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A Dangerous Stand-Off in Ukraine; Obama Faces Critical Challenge In Ukraine; Putin's Double Standard; Dangerous Standoff in Crimea; Tension Rising over Ukraine Crisis

Aired March 4, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news -- crisis in Ukraine. A dangerous standoff -- warning shots fired as tensions rise between Russia and Ukrainian troops in Crimea. Secretary of State John Kerry visits the place were demonstrators were gunned down in Kiev, offering moral support and U.S. economic help.

And a study in contradictions -- President Vladimir Putin defends Russian military intervention but denies that his troops are even in Ukraine.

Is that why a former secretary of State is calling him now, quote, "delusional?"

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Russian forces are tightening their hold on the strategic Crimean Peninsula and with the rising tensions, there's a verbal battle escalating between the United States and Russia. It's a critical moment.

Here are the latest developments.

Secretary of State John Kerry visits Ukraine's capital and offers encouragement and a billion dollar U.S. loan guarantee, while accusing Russia of inventing reasons for its military intervention.

President Obama says the U.S. and its allies strongly believe Russia has violated international law and says Russia is not fooling anybody.

As Russian forces dig in, President Putin digs in his heels, insisting his military is not in Crimea, but has the right to take, quote, "all measures there."

CNN's Barbara Starr is standing by at the Pentagon.

Anderson Cooper is in Kiev. Let's begin with our CNN chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly there is an emphasis today, speaking to U.S. officials, on attempting to de- escalate the crisis and avoiding any moves that might further inflame tensions. We're told the next 24 to 49 hours are seen as key, what Russia does, does it expand its military intervention or pause it or even pull it back.

But meanwhile, on the ground in Ukraine, there is still a volatile mix of armed forces and emotions which we saw flare up today.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Today in Crimea, Russian and Ukrainian forces in a dramatic and dangerous standoff. Shots fired in the air, weapons drawn and here, a threat to open fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE the greatest: I said stop. I'm serious. I'll shoot at your legs.

SCIUTTO: And as secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, a war of words. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Secretary Kerry trading diametrically opposed views of the crisis, back and forth...

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): The acting president, of course, is not legitimate.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The elected representatives of the people of Ukraine, they overwhelmingly approve the new government.

SCIUTTO: -- and back and forth.

PUTIN: Citizens of Ukraine, both Russian and Ukrainian, what worries them?

They're worried about unlawfulness.

KERRY: There has been no surge in crime, no surge in looting, no political retribution.

SCIUTTO: Despite the tensions on the ground, today, U.S. officials say they are focused on de-escalating the crisis. The West is now opening a diplomatic off-ramp for Russia, offering to bring its concerns about the makeup of the new government and the safety of ethnic Russians in Ukraine before the U.N. and other international bodies.

Today, President Obama said President Putin may be listening.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There have been some reports that President Putin is pausing for a moment and reflecting on what's happened.

SCIUTTO: Still, with thousands of Russian troops deployed in Ukraine, the administration's fundamental position remains the same.

KERRY: It is not appropriate to invade a country and at the end of a barrel of a gun, dictate what you are trying to achieve. That is not 21st century, G8, major nation behavior.


SCIUTTO: Now, you heard President Obama refer to a possible pause in Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

So what did he mean by that?

When I asked the White House officials, they pointed my attention to this quote from Vladimir Putin today. He said, quote, "Regarding the deployment of troops, the use of armed forces so far, there is no need for it. Such a measure would certainly be the very last resort."

Now, Russia has already deployed troops in Crimea, we know that, though Putin hasn't admitted it. It appears that the pause they're talking about is that he hasn't gone further, he hasn't sent them further out of their bases and that they're looking at that as a possible positive sign.

BLITZER: Let's hope there is a positive sign. Lots at stake.

All right, thanks very much, Jim Sciutto.

He'll be back.

