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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Crisis in Ukraine; Interview With Tennessee Senator Bob Corker; Kerry: Russia "Made Up" Reasons for Intervention; Ukrainian, Russian Warships on the Move

Aired March 4, 2014 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Vladimir Putin says there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, regardless of what you see on TV. I am excited to hear his explanation of that intercontinental ballistic missile Russia just test-fired.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

That world lead, as Russia has the whole world on edge, Moscow fires a missile. With tensions rising by the second, are we nearing a tipping point?

Moves at sea. It has seen empires and Iron Curtains come and go at this critical gateway to Crimea and the Black Sea. CNN was on the water today as Ukrainian and Russia warships were making key moves.

And the politics lead. What's the potential political damage to President Obama as he squares off against Vladimir Putin, if any? Does he have options available? The top foreign relations senators on both sides of the aisle visit THE LEAD.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

A busy hour ahead.

But we want to begin with that breaking news on Wall Street, where it did not take long for investors to shake off anxiety over the tensions abroad. After it tumbled yesterday, the Dow just closed moments ago, posting its biggest gains of the year.

Let's go live now to CNN business correspondent Alison Kosik at the New York Stock Exchange -- Alison.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Jake, you're looking at a classic relief rally happening today, the Dow making its biggest gain of the year, coming one day after the Dow posted one of its biggest losses of the year.

If you look at the S&P 500, it closed at a record high today. Similar story in Asia, Europe, and Russia as well. Those markets were all in the red yesterday. They turned up into the green today. The sell-off wound up giving people a lot of buying opportunity. What is happening is investors not really on red alert anymore now that the situation between Ukraine and Russia is not as dire as it was yesterday. The thinking seemed to change when Putin spoke and kind of called off the dogs.

Analysts say if the situation doesn't get worse, concerns in the market will fade -- Jake.

TAPPER: Alison Kosik, thank you.

Now to our world lead. Russia has just test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile as the crisis becomes in some ways even more tense and the entire international community awaits for Putin's next move.

The missile launch happened just hours ago near the border with Kazakstan. Officials say the United States was notified before the crisis in the Ukraine even broke out and that this launch was slated to happen. But it's hardly a sign that Russia's Vladimir Putin is extremely concerned about calming the fears of the West.

Today, President Obama, who has been hammered by Republicans for his response to this crisis, said Putin is isolating himself from the rest of the world.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is a strong belief that Russia's action is violating international law. I don't know if President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: But Putin, whom Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called delusional, delusional earlier today on this network says he's acting in response to a coup against the Ukrainian government.

Speaking at a news conference in Moscow, Putin described the protests in Kiev as an orgy of radicals and nationalists, one of whom he said was wearing a swastika on sleeve. The Russian president says he's not trying to annex Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and that the armed Russian forces in Southern Ukraine are not troops, but merely self-defense teams.

Semantics aside, Putin is not taking the option of force off the table to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Putin today also called Ukrainian and Russian soldiers brothers in arms, which is a tad puzzling when you look at this video of Russian forces firing warning shots over the heads of unarmed Ukrainian troops at an occupied air base in Crimea.

The surreal standoff begins with one Russian soldier warning that he will shoot. A Ukrainian responds, "America is with us." Another Ukrainian pleads, "Would you shoot the Soviet flag?" and then asks to speak to the commander so they can negotiate. The Russian tells the Ukrainians to back off and then warns them he will shoot their legs if they keep advancing.

But, hey, look, who hasn't threatened to blast off their brother's kneecaps?

CNN's Diana Magnay is on the ground in Kiev.

Diana, yesterday, you called this a low-key invasion. I'm wondering what you make of the warning shots that were fired today. Are tensions rising there?

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a very mysterious situation here.

If you're one of these bases, you have these moments where tensions seem pretty high and then the next moment you turn around and you have Ukrainian and Russian forces sort of having a chat and exchanging fuel to fuel the Russian mess tent generators.

