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Crisis in Ukraine; Interview With Former Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard Myers

Aired March 6, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: crisis in Ukraine.

New violence and threats, including a terrifying mob attack. The situation is getting more dangerous now that Crimean lawmakers have voted to tear Ukraine apart. Russian ships and troops, they are on the move. We will get an insider's take on the military planning going on in the Obama administration's war room.

As tensions rise on the streets and in world capitals, is there anything the United States and its allies can really do to stop Ukraine from unraveling?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The newest video from Ukraine shows fear and violence on both sides of the conflict. What appears to be a pro-Russian mob goes on the attack against opponents, while Ukrainian troops are seen chasing residents who are part of what are described as a -- quote -- "self- defense team."

We're following all the latest developments in the crisis. Russia has begun its largest air defense drills ever, about 280 miles east of the border with Ukraine involving about 3,500 troops. The United States and the European Union have announced plans to freeze the assets of Ukraine's ousted president and Interpol is reviewing a request to allow for his arrest.

President Obama's calling a vote by the Crimean parliament to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, he's saying that's a violation of international law.

And the United States is taking steps, dramatic steps right now to try to deal with this crisis, as so much is going -- so much is going on.

Let's go to Crimea right now for the very latest in Ukraine. The tensions, they are exploding, the reaction provocative to what the Crimea parliament has just done.

CNN's Anna Coren is on the ground in Crimea.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, major developments here in Crimea, with the parliament voting in favor to hold a referendum that would ultimately decide whether Crimea breaks away from Ukraine and becomes part of the Russian Federation. Obviously, an outpouring of international condemnation, but, Wolf, I can tell you that the Crimean government and that the people that we have spoken to today are certainly not listening.


COREN (voice-over): A topless protester rails against the Russian president as she's carted off kicking and screaming outside of the Crimean parliament.

Any voices of dissent here are drowned out by supporters of Moscow, who are cheering a provocative new move to tear Ukraine apart.

(on camera): We are outside parliament, which, as you can see, is guarded by contract soldiers. These soldiers, of course, are loyal to Russia. Well, parliament has voted in favor to hold a referendum on the 16th of March which will determine whether or not Crimea remains part of Ukraine or becomes part of the Russian Federation.

(voice-over): The Ukraine government has put its troops on high alert and the prime minister is declaring that any attempts by Crimea to break away is illegitimate.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER: Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine.

COREN: On military bases in Crimea, a standoff between Russian and Ukrainian forces is growing even more tense. Vladimir Putin still claims his forces haven't invaded. But Crimea's deputy prime minister now says that only Russian troops are allowed in this region and that all others will be considered occupying forces, more proof of just how closely Crimea is aligned with Moscow.

More flash points in this crisis in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. Riot police are facing off with pro-Russian protesters outside government buildings. And in Donetsk, where pro-Russian demonstrators stormed a government building, a leader of the pro- Russian movement has been arrested by Ukrainian authorities.


COREN: And, Wolf, tensions are high even here where we are at this hotel. Just a short time ago, management came and approached us and told us we were no longer allowed to broadcast from this hotel. It would appear that they're not happy with what we are saying. That's why we're broadcasting inside our room, as opposed to outside on the balcony.

We know that obviously there is some sort of pressure involved, whether it's coming from the Crimean government, which is very much pro-Russian, or whether it's coming from the local militia. We know that those local militia were causing huge problems for the U.N. special envoy Robert Serry yesterday, literally drove him out of town, forced him to leave the country.

But that's the situation right now here, Wolf, in... (CROSSTALK)

COREN: ... the capital of the region.

BLITZER: Anna, what is their major criticism, these authorities who are basically forcing you indoors right now from your outdoor location and threatening to shut you down? What is their complaint?

COREN: You know, Wolf, it's funny.

Everywhere we have been here, people will come up and ask us, where are you from? Who do you work for? And when they find out that you are working for CNN, an American news network, they become extremely hostile. There's such anti-Western sentiment here. There really is such hostility towards the West, towards Europe.