As tensions rise in Ukraine, U.S. officials are confirming Russia has test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

What do we know about this -- Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is a test fire. And officials are telling us that the Russians, in fact, notified it to the U.S. before this escalation of tensions with Ukraine, that the U.S. knew it was coming, that they even had as much as a four hour window in which the U.S. was told Russia would conduct the test.

And that is exactly what happened, all within the parameters of the START Treaty on arms reduction.

It doesn't mean that tensions aren't, you know, rising right now and people aren't concerned. But this missile test is something the U.S. knew was coming -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you've been doing some reporting with your sources.

What are you learning about the latest U.S. thinking on where this crisis in Ukraine is heading in the immediate future?

STARR: Well, you know, as Jim was just saying, there's a hint of a pause from Putin. What my sources are telling me is they believe that some time in the next couple of days, Vladimir Putin will, in fact, make that crucial decision that the world is waiting for -- does he expand his military operations more in Crimea?

Does he go into Eastern Ukraine?

One of the things that the U.S. is watching so closely now is those 150,000 or so Russian troops that were conducting that exercise on the border with Ukraine. The exercise is largely over. The troops and their weapons have not returned yet fully to their bases and barracks. So that is one of the key indicators.

When Putin sends them back to their bases, that could be the best signal yet. It hasn't happened. Everyone is waiting. They think Putin will make the decision in the coming days -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And let's hope he makes the right decision.

Barbara, thank you.

Let's go live to the Ukraine capital of Kiev right now.

CNN's Anderson Cooper is on the scene for us -- Anderson, President Putin said today he saw no reason for Russia to intervene in Eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials say, though, thousands of Russian troops, they are already on the ground there.

So how were his words received in the capital of Kiev, where you are?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think I talked to a former defense minister and others today. And I think most people would find it laughable if it wasn't so deadly serious, the idea that Russian forces haven't already intervened in Crimea.

Obviously, there is huge concern about Russian forces extending into Eastern Ukraine, which we have not seen, thankfully. But there's nobody here that you talk to in Kiev who believes that the forces we're seeing on the ground in Crimea, as our own people have been reporting, and others have been reporting, are not Russian forces. The idea that they are self-defense militias, it just simply does -- it defies credibility.

BLITZER: And, you know, in the other part of the news conference, Anderson, President Putin described the overall situation in Ukraine as an unconstitutional coup.

Do Ukrainians you've been talking to see this conflict escalating in the next few days?

COOPER: You know, there's certainly a lot of concern about that. And I think they're watching it very, very closely.

You know, I think -- and certainly the fact that Vladimir Putin has not sent forces into Eastern Ukraine, they would see as a positive sign.

But, you know, this cannot end quickly enough for the interim government here, which is a shaky government, at best. This is the last thing they need, a conflict directly -- a military conflict with Russia. They have been working very hard not to try not to antagonize Russia anymore by doing anything. The troops on the ground in the Ukraine have been very careful in their interactions with the Russian forces on the ground.

So there's certainly a lot of concern about this escalating. And it's obviously being watched very, very closely -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

Anderson, thanks very much.

Anderson is going to have a lot more reporting live from Ukraine later tonight on "A.C. 360," 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Up next, the stakes in Ukraine incredibly high right now for the United States and its European allies.

Will NATO be drawn into the conflict?

I'll ask a former U.S. undersecretary of state, Nick Burns. He's standing by live.

And Russia's Vladimir Putin is opposed to military interventions, unless it's Russia doing the intervening. We're going to take a look at Putin's double standard.


BLITZER: The crisis in Ukraine poses an extraordinary challenge to America and its allies, puts extraordinary pressure on President Obama right now.

Joining us now once again, our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, and the former undersecretary of State, Nick Burns. He's also former U.S. ambassador to NATO. He's now at the Harvard University Kennedy's School of Government.

You wrote this in "The New York Times" on Sunday, Nick.

