, who got to know him, President Obama's former national security adviser, Tom Donilon. He'll join me live this hour.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A United Nations diplomat threatened by armed men and jeered by a pro- Russia crowd as tensions rise in Ukraine. Here are the latest developments.

A U.N. special envoy was threatened and blockaded by armed militiamen, forced to take refuge in a cafe and ultimately forced to give up his mission and leave Crimea.

Secretary of State John Kerry meets in Paris with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and says all parties agree to hold intense talks to try to overcome the crisis.

Defense Secretary Hagel takes heat up on Capitol Hill, but says the U.S. is suspending military exercises with Russia and will step up training with Poland's military.

We have full coverage, beginning with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

He's here with the very latest -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you could say today, we saw the full yin and yang of the U.S. policy response to the crisis in Crimea today. On the tougher side, you have Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel demonstrating the U.S. commitment to its NATO allies with the deployment of some aircraft and the cancellation of NATO contacts with Russia.

On the diplomatic side, we saw the opening of a diplomatic path to solving the crisis, the so-called off ramp U.S. officials have mentioned before, still undefined, Kerry said, but a start.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): U.S. And Russian diplomats face-to-face for the first time since the start of the crisis in Crimea. Secretary of State John Kerry said they are now negotiating a diplomatic path to ending it.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are committed to working with Russia, and together with our friends and allies, in an effort to provide a way for this entire situation to find the road to de- escalation.

SCIUTTO: Russian and Ukrainian officials, however, did not meet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why didn't you meet Lavrov today?

SCIUTTO: But as the diplomats talk or don't talk, on the ground, tensions are boiling over. Today, U.N. Envoy Robert Serry attacked by an armed mob as he attempted to visit Crimea. "Russia, Russia!" they chanted.

Serry was forced to take refuge in a cafe --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need someone as soon as possible now.

SCIUTTO: As militia blockaded him inside.

ROBERT SERRY, U.N. SPECIAL ENVOY: And when I left, my car was blocked. And they -- and I -- and somebody who did not identify himself was telling me that he had orders to bring me immediately to the airport.

I refused.

SCIUTTO: Six days into the crisis, U.S. lawmakers are now asking why the administration didn't see Russian military intervention coming.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The fact is, Mr. Secretary, it was not predicted by our intelligence. And that's already been well-known, which is another massive failure because of our misreading -- total misreading of the intentions of Vladimir Putin. CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Early last week, we were well aware of the threats.

When I was in NATO, again, there was a meeting specifically about the threat. So this wasn't sudden or new.

SCIUTTO: CNN has learned that the CIA's assessment of the situation included a number of possible scenarios, including Russia ordering troops off bases in Crimea and into sovereign Ukrainian territory, as well as mobilizing ethnic Russian civilian militias.

Congressman Adam Schiff, who was a member of the House Intel Committee, read the assessments, disputes that the intelligence agencies failed.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: They did lay out a series of scenarios that might take place. What did take place was certainly one of those scenarios. But whether they should have seen it advance I think will only depend on whether, in fact, that decision was made enough in advance that the intelligence community could pick up the clues.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SCIUTTO: Now, intelligence assessments like the ones regarding Ukraine and Crimea are rarely definitive. You'll find that they are not perfect. They rely on the best information possible, but are invariably incomplete.

And the one wild card, speaking to a number of officials, Wolf, is Vladimir Putin. You know, many of them saying that this, in their view, was a snap judgment by him, so very difficult for them to have predicted.

BLITZER: But the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, he wants a full scale investigation now to learn lessons, to see if there were intelligence failures.

SCIUTTO: No question. And you and I were here. We were talking about this last week. We heard this consistently from U.S. officials. It was their assessment last week, up until, really, those final days, the final hours, that Russia was not going to go in, going across that border in numbers.

BLITZER: Yes. It reminds me of the intelligence failure leading up to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait back in 1990, when the Intelligence Estimate was the Iraqis would threaten the border a little bit, but wouldn't move into a fellow Arab country. Of course, we know Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm resulted as a result of what the Iraqis did then. There was an intelligence failure.

