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THE SITUATION ROOM
Crisis in Ukraine
Aired February 28, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: a SITUATION ROOM special report. The breaking news this hour, Russian forces, they are on the move inside Ukraine. Are they launching a full-fledged invasion? President Obama just warned Moscow to avoid making a grave mistake.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So what is Russian President Vladimir Putin up to? I will ask the former U.S. ambassador of Russia who just stepped down. He's calling the situation very, very dire.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: And we're following the fast-moving and rather ominous new developments in Ukraine and the growing concerns that Russia is stepping over a dangerous line.
CNN has learned that U.S. officials now believe Russian forces have landed on Ukrainian territory with troops likely numbering at least for now in the hundreds, perhaps as many as 2,000. Ukrainian officials are accusing Russia of what they're calling an armed invasion.
We have correspondents in Ukraine, in Russia, here in Washington. They will bring all of us the latest on the breaking news.
First, let's hear what President Obama said just a little while ago about this growing crisis delivered at the White House.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody.
Over the last several days, the United States has been responding to events as they unfold in the Ukraine. Now, throughout this crisis, we have been very clear about one fundamental principle: The Ukrainian people deserve the opportunity to determine their own future. Together with our European allies, we have urged an end to the violence and encouraged Ukrainians to pursue a course in which they have stabilized their country, forge a broad-based government and move to elections this spring.
I also spoke several days ago with President Putin, and my administration has been in daily communication with Russian officials. And we've made clear that they can be part of an international community's effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia's interests.
However, we are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties and a military facility in Crimea. But any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interests of Ukraine, Russia or Europe. It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people.
It would be a clear violation of Russia's commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws. And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world. And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.
The events of the past several months remind us of how difficult democracy can be in a country with deep divisions. But the Ukrainian people have also reminded us that human beings have a human universal right to determine their own future.
Right now, the situation remains very fluid. Vice President Biden just spoke with prime minister -- the prime minister of Ukraine to assure him that in this difficult moment, the United States supports his government's efforts and stands for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future of Ukraine.
I also commend the Ukrainian government's restraint and its commitment to uphold its international obligations. We will continue to coordinate closely with our European allies, we will continue to communicate directly with the Russian government, and we will continue to keep all of you in the press corps and the American people informed as events develop.
Thanks very much.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: A very carefully scripted three-minute statement by the president of the United States expressing the deep concern of the U.S. over what's going on in Ukraine right now. Let's go to Moscow. Our own Fred Pleitgen is on the scene for us.
How is this playing in the Russian capital? Do folks over there understand how concerned the president of the United States is right now?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm sure that people here understand how concerned the president of the U.S. is, but at the same time you can also feel that the Crimean part of Ukraine is really a red line for the Russians.
The interesting thing has been how Russia has sort of been -- I wouldn't say changing its position, but changing its rhetoric. At the beginning, they were saying that they wanted a solution with the international community, that they wanted to help Ukraine in this very difficult period.
But, at the same time, they have always been making clear that the events in the Crimea are one where they will draw a red line for themselves. It's a very important territory for the Russians. It's one that almost has, I wouldn't say a mystic character for them, but one that is just of the utmost importance to that country.
At the same time, they still claim that the troop movements that are going on there are within the framework that they have for the military base they have there. But they have also said that they're going to do everything to ensure the security of the people who are of Russian origin there, and certainly at this point in time they're sending a very clear message to those people that they are with them in any way, shape or form.
And I can tell you, from having been in the Crimea just a couple of days ago, Wolf, there are a lot of people there who do want Russia to intervene. Clearly, they're going to see this with a laughing eye, if you will. At the same time, I think one thing that we have to keep in mind, Wolf, also, is that Vladimir Putin is also under a lot of pressure here in Russia to take a very tough stance on the Crimean issue.
There's a lot of people here who want intervention because of this, who want -- who are very angry at what's been going on in the Ukraine and who clearly say that something needs to be done by the Russians.
And if the Russians who are in the Crimea in any way get into any sort of trouble with the government in Kiev, it's certainly something that will be seen as a weakness of Vladimir Putin if he doesn't do anything to help them -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen is in Moscow.
