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State of the Union

Interview With Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT); Interview With NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg; Interview With U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired February 27, 2022 - 09:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Dana Bash in Washington, where the state of our union is watching with horror, but also admiration.

We have breaking news this morning. Ukraine has agreed to talks with Russia, as Russian forces continue their assault on Ukraine's largest cities. The talks could come as soon as today. And they will be held at the Belarusian border.

That's according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's office.

The news of talks comes as Russians advanced into Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, where street fighting broke out, as Russian -- Ukrainian forces tried to hold back the invasion. In Ukraine's largest city, the capital Kyiv, the mayor said this morning there was no Russian presence in the city.


After massive explosions overnight near Kyiv, citizens there remain under curfew. And Ukraine says it intercepted a cruise missile from Belarus headed toward the capital.

CNN is reporting that, according to two senior U.S. officials, Russians have encountered -- quote -- "stiffer-than-expected" resistance from the Ukrainians. Late Saturday, the United States and Europe announced far-reaching new financial punishments against Russia designed to cripple the Russian economy, removing several Russian banks from the global financial system known as SWIFT.

U.S. and European officials also committed to sanctioning the Russian Central Bank. That's according to familiar and -- people familiar with the move. And that move would be without precedent for an economy of Russia's size.

We are starting to get a sense of the human cost of this war. According to the U.N., there have been at least 240 civilian casualties, including at least 64 deaths since Russia launched its attack. And there are now 368,000 Ukrainian refugees.

I want to go straight to the ground in Ukraine and begin with CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward, who is live in Kyiv.

Clarissa, Ukrainians are fighting to repel Russian troops in its major cities. What are you hearing and seeing about the latest efforts?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, there has been quite a lot of activity this morning, a lot of explosions, mostly in the distance.

That has gone very quiet in the last 20 minutes or so. And it's unclear if that might be related to the news that you just mentioned, which is a big, big deal, essentially Ukraine agreeing to send a delegation to the Belarusian border near the Pripyat River to meet with a Russian delegation to presumably start negotiations to try to see if there is a way out of this disastrous war.

Now, earlier in the day, President Volodymyr Zelensky had agreed in principle to negotiations, but had said that they would not agree to them in Belarus or near the Belarusian border, because, needless to say, Belarus is not neutral territory here. This is where all of -- a huge amount of Russia's troops are actually pushing in from.

Now, the Ukrainians put out a statement on their Facebook page, where they said -- on President Zelensky's Facebook page, where they said: "The politicians have agreed that the Ukrainian delegation will meet with the Russian delegation without preconditions near the Pripyat River. Alexander Lukashenko" -- that's the leader of Belarus -- "has taken responsibility for ensuring that all planes, helicopters and missiles stationed on the Belarusian territory will remain on the ground during the Ukrainian delegations' travel, meeting and return."

So, essentially saying there, Dana, that they have extracted a sort of guarantee of security from President Lukashenko that this Ukrainian delegation will be safe when they travel to go and meet with this Russian delegation.

Meanwhile, though, the situation the ground has been a sort of continuous barrage from the Russian side, but they have definitely been finding themselves encountering much stiffer resistance. As you mentioned, that's according to U.S. intelligence sources, but also, frankly, just what we're seeing on the ground.

The expectation had been that a city like Kyiv would fall in one to four days. We're now on day four. The Ukrainians are saying that they thwarted the advance of a column of Russian tanks in the western part of the city.

And while we did hear a lot of explosions last night, one particularly loud one that appeared to target a fuel depot, it is now at this hour -- earlier, it was still pretty, pretty noisy -- but now it does seem to be a bit quieter.

And, again, that may be because every side is waiting to see what, if anything, transpires from these negotiations, although I should say that, as of now, we don't yet have a timing on when they might begin -- Dana.

BASH: Yes, Clarissa, we're going to talk a lot more about that announcement about talks, which is, as you said, huge, with our guests coming up. But, because you're on the ground and you have been doing such important, amazing reporting, can you just talk about the human element that you have seen, that you have witnessed, and, frankly, because of social media, a lot of us have been able to see on our phones?

You have seen it in person at subway stations, everyday Ukrainians kissing their children goodbye. What is that like? And what are you seeing with regard to that human side of this at this hour?

WARD: Yes, I mean, Dana, it's pretty extraordinary.

I mean, first of all, you obviously see the very natural human reaction of fear. People were petrified, especially as this was beginning and the bombardment was starting. Most of them have never experienced anything like this in their lifetime.


They were taking shelter in subway stations. They were bringing their animals down there as well, with no sense of when they might be able to go up above ground, and a very real fear as well that there's nowhere safe to go in Ukraine.