We'll see what happens in this particular case.

SCIUTTO: And what an -- unfortunately, a relatively long list.

BLITZER: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, for that report. Jim will be back later.

U.S. officials report no major moves by Russian forces either in Ukraine or inside Russia. But they say Russian troops who carried out massive war games this week under the gaze of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, are still in the field. Most have not returned to their barracks.

At the same time, the Pentagon is taking some concrete new steps to try to address the crisis.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

What are you learning -- Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community now have laser focus on those Russian troops still in the field. Many of them had traveled down from Central Russia. They haven't gone back home.

Why are they still there, is the big question?

It's their territory, perfectly allowed to be there.

But why haven't they gone home?

The Pentagon watching this. And also, today, moving to reassure East European allies.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: For the first time, the Pentagon is using its aircraft to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

HAGEL: The Defense Department is pursuing measures to support our allies, including stepping up joint training through our aviation detachment in Poland.

STARR: It's both symbolic and significant support for allies like Poland, worried about Russia's move into Ukraine.

More U.S. F-16s and C-130s will be training at this military base Hagel visited just a few weeks ago.

And on Russia's western flank, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which have small military forces, will get more U.S. F-15s and NATO aircraft patrolling their air space.

U.S. military exercises with Russia are already suspended. The Pentagon says it's all about showing U.S. support for fragile allies in the face of Russian military might.

But some say it's not enough.

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), U.S. ARMY: We're taking those actions because those are the only places we have troops available in Eastern Europe. If we really want to put the squeeze on Moscow, we would go to NATO and discuss putting the Ukraine on an accelerated time line for entry into the treaty organization, which would, you know, that would really put the squeeze on Moscow.

STARR: And then there is diplomacy military-style. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he told the Russians he didn't buy their explanation about no Russian troops in Crimea.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: These are soldiers who have been taken out of their traditional uniforms, repurposed for placement in the Crimea as a militia force. But my judgment is they are soldiers.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

STARR: And the bottom line in this standoff really remains the same, Wolf, a lot of concern that any miscalculation on the ground in Crimea could spark conflict -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Are they concerned at the Pentagon that these largely symbolic US/NATO military steps will result in Russian military steps and this could slowly escalate?

STARR: Well, at the moment, what they're saying is they think that Putin certainly does understand these are relatively small steps to help East European allies. None of these have any great military significance beyond showing support.

But, look, if he wants to make a big deal about it, he can. They have told the Russians what they're up to. They've made it clear. And they believe that Putin does and should understand that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much.

Barbara is at the Pentagon.

Up next, Vladimir Putin may be thumbing his nose at the U.S. and its allies, but there's one leader he really can't afford to anger too much.

Why Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, may be the key to this crisis.

And I'll speak with President Obama's former national security adviser, Tom Donilon. He got to know Putin personally.

What's driving the Russian leader to defy the West?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, spoke today with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. And even as party thumbs his nose at the Western allies, she -- she may be the one leader he can't afford to anger too much.

Brian Todd has been looking into this part of story. What's going on -- Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that phone call today was one of several that Angela Merkel's had with Putin since this crisis began. She's also spoken within President Obama multiple times during the standoff. It's looking more and more that Merkel is the person who's got the most clout here, has a pipeline to Vladimir Putin that the man in the White House doesn't.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): It's no secret President Obama's strained relationship with Vladimir Putin isn't helping in this crisis. But who can solve it? It may be the stoic daughter of a pastor, Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel.

ANNETTE HEUSER, THE BERTELSMANN FOUNDATION: Vladimir Putin knows from experience stealing this mackle (ph) for many years right now that the last enemy that he wants right now in Europe is Germany.

TODD: Germany has huge economic leverage over Putin. It buys more than a third of its natural gas from Russia, exports technology and cars to Russia. But analysts say what makes Merkel so crucial in this crisis is that she has something that Obama doesn't, a personal connection with Russia's president.

RONA HILL, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: They have a lot of connectivity because Putin speaks very fluent German and Angela Merkel, herself, speaks Russian.

