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The Situation Room

Crisis in Ukraine

Aired March 03, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news on the crisis in Ukraine: Russian troops, they are on the move. They're seizing more ground. Sources in Ukraine confirm a grave ultimatum from Moscow's forces to surrender or face attack.

So, what's Vladimir Putin's next move? The Russian president watches war games as the U.S. and its allies threaten to slap him with costly sanctions. President Obama says Russia is on the wrong side of history, but how far will he go to make Putin pay?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Russian forces conduct war games with President Putin looking on in the midst of the most dire crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War. We're following the breaking news in Ukraine.

Here are some of the latest developments. Russia's ambassador to the U.N. says Ukraine's ousted president has sent a letter to Putin asking him to use military force to restore law and order in his country. Russian forces are strengthening their grip in the Crimea region, where Ukrainian officials say Moscow has declared war.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry spokesman tells CNN that up to 12 trucks full of Russian troops just crossed into an eastern Crimean city from Russia. Sources inside Ukraine confirm Russian forces have issued an ultimatum for Ukrainian troops in Crimea to surrender or attack. Russia's state-run news agency has reported a similar threat, but now is denying any ultimatum.

President Obama says Russia is violating international law. We're told sanctions against Moscow are likely and that the administration is moving quickly to draft specific language.

CNN is bringing you this global coverage of this breaking news story as only CNN can.

Right now, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, for the latest -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama issued another tough warning to Vladimir Putin, warning that the Russians will be isolated if they remain in Ukraine.

The problem, though, at this hour is whether or not Vladimir Putin is even listening.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Facing what may be his toughest global test yet, President Obama vowed to punish Vladimir Putin, accusing the Russian leader of violating international law in Ukraine, as top administration officials listened in.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If in fact they continue on with the current trajectory that they're on, that we are examining a whole series of steps, economic, diplomatic, that will isolate Russia.

ACOSTA: The question is whether Mr. Obama's moves, such as threatening to scrap the upcoming G8 summit, pulling the U.S. delegation from this week's Paralympic Games in Sochi, or even the sanctions that are expected next, will have any effect on Putin. Republicans insist the president is showing weakness.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore!


ACOSTA: It all goes back, the president's critics say, to that red line he drew over chemical weapon use in Syria that wasn't enforced with military action.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, number one, stop going on television and trying to threaten thugs and dictators. It is not your strong suit.

ACOSTA: So far, administration officials have downplayed any talk of military options to push Russia out of Crimea.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think it's foolhardy for our administration to have already done what it did, which was preemptively remove the military as an option. He took that -- the president took that off the table.

ACOSTA: In Putin, the president has had an adversary at every turn, from Syria to the national security leader Edward Snowden shacking up in Russia. Mr. Obama has resisted a rivalry with Putin.

OBAMA: Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia.

ACOSTA: Now Republicans are recalling the president's jab at Mitt Romney for labeling Russia as a U.S. foe.

OBAMA: The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War's been over for 20 years.

ACOSTA: The president urged his critics in Congress to adopt his diplomatic approach. OBAMA: One thing they can do right away is to work with the administration to help provide a package of assistance to the Ukrainians.


ACOSTA: And for now, the president is choosing diplomacy, sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Ukraine, with promises of aid for the Ukrainians.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee members are working on that package right now. As for military options, a senior administration official says that the White House focus at this point is still to hurt Vladimir Putin and the Russians economically, not militarily -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks.

Let's go to the front lines of this conflict right now.

Our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is joining us live from the Crimean region of Ukraine.

What are you seeing, what are you hearing over there, Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're in Sevastopol, where of course many people believe that this ultimatum that was issued, allegedly issued by the forces here, the Black Sea fleet, will go into effect. They have said that if the Ukrainian forces here in the Crimea do not surrender or swear allegiance to the Crimean regional authority, that they will be met with a -- quote, unquote -- "military storm."

Now, we understand that the Russians have denied that that ultimatum has been issued. And I have to tell you, the atmosphere in this city is pretty relaxed, very calm, much more so than you might expect. Now, earlier this evening, our crew went over and saw that there were about 30 young pro-Russian protesters outside the headquarters of the Ukrainian navy here, but it was a fairly small crowd waving some Russian flags. Our fixer said some of them seemed to be under the influence of alcohol and some were leaving, so, despite the rhetoric, not quite as tense as you might expect here, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ben Wedeman in Crimea for us, thanks, Ben, very much.

Still ahead: a worst-case scenario in Ukraine, what the U.S. military would do and not do if Russia refuses to back down. How does this crisis compare with Russia's invasion of Georgia, the independent country of Georgia under George W. Bush's watch back in 2008? I will ask his former national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. He's standing by live.


BLITZER: It appears that Russia's being more open about its military movements in Ukraine. After sending masked and unidentified troops into the Crimean region, this video shows armored vehicles clearly bearing the colors of the Russian flag. The Pentagon obviously closely watching Russia's moves.