What's extraordinary, though, is that, at the same time, we're seeing this incredible resistance and incredible courage, I mean, the images of a Ukrainian man literally kneeling down in front of a Russian tank, risking his life to try to stop it in its tracks and prevent it from moving on into the capital.

And I interviewed yesterday as well at the train station, where thousands and thousands of people are evacuating to the safer part of the country in the west every day, I interviewed a young woman. She and her friends own a bar here in Kyiv. They're now actually using it to make food to give to Ukrainian police authorities.

She had put her mother on the train to get her out safely. But she decided to stay. And I said to her: "This is really striking that you would have the courage to stay, when you could get on this train and at least get somewhere safer."

And she said: "I'm not the one who should leave. It's the Russians who should leave. And I won't leave before they do."

And that really stayed with me, Dana, that kind of tenacity and courage. It's been pretty humbling to see it.

BASH: I'm sure it has.

Thank you so much. And thank you for all of your reporting for us.

And, needless to say, you and your crew there should stay safe.

And, today, the United Nations will vote to hold a rare emergency special session on Monday. They're going to vote to hold that session on Monday about the Russian invasion. Joining me now is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda


Madam Ambassador, thank you so much for joining me.

Let's first start with the news from the Ukrainian President Zelensky's office that the Ukrainians and the Russians will meet without preconditions on the Belarus border. What are you hearing about that? And how optimistic are you?

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: Well, that's a decision that the Ukrainian government has to make, and that they have made. And we will look forward to what comes out of those discussions.

As you know, Dana, we leaned in on diplomacy with the Russians throughout this process, and we hoped that Putin would find a way to the negotiating table. And he made the unfortunate decision of aggression over diplomacy.

But, again, this news is another effort by the Ukrainians to find a way forward at the negotiating table.

BASH: Effort by the Ukrainians, but, from the point of view of Russia, do you think, based on the diplomatic efforts that you were involved in up until now, that this is a good-faith effort by the Russians?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I can't get into the Russian -- into Putin's head or into Russian reasoning.

So, it remains to be seen, but let's see what comes of it.

BASH: But the U.S. does support this move, this diplomatic effort?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We have always indicated that we wanted to find a diplomatic solution, and Russia chose confrontation.

So, again, this diplomatic effort is one more effort to bring the Russians to the negotiating table.

BASH: OK, let's turn to new sanctions that were announced by Europe and the U.S., saying that they plan to remove -- quote -- "certain Russian banks" from the SWIFT system, the SWIFT financial system, but it wouldn't include the energy sector.

As you know, that is a big part of the Russian economy. Why won't you remove all of the Russian banks and transactions from SWIFT?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, this is -- this process continues. And we're putting together the list. And we will continue to work on that over the course of the next couple of days. Treasury can give you some details of what is going into the process.

But the purpose of the sanctions are to put as much pressure on the Russian economy as possible. And we want to do as much as we can to protect the impact on our own economy. But we're continuing to look at new and even harsher measures against the Russians.

BASH: You said the things that you're putting in place now, you want to make sure to protect U.S. -- the U.S. and, I'm sure, allied economies as well.

Are you saying that, by including the energy sector, that that would put a burden on our economies?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We have not taken anything off the table.

We're continuing to look at this. We're ramping up as the Russians ramp up. So, there's more to come. And while energy is not on -- in this current announcement, it doesn't mean it's off the table.


But we also want to do everything we can to protect our own economy from the impact of this.


So, you also, as I mentioned, announced sanctioning the Russian Central Bank and its nearly $650 billion in reserves. And that's a move intended to crater the ruble. How quickly will that happen? And are you worried that Russians will retaliate?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are -- this is happening very, very quickly.

And sanctioning the Central Bank keeps the Central Bank from providing protection to the ruble and to the Russian economy. And, again, I can't speak for how the Russians will respond to this. Vladimir Putin is very unpredictable. So it remains to be seen how he responds.

But he should know, when he responds, we will be prepared to respond as well.

BASH: We have seen some remarkable resilience from the Ukrainian people, but they're also pleading for more weapons to fight back.

The secretary of state, Blinken, announced up to another $350 million to that end. Is there anything more that the U.S. can do, like more military support, air support intelligence, imposing a no-fly zone in Ukraine?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We have provided not just this $350 million, close to a billion dollars over the past couple of days and billions since this situation started.

And we're continuing to work with the Ukrainians on the requests that they have, delivering support to them on the ground, and also bolstering our NATO allies on the NATO -- on the border with Ukraine, so that they are prepared to respond to Russian aggression.

