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Crisis in Ukraine; President Obama's New Initiative

Aired February 27, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: a very personal cause for the president of the United States. He is launching a new initiative to help young men of color have the same opportunities he had.

From the small screen to the White House, "Grey's Anatomy" star Jesse Williams. He's here. He will join us live. He was with the president today at the event in the East Room of the White House. He will share the emotion of the moment.

And Russian forces on high alert. The U.S. is warning Moscow to show restraint. The crisis in Ukraine is turning up tensions even higher, along with fears of a dangerous new Cold War.

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


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can see myself in these young men. And the only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving. So, when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe. I had people who encouraged me.


BLITZER: That was the president of the United States explaining why he takes his new campaign to help young black and Latino men so, so very personally.

He launched the My Brother's Keeper initiative over at the White House earlier in the afternoon. An administration official just told CNN the president improvised a good portion of his remarks and was more emotional than even many of the planners of the event had anticipated.

CNN's Don Lemon is over at the White House. He came down to watch what was going on, along with his special guest Magic Johnson.

Guys, thanks very much.

Don, let me start with you, and then I will bring Magic into this conversation. Set the scene for viewers, Don, who may just be tuning in. What was the president really trying to accomplish on this historic day? DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think the president was trying to accomplish -- and I'm sure you will agree -- something that I think has been on his heart since he met with a mentoring group from Chicago last year and then again in July in the Oval Office.

And I think it's something that he had probably been wanting to say and deal with for a long time, but now that he is in his second term and now that we have had, you know, issues when it comes to young black men, when it comes to Trayvon Martin, when it comes to Jordan Davis, I think the president now feels a certain freedom to say those things and to get this initiative done.

And he also -- it is timely because he said he was going to do this in his State of the Union back in January, where he said, I'm going to use the power of the pen and the phone and I'm going to make certain decisions. And if I have to go around Congress, then I'm going to go around Congress to do it. If I have to bring in philanthropists and community groups and religious groups to do it, then I'm going to. That's what I'm going to do.

He announced an initiative today that was groundbreaking, that was history-making on getting young black men to achieve, getting them as far as we can to level the playing field. And I think it was one of the most emotional moments that I have seen from the president. By the way, Wolf, I have to say, I have not grown. I'm not as tall as Magic Johnson. I'm standing on a box.

BLITZER: Of course you are.

LEMON: Magic is much taller than I am.


BLITZER: And we knew that. I was going to point that out to our viewers, in the cause of full transparency.

Hey, Magic, so you were there. You were inside the East Room of the White House. Tell us what it was like. What did you go through? What did you feel?

MAGIC JOHNSON, FORMER NBA PLAYER: It was very emotional, a lot of amens and people were really backing the president's speech and his message to America, not just to black and Latino young men, but to America, because America will be better if Latino men and African- American men are educated, and they can go on and be successful in life.

But you could just feel the room. Like, it was so -- they were so happy.

LEMON: It was special, right?

JOHNSON: Exactly. It was a special feeling in the room. It was almost like we were in church in a sense. And he delivered a powerful message. And then those young men behind him, I got a chance to meet with them for an hour afterwards, and all of them were so excited to be at the White House, know that President Obama looked like them and gave them a message of hope and that if they get a quality education, they can be achievers in life and have a successful career as far as anything that they want to become in life.

BLITZER: Hold on, guys, because the actor Jesse Williams is here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's one of the stars of "Grey's Anatomy."

You came to the White House, Jesse, today. You were in the East Room of the White House.

First of all, tell us, why did you decide to come?

JESSE WILLIAMS, ACTOR: Well, I decided to come because it's a historic moment, as you pointed out. It is an important initiative to be coming from the nation's capital, to have somebody on a national scale address what foundations have been regionally and locally, very successfully, actually, I would say, recently.

You have been able to see people be able to handle getting results and addressing the opportunity gap. Which we so often call the achievement gap is in many, many ways an opportunity gap.

BLITZER: What did you hear, Jesse, that really personally resonated the most with you?