TODD: She grew up in East Germany under the communist system dominated by the soviets. Putin was a KGB officer who served in East Germany. Analysts say they understand each other's political DNA. A German official told us Merkel and Putin are not friends. After a recent phone call on Ukraine, she reportedly said Putin is, quote, "in another world."

But she has a savvy and toughness he respects. Several years ago, Putin brought a large dog to a meeting with Merkel, apparently, wanting to test her, knowing she has a fear of dogs. She was terrified, says one analyst, but didn't flinch, kept negotiating with Putin for more than an hour.

HEUSER: She did not blink because she understands the Russian mindset. She knows that the Russians, and in this case, Vladimir Putin wanted to play Russian chess with her, which means the person who blinks the first has lost.

TODD: Merkel's relationship with President Obama recently became strained with reports the NSA tapped her cell phone. But analysts say it's her credibility with both the White House and the Kremlin that's making the difference.

PROF. ANGELA STENT, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: And I think she's probably more willing to take into account to listen to what Russian concerns are and to try and dissuade the Russians from thinking that everyone else is ganging up against them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (on-camera): And Merkel has her own stake in this. Because of those economic ties, Germany could be among the biggest losers if this cold war-style standoff gets worse. That's why she's been more reluctant to push sanctions against Russia and she doesn't want to kick Putin out of the G-8 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thanks very much.

Let's go to the president's former national security adviser, Tom Donilon, who's joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Tom, thanks very much for coming in.

TOM DONILON, FORMER OBAMA NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Good to see you.

BLITZER: So, you met with Putin on several occasions during your tenure as the president's national security advisor. Would you agree with this report that Angela Merkel called him in a phone conversation with the president she said he was in another world, if you will, or Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, who said here on CNN's "New Day" yesterday, she said he was -- Putin was delusional? You know this man. Is he delusional?

DONILON: I don't know that I would call him delusional. I'd say the following things about him, right? He has a clear idea, I think, of what his strategy is here, right, which is to regain some leverage in a situation where he lost leverage in Ukraine, which Putin regards as a spirited influence for Russia. And when Ukraine was was moving towards the west that was intolerable (ph) for Putin, they get rid of Yanukovych and he acted here.

So, I think he has a sense of strategy, right? But he is an autocrat. And it is interesting, and obviously, in those situations as to how information comes to autocrats. Do people bring him accurate information? I'm not so sure they do all the time. But I wouldn't call him delusional at this point.

BLITZER: So, he's just surrounded by a bunch of sycophants, people tell him what he wants to hear.

DONILON: The Russian foreign national security system really can't be called a system, Wolf. I think it really is embodied in one man. He is the system. He does run an autocracy. I do think he has a single silo of information that comes to him. Now, you did see him in a 66- minute press conference the other day, right, say a number of things which are demonstrably false.

Now, whether that's a tactic, whether that's just trying to make your case and telling deliberate falsehoods or, in fact, he's got bad information is not clear to me at this point.

BLITZER: But in your one-on-one meetings with him, when you went over to Moscow representing President Obama, what was your impression? Take us inside his mind. How did he come across to you? DONILON: Yes. He come -- he's quite straightforward and direct in his interactions with you. There were occasions when he would assert things that just weren't true. For example, that the United States and the west was behind certain activities in Moscow. But quite direct person to deal with.

BLITZER: But did you get the impression he's an intelligent guy, a smart guy, someone who's really on top of the situation in that sense?

DONILON: I got the sense that he was, you know, well informed, spoke clearly, understood where his strategic goals were, what his strategic goals were, but in fact, you know, would make a number of assertions there that were demonstrably false even in private conversations. But you could push back on it with him. And I did push back --

BLITZER: Give me an example.

DONILON: You know, my first meeting with him was in May of 2012 on a Friday night before he was inaugurated as president for the second time of Russia.

BLITZER: Because he was the prime minister, then became the president.

DONILON: Exactly. And he was president before he was prime minister, became president for the second time.

BLITZER: Right.