Let's go to the Pentagon. Our correspondent Barbara Starr has more -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, don't look for any U.S. military involvement in this crisis, but the Navy is still planning to send a warship into the Black Sea towards the Ukraine in the coming days, a regularly scheduled deployment. It's been on the book for months, it's routine business, but of course, right now nothing is routine.


STARR (voice-over): Fast-moving Russia military moves inside Crimea are raising alarm.

OBAMA: No country has the right to send in troops to another country unprovoked.

STARR: More than 6,000 Russian ground, airborne and NATO forces are now in place, Crimea fully under Russian control.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: 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 Ukrainian airspace.

MARKS: What you have right now are conventional forces with an ability to conduct larger operations.

STARR: The possibility of larger Russian military operations with no advance warning is a major worry. The U.S. intelligence community and NATO are urgently trying to figure out what the Russians may do next.

They are looking for any indication of troops inside Russia moving to the border, looking at the direction and speed with which they could move, one official says. A worst-case scenario? With no advance warning, Russia could quickly send large numbers of fresh troops into Crimea or the Eastern Ukraine.

Television images are a major source of intelligence, at this Crimea base, armed Russian troops so far not firing. But as more Russian forces take their positions across the Crimea, most ominous, artillery is in place for longer-range operations.

MARKS: You want to do your very best to destroy your enemy at a distance and not wait for him to close with you.

STARR: There are also attack helicopters to support ground forces, all classic Soviet era military tactics, which Russian President Vladimir Putin made sure the cameras saw as he observed new war games in northwestern Russia, with no apparent concern the U.S. military would step in his path. MCCAIN: I have to be very honest with you. There is not a military option that could be exercised now.


STARR: No military option for the U.S. at this point, but tensions rising, and the U.S. is very worried right now. Many sources tell us, this propaganda war, charges and countercharges flying back between Moscow and Kiev really could get out of hand, and as these tensions rise, that alone, the propaganda war, could spark conflict, a major worry, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper. We're joined now by the former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, Stephen Hadley. Also with us, our chief national correspondent Jim Sciutto, and our CNN political commentator Carl Bernstein, who has been doing some reporting on what's going on.

Stephen Hadley, first to you. How is this president doing?


I think he has a real opportunity. This is a crisis that goes to the heart of a 60-year project in Europe and post-Cold War an effort to build Europe whole free and at peace. It involves some of our closest allies. Questions have been raised about the diffidence of his leadership. This is a real opportunity for him to step forward.

BLITZER: What would you do differently?

HADLEY: What he's got to do in the short run, obviously, we're trying to keep the Russians from going further beyond Crimea and to roll it back.

But what he's got to do now is play for the long game. He's got to do three things. He's got to recommit to the security of Europe and recommit to NATO and reassure our friends and allies. He's got to convince our European allies to open the door and make it clear that these countries caught between Europe and Russia are welcome in NATO and the E.U. And finally we have got to put real pressured on impose real costs on Putin so that he understands that the strategic price he's going to pay is too high.

BLITZER: Jim, you have been doing a lot of reporting on what the administration is up to. It looks like they're trying to do exactly what Stephen Hadley is recommending.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: They are, but for now in the category of financial and diplomatic sanctions.

And financial sanctions, we know that they're drawing up the language on targeting particular individuals, Russian military officials and government officials involved specifically in this action in Eastern Ukraine, asset freezes, travel bans, that kind of thing.

One thing I wonder, we talk a lot about how military options are off the table. But I wonder if I could ask you, Stephen Hadley, there are options in the military category on the table, though, still, aren't there? For instance, Barbara referred to sending a U.S. ship into the Black Sea, previously scheduled exercises. Are there other things the U.S. can do in that category, short certainly of firing anything or putting boots on the ground?

HADLEY: I think there are. When we went through this in 2008 in Georgia, we also sent a ship into the Black Sea. We also actually delivered humanitarian assistance on the ground in Georgia through U.S. military C-130 aircraft. And we told the Russians we were doing it. We thought that was a useful signal.

We could...

BLITZER: It didn't deter the Russians, though, from invading Georgia on your watch?

HADLEY: It did deter them from what their revised objective was, which was to go to Tbilisi and overturn the government.

BLITZER: So, what you're saying, they stopped at a certain point.

HADLEY: They did.

BLITZER: Based on that experience, they went into Georgia, a neighboring country, back in August of 2008, when President George W. Bush was president, and, as you correctly point out, you remember a lot better than I do, there was a U.S. military aircraft that sent in some humanitarian aid.

But the Russians, they were not really deterred from staying put. They didn't go to Tbilisi, obviously.

HADLEY: They didn't go to Tbilisi. And at the end of the day, they withdrew back into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where the troops were. A couple other things we could do.


BLITZER: Hold on one second. Before you go to a couple other things, hold your thought for a second.