Let's go to Crimea right now. Diana Magnay is on the scene for us.
And you just heard Fred say, Diana, that a lot of the people in Crimea, they see themselves as ethnic Russians. They're very sympathetic to Russia. Clearly, there's a split between the people in Crimea, which is part of Ukraine, and the government in Kiev, which is condemning Russian involvement.
DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A very clear split.
And in a way, Wolf, what you have had in the Crimea in the last couple of days is almost a mirror image of what we saw in Ukraine over the last three months. They ousted their pro-Russian government and replaced it with an E.U.-Westward looking government. Yesterday, armed gunmen stormed the parliament, invited in pro-Russian M.P.s, who swiftly got rid of the previous administration and appointed a pro- Russian leader who is supported by the majority of this region, who are ethnic Russians.
And when I talked to people at the airport in Simferopol today, it is being guarded, if you will, by a pro-Russian self-organized militia who say that they're trying to defend their region from any kind of extremist elements, bandits who might be coming from the Maidan to disrupt what they think is their natural affiliation with Russia.
And it is a deep affiliation. It's a cultural affiliation. It's an economic affiliation. People here are widely sort of said to be -- you know, the remnants of the Soviet Union sit very deep in Crimea. And you get the sense of that even when you're driving around.
It is difficult to piece together what exactly is going on, on the ground. I have not seen Russian troops who I could definitively tell you are Russian troops, but I have seen large numbers of unidentified, masked, highly armed gunmen who are highly organized, but who are trying very hard to protect their identities, thus the masks, thus using vehicles without even any number plates on them.
When you talk to them, Wolf, they're not drawn. I said, where are you from? Are you Russian? Absolutely no comment. But there are certainly a lot of them around, and they are taking control of key strategic positions, so the airports, for example. One very important thing to mention is we heard from the main telecom company here that they believe their telecom cables have been sabotaged.
Therefore, there is at the moment no landline connection, no telecom connection that they're able to provide between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine. These are the kinds of measures, taking logistical, bringing down telecoms that you do when you're trying to take control of a region -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Diane Magnay, all right, thanks very much. We're going to get back to you.
The reaction is pouring in now to this escalating crisis involving the U.S., Russia over Ukraine.
Gloria Borger, we're getting statements now from the speaker of the House.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
We have a statement from the speaker saying that the House of Representatives stands with the people of Ukraine, and I'm quoting here, "during these difficult days and remains committed to working with the administration to provide the necessary support Ukraine needs right now."
But earlier in the statement, he takes a little whack at the president.
BLITZER: John Boehner, you mean?
BORGER: The speaker does. "In recent years, many of our partners and allies have feared our acquiescence and in some case silence in the face of Russia's systemic and persistent meddling in the affairs of its neighbors, especially Georgia and Moldova," then goes on and says, "These fears have been confirmed today."
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, that's similar to what we heard from Senator John McCain, who suggested the president is a bit naive when it comes to Vladimir Putin.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question, although it's interesting in Boehner's statement, he does say we should work to increase to maximize the economic and political pressure on Russia to get some -- to withdraw the troops. He doesn't say military pressure. He specifies we're talking political and economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure.
BLITZER: Well, as McCain himself said, there's no appetite for U.S. boots on the ground inside Ukraine right now.
SCIUTTO: Though there are options short of that, which McCain spoke about, the idea, for instance, of bringing Georgia closer to NATO, a move that would upset Russia very much.
BORGER: McCain also suggested restarting the missile defense capabilities in the Czech Republic.
SCIUTTO: And we know Russia's reaction to that.
BLITZER: And you heard Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander, say there is this Partnership for Peace program. A lot of people forgot about it. It's a relic of the old days that the Ukrainian government in Kiev could implement right now and seek some sort of NATO support if they want to go that route.
BORGER: And don't forget, both General Clark and Senator McCain talked about Germany's role in all of this, and Germany stepping up here and taking a stronger stand here.
SCIUTTO: You just had the German foreign minister with John Kerry.
BLITZER: Do you get the sense, Jim, because you're in touch with all these guys, that the U.S. intelligence community really has a handle on what's going on in Crimea right now?
