Return to Transcripts main page

State of the Union

Crisis in the Ukraine; Interview with Yuriy Sergeev; Interview with Tom Donilon; Interview with Senators Durbin, Graham

Aired March 02, 2014 - 09:00   ET



ARSENIY YATSENYUK, UKRAINE PRIME MINISTER: This is the red alert. This is not the threat. This is actually the declaration of war to my country.


CROWLEY: That is Ukraine's new prime minister responding to increase Russian military forces in Crimea. I'm Candy Crowley and this is a special edition of STATE OF THE UNION.


CROWLEY: Good morning from Washington. The prime minister of Ukraine says his country is, quote, "on the brink of disaster." Russian troops are in Crimea and in response, so Ukrainian government has called up its military reservists even as it admits the country can't match Russia's firepower.

Ukraine's defense minister says Russian soldiers converged on three military bases in Crimea demanding Ukrainian troops surrender and give up their weapons. The Ukrainian soldiers did not and there has been no fighting between them.

President Obama and Russian president, Vladimir Putin, spoke over the phone for 90 minutes Saturday. The U.S. says Russia is breaking international law. Russia says it's protecting its military personnel and citizens in Crimea. In response to all of this, the United States, Great Britain, and France are suspending their participation in preparation talks for the G-8 summit being held in Russia in June.

We're going to get a lot of perspectives on this, but we want to go first to Ukraine's ambassador to the U.N. We'll also speak later to President Obama former national security adviser and two top U.S. senators.

Mr. Ambassador, first of all, thank you so much for joining us. I want to ask you in response to a couple of breaking developments now. The prime minister now in Ukraine says this has been a declaration of war, what Russia has done by moving its troops into Crimea. What practically speaking does that mean given that nearly everyone admits this is not a military confrontation the Ukraine can take on and win? YURIY SERGEYEV, UKRAINIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Yesterday, we demand the Security Council at United Nations had its meeting, extraordinary meeting. And we declared that what is going on in Ukraine is the act of aggression from the Russian side against Ukraine. So, we proved it by the United Nations documents which are defining the act of aggression which started long before the decision of the Russian parliament.

Russian ambassador could not explain the exact reason why they send the troops to Ukraine. The pretext, he explained, is absolutely shocking, because is to protect Russian speaking population. Couldn't imagine that Russians could protect any Russian-speaking around the world, including here at United Nations. In United States, in Brooklyn.

Well -- so, it means that the explaining from Russia's side absolutely unacceptable pretext which is not foreseen by the international laws. So, that's why, today, the prime minister said what he said. And yesterday, we were supported by the critics in the United Nations really estimating that it is an act of aggression.

CROWLEY: And I think that clearly world opinion is on the side of the government in Kiev. My question to you is, OK, it's a declaration of war by Russia. Let's accept that that is what those movement of Russian troops over the border has been. Now what? Because if Ukraine doesn't have the military forces to confront Russia, who or what backs them off?

SERGEYEV: First of all, we address to the guarantors of our security, territorial integrity, the countries who are permanent members of the Security Council, and who gave us guarantee under the so-called Budapest agreement in 1994 to protect our territorial integrity. So, yesterday, on our appeal in the Security Council, the ambassador of United Kingdom addressed all the guarantors to conduct immediate consultations as it is provisioned by the memorandum.

CROWLEY: But realistically, do you expect, Mr. Ambassador, that there will be any military help for Ukraine in this confrontation or are you looking for sort of a global effort at diplomacy?

SERGEYEV: Both. We are looking for -- to raise the world awareness and to address the world leaders to stop this aggression when it is very first stage and until Putin has not signed yet this decision over the parliament. Secondly, today, the parliament and the government addressed our guarantors under the Budapest memorandum, the Budapest memorandum that was signed because of our decision to get rid of nuclear weapons, to protect our nuclear objects namely the nuclear plants. So it means that we need military support as well.

CROWLEY: So, military support in terms of weaponry, but so many, including the United States seem to have at least come very close to ruling out military involvement by other nations. Is that your understanding?

SERGEYEV: We are to demonstrate that we have our own capacity to protect ourselves as it was decided today in the parliament, and we are preparing to defend ourselves. And nationally, if aggravation is going in that way, when the Russian troops, they are enlarging their quantity with every coming hour, naturally, we will ask for military support and other kind of support.