So it is a very strange situation. Effectively, what you have, though, is Russian troops encircling these places trying to make the Ukrainians, you know, give up their allegiance to Kiev, and, for the most part, whatever the Russian press is saying, which is that there have been mass defections, we haven't seen any evidence of that. For the most part, the Ukrainians within their bases are sticking to their guns, sticking to their oaths of allegiance.

TAPPER: The missile launch today, the intercontinental ballistic missile launch, while it was planned, it is not exactly a sign that Putin is backing down or at all concerned about the West's thinking.

What do you think Putin is thinking?

MAGNAY: Well, he's the master of sending messages, isn't he? Look at the fact that he was conducting these huge military exercises on the border right about the time that the whole world got panicked about the situation in Crimea.

And then, on Monday, there he is suddenly pictures of him in the control room at one of those exercises. This missile launch has been long-planned. U.S. officials were warned about it before the Ukraine crisis even started, and Russia does routinely, regularly test missiles.

It was a long way away on the border with Kazakstan. So I think we can discount it. It was long-planned, but, then again, it doesn't make people here on the ground in Crimea in Ukraine feel any more confident about his intentions. And whatever he said in Moscow today, that he would only go to war to protect the people in this region, that he wouldn't annex Crimea, well, he seems to have a very strange pretext for protection, something that many people I have spoken to here don't really understand -- Jake.

TAPPER: Diana Magnay in Crimea, thank you so much.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were on the same talking points earlier today on whether Russia's actions in the Ukraine were a sign of strength.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There is nothing strong about what Russia is doing.

OBAMA: I actually think that this has not been a sign of strength, but rather is a reflection that countries near Russia have deep concerns and suspicions about this kind of meddling.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: But is this new talking point more about defending the White House for being accused of weakness in previous foreign policy decisions?

Joining me now is Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. He's the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Later in the show, we will have on his Democratic counterpart.

Senator Corker, thanks for being here.

I first want to get your reaction to this news that Russia has test- fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. Now, of course this was a test planned before the crisis in Ukraine, but Putin could have canceled the test as a sign of good faith. What do you make of all of this?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Well, good to be with you, Jake. I don't really read a lot into it, to be candid.

Actually, I could have -- him calling it off might have been a sign of something else. So, to be candid, because it was planned, I don't really read a lot into it.

TAPPER: Do you think there's any chance that Putin might take the diplomatic option that Secretary of State John Kerry offered?

CORKER: I don't think so. I think, look, they have got a lot of interests in Crimea. And they -- they are going to exercise those.

And they don't see anything happening yet from the international community. We're working right now to -- I talked to a counterpart today and -- at the European Commission. And we're working on legislation to try to deal with this with the administration and with Democrats here on the Hill, and hopefully can encourage behavior change.

But we will see. I think Putin has learned that this has worked for him in the past. It worked in Georgia just a few years ago, and he's done similar kinds of things in Moldova, and I think this is the way he acts when he feels like his interests are threatened.

I do think that the point made about this as a sign of weakness, I don't think there is any concerned that he's very concerned domestically inside Russia that if people see people breaking away like this and aligning themselves to the West, I do think that is something that concerns them.

But, certainly, coming in with your military and staking off an area of another sovereign country is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. Again, I think he's doing that because of concerns that he does have domestically within his own country.

TAPPER: Senator, do you think that Crimea is lost, it's basically now just been absorbed by Russia?

CORKER: Well, I think it's going to be very difficult to get the Russians out of Crimea. And I do.

They have a major naval base there, which I know you have reported on extensively. And I think at this point, it's going to be very difficult to get them out.

I think our efforts right now should be to keep them from advancing any more into Eastern Ukraine, but I'm not giving up. I mean, I think he's violated international norms, violated international law by going into another sovereign country, by the way, that we all agreed to protect, us, U.K., them, with Ukraine when they gave up their nuclear weapons back in 1994.

They agreed to protect that sovereignty. So, there's no question he's violating agreements that they already entered into. But, again, our efforts now should be to keep them from moving on into Ukraine any further, and we can deal with the Crimea issue as we move along. But I think it's going to be very difficult at this point.

