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Crisis in Ukraine; Interview With Ukrainian Singer Ruslana

Aired March 7, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Journalists are now being targeted, and Russian forces are trying to seize a Ukrainian base. Is there a diplomatic way out of this crisis in Ukraine?

A pop star's plea. Ukrainian singer Ruslana gives voice to her country's increasingly desperate plight. She's standing by to join us live here. And what does she want the United States to do?

Blood-stained square. Emotional pilgrims flock to the site where dozens were killed just weeks ago. Now hundreds more have taken their place. What is their demand right now?

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

We're following new developments in the crisis in Ukraine. We have just learned that a tense hours-long standoff between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Crimea has ended. Dozens of Russian soldiers were trying to seize control of a Ukrainian base just outside of Sevastopol, at one point ramming trucks into the gates.

CNN's Anna Coren is in Crimea for us. She's joining us now.

Anna, what happened?

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as we know, tensions have been extremely high around these military bases where these Russian troops have really surrounded these installations, but it would appear that this evening the situation really blew up at this one particular air base.

These Russian troops ramming a truck through the gates, they were on the base for some time. The Ukrainians were holed up inside the base. There was a command for the Russian troops to retreat. They did that. The problem, however, was when the local militia got involved.

And they attacked journalists on the scene. Some even had to be hospitalized. But, Wolf, we're seeing this angst and hostility towards the media and the concern is that it is only going to get worse.


COREN (voice-over): On a street in the heart of Simferopol, masked paramilitaries confiscate equipment from a TV station. Filming across the road, a Bulgarian journalist who has suddenly been spotted. Within seconds, he's pushed to the ground, a gun aimed at his head. His assistant is then targeted. The militia take their phones and cameras before fleeing in the van, the brazen attack caught on a surveillance camera, but there won't be any investigation.

These faceless men are now the law in Crimea. The self-appointed pro-Russian government here, apparently working in concert with Russian forces, is cracking down on opposition and dissent. Having taken control just a week ago, it shut down two Ukrainian TV stations broadcasting in Crimea. Russian state TV has now replaced one of them.

As it tries to tighten its grip on the media, the new Crimean authority is of grave concern to these people. Braving miserable conditions, 200 pro-Ukrainian supporters voice their opposition to the referendum vote that could decide if Crimea breaks away and joins Russia.

"It's illegal, what they're doing," this woman tells me. "We're part of Ukrainian and the international community is not protecting us."

Leaders in Kiev along with those in the U.S. and Europe also consider the referendum illegal. The Crimean government says international observers have been invited to oversee the vote, but, not surprisingly, the majority will come from Russia.

But these observers arriving at a Crimean checkpoint certainly were not welcome. Observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were blocked from entering Crimea. The Ukrainian government wants them to investigate Russian troops occupying the region, but for now at least, it doesn't look like they will be going anywhere.


COREN: And, Wolf, of course, there are real concerns that this new Crimean government that's here is merely a puppet for the Russian government and they just do not want any intervention from the West, no meddling whatsoever.

They have only got one message, Wolf, and that's a pro-Russian message.

BLITZER: And, Anna, all indications are they are going to go ahead with that so-called referendum to decide the future of Crimea. That's on schedule, signs pointing to that, is that right, Anna?

COREN: Yes, absolutely.

That is still taking place on the 16th of March. And there are reports that Russian troops will be coming to the peninsula. There are already reports certainly from the Ukrainian government that there are 30,000 Russian troops already here, some of them obviously occupying those military bases, surrounding them at least, and there are concerns that there's going to be more and more of a presence over the coming days, Wolf. BLITZER: All right, Anna, be careful over there, Anna Coren reporting from Crimea.

The White House is monitoring all of these latest very troubling developments, with President Obama bluntly stating U.S. opposition to Russia's actions in a series of phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us now.

Jim, what do we know about all these calls?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, White House officials are describing these conversations between President Obama and Vladimir Putin as robust, direct and candid. That's putting it mildly. The fact is the U.S. and Russia are talking right past each other, but at least they're talking.


ACOSTA (voice-over): With the tug of war over Crimea at a stalemate, President Obama escaped to Florida and the sunnier topic of college financial aid.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know if you're aware of this, but the rest of the country is cold.


ACOSTA: Vladimir Putin was also playing it cool, posing for pictures at the opening of the Paralympic Games in Sochi.

But behind the scenes, both sides are butting heads and Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, continue their talks. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned this week's White House threat of sanctions would boomerang back at the U.S. The president and Putin are also at odds.