WILLIAMS: I think one of the things that really stuck with me personally is something that I think not so many Americans are able to necessarily relate to, because, being biracial, as the president is and myself is, I think there are many kinds of Americas. There are many Americas, right?

There are many experiences people can have. And being able in some ways, I find in my personal experience, I should speak for myself, certainly, and not him -- I have been able to see -- live in the suburbs in Massachusetts and in the hood in Chicago and be in a horrible school system of two grades in one classroom of 60 kids and be in a tiny school with 11 kids, and realize the incredible differences that people can have just by your zip code, just by the color of their skin or just by whatever opportunity you seem to have.

And what he's trying to do I think is address that and give people an opportunity to be patient and to see what it is for kids to be nourished.

BLITZER: Magic, you and I have known each other for a long time. And I know you have done personally incredibly important work using some of your own resources, and, fortunately, you have a lot of resources, to do what the president is recommending all of us do today.

Where do we go from here, Magic? Give us a little sense of how these words can be translated now into greater action. JOHNSON: Well, Wolf, it's all about the strategy and then how we execute that strategy.

And so what President Obama has done is said, hey, in 90 days, he wants everybody to report back to him because it is important that we have deliverables. It's one thing to talk, but now we have to put this plan into action. And he's gotten great foundations to be involved who have been in this fight, who understands this information better than anybody.

And then he's called corporate America, myself and other business leaders, to say, OK, if we do turn these young men's life around, will there be job opportunities for them once they graduate from college? And we're all saying, yes, there will be. And also we will train them as well. And then he's got great educators who have been in this fight for a long time.

So he's got everybody on board with a strategy, with a plan and he's going to execute on that plan, and so this has been great, Wolf, because before, we have always had somebody who wanted to be involved.

LEMON: Right.

JOHNSON: But it always stumbled. It always came up short. But I don't think this plan will come up short. And when the president of the United States is behind it and he's actually the guy who is calling the shots, like President Obama is doing, it's going to be awesome.


LEMON: And Magic is reading my mind now. That's how this is different. You got the sense, Jesse -- Jesse was sitting one row in front of me. Magic was sitting on the other side of the room.

What you got in that room was a sense that this is something different. At first, you know, people were saying, we don't know about it, how is this different? There are initiatives everywhere.

This is different because he brought people like Magic. He had lawmakers from across the country, and people like Bloomberg here, Mayor Bloomberg. He had Rahm Emanuel. He had people who really need this to work in their cities. If they're fighting for Chicago, they're fighting for New York City, they're fighting for Philadelphia, or wherever it is, they need these programs to work.

And not only does he have those people behind him, but he has got the money. Magic has money, and he has got philanthropy around him. So, that's how it's different.

BLITZER: We know he's got a lot of money, but that's another story.


BLITZER: All right, Jesse, you're not only an excellent actor, but you're a former high school teacher. So you bring a lot to this subject right now.

So, walk us through where we -- I'm sure you were inspired by what you heard from the president. And he, like you, like Magic, like Don, all of you can be excellent role models for a lot of young kids out there.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that you try to pull together -- I think what the initiative My Brother's Keeper is doing is trying to pull together best practices that -- from all these different groups around the country, and whether it's in a classroom in Oakland that's having incredible results and they're pushing their kids into college and having incredible graduation rates, whatever it is, cobbling together all of these, instead of trying to create something new.

What happens all the -- what happens so often, people want to create a new foundation. And you are kind of stacking on top of each other, instead of taking everybody's initiatives and making them into one. If you're looking at third-grade reading proficiency. If we're looking -- we have a staggeringly low number of young men of color, young boys of color that are reading way below their third-grade reading level.

And that means, through the first three years, you're trying to learn to read, and the rest of that you need to read to learn. And if you can't read well, that is going to have a direct impact in the classroom and you will be left behind and you're will find yourself looking elsewhere.

BLITZER: Jesse Williams, thanks for coming in. Thanks for what you're doing. Really appreciate it.

Magic, always great to have you in THE SITUATION ROOM.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Wolf.

Don Lemon doing a terrific job for us well.