CROWLEY: Right. And lastly, Mr. Ambassador, if I may, what do you think Vladimir Putin wants?

SERGEYEV: Well, it's difficult to explain sometimes the behavior of some leaders. But what I can tell directly now to him as well, we are on the eve of the great 40 days orthodox lent starts tomorrow. If he is a Christian, if he demonstrates his Christianity, instead of preparing to kill us, he should pray for us.

CROWLEY: Mr. Ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, we really appreciate your time. We hope to see you back here again soon. Thank you.

SERGEYEV: Thank you.

CROWLEY: I want to bring in now CNN's Diana Magnay. She is in Crimea. Diana, we know what Russia and the U.S. want. It's difficult from afar to understand what the Crimean people want.

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it depends on whether you like to look on this as an occupation or as a peacekeeping mission which is the way most of the ethnic Russians here in this region who form the majority of the population here look at it. And just now, Candy, literally half a minute ago, we had a convoy of cars coming up here with the Russian flag on top and this pro- Russian rally that's been taking place here in the main square behind me, they all went over there.

They all waved their hands. They've been chanting Putin (INAUDIBLE) Putin thank you in the square earlier. You get the sense for the ethnic Russians here, they are very, very scared of the events that took place in Kiev. They don't feel represented by the new Ukrainian government. They feel that they need to have their rights protected, and that's why they like these unidentified military troops who are guarding their government apparatus.

And, you know, you get the impression from them that they feel that President Putin has got their back, and they like it that way.

CROWLEY: Sorry, Diana. So, do I understand you that there is not any recognition in Crimea itself. It certainly appears from afar that Russian troops are now in control of very specific areas of Crimea.

MAGNAY: It's more that the ethnic Russians here don't mind that. They are happy to have this military presence which they feel is safeguarding them from the bigger threat which in their mind is the ultranationalists in Kiev who will come here and spread the ideas of the Maydan, read them, them for example, of the right to have Russian as their first and only language, and exclude their rights.

They feel naturally more closely affiliated with Russia than a lot of them do with Ukraine or certainly the new Ukraine. CROWLEY: Right.

MAGNAY: And that's why they don't necessarily mind this military presence. But, that is not the entire of the Crimean population. Ethnic Russians number the majority, 75 percent or so. You also have Ukrainian nationals. You also have a 10 percent ethnic -- and I think they are far more worried at this military presence on the streets.

CROWLEY: CNNs Diana Magnay from Crimea, thank you so much.

I'm joined now by Tom Donilon. He is the former national security advisor to President Barack Obama. This certainly from afar looks like a real mess. You have basically a very weak government right now in Kiev still trying to get itself together after a coup of the elected president who's fled to Russia.

You have an area of the Ukraine which is autonomous, as they say, an autonomous republic, that now has seen an increase in the number of Russian troops there, and it looks like this sort of global confrontation. This is what the president had to say Friday.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.


CROWLEY: Like what, for instance? What is the cost? Because, I think, we can say the Russians are in Crimea.

TOM DONILON, DISTINGUISHED FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, clearly. I mean, I think the facts are that the Russians have undertaken military intervention into Crimea. And they've done that in violation of international law.

They've done that in violation of their own obligations in the bilateral agreements they have with Ukraine, and they've done it as the ambassador reported out earlier today in violation of their own obligations in the wake of Ukraine's becoming a sovereign country and giving up nuclear weapons. In 1994, I was involved in this, Russia committed to the territorial integrity --

CROWLEY: Who's going to stop them?

DONILON: Well, it's a difficult set of circumstances because of the confluence of history and demography and geopolitics. And this arose, of course, out of a rejection by the Ukrainian people of a decision by Yanukovych to move away from association with Europe and basically under severe financial pressure from the Russians to move towards a more close association with Russia. This was rejected by the Ukrainian people and Yanukovych is now gone.

Now, what can happen, is your question. Number one, what the Russians have done here needs to be condemned in the strongest terms because it is clearly a violation of international law. It should be condemned at the United Nations Security Council and a bunch of other FOR A (ph) as well. The Russians have a veto at the Security Council.

I still think it's very important for the Security Council given the stakes here and given the tensions here and given the potential for conflict to step in and seek to condemn this and seek to demand deescalation. That's the second thing.