BASH: And what about the no-fly zone? Is that something that's on the table? THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, the president has made clear that we're not going to put boots on the ground. We're not going to put American troops in danger. So that means we're not going to put American troops in the air as well.

But we will work with the Ukrainians to give them the ability to defend themselves.

BASH: So, Madam Ambassador, we're hearing from people on the ground in Ukraine reports of civilian deaths, seeing the damage to civilian buildings.

President Zelensky just this morning said that Vladimir Putin is committing genocide, and he should be tried as a war criminal.

Do you think that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal? And should he be tried as such?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We're holding the Russians accountable at every level.

And I have to say that we were appalled by the Russian use of the word genocide to describe what the Russians are doing. They are the aggressors. And they have to be held accountable, whether it's in the United Nations or elsewhere. And all of that continues to be discussed and is on the table.

As you know, we will be having a discussion in Geneva at the U.N. Human Rights Council, bringing Russia before the Human Rights Council as well. And there's another resolution that we're bringing before the General Assembly in a special emergency meeting that we're requesting tonight.

So we're keeping the pressure up on the Russians.

BASH: You didn't mention a war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Is that also on the table?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think everything is on the table as we move forward. But as we're dealing with the situation today, we're continuing to address all of those issues.

BASH: During the very moment that you were giving your speech at the U.N. Security Council meeting urging Russia not to invade Ukraine, Vladimir Putin was launching his invasion.

What was that moment like, when you realized that was happening?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It showed the complete and utter disrespect that the Russians have for U.N. values, for the U.N. Charter. There was a buzz across the room in the Security Council, as we all began to get information that this was happening on the ground as we were speaking.

So, again, we're not surprised. The U.S. warned about this for weeks in advance that this was going to happen any day. So, we weren't surprised that they did it. But, again, it just showed to the world how this -- how much the Russians disrespect the U.N. system and that, again, they are the aggressors here.

BASH: You will attend a meeting of the U.N. Security Council later today to vote on holding an emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly.


President Zelensky said that he talked with the U.N. secretary-general about stripping Russia of its vote on the U.N. Security Council.

Would you support that?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, Russia is a member of the Security Council. That's in the U.N. Charter, but we are going to hold Russia accountable for disrespecting the U.N. Charter. And they have been isolated in many different ways.

So, just to indicate, 80 countries joined us in co-sponsoring the resolution. More than 50 countries joined us at the podium to call out Russia's aggression. So, the fact of their sitting on the Security Council does not mean they're protected from criticism and protected from isolation and protected from condemnation.

BASH: Before we go, nearly 2,700 Russians have been detained in anti- war protests in Russia since Thursday.

I wonder, what is your message to those Russian protesters?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I -- we have noted this information.

And what it says is that Vladimir Putin can't hide what he's doing in Ukraine. And those Russians who are protesting are extraordinarily brave to be protesting in their country. But, again, it indicates that he does not have 100 percent support in his own country for what he's doing.

And we encourage those people to continue to make sure their voices are heard.

BASH: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. Thank you very much.

BASH: And, 10 years ago, he was mocked for warning about the threat from Russia. Then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is now a U.S. senator, and joins me exclusively next.

Plus, Ukrainians are bravely fighting Russian troops, but they're fighting alone. Should NATO be doing more to help? I will ask the NATO secretary-general coming up.



BASH: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, our own Wolf Blitzer asked Republican nominee Mitt Romney about America's enemies.

This was his response.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world's worst actors.


BASH: He was widely mocked for that answer.

But with Russian tanks rolling towards Ukrainian cities and the crisis consuming the Biden presidency and threatening the world order, things look a little different now.

Joining me now exclusively is Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah.

Senator, thank you so much for joining me.

I want to start with the news this morning just minutes ago, which is that the Ukrainian president announced that Ukrainians and Russians will meet at the Belarus border. Do you see that as a good sign?

ROMNEY: Well, let me just pause for a moment before I answer that and just note the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainian people.

They have galvanized the spirit of the entire world. And a lot of that has to do with real leadership. You have seen both physical and moral leadership by Zelensky and the people around him. And it's the contrast between that kind of leadership and the puny nature of Vladimir Putin's tyranny that has really helped people understand the difference between good and evil.

We're seeing that played out right now.

As for the prospects of discussions at the border, look, I hope and I believe that Putin may well finally recognize that he made a huge error, that he was -- badly miscalculated how hard the people of Ukraine would fight and the nature of the world's response.

In this modern world, with war being conducted, and people filming it and passing it around the world, there's been a response I don't think Putin had anticipated. I hope that's what he's doing. I fear he may be trying to take Zelensky off the streets of Kyiv and, by doing so, making the Ukrainian people less willing to fight.