SCIUTTO: Listen, we know they're watching very closely, but even they will admit there are questions that they can't answer on things like numbers.
It took them some time to identify that these were indeed Russian troops on the ground. We still don't have clarity on the actual numbers. You had that figure earlier in the day on 2,000, but there's no clarity in that as well. They're trying. They certainly have a lot of tools there, but hard answers are difficult to come by.
BLITZER: Because these special operations forces, or military forces, they're dressed in civilian outfits. They're not dressed in Russian uniforms, if you will.
BLITZER: It's a little bit more complicated than just a traditional invasion. When the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, you could see Saddam Hussein's troops invading a fellow Arab country, Kuwait, back in 1990. This is a little bit different than that.
SCIUTTO: And harder to react to.
BORGER: And the president was careful talking about reports...
BORGER: ... of Russian intervention or however he put it. I mean, I think intelligence agencies are a little wary these days of making these kind of definitive statements unless they have got the pictures.
SCIUTTO: You won't hear the phrase slam dunk.
BLITZER: And that's interesting.
The president, Gloria, he made a point, unscheduled, goes into the Briefing Room, issues a strong three-minute warning to the Russians, but then continues his schedule. Right now, he's over at a hotel not far away from the White House for a political event with the Democratic Party leadership over there. He's going about his business.
BORGER: Giving a very political speech.
BLITZER: He's not in the White House Situation Room right now monitoring the situation.
BORGER: Well, I think that's done very much on purpose. He went over there and gave a very political speech, blasted the Republicans on all of their almost 50 votes to repeal Obamacare, but I think you don't want to rev up the American public to the extent where they presume we are on the brink of some kind of war or military intervention.
BLITZER: All right, hold on for one moment.
Our senior your White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us right now.
What are you learning, Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what we're learning now is that the White House is basically sending a diplomatic warning to Russia over events in Ukraine.
Just a few moments ago, hearing from a senior administration official that the U.S. may not attend the G8 summit in Russia in Sochi, where the Olympics were just held later on this June, if Russia is in Ukraine. A senior administration official basically telling us that it would be very hard for the United States and European allies to justify attending that summit if Russian forces are in Ukraine.
The senior administration official going on and saying that Russia has built up some goodwill after hosting what was a successful Olympic Games in Sochi, but at this point, the White House, the Obama administration, in the words of the senior administration official, just cannot see a scenario where they would attend that G8 summit in Sochi if Russian forces are in Ukraine, a clear, clear diplomatic warning to the Russians, Wolf, something we did not hear from the president in that brief statement in the briefing room.
The president was very cautious when he made that statement. Talked about reports of forces on the ground. Talked about what the consequences might be if this were to pan out to be the case. This is an indication, Wolf, that I think the White House believes that there are Russian forces in Ukraine and they're now ratcheting things up to the next step, making this diplomatic warning to the Russians -- Wolf.
BLITZER: That's a huge, huge potential moment in U.S./Russian relations.
I want to bring in Michael McFaul. Until a couple days ago, he was the United States ambassador in Moscow, but now he's back at Stanford University. I'm just guessing, Ambassador, if someone would have said to you the United States is no longer absolutely positively going to be attending the G8 summit in Russia in June in Sochi, you would have thought that was out of the question.
MICHAEL MCFAUL, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Well, that was 48 hours ago, yes, when I was still a government official. Obviously, things have changed rapidly in Crimea.
As you just reported from the White House, of course, I think it would be nearly impossible for any of the other G8 members to attend a summit in Sochi, which, by the way, I just saw the facilities. I was in Sochi just three or four days ago. This is a major event for Russia. They have been planning this for many years.
It would be a real blow to President Putin if that summit didn't come off.
BLITZER: You know, if you think about it, that they're even issuing not necessarily on the record, but on background to reporters a threat like this, it underscores accurately what you have been saying now for the past 24 hour, Ambassador. This is a dire situation we are seeing. So I want you to give us some perspective. How dire it is right now?
MCFAUL: Well, if indeed the reports are true and Russian forces are coming into Crimea, that's totally unacceptable.
