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Interview With U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt; President Obama Threatens New Sanctions Against Russia; U.S. to Russia: Stay Out of Ukraine Elections; Deadly Disease Now in U.S.; Parents Plead: Bring Our Girls Home

Aired May 2, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama today vowing to come down harder on Russia if Moscow does not quit meddling in Ukraine.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. As pro-Russia rebels shoot Ukrainian helicopters out of the sky, President Obama and Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel set a new trigger for actions that they say will squeeze Russia's economy, but hasn't Russia already crossed that line?

The politics lead. You heard Jeb's brother George encourage him to run in 2016 right here on THE LEAD.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, hey, Jeb, if you got -- if you need some advice, give me a call.


TAPPER: Increasingly, it seems Republican donors may be inclined to agree. But a gain for Jeb Bush might mean a loss for a certain Republican governor of New Jersey.

And the pop culture lead.


TAPPER: Do you think this gives you a respectability that you didn't have before?

JOEL MCHALE, ACTOR: Absolutely not.


TAPPER: Joel McHale has something more infantile than "Real Housewives" to make fun of, us, the media political world of Washington, D.C. The host of "The Soup" and the star of "Community" drops by THE LEAD ahead of his gig Saturday at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD. We will begin with the world lead, death in Ukraine. Police in the southern city of Odessa say 31 people died in a fire at a trade union building. While the cause is not perfectly clear, Odessa is currently being torn apart by rioting and clashes between Ukrainian loyalists and pro-Russia activists.

Ukraine's government in danger of crumbling, with tens of thousands of Russian troops positioned near the eastern border, but, today, the most crucial diplomatic talks over this crisis are not happening in Ukraine or in Russia or even in Europe, but right here in the U.S. -- President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meeting at the White House today and emerging with some tough talk about their willingness to squeeze sectors of the Russian economy.

Also today, Russia called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the second in the same week. The U.S. believes Moscow is pulling the strings on pro-Russia forces in Ukraine, but the Russian ambassador warned against any outside interference in Ukraine and he did so without a hint of irony.


VITALY CHURKIN, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS (through translator): We would insist on the inadmissibility on any sort of outside interference in what is going on in Ukraine. It's time for Western colleagues to think twice, reason with those who they mentor in Ukraine, and stop toying with the destiny of the Ukrainian people.


TAPPER: "Toying with the destiny of the Ukrainian people." Funny, that's exactly how U.S. officials would characterize what Russia's doing.

I want to bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, while Russia and the West are trading these veiled and not-so- veiled threats, violence is exploding in Ukraine.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: In a word, it looks really bad on the ground there. More and more, it looks like a war.

You had two helicopters shot down with air-to-ground -- with ground- to-air missiles today. The president referred to those. You mentioned this fire at this plant in Odessa, not, as you say, directly tied to it, but tied to the general unrest. That's 31 dead people, more than that killed in the gunfire.

It's looking more and more like an armed conflict. And now you have the administration setting a new standard for sector-wide sanctions, which is the continuation of this kind of disruption as we get closer to that election in May 25, crucial elections, and the outlook right now does not look good.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Every day, Ukraine looks more and more like a country at war. Here, residents cheered after two Ukrainian helicopters are shot down. Both pilots were killed.

And, here, pro-Russian militants crash with Ukrainian police. The new violence comes as Ukrainian forces launch their most intensive efforts so far to push pro-Russian militants from one eastern city that has slipped from their control.

But ethnic Russians resisted, blocking Ukrainian tanks and demanding they not advance any farther. Still struggling to devise a policy to de-escalate the crisis, President Obama met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington. Together, they set a new trigger for broader sector-based sanctions against Russia, any interference, they say, with crucial elections later this month.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If, in fact, we see the disruptions and the destabilization continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions.

SCIUTTO: Until now, such penalties against Russia's energy, arms, and banking sectors have been reserved for a full-scale invasion. Russia, however, remains undeterred.

Russian officials say Ukraine's military operations in the east effectively scuttle a deal reached in Geneva last month to defuse the crisis, and they called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to highlight alleged threats to Russians inside Ukraine.