The White House said in their latest phone call, Mr. Obama indicated there is a way to resolve the situation, but Putin said his country cannot ignore the calls for help coming from ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

Still, a senior administration official tells CNN both leaders understand there should be a diplomatic path forward.

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We're taking this day by day. And so obviously our focus now is getting the Ukrainians and the new government of Ukraine and the Russians back at the table.

ACOSTA: But potential provocations are mounting, with the U.S. moving forward with joint naval exercises with Bulgaria and Romania in the Black Sea near Crimea.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NAVY: This was an excursion for her that was planned well before her departure from the United States.

ACOSTA: Then there was the threat from a major Russian natural gas company to suspend service to Ukraine. The Obama administration poked back, announcing it's stepping up efforts to help Ukrainian become less dependent on Russian energy, a tactic gaining bipartisan support in Congress.

REP. ED ROYCE (R), CALIFORNIA: The White House, frankly, needs to come around to a strategy of supplying Europe, selling to Europe gas and replacing the monopoly that Putin has and the leverage that Putin has with Europe.

ACOSTA: But the standoff comes with costs. Consider one key area of U.S.-Russian joint action, Syria. The State Department says the June deadline for the Syrian regime to hand over its chemical weapons could be at risk.


ACOSTA: And, as for the weekend, the president plans to stay in Florida with the first family, even as Vice President Joe Biden is catching some sun down in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but the White House, White House officials say not to worry about all this.

The president is traveling with a deputy national security adviser and can keep tabs on Ukraine down in Florida, just as well as he can here at the White House, only that the weather will be a little bit better down there, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly it will be, although it's supposed to be a nice weekend in Washington as well. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Still ahead, the Ukrainian pop star who has become a major voice of her country in this ongoing crisis. Is she afraid for her life? She's here.

Ruslana, Come on over. You're here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Welcome to Washington.


BLITZER: We're going to talk in a moment.

RUSLANA: Thank you.


BLITZER: She's a huge pop star pleading the case of her country to the world.

Ukraine's Ruslana, she became famous after winning the Eurovision Song Contest a decade ago. Since then, she's used her star power to support the push for real democracy in Ukraine.

Ruslana -- and that's how she's known to so many of her fans -- is here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us right now. You have had a chance -- Ruslana, first of all, welcome to Washington. I know you met with the first lady while you're here. You met with the vice president, Joe Biden, with John McCain.

What is your message, your basic message to these American leaders?

RUSLANA: I'm so happy to be here and use this time to have this message.

First of all, just be strong enough with position to keep the peace. That's it. I know it's very important to use some sanction, economic, and to talk about unite USA and Europe block aggressive Putin on something like that.

But, first of all, just be strong enough with position to keep peace, because we have war. We have dangerous situation, not just about Crimea, not just about Ukraine, not about Europe. I think Putin's propaganda everywhere. We have it about information, disinformation. It's about lies. It's about conflict which doesn't exist.

BLITZER: You're saying disinformation and lies, that's what's coming, you say, from Russia.

Now, you met with the first lady. I think we have some pictures, some of video of you and Michelle Obama.


BLITZER: What was that -- there she is right there. Tell us what that was like being received by the first lady of the United States. And you had a chance to make your country's case to her.

RUSLANA: You know, it was very important to be there, to speak with her, explain what's going on exactly in Ukraine, how it's important to do everything to stop war, how it's important.

It's not just pain of Ukraine. It's pain of everybody, for all of us. So that's important.

BLITZER: And I just want to remind viewers you also met with Senator John McCain. How did that meeting go?

RUSLANA: I asked for keep a peacekeeping mission.

BLITZER: From who, a peacekeeping mission from who?

RUSLANA: From who? USA, this country, guarantor of our independence, because Ukraine can't sell its weapons. We are a peace country. The question, if Putin changed the rule for that, forget about the agreement. So we ask USA for that. We ask the United States, of course, for the .

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: You came here to Washington after spending several weeks. You were at that square, that Independence Square in Kiev all that time. How long were you actually there protesting what was going on?

RUSLANA: Three months. Oh, three months, from the end of November, when I heard first time that we cancel it to sign statement with -- about euro integration statement, a cessation.

And I saw so much pain all this time. I never forget when people was killed for 20 minutes by one -- snipers. I stay on the stage for 10 hours to ask Berkut, to ask police, don't kill us. Please don't kill us.

So I know how it important to use even this time to ask everybody, keep peace. I don't want to read name of people killed.

BLITZER: Did you see people get shot and killed?

RUSLANA: Exactly. I was there all the time. I see everything.

BLITZER: Were you scared for your own life?