And when you're associated with the United States, as obviously our television network is, that is when the hostility begins. We believe that this is what has happened to the hotel's management. You know, we have been operating here now for over a week happily, no problems whatsoever. But, obviously, somebody is putting pressure on the manager of this hotel and basically threatening to shut us down and kick us out.

BLITZER: And you don't know if it's these militias, these anti- U.S., pro-Russian militias or the government in Crimea, which is also pro-Russian. You don't know who's directly putting pressure on the hotel to effectively try to shut you down?

COREN: No, Wolf, we have no idea. It's just that management has told us to stop broadcasting. Obviously, we're going against their rules by speaking to you now, but it's really important to get this message out that pressure is being placed on Western media crews, specifically on CNN.

You know, earlier today, as you were seeing from that piece, we went out to a military base, and there were lots of Russian soldiers. Now, we only heard from Vladimir Putin the other day, saying that there are no Russian forces on Crimean soil. Well, that is completely untrue.

And, obviously, me just saying this would be upsetting the pro- Russian Crimea government, as well as the Russians, who are obviously very closely aligned. So this is the situation on the ground that is happening, and, yes, we can only give it to you in real time, Wolf, and report to you hopefully -- hopefully, tomorrow, we will still be here.

BLITZER: Hopefully, you will be. Be careful over there, Anna Coren, in Crimea for us, a very disturbing development. We will check back with you.

President Obama is taking new action against Russia, while his secretary of state is keeping up the effort to try to make diplomacy work.

Let's bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, for more -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in another sign of just how fast-moving the crisis in Ukraine has become, the president made that surprise statement to reporters today on efforts in Crimea to join Russia, a development administration officials made clear all day long they firmly oppose.


ACOSTA (voice-over): It was as if President Obama was trying to race ahead of events on the ground in Crimea, where pro-Russian lawmakers voted to hold a referendum to break away from Ukraine and become part of Russia.

OBAMA: The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law. In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.

ACOSTA: The president's brief statement backed up with assurances by White House officials.

(on camera): Judging by what the president said, this White House is not giving up Crimea in this crisis?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Crimea is a part of Ukraine, the sovereign state of Ukraine.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The administration also announced new travel restrictions on so far unnamed Russians and Ukrainians accused of playing a role in the crisis, plus a presidential executive order authorizing economic sanctions that could come next.

As European leaders threaten their own sanctions may follow, Secretary of State John Kerry denied any escalation in the standoff.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We want President Putin and Russia and everyone to understand our preference is to get back to a normality.

ACOSTA: Mr. Obama's handling of Russian President Vladimir Putin took another pounding from Republicans gathered at the conservative CPAC conference in Washington.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: We have long thought and said this president is a smart man. It may be time to revisit that assumption.


ACOSTA: But another fierce GOP critic, Senator John McCain, tweeted, "Good remarks by President Obama today."

Outside the White House, Ukrainians sang the national anthem and pleaded with the president to hang tough, as their country's interim prime minister offered his own riff on a famous Cold War quote from Ronald Reagan.

YATSENYUK: Mr. Putin, tear down this wall, the wall of intimidation, the wall of military aggression.

ACOSTA: White House officials are resisting Cold War comparisons between then and now, but argue the new chill in relations is getting through to Putin.

(on camera): Do you have any sense whatsoever that he is getting your message?

CARNEY: He certainly is.


ACOSTA: And, as for those sanctions, aides to the president know that Russian leaders are already talking about their own threats of retaliation. Asked about that, a senior administration official said -- quote -- "Frankly, that does not concern us" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House. Developments continuing to unfold.

Still ahead, Russian troops, they are on the move, along with warships and U.S. fighter jets. We will map out the latest military developments with the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. He's standing by live.


BLITZER: We're following movements by the Russian military and the U.S. military as the crisis in Ukraine deepens.

Let's get some more now.