And let me put it up on the screen, referring to what's going on right now. "It's the most important, most difficult foreign policy test of his presidency," referring to President Obama. "The stakes are very high for the president because he is the NATO leader. There's no one in Europe who can approach him in power. He is going to have to lead."

What does he need to do, Nick?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Well, Wolf, I think that is objectively true. I think the president has got to rally the NATO alliance to do one thing, and that is to reaffirm the security of the existing allies. There are 26-year European allies, Canada and the United States. There ought to be a NATO summit where we reaffirm the collective defense, particularly, of those smaller East European allies, the Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.

He used to be republics of a Soviet Union, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia who used to be on the Warsaw Pact. Putin needs to know that the security guarantee to those countries is strong and everlasting, and that's a message that the president of the United States is uniquely capable of delivering. And I think, Wolf, the NATO alliance and the European Union can also work together in trying to give real assistance to this new embattled government in Kiev.

You saw that Secretary of State Kerry offered a billion dollars in loan guarantees. Kathy Ashton, the senior foreign policy official of the European Union will be there tomorrow. We should see an equal, perhaps, even bigger package by the EU. So, those are two distinct things that these allies can do together.

BLITZER: I'm not hearing you're talking about sanctions because, as you know, the Europeans, especially the Germans, there's a split between them and the U.S.

BURNS: Well, actually, that was a third thing I was going to mention, Wolf. And, obviously, as President Obama has said correctly, there's got to be a cost to Putin for violating the territorial integrity of another country for marching over the border and taking control of the territory of that country.

The United States is, I think, talking about boycotting the G-8 summit in Sochi, maybe expelling Russia from the G-8, a series of U.S. financial sanctions, the Magnitsky sanctions that Congress could take. Part of Europe is with us, Wolf. I think the British are. I think the French are, certainly, the East Europeans, but the biggest, strongest country in the middle of Europe, Germany has very different views.

I think they'd rather talk to the Russians, maybe be a mediator of sorts. They don't want to support these sanctions and that weaken's the western's response to Putin.

BLITZER: Let me bring Jim Sciutto into this conversation. Jim, we've got a map here --


BLITZER: -- on our SITUATION ROOM desk of Crimea. We've highlighted a little bit different color. This is a sovereign part of Ukraine, but it seems at least for now, if in fact as you reported earlier, U.S. officials believe Putin may be pausing in his next steps, maybe it's because he's achieved a strategic objective of -- he's got control of Crimea for all practical purposes.

SCIUTTO: No questions. There's a school of thought that -- there's a lot of speculation. What are his intentions (ph)? What are his end game? It's possible he's at his end game which is to demonstrate that this Crimea, where it has Sevastopol right here, that Russia's only warm water port, access to the Black Sea on to the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, that he's established that this is a key national security interest.

That's the first place he sent his troops when he moved him out of the bases there to surround that base and protect that area. He's effectively made that statement already. Now, of course, there were other facts -- there were other affects from this negative, including damage to the relations with the west, but he seems to have achieved that goal.

I was going to ask Ambassador Burns, if I can, because he referenced the idea of strengthening the alliance with our NATO partners in the region. You know, you look at the map here, and Nick, I know you know the map well, but we have the advantage of one in front of us here. You mentioned those NATO allies and here along Ukraine's western border, you've got Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania.

To show the commitment to that alliance, could you envision the U.S., for instance, sending some exercises, some military exercises in one of these countries. Would that be too provocative to the Russian side or would that be the kind of signal that you think is necessary to show American's commitment to the alliance?

BURNS: Well, first, you know, I think President Obama has made the right decision. It's the same decision President Bush made in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. The United States and NATO are not going to use our military as a way to try to counter Putin. It doesn't make sense and potentially catastrophic in the nuclear age. We're both nuclear weapon superpower. So, the correct strategy is a political/economic strategy.