We're going to continue to watch this story. There's other news we're watching as well, including a showdown straight out of the Cold War, troops on alert, crowds fighting in the street, tough warnings by world leaders. The former supreme NATO allied commander, Retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan, he is standing by live. We will get his take on the potential danger right now.


BLITZER: Right now, the Russian decision to hold war games as the Ukraine crisis boils is making a potentially explosive situation even more alarming.

President Obama's top national security officials are putting Moscow on notice that one wrong move could have very dangerous consequences.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, for the latest -- Barbara. BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, years after the Cold War ended, the Pentagon is right back where it was, wondering what exactly Moscow is up to.


STARR (voice-over): Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at NATO headquarters suddenly the cold warrior.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I'm closely watching Russia's military exercises along the Ukrainian border.

STARR: Warning Moscow.

HAGEL: I expect Russia to be transparent about these activities, and I urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculation during a very delicate time, a time of great tension.

STARR: So far, Russia has not moved significant forces off their bases near the Ukraine border, but, by the weekend, the U.S. expects nearly 150,000 Russian troops conducting war games close to that border.

If -- and it's a big if -- Russian President Vladimir Putin were to order his troops into Ukraine, they could move in so quickly, the U.S. might not know right away it's happening, one U.S. official telling CNN, "Our warning time is cut to zero."

And that makes it impossible for last-minute U.S. diplomatic pressure. So it's a full-court press now to make sure Russia doesn't go back on its promise to respect Ukraine's sovereignty.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We believe that everybody now needs to step back and avoid any kind of provocations. And we want to see in the next days ahead, obviously, that the choices Russia makes conform to this affirmation.

STARR: The U.S. intelligence assessment? Putin is sending a message to the U.S. and Ukraine that his military still has the capability to invade if he orders it and that he is not willing to lose Russian influence over Kiev.


STARR: For now, the U.S. believes that Putin will not go in to Ukraine, at least not on a large scale. One of the key questions nobody can answer, what if just he sends a few troops at a time over the border? What then, Wolf?

BLITZER: Good question.

Let's see if we can get an answer.

We're joined by the retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan, the former NATO supreme allied commander. Are we seeing another sort of Cold War scenario unfold, General?

GEN. GEORGE JOULWAN (RET.), U.S. ARMY: I don't think so. I think what you're seeing is flexing of the muscle by Putin.

Ukraine is in its vital interests. He'd been concerned about that. And, by the way, this argument has been going on since the Soviet Union broke up in the early '90s. So, this has been an ongoing thing with the Black Sea fleet in particular.

BLITZER: They moved into Georgia a few years ago, the Russian troops, a neighboring independent country.

JOULWAN: Ukraine is much different.

You have a very large Russian population in Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian population. So I think it would be much different. The E.U. and NATO need to be involved here with us. And we need to provide that leadership.

BLITZER: So when you hear the defense secretary of the United States, Chuck Hagel, not just saying, but reading a statement in effect warning the Russians don't even think about sending troops across the border into Ukraine, that's ominous.

JOULWAN: I think we also -- as we talked about a couple days ago, we also have to have the deterrent posture to deter something like that, not just politically and diplomatically, but militarily.

BLITZER: Well, is U.S. deterrent posture credible right now, given the disastrous experiences, the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and clearly no appetite here in the United States to use military force anyplace else?

JOULWAN: The quick answer to that is yes.

I think we still have the wherewithal to be able to deter, but it's the political side, the political will, let me use it that way, to be able to deter something like this.

BLITZER: Do you think Putin can be deterred by the U.S., NATO, the Europeans?


BLITZER: What about in Korea?


JOULWAN: With U.S. leadership. That's the other part.

BLITZER: So, that raises, is there U.S. leadership?

JOULWAN: Well, that's -- I would hope so. And it takes not just the minister -- secretary of defense or state, but the president of the United States really understanding why this is important. BLITZER: Because we're seeing a lot of tensions unfold, not just in Ukraine, but obviously Syria, tensions with Iran, Korea, North Korea launching four short-range or intermediate-range missiles today, just as U.S. and South Korean troops are engaged in war games exercises in South Korea. There's a lot of stuff going on right now.

