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Hala Gorani Tonight

U.S. President Joe Biden to Speak on Russia and Ukraine; Interview with Slovenian Defense Minister Matej Tonin on E.U.'s Sanctioning of Russian Individuals and Entities over Ukraine. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 22, 2022 - 14:00   ET




ELENI GIOKOS, CNN HOST: Mr. Biden is expected to speak any moment now from the White House and possibly announce new sanctions. It'll be his first

public appearance since Vladimir Putin recognized two separatist regions of Ukraine as independent states.

Today, Russian lawmakers formally approve the deployment of troops to Eastern Ukraine. Now Mr. Putin won't say whether troops will now enter

those regions, though Russian forces have already been in Luhansk and Donetsk since 2014.

Crucially Putin says Russia's recognition covers the entire territories and not just the parts currently controlled by pro-Russian separatists.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): We've already recognized them. And that means that we recognize all of their fundamental

documents, including constitution and the constitution clearly delineates the borders within the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts when they were part of



GIOKOS: No one cued me.

All right. So NATO calls the most dangerous moments in European security for a generation. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says every indication

is that Russia continues to plan for a full-scale attack.


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY GENERAL: Moscow has now moved from covert attempts to destabilize Ukraine to overt military action. This is a serious

escalation by Russia and a flagrant violation of international law.

It further undermines Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. It damages efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict and it has

grave consequences for European security.


GIOKOS: All right. Ukraine says it will mobilize the whole world to help strengthen its defenses, urging countries to step up arms shipments, even

as it tries to downplay the prospect of a full-scale war. Let's bring in our reporters. We're joined by Stephen Collinson in Washington and we also

have Nick Paton Walsh as well, standing by in Ukraine for us.

Stephen, this will be the first time we hear from Joe Biden since Vladimir Putin announced that he recognizes the two separatist regions as

independent states.

Is this going to be an announcement of sanctions?

Are we going to hear any more moves from the President of the United States?

STEPHEN COLLINSON, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think we are. The question, I think, is whether the president goes the full way in unveiling

that punishing packet of sanctions that he promised with America's European allies in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine or whether it is a

more guarded and graded step.

As far as we know, Russian troops haven't rolled into the wider Ukrainian area. When President Putin made his announcement yesterday, White House

officials said Russian troops had been in those rebel areas of Eastern Ukraine since 2014.

Overnight, they have made a rhetorical leap, now saying, effectively, invasion is taking place. I think that gives some confidence that although

the ultimate sanctions may not come into force, the president will go a very long way to sanctioning Russian industries, banks, oligarchs around

president Vladimir Putin.

I think the consideration of the White House is, do you go the whole way and therefore give President Putin at least a rhetorical reason to go

further in Ukraine than he has already?

The question here, of course, is that these sanctions do not appear, the prospect of them at least, to have deterred President Putin. So we are now

moving to more of a punishment stage rather than a deterrent stage.

GIOKOS: OK. Nick Paton Walsh is standing by as well.

Give me a sense where it leaves Ukraine. President Zelensky has been measured in terms of describing this as a full-on incursion and invasion.

We heard from the NATO chief earlier, Nick.

He said there are new Russian troops in Ukraine but I guess that's still a gray area?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: I think we await the concrete evidence of new Russian troops having crossed in since Vladimir

Putin made that announcement.

It's important to make that distinction because there have been troops there since 2014,

covert, as NATO suggested, and essentially part of the separatist movement.


WALSH: So there is evidence of a new presence that it's bolstered and it's overt, officially Russian soldiers, since that decree was signed yesterday.

But there are other developments that are deeply troubling. They suggest the possible scope of what may be about to occur. Vladimir Putin saying the

territory that was to be recognized was that which the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics outlined in their constitution.

It is a bit of a fuzzy area. But that essentially suggests he might be talking about the full regions of which the separatists control about a

third. So there's a suggestion that the Russian military presence, if it does indeed cross in, and in the same breath he said that hadn't

necessarily happened yet, that they may be tasked with looking after areas that currently have Ukrainian military in them.

So it is still very unclear exactly what has begun and how extensive, if at all, Russian military maneuvers, fresh ones into Ukraine, have been. And

the messaging from Western officials, I have to say, has been a bit chaotic today.

You would think it would be something quite easy to get right.