Carl, I know you have been working this story as well. I know you have got some good sources close to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. There seems to be a bit of a divide developing between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel.

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That's the big problem, is that there's a meeting of the E.U. on Thursday, and there's a NATO meeting and thus far there is no appetite by the German chancellor, even though she despises Putin and is making very strong statements about the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, she and the Germans are not about to go along with sanctions with real teeth. And 40 percent of their natural gas in Germany -- and half of their energy is from natural gas -- comes through the pipeline from Russia. It is a terrible vice that the Russians have on the Germans. There's going to be real face-off among the allies as to how to find a unanimous path that can have some teeth and at the same time look for a way out that Putin can pull back.

They're looking actively at what can Putin be offered that somehow will make him take a step backwards, rather than to continue the kind of belligerence that we have seen?

BLITZER: And one of the reasons the markets were all down, down, down in Europe today, here in the United States, elsewhere, especially in Russia -- and, Stephen Hadley, I want you to weigh in on what we just heard from Carl -- was precisely this. There's so much economic impact and a lot of the Europeans, including Germany, they don't want tough sanctions on Russia because they would pay a serious price in the process.

HADLEY: Look, the interdependence of those economies means that disruption is a problem for the buyer of the gas and the oil, in this case the Europeans. It's also a problem for the sellers, since 50 percent of the revenue into the Russian government comes from those -- the sale of oil and gas.

Look, this is early days. The Germans are going to be a tough sell for real -- for obvious reasons. We had this same problem in the middle of 2008 when we wanted to try to get a membership action plan for Georgia and Ukraine. The German chancellor was adamantly opposed. We had a long meeting in Bucharest, Romania, and at the end of the day we decided not to give membership action plan to Georgia and Ukraine, but made it clear that they will be in NATO.

It will take some diplomacy. My guess is we will come up with a series of measures we can take. But there are other things we can take besides...


BLITZER: Hold on. I'll just let Carl to react to that.

Carl, based on what you heard from your German sources, is Germany going to stay away from what the president might like to see, a unified European NATO sanctions effort against the Russians?

BERNSTEIN: There seems to be little question they won't go along with serious sanctions that have real bite.

At the same time, the Germans want a unanimous position of NATO, of the allies because the Germans think that what Putin has done here is terrible. Also, as I say, there's a personal aspect to this, that Angela Merkel despises Putin. Even though they talk a lot and they talk in Russian and they talk in German, Putin was the head of the KGB in Dresden under the old Soviet Union.

He has done things to Angela Merkel in terms of their dialogue that she just hates. And she feels taken advantage of, her country, by this action, but she doesn't know what to do.


BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, you know, this one argument that's being made, especially the Russians are making it, is that Yanukovych, the ousted president, if you will, of Ukraine, he was democratically elected by the people of Ukraine. How does that fit into the situation?

SCIUTTO: It's a difficult policy question for the Obama administration.

This is not the only place where you have elected leaders challenged by popular demonstrations. We saw it in -- we're seeing it in Thailand right now. You see it in Egypt. It's a difficult question to answer, because, you know, our policy is to support democratic elections.

Another point I would just on divisions, you had this awkward moment today when a British official walking into 10 Downing Street was caring a policy letter that a photograph -- a photographer caught a picture of it and it showed like that there was also division there. It looks like it was a draft, but it said that Britain would support certain restrictions, but not restrictions on trade with Russia and not blocking Russians from the financial center.


BLITZER: The only thing they have all agreed to so far is to suspend preparatory meetings leading to the G8 summit in Russia in June.

Carl Bernstein, thanks very much. And, Jim Sciutto, as usual, thanks to you. Stephen Hadley, you're always welcome here in our SITUATION ROOM. You used to spend a lot of time in the other Situation Room when you worked for the president.

Just ahead, some of the other stories we're following today, including President Obama's talks with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. We will get the latest on the push for Middle East peace.


BLITZER: Stay with CNN, of course, for the latest on the breaking news out of Ukraine. Much more coming up.

Right now, though, here's a quick look at some of the other stories we're following.

President Obama prodding Israel, offering new assurances. He met with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, over at the White House today, the president reaffirming his commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and he urged Israel to make what he called tough decisions and compromise to make peace with the Palestinian.

The first witness has been called in the murder trial of the South African Paralympic and Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius. A neighbor said she heard a woman's blood curdling-screams on the night Pistorius shot and killed his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, last year. Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to murder. The double amputee says he mistook Steenkamp for a burglar.

The federal -- more than 200,000 -- excuse me -- more than 2,800 flights have been canceled today because of a late winter storm dumping snow on the Mid-Atlantic area, including right here in Washington, D.C., as well as in Baltimore and Philadelphia. The federal government was closed for business today here in Washington as heavy snow fell overnight and through much of the day throughout the D.C. area, creating dangerous roads and power outages.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. You can tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with hosts Newt Gingrich and Sally Kohn. They're debating President Obama's response to the crisis in Ukraine -- guys.