TAPPER: Vladimir Putin spoke earlier today, Senator, defending his actions. He said military force would be a last resort. They don't plan to make Crimea part of Russia, he said, even though of course there are thousands of Russian troops there. He did take a dig at U.S. foreign policy. I want to get your reaction to what he said. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): When I say do you think that everything you do is legitimate, and they say yes, so I have to remind them about the actions of the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, where they were acting without any U.N. sanctions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So there you have Putin invoking the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Obviously, this is not a popular position in the United States, but do you think with the world community, we in the United States are perceived as having a double standard?

CORKER: Well, look, we acted -- you know, we had some degree in every case of working with other countries to make this happen.

This was a unilateral effort on their part. Obviously I saw where Eugene Robinson made a similar case in the last 48 hours, one of the our editorialists in our own country.

But, no, I don't think so. I think there are obviously countries that had a lot of concern about us being in Iraq. I don't know there's any question about that. But the comparison to me is apples to oranges, and not even close. And we should not certainly use that -- we shouldn't let someone use that as a reason for him to be where he is. It's totally ludicrous and not something that even should be considered.

TAPPER: Lastly, Senator, you said that you are working with the administration and with your counterpart in the European Commission to deal with sanctions and I imagine with the other things that President Obama has discussed in terms of isolating Russia diplomatically and economically.

Is there anything else that you want to do that the Obama administration is not pursuing?

CORKER: So, this is a give-and-take on all of these.

And, you know, at present, I think people are all on the same page, and the advancing ideas. We're going to have a hearing, Jake, on Thursday at 11:15. And, hopefully, we will have a markup on this legislation either Tuesday of next week or Thursday.

And, again, it's pretty fluid right now. I think, again, people want to speak with one voice, which we always try to do on any kind of foreign policy issue. And right now, things are constructive. There is not really a great deal of pushback. People are floating ideas as to what might work best.

And, again, we're having conversations with our counterparts in Europe to also make sure that, to the extent we can, we're on the same page with them, because, obviously, that's much more effective. But, right now, I think everything is going along just fine.

TAPPER: Senator Corker, Republican of Tennessee, thank you so much.

CORKER: Thank you. Yes, sir.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: a show of force on the water, as Ukrainian and Russian warships race to the Black Sea. Are they getting into strategic position before possible military action?

But, first, where it all started -- we will go live to Independence Square in Kiev, where protesters are reacting to the latest Russian troops movements. Anderson Cooper joins us live next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to our continuing coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.

During his visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, with the eyes of the world watching, Secretary of State John Kerry today scolded the Russian government, accusing President Putin of making up reasons to invade Ukraine, and Kerry issued a warning for Russia to essentially reel itself in or suffer the consequences.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: If Russia does not choose to deescalate, if it's not willing to work directly with the government of Ukraine as we hope they will be, then our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically, and economically.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: CNN's Anderson Cooper is live from Kiev, Ukraine, with more.

Anderson, what's the reaction been there to Secretary Kerry's remarks?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly a lot of people I talked to today very much appreciate the fact that Secretary Kerry flew here, and came here. In fact, the first place he came was right here to Independence Square. He parked here and walked back down.

This is really, in many ways kind of sacred ground for people here in Kiev and in many parts of western Ukraine and even the eastern Ukraine. As you can see, there are thousands of flowers here behind me. This is just one of the makeshift shrines. There are dozens of them, if not hundreds of them all throughout the square where the protesters still remain.

So, there's certainly a lot of appreciation for Secretary Kerry visiting and meeting with the new interim government here, the new interim president, the new prime minister and also announcing that the United States is going to be giving $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine.

There is concern, though, on the other hand, that the United States and European Union has not acted fast enough in trying to isolate Vladimir Putin, in trying to punish Vladimir Putin economically and has not reacted fast enough in trying to reach out an economic hand to Ukraine, to try to help this new fledgling government, which as you know, Jake, is a government that is shaky at best.