Have new Russian troops, in uniform, with Russian flags on their tanks, gone into Ukraine or the separatist areas since Putin's announcement


And we haven't really had a clear presentation of the answer. Maybe we'll get that from President Biden; who knows. But the sanctions we have seen so

far today have, to some extent, been tapered, to deal with the fact this is not the nuclear option -- forgive me; that's a terrible phrase to use --

but not the worst option that Vladimir Putin could have chosen in this specific incident.

And maybe it allows extra room for future punishment in the event that this escalates even further. But on top of that, you have to accept that this is

a deeply confusing moment for many, trying to assess exactly what Russia's next move is indeed going to be.


Stephen, I want to bring you back. Give me an idea of whether any kind of diplomatic solution going forward is now not even on the cards. In

principle we know Biden had agreed to meet or create a summit with Putin.

We know Blinken and Lavrov were meant to meet Thursday.

Are these conversations still going to be vital to avoid a full-out catastrophe?

COLLINSON: I think when the announcement was made, that the president was willing to meet Vladimir Putin in principle; even people at the White House

were saying that that was actually, in practice, very unlikely to occur.

As far as we know, the meeting in Europe this week between Lavrov and Blinken is still taking place.

But you have to ask the question what exactly are they going to discuss?

Is it politically feasible or even desirable for Antony Blinken to sit down with the Russian foreign minister, while all of these escalations Nick was

talking about, are taking place?

It doesn't seem like that's very likely. It also doesn't seem that the U.S. has the power anymore, if it ever did, to deter president Vladimir Putin,

especially in the wake of his rather alarming speech yesterday, in which he was basically slamming the whole post Cold War period of NATO and the

West's behavior.

And that was a -- rather an argument for an expansive military operation, far beyond these enclaves in Eastern Ukraine. So the chances right now of a

diplomatic solution seem very unlikely.

At some point, if this conflict takes place in the future, perhaps a space opens up for some diplomacy again. I think it is unlikely that the United

States would be leading it in that case. You might, again, look to France to be able to come in and play the facilitation role.

But it really does look that the omens for any diplomacy are very dark. And the reason for that is all of the steps that Vladimir Putin has taken, even

in the last few hours, to escalate the situation.

It's diplomatically and politically very difficult for the United States and President Biden to step in and do anything. Although I expect we will

hear, as Antony Blinken said at the weekend, until the bombs start falling and the jets start flying, they haven't ruled out conclusively some kind of

diplomacy can take place.

GIOKOS: And we are waiting to hear from President Joe Biden. Those area live pictures from Washington, D.C.

Nick, you're still with us. You mentioned something so vital. I have seen it the entire day. You're right. The messaging from Europe has been sort of

very fractured, where NATO says, yes, there are new Russian troops that entered; the E.U. commissioner saying that they're not even talking about

this as an invasion because those areas were already controlled by separatists.


GIOKOS: How important is it going to be to ensure that Europe comes out with one voice, one message?

Because Putin's end game I guess is to destabilize the entire region.

WALSH: Yes, he certainly wants to look for fissures, for gaps between European nations' responses here. And the report card for Europe so far is

quite impressive, largely thanks to Germany, who stood up very early on and said clearly they were going to stop certification of the Nord Stream 2


That's a huge blow to Russia certainly. So Ursula van der Leyen's statement, saying they didn't consider this to be an invasion, that seems

to run against some other Western officials I heard from today.

It certainly runs against what a White House adviser said earlier to CNN. So that messaging has been confused. I think fundamentally what people are

waiting for is the moment Russia decides to show that its troops have gone into those areas.

They've had a fairly lengthy, pointless legal set of processes they've gone through; the Federation Council, which has approved the deployment of

Russian troops outside of Russia. It is essentially a rubber stamp for things that Vladimir Putin decides. That's pretty much the case in both

chambers of parliament.

So those processes were Vladimir Putin saying, look, I've done all the checks and balances and things I'm supposed to do within quite an

authoritarian system that I've set up.

But it is a difficult moment certainly because we are at the mercy to the extent of what Vladimir Putin's ambitions are. There's no doubt that the

Russian army will be able to push back its Ukrainian counterpart if it moves in.

We just don't know if that larger scheme of things, the sort of awful dynamic suggested by Vladimir Putin's speech yesterday, an hour's worth of

diatribe, essentially saying that NATO would use Ukraine as a platform to attack and then question Ukraine's right to exist, going through a

remarkable revisionist history of Ukraine's position in the Soviet Union.