Joining us, the retired Air Force General Richard Myers. He was a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Also, our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Guys, thanks very much.

General, fighter jets, U.S. fighter jets, they are arriving, we're told, in some of these NATO countries, in the Baltics, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. What does that mean, practically speaking, other than some sort of political statement?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS (RET.), FORMER JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: I think what that means is allies that will be nervous about Russia's moves here in Ukraine, it's one way to reassure them, and given that they're part of NATO, very common.

BLITZER: They're concerned -- Poland, also, a member.

MYERS: Oh, absolutely.

BLITZER: They're concerned that Russia might just go beyond Ukraine into their countries, even though they're NATO allies and if you attack a NATO ally, you're attacking the United States of America?

MYERS: Yes. It would be a violation of Article 5 of the NATO alliance.

But has Russia ever done this before? Yes, they have. Have they Been victim of that? Yes, they have. So I think they're worried. Do I think they need to be worried right this minute about that? No. But I think it's good to reassure our allies, our NATO allies and also to show Russia that there are some things we can do to bolster their morale and defenses.

BLITZER: Jim, this is in part a sort of hand-holding some of these nervous NATO allies.


And it's interesting. They may need some hand-holding, right, because of some of the moves that the Russian military is doing. I was going to first refer our attention to the map on the back wall here. You had a blockade. This is a satellite picture showing the base at Sevastopol. If you look at the center there, it's where Ukrainian ships are docked and you go a little closer.

There's three Russian vessels that look to be performing a blockade.

I wonder if I could ask you, General, you recognize a blockade. It looks like a blockade. What's the intention here?

MYERS: It looks like a blockade. And all the pictures and the news reports are that the Ukraine ships aren't able to move. I think the picture is one of -- that's very serious. When you start blockading another country's forces, it's a very serious move on Russia's part.

SCIUTTO: Because then there's another blockade of a different sort happening down here, so Sevastopol on the map, if we can show you, here, down here. Then up here, there are some Ukrainian ships, smaller town, you don't see it on the map, but they sunk a ship.

They scuttled an old Russian warship to block the entrance to the harbor there and you have a handful of military Ukrainian navy ships inside. Is that an act of war?

MYERS: Well, under international law, I think there's some that could interpret this as an act of war. I don't know in this particular case. You would have to look at all the specifics, but it certainly could be.

BLITZER: Take us inside the Pentagon. You have been in crisis modes over there. You were chairman of the Joint Chiefs, National Military Command Center, the Tank, they used to call it. I don't know if they still call it...

MYERS: They still call it... BLITZER: They still call it the Tank. The White House has the Situation Room. You have the Tank over there.

Take us inside. What's going on? You don't know for sure, but what do you think is going on?

MYERS: Well, what usually would go on during a crisis like this is that the joint staff along with the combatant commander, in this case the European commander, would be looking at military options, probably short of force.

I doubt the president says come up with some options that include force. But what sort of things can the military do to reassure our allies? And we have seen some of those movements, perhaps humanitarian support to Ukraine if it really does turn to civil war, if it goes that far.

BLITZER: How do you end this situation without bloodshed, without a real escalation?

MYERS: I think we're at a very tense point right now, where we have to be very, very careful about any moves by the West and Russia has to be careful, too. I think economic impact on Russia has already had some some -- probably had some success. Their ruble's way down. Their market's way off.

I mean, they're feeling the effect of the impact of their behavior.

SCIUTTO: We were looking. We have been talking all day about and in previous days about the steps that the U.S. took in 2008 when Russia made similar moves into Georgia.

And what was interesting is that they're virtually identical. They put a ship into the Black Sea then as well, just as we're doing. You have got the USS Truxtun coming in, in the next 24 hours. They brought some aid via U.S. warplanes or C-130s into Tbilisi. They talked about expulsion from G8, even the language.

And Wolf played this quote from Secretary Condoleezza Rice that mimicked the language about sovereignty and integrity and so on as to what you heard from Secretary Kerry and the president today. That didn't work.