But I hope that he's wising up to the stupidity of what he's doing.

BASH: You're saying you think this could be a ruse?

ROMNEY: Well, I think -- all things can be -- I mean, you listen to Putin in the days leading up to the invasion, he kept saying: We're not planning on invading.

Obviously, he was lying. And so you can't trust a word that comes out of his mouth. But, at the same time, I think he may be recognizing, he should be recognizing that this is not going well for him. NATO has come together. Germany is now saying they're going to be investing far more in their military capacity. They're providing more weapons.

The world is behind the people of Ukraine. Look at those brave people in Ireland stopping the Russian ambassador. We should be doing that all over the world, by the way. The Russia government is a pariah. And the entire world should be protesting and letting Russia know how badly they're seen on the world stage.

BASH: The U.S. and its allies just announced new sanctions on the Russian Central Bank and plans to remove some banks from the international SWIFT banking system.

Was that the right move? And what more -- you mentioned some things, but what additional steps should the U.S. be taking?

ROMNEY: Well, keep cranking that up. As Mitch McConnell said, you can't get the sanctions too high.

At the same time, recognize that, for the sanctions to be most effective, you want them to be shared with our allies around the world. We want to all be together on this. So we can only go as fast as everybody wants to move together. So that's critical.

But those sanctions will have an impact. I also noted in that release from the White House that we and our allies are going to be going after the oligarchs, going after their mansions, going after their yachts. This is very good news, and the kind of thing we ought to be doing.

And I also think consideration of a humanitarian zone, a no-fly zone to allow people to escape from Kyiv, if that's necessary, may be something that we need to consider as well. But let's keep on cranking up the sanctions against what is an evil regime.

BASH: I don't know if you just heard my interview with the ambassador, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. She seemed to not think that a no-fly zone is a good idea, if it means that there would be U.S. troops involved in enforcing that fly zone.

Where do you stand on that?

ROMNEY: Well, I think it's something that you consider. And you may want to negotiate it with the Russians and with our allies. You may decide that this is something that would be done by the U.N. or by us.


But, clearly, the humanitarian demand may be such that we will look for a way to allow the mothers and children that are currently being huddled in subway stations to be able to find refuge. And look at the people of Poland. How heroic they are, providing the clothing and the housing and the food for these refugees that are -- that are pouring into their country, and also in Romania.

Look, this is one of the greatest demonstrations of good vs. evil that we have seen during our lifetime, and the demonstration of courage. I mean, look at Vladimir Putin -- Vladimir Putin.

Here he, is in this -- this -- behind this huge table in this big white room. I mean, it looks like a mausoleum where honesty and honor have gone to die.

And contrast that with Zelensky, with his courage, with his passion, with his true leadership. This is remarkable. And it's having an impact. And I hope it makes us a better people and it makes us more committed to the principles of freedom.

Look, you recognize that, in the history of the world, authoritarianism has been the default setting. And to have freedom, it requires people to stand up and protect it. And you're seeing the terrible miscalculation by Vladimir Putin, causing the kind of commitment to freedom that we'd hoped we'd see.

BASH: Just want to go back in time a little bit, Senator.

Do you think it was a mistake for President Biden to rule out U.S. troops on the ground, instead of trying to use what's known as strategic ambiguity to deter Vladimir Putin from invading in the first place?

ROMNEY: Well, there really wouldn't have been an ambiguity. We don't have the kind of troop strength and material of war in the region to be -- to be a serious threat at that point.

Look, the Biden administration has done some things very well and some things not so well. The not-so-well side is, they continued the policy of prior administrations not to provide the defensive weapons Ukraine needed. That was the mistake.

The positive thing was sharing our intelligence with our allies and combining our efforts with our allies. Look, we used to be 40 percent of the world economy. Today, we're about half of that. And so for us to have the kind of economic clout we used to have back in the '50s and '60s and '70s, we really do need to combine with our allies.

And that's something President Biden has done extraordinarily well.

BASH: I want to play an exchange that you had in a presidential debate with then-President Obama. You were running to defeat him. That was 10 years ago in 2012.

I want you to listen to that. And we will talk on the other side.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When you were asked, what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al Qaeda. You said Russia.

And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.

ROMNEY: I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin.


BASH: I don't need to tell you that you were mocked for saying that.

Thoughts now?

ROMNEY: Well, first of all, politics is an extraordinarily interesting game. As you know, President Obama didn't quote what I actually said.