Coupled with what we heard today, a suggestion that Ukraine might be seeking to get nuclear weapons, that's complete nonsense. They gave them up

of their own accord in exchange for security guarantees for Russia.

So he is building a very pacey narrative here to justify what may be coming, what troublingly European and Western officials say is imminent.

I think that is what has everyone particularly on edge, because of the kind of tone he had yesterday in his speech and what predictions have been from

intelligence officials in the West. It does suggest we could be in for a dark few days.

GIOKOS: All right. Nick Paton Walsh, Stephen Collinson, thank you very much.

Slovenia's defense minister has condemned Putin's recognition of the Ukrainian breakaway regions, tweeting the Russian actions are a move away

from peace. Matej Tonin joins me now live.

Minister, thank you very much for taking time. It is alarming to think how dangerous a point we are. The NATO chief said that we haven't seen this

type of risk to security in decades.

When President Putin is saying Ukraine should be part of Russia but also extending that conversation, saying -- comment on how the Balkans also need

to be considered, is this, in your view, a direct threat to Slovenia?

MATEJ TONIN, SLOVENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: This is absolutely a decisive moment that we should be absolutely clear that we will do what we are


My feeling is that President Putin and his colleagues decided to move into Ukraine because they think that the thing that we won't do what we are

talking about. And that's why current sanctions should be severe.

And that's why, if we will keep the unity, which is our strongest tool, then I don't see a real danger for Slovenia. But absolutely, this is a

decisive moment for (INAUDIBLE).

GIOKOS: Are you defining this as an invasion into Ukraine?

The E.U. commissioner said that they are not defining as invasion because the two regions that were now recognized as independent states by Russia

were already controlled by separatists.

How are you viewing it?

TONIN: This is a clear violation of international laws, of all international norms. This is territorial Ukraine. And that's why we can

talk about invasion.

GIOKOS: OK. We know that Vladimir Putin has been asserting himself in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe, through creating strong economic ties,

sometimes difficult to break. Gas is very important. Other economic ties are important. Slovenia does have economic ties to Russia.


GIOKOS: These new sanctions, this package for this country, do you think it is enough to create pain for Russia, as we've heard it is intended to


And of course, it also means that other countries will be experiencing this as well because gas is an absolute vital commodity for Europe. And a lot of

that comes from Russia.

TONIN: Definitely all the sanctions would have consequences, not just on Russia but on European Union and on European countries. And gas is one

thing, which prices can go up.

But like I said previously, the sanctions should be severe and should be focused on Russian leadership and on especially Russian enterprises and

money flow from Donbas and Luhansk.

There we should focus our sanctions. But definitely there will be as well consequences for Europe as well. And I have to say that, whenever Mr. Putin

talking about Western Balkans, that we should be very focused.

It is part of Russian playbook to divert the current situation. And that's why we are afraid that something not very good can happen in Western

Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They're, for example, his friends; Mr. Dodik is doing some strange moves. And we should be very

focused on the Western Balkans as well.

GIOKOS: That's very fascinating. You're saying you need to be on high alert. I guess the big question was and still remains, we know there are

190,000 troops across the Ukraine border.

But the question has been, did we anticipate that this would be the first move, that he would recognize independent states within the Ukraine?

Now military experts are saying he will focus on this in a piecemeal manner; Belarus is causing a big complication and as you say the Western

Balkans could also be a very soft and risky point in terms of destabilizing Europe.

TONIN: What Russian leadership is doing right now is a classic. You can see what has happened in Georgia, what has happened Crimea. So they're just

repeating the procedure, which they already done it in the past. So nothing new.

But I mentioned Western Balkans, because now focus is around Ukraine and everything. Everybody is talking about Ukraine. And that means there's a

lot of place and options for some moves in Western Balkans as well, especially to divert the attention from Ukraine. And that can have direct

consequences, of course, on Slovenia and on Europe as well.

GIOKOS: It was really strategic. and the E.U. commissioner also mentioned this earlier, reminding us this all started with the refugee crisis in

Belarus at a border. And that's when Russia took opportunity to amass military across borders in the Ukraine.

Are you looking out for other signs?

And do you think Europe was caught off guard by Putin's moves?

TONIN: No, I don't think so. What I really appreciated in those days, we had many ministerials on a NATO level, on a European level and unity, unity

was absolutely seen, shown everywhere. And this is our strongest tool.

So if President Putin wants to divide European Union, this was definitely a bad move. If he wants less NATO forces on their western border or on our

eastern NATO flank, this is a bad move as well because we stated, with such moves, that means more NATO forces at our eastern flank.