Is there any sense that we're doing -- what the U.S. is doing here now will work, will push Russia back?

MYERS: I think the thing that might be different this time is the unity between the E.U., the United States, NATO, an international community that has pretty well condemned these moves by -- this move by Russia into Crimea in particular.

I think we're more unified this time. We were quicker to get around to that. It's not total. Sanctions wouldn't be approved by everybody involved, but I think we're a lot closer to unity in addressing this than we probably were last time. BLITZER: All right, we will see how unified the U.S. and the NATO allies and the European Union are when it comes down to real sanctions. That would be very painful.


MYERS: It would be very painful.


BLITZER: For the Europeans as well.

MYERS: But Russia has a lot more to lose. And, by the way, we do too. We have a lot of companies that do business in Russia.


BLITZER: This is a high-stakes economic game right now.

MYERS: High-stakes, you bet.

Hey, General, thanks very much. You're always welcome in our Situation Room.

MYERS: Thanks, Wolf. Thank you.

BLITZER: Jim, of course, is always welcome as well.

Up next, Chris Christie courting conservatives. Could he win their crucial support for a possible White House run?


BLITZER: Here's a quick look at some of the other top stories happening now.

The crisis in Ukraine isn't stopping a big rally on Wall Street, the S&P hitting a record high and the Dow closing up more than 60 points. For now, investors remain optimistic about the outlook for stocks this year. The Senate has defeated a measure designed to reduce the growing problem of sexual assaults in the United States armed forces by overhauling how the military prosecutes serious crimes. The bill introduced by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand would have removed commanders from deciding whether these assaults and other serious crimes should be prosecuted. The 55-45 vote did not break down along party lines.

A critical test for Chris Christie speaking to an influential conservative gathering whose support would be crucial if the New Jersey governor decides to run for president.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, has details.


DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If you're Chris Christie trying to win over activists at the largest annual gathering of conservatives, this is what you do.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for.

BASH: Find common ground, like attacking the media and defending the billionaire Koch brothers, GOP donors under fire from Democrats.

CHRISTIE: Stop picking on great Americans who are creating great things in our country.

BASH: And try to assuage conservative concerns here about a blue state governor who works with Democrats by playing up opposition to abortion.

CHRISTIE: When we say that we're pro-life, and that we're proudly pro-life, that doesn't mean we're pro-life just with human beings in the womb.

BASH: The reaction here at the annual CPAC convention? A rousing response, and as much or even more so than conservative crowd favorites who also spoke, like Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The guy is good, he connects with people, he says what needs to be said. And to me, he's the only personality who will be able to stand up to Hillary Clinton.

BASH: But Christie arrived in suburban Washington to bad news in a brand-new poll. Three in 10 Republicans say they would never vote for him. We heard that in the crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm personally not a big fan of him because I think that he colluded with President Obama in 2012.

BASH: She's angry about Christie embracing Obama after Hurricane Sandy before the last election. And Bridgegate is hurting him, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought it was impressive. He showed himself to be in charge, but I don't think I would vote for him.

BASH (on camera): Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The scandal really bothers me, just the corruption, the kind of people he had around him.

BASH: Despite that criticism, the crowd responded well to one of Christie's more traditional messages, that Republicans need to be for their own ideas, not just against Democrats. All in all, it was a positive experience for Christie here at CPAC, especially considering last year he was snubbed. He wasn't even invited to one of the most important gatherings of conservatives.

Dana Bash, CNN, Oxon Hill, Maryland.


BLITZER: And this just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. We just heard from the deputy national security adviser to the president. Ben Rhodes just tweeted that President Obama spoke this afternoon with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, about the situation in Ukraine. A readout, a statement from the White House coming out momentarily. Stay with CNN for much more on this, but President Obama just spoke with President Putin of Russia. We're about to find out what they said, if they achieved anything.

That's it for me this hour. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.