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Interview With Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; Crisis in Ukraine; Report: Clinton Compares Putin's Moves to Hitler; U.S. to Step Up Presence in Poland

Aired March 5, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: As tensions ratchet up in the Ukraine, the U.S. and Russia are now deploying a tactic they had not yet attempted, actually talking to each other face-to-face.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead, America's top diplomat, John Kerry, meeting with his Russian counterpart for the first time face-to-face since Russian boots hit the ground in Ukrainian territory. One way or another, this could be a turning point in the international standoff over Ukraine.

The politics lead. Stop me now if this sounds familiar. The White House condemns the Russians after they invade a sovereign nation. But I'm not talking about Ukraine. I'm talking about the Russians invading the country of Georgia back in 2008. Is President Obama's response really all that different from George W. Bush's back then? How about the response of the pundits?

Also in politics, argue about a deeply divisive issue long enough and sooner or later someone brings up the Nazis. It's Godwin's Law. Hillary Clinton wading into the Ukraine crisis by comparing Putin to Adolf Hitler. Did she go too far?

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

We're going to begin with the world lead, of course. For days now, every time that red phone rang, the Russians have seemingly been checking their caller I.D. and saying it's the Americans again, let it go to voice-mail, literally, lots of unreturned phone calls between U.S. and Russian dips. But that all changed a short time ago, with the highest-level diplomatic talks we have witnessed yet since this crisis in Ukraine began, Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Paris this afternoon.

From the way Kerry later described it, the main weapon the U.S. is using against the Russians is shame.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Russia's violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity has actually united the world in support of the Ukrainian people. Russia can now choose to de-escalate this situation. And we are committed to working with Russia, together with our friends and allies, in an effort to provide a way for this entire situation to find a road to de-escalation.


TAPPER: Kerry said that all sides have agreed that a dialogue is the best way to move forward. The U.S. wants to get Russia to the table to talk with Ukraine's interim government, which Russia doesn't recognize.

But that did not happen today. Russia maintains that Ukraine's ousted president is the country's true leader. Before meeting with Kerry, Foreign Minister Lavrov repeated the assertion that Russian President Vladimir Putin made yesterday, that the troops in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula are not actually Russians at all, but instead members of local self-defense groups.

That came as a surprise to many people with eyes and/or ears, because they sure look like Russian troops firing warning shots at hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers attempting to reenter an air base on Crimea that the Russians have seized.

So far, this is the only known instance of shots fired between the two groups, but there are forces such as these in the streets of Crimea's regional capital patrolling with no identification.

Today, the administration said that the U.S. cannot yet prove that these forces are Russian.


CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: It's pretty clear that they're Russian troops.

SEN. ROGER WICKER (R), MISSISSIPPI: I think it's clear, but, General Dempsey, what evidence do we have?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: We don't have any evidence as yet. I think evidence could likely become available over time.


TAPPER: Just as an FYI to General Dempsey and Secretary Hagel, several of those troops have told reporters that they are Russian.

Meanwhile, NATO is cutting back its ties with Russia, suspending its first joint mission to escort a U.S. ship as part of efforts to disarm Syria. And NATO says you can forget about any more meetings with the Russians, at least for now.

The crucial meeting between Kerry and Lavrov took place around the same time the Robert Serry, U.N. envoy to Ukraine, was forced to end his mission in Crimea at gunpoint. Armed men threatened him, according to the U.N., forced him to hole up in a coffee shop. A reporter from ITV was in that shop and tweeted out this photograph shortly before police escorted Serry to the airport.

Let's get to our own Anna Coren, standing by live in Crimea.

Anna, give us more details about what happened with this envoy.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we don't know exactly what triggered this confrontation, but we understand that Robert Serry's car was surrounded by at least 15 men, some of them armed.

They told him he had to go straight to the airport. He refused. These local militia then tried to get into his car. He managed to somehow get out. He fled into a coffee shop. He was there with an ITV reporter, I should say, James Mates, who was tweeting what was going on.

These men continued to surround the building. After some time, he decided, as to alleviate pressure, to leave the situation, basically to quit his post as U.N. special envoy to Ukraine and depart the country.

So he is en route to Istanbul as we speak. He believes that this will help de-escalate the situation. But, Jake, it just goes to show how tense the situation is and how unpredictable the situation is here in Crimea.