Now, there are some things we can do militarily in the Baltic States if you still have your map up, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, NATO does have some four deployed air patrols. We could increase that on the border of Russia just to make a statement that that sovereign NATO territory, if you will. And you remember the missile defense proposal for Poland and the Czech Republic.

The administration might want to go back to that to show the Russians that we do mean business to protect our existing allies. But I don't think the administration either in the Black Sea or just on the Ukrainian border would want to do anything that would possibly, could possibly lead to miscalculation or a mistake. It's just too dangerous of a situation. We're better off trying to isolate Putin, drive up the costs to him economically, and shine a big international spotlight on his blatant violation of international law.

BLITZER: The statements coming out of NATO, the general secretary of NATO, you're a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. The statements -- you know, they all seem to be saying the same thing, but I don't see any real NATO military role. I certainly don't see any United Nations' Security Council role given the fact that Russia has veto power at the Security Council. So, are these two elements, NATO and the U.N. Security Council, really relevant right now? BURNS: Well, the Security Council, Wolf, as you say correctly, is it can't be effective because the Russians would veto any resolution that was not in their interest. You saw the debate from the New York yesterday. NATO is important because Putin does need to realize that their strength in that alliance to protect the current members to which we have security guarantees --


BLITZER: But there's no real military -- NATO military option. The NATO allies are not going to send troops into Crimea or into Ukraine.

BURNS: No. No. None whatsoever. And I think, again, President Obama has made the right decision here. We do not have a formal, as you know, security obligation to Ukraine, and it doesn't make sense to add fuel to the fire here. We have to be the more mature party. The NATO countries looking at the reckless aggressive behavior of Putin and we've got to be smarter in using our economic and political leverage against them.

So, that's what the response is going to be, Wolf. It's not going to be military. But the key here is that we have to be unified, particularly, between Chancellor Merkel of geRmany and President Obama and it does look like Washington and Berlin are on different wavelengths and we've got to narrow those differences and have a unified response to Putin.

BLITZER: Nick Burns, as usual. Thanks very much. Jim Sciutto, don't go too far away.

When we come back, does Vladimir Putin have a double standard when it comes to military intervention in other countries? We're going to take a closer look at his controversial strategy in this crisis.

Plus, the former secretary of state says that Russian president is, quote, "delusional." Is Madeleine Albright right? That's coming up. You're watching a special report right here in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Russian president, Vladimir Putin, doesn't like military invasions in other countries except when it's Russia that's doing the intervening. After blasting past move by the United States and its allies, Putin says Russia has every right to send troops into Ukraine. Brian Todd has been looking into a lot of people are seeing some sort of double standard. What are you seeing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was just a few months ago that Vladimir Putin in an op-ed in the "New York Times" famously wagged his finger at the U.S. for considering airstrikes on Syria. "You can't go in without the U.N.'s blessing," he said. "You've intervened way too much in other country's conflicts with your military." Strange how things come around.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): Russian soldiers surrounding Ukrainian bases, firing warning shots over Ukrainian troops. This is the kind of intervention Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said one country shouldn't carry out on another without the U.N.'s blessing. Last year, when the U.S. was on the verge of striking Syria for its use of chemical weapons, Putin wrote a prickly op-ed column in "The New York Times."

Quote, "Decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus. We need to use the United Nation's Security Council." Fast-forward to Ukraine, Putin sends Russian troops into Crimea. He denies it, but either way, the U.N. Security Council was not part of his process.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: What is happenings today is a dangerous military intervention in Ukraine. It is an act of aggression.

TODD: Also in that op-ed, Putin blasted the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, its military action in Libya, quote, "It is alarming that military intervention and internal conflicts in foreign countries has become common place for the United States." But now, Russians troops are in a region of Ukraine 5-1/2 years after Putin invaded Georgia, then there's this statement from Putin's news conference on Ukraine.

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): The acting president, of course, is not legitimate. The only legitimate president is Yanukovych.

