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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

President To Address Crisis In Ukraine

Aired February 28, 2014 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We are just getting word right now that the president is about to make a statement on the chaos in Ukraine. We'll bring that to you live as soon as it begins.

And also of course, the Pop Culture Lead coming up, a break-out year for black films like "12 Years A Slave," but is Hollywood still making it too tough for black actors to breakthrough.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Breaking news from the White House where President Obama is getting ready to weigh in on the escalating tensions in Ukraine as we reported earlier today. Armed Forces identified as members of the Russian military are said to have surrounded airports in Crimea in Southern Ukraine and also surrounded a state-run TV station. This, as the country's ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, came forward today vowing not to step down.

Let's bring in senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, what are we expecting the president to say here?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I think we are going to hear the president back up what you've heard from Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials, including White House Press Secretary Jay Carney earlier this afternoon, that any moves by Russia to intervene in the crisis to perhaps invade that territory of Crimea would be a grave mistake, in the words of White House officials and according to Secretary of State John Kerry.

One thing that we've been pressing officials all day long, Jake, is exactly who those forces are in the Crimea area. We're seeing forces with insignias that appear to be Black Andover or concealed. It's not clear who is on the ground in Crimea. So hopefully we'll get some advanced or at least some updated information from the president as to what that is.

But Jake, make no mistake, this is, again, once again, another confrontation between the president and Vladimir Putin over what is happening. Those events on the ground in the Ukraine.

TAPPER: Let's bring in chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim, I just was e-mailing with a senior official who points out that the Russians have a base and the question is whether what they are doing is out of line, crossing over what they should be doing. The administration not clear right now. But that is the biggest concern. What are you hearing from your sources? JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I'll tell you this, Jake. I'm hearing increased anxiety. I've been hearing it all day. More anxiety today than yesterday and more yesterday than the day before. So these moves have made them nervous. Yes, it's true they have a base there and there is an argument I'm sure they will make that they have a right to do what they are doing.

Remember, you have some very stern public warnings from every single U.S. Official in lock step in verbatim rhetoric, really, don't do anything that could be misinterpreted, but clearly these are the kind of actions that we're seeing. Soldiers without insignias on their uniforms, more than a dozen planes landing at that air field. Troops surrounding a pro-Russian television station.

So all of the moves that the U.S. officials warned Russia against making appear to be happening right now or things that could be easily interpreted as such. Remember U.S. officials have not confirmed yet publicly that these are in fact Russian forces.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, if I could go to you right now, the president anticipated a much different relationship with Russia in his second term. Of course, we all recall when he told Medvedev then president of Russia that to convey to Putin that he would have more flexibility in his second term, we're not sure what exactly he was referring to it might have been missile defense.

But in any case, clearly Putin is giving President Obama less flexibility when it comes to how to deal with these moves he's making.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's really the problem, Jake. The only U.S. move is diplomacy and presidential muscle power, which were about to see about the power of the oval office. There is no talk about any type of U.S. military action, NATO military action. But I have to tell you, underscoring what Jim Sciutto just said.

The anxiety at the Pentagon certainly rising throughout the day. The anxiety across the administration. And here's the reason. Putin has engaged in a very interesting military tactic. He has given the U.S. not any ability to have what they call warning time.

TAPPER: Barbara, I'm sorry. I'm going to interrupt you. Right now we're going to go the United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power speaking live.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: -- government efforts with appropriate international assistance to bring about economic recovery and renewed hope for the future. Thank you. And I'd be happy to take a couple of questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So who should be involved in this international media nation and has the U.S. communicated to Russia its concerns that it's greatly disturbed by these reports and it wants Russia to pull back?

POWER: First, let me say that the president of the United States will be speaking on the issue of Ukraine later today. So you'll hear directly from him. In terms of the mediation mission that we think is urgently needed, I think what's important is that it be seen as independent, credible, obviously the secretary general has dispatched an envoy, Robert Siri, to Ukraine, he remains in Ukraine. He is a former ambassador to Ukraine as many of you know.