CROWLEY: Which Russia as a permanent member is going to be tough. DONILON: It could be -- it will be. But I think it's important to make the point there. And by the way, it is also to confront the Chinese on this principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty. But let me go on with what else I think happen. Two is that as the president did yesterday, the Russians need to be called upon to deescalate here. It's not clear who they were acting to protect from some dire need here.

There's no evidence I don't think that I've seen that in fact that any Russian ethnic or any of the military personnel and other personnel that Russia has legitimately in Crimea were under threat. And if they had concerns, they could have directly (ph) Ukrainian people. Third, I do think it is important that the international community support fully the interim government in Kiev, both politically.

I would like to see foreign ministers, including, perhaps, Secretary Kerry and having talking about this to go (ph), support them financially, and I think the number of steps needed to be taken including stepping away from having the G-8 summit in Sochi this June.

CROWLEY: Really, how much influence does that have over Putin? I mean, this is a critical and a cultural place to which the Crimea, to which Russia has a huge attachment. So, saying, hey, we're not going to the G-8 now, just seems to me like he's going to go, yes, OK, this is more important to me. What moves Putin out of Crimea?

DONILON: Well -- I think, first of all, he needs to be condemned and needs to be isolated on the issue of international --


DONILON: Secondly, I do think that it is significant, frankly, for there to be a suspension of participation by Russians in the G-8 and perhaps calling off the meeting this spring. I think there is significant.

But next, I do think it is important to continue to isolate them politically and perhaps economically and we should look at, Candy, if indeed there's not deescalation here, and indeed, this is pushed closer to the brink, and indeed if you look at the history here, this has always been a potential flashpoint between Russia and the Ukraine -- and the Crimea. But if there's not de-escalation, I do think we should look at economic sanctions and pressure on Russia which can be significant. Russia's economy right now is not in the strongest position. They need the EU markets very much and I do think economic pressure should be considered here. CROWLEY: I want to read you a quote actually from the former National Intelligence officer for Russia and you raised (ph) at the NIC, the National Intelligence Council, who said in the "New York Times" Saturday, "We'll talk about sanctions. We'll talk about red lines. We'll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy and he'll," -- meaning Putin -- "stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war." And again, this is the idea to what gets to Putin, because he is, I read someplace, like 100 percent more interested in what happens in Crimea than any of the countries now saying this is terrible.

DONILON: Well, I think that's fair. And indeed, again, this reflects I think a view on Putin's part that in fact the Ukraine and the former soviet republics are truly not independent of Russian influence. And this, of course, is what was rejected in Kiev by the Ukrainian people.

This has been a blow to Putin in terms of their assertion of this influence, if you will, over Ukraine and doing everything they can to prevent Ukraine from associating more closely economically and other ways with Europe. And this was rejected. It's a real blow to Putin and he's reacting to that.

CROWLEY: Former national security adviser, Tom Donilon. We appreciate your coming when you're in office and when you're not. We really appreciate your insight. Thank you.

DONILON: Thank you.

CROWLEY: There is no shortage of opinions about what the U.S. should do in Ukraine. Senators Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham next.


CROWLEY: Joining me now, Senator Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham, republican from South Carolina. He sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gentlemen, thank you both for joining me today. I'm kind of tempted to say Ukraine go and see what comes out because this is an ever-changing situation.

Let me, though, try to sort of channel this and say to you, Senator Graham, the president has come out and spoken very forcefully on Friday about consequences. The U.S. has made it clear that it disapproves of what Russia has done. You've been tweeting about strong statements. What more do you want from President Obama at this point?

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. Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody's eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.

President Obama needs to do something. How about this, suspend Russian membership in the G-8 and the G-20 at least for a year starting right now. And for every day they stay in Crimea, add to the suspension. Do something.

CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, I imagine you're going to disagree, at least, with the description of how President Obama's handled things. SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D) ILLINOIS: Well, of course, I disagree. You would expect the president of the United States to speak out against what Putin is trying to achieve here. We got to remember that Putin developed his diplomatic finesse as the head of the soviet secret police. And his idea of invading countries occupying them and really daring people to go to war is the tactics -- those are the tactics of a bully.

And, what the president has done is speak out against them. This notion of taking him out of the G-8 has already been suggested by the administration, some members, and I think it's the right thing do. Now, what Congress has to do, what the Senate should do, quickly, is a resolution condemning what Putin has done.