DONILON: In that conversation, we went through and really toured the world. And in some places in the world, for example, in Syria, he had a different view of the facts on the ground than we did. And you can debate it with him and I did debate it with him at some length.

It was clear, by the way, in that meeting that, in fact, the approach that we had taken with President Medvedev, his predecessor where we had actually accomplished quite a bit of constructive things --a new arms control treaty and number of other things that there was going to be a difference in approach here, much more confrontational.

BLITZER: This notion of suspending U.S.-Russian military cooperation now, it's having one spillover effect. The U.S. and Russia are cooperating in destroying supposedly Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. But that is now on hold. Is that wise?

DONILON: Well, I think it's very important for the United States and the international community to stand up very forcefully in condemnation of what Putin and Russia has done, have done in Crimea and Ukraine. And this may be one of the costs of this.

BLITZER: Because that's a pretty serious cost if that effort to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, which was so important, obviously, to region and the world, all of a sudden, that's been put on hold because the U.S. and Russia are no longer going to cooperate militarily? DONILON: Well, I think that ultimately we can get back to that. Russia has a lot at stake in that agreement in terms of destroying the chemical weapons in Syria and the materials that we use to support that program. And I think we can get that back on track ultimately. I would hope so. It is important, obviously.

BLITZER: Yes. Because U.S. and the Europeans, they need Russia in a whole host of areas, not just in Syria but Iran, elsewhere, as you well know better than most.

DONILON: I do. And I've dealt with the Russians in each of those areas. But we have a situation here where you had an absolutely illegal action by Russia, done really under the pretext of protecting Russians from assaults and threats that nobody else can find, clearly a pretext, and essentially, an effort to kind of upend the post-cold war order here in viability of borders on meeting the arrangements that will put in place including the protection of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity after the end of the cold war. This is a really important moment. It's an important moment for the United States to lead.

BLITZER: It's a critical moment. And you know, Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he wants a full-scale review now of intelligence because he says there was an intelligence failure that the U.S. did not fully appreciate what Putin was up to as far as Ukraine and Crimea is concerned.

DONILON: Yes. I think there's a pretty clear understanding of exactly what President Putin's interests were in the Ukraine, that in fact he regarded Ukraine as part of a sphere of influence, that they were going to push back very hard in the wake of Ukraine turning to the Europeans for an association of free trade agreement, and I don't think that was it. I don't think that was a surprise in terms of his attitude. But we'll have plenty of time --

BLITZER: But it was a surprise that he moved troops in.

DONILON: Well, I don't -- again, I'm not sitting in the White House at this point. I don't know exactly what the information was in front of the decision makers at that point, but his overall attitude here I don't think was a surprise in terms of how he regards Ukraine, the importance of Ukraine to the vision that he has, kind of a fanciful vision, if you will, of a Eurasian Union that would be a counter weight to the European Union.

There'll be plenty of time to look at what the intelligence was. Now, though, I think we need to move along a number of dimensions. We need to fully embrace the Kiev government, which we're doing. In fact, Secretary Kerry was there yesterday and he was meeting with foreign minister -- representatives of Ukraine today.

We need to put together a very strong and substantial economic package and we made progress on that. The European Union announced today a $15 billion package of loans, grants, and credits. We need to push forward with the plans to have these elections in Ukraine this May. We need to continue the effort to try to deescalate, and if possible, put together an agreed-upon -- out here.

We need to reassure our NATO allies and we need to put in place sanctions and clear costs to the Russians for this activity should it escalate, because I'll tell you one thing at this point, there's a lot of talk about how we don't have any leverage in this situation and how the costs won't be that significant with respect to Russia. That's just not true.

You can stand apart politically, and Putin has stood apart defiantly in a political matter, but you can't separate your economy from the globalized economy.

BLITZER: Tom Donilon, thanks very much for coming in. Tom Donilon is the president's former national security adviser.

Coming up, Hillary Clinton making a comparison between Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler. We now have the recordings of her remarks, her initial remarks, how she's following up today. She's explaining what she was trying to say. Stand by for that.