You can't invade another country and then declare part of it to be independent, especially in the heart of Europe. There's no justification for this. The government in Kiev did not threaten Crimea. You have seen reports -- other people have talked about, well, what about Serbia vs. Kosovo? That was a very different situation where the Serbian threat was threatening Kosovars very -- not just threatening, killing people there.
None of that has happened. This is just unacceptable. I think it's good that the president made clear to President Putin that it would be unacceptable. Now, what's striking to me is you haven't heard President Putin say anything about who is in Crimea, who are these gunmen. You haven't heard his press spokesmen say anything.
If they really do want to be part of the solution, as Foreign Minister Lavrov said earlier today, that would be a good first step. Tell us that you're not planning to invade Crimea and to support a secessionist movement there.
BLITZER: Ambassador, we did hear from the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, a man you know, Vitaly Churkin, suggest that there's bilateral treaty agreements between Russia and Ukraine that would allow Russian troops to go into Crimea.
MCFAUL: I didn't understand that at all.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and especially an agreement in 1994, when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees from the international community, but Russia and the United States in particular, I don't quite understand how that could be violated.
And just generally speaking, President Putin has been a champion of the norm of sovereignty as paramount for order and stability in the international system. I hope that he remembers that that is -- that plays here with respect to Ukraine as well.
BLITZER: I want to bring into this conversation -- Ambassador, stand by -- Jane Harman. She's the president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center here. She's member of the Defense Policy Board, State Department Foreign Policy Board, as well, a former U.S. congresswoman from California.
When the president of the United States, Jane, says that there will be costs, I assume to Russia, of any Russian military intervention in Ukraine, what would those costs be?
JANE HARMAN (D), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN: I think we have been spelling some of them out.
One of them, interestingly, Ambassador McFaul just said that Russia is undermining its entire argument in Syria that it opposes any interference in the sovereignty of the state. I'm not sure yet what this really means. And there's a danger of miscalculation on all sides. And we need to be very careful, as you always are, Wolf.
But I the talk about pulling out of the G8 with our European allies is a big stick to put out there. I also think providing economic aid, as John McCain has suggested, through the E.U. is something we should do. John Kerry said that the U.S. may provide separately or in addition a billion dollars of aid.
The economy of the Ukraine could tank, especially if Russia turns off the gas spigot. It's been providing subsidies for gas for the Ukraine and turning that off will cost Ukraine $3 billion to $5 billion, so the scholars at the Wilson Center say.
I think John McCain has suggested something that doesn't apply here. Reinstalling the missile system in Europe, that's geared towards Iran. That really has nothing to do with Russia. And I just see as needlessly provocative. But talking about admitting Georgia to NATO, provided that we're assured that the current government in Georgia is a responsible government, makes a lot of sense to me.
We have a lot of things we can do. Something to keep in mind is, again according to the scholars here, that a majority of Ukrainians, including those in East Ukraine, see themselves as Ukrainian, not as Russian, not as Europeans, but as Ukrainians.
The problem they have had is they haven't had a decent government since the Orange Revolution. The governments that they have elected have not brought economic opportunity or even stability or security to their country. And that includes the government of Yulia Tymoshenko. She has -- there are many -- she was in prison for the wrong reasons, but she is an oligarch. And her government was not inclusive. One final point. This interim government has not provided any slots for the people of East Ukraine. Those are the ones in the Soviet Crimea area. They have cut them out. I think that's a mistake. It would be much better if this government included or tried to include all the people of Ukraine. That would send a strong message to Russia that Ukraine is Ukraine; it's not Russia.
BLITZER: And I just want to point out, right now, we are being simulcast on CNN International, not only here in the United States, but around the world, including in Russia, including Crimea in Ukraine. People are watching us all over the world.
Christiane Amanpour is joining us on the phone right now.
Christiane, you know this story well. You have covered this story for a long time. When Jim Sciutto -- excuse me -- when Jim Acosta, our senior White House correspondent, says they are now seriously considering canceling U.S. involvement in the G8 summit in Russia, in Sochi, Russia, in June unless Russian troops get out of Ukraine, that is a big, big deal.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is a big deal, and it does -- I'm sure Ambassador McFaul and former Congresswoman Harman would just agree that this is yet another step on an incredibly deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia.