RUSLANA: I can't explain. So now we have hero who go to snipers without any weapons. I can't explain it. It's just Ukrainian heroes. I want to say just Ukraine -- it's how Ukraine...

BLITZER: What's your message to Putin?

RUSLANA: Mr. Putin, look at me. I'm strong enough. There is a lot of people, Ukrainians and Russian, unite against you.

You will never win in Ukraine. You will never be that thing -- people understand in the world everything, your anti-human propaganda, your disinformation, your lies. Nobody support you. Sorry. Don't touch Ukraine.

BLITZER: What happens if this so-called referendum in Crimea, the people vote there, and they allow -- and they say they want to be part of Russia and leave Ukraine?

RUSLANA: Majority people from Crimea, majority support Ukraine, united Ukraine. All east region in Ukraine are -- organized the demonstration.

Ukrainian and Russian people together, support whole country, unite Ukraine, be together. We want to say, Putin, thank you, but we don't have any crisis. We don't have any problem. Sorry. Don't touch us. Leave us. Don't kill us.

BLITZER: Be careful when you go back.

Ruslana, thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

RUSLANA: No problem. I'm strong enough. Thank you. BLITZER: Good luck to you and good luck to all the people of Ukraine.

RUSLANA: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: Ruslana, thank you.

Up next: prayers and tears in the blood-stained square, where so many Ukrainian protesters died.

That's coming up, but, first, this "Impact Your World" report.




CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Elvis fan Reba Roberts was so thrilled when Priscilla Presley came to visit her Santa Barbara hospice facility, she broke into song.

Presley is a Dream Foundation ambassador. The charity grants wishes to adults with terminal illnesses.

PRESLEY: The requests you would think would be crazy things, but they're not. They're simple. They're about getting back with your family, having a reunion.

CUOMO: Like seeing your sister for the first time in four years. That was Roberts' wish.

ROBERTS: We just hugged and hugged and hugged.

PRESLEY: Really when you stop and think of it that you offer comfort, a closure to not just the recipients but to the family members, what they go through -- to try to grant that last wish when they really can't.

CUOMO: According to the Dream Foundation, around 20,000 wishes have been fulfilled in the past two decades.

PRESLEY: As sensitive a journey that this is, to see the smiles and the appreciation and the love, it's really unmatched that you're doing something and able to help others. The impact is immeasurable.



BLITZER: Breaking news: President Obama has just spoken to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, has details.

What do we know, Jim? ACOSTA: Right.

Wolf, all we know is that the president called Chancellor Merkel after arriving in Key Largo after that event in Miami earlier today. As you know, Wolf, the president and Angela Merkel have been talking throughout the week. She's been sort of acting as an intermediary between President Obama and Vladimir Putin, laying out some of the contours of this potential off-ramp for the Russians out of Crimea.

We will have to find out -- we will be reading the tea leaves to see exactly what Angela Merkel and the president talked about later on this evening -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chancellor Merkel a critically important player in this drama.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.

It's where the deadliest moments of the crisis played out, and the drama there is still unfolding.

Here's CNN's Michael Holmes.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Little more than two weeks ago, protesters in Kiev's Independence Square were dying, shot in the streets as their battle with security forces turned deadly.

The first protesters set up camp in late November to defy the government of now ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. Some never left through the cold of winter and the violence that claimed the lives of their compatriots. They say the departure of Yanukovych isn't the end.

"We will remain until the legitimate elections in May," he says. "We are here to change the entire political structure, and ensure those who were in power are banned from holding office."

There are plenty who call Independence Square home these days.

"We have just gained our first results," this man tells us, "but the fight needs to go on. We need to stay here until the old corrupt authorities are gone, until Ukraine is truly free."

And so they sleep in a growing tent city. Volunteers feed them and country men and women visit to thank them.

(on camera): There's perhaps a few hundred of those hard-core protesters still here, those who were here from the very beginning, but many, many other Ukrainians are making their way to the square every day.

(voice-over): They come from far and wide to wander, absorb what happened here, honor those who fell for the cause.

They photograph the scene and the memorials; they pray and they weep, some bringing their children along so they, too, will remember.

Alexi was born here, but lives in London. He took leave and flew back just to place some flowers in Independence Square.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The name correctly reflects the reality. It is Independence Square. It's the place where Ukraine finally became independent, Ukraine become free.

HOLMES: This young woman said she wished she could do more, but she just had to come.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm here because all these people who died, they died for our freedom, and for our future and for our future children. And I don't want their deaths...

HOLMES: Tears complete the sentence for her.

Michael Holmes, CNN, Kiev, Ukraine.


BLITZER: The drama still continuing to unfold. That's it for me.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.