What I said was, Russia was a geopolitical foe. I didn't say they were a threat. And a geopolitical foe, they obviously were and continue to be, because Russia continues to fight us in every venue they have. They support the world's worst actors, whether Assad in Syria, Maduro in Venezuela, Kim Jong-un in North Korea. This is what they do. They basically poke us in the eye everywhere they can.

China's the greatest threat to us long term, economically, militarily. And Russia, in a lot of respects, is circling the drain, given their shrinking population, their weak economy. John McCain used to joke that Russia is a gas station parading as a nation. So -- but they are a geopolitical adversary poking us where they can, as I have said.

And I don't look back so much and worry about what says -- is said during a political campaign.

What does concern me is that we have had president after president, not just President Obama, President Trump, President Bush, who were resetting relations with Russia, hoping, as they looked in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, they could see a responsible person.

And John McCain was right. He said he looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and saw the KGB. And that's what we're seeing, a small, evil, feral-eyed man who is trying to shape the world in the image where once again Russia would be an empire.

And that's not going to happen. And the people of the world see him and see Russia for what it is. And they're saying, no, we will fight for freedom. And what we're seeing is inspiring. It is powerful. And it will help change the world in a positive way.

BASH: Well, given the way you just described Vladimir Putin, how worried are you that he is going to try to invade other non-NATO countries in the region, Finland, for example, or even NATO allies like Poland?


ROMNEY: Well, every tyrant will judge what next step they take based upon the response to the last step.

Now, of course, in the past, he invaded Georgia. He invaded Ukraine by going into Crimea. He has obviously gone into our elections and attacked our cyber systems. And each of these things, our response was tepid.

And, as a result, he feels emboldened to go into Ukraine. We finally are saying no. And in part because of people with phones and courage from the people of Ukraine, the world recognizes the difference between good and evil here. And this, I think, is going to reset his calculation of what he would do.

But let there be no confusion. Were he to attack a nation where we have an agreement to protect that nation under Article 5 in the NATO articles, where, in fact, an attack on one is an attack on all, we will respond with full force.

We have a responsibility. We are people of honor and integrity. And we will fulfill our commitments.

BASH: In President Trump's first impeachment trial, you were the lone Republican to vote to convict him. And you said then he -- quote -- "delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders."

That ally, of course, was Ukraine. And that infamous 2019 phone call, in it, President Zelensky said -- quote -- "We are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes."

And then Trump responded: "I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot. And Ukraine knows a lot about it."

Again, reflect on that now through the eyes of what's happening on the ground.

ROMNEY: Well, I'm sure there are many people who would like to ignore that. Obviously, that was a very sad and an awful exchange on the part of our president.

This was Zelensky, now a world hero, asking for weapons. And it was an American president slow-walking the provision of those weapons in order to have Zelensky carry out a political investigation on his foe. It was wrong. It was a violation of a president's responsibility to defend our nation and defend the cause of freedom, and resulted in his being impeached.

Now, I think we at this stage look and say, all right, what are we going to do going forward? And I'm pleased to see that President Trump, as President Biden and others, have come together and say -- and said, look, we're -- we stand with the Ukrainian people.

But, without question, President Trump slow-walking the provision of weapons to Ukraine was an enormous error. And so was the error, I think, of our nation over some decades not giving the kind of military defensive capability that Ukraine needed to make the calculation that went through Vladimir Putin's mind a more clear calculation that taking on Ukraine was not an easy thing to do.

And, by the way, given the energy and the passion and the leadership we're seeing from Ukraine, I wouldn't count them out in being able to reject Russia's aggression.

BASH: You talked several times during this interview about the world seeing the difference between good and evil.

I want to bring that closer to home and talk about something that Congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted yesterday about sitting Republican House members appearing at a white nationalist gathering.

She said -- quote -- "As Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar speak at this white supremacist, anti-Semitic, pro-Putin event, silence by Republican Party leaders is deafening and enabling. All Americans should renounce this garbage and reject the Putin wing of the GOP now."

Do you agree?

ROMNEY: Absolutely. Liz Cheney was right with that statement. And she's been right for a long time.

And I also saw that Ronna McDaniel came out with a statement as well talking about how repugnant these white nationalists are.

Look, there's no place in either political party for this white nationalism or racism. It's simply wrong. It's -- it's -- as you have indicated, speaking of evil, it's evil as well.

And Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, I don't know them, but I'm reminded of that old line from the "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" movie, where one character says: "Morons. I have got morons on my team."

And I have to think anybody that would sit down with white nationalists and speak at their conference was certainly missing a few I.Q. points.

BASH: And, just more broadly, the pro-Putin sentiment that you are seeing from some corners of your party?


ROMNEY: Well, a lot of those people are changing their stripes as they're seeing the response of the world and the political response here in the U.S.