TODD: That refers to a deal to end the violent protests a couple of weeks ago which also called for Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to remain in power. Putin says the opposition reneged on the deal, chased Yanukovych out. The problem with that --

FIONA HILL, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Putin is using the fact that all of these people signed this agreement even though the Russians, themselves, refused to sign it in the end.

TODD: But while some call Putin hypocritical, American leaders could be vulnerable as well.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further.

HILL: I mean, when we basically then criticize Putin and talk about, you know, he can't use these pretext, Putin just pulls back again to some of the mistakes that we've made in the past. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is a personal favorite of Vladimir Putin's.


TODD (on-camera): Fiona Hill says Putin doesn't have any qualms about being seen as hypocritical. She says he loves the verbal sparring, will use any argument when it suits him, and unlike American politicians who are worried they'll never hear the end of it if they're called out for being hypocritical, Vladimir Putin, she says, thinks people will forget about it and move on, Wolf.

BLITZER: He also says, Putin in his news conference he had today in Moscow, that if -- he says it hasn't happened yet.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: If he were to deploy Russian troops into Ukraine, that would be OK with international law.

TODD: That's right. He's thrown around international law quite a lot in the last few days. All the while, he's apparently violating a 1994 agreement that he signed, that his country signed to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. President Obama said today he seems to have a different set of lawyers interpreting things differently and he could be violating international --

BLITZER: Called Budapest agreement.

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for that kind of a commitment.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much.

Let's go to Kiev right now where a former CNN correspondent in Moscow, bureau chief, Jill Dougherty is joining us. She's now a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Jill, good to see you back in a part of the world you know very, very well. Let me play a soundbite. This is Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state. She was on CNN's "New Day" earlier today. Listen to this.


MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: And I think it's part of a much longer-term plan that Putin has had, which is to try tried to recreate some sort form of relationship between Ukraine and Moscow. I think that is the tragedy that's going on. Putin is, in many ways, I think delusional about this.


BLITZER: You've covered Putin for a long time. You know him. You did a documentary on him for CNN. Is he delusional?

JILL DOUGHERTY, FELLOW, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL OF GOVERNMENT: I don't think he's delusional, Wolf, but I do think that right now he feels that he is in the right. He is very afraid and angry, really, about what he perceives as the pushing of the West toward his borders. He thought ukraine was going to remain kind of in that middle camp and he could lure them into this union with Russia and it didn't work out.

He's angry at Yanukovych and right now what he's trying to do is go after the prize and that is the Crimea where the base is and if -- I think, Wolf, if you look at it in terms of NATO, what he feels is you pull Crimea away, keep it in the Russian camp and damage Ukraine's chance to actually become part of NATO, it's a dream, of course, it's not going to happen very soon, obviously. But to keep them in the -- at least damaged enough so that they can't really move as quickly toward the West as they wanted to.

BLITZER: A former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Jill, he says that if, in fact, Putin is delusional, to a certain degree, maybe it's because his advisers give them bad information or they're simply yes, men and yes, women, they tell him what he wants to hear, the media by and large not all that critical of what he is doing, sort of controlled.

Is there an element of truth there?

DOUGHERTY: You know, Wolf, I think maybe there is but I think it's very dangerous to begin to say Putin is crazy, therefore just, you know, don't pay any attention. He does have people in Crimea, there are people in the eastern parts of Ukraine who share some of these beliefs. Not to mention people in Russia itself. So they -- although the West and people in the States right now may say that this is bogus, et cetera, there are some people who share his beliefs. So I think to our peril we just write him off as crazy.

BLITZER: Has Putin changed much over the years?

DOUGHERTY: I think he has. I think he's more conservative. I think that he feels that he's been burned by the West. I think he feels that he gave a lot right after 9/11 to the United States. You know, giving access for U.S. troops and NATO troops to go into Afghanistan and that the U.S. didn't give him anything in return.