So, while they certainly appreciate Secretary Kerry visiting here, I think there's a lot of people waiting to see what happens next in terms of involving the United States and the European Union.

TAPPER: Anderson, protesters in Kiev obviously are the ones who put their lives on the line for this movement, for independence, what is their sense now, the sense of these protesters about how this all will likely turn out?

COOPER: You know, that's what is so fascinating here, Jake. The protests -- they're not going anywhere. They have not left the square. There are still probably hundreds of protesters sleeping out here tonight and every night.

And they vow to not leave this square until the changes that they fought for, that they died for and what they bled for, more than 80 people were killed in the square a week and a half ago. Many still missing. Obviously are still wounded. The changes that they say they suffered and sacrificed so much for, they want to see those changes take place, take root in the new government, in the shaky, interim government here.

And so, the protesters here I think are very skeptical because they say in the past, they've had revolutions that have betrayed and they vow this time they're not taking down these barricades which you can see behind me. They're not leaving. There are still people with makeshift weapons here, with makeshift shields ready to take up arms again if the changes do not take place.

And obviously, there's a lot of concern about what is happening in Crimea as delaying economic issues, which are so important to many of the protesters here, which is many of the issues that they fought over. So there's a lot of skepticism and there's a lot of concern about what happens now in Crimea and certainly in eastern Ukraine.

TAPPER: Anderson Cooper in Kiev, thank you so much.

Coming up next, warships on the move. A tense situation as Ukrainian and Russian ships take to the water and CNN is there on the water with them.

Plus, blaming President Obama, Republicans calling the commander-in- chief weak and indecisive. But are they offering any plans of their own?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

As we follow the developments in the crisis in Ukraine, we've been watching Russian troops take positions in Crimea and the world leaders scramble to try to find a solution to this conflict. Now, we see moves at sea. They are also raising the stakes in a key channel into the Black Sea, a Turkish waterway identified as a world oil transit choke point by the U.S. government.

Earlier today, the Bosphorus Strait was the scene of a tense situation involving a key Ukrainian warship that our own Ivan Watson was tailing just off the coast of Turkey.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, this is the only way that any ship or warship can use to get to the Black Sea and to get to Crimea, the contested part of Ukrainian territory.

Now, the Ukrainians are making a big show of their flagship coming in because there had been some reports in Russian media that the ship had defected and joined the Russians. As you can see, the white, the yellow and blue flag of the Ukrainian government is flying from this vessel, as well as the Turkish red and white crescent flag.

So, the Ukrainians want to make a big show here, a point that their military is still intact. Though the commander of the Ukrainian navy did defect to the Russians, they insist that the rest of their armed forces are still in tact and still loyal.

TAPPER: And, Ivan, what are you hearing about the two Russian warships that we've heard are also steaming in a similar direction?

WATSON: That's right. This morning two Russian warships also steamed up this narrow channel, also headed towards the Black Sea and presumably they are headed towards Crimea where we know there is substantial military buildup right now. So, more vessels (AUDIO GAP) are headed in that direction, presumably to reinforce the Russian presence there right now.

The Ukrainian officials that I've talked to have tried to insist that they are not sending their navy in right now to try to confront the Russians. They are insisting that they are going to operate like Gandhi, be peaceful, not fire the first shot but make their presence known.

So, to continue this very tense situation (AUDIO GAP), that harkens back to the 19th century conflicts, the Bosphorus, were in control of the Crimea and the Black Sea. It's remarkable to be here among the warships traveling through this narrow and very strategic to reach the Crimea much the warships did 150 years ago.

Now, there's an added wrinkle to this. A Turkish military, I have to remind you and our viewers, we are off the coast of Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, Turkish military just announced that they have scrambled eight F-16 fighter jets in response to a Russian reconnaissance plane that was flying in international air space off of Turkey's Black Sea coast.

That does occur occasionally in the past. We hear about scrambling of Turkish jets but not of eight such F-16s and it is also perhaps a sign of how tensions are ratcheting in this area in the Black Sea basin in connection with this crisis and the Russian military deployment around Crimea -- Jake.