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Crisis in Ukraine; Interview With U.N. Envoy Robert Serry

Aired March 5, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: the crisis in Ukraine.

Dangerous diplomacy -- a U.N. special envoy to Ukraine threatened by gunmen, and then abandons his mission during a critical round of high- stakes talks. We're about to speak live with the envoy.

Secretary of State John Kerry tries to pull Russia back from the brink, while critics at home take shots at the Obama administration's handling of this crisis.

And tension on the ground. Pro- and anti-Russian protesters face off as long-simmering divisions threaten to tear Ukraine apart.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

MATTHEWS: We begin this hour with the tension and the danger on the ground in Ukraine, even as some of the world's top diplomats try to defuse this international crisis.

We saw new proof today of just how volatile the situation is when a United Nations special envoy was threatened by mysterious gunmen. We're about to speak to that envoy. Stand by for the interview, but first background.

CNN's Anna Coren is at the center of this crisis. She's joining us now from the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Anna, what happened?

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, as you say, proof today just to how dangerous and volatile the situation is here on the streets of Crimea.

U.N. special envoy to Ukraine Robert Serry, he's a father of three from the Netherlands, he was attacked by a local militia, and, Wolf, these thugs are big supporters of Russia and Vladimir Putin.


COREN (voice-over): Militiamen surround a cafe in Crimea where the United Nations envoy to Ukraine hunkers down inside.

ROBERT SERRY, UNITED NATIONS ENVOY TO UKRAINE: Please come as soon as possible now.

COREN: Robert Serry says he felt threatened and fled to safety inside the cafe after armed men stopped him and tried to get him into a car.

SERRY: Somebody who would not identify himself was telling me that he had orders to bring me immediately to the airport. I refused.

COREN: Serry cut short his trip to the troubled region and flew to Istanbul in the midst of a flurry of high-stakes diplomacy.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Russia can now choose to de- escalate this situation. And we are committed to working with Russia.

COREN: Western powers are trying to turn up the heat on Russia and Vladimir Putin, searching for a way to defuse the crisis. But here in Crimea, ethnic Russians are the majority and they're rallying in support of Moscow.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let the world know that Crimea is not being invaded, that we're not in danger, not from Russian side anyway.

COREN (on camera): These people here despise Europe and the West and have no desire whatsoever to become part of the European Union.

In fact, the referendum to be held here at the end of the month will determine if this autonomous region becomes completely independent from Ukraine.

(voice-over): Long-simmering tensions are bubbling up in the Crimean capital and spreading across the region. Russian forces fired warning shots over the heads of Ukrainian troops as they approached a military base on Tuesday.

Near Ukraine's eastern border with Russia, a tug of war for control of a regional government headquarters, near the hometown of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

Pro-Moscow demonstrators who stormed the building Monday were removed today, but they reportedly recaptured the building hours later.


COREN: And, Wolf, there are reports that more Russian troops are heading to Crimea, which, as we know, will only further escalate the situation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Anna Coren joining us from Crimea, thanks very much.

More now on that U.N. special enjoy threatened today, blockaded by armed militiamen, forced to take refuge in that cafe.

The special envoy to Ukraine, Robert Serry, is joining us on the phone right now exclusively.

I take it you're in Istanbul. You're out of Ukraine right now. Mