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Kerry in Ukraine; Obama Talks about Ukraine

Aired March 4, 2014 - 12:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to our continuing breaking news coverage of the situation that is escalating in the Ukraine. There are movements that are fast and furious. American leadership not only in the region now in the way of our secretary of state, but also the president of the United States taking to the live airways to comment specifically on the Russian incursion into the Crimean peninsula, what it means not only for Russia, the international community, but also for Ukrainians themselves as they head forward towards elections. The president made specific references to neighboring countries, as well, neighboring with Russia, and what this latest move speaks to when it comes to their fears of Russia's next potential moves.

I want to get you right away to some of the first comments that the president made as you can hear and how he frames his reference in speaking of this latest crisis. Have a listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So to provide them with the technical assistance that they need. So it includes a planned loan guarantee package of $1 billion. It provides immediate technical expertise to Ukraine to repair its economy, and importantly, it provides for assistance to help Ukraine plan for elections that are going to be coming up very soon.

You know, as I said yesterday, it is important that Congress stand with us. I don't doubt the bipartisan concern that's been expressed about the situation in the Ukraine. There is something immediately Congress can do to help us, and that is to help finance the economic package that can stabilize the economy in Ukraine, help to make sure that fair and free elections take place very soon, and as a consequence, helps to deescalate the crisis.

In the meantime, we're consulting with our international allies across the board. Together, the international community has condemned Russia's violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. We have condemned their intervention in Crimea and we are calling for a de-escalation of the situation and international monitors that can go into the country right away. And above all, we believe that the Ukrainian people should be able to decide their own future, which is why the world should be focused on helping them stabilize the situation economically and move towards the fair and free elections that are currently scheduled to take place in May. There have been some reports that President Putin is pausing for a moment and reflecting on what's happened. I think that we've all seen that from the perspective of the European Union, the United States, allies like Canada and Japan, and allies and friends and partners around the world, there is a strong belief that Russia's action is violating international law.

I know President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations. But I don't think that's fooling anybody. I think everybody recognizes that although Russia has legitimate interests in what happens in a neighboring state, that does not give it the right to use force as a means of exerting influence inside of that state.

We have said that if, in fact, there is any evidence out there that Russian speakers or Russian natives or Russian nationals are in any way being threatened, there are ways of dealing with that through international mechanisms. And we're prepared to make sure that the rights of all Ukrainians are upheld. In fact, in conversations that we've had with the government in Kiev, they have been more than willing to work with the international community and with Russia to provide such assurances.

So the fact that we are still seeing soldiers out of their barracks in Crimea is an indication to which what's happening there is not based on actual concern for Russian nationals or Russian speakers inside of Ukraine, but is based on Russia seeking through force to exert influence on a neighboring country. That is not how international law is supposed to operate.


BANFIELD: And the president making these comments just moments ago in Washington, D.C. And perhaps testament to how quickly some of these developments are happening, the president actually began speaking as his own secretary of state had not finished speaking actually in country. He landed in Ukraine hours ago and had a chance to tour the square where so much violence erupted and what the president of Russia calls a coup happened where Ukrainians say they were just simply able to overthrow a government that wasn't representing them.

In any case, the secretary of state toured the square that has now become a de facto shrine to those who died. Some 77 people lost their lives in the square. Hundreds of others were injured. Some of the detrivous (ph) of the violence is still evident. Many of our reporters have been touring it and showing not only the flowers and the monuments, but also the evidence of bullet holes and barricades that still line the area where the secretary, obviously under some pretty significant security, was able to tour.

As soon as the secretary made this tour and actually offered his own condolences, and you can see him doing it in his own way there in these pictures that came in earlier today to CNN, he also had planned meetings with the new leadership that -- the interim leadership in Ukraine and also decided to give a news conference and answer questions to reporters, as well. Specifically making comments supporting the Ukrainian regime that's in place right now, decrying what the Russians have done in bringing troops into the Crimean peninsula.

And perhaps most shockingly of all was asked a question, what did he think of President Putin's live comments on television this morning that there were no Russian troops, per say, in Crimea. The secretary was a bit flummoxed by it, bewildered, think, he actually said that? So clearly the developments happening so quickly he hadn't even been able to see some of President Putin's live comments.

Here are some of the remarks, though, that the secretary made in Kiev just moments ago.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States reaffirms our commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity according to international law. We condemn the Russian Federation's act of aggression. And we have, throughout this moment, evidence of a great transformation taking place. And in that transformation, we will stand with the people of Ukraine.

Today, Ukrainians are demanding a government with the consent of the people. And I have to say that we all greatly admire the restraint that the transitional government has shown as it makes this transition. They have shown restraint. Despite an invasion of Ukrainian homeland and a Russian government that has chosen aggression and intimidation as a first resort.

The contrast really could not be clearer. Determined Ukrainians demonstrating strength through unity and the Russian government out of excuses, hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation, and provocations. In the hearts of Ukrainians, in the eyes of the world, there is nothing strong about what Russia is doing.

So it's time to set the record straight. The Russian government would have you believe it was the opposition who failed to implement the February 21st agreement that called for a peaceful transition, ignoring the reality that it was Yanukovych who, when history came calling, when his country was in need, when this city was the place where the action was, where the leaders of the nation were gathered in order to decide the future, he broke his obligation to sign that agreement, and he fled into the night with his possessions, destroying papers behind him.


BANFIELD: And our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, has been traveling with the secretary. She is live in Kiev and joins me on the telephone right now.

Elise, you were in the room as the secretary gave his comments and did that Q&A with the reporters. You know, our colleague, Fareed Zakaria, made a very poignant comment saying that appearances matter and symbolism matters in all of this. And the symbolism of the secretary being there at that square and making those comments cannot be lost on the audience there.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER (via telephone): Well, that's right, Ashleigh. (INAUDIBLE) he was very moved by what he saw, saying I was proud to pay tribute to those who lost their life, and people who put it all on the line through the future of Ukraine.

So by coming here today and not only giving a very robust assistance package, but the symbolic gestures, lighting a candle at the shrine of the fallen and meeting with this government and really showing -- talking with the Ukrainian people. A lot of people stop him on the streets. They told him their story. And Secretary Kerry said, you know, the U.S. is with you. We are going to help. I think it sends a very positive message, not just to Ukraine, but to Russia, that the Ukrainian future does not belong under Russia's iron fist, but with the west.

BANFIELD: And the secretary, make no mistake, came bearing sort of a package of goods and in the way of relief to the Ukraine. If you could just characterize essentially what that -- what that offering was, the loan guarantee, the experts, the assistance in elections and the significance of that this morning.

LABOTT: Well, you know, Ukraine relies on Russia for its, you know, very cheap oil and gas. And it has these -- a lot of these subsidies. Now, since these tensions with Russia have escalated, those subsidies have been reduced. And so the U.S. wants to help Ukraine end its dependence on Russian energy, wants to help it rebuild its economy. The economy is very fragile. And the IMF is going to come in and help them rebuild their economy.

Now, in order to do that, they need to make certain reforms, they need to raise oil prices. And so this is all to get the economy in shape for a much larger international IMF package with the international financial system. And it's also about, you know, they have - they need technical experts.

They need expertise. They want to help them get ready for elections that are coming in May. They're going to train election observers and also help recover some of their stolen assets and anti-corruption (INAUDIBLE). So it's not just about money, but it's about building up the institutions and building up all of the financial apparatus that will help this fragile economy and its fledgling government move forward.

BANFIELD: Elise Labott reporting live for us in Kiev. Thank you for that.

I want to go straight to the White House where Jim Acosta, our White House correspondent, is standing by.

Jim, I was -- maybe I'm misreading things, but I was astounded at to how quickly the White House was reacting this morning. The president speaking live at the same time the secretary was speaking live. There could be no more important issue other than the budget today on the agenda of the White House, but nothing surprising out of the mouth of the president today regarding the current situation? JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Actually, Ashleigh, I thought it was interesting that the president said there have been some reports that perhaps President Putin is pausing a little bit to assess what he has done, what is happening in Ukraine, what is happening in Crimea. That's an indication, I think, from the president that he is hearing maybe some hopeful signs from Vladimir Putin. I don't want to read the tea leaves too much there, but I - that's what I took away from some of his comments.

Another thing that he said was that Vladimir Putin is operating with a different set of lawyers and a different set of interpretations here. That is in line with what I was hearing from White House officials last night, Ashleigh, and that is that they don't believe at this point that Vladimir Putin is sort of acting irrationally here.

They believe that he is sort of -- that he is really acting under his own set of beliefs, under his own set of interpretation as to what is happening in Ukraine. The Russian's believe, according to administration officials, that they are defending their interests, the interests of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and that they just have a different interpretation as to what is going on in Ukraine.

The administration is sort of clinging to that hope right now that that is what Vladimir Putin is thinking. But they do honestly believe that. And I would tell you that this president -- you heard him say this morning that he met again with his national security team. He did that for two hours last night. So this is something that the president is spending a lot of time on, even though he is unveiling this budget today, even though his administration officials are unveiling this budget. They have really no choice but to spend a lot of time on Ukraine right now, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Jim Acosta at the White House for us. Thank you.

I want to bring in our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, who is standing by and watching all of these developments, you know, with as much interest as anyone.

The former secretary of state, Madeline Albright, called Putin delusional this morning on CNN. The secretary of state is in Kiev decrying his actions next to him. Literally next door. The president is on television suggesting how illegitimate his actions are and how he's scaring his neighbors. Does President Putin care about any of this? Does it matter?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it does matter. And in the end, he's probably going to have to care. I think that one thing that President Putin did today was an attempt to sort of potentially ease some of the tensions, saying that he had ordered, first and foremost, the military exercises on the border that create so much panic and fear to stop and to send those Russians back to barracks. He said he had no plan to annex Crimea. But then, in the same breath, he then said, I reserve my options and I have not yet made my military decision, and I'll make it based on what we're being asked to do in Ukraine, and that is to help those ethnic Russians there. Now, today you heard Secretary Kerry tell, in no uncertain terms, and also the president, Putin to send all those Russian forces in Crimea back to barracks (ph) (INAUDIBLE) -

BANFIELD: Forces, he said or Russian forces?

AMANPOUR: Those - no - yes, those same forces back to barracks. And then you also heard a very, very strong statement, and a speech basically by John Kerry, systematically neglecting and refuting every single point that the Russians have made in their attempt to legitimize what they've done.

He said that the Russians have chosen falsehoods, to hide behind falsehoods, intimidation and aggression. He praised what he called the restraint, the admirable restraint of the current Ukrainian authorities, who had told their own forces not to engage at all off any further pretext for any further military intervention by the Russians.

He said that, while they want to deescalate this, if Russia does not deescalate, the United States will have no choice but to continue its process of isolating Russia economically, diplomatically and politically.

And he also said he wants, you know, to be able to arrange a massive in flux of international observers and mediators, whether OSCE or others, to be able, as he said, to have these fact-finding missions in those areas that Russia claims its people are being threatened, to, as Kerry said, separate fact from fiction, truth from fiction.

BANFIELD: Which Kerry has said --

AMANPOUR: This is very important.

BANFIELD: NATO has said these claims can't be validated.

AMANPOUR: But it's important to give them some kind of face-saving way out and to attempt to resolve this diplomatically, because there isn't a military option, according to the United States.

Despite all these talks and NATO meetings and this and that, there is no military option, so it has to be a diplomatic option and that's what Kerry said over and over again.

BANFIELD: Is there a face-saving way out, Christiane?

AMANPOUR: Yes, there is. There is if he chooses to take it. He can be presented by objective, neutral fact-finding mission by organizations to which Russia has, you know, claim.

Some of these European and international organizations can go in and say, you know, we examined your claims about this, and actually, what we found is this. And I think that there is a way, there has to be a way, because there isn't any other way.

So either this is going to be a full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine --

BANFIELD: He had to know that going in?

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, look, what we have now is an attempt to try to see if there is an off-ramp.

But I think what was really important here, as Elise also said, is that, you know, this administration has been criticized for not standing up for the so-called freedom agenda, in other words, not having democracy and freedom at the forefront of their foreign policy.

Much has been a return to barracks after these long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There has been a lot of criticism of not standing up for the rights of the Syrian people, or indeed the Egyptian people or wherever it might be.

But Secretary Kerry said in no uncertain terms that the United States stands with a legitimate aspirations for freedom, democracy and universal rights of the Ukrainian people, and he made a very, very strong comment in that regard.

And it's one of the strongest comments I've heard from this administration in a long, long time.

BANFIELD: President echoing that by saying all of this can be galvanized by the upcoming elections, as well. Can you stand by for one moment?

Matthew Chance, I'm told, is standing by, live, as well. He's in the capital of Kiev.

Matthew, if you could weigh in on the reaction in Kiev. Clearly, you're in the same square where the secretary has just passed through and paid his respects. Now they had some meat on the bone to talk about with regard to what the strong words that Christiane just pointed out, about what the secretary has said in no uncertain terms, what the president has also said.

What is the reaction in Ukraine to this?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this whole visit, this whole support that John Kerry has been expressing over the course of the past several hours during his visit to Ukraine, extremely important, symbolically, for the people who are still paying their respects here on Independence Square, laying flowers, lighting candles, leaving mementos for the nearly hundred people, 89 people, in fact, who died here, mainly as a result of sniper fires.

They were attempting to overthrow and succeeding in overthrowing the government of Viktor Yanukovych in the past week and a half or so. It's very poignant for them still. It was very poignant when John Kerry came here, and he said some very important things.

There are concrete ways in which the United States is now prepared to help Ukraine get through its financial uncertainties, offering a billion credit guarantees. That's going to help Ukraine sort of get through these coming weeks and months with its energy bills, for instance.

Also offering expertise to advise Ukraine how to get its economy back on track.

But frankly, that is just a drop in the ocean compared to what Ukraine needs in terms of cash. We're talking about billions. That will be something for the IMF.

I think lots of Ukrainians, though, are deeply concerned about how John Kerry, the United States, its partners are going to deliver on the second part of the pledge, though, which was that if Russia doesn't deescalate then it will attempt to isolate Russia, politically, economically and diplomatically.

Those are very strong words, of course, and they were coupled with that very strong criticism of the Kremlin and of Vladimir Putin by the secretary of state, but it's going to be really difficult, really difficult, to actually deliver on that.

How do you isolate, diplomatically, a country which has a permanent seat on the United States Security Council?

How do you isolate the country, economically, which is the biggest energy supplier in the world and supplies Ukraine, for instance, with 80 percent of its energy and western Europe with a good 40 percent, possibly more in some cases, of their natural gas?

And so it's going to be very difficult, if not impossible, particularly because we've already seen some dissent from European allies of the United States, saying that they don't really want to countenance the idea of hitting Russia with economic sanctions that may well cause them more damage than they cause the Russians themselves.

And so it's going to be a very delicate, diplomatic balance.

BANFIELD: So, Matthew, it's 7:20 in the evening where you are, and clearly there is all of this rhetoric that is being passed about. These live news conferences are very dramatic.

But at the same time, there is a clear situation still on the ground. We heard shots fired, albeit warning shots, today, and we've seen movements of ships. We have seen the Ukrainians demanding that many of their naval forces and assets return back across the Black Sea towards Crimea in case of anything that could escalate.

What is the current situation militarily speaking? Is it just still a full-on standoff?

CHANCE: I think it's beyond the situation of a standoff. I'm not in Crimea, so I don't know what the exact lie of the land is.

But from all the soundings we're getting here in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Russia is still in very much control of all of the Crimean peninsula.

It's either occupied or surrounded, the key installations both civilian and military. And it's showing no sign of letting up on that.

It's been bringing in more troops to bolster its position. It already has, you know, thousands of troops there as part of its Black Sea headquarters. It's been adding to those and possibly has many as 16,000 more troops there.

Vladimir Putin's remarks earlier today in Moscow showing no sense whatsoever that he's prepared to back down on this or prepared to even withdraw from his positions.

And so I think that, you know, there is a lot of rhetoric about calling on Russia to do certain things.

What I'm seeing in Russia is that there's no real sense in which the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin is going to be prepared at this stage, at least, to give an inch.

I mean, he's got all the cards, remember. Nobody is going to challenge him militarily, not the Ukrainians, definitely not NATO and the United States. They don't want to risk a nuclear war with nuclear-armed Russia over this issue.

And remember, you know, Russia knows that there's all sorts of other areas where the West, where the international community, where the United States needs Russian's cooperation.

Ukraine is just one square on the chess board. It's not the entire board. There's Syria. There's North Korea. There's Iran and its controversial nuclear program. These are all areas where the international community and where the United States in particular depends on Russian cooperation.

So is it going to throw that away over Ukraine? Well, John Kerry seems to be indicating that it may, but, I mean, we will see what actually happens.

BANFIELD: Matthew Chance live for us in Kiev. Thank you for that.

Let's go right to Washington, D.C., where my colleague, Wolf Blitzer, is standing by.

Wolf that, is a very key question. Just how critical is Ukraine and teeny, tiny Crimea, to this country, and what we're willing to put on the table, other than these strong words from the secretary of state and from the president today?

What's the next step, if there is one?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Well, I think they're trying to do sanctions. They're trying to do some sanctions, more than just symbolic sanctions.

They're trying to get the European allies, the NATO allies, everyone on the same page, and as Matthew and others have been pointing out, and as you well know, Ashleigh, it's not easy, because there are some significant differences when it comes to imposing sanctions on Russia. And the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, as angry as she may be towards Putin right now, she knows Germany and the European economy, as a whole, would suffer if all of that oil and energy, all of that -- those pipelines stop fueling, energizing, if you will, the European economic community.

So there's -- it's a lot more difficult than it seems.

In the meantime, there will be a lot of symbolic steps that the U.S. will try to orchestrate, not only suspending preparatory talks for the G-8 summit, which is scheduled for Sochi, Russia, in June, but even going further and maybe taking some steps to kick Russia, at least temporarily, out of the G-8. We'll see if that happens.

But, you know, when all is said and done, let's not forget, and Matthew has pointed this out, and Phil Black and others have pointed out, for Putin and for the Russian government, having some sort of significant influence in Ukraine and Crimea is critically important, and they're not going to give that up. They're not going to give it up very easily.

They were pretty much outraged when the government, the democratically elected government in Ukraine was toying with the idea of having a closer relationship with the E.U. They hated that.

And now everyone seems to be paying a price for what's going on, so this standoff is going to continue, but I think U.S. options right now are rather limited.

BANFIELD: And partners are critical if any kind of sanctions activity is to be successful.

Wolf Blitzer, live for us at the White House, thank you very much for that.

The tense standoffs actually erupted into some shots being fired, albeit they were warning shots, as Russian and Ukrainian troops literally came face-to-face, some with weapons, some without.

Is this the brink of war? One of our reporters was right there on a Ukrainian military base today, right in the area where this happened.

We're going to get a live report on what that felt like, and if that tension is lingering now. That's next.


BANFIELD: President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry both just spoke on the crisis in the Ukraine and used some pretty strong rhetoric against Russia.

The president said a sovereign people like those in Ukraine can make decisions about their own lives and their own future.

Secretary of State Kerry, who is in the Ukraine right now, accused Russia of just making reasons up, just making them up, in order to go into the Crimean part of Ukraine. He said that there is no evidence to support a single claim that Russia's making that they need to protect Russians who live there.