The OSCE has historic connections, obviously, to many, many parts of the Ukraine and to the Ukrainian people. What we think is important, again, is that there is a mission at a time when the crisis seems to be escalating rather than de-escalating and we think that mission be carried out in service of the territorial integrity, sovereignty and unity of Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can I ask you how you would describe the Russian military movement in Crimea. Do these count as an act of aggression?

POWER: I'm not going to characterize the movements. Again, you'll be hearing from the president of the United States shortly. Beyond to reiterate the point that I've already made, which is that we are deeply concerned by these reports, deeply concerned by what we see as the facts on the ground. And we urge Russia to join us in helping Ukraine back on a path to a brighter future. Thank you very much.

TAPPER: That was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, talking about the U.S. having grave concerns about what exactly is going on in Ukraine right now when it comes to the presence of the Russian military. We're expecting President Obama any moment now to walk into the Brady briefing room, you are looking at right there in the west wing of the White House and address his concerns specifically to President Putin and others in Russia about what is going on right there.

Gloria, we were talking earlier -- Gloria Borger joins me now. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude there. Gloria, we were talking just a moment ago about what Russia is doing and I think it's important for people to have the context of, in 2008, Russia did actually invade Georgia. It was a completely different set of circumstances.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL STRATEGIST: Right.

TAPPER: But Putin has done something like this before.

BORGER: Right. And that's why one of the reasons, of course, the president actually spoke with Putin about this during the Olympics and took the opportunity to say that they agreed that all sides needed to refrain from any kind of military intervention here. That is why you see the Secretary of State John Kerry going out very forcefully talking to journalists.

Stressing that it would be hypocritical for the Russians to have any military action after they objected so forcefully to military action in Syria and military action in Libya. And what we seemed to be hearing from Samantha Power is some suggestion of some kind of international mediation mission, which you see the United States trying to make sure that they don't end up in kind of an east/west confrontation here, which really the last thing they want. TAPPER: We keep hearing that from the - Secretary Kerry saying this is not east versus west. This is not "Rocky 4." President Obama saying we don't view this through a cold war chess board type thing. Barbara Starr, there have been questions through the last 24 or so hours about these armed individuals in uniforms and whether they are Russian troops or just allied with the Russians. Crimea, obviously, in Southern Ukraine is majority ethnic Russian, but you have some reporting on that. What have you heard?

STARR: Jake, what we are hearing is the U.S. now does believe that some number of these troops are indeed Russian troops, that they have moved some of their forces. Let's keep in mind, they have forces at that naval base nearby in Sevastopol and they have had people moving around this region.

The bottom line is they are moving people into the area and the question for the U.S. is very simple, did today Moscow make its move and try and takeover Crimea? That's what we are hearing. Has this now been the Russian takeover? This is the assessment that both the Pentagon, the White House and intelligence community is trying to come to this afternoon.

They are very leery of talking about it in such absolute terms. They are still of the mind they don't want to escalate the situation further. But you know, make no mistake, you know better than anybody, putting President Obama out there is putting, like I said before, some serious muscle power of the oval office behind the diplomatic rhetoric.

This is a direct message to Putin, we know what you're doing and cut it out. This -- the problem that the Pentagon has, that the intelligence community has, is over the last several days the Russians had been able to move faster, put their people where they want to put them, go to airports, go to bases, move around Kiev, move around the Crimea faster than the U.S. can react to it.

And right now the intelligence community, the Pentagon is playing catchup, trying to figure out what Moscow is up to and Moscow so far is showing a very shadowy hand, not being terribly clear. And that's leaving the U.S. in a tough spot. Just what exactly are they up to and did they, in fact, move over to take over Crimea. There are people who are saying that is exactly what has happened -- Jake.

TAPPER: Chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, what are your sources telling you?

SCIUTTO: This is the thing. We've been focused a lot in the last 48 hours on this question. Will Russia do a Georgia-style invasion in 2008 in Crimea today? In effect, that's an imperfect question, right, because they don't have to do that to exercise -- to carry out a military invention. The other options are smaller forces-led black ops, that kind of thing, and that appears to be what we're seeing right now.