JOULWAN: But Secretary Hagel used a great word. And what you want to avoid that I have said for many years, miscalculation, that someone miscalculates on either side what the, really, threat is.

And I don't really think the Russians are going to take action against Ukraine. Crimea is another -- Sevastopol and the Black Sea fleet, that's another issue that needs to be resolved, but against Ukrainian people, no.

BLITZER: Are you concerned about a growing isolationist tendency in the United States, the American public sick of all this international involvement, saying, you know what, we have got to spend the money here, we have got important issues to deal with at home?

JOULWAN: Yes, I think that is a concern.

But U.S. leadership is vital here by the president, by his appointees, by the Congress. We have to get this team together again to have a united front against the challenges we face. It's still a very dangerous world out there. And we have to understand that.

BLITZER: I want to show you a picture, because they say a picture's worth 1,000 words. Look at this picture. This is in Syria, thousands of people who are lining up. They're dying for food. Look at this picture. You can see it right there.


BLITZER: What a dramatic picture. This is the from the United Nations Human Rights Commission. These people in Syria, they're just hungry, they're looking for food.

And look at those lines that have -- I mean, this is heartbreaking to see what's going on right now.

JOULWAN: Great tragedy.

And we need to take the lead in doing something. We did it in the Balkans, as you know. We know how to do this. There are ways to do this.

BLITZER: Airpower? Without putting boots on the ground. Would you use airpower?


JOULWAN: We would have the U.N. and NATO and the United States. We used exclusion zones around Sarajevo.

BLITZER: Except the Russians will veto any such resolution from the U.N. Security Council.

JOULWAN: Well, I think they have made some move towards humanitarian...

BLITZER: Humanitarian, yes.

JOULWAN: Well, we will use it. You cannot allow this. It will spill over in much of the Middle East, in Jordan, in Lebanon. Israel is involved in all of this. The Saudis are very much concerned.

So this is where the leadership is what I'm talking about, and we need to get that. And our military guys need to stand up and be counted here on, what are the risks? And that concerns me. There are risks involved.

BLITZER: There certainly are.

General Joulwan, as usual, thanks for coming in.

JOULWAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: The former NATO supreme allied commander.

Coming up: a river of ice destroying homes and lives. We're going to talk to people who fear their community is about to face a disaster.


BLITZER: Right now, this is the worst fear of riverfront residents south of Chicago, where a massive ice jam is threatening to give way like this one recently did in Ohio.

Homes and lives, they are at stake.

And CNN's Ted Rowlands is there for us -- Ted.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, take a look at this. It's absolutely incredible, this ice jam.

We're on the banks of the Kankakee River just south of Chicago, about an hour south of Chicago. And look at these massive chunks of ice. They go on for as far as the eye can see. And just a few days ago, they weren't here.

The river was frozen, but it was smooth. What happened was, we had a few days of warm weather, which started the melting process and got the ice moving, and then it froze up again. And this is the result.

The problem, of course, the danger of this is that the massive force that this ice brings with it as it moves downriver. You can see huge tree limbs that are in this ice because they were trees that were on the banks of the river, and now they're in the middle. The concern, of course, is the homes. And you look on the side of the banks of the river, there are homes where the ice is coming right up to. We have been talking to people living in this area all day long. They're concerned. They're out here monitoring it. You can literally hear the ice cracking at times.

And the fear is that there is going to be movement of this ice at some point. And when there is, if there's a buildup, it could move even farther into these homes. And then the second part of the equation is when this ice starts to melt.

The ice will move, but then the water will come up, and a lot of these folks are worried that there could be flooding. But, as dangerous as this is, Wolf, it is an incredible sight to see -- back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Ted Rowlands on the scene for us, let's hope for the best.

This note: Stay with CNN throughout the night, especially later tonight for much more on President Obama's new initiative to help young minority men. Don Lemon will host a special report, "My Brother's Keeper." That will air at 11:00 p.m. Eastern tonight only here on CNN.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.