But how anybody, how anybody in this country, which loves freedom, can side with Vladimir Putin, which is an oppressor, a dictator -- he kills people. He imprisons his political opponents. He has been an adversary of America at every chance he's had.

It's unthinkable to me. It's almost treasonous. And it just makes me ill to see some of these people do that. But, of course, they do it because they think it's shock value, and it's going to get them more eyeballs, and maybe make a little more money for them or their network. It's disgusting.

And I'm hopeful that you're seeing some of those people recognize just how wrong they were.

BASH: Treasonous is a big word, so I just have to quickly follow up. Would that include the former president?

ROMNEY: Well, I said it's nearly treasonous.

There's -- standing up for freedom is the right thing to do in America. And anything less than that, in my opinion, is unworthy of American support.

BASH: Meanwhile, I know that you're well aware that something big is coming your way to the United States Senate. And that is a Supreme Court nominee.

Judge Ketanji Brown is somebody who you have called an experienced jurist, but you did not vote last year to put her on the Court of Appeals. Are you open to voting yes this time?

ROMNEY: Yes, I'm going to take a very deep dive and had the occasion to speak with her about some of the concerns when she was before the Senate to go on to the circuit court.

Look, her nomination and her confirmation would or will be historic. And like anyone nominated by the president of the United States, she deserves a very careful look, a very deep dive. And I will provide fresh eyes to that evaluation, and hope that I will be able to support her in the final analysis.

BASH: Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, I really appreciate your time this morning, sir.

ROMNEY: Thanks, Dana. Good to be with you.

BASH: And if Vladimir Putin is able to take Ukraine, what would he do next?

The NATO secretary-general will talk with us about the war in Ukraine and the broader threat to Europe.

That's next.



BASH: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country's deterrence forces, which includes nuclear arms, to be placed on high alert, as we learn that Ukrainian and Russian delegations will meet for talks as soon as today.

Here with me now to talk about all of this is the NATO secretary- general, Jens Stoltenberg.

Thank you so much for joining me.

Russia and Ukraine are agreeing to hold talks without preconditions at the Ukrainian-Belarus border. Do you believe that this is a positive sign, sir?

JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL: I have absolute, full confidence in President Zelensky and his judgment on whether it is right to sit down and try to find a political solution.

NATO has supported a political solution all the way. And then it remains to be seen whether Russia is really willing to make some serious compromises and also to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine.

BASH: Vladimir Putin is ordering his country's deterrence forces, including nuclear weapons, on high alert in response to what he called aggressive comments from the West.

How concerned are you about that?

STOLTENBERG: The new statement from President Putin just added to the very aggressive rhetoric we have seen from Russia for many months, and especially over the last couple of weeks, where they are not only threatening Ukraine, but also threatening NATO-allied countries, and demanding that we should remove all our forces from the eastern part of the alliance.

So, this is part of that. And it just highlights the importance of NATO allies standing together, North America and Europe standing together. And that's exactly what we are doing.

And I would like to commend the United States for the leadership and also the deployment of additional U.S. forces to Europe.

BASH: I understand what you mean, that this is kind of just the latest in the moves and the rhetoric that Vladimir Putin is making.

But when you hear about nuclear weapons or nuclear facilities, that brings it to a different level in the minds of a lot of people. How about you?

STOLTENBERG: This is dangerous rhetoric. This is a behavior which is irresponsible.

And, of course, if you combine this rhetoric with what they're doing on the ground in Ukraine, waging war against an independent, sovereign nation, conducting a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, this adds to the seriousness of the situation.

And that's the reason why we both provide support to Ukraine, but also why we, over the last weeks and months, have significantly increased the presence of NATO in the eastern part of the alliance. U.S., but also European allies are now stepping up with more troops, more ships, more planes, and why we also have to realize that we are now faced with a new normal for our security. We need -- there will be some long-term consequences. And this is just the beginning of the adaptation that we need to do as a response to a much more aggressive Russia.

BASH: I want to ask about that in one second.

But Ukraine, I know you have heard, the world has heard them begging for more help from Western countries. NATO announced Friday that it will provide additional weapons and air defense to Ukraine. When will it get there?

STOLTENBERG: Allies are providing support as we speak.

And we have actually -- especially since 2014, since Russia illegally annexed Crimea, NATO allies have provided equipment, training. We helped them to modernize their command-and-control structure, their defensive security institutions. And this, of course, is extremely important now, because now Ukraine is attacked.


And I commend the bravery and the courage of the Ukrainian defense forces, the Ukrainian people, and not least the Ukrainian president, Zelensky.