Second, saying that if Ukraine will stand up for real reform, that we're going to back them through the IMF and making it clear to our allies in NATO that that alliance is strong and neighbors of Russia that we are going to do everything in our part to discourage further aggression by Putin.

CROWLEY: Does any of this -- I hear of, you know, resolutions of condemnation. I hear the president say this is wrong, you're violating the law. There'll be dire consequences. Given the stakes for Putin in this area of the world, why would he care about any of this?

GRAHAM: Candy --

DURBIN: I'm not sure that he does --

CROWLEY: I'm sorry. Go ahead, Senator Graham. We'll be back, Senator Durbin, in a second. Go ahead.

GRAHAM: Well, I tell you what, he very much cares about Democracy on his borders. I would like to create a Democratic news around Putin's Russia. Durbin -- Dick Durbin is right. Georgia is trying to seek NATO admission through the membership action plan. Let's accelerate Georgia's admission into NATO. Moldavia is under siege by Russia. Let's help Moldavia. Poland and the Czech Republic.

We abandoned our missile defense agreements with them to protect Europe from a rogue missile attack coming out of the Mid East. Russia backed Obama down. If I were President Obama, I would reengage Poland and the Czech Republic regarding missile defense. I would admit Georgia to NATO. I would have a larger military presence in the Balkans to NATO members who are threatened by Russia.

I would fly the NATO flag as strongly as I could around Putin. I would suspend his membership in the G-8, be the G-7. The G-20 would become the G-19 at least for a year. And every day he stays in the Ukraine, I would add to it. CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, first, to the question of why would Putin care about this condemnation? He is much more interested in Crimea than he is about what the United States thinks about him. DURBIN: Candy, Vladimir Putin and the Russians just spent $50 billion on this Sochi charm offensive to try to redefine Russia in the 21st century. That Sochi charm offensive died on the streets of Sevastopol when he moved in thousands of troops days after the closing ceremony. He is trying tries to have it both ways.

He wants to have this grandiose vision of empire at the expense of those countries that neighbor Russia are depending (ph) on it for natural resources, and then he wants to play like he's part of civilized society. His oligarchs should be denied an opportunity to fly back and forth to Europe at will. We've got to make him feel that there's a price to pay for this conduct.

GRAHAM: And he does care about missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. He does care about the fate of Georgia. He invaded the country. So, let's challenge him where we can. Let's secure our friends, and if at the end of this, Candy, he has not paid a price, if Russia is not isolated, if there continue to be membership in good standing with every international organization, shame on us all.

CROWLEY: In the end, can there be any sort of deal that backs Russia off that does not include Russia's concerns and take into consideration Russian concerns when it looks at the Ukraine, it sees western intervention, it saw top U.S. officials out before the president was ousted and fled to Russia. There were top U.S. officials on the streets in Kiev supporting the demonstrators.

So, Putin looks at this and says the west is, you know, interfering in sort of my neighborhood. So, doesn't Putin's ties to -- perceived or real -- to the Ukraine and to Crimea have to be considered if there's to be a diplomatic solution? Senator Durbin.

GRAHAM: Well --

DURBIN: Well, let me say, from my point of view, I agree with Lindsey when he talks about missile defense and strengthening NATO alliance. Now, let's be honest about it, the Crimea has been in a crucible for decades, if not centuries, over its identity and its future. And it was the Ukrainian government that invited the Russian government to establish a base agreement in Crimea. That complicates it as does the ethnic breakdown within that region.

But we've got to make it clear to Putin that if there are Russian speaking people on the soil of another nation, that doesn't give him license to invade -- to protect him when there's no obvious threat against him, because there are Russians spread all over the former soviet empire there in countries that are today very free, very democratic, and very friendly to the United States. We've got to draw the line.

CROWLEY: Senator Graham, I want to read you something from Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. She is part of a Ukrainian caucus on Capitol Hill, Democrat from Ohio, in which she said in an interview, "If I was President Putin, I would have been worried with the collapse of the party of regions" -- that is the government in Kiev -- "about peace in the Crimea. I understand Russia's military posture."

This, obviously, runs counter to anything either you or Senator Durbin is saying right now. What do you make of that position that there is, you know, a Russian view to this that is not totally understood or taken into account?