TAPPER: Anna Coren, thank you so much. Please stay safe.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a hearing tomorrow on Ukraine and could vote soon after a resolution for sanctions against Russia, although that resolution is more a symbolic gesture. It's nonbinding. The entire House could also vote on the $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine that Secretary of State John Kerry announced earlier this week.

Joining me now to discuss this all is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

Congresswoman, good to see you.


TAPPER: We heard from Secretary of State John Kerry. He said he'd rather be in the position they're in today than where they were yesterday. Are you seeing progress in some sort of resolution? Because I have to admit it's escaping me.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, it depends on what your definition of progress is, because if we're going to just talk the talk and not walk the walk, then that's not progress at all.

We have got to dial back the rhetoric, unless this administration is really going to follow through on its bluster. One of the things that I think that we should do, we must do is add names to the Magnitsky list. This is a bill that we passed and became law last year named after one of the anti-corruption activists who was beaten to death in a Russian jail for exposing corruption.

And it names and shames those human rights violators in Russia. It freezes their assets, and it will fine any companies that do business with human rights violators. We can adapt this to the situation that Russia is taking in Ukraine, especially in Crimea, to say that these armed thugs are not part of the Russian army. It doesn't even pass the smile test.

Local defense forces, they are part of the Russian army. If they're unified with violators, which it looks like they are, they should be placed on this Magnitsky list. We should be talking about possibly freezing their assets, blocking their property, making sure that they can't enter the United States. There's a lot more that we can do before we talk about aggressive action or any military action.

TAPPER: Right. Congresswoman, Russia today threatened to seize the assets of any company belonging to -- from a country that is imposing sanctions on them. Are you at all concerned that the retaliatory efforts by Russia would hurt businesses in the U.S., businesses in Europe?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, the truth is that these U.S. businesses are not the ones that are human rights violators.

What we would be doing in the United States is hurting the human rights violators and those who do business with them. I think that kind of aggressive act by Putin against U.S. businesses that are not related to this crisis in Ukraine, that is purely a punitive action not related to the situation at hand.

So I think that Putin is putting us to the test. Are we going to back up our words with actions or is this going to be a situation like Syria where the president said, this is a red line, the use of chemical arms will -- weapons will not be tolerated, we will do limited airstrikes and then he pulled back on that?

What are we doing with Russia? Are we threatening with a lot of action that then we won't fulfill? And we have now Putin taking us up on our words and saying, well, we will declare these prohibitions on U.S. businesses. But that is not what the U.S. is saying. We're talking about true human rights violators. He's talking about just retaliating against U.S. businesses that have nothing to do with Ukraine.

TAPPER: Congresswoman, in retrospect, was it a mistake for the U.S. to have not done more after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008? As you know, there was a lot of talk, but, ultimately, Russia stayed in those two breakaway republics. Ultimately, Russia stayed and kept that territory.

In retrospect, was it a mistake for the U.S. to have basically gone back to the situation as it was before the invasion?

ROS-LEHTINEN: I think, standing now where we are and looking back on that situation, yes, we should have done more, just like we had situations in Iran when the dissidents were standing up and we turned the other way, just like in Syria when the opposition was clear that they were the good guys, that we should have helped out more.

But it's hindsight. At the moment, you don't know when you're pushing too hard and when you're escalating, rather than toning down the rhetoric and trying to get a diplomatic accord. But Putin has really put us to the test. Let's see what this administration is willing to do. But I hope that we don't talk a big game and then just play small ball.

TAPPER: Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, thank you so much.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: We appreciate it.

Coming up on THE LEAD: She made headlines last night when she compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. So, what is Hillary Clinton saying today? Well, she will speaking live now, and we will have that next.

Plus, as John Kerry tries to convince allies in Europe to go along with the plan for sanctions, does the U.S. risk isolating itself? I will ask the State Department spokeswoman coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The politics lead now, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking live right now at UCLA. Let's listen in.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: ... and return to a process that leads to elections in Ukraine that represent the will of the Ukrainian people.

And it's important for us in this country to recognize the complexity of the situation as it evolves and to support the very careful diplomacy that the president, Secretary Kerry, and others are undertaking.