But the help that they have received over years has -- is extremely important. We are stepping up with more air defense systems, with more anti-tank systems, ammunition. And we do that to uphold, help Ukraine to uphold its right for self-defense enshrined in the U.N. Charter.

BASH: President Zelensky of Ukraine is sharply criticizing European leaders for not allowing Ukraine into your organization, into NATO.

Listen to what he said.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Today, I ask the 27 leaders of Europe whether Ukraine will be in NATO. I ask directly. Everyone is afraid, does not answer.

And we are not afraid. We are not afraid of anything.


BASH: Ukraine applied for NATO membership back in 2008. It was never approved.

So, did NATO fail Ukraine?

STOLTENBERG: This war is President Putin's responsibility. He is fully responsible for the war, for the attack on Ukraine.

What NATO allies do is that we provide support to Ukraine. And we are stepping up as a result of the invasion. We tried to find a political solution. We warned against this for many

months. And now we are both increasing support to Ukraine, but also increasing the protection of defense for all NATO allies.

BASH: No question that this is on Vladimir Putin. But if NATO -- if Ukraine were allowed into NATO, one of two things would have happened.

Either, if this attack happened, all of NATO would have responded under Article 5, or Ukraine being part of NATO would have been a deterrent to Russia, and Vladimir Putin would have invaded -- would not have invaded in the first place.

So, the question stands, based on what President Zelensky said, should they have been allowed into NATO?

STOLTENBERG: We have supported their efforts to move towards NATO membership, to help them modernize their defense and security institutions, to meet the NATO standards to fight corruption.

But, at the end of the day, we need consensus, 30 allies to agree. That's the way we make decisions in NATO.

And our message to Russia is that it is for Ukraine to decide whether they aspire for membership, and it's for 30 allies to assess when and if Ukraine meets those standards.

As long as Ukraine is not a member, they are -- they will remain a very highly valued and close partner, and a partner that we will continue to support.

BASH: Well...

STOLTENBERG: So, regardless of what you may think about NATO membership, there is no excuse whatsoever for Russia to invade a peaceful democratic country as Ukraine.

BASH: Right.

Well, on that note, for the first time in history, you are activating NATO's Response Force and deploying additional military forces to its eastern flank near this region. Do these moves indicate that you think that Russia poses a real and potential -- potentially imminent threat to NATO members?

STOLTENBERG: We don't see an imminent threat. But we see a much more aggressive Russia, a Russia which is contesting core values for our security, willing to use force against Ukraine, but also threatening NATO allies.

And that's exactly why we, over the last years, since actually 2014, have increased our presence and, over the last months, have stepped up further, with thousands of more troops, and also deploying parts or elements of the NATO Response Force for the first time in a collective defense mission.

And this is something we do to remove any room for misunderstanding, miscalculation in Moscow about our readiness to protect and defend all allies. An attack on one ally will trigger the response from the whole alliance.

BASH: Yes.

STOLTENBERG: And, by doing that, we are preventing an attack, we are preserving peace.

And that's the core purpose of NATO. And we have done that for more than 70 years, and we will continue to that also in the face of a new and more dangerous security reality in Europe.

BASH: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, thank you so much for joining me. I appreciate it.

And Russia is getting a tougher fight than many expected from Ukraine. What is the U.S. doing behind the scenes, clandestinely, to help?

We're going to talk to two former top intel officials about that next.



BASH: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. A lot of breaking news this morning.

And here to discuss with me is former Director of National Intelligence under President Obama Lieutenant General James Clapper, and the former deputy director of national intelligence under President Trump and briefly President Biden, Beth Sanner. Both are CNN national security analysts.

Thank you both for coming in.

Let's start with what we have been talking about this morning, first and foremost, the fact that President Zelensky says that he has agreed, with no preconditions, to meet in Belarus with the Russians.

What is your take on that?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it could be a good sign or not.

I mean, this could be a sincere effort on the part of the Russians to negotiate, or it could be just going through the form of things, and enjoining the Ukrainians to lay down their arms and give up. So we just have to see how this pans out.

I am personally not one for trusting anything the Russians say. So, we will have to see. But it's -- I think it's a positive sign.

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Putin has a couple choices right now.

He can double down. He can pivot, which this could lead to a pivot, where he would have to negotiate. Or he could basically capitulate .That looks like off the table right now .But things aren't going well. So I think he's doubling down, but, at the same time, maybe giving himself some space in order to pivot to negotiations.

Whether he gives up on total taking away all demilitarization and denazification, which means kicking out Zelensky, those would be the kind of things he's going to have to come down on to make it serious.