GRAHAM: It's a horrible position for American political leader to take, to legitimize what's happening. The Crimea is part of the Ukraine. In 1994, there was an agreement as the former Soviet Union split up -- and by the way, Putin's trying to create a new Russian empire and we should stand up. The Crimea is complicated, but it is part of the Ukraine. 1994 agreement, the Ukrainians gave up all nuclear weapons to maintain territorial and sovereignty.

This is not the way to influence a democratic state. Yes, people in Kiev need to understand Eastern Russia has its complications. But nobody in the world, including a member of Congress, should legitimize using 15,000 troops to invade a country to have your say about what's going on regarding your neighbor. This is an invasion. The Crimea is part of the Ukraine. This is not the way you settle disputes.

Can China go in and take islands away from Japan? The Iranians are watching. If we do not decisively push back against Putin and make him weaker and all of our friends in the region stronger, the Iranians are going to misunderstand yet again (INAUDIBLE) regarding their nuclear program. So much is at stake.

Putin's on the wrong side of history. He's on the wrong side of the law. Make him pay a price. The Ukrainian people are dying for their freedom. I hope we will stand with them. Not just in words, but in deeds.

CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, your reaction to what Congresswoman Kaptur had to say?

DURBIN: Well, I disagree with Marcy. I think we need to be sensitive to the Russian populations in Crimea. As I've said, this is an historic reality. But the notion that Putin can send in, as Lindsey graham says, 15,000 troops or whatever the number in order to so-called protect them just defies the sovereignty of Ukraine and especially the point he made, an agreement, which these Russians were signatories to back in 1994.

DURBIN: I would say to my friend Congresswoman Kaptur, we can be sensitive to the Russian reality in Crimea but don't give license to Vladimir Putin to invade the sovereign nation.

CROWLEY: Senators I want to get you (ph) both (ph) to standby because when we return I want to ask you about the president's budget cuts and military spending with all the saber rattling in Russia, is this a time to cut back? Senators, stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CROWLEY: Back now with senators Durbin and Graham. I want to take the opportunity to talk to both of you about the new budget proposal from Secretary Chuck Hagel out of the Pentagon which basically would cut the army, kind of World War II levels, cut back on equipment, getting ready for kind of a new sort of warfare. I feel as though I have heard that for some time. I imagine that both of you agree -- are going to agree it is too much, but what would you suggest in terms of cuts in the Pentagon? Senator Durbin?

DURBIN: I can tell you that we live in a dangerous world. The United States has the strongest military in that world and we want to make certain we always have military that can keep America safe and free --

CROWLEY: Would these cuts make it less -- would these cuts that are being proposed make it less powerful?

DURBIN: Well let me address one point you made, Candy, at the opening. And that is that this is going to reduce our troop's strength below World War II levels. The men -- primarily men and women who served in the military in World War II were the greatest generation, the best soldiers on earth and they proved it. But today's soldier brings to battle more capacity, more capability and more firepower than those soldiers in World War II ever did. So numbers alone don't tell the story. We have to make certain we have the very best military, well trained and that we have the best technology to back up our national defense. But at the same time, acknowledge the reality. We are not going to -- I hope we're not going to engage in another land war like Iraq or Afghanistan, a long- term commitment that costs too much in human lives and treasure. And secondly, we've got to make certain that we reduce spending in all areas.

CROWLEY: Senator Graham, it certainly sounds as though, given the state of the world and the kinds of warfare that are seen in the future, that you don't need as many people as you did when there were World War I, World War II, Vietnam, any of those.

GRAHAM: Well, my goal is to deter war. Read the report as to what's going on in North Korea. Do you think the person running North Korea is rational? It is a gulag. It is Nazi type tactics being practiced in 2014. What if the leader of North Korea woke up tomorrow and said it's time now to take the south. 440,000 members of the United States army is a gutted army. We do have a lot of technology available to our troops. Every soldier goes into battle with an array of technology and equipment not possessed in World War II. But you still need trigger pullers.

So this budget by President Obama guts our defense. It is the smallest army since 1940. The smallest Navy since 1915 and the smallest air force in modern history. If you went into Iran tomorrow to have to neutralize or stop their nuclear program, you're going to need every b-2 and f-22 you can get. The f-16 and f-18 are great planes but they're not stealth. So if you're going to modernize your military for future conflicts, this budget will not allow you to do it. And the idea you're going to make -- you taking off what kind of wars you're going to fight assumes the enemies of our nation will agree with you.

CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, the last word to you. In fact, the "Wall Street Journal" made much the same point as Senator Graham did, saying, look, the purpose of fielding a large army is to minimize the temptation for aggression. How far is too far to cut back on troops?

DURBIN: Well, I don't know that we can pin our national defense strategy on the irrationality of leaders of North Korea because I don't know that we can ever build a national military that would deter some craziness by someone. But the question is can we protect the United States, can we protect our citizens and our interests around the world? And that means, for example, strengthening the NATO alliance, making certain that we do have troops in South Korea that are there, god forbid something occurs in the future.

I have great confidence of the men and women in the military and our technology to continue to meet that challenge. But we have to acknowledge the obvious. If we are going to reduce our debt for future generations, we are going to have to cut spending on the defense and non-defense sides.

CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, Senator Graham, thank you both for joining me this morning.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

CROWLEY: We're going to keep our eye on the crisis in Ukraine, but up next -- Joe Biden's got his eye on 2016, we think. But is the Hillary Clinton hurdle too high for him to clear? Our panel is here to talk about it.


CROWLEY: Joining me around the table, Bill Burton, deputy White House press secretary during Obama's first term. Amy Walter, national editor for "The Cook Political Report." And Ross Douthat, "New York Times" columnist and CNN commentator. Welcome all. Complete right turn here. Or I guess maybe a left turn

But in any case Joe Biden, out and about. It seems to me a little bit he has over the last month raised his profile and was on "The View" Tuesday. Want to play just a quick part of that.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Whether she runs or not will not affect my decision.

BARBARA WALTERS, CO-HOST, "THE VIEW": You haven't said, no.

BIDEN: No, I absolutely have not said no. This is likely I run or I don't run. I just truly have not made up my mind.


CROWLEY: We don't even need to say who she was. (INAUDIBLE) how bad this is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Elizabeth Warren.

CROWLEY: So, Hillary Clinton he was talking about obviously. It seems to me that Joe Biden would so much like to run but that Hillary Clinton has everything to do with it. Am I reading this wrong?

AMY WALTER, NATIONAL EDITOR, "THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT": No, you're not. He's the sitting vice president of the United States of America. Beyond Dick Cheney who took himself out, when have you not had a two term sitting vice president not considering the front-runner for the nomination? I mean he should be right out front. But you're right, I mean, this is somebody who knows that he's not the first choice of the party. It is Hillary Clinton. But he also knows, like many of us in this town do, that it's not a 100 percent guarantee that Hillary Clinton runs so why should he be sitting on the sidelines right now?

ROSS DOUTHAT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There's no reason for him to sit on the sidelines but the reality is that the only way that he would possibly beat Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary is if he personally climbs in a fighter jet in the next couple hours, flies to the Crimea, punches several Russian soldiers in the face, and then does it 15 more times between now and the election. It's just -- I mean and I think we went through this with Hillary in 2008 where people talked about her inevitability and then she turned out not to be inevitable after all.

But two realities I think make this landscape different. One is that actually her poll numbers are much better now going into 2016 than they ever were going into 2008. Her lead over potential challengers, Biden included -- and he's obviously the one with the most name recognition is immense. And I think what that leads to is an assumption that most people in D.C. have that if there is any kind of challenge to Hillary, it's going to have to come from somewhere new and fresh and unexpected, you know, coming out of left field, as it were, rather than from someone of known quantity.

CROWLEY: You think it would have to be someone from her left. And that new and exciting person would be?

BILL BURTON, FORMER DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I don't know that there's anybody who's really lining up to run against Hillary Clinton. But I will say, this is a special circumstance. Yes, Joe Biden, excuse me, is the sitting vice president and there hasn't been situations where the sitting vice president isn't considered as much, but because of 2008, because of the energy that Secretary Clinton left on the battlefield, I think that she is so far ahead, more so than any front-runner in the history of Democratic politics.

CROWLEY: Because there is a huge (INAUDIBLE) of particularly women who think she was robbed. Who really do believe that in -- you're shaking your head yes. Because it really doesn't just feel like --

(CROSSTALK) BURTON: (INAUDIBLE). I don't want to take all the credit for the 2000 primary but I will say though that Joe Biden would make an extraordinary president. It's why president Obama picked him to be his vice president. But there is this lingering energy and maybe some animosity among people who feel like this was Secretary Clinton's time and now they want to make it happen in 2016.