To reinsure the West's increasingly nervous Eastern European allies, NATO is now considering expanding and extending new military exercises in the region. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, however, all members of the alliance, not just the U.S., must share the burden.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We must not squander this opportunity or shrink from this challenge. We will be judged harshly by history and by future generations if we do.


SCIUTTO: The White House is also pushing back hard against this idea expressed by Russians that ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine are under threat and that these militants you see are actually peaceful protesters. The president said in his press conference today that generally local protesters don't possess missiles to shoot down helicopters, a fair point.

TAPPER: Generally, that is true. Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

So what was a shaky cease-fire from the very beginning is now literally going up in thick black smoke. The people of the very dangerous city of Slavyansk is now being warned, don't go outside. Don't even look out a window as -- quote -- "anti-terror operations get under way." Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is near the danger zone right now.

Nick, describe for us the situation on the ground there right now and the firepower surrounding the city.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, there are reports from inside Slavyansk of heavy gunfire at some point.

And the Ukraine Defense Ministry is saying that two of their paratroopers have been killed at a place where we saw them taking up position earlier on today. About 10, 15 armored personal carriers moved in, sat on a bridge surrounded by local residents who are very angry towards them. It seemed also an elderly man there was over by an APC when he tried to get in its way.

They were reinforced with helicopters, but it seems some of that gunfire has taken the lives of two Ukrainian soldiers here. They are moving in all around the city certainly, taking over places which were previously held by pro-Russian militants.

But this fire in Odessa, Jake, the continued violence here I think is really making everybody deeply concerned we're in a completely different phase of this conflict -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick, Ukraine claims it has detained four pro-Russian separatists accused of bringing down those two Ukrainian choppers. Do we know who they are and how closely they may be tied to Russia?

WALSH: No, we don't know.

And, obviously, it's always been hard on the ground here to tie these pro-Russian militants directly to Russia. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming, given how organized, resourced, and coordinated much of the pro-Russian militant activity is. Hard to imagine some of the (INAUDIBLE) you see on the ground here concocting that in a matter of weeks.

But, no, there is no, as it were, smoking gun. And, in fact, lots of the people you speak to who are these pro-Russian militants are indeed Ukrainian. There's just a lot of support and strategy behind this. And that surely must come, many say, from Moscow -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh, stay safe, my friend. Thank you so much.

The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, who has been with the State Department for more than 20 years, says that Ukraine's military action in Slavyansk was a -- quote -- "legitimate law enforcement operation."

So does the U.S. support more of these in the future?

And Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt joins me now from Kiev.

Ambassador, thanks for joining us. What are you hearing from the government there? Are they planing more of what they call anti-terrorist operations in other cities? And do they have -- and am I to take from your statement that they have the complete support of the U.S. government in these activities?

GEOFFREY PYATT, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Well, Jake, let me say, first of all, yes, we support what the Ukrainian is doing in the context of holding their own laws and trying to manage the security situation.

We welcome the fact that the Foreign Ministry today made a strong state reaffirming its commitment to the Geneva agreement as a framework for de-escalating this crisis. We welcome the fact that, in a meeting today, the foreign minister, with me, with the representative of the OSCE and a European representative, reaffirmed that they continue to work on de-escalating the crisis.

They want to see the release of all illegally seized buildings. We have seen progress on that in Kiev over the past couple of days. Unfortunately, what we don't see is progress in implementing Geneva in the east of Ukraine, where these violent building seizures have continued.

In several instances, we have seen evidence that weapons, including automatic weapons, have been used by the groups taking over these buildings. So, we're also very concerned about the continued presence of hostages, including diplomatic military observers who were there as part of the Vienna document. They have been illegally held for a week now by these separatists groups, held in a basement there in Slavyansk.

Also, very worried about the reports we see that up to 40 people have now been kidnapped in Slavyansk. So, you have a major law enforcement problem there. The international community is trying to help through the work of the OSCE. And that's something the United States is going to continue to support with all of our -- all of our energies.