BASH: And I never understood why denazification means kicking out a Jewish president of Ukraine. But that's for a different conversation.

CLAPPER: Orwellian.

BASH: Yes.

Putin is ordering the country's deterrence forces, which does include nuclear weapons, to be on high alert.

What does that tell you?

CLAPPER: Well, I will tell you, Dana, this is something that concerns me on the heels of his previous warning.

And I will quote: "Whoever tries to interfere should know that Russia's response will be immediate and will lead to such consequences that you have never experienced in history."

Well, that warning and then raising the deterrence forces, meaning his strategic nuclear forces, to a higher state of alert, is concerning, at least to me. And I'm sure the intelligence community's paying close attention to that.

BASH: Scary.

SANNER: It is scary.


And it also, though, I think, is out of weakness. I think that this is exactly -- you look at, what does Putin's toolkit look like? We just talked about imposing sanctions on him that are actually pretty significant, I think, very significant, especially the Central Bank sanctions.

What else does he have to do? He raises the alert. So it's scary, but he doesn't have much else.

BASH: Well, but that's why it's scary...

SANNER: Exactly.

BASH: ... because he doesn't have much else.

SANNER: Exactly.

BASH: I mean, you both have studied Russia for so long. Do you think that he has it in him, and Putin in particular, to

actually pull that lever, so to speak, or press that button?

CLAPPER: Well, I personally think he's unhinged.

And I thought Eugene Robinson, editorial writer for "The Washington Post," likening him to Captain Queeg looking for strawberries with a ball bearing in his hand -- I really worry about his acuity and balance right now.

And here's a guy that really has a finger on -- potentially on a nuclear button. So that, to me, bears close watching.

SANNER: Yes, I think that we have said, as an intelligence community publicly, all along that Putin wants to avoid a nuclear war with the United States, because, obviously, that would be bad.

So, I'm still -- I'm still in the category of, we should be worried. But I am more thinking that shields up, America, on cyberattacks. That's probably what we will see first.


BASH: You think so?


I think that these sanctions are significant enough that he's going to start seeing some real pain. And what else does he have to do, short of pushing a button? I think cyber.

CLAPPER: And he won't sit still for it.

And the analogous thing to do after the sanctions would be attacks against our financial sector.

BASH: So, you think the cyberattack -- I was going to ask that. Where would it be directed?

CLAPPER: Towards the financial sector, or perhaps some portion of our critical infrastructure.

so, we need to have our cyber guard up.

BASH: Do we have the capacity for that?

SANNER: Well, I think Americans watching today, everybody should go to work and change their passwords and update their security systems, because even simple things like that.

There's a whole range of things that they can do. But, certainly, Russia is and has been inside of our cyber, our critical infrastructure for years. And so they have quite a bit of capacity.

BASH: You're both two top -- the top intelligence officials, formerly, in the United States. What is the intelligence community doing right now either to help Ukraine or to move along and amplify the protests we're seeing in Russia?

CLAPPER: Well, we don't have inside baseball anymore, but I'm sure the intelligence community, which has, I think, been very aggressive -- and, for me, the contrast is with 2014, and doing a lot more to expose what the Russians are going to do, and which is something I think is appropriate, that we need to contest the informational operation space.

And I'm quite sure they're doing all they can to provide intelligence to the Ukrainians, and look for ways to exploit the dissent in mother Russia.

And I was quite struck by the wide-ranging, although, in many cases, small demonstrations against the war in Russia itself. That's quite remarkable.

BASH: From an intelligence point of view, how do you do that?

SANNER: Well, you pull out the Cold War playbook. I mean, we used to play these disinformation operations against Russia, against the Soviet Union a long time ago.

Now we have to amp them up, and in a cyber world. And I think we have the capacity to do that.

BASH: What does that look like?

SANNER: I don't know in detail what it looks like, because, as Jim said, we're not on the inside right now.

But I think that we could go as far as covert action in order to try to do disinformation in Russia. That's something that Putin believes we do already. So there's quite a bit of span there.

But, in terms of fighting on the ground and doing insurgency, we have a lot of experience of that with the Afghans.

BASH: All right, Beth Sanner, James Clapper, thank you so much for your expertise. Appreciate it.

SANNER: Thank you.

BASH: Thank you.

And thank you for spending your Sunday morning with us.

We will be right back here live at noon eastern for a special new edition of STATE OF THE UNION and updates on the ground in Ukraine, and new live interviews with the Ukrainian -- Ukrainian ambassador to the United States and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

We're going to talk to him about the upcoming hearings for President Biden's new Supreme Court nominee. You don't want to miss that. And you also don't want to meet -- miss "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS," which starts right now.