GIOKOS: OK. So we know that Ukraine is not part of NATO and that's been the big contention for Russia, that he is worried about western NATO

presence close to Russia.

Do you think that Ukraine should be given -- should be accepted into NATO at this point in time?

Do you think that's going to be vital, even though Europe and NATO allies are clear they're going to stand by Ukraine?

TONIN: Ukraine now needs a clear sign of hope. And Slovenia presented initiative that Ukraine should be accepted in the European Union and this

should be done on a fast track.


TONIN: And this, I think, is right now appropriate approach. Show them that they are part of Europe and allow them to economically survive and

give them the strength.

GIOKOS: All right. Matej Tonin, defense minister of Slovenia, thank you very much for your time. Great to have you on the show.

TONIN: Thank you.

GIOKOS: All right. Across the West, leaders are scrambling to back up their promises to impose harsh consequences on Russia in the case of

further aggression.

Germany acted swiftly to freeze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, widely considered one of the strongest measures Europe could take at this point in

time, while E.U. foreign ministers meeting in Paris have agreed on a new package of sanctions against Russia. Let's bring in CNN's Scott McLean live

in Paris.

Scott, what would the package look like, how much pain could it actually cause for Russia and will it squeeze Vladimir Putin to the point he would

search for an alternative method as opposed to invading Ukraine?

Do you think this package will do that job?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It doesn't appear he's afraid at this point. But obviously Europe maintains they still have a long way to go,

that there's a lot more pain they can bring to the Russians.

What they did agree on today -- you have to remember, there are 27 E.U. member states, all of their foreign ministers in a room and they have to

reach some consensus. And what they ultimately agreed on is not far off what was proposed to them by the E.U. leadership.

So we have 27 E.U. members say it's proposing sanctions or deciding on sanctions against 27 people and entities. We're talking about politicians,

military personnel, banks, things like that.

They are also going after the members of the Russian Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, all those that voted in favor of recognizing two

breakaway regions of Eastern Ukraine.

And they're also limiting the Russian government's ability and sovereign debt ability to access financial markets in the European Union as well. As

I mentioned, Josep Borrell, the E.U. top diplomat, made clear they still have room to go.

And he is proposing specifically, in the next round or sooner, depending on what Russia chooses to do next, if anything at all, they could more plainly

go after Russian oligarchs in a bigger way.

Again, the need is to get consensus among 27 E.U. member states that don't always see things the same way. And I was particularly interested in one

thing that Josep Borrell said and how he described --


GIOKOS: -- there. We are going to the White House. President Joe Biden is about to talk.


Yesterday Vladimir Putin recognized two regions of Ukraine as independent states and he bizarrely asserted that these regions are no longer part of

Ukraine and they are sovereign territory.

To put it simply, Russia just announced that it is carving out a big chunk of Ukraine. Last night, Putin authorized Russian forces to deploy into the

region, these regions. Today he asserted that these regions are actually -- extend deeper than the two areas he recognized, claiming large areas

currently under the jurisdiction of the Ukraine government.

He is setting up a rationale to take more territory by force, in my view. And if we listen to his speech last night -- and many of you did, I know --

he is setting up a rationale to go much further.

This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, as he indicated and asked permission to be able to do from his Duma.

So let's begin to -- so I'm going to begin to impose sanctions in response, far beyond the steps we and our allies and partners implemented in 2014.

And if Russia goes further with this invasion, we stand prepared to go further, as with sanctions.

Who in the Lord's name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new, so-called countries on territory that belonged to his neighbors?

This is flagrant violation of international law and it demands a firm response from the international community.

Over the last few months, we've coordinated closely with our NATO allies and partners in Europe and around the world to prepare that response. We've

said all along -- and I've told Putin to his face more than a month ago -- that we would act together in the moment Russia moved against Ukraine.

Russia has now undeniably moved against Ukraine by declaring these independent states. So, today, I am announcing the first tranche of

sanctions to impose costs on Russia in response to their actions yesterday.


BIDEN: These have been closely coordinated with our allies and partners and will continue to escalate sanctions if Russia escalates.

We're implementing full blocking sanctions on two large Russian financial institutions, VEB and their military bank. We're implementing comprehensive

sanctions on Russia's sovereign debt.

That means we've cut off Russia's government from Western financing. It can no longer raise money from the West and cannot trade in its new debt on our

markets or European markets, either.