You could really see it today, Wolf, in that news conference. He was feisty, he was angry, he was very critical of the United States and the West. He feels that they want to move the borders right up to his border and he is not going to have any of that.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty, who speaks Russian, joining us from Kiev. Jill, thanks very, very much.

We have more breaking news we're following. We're about to speak live to a reporter on the ground in Crimea for the latest on the tense standoff between Russia and Ukrainian troops.

Plus, why one Republican lawmaker says the Ukrainian crisis started with Benghazi.


BLITZER: We're getting a dramatic new firsthand look at the standoff in Crimea as tensions between Ukrainian and Russian forces may be reaching a tipping point. Take a look at this report filed by Simon Ostrovsky of Vice News just outside a Ukrainian military base.


SIMON OSTROVSKY, VICE NEWS: The soldiers over here are Russian. They are from the base in Sevastopol. The Russian naval base. And they showed up here early this morning, tried to get into the base but the Ukrainian soldiers here told them that if they did, they would fire back. So there's been quite a tense standoff here for the last few hours with the Ukrainians behind the gate here and the Russian seem to be Marines all along the perimeter of the base.


BLITZER: Simon Ostrovsky is joining us on the phone right now from Crimea.

Very dramatic report. How tense is that situation, Simon, right now?

OSTROVSKY: Well, the situation is pretty different in different military bases across the peninsula because what the Russians are trying to do is wait them out in a war of attrition. I think the plan is to surround as many bases as possible and try to get as many commanders of those bases to pledge allegiance to the pro-Russian forces in Crimea.

So certain bases have buckled. The air bases have been taken over but then there are other bases like the one that you saw that are still holding out up until now.

BLITZER: Let me play another clip from your report and then we'll talk. Listen to this.


OSTROVSKY: So I think these guys got their training from the guards outside of Buckingham Palace because they're not saying a word to anybody.

(Speaking in foreign language): Can you tell me what base you're from, what country you're from? Can you answer any questions?

Yes, they don't want to say anything. They're not wearing any insignia but it's pretty clear that they are Russians.


BLITZER: Simon, tell us, how do you know they're Russian?

OSTROVSKY: Well, some of their vehicles have Russian license plates on them and then the Ukrainian commander who was negotiating with them over whether they'd be let into the base or not or what -- give up their arms or not -- said that they were Russian, and mentioned that they were from the naval base specifically in Sevastopol.

And there have been videos coming out, you know, on YouTube from people who've just walked up to these soldiers and started talking to them, and they've admitted that they're from Russia and a lot of them.

So I don't think there's a lot of doubt that these are Russians but for some reason today, Vladimir Putin in his big interview that he gave said that there weren't any Russians outside of the naval base in Sevastopol, which is where they're usually stationed, which just seems a little bit ridiculous because anybody who is down here can see them fanned out all across the region.

BLITZER: Simon, what are Ukrainian forces in Crimea where you are telling you?

OSTROVSKY: Well, yesterday I actually managed to get into a Naval High Command, which is in Sevastopol, the Ukrainian Naval High Command. I had to climb over the wall because it was surrounded by Russian soldiers and protesters who support Russia who are a pretty angry mob around bases all over the place here.

And they are in a very tight spot because they are being waited out. They are having difficulty getting food in. They are not allowed to move in and out and so basically they are just being worn down.

BLITZER: Simon Ostrovsky of Vice News -- Simon, we're going to check back with you tomorrow. Good reporting. Thanks very, very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Christiane, you've been talking to Ukrainian politicians today. How tense is this situation right now?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's tense, obviously. You saw that President Putin tried to take some means to try to de-escalate saying that now is not the time to seize Crimea. He said that Russia was not going to do that or pour any more troops into there, but he would reserve his right to do more if he thought so. We've been commenting on that all day.

Simon's reporting was truly excellent there. I mean, to suggest that there aren't Russian troops, which is what Putin did, when you've got cars and vehicles with Russian license plates, I mean, if it wasn't so desperately serious, it would be almost comedic, it'd be almost Monty Python, this business of are they Russian or are they not Russian, do they have their insignia or don't they have their insignia? Every ordinary Ukrainian is going to talk to them.

Anyway, the Ukrainian top politician who is part of the interim government, his name is Petro Poroshenko. He met with Secretary of State Kerry today and he told me that they have made their first contact, their first attempts to contact Russian authorities, specifically in the Defense Ministry and other ministries. But he said that the Russians haven't shown any desire or willingness yet to negotiate and try to de-escalate all of this.

He also -- I asked him specifically about what President Putin basically dismissing these new Ukrainian authorities, saying that Yanukovych was still the legitimate president and calling the people in Kiev, as we discussed yesterday, a bunch of neo-Nazis and anti- Semites and radicals and terrorists. And this is what Mr. Poroshenko told me.


AMANPOUR: I want to know how you react, again, to what Mr. Putin said, he has accused many in the new Ukrainian leadership of being radicals, extremists, terrorists. Today he actually said that we have Nazis and neo-Nazis and anti-Semites in some parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.

What does he mean and what is your response to that?

PETRO POROSHENKO, UKRAINIAN MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: We think that -- the answer would be very simple. We invite here any international mission. We have reached the agreement that all (INAUDIBLE) mission will stop now work in Crimea. But we are open for any observers to come to any part of Ukraine and to be absolutely sure that Ukraine now outside of Crimea is absolutely safe.


BLITZER: So this, Christiane, clearly a major talking point on the Russians right now. We heard the Russian ambassador to the U.N. Security Council say it, now Putin is saying it, that a bunch of fascists or neo-Nazis or anti-Semites are really responsible for all of this and all evidence points to the exact opposite, that there may be a few but this is by no means an indication of what is going on.

AMANPOUR: Well, that's absolutely right. And you know, what was so interesting was the very strong way today that Secretary Kerry literally repudiated by chat room verse all these accusations and actions that Russia has taken, and you know, accusing Russia of falsehoods, of hiding behind as he said falsehoods and aggression and intimidation.

And, you know, reminding everybody that this famous February 21st agreement was actually not signed on by and that actually Yanukovych, far from being ousted fled and abandoned the country, abandoned the people and not to mention leaving scores of dead people behind.

So the whole narrative in that regard coming out of Russia is intensely skewed and, interestingly, to go further towards what Mr. Poroshenko told me about they trying with all their might to get a negotiation or understanding with the Russians, the Ukrainian foreign minister is on his way to Paris with Secretary of State Kerry around now to go and try to talk to the Russian foreign minister in Paris who's going to be meeting with Secretary Kerry tomorrow.

BLITZER: All right. Hold on for a moment, because Gloria is here.

Gloria, the political fallout here in Washington is intense. Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, he tweeted a little while ago, "It started with Benghazi when you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression," #ukraine.

Now listen to Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, though. He's responding to all these sharp accusations from Republicans who are criticizing the president. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: And what makes me even more suspect of the criticism of President Obama is that there doesn't seem to be any real difference here between what Republicans want the president to do and what he is actually doing. It's easy to just say that it's Obama's fault but history tells us otherwise and these political attacks mask the fortunate fact that today there is pretty solid bipartisan agreement on what to do next.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I think Senator Murphy is right here. I mean, you can argue for the next year over whether the president's vacillation on Syria and the red line or whether the -- the response to Benghazi was the cause of all of this or whether Vladimir Putin would have done the same thing anyway. I mean, you can argue about that. Set those arguments aside.

What's going on in Congress right now is that everybody is on the same page here, Wolf. They all want some version -- the loan guarantees are going to get approved. They all want some version of these sanctions and the problem that the president has, ironically, and I can't believe I'm saying this. Ironically is not the United States Congress but the problem he's got is in Europe.