You see that the president and other top officials did not go to Sochi for the Olympics because of the anti-gay law and because of other such things. And now you have a very real potential geopolitical crisis right in the heart of Ukraine.
And, as Congresswoman Harman has said, one of the issues that absolutely has to happen -- and all the scholars and diplomats have told me this -- that the new interim government must make it clear to all the parts of Ukraine that it is the government of all Ukrainians, and not just for those who demonstrated in Kiev and other places to get rid of the Yanukovych government.
On the other hand, I'm also mystified by whatever legal reason Russia thinks it has, because we know that the Budapest agreement, this 1994 agreement, shows that Russia has to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the independence of Ukraine.
This is a deal that was signed along with Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom when the Ukrainians gave up voluntarily their nuclear arsenal. And they have got a guarantee of independence and territorial integrity.
Clearly, President Putin is trying to send a loud and clear message that they want to be able to still have influence. This is probably a disaster, in their view, because they are losing -- you just mentioned Georgia, but look at Ukraine right now -- what they believe to be losing influence in what they call their near abroad, their God-given right for, you know, to have sort of not just Russia, but all the former Soviet republics within their sphere of influence.
And what you can see is that the majority of the people in Ukraine and other such places actually see their future in pro-Europe, a much more Westernized, much more independent, much more politically free kind of society than what Russia is able to deliver right now.
So these things are incredibly important, of maximum importance at this time right now, and the United States has a huge amount of leverage. So does Europe. And many analysts have been saying that that leverage needs to be used and very tough diplomacy needs to be used.
But, on the other hand, Russia also needs to be part of the solution to Ukraine in terms of a political solution. Today, you had this rather defiant press conference in Southern Russia by former President Yanukovych, who again insisted that he was the legitimate leader, that he'd been unfairly and unjustly and illegally ousted and that he would continue, as he said, to fight for Ukrainian rights.
We don't know what that means. And we're still trying to figure out who exactly are these people who have come to these airports in Crimea. So it's still a very difficult situation and one that requires a maximum amount of diplomacy, really intense diplomacy by all those with leverage and relationships with Putin, with Sergei Lavrov, with the leadership in Russia right now, as well as the leadership -- the leadership in Ukraine.
BLITZER: Hold on, Christiane.
I want everyone to hold on.
We are going to continue the breaking news coverage. It's not every day the president of the United States goes into the White House Briefing Room and issues a tough warning to Russia -- more of the breaking news coverage right after this.
BLITZER: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
"CROSSFIRE" won't be seen tonight, so we can bring you breaking news coverage on the crisis in Ukraine, growing concerns of a Russian invasion. Story is escalating by the moment.
We just heard a little while ago from Jim Acosta, our senior White House correspondent. The United States is now actively considering the possibility of not attending the G-8 summit in Sochi, Russia, in June unless the Russians withdraw their troops from Ukraine, don't get involved militarily.
The immediate and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, is joining us once again. He's now back in Stanford University. You're only back a couple days, Ambassador, and the situation is getting -- is escalating by the moment. I want you to listen to what Senator John McCain told us here in THE SITUATION ROOM just a little while ago about President Obama.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It's been clear that maybe the president of the United States has been a bit naive about Vladimir Putin and his ambitions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: You served the president of the United States. You were named as his ambassador in Moscow. You're a scholar when it comes to Russia and the former Soviet Union. Is the president a bit naive when it comes to Putin?
MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: No. And I worked with the president for five years, Wolf. I worked at the White House for three years before going to Moscow. I think the president has a very clear understanding of President Putin and his motivations.
And this is really not the time to talk about who's weak and who's not. I think we need to talk about how to resolve this crisis. And I want to be clear; it's not too late to resolve this crisis.
You'll recall back in 2004 during the Orange Revolution regions in the east in Crimea itself also made noises about sovereignty. Eventually, there was a political resolution that led to new, free and fair elections and a new constitution.
I would hope that that moment has not yet passed and that we can work with our European allies, ultimately with Russia as well, to try to de-escalate the situation right now and work towards a peaceful democratic solution to this crisis.