DOUTHAT: Extraordinary is really the right choice of words I think for a Biden -- for a Biden presidency.

BURTON: All joking aside, he has a very impressive resume. The experience that he would bring to the Oval Office would be unparalleled really with many modern presidents.

CROWLEY: Let me move us back two years and talk about the mid- terms this November. I want to show, you first of all, what we call the generic ballot, which is generally if it were held today would you vote Republican or Democratic, 42 percent of registered voters said Republican, 39 percent said Democrats, on down the line to don't know or won't vote. So what does that really mean? Because it seems to me we always dismiss the generic ballot but the truth is, it used to be a huge margin so you have to watch which way a poll is going.

WALTER: Right. I mean the thing is the generic doesn't mean as much in an era when redistricting has made almost every seat safe from the national political environment. But what it does talk about is just the overall mood, right? And the mood right now is favoring Republicans. That generic ballot traditionally is more supportive of Democrats. There are more people who are registered as Democrats in this country, who identify as Democrats.

CROWLEY: Which makes it kind of even worse looking at it.

WALTER: That's worse, right. When you say, a 4 point lead for Republicans on generic that translates into big numbers of seats in like red or purplish states. If you are in Arkansas or here (ph) in Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina, places where the Senate is resting, that four-point lead in the generic looks more like a 10-point Republican lead and that's really bad news.

DOUTHAT: Going back to 2010, which was of course a big Republican sweep in the House, I believe the generic ballots were quite -- were relatively close.


BURTON: But if you go back to 2006 --



BURTON: Last time Democrats won control at this point in the cycle, nobody thought that Democrats were going to be able to take control of the House. So I think it's still very early and the best that Democrats can do is what they're doing. Like the DCCC where they're recruiting good candidates, they're outracing Republicans quarter after quarter and I think that it's -- we're still very far out to know what's going to happen.

CROWLEY: True. But again the trajectory cannot comfort Democrats at this point.

DOUTHAT: The landscape is not good. Look, second term, midterm, tend to be referendum on the sitting president for better or worse and right now president Obama's numbers are not good. I don't think that the White House's handling of Russia and the crisis in Ukraine is instilling a great deal of confidence at the moment. Obamacare is still relatively unpopular and we sort of lose sight of this, but while the economy is in decent OK shape it's never come roaring back the way the White House wanted it to.

CROWLEY: Folks still aren't feeling when you say how is the economy doing. I want to show you two sort of internals to this poll, the first one Republicans versus Democratics on -- Democrats on favorable/unfavorable. First this is the opinion of the Republican Party, 67 percent of the people in the Republican Party have a favorable image of the party. Right. Whereas 85 percent of Democrats have a favorable -- Democrats have a favorable view of the Democratic Party. So does this speak to enthusiasm? Does this speak to the Tea Party? Translate these for me.

WALTER: The Tea Party. In some ways the Republican Party is still trying to figure out what its overall image is going to be. Who are we as a party? And they've been fighting this since the 2010 election and that's fair because they don't -- they don't have a standard bearer in the way that Democrats do with somebody sitting in the White House.

The bigger problem I think for Republicans right now, they can win this election, they can do very well in the mid terms but their overall approval rating is so low that they go into 2016 with an image that is so tarnished and so weighed down with negatives that it's going to take more than just one good election to get rid of them.

BURTON: And also so conflicted. Look at the state of the GOP when you look at Arizona, for example, where Jan Brewer vetoed the anti-gay law. When Jan Brewer is saying that you're too far to the right, I mean you're really out there. And, you know, in the Republican Party I think you've got people like John McCain on the one side and you've got people like the folks who voted that law and sent it to Jan Brewer's desk on the other side and people don't feel good about that.

DOUTHAT: People in our line of work completely misrepresented the content of that law. That was at least moderately helpful to --


CROWLEY: We'll end it there. Ross Douthat, thank you. Amy Walter and Bill Burton, thank you all for being here. Stay with CNN as we continue to follow the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright is at the top of the hour on Fareed Zakaria, "GPS."


CROWLEY: Thanks so much for watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Candy Crowley in Washington. If you missed any part of today's show find us on iTunes just search, STATE OF THE UNION. Fareed Zakaria, "GPS," is next after a check of the headlines.