I mean, Europe is turning to the president. The Germans and Great Britain are saying, wait a minute, you're not as much of a trading partner with Russia as we are. You don't get your natural gas from Russia the way we do. So we've got the problem. The fight that could come in Congress is that what some Republicans are now saying, Wolf, is -- lift all the restrictions on sending that natural gas over to Europe, some Republicans are saying, we can help out that way and there could be a fight over whether we do that.

BLITZER: Gloria Borger and Christiane Amanpour, good discussion, guys. Thanks very much.

Just ahead, President Obama, Vladimir Putin, and an escalating war of words over the crisis in Ukraine. We're going live to the White House for the latest.

Plus, look at how Putin has vexed Washington for years and why some are now questioning his own sanity.


BLITZER: The Russian President Vladimir Putin has made different impressions on U.S. leaders and American pop culture over the years.

Our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is here with a closer look at some of the more memorable moments -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They're absolutely memorable, Wolf. If you think about this. It was almost exactly five years ago President Obama announced he wanted to reset relations with Russia. Well, we have watched this attempt at this reset time and time again. And as President Bush tried to read Putin's intentions over the years, then it was Obama.

Well, we are learning you can't win predicting what Putin is going to do because that certainly hasn't stopped anyone from trying.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): When George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I looked the man in the eye, I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.

MALVEAUX: The bromance was widely panned as naive, particularly after the relationship was strained when Russia offered support to Syria and Iran.

(On camera): When you said you looked into his eyes and you saw his soul, will you also be meeting with the Russian leader in about a week or so, what do you think of Putin now that he's expressed a willingness to supply weapons to outlaw regimes?

BUSH: I know Vladimir Putin understands the dangers of a Iran with a nuclear weapon.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): When President Obama first met Putin in 2009, they looked uncomfortable. An observation even Obama acknowledged over the years.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he's got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.

MALVEAUX: Nobody is bored now. Some Democrats and Republicans even questioning Putin's sanity for pushing the world to the brink.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think he loves to strut on the world stage and I think it could have some impact on him psychologically.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I think that is the tragedy that's going on. Putin is in many ways I think delusional about this.

MALVEAUX: Trying to get a read on the former KGB agent fond of flaunting his bare chest and hunting game can be a moving target and of course a political minefield. Relations with Russia once seen as a punch line.

TINA FAY, ACTRESS: And I can see Russia from my house.

MALVEAUX: People aren't laughing now.

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates, and bloviates.

MALVEAUX: Could anybody predict Putin would be such a pain now? Mitt Romney did. But he was mocked for his warning in 2012.

OBAMA: A few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia. Not al Qaeda. You said Russia. In the 1980s, now calling for to ask for their foreign policy because, you know, the Cold War has been over for 20 years.

MITT ROMNEY, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin.


MALVEAUX: But today Mr. Obama was very careful not to attack President Putin personally, or directly. Instead he used a legal argument for Putin's behavior, saying Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers, making different set of interpretations for his aggression regarding Ukraine. But privately senior administration officials, they are not confident, Wolf, that they can predict his behavior or where his head is at.

BLITZER: I remember when Mitt Romney said that, that Russia was America's number one geostrategic foe. He was in an interview with me and he really got hammered as a result of that. But you know what, looking back to what he said then and what's going on right now, Mitt Romney --

MALVEAUX: Absolutely.

BLITZER: They have been right.

MALVEAUX: He was widely panned out.

BLITZER: Right. I remember it very --

MALVEAUX: And things have changed.

BLITZER: Very vividly.

All right, Suzanne, good to have you here in Washington.

MALVEAUX: Good to have --

BLITZER: Our new national correspondent.

MALVEAUX: Good to be back.

BLITZER: You're going to be doing a lot of reporting for us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: More breaking news coming up. The rhetoric is heating up as Vladimir Putin breaks his silence, but President Obama says the Russian leader isn't fooling anybody.

Plus the economic implications of this crisis in Ukraine. Our own Richard Quest is standing by.