So Russia, the Russian officials, Sergey Lavrov, for instance, when he is speaking to Secretary Kerry or Putin, when he is speaking to Obama, can give assurances that they will not invade, not do a military intervention, but in fact what we see happening in reality is a smaller pinprick kind of thing distributed.

Those troops in the airport, troops surrounding a pro-Russian television station. That appears what is playing out right now. It doesn't have to be a Georgia-style invasion to be a serious military intervention and I see officials in Kiev, Ukrainian officials saying that this intervention will have, in their words, serious consequences.

TAPPER: And Jim Acosta at the White House, we're expecting President Obama to come out any moment and address this. This is a delicate dance for the White House. The president needing to assert his feelings and what the United States wants in terms of the Russians, but also not wanting to create more of a provocation than there needs to be. It is a battle of wills in many way between Putin and President Obama.

ACOSTA: That's right. And as you just mentioned a few moments ago, Jake. What the president said last week in Mexico that he doesn't view the situation with President Putin as an international chess match, but that appears to be what is taking place. So we've been asking Jay Carney all week, you know, you may not see it this way, the president may not see it this way.

But Vladimir Putin may see it this way and what is your response to that and basically, Jake, this White House just doesn't want to play that game. So they are watching what Vladimir Putin is doing rarely. I will say that I did asked Jay Carney earlier today, what are the U.S. options if the Russians do go into Crimea and quite frankly, Jay Carney did not really have an answer for that.

He said, we just don't want to speculate on what our options will be. So, you know, as Barbara was saying, this is putting the muscle of the presidency, the bully pulpit on stage, on the global stage to warn the Russians to stay out of there.

But at this point, it's very unclear as to what options this White House would have. You heard Samantha Power talking about the United Nations. We heard Jay Carney in this briefing room earlier today saying that, you know, he was asked what is at stake for the United States when it comes to the Ukraine, when it comes to Crimea?

Well, you know, there is there is such a thing as territorial integrity in international law in the United Nations was the response from Jay Carney. We may hear a bit of that from President Obama but, as you've been saying with Barbara Starr and Jim Sciutto and Gloria Borger, the president doesn't have a lot of options.

What we're really looking for at this point, Jake, is some clarity. Just who those forces are on the ground in Crimea and does the United States view that as a provocative move by the Russians.

TAPPER: I want to go now to Kiev, Ukraine. CNN's Ian Lee is there and joins us live. Ian, what are we learning if anything about these troops inside Ukraine? You've been reporting about them all day. What can you tell us?

IAN LEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, as far as the Ukrainian officials are concerned, these are Russian troops making intrusions on to Ukrainian soil, the Crimea. They've talked about it all day saying that this is an armed incursion by the Russians. They are not mincing words. We've also had a Ukrainian official at the U.N. say that 11 Russian helicopters and 10 airplanes have landed in the Crimea.

They are painting a picture of what appears to be a Russian takeover of the area. They've called the Russians to pull out their forces. They've also said that civil administration buildings as well as communication centers have been -- the Russians are trying to take those over as well and to block any of Ukraine's military in the area from activating.

Now, the acting president here has called for restraint so far, saying he doesn't want to see any more blood -- Jake.

TAPPER: Ian, as you know, Crimea was part of Russia until the 1950s when, I believe, it was Krushtev restored Crimea back to Ukraine because he was so fond of Ukraine. Most of the people in Crimea are ethnically Russian, are they, in your ability to discern from meeting individuals inside Southern Ukraine, are they supportive of the Russian government and any attempt to return Crimea to the Russian, for want of a better word, empire?

LEE: Right. The Crimea is ethnically more or less, the majority of them are Russian. They have very close bonds with the Russian government. Russian officials have been in there trying to expedite citizenship for some of the people in there. The Russians are very keen on keeping this area.

And as we reported earlier, you have a pro-Russian television station in the Crimea being protected by the Marines from the Black Sea fleet. So this is definitely an area that the Russians believe have a close kindred spirits with and the people reflect that sort of spirit, too. You see them on the streets. A lot of people with Russian flags waving them as well.