Now, I'm looking forward to answering questions in a few minutes and having a broader discussion about our changing world and the challenges facing our nation. There's a lot to talk about, obviously.

But I want to spend a few minutes on a particular challenge here at home that is directly relevant to the students here and to so many more young people...

TAPPER: That was Hillary Clinton speaking live at UCLA. She started her remarks with comments and observations about Russia and the crisis in the Ukraine. The real headline, of course, came last night when she compared Russia's leader to a dictator responsible for the slaughter of more than 6 million people during a private fund-raising event in southern California. There, last night, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly drew parallels between Russian President Vladimir Putin's Ukraine strategy and the moves before World War II of Adolf Hitler. Take a listen.


CLINTON: So, where are we right now? Well, today, Putin basically said in a long press conference that oh, you know, all I want to do is protect the rights of the minorities, namely Russian speakers, and he's been on a campaign to get everybody who has any Russian connection that want to retire Russian military in Crimea, he's given them all Russian passports.

Now, if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the '30s. All the Germans that were, you know -- the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, you know, Hitler kept saying, "They're not being treated right, I must go and protect my people." And that's what's gotten everybody so nervous.

Now, here's where I think we are. I think Putin has stopped the large military exercises on the border, but remember, he still has thousands of Russian troops already in Crimea. He controls Crimea. They have occupied Crimea. And I think that's where the negotiations will start.

John Kerry is in Kiev today. Russians agreed to meet with NATO in Brussels. So, everybody is hoping that there will be a negotiation but a negotiation that respects Ukraine and doesn't ratify a reoccupation by Russia of Crimea.

So, it's a real nail-biter right now. But nobody wants to up the rhetoric. Everybody wants to cool it in order to try to find a diplomatic solution. And that's what we should be trying to do.


TAPPER: Let's bring in CNN senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, we've been getting some reaction from high-profile Republicans to Clinton's remarks. Not exactly what you might expect. Arizona Senator John McCain, a vocal critic of Clinton's handling of the Benghazi terrorist attack as well as other things that she did as secretary of state, he tweeted today, "She's right on this comparison." Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a possible presidential candidate himself in 2016 agreed with Clinton's take saying that there are similarities between Putin and Hitler's approach.

No surprise I suppose that she's more candid when there's not a camera there than when there is a camera there. Are you surprised at the reactions, though? BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I -- from Republicans?

TAPPER: From Republicans.

KEILAR: Not really because you've heard some of them saying the same thing. I think what's interesting is I'm hearing some of the same things from Democrats and Republicans. They're saying, you know, this was inartful, but --

TAPPER: The Hitler comparison.

KEILAR: Exactly. I mean, as one Democrat that I spoke to said, basically, you never really want to drop the "H" bomb because she has a nuanced argument and I've heard no one actually say that it's wrong.

But you bring up Hitler, you bring up Nazi Germany and it sort of steals the show where from what it is she's trying to communicate. On the other hand, talking with some Democrats they're saying, you know, this is her showing awareness that she knows that Putin -- and she knew before. And we just heard her in her remarks at UCLA saying, "as I said when I was secretary of state."

She's been getting a lot of flak for the reset under the time when she was at the helm at the Department of State, and some have said this is her trying to say, you know what, I knew that he was a bad guy, I didn't trust him, but at the same time I was dealing with Medvedev, and, you know, we gave diplomacy a chance because it's what you do. But this is her trying to distance herself maybe not from the Obama administration, although I heard one person say that, but from the criticism that the Obama administration has been naive, that she was naive in that reset.

This is her sort of saying, no, I know full well the threat that Putin really has and does make.

TAPPER: And to be precise, she wasn't comparing Putin and Hitler per se. She was comparing the pretext for invasion, what Hitler did in Europe and what Putin did, saying that there are ethnic Germans, ethnic Russians who need protection.

KEILAR: Exactly right, because what you've seen Putin do in Crimea is say, we need to protect these Russians and she was just sort of drawing the comparison between the rationale that Hitler used in sort of bringing some Germans out and also in protecting them when he was looking to expand his borders beyond Germany.

TAPPER: Brianna Keilar, thank you so much. We're going to continue to watch that speech that Hillary Clinton is giving at UCLA, and if she's asked more about these relevant topics, we will bring that to you live.

Coming up next, as the tense standoff continues in the Ukraine, the U.S. is increasing its presence in surrounding countries. So, what's the next move? Plus, if you're having deja vu listening to President Obama respond to Putin, maybe it's because you have heard much of it before except last time some of those same lines were coming from President Bush.

CLINTON: I learned about hard work and producing good --


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

We're going to continue our world lead, of course. In response to Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that the U.S. is beefing up its presence in the region.


CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The Defense Department is pursuing measures to support our allies including stepping up joint training through our aviation detachment in Poland. It's an area that I visited a few weeks ago and augmenting our participation in NATO's air policing mission on the Baltic peninsula.


TAPPER: Will that rattle the Russians at all? Is it intended to?

Let's bring in CNN military analyst and retired U.S. Army General James "Spider" Marks.

Spider, thanks for being here.


TAPPER: We just heard Hagel talk about stepping up joint training in Poland, air patrols over the Baltics. Will that intimidate the Russians?

MARKS: No. That's not intended for the Russians. That's not to intimidate them. What that is intended to do is bolster the confidence of our allies and our friends to make sure that they know that we're standing by and paying attention on what's going on. That's the intended recipient of that message.

TAPPER: OK, there was a heated exchange during Hagel's testimony, a few, actually. Senator John McCain asked whether U.S. intelligence indicated that Russia would invade before the invasion. Let's play some of that.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The fact is, Mr. Secretary, it was not predicted by our intelligence and that's already been well-known, which is another massive failure because of our misreading, total misreading of the intentions of Vladimir Putin.


TAPPER: I guess intelligence missed the entire collapse of the Soviet Union. Missing this isn't that big a deal in comparison.

But how -- how could U.S. intelligence not see this coming?

MARKS: Well, I think the issue became tactical warning. That's not kind of an arcane topic.

TAPPER: What does that mean?

MARKS: Yes, what that means is the Russians had forces that were exercising north of Ukraine, and this was a very large exercise, but it was declared and we were watching it. Suddenly, you have forces that come across and they're now in Crimea. They did it by way of air assault. That means helicopter assault. Those are airborne troops. And they did it by land, just kind of drove through there, because there is routine passage from Russia through Ukraine into Crimea.

TAPPER: Because they have bases there.

MARKS: You got to get to Sevastopol. Absolutely.

So, this has been a normal activity. All of a sudden, they don't leave and the number of troops have increased. So --

TAPPER: But there was this vacuum because Yanukovych had fled.

MARKS: Absolutely. We should have been able to pick that up and we should have been able to get ahead of on a tactical level that invasion that occurred in Crimea.

TAPPER: Now, one of the things -- this hearing that Hagel and the joint chiefs were at was about their proposed budget for the military, which shrinks the military's budget considerably. How do you think this incident, this crisis in Ukraine, will impact that debate over the size of the defense budget?

MARKS: That's a great question. I hope that the United States, that this administration, is paying attention to what's going on in Crimea and is learning appropriate lessons, that this is informing some critical decisions. I'm not saying that it is. I think there is a Department of Defense budget, it's moving forward, will shrink the Army to numbers that predate World War II, puts us at increased risk, number of major regional conflict, our ability to respond is now down, yet we're looking at a aggressive and predictable activity by the Russians into their sphere of influence.

But this is a sovereign country invading another country, and we are now going to decrease the size of our military. This is a repeat of containment. This is containment version two. And that is something we have to pay attention to. Last time we had containment, we had a very sizable, significant army.

TAPPER: We'll talk more about the proposed military budget in the coming weeks. General Marks, thanks so much for being here.

MARKS: Thank you.

TAPPER: We appreciate it.

This just in -- the Obama administration making yet another change to the president's signature measure which it once called settled law. Obamacare, of course, I'm talking about. Moments ago, the administration announced that insurers can keep customers on policies even if they don't completely comply with the standards for Obamacare for two more years.

You'll remember that many Americans got cancellation letters from their insurers after Obamacare sign-ups began because their policies did not fit the government's criteria. And many views they were junk policies. This move could prevent that from happening again just before this year's midterm elections.

Coming up next, as intense meetings in Paris today wrapped up with no clear resolution to the crisis, what can the West really do to rein in Putin? Anything?

Stay with us.