TAPPER: How would you describe the U.S./Russia relationship right now? Have you, for example, been in touch with any Russian officials?

PYATT: Well, my Russian counterpart -- the Russians have a charge d'affaires here in Ukraine, because they withdrew their ambassador back in the winter.

But the charge d'affaires has been a regular participant in what have been almost daily meetings that we have held with the foreign minister and with the OSCE to try to manage this process. In fact, the Russian charge d'affaires was with me on Monday when we went to visit the city hall here in Kiev to see that that building had been cleared by the Maidan demonstrators, preparing the way for the rehabilitation of the building.

TAPPER: Mr. Ambassador, what did you make of Russia calling upon Ukraine to withdraw Ukrainian troops from Ukraine's own territory? I think a lot of people in the U.S. thought it was a bit bizarre.

PYATT: Now, well, I think our reaction would be a similar one.

It's Ukraine's place to defend its own territory. In the face of the instability, the separatist activity that is unfolding in several of these cities, in Donetsk and Luhansk, we see it as entirely legitimate that Ukraine is using its own defense forces, acting within the framework of international law, acting within the framework of its own constitution, to get a handle on the security situation.

We don't see that as something that Russia should be able to exercise any sort of a veto over.

TAPPER: So it's fair to say that the United States government thought that request was bizarre?

PYATT: Let me just say, we see the Ukrainian actions as completely legitimate.

TAPPER: Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, thank you so much.

PYATT: Jake, great talking to you.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: new threats from President Obama after a high-level meeting at the White House. Did one of Putin's strongest European allies convince President Obama to change course? That's next.

And, later, establishment Republicans, where are their allegiances these days? Are they seemingly abandoning one Republican favorite for 2016 for Jeb Bush?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Sticking with out world lead -- on Monday, the White House released a statement that made it clear if Russia were to invade Ukraine, it would be hit with sanctions targeting sectors of Russia's economy, finance, energy, weapons, and so forth. Today, President Obama significantly lowered the bar for those sanctions, saying that all it could take is Russia interfering in Ukraine's May 25th presidential elections.

Let's bring in Richard Haass. He's the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, also the former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department under President George W. Bush.

Richard, good to see you, as always.

Before we get to the lowering of a war, I want to just ask about what's going on in Ukraine. It looked like it was all at war today. How would you define what's going on there?

RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: It's not all- out war. It's getting more violent. Russia has regulars there, and plus, they are helping locals. Ukrainian defense forces such as they are increasingly deployed to the east. And so, what you're seeing is some kind of a low level civil conflict.

TAPPER: In other news, what I was referring to earlier, President Obama today basically lowered the bar on the sectoral sanctions. It's no longer if Russia invades. They could be imposed if Russia interferes with Ukraine's elections later this month. Do you think that's because Merkel came and they hatched a plan together? What do you think caused this shift?

HAASS: Well, it would be go if Chancellor Merkel signed up for something like this. Up until now, she said if Russia invaded, it's highly unlikely Mr. Putin would invade. His entire strategy is to interfere and intervene without invasion. So what the president articulated is a more realistic criteria, one I'm hoping is the German and other Europeans are prepared to respond if Russia continues to basically provoke disarray in Ukraine.

TAPPER: I guess I'm a little confused in the definition of meddling in an election. If Russia is, as critics charge, bombarding eastern Ukraine with propaganda, sneaking in these special operatives from Russia, encouraging pro-Russian thugs, how is he not already messing with the elections?

HAASS: Look, I'm with you, Jake. He's messing with the election, more fundamentally, he's messing as a society, as an economy, and as a political entity. I would think that he's already crossed any reasonable line. What I wasn't privy to are the details at the exchange between the American president and his German counterpart.

What we also don't know and what I think we should be looking at is not simply what kind of sanctions would be introduced but it's whether the Europeans fully support them. Are the Europeans prepared to begin a process of reducing their energy dependence on Russia, which over time could be at least as important? What steps are the Europeans willing to take within NATO and in terms of their own defense spending?