BLITZER: Well, we're seeing troops clearly on the ground in Crimea right now, which is part of Ukraine. We're seeing military helicopters flying over the area. The whole telecommunications system has been disrupted. There are mass troops surrounding government buildings in Crimea. This certainly has the feeling, Ambassador, of an invasion. Is it?
MCFAUL: Again, I agree with you. I think the situation's very dire. Nobody knows who these troops are. I think we want these troops to go back to where they came from before any loss of life.
And I would just remind people that so far we haven't had loss of life, so they should just go back to where they came from and sit down and negotiate terms where Crimea can have its voice in a free and fair election that are planned for May.
BLITZER: Would you believe these are actual Russian troops that are just not dressed in uniform? MCFAUL: I would believe it. It hasn't been confirmed. And as I said earlier, all it would take would be 30 seconds for the press spokesman from the Kremlin to just get on television, to get on your show, Wolf, and say these are not Russian troops. They're not under our direction. The fact that they haven't done that yet makes me nervous.
BLITZER: So we're being seen in Moscow right now. We're being seen in Russia. Talk to the people of Russia if you will. Let's say you were still the ambassador, and a few days ago you were the U.S. ambassador in Russia. If you had a meeting right now with a top Russian official, what would you say to that person?
MCFAUL: Well, I'd say the same thing I said to many top-level officials just last week in Moscow, which is it is not in Russia's interests to have a civil war, an economic meltdown in Ukraine. It most certainly is not in Europe's interests. It's not in the American interests, and it's not in the interests of the Ukrainian people. And therefore, rather than trying to escalate conflict, we need to work together to de-escalate this conflict. That's still not impossible right now. And I would urge my Russian colleagues to think about ways to do that before it's too late.
BLITZER: All right, but you know Putin. Do you think he's inclined to de-escalate this crisis right now?
DEFAUL: I'm not sure, to be honest. I do think there's a lot at stake here. I was just down in Sochi for the Olympics. I was there for the beginning and the end. It's clear to me from that experience that President Putin cares a lot about what the world thinks about him. He invested a lot to showcase the new Russia.
Would he want to just throw that all away with this activity in Crimea, which after all, what would be accomplished by that, right? It would be a rump state. It would be ambiguous sovereignty. It would lead to economic problems in Ukraine. And I want to stress that.
Russia has a lot of trade with Ukraine. Russian companies have a lot of business in Ukraine. That would all be under threat, as well, if this crisis escalates. So I want to keep us focused on the possibility that we can somehow defuse this before we have to talk about responding to what would be a real catastrophe in terms of the violation of Ukraine sovereignty by Russia.
BLITZER: Ambassador McFaul, we're going to ask you to stay. We're going to continue our coverage. We're watching the escalation of tensions in Ukraine right now and automatically an increase in tensions between the United States and Russia at the same time. Our breaking news coverage will resume right after this.
BLITZER: Welcome back. We're following breaking news this hour. President Obama warning Russia there will be costs -- his word -- costs for any military intervention in Ukraine. CNN has learned U.S. officials now believe several hundred Russian troops have indeed landed on Ukrainian territory in the Crimea region. Russian helicopters have been spotted over Ukraine. Russian troops surrounding some airports.
We're told the president would consider, would consider skipping the G-8 summit in Russia in June, Sochi, Russia. That would be a very dramatic development if Moscow has indeed gone ahead with an armed invasion of its neighboring country of Ukraine.
We've got Josh Rogan, who's here with us from "The Daily Beast." Gloria Borger is here. Jim Sciutto is here.
Gloria, let me start with you. You hear an escalating amount of rhetoric like this coming from the president and his top aides, all of us have to be deeply worried about what's going on.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we do. The president now has said he might not -- and it wasn't a direct threat, saying, "I'm not going to go." He said unless the troops are removed, he wouldn't go to the G-8 summit. You have to wonder how our allies are going to respond to that. Will the British then say the same thing and on down the line, No. 1?
No. 2, the thing that interests me is that both Senator John McCain, you know, Senator John McCain and Wesley Clark, who's on the other side of the political spectrum, both said that they believe that Putin is involved in a little bit of empire rebuilding here and that they don't believe the story that they're saying, which is that they have a right to be there because of a bilateral agreement.