Starting tomorrow and continuing in the days ahead, we'll also impose sanctions on Russia's elites and their family members. They share in the

corrupt gains of the criminal policies and should share in the pain as well.

And because of Russia's actions, we have worked with Germany to ensure Nord Stream 2 will not, as I promised, will not move forward.

As Russia contemplates its next move, we have our next move prepared as well. Russia will pay an even steeper price if it continues its aggression,

including additional sanctions.

The United States will continue to provide defensive assistance to Ukraine in the meantime and will continue to reinforce and reassure our NATO

allies. Today in response to Russia's admission that it will not withdraw its forces from Belarus, I have authorized additional movement of U.S.

forces and equipment, already stationed in Europe, to strengthen our Baltic allies, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Let me be clear: these are totally defensive moves on our part. We have no intention of fighting Russia. We want to send an unmistakable message,

though, that the United States, together with our allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO.

We still believe that Russia is poised to go much further in launching a massive military attack against Ukraine. I hope I'm wrong about that, I

hope we're wrong about that but Russia has only escalated its threat against the rest of Ukrainian territory, including major cities and

including the capital city, Kyiv.

There are still well over 150,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine. And as I said, Russian forces remain positioned in Belarus to attack Ukraine

from the north, including warplanes and offensive missile systems.

Russia has moved troops closer to Ukraine's border with Russia. Russia's naval vessels are maneuvering in the Black Sea toward Ukraine's south,

including amphibious assault ships, missile cruisers and submarines. Russia has moved supplies of blood and medical equipment into position on their


You don't need blood unless you plan on starting a war. And over the last few days, we have seen much of the playbook that Secretary Blinken laid out

last week in the United Nations Security Council come to pass.

A major increase in military provocations and falsifying events along the line of contact in the Donbas; dramatically staged, conveniently on-camera

meeting of Putin's security council to grandstand for the Russian public.

And now political provocation, recognizing sovereign Ukrainian territory as so-called independent republics, in clear violation, again, of

international law. President Putin has sought authorization from the Russian parliament to use military force outside of Russian territory.

And this set the stage for further pretext, of further provocations by Russia to try to justify further military action. None of us, none of us

should be fooled. None of us will be fooled. There is no justification.

Further Russian assault into the Ukraine remains a severe threat in the days ahead. And if Russia proceeds, it is Russia and Russia alone that

bears the responsibility.

As we respond, my administration is using every tool at our disposal to protect American businesses and consumers from rising prices at the pump.

As I said last week, defending freedom will have costs for us as well and here at home.

We need to be honest about that. But as we do this, I'm going to take robust action and make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at the

Russian economy, not ours.

We are closely monitoring energy supplies for any disruption. We're executing a plan in coordination with major oil-producing consumers and

producers, toward a collective investment to secure stability in global energy supplies.

This will blunt gas prices. I want to limit the pain to the American people, who are fueling at the gas pump. This is critical to me. In the

last few days, I have been in constant contact with European leaders, including with Ukraine and President Zelensky.


BIDEN: Vice President Harris met in person with the leaders in Germany over the weekend at the Munich conference, including President Zelensky. At

every step, we have shown the United States and our allies and partners are working in unison, which he hasn't been counting on, Mr. Putin.

We are united in our support of Ukraine. We are united in our opposition to Russian aggression and we are united in our resolve to defend our NATO

alliance and we're united in our understanding of the urgency and seriousness of the threat Russia is making to global peace and stability.

Yesterday, the world heard clearly the full extent of Vladimir Putin's twisted rewrite of history, going back more than a century as he waxed

eloquently, noting that -- well, I'm not going to go into it.

But nothing in Putin's lengthy remarks indicate any interest in pursuing real dialogue on European security in the year 2022.

He directly attacked Ukraine's right to exist. He indirectly threatened territory formerly held by Russia, including nations that today are

thriving democracies and members of NATO.

He explicitly threatened war unless his extreme demands were met. And there's no question that Russia is the aggressor. So we are clear-eyed

about the challenges we are facing.

Nonetheless, there's still time to avert the worst-case scenario that will bring untold suffering to millions of people if they move as suggested. The

United States and our allies and partners remain open to diplomacy if it is serious.

When all is said and done, we're going to judge Russia by its actions, not its words. And whatever Russia does next, we're ready to respond with

unity, clarity and conviction. I'll probably have more to say about this as we -- it moves on. I am hoping diplomacy is still available. Thank you all

very much.