So, there's a whole number of steps of which sanctions towards Russia is simply one of them.

TAPPER: Merkel has been viewed as the only European leader that Putin would really consider listening to. But a month ago, her office said she got Putin to agree to partially withdraw troops in the border. That didn't happen. Do you think she still has sway with Putin?

HAASS: Germany is the most important, excuse me, economy from Russia's point of view and it's also the, if you will, most important country in Europe as the Russians see it, for reasons of economics, for politics, for geography.

Mr. Putin right now operates on his own set of calculations. He wants to restore as much as possible an imperial reality for Russia outside its borders. He obviously wants to strengthen his hand within his borders.

So, he's doing his calculations not as in the past. He's not trying to join Europe. Instead, he's trying to create an alternative to Europe.

TAPPER: Richard Haass, thank you so much.

HAASS: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up, a huge drop in the unemployment rate, but Republicans still are not convinced that the president's economic policies are working. Their complaints next and the truth behind the numbers.

Plus, he's the star of NBC's "Community", the longtime host of "The Soup" on E!, and now Joel McHale is here in D.C. to roast some of the most powerful men and women in the country. But before he does, he sits down with little old me. Our conversation, coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

This just in to CNN: it's a deadly mystery disease that has so far killed more than 100 people in the Middle East and now, it's here. The first reported case of MERS in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that one person in Indiana has Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS. It's a viral respiratory illness and is spread through close contact.

Before this report out of Indiana, all cases had been reported around the Arabian Peninsula. We will continue to monitor the story and bring you any updates.

The buried lead now. It's any parent's worst nightmare. Your daughter is kidnapped by terrorists and sold into slavery, while your government seems almost uninterested in rescuing her.

It has been more than two weeks that this happened to 230 teen girls in Nigeria. Their moms and dads have been demanding that the government help bring their girls home to apparently little effect. This week, they're rescue became a social media movement throughout the world.


TAPPER (voice-over): The streets of Nigeria are teeming with protesters, furious that their government isn't doing more to find close to 200 school girls kidnapped in the dead of night.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm a young mother. I can't imagine any mother going through this. It's disheartening. It's shocking.

TAPPER: Militants with the Islamist group Boko Haram seized the girls, more than two weeks ago in a far northeast corner of the country, a hotbed for the group. Boko Haram was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government last November. Forced on to trucks, the armed men originally took 230 girls into a dense forest along the Nigerian border. This young girl was among a few dozen who managed to escape. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): My friends and I jumped from the vehicle and ran back home because we realized they don't look innocent to us.

TAPPER: There are some 200 girls in captivity, with reports that they have been forced to convert to Islam and have been sold as child brides for as little as $12 each.

ANTHEA BUTLER, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: I would say it's slavery. And moreover, it's sexual slavery.

TAPPER: This the latest horror from Boko Haram, whose name means Western education is sinful. The militants have been terrorizing the country as they try to establish a radical Islamic state in Nigeria. The Nigerian government says they are committed to freeing the girls but their inability to do so thus far has pushed locals to social media.

The #bringbackourgirls has galvanized a global response.

BUTLER: For Nigerians on social media, this became an important way to connect not just with other Nigerians in the U.S. and around the world but also to get the word out about what was really happening with the kidnapping of the girls.

TAPPER: Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

BUTLER: This has made mothers go out into street, marches have begun. It's a different day now because I think a lot of the people in Nigeria are on board. The government may not be yet. But the people of Nigeria are.

TAPPER: This weekend, more protests are planned across the United States. And a rally at the Nigerian embassy in Washington, D.C. is set for Tuesday.


TAPPER: The U.S. State Department says that officials from the Obama administration have been talking to the Nigerian government about what help the U.S. might be able to offer. One official told me that the Nigerians have yet to formally make any request for help from the U.S., even though this nation already provides more than $20 million in security assistance to Nigeria.

When we come back, his big brother told me he should run and now, big money Republicans seem to be telling Jeb Bush the same thing. Will that make it awkward for another big name Republican with his eye on the White House?