BLITZER: Josh Rogan, you tweeted a little while ago, and I'll put it up on the screen. Obama, quote, "There will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine." And then you said, "For example, #emptythreat." Go ahead.
JOSH ROGAN, "THE DAILY BEAST": You'll notice that President Obama didn't say red line, right? Because we've been to this place before where the president writes a check, and then he fails to cash it. And that has second- and third-degree consequence. And one has to wonder, as Putin remembers that episode, does he buy Obama's threat?
Now, the U.S. has some levers, but not a lot. Right? We don't have a lot of options. Threatening not to go to a summit in June is OK, but that's four months from now. This situation changes every day.
So what could we do? We could have sanctions, but that's probably not going to bite much. We could go to the U.N., but that's really a dead end. We're not going to send troops to Ukraine, so what tools does the U.S. have in its arsenal? Not many. You'll notice that President Obama didn't mention any.
BORGER: Well, Senator McCain did, though. You know, he talked about... BLITZER: A bunch. Hold on one moment, because if you talk about the United Nations Security Council, let's not forget Russia has a veto at the U.N. Security Council, so don't expect any anti-Russian resolutions to be passed by the U.N. Security Council.
All right. Let's take another quick break, resume our coverage right after this.
BLITZER: The past several hours we've been seeing various video posted on YouTube from people in Crimea. That's part of Ukraine. Russian helicopters flying over ominous pictures there.
We see what are believed to be Russian troops dressed in civilian clothes surrounding military and commercial as well as government buildings in Crimea right now.
All of this escalating, forcing the president of the United States only within the past couple hours or so to go into the White House briefing room and issue a strong warning.
Jim Sciutto's our chief national security correspondent.
The president is clearly concerned right now and his aides are telling our White House correspondent Jim Acosta, that they may actually consider boycotting the G-8 summit in Sochi, Russia, in June. That's a huge deal.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The president said there would be costs. He'd impose substantial costs and beginning to define what those costs are. So, they might not attend Sochi.
Now, granted it's four months from now, but it's a marquee event for Russians. It's in Sochi, the site of the Olympics. And that would be a big deal, now, particularly, if you could get some of your allies to join in, recently in the last hour, we had Britain's ambassador to the U.N. also condemn the deployment of troops inside Ukraine saying the United Kingdom believes that any newly deployed troops that do not belong to the Ukrainian government should withdraw.
Now, if you could get to U.K. and other close allies not to attend, you know, the G-8 becomes the G-1 or the G-2, and that's a big blow.
The White House has also referenced that the Russians had wanted to reach out for improved economic ties with the U.S. and this is something they would conceivably cancel, the administration would conceivably cancel as a result of this as well.
So, you're beginning to see that this is going to be an economic strategy. And this --
BLITZER: Hold on. This new video just getting in, video posted on YouTube. Russian helicopters flying over Crimea right now.
Diana Magnay is our correspondent on the ground in Crimea.
As we see this video, I've got to tell you, Diana, it looks very ominous what's going on.
DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does. We've also been speaking to one local resident of the town of Sevastopol who sent us a photo will be getting there soon of tanks in a residential neighborhood in his city, three tanks. So, you know, there are worrying signs.
What I've seen of my own eye are these masked gunmen who've taken or at least they're patrolling facilities two airports in this country. Now, they are wearing military fatigues, Wolf. They just don't have any kind of mark which shows you where they are from. So, it's like there is an unidentifiable army on the loose who is surrounding these kinds of structures.
Now, when you talk to people here, a lot of them do feel as though the events that went on (INAUDIBLE) don't affect them. They are very mistrustful of this new Ukrainian government. They're long way away from Kiev. It's 12 hours just to drive there. A secessionist impulse in the Crimea peninsula.
Yesterday, gunmen stormed the parliament, a new administration, a new pro-Russian administration is being put in and that has decided to give the people of Crimea on the same day as national elections in this country, the right to decide in a referendum where they want to stay part of the Ukraine or whether they want to form their own independent state.
BLITZER: All right.
MAGNAY: And when you add that kind of political dimension all of a sudden to this armed invasion -- well, you know, it almost looks as though the course is already set.
BLITZER: Yes. These are Russian helicopters flying over Crimea, a video just posted on YouTube. We're going to follow the breaking news. Much more are coming up.