Echoes of the cold war. Is Putin trying to bring back the Soviet Union or rebuild a greater Russia? I'll speak with a Russian journalist and a former soviet spokesman, Vladimir Posner, and Nina Khrushcheva who's grandfather was a soviet premiere (ph). All of them coming up right here in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Hillary Clinton is now attempting to clarify some controversial remarks she made at a private fundraiser, comparing the Russian president, Vladimir Putin's moves to Adolf Hitler's moves. But could the former secretary of state tough words come back to bite her if she decides to run for president in 2016?

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar. She's working this story for us. So, Brianna, Hillary Clinton spoke out just moments ago with a clarification.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Just moments ago, at UCLA where she was giving a lecture. But first, I want to play for you audio of what she said yesterday. This was at a fundraiser in Long Beach. And she was drawing a comparison between what Putin is doing in Crimea as far as his justification for Russian involvement in Crimea and comparing it to Hitler's involvement as he justified it on behalf of Russians living in places like Czechoslovakia and Poland before World War II. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Today Putin basically said in a long press conference that, oh, you know, all I want to do is protect the rights of the minorities, namely Russian speakers, and he's been on a campaign to get everybody who has any Russian connection, the retired Russian military in Crimea, give them all Russian passports. Now if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the '30s. All the Germans that were -- you know, the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, you know, Hitler kept saying, they're not being treated right, I must go and protect my people. And that's what's gotten everybody so nervous.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: So again, and just to be clear, Wolf, so she was explaining today, clarifying that her remarks were likening what Putin's actions, justification really for coming to the aid of Russians as he is justifying Russian involvement in the Crimea to Germany's, to Nazi Germany's really -- as Hitler said at the time trying to defend German minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland. And to that end here's what she said less than an hour ago as she tried to explain that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: So I just want everybody to have a little historic perspective. I'm not making a comparison certainly, but I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: And it's interesting to point out today, Wolf, that there's been a lot of attention, obviously, because Hillary Clinton used -- you know, evoked Nazi Germany, was talking about Adolf Hitler. But it really -- she hasn't gotten a ton of criticism for this, though she obviously tried to clarify her remarks. It does seem that what she was really trying to do today was kind of speak to some criticism that Republicans recently have had of the Obama administration and of her.

She was the face of the reset with Russia when she was secretary of state in the Obama administration, sort of trying to make clear that she understands Vladimir Putin is a bad guy, that she always understood this even as she sought a diplomatic solution, trying to kind of push back against some of these claims that she and the Obama administration have been naive in their pursuit of foreign policy with Russia -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna, good explanation. Thanks very much. Thanks for the context as well.

Let's discuss this and more with CNN analyst and Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner. He was once a Soviet spokesman. Also joining us, Nina Khrushcheva, she's the granddaughter of the former Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. She's a professor at the New School in New York City.

Thanks to both of you for coming in.

Vladimir, let me get your quick reaction to that report we just had on the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton making this comparison to what Putin has authorized in Ukraine and Crimea to what Hitler authorized before leading up to World War II.

Go ahead, Vladimir.

VLADIMIR POZNER, CNN ANALYST: Well, it's regrettable. I had -- Hillary Clinton on my show here in Moscow and I found her to be a very intelligent person. I think it was a slip of the tongue because what Hitler did in the Sudetenland -- this isn't Poland, this is Czechoslovakia -- he actually invaded. The Nazi army marched in and this is not something that Putin has done.

He's asked for permission to do that but he hasn't do (sic) it. So I think frankly the comparison is a lame one, although in both cases, yes, Hitler spoke about the way ethnic Germans were mistreated and Putin has spoken about the way ethnic Russians are mistreated. But there's a big difference between invading a country and talking about those things. So I don't think it's really a good comparison.

BLITZER: I'm going to bring Nina in a moment. But there are -- do you agree, Vladimir, there are Russian troops in Crimea right now and they've taken over certain key positions. That's what eyewitnesses have reported. So you would agree to that. Right?

POZNER: Well, I have a problem with it, Wolf. The question -- what I've heard is from some people is that these are local self-defense Russians. They're not members of the Russian armed forces. Now there are some people who say they are. There are others who say they're not. And I don't think there's a lot of clarity here.