There is a significant minority there that is very much anti-Russian and they shouldn't be overlooked. The ethnic majority there, who is Muslim, and they are very much anti-Russian or pro-Ukrainian. They are trying to voice their opinions too. But you're right. This is an area that is predominantly ethnic Russian.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, what would have to happen for the U.S. To get involved in any way beyond sanctions or threats of sanctions or urging the International Monetary Fund to boost parts of Ukraine that are more pro-western?

STARR: You know, we've talked to a lot of people about this over the last 24 to 48 hours. There's simply no appetite for U.S. military action and some of the experts we're talking to say maybe that's the signal that Moscow has heard, that the U.S. won't do anything about it militarily. They won't be stopped. Economic diplomatic pressure, that sort of thing.

If Russia is now trying to take over Crimea, essentially, they have that largely sympathetic population there. That's one set of military facts. But if Moscow wanted to do something much more substantial across Ukraine, that's going to be very tough. They have a military challenge in front of them. They need supply lines. They need vehicles. They need rail lines to move in armored vehicles. They need airports that they can control.

That's how you get the supplies in place to take and hold territory. That is a very different prospect for Vladimir Putin so the question that the intelligence community is looking at, is this what he wants? Does he just want Crimea? And what does the U.S. do about that?

Because if you let that stand, the military relationship with Russia becomes very problematic across the board. The effort to get them to cooperate in Syria, the effort to get them to help deal with Iran and its nuclear program, the effort across the board to get their cooperation in any number of matters.

This becomes -- this becomes much more of a global security issue and it becomes a big issue for NATO. You know, 50 years plus, 60 years plus of the NATO alliance, which was formed to try and stop the communist block and now Russia has moved its move. NATO is not able to do anything about it.

So these are some of the stakes in place and many people far more expert than me will tell you this could provoke a financial and investment crisis across these sectors of Eastern Europe. This could be -- have much more widespread effects than we're even beginning to contemplate -- Jake.

TAPPER: Senior national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. We were talking about this earlier. Jim Acosta at the White House asked Jay Carney, the White House press secretary what exactly are the U.S. national security interests in this. Carney talked about human rights and territorial sovereignty. Explain what experts and sources are telling you, what is the interest the U.S. has in preventing Russia from making incursions into the Ukraine?

SCIUTTO: I think you have a handful. Here is one. Stability. Ukraine is in Europe. This is not a million miles away. It's a country of 50 million people. The prospects -- I don't want to say civil war, but a civil conflict, an internal conflict, that close to Europe is inherently unstabilizing. That's one issue.

Two, you have, you know -- the president says he doesn't want to play a cold war chess game here, but in fact you may see that playing out. Clearly, Russia at least has some cold war nostalgia for its fear of influence. It wants to claim back at least the western -- the eastern part, rather, of the Ukraine. That's a fact.

And you see playing out in this country a push and pull between the east and west. The eastern part of the country leaning towards Russia, Russian system, Russian power, the Russian economy. The western part the other way. That's a real and divisive split with a lot of history and cultural divisions, which contributes to instability.

Plus, this is an important relationship, U.S. and Russia. And I think you can see this relationship in peril. You have assurances from senior Russian leaders to the U.S. That they would not do something and that something appears to be happening right now.

We deal with Russia on so many issues, Iran, Syria, you name it. If we can't trust each other or trust those assurances, that's a problem on a number of levels.

TAPPER: That instability is key. I was interviewing the ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul just a few days ago. He is no longer the ambassador and he said he couldn't believe that Russia would engage in something like this because it would be so destabilizing. Gloria Borger, very quickly, because we have to throw it to Wolf, what does the president say?

BORGER: I think -- I think the president may have to answer the question about whose forces are moving into Crimea. Moscow has denied that it is in fact their forces and if the president believes that it is Russia that is moving in then - and his intelligence is telling them that then he has to say that and then direct what needs to be done next -- Jim.

TAPPER: That's it for THE LEAD. I am Jake Tapper. Our coverage continues now with "THE SITUATION ROOM."