But, right now, this report on "Impact Your World."
GARY SINISE, ACTOR, "FORREST GUMP": Thought I'd try out my sea legs.
TOM HANKS, ACTOR, "FORREST GUMP": But you ain't got no legs, Lieutenant Dan.
CHRIS CUOMO, "NEW DAY" ANCHOR (voice-over): Long before Gary Sinise played Vietnam Veteran Lieutenant Dan in "Forrest Gump", he was a passionate supporter of the military. SINISE: Well, I have a long history with working with veterans starting with the relationships that I have in my own personal family. My dad was -- served in the Navy. My two uncles were in World War II. My grandfather served in World War I.
CUOMO: With the success of "Forrest Gump," wounded veterans began to identify with Sinise.
SINISE: How many veterans we got here tonight?
CUOMO: He formed the Lieutenant Dan Band and has entertained troops around the world with the USO. The actor says his call to action became very clear after 9/11.
SINISE: When our men and women started deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, they started getting hurt and killed. Having Vietnam veterans in my family, it was very troubling to think that our men and women would come home to a nation that didn't appreciate them.
CUOMO: So he started his own charity dedicated to veterans. The Gary Sinise Foundation helps build customized homes for the severely wounded and helps vets find civilian careers.
SINISE: I have met hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of wounded veterans who continue to not let their circumstance get them down -- countless Lieutenant Dans out there that inspire me every day.
BLITZER: Just received these photographs. Take a look at these photographs. These are believed to be Russian tanks in Ukraine, in Sevastopol which is in Crimea right now. Take a look at these tanks.
Josh Rogin of "The Daily Beast", you see a picture like this and, you know, we keep wondering, what are the Russians going to say? You've been hearing what their arguments might be.
JOSH ROGIN, THE DAILY BEAST: Right. The interaction at the top levels of the relationship is not good. Behind the scenes, there's been a lot of chatter. And the Russians have been quietly explaining to their interlocutors in Washington why they think they have the ability and the right to do this.
BLITZER: What is their main argument?
ROGIN: Their main argument is that they are protecting their base. The Black Sea Fleet, 15,000 Russian troops are sitting in Crimea. The situation is unstable and they feel they have the right to add troops to protect the troops that are already there. Most of those guys are sailors, mechanics, not fighting guys.
So, they have a law that tells them they are allowed to protect their troops when they are in danger and they are going to do it. If that means protecting the airport from protesters coming in to attack the base, that's part of it, too. So, that's the number one argument.
The second argument they're going to make is that they were invited. They still believe that Yanukovych is the president. Yanukovych is in Russia.
BLITZER: He's in Russia now. He was ousted. And my information is that the Kremlin and he are working together to come up with a case that they will present to the public in the coming days which will say very simply that Yanukovych is the president, he invited the Russian troops to do what they're doing, and therefore it's legitimate. It can't be termed as a military intervention.
This might actually lead to Yanukovych going to Crimea, where he will be there and establish that -- he still believes he's the president of the entire country of the Ukraine. At that point, you could have two different Ukrainian governments both claiming providence over the whole country, a situation similar to the China and Taiwan in the 1940s.
BLITZER: If Yanukovych were to go to Kiev, he'd be arrested for war crimes, if you will. You were saying that if he went to Crimea, you might be received there as the legitimate president of the Ukraine?
ROGIN: Well, it's not to say that the Crimeans like Yanukovych, they don't. They hate him, actually. They see him as part of the problem.
But they are willing to put up woman him if he could give them legitimacy so that the local Crimean lawmakers can establish their government, maybe have a referendum, maybe have elections, all the while protected all of these Russian troops. And once they are stable and they have their autonomy pretty much secured, then they can talk to Yanukovych. He's useful to them and they are useful to him because he wants to survive and --
BLITZER: Presumably, you just previewed the argument we might be hearing from Russian officials, including Putin in the hours to come. We're going to, of course, stay on top of this story.
Josh Rogin, thanks for joining us.
ROGIN: You bet.
BLITZER: We're going to continue to stay, as I say, on top of the breaking news out of Ukraine. Lots at stake right now.
Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.