I think it will take a little bit of time to establish that. If those are people who have been sent in as armed forces from Russia that I think that's something that cannot be tolerated by anyone. But I think that has to be proven.

BLITZER: All right. Nina, I want you to weigh in as well because I know you have some serious thoughts on this. What are your thoughts?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA, GRANDDAUGHTER OF FORMER SOVIET LEADER: Well, my thoughts are, first of all, that Hillary Clinton should know better to use a Hitler comparison because it really doesn't help, history doesn't help Russia, and certainly doesn't help to understand Ukraine today. We may find some similarities, but the minute you use Nazis -- the words Nazis and Hitler, it goes -- the conversation goes in an entirely different direction.

There are other historical comparisons she could have made that probably would not be that drastic. So that's my first thought.

And I would like to disagree with Vladimir, if I may, please, that indeed they are without insignia, the Russian troops, or those troops allegedly, but this is also such a Vladimir Putin style to keep the ambiguity, to have the world questioning what's going on. I mean, of course, there's been -- I myself saw in various reports cars and machinery that they were using with the Russian numbers so that really makes them quite Russian.

And I do think that it is more of a ploy for Vladimir Putin to then sort of have this insidious invasion rather than first-rate invasion and buy some time this way to decide whether he wants to go full force with Russian army or he would like to see and wait.

BLITZER: Do you want to respond, Vladimir, to that?

POZNER: No. I take Nina's point very well. What I'm saying is this. If Putin wanted to go in full force he would have done it. I think it was yesterday that he had a press conference when he said basically the threat of armed conflict in Crimea is no longer existing. Point. So clearly he's not interested in doing that. That's one thing.

The second thing is this. If this is not -- he's trying to hide, these are members of the Russian armed forces there wouldn't be Russian license plates on those trucks, and those people would never say we're Russian soldiers. They'd be told do not say that. So I think there's still something to look at.

I would not argue with Nina that maybe she's right. I'm just saying the desire to draw those conclusions is a very strong one considering what's going on.

BLITZER: Nina, you've studied Putin for a long time. Take us inside his mind right now. Why is this Crimea situation, a lot of analysts are already concluding he may already have won in Crimea irrespective of what happens next. But take us inside his mind. Why is Crimea and Ukraine so important, and specifically I asked this question because your grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, he handed over Crimea in effect, he made Crimea -- took it away from Russia, made it sort of autonomous, as part of Ukraine?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, he did, indeed. It was the Soviet Union, so he was basically moving chess pieces -- I mean, sorry, checker pieces from one to another, from one jurisdiction, which was the Russian Federation to the Ukrainian Republic. So at the time it really was not as important as it became important in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart and Boris Yeltsin became the president.

As the first president of Russia really did not claim Crimea back from Ukraine for Russia in '91. So I think the conflict is very complex in this sense.

As for Vladimir Putin, I actually think that indeed he got what he wanted. He wanted Crimea. He is a uniter or he sees himself as a uniter of the Russian land. He obviously cannot recreate the whole Soviet empire, the whole Soviet Union, but he can certainly take strategic parts that he feels important for Russia to have and also boost his own image because he does appear as this defender of the Russian nation, of the Russian ethnic people.

And as for -- it's not proven that these Russians. Maybe it's not proven, but what I study is I study political patterns and this is a political pattern. He does this. This is his pattern. He sort of goes in and sees it, then claims it, and then says, well, that's the story. And that's how we have to deal with it.

BLITZER: Nina Khrushcheva, thanks so much for joining us. Vladimir Pozner, thanks to you as well.

And as I said, all the eyewitness accounts, reporters on the scene, who have spoken to those troops wearing on -- without insignias, those uniforms, they've been suggesting they are, in fact, Russian troops, not Ukrainian troops, Russian troops. But we'll continue to watch what's going on in Crimea.

Up next, soldiers help a reporter scale a wall and get inside a Ukrainian base for a rare and dramatic report. We're going to speak live with that reporter and ask him what he saw.

And a Republican senator trying to link the Ukraine crisis to the deadly attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi. We're going to check his claims. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON OSTROVSKY, VICE NEWS: So we just came over the wall of the Ukrainian naval base. And we're in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's dramatic video just coming in from VICE News showing reporter Simon Ostrovsky climbing the wall of the Ukrainian naval base with the help of Ukrainian soldiers.

Both entrances to the base were apparently blocked by large pro- Russian crowds. Ostrovsky The reporter says Ukrainians inside feared they were being stormed at the time. Here's what happened next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OSTROVSKY: So apparently these Russian soldiers, they came in overnight and they're just wandering around the base and doing what they want because they're not really bothering anybody but it's not clear under whose permission they were let into the Ukrainian naval base.

They've already barricaded up the doors with tables. They've put these desks everywhere to make it harder for people to move through.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Simon Ostrovsky joining us now from Sevastopol in Crimea.

Simon, how tense was it inside that Ukrainian naval base?

OSTROVSKY: I think it was a lot of confusion for the sailors there because the chain of command had been broken the night before their commander switched sides to the pro-Russian side so the new Ukrainian government in Kiev just that morning had had to appoint a new admiral and so they went and pledged allegiance to the new admiral while the old admiral was calling for all of the sailors to switch sides. So it was a bit of a messy situation, especially having Russian soldiers actually on the base and around the base and sort of bang crowds all around as well.

BLITZER: And you spoke with some Ukrainian soldiers who had to hide their own weapons. Let me play a little bit of that.

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OSTROVSKY: So the Ukrainian Navy just showed us that they've still got their guns because some people were saying that the Russians had taken them last night when the admiral changed sides. But it turns out that they just put them into their locker because they just don't want, you know, a little accident to happen.

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BLITZER: All right. So explain what that little accident could be. Now why would they be hiding? These are military personnel hiding their own weapons, these Ukrainian troops.

OSTROVSKY: It seems like the Ukrainians have decided to try to keep things as calm as possible by not carrying any weapons around because I think they don't want to create even more tense situation than it is already. And, you know, in order to prevent any shootings or a war to break out, they decided that the best bet would be to put their weapons away.

But that's what they were saying, but the reality of the situation may have been that the Russians who are a superior force told them to put the weapons there but maybe they just didn't want to tell me that on camera.

BLITZER: Simon, you also had a tense confrontation, an exchange outside of that Ukrainian military compound. Tell our viewers what happened.

OSTROVSKY: Well, one of the things that's been happening during this whole confrontation between the Russians and the Ukrainians is that they've been gathering crowds of Russia supporters outside of the bases. But they're not just regular people. They're people who are very angry and very aggressive and against the Western media who they've been told are lying about the situation here in Crimea.

So these people have been prepared to think that journalists aren't telling the truth and when they see a foreigner most of them get up in your face and, you know, really try to prevent you from being -- being able to report. And it got a little bit tense at one point when I was coming out because they surrounded me, they grabbed my cameraman by the neck and they were smacking the camera around and, you know, we barely got away.

BLITZER: Be careful over there, Simon. Thanks so much for your terrific reporting. We'll certainly want update what's going on tomorrow if you're available.

Simon Ostrovsky from VICE News, doing some excellent work for all of us.

Coming up, a growing number of Republicans piling on President Obama's handling of this crisis in Ukraine, one even linking it to the deadly attack in Benghazi. Our own Dana Bash caught up with that senator to get some answers.

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DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: How on earth is what's happening in the Ukraine a result of what happened in Benghazi?

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BLITZER: One prominent U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham going as far as linking the Ukraine crisis to the deadly attack in Benghazi.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash has more.

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BASH (voice-over): The Senate Republican leader argued Obama's weakness on the world stage emboldened Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: Can you think of any place in the world, any place, where we're better off now than we were when he came to office?

BASH (on camera): So you think it's the president's fault?

MCCONNELL: I think that a passive approach to foreign policy which basically means not asserting American interests is a mistake.

BASH (voice-over): Republicans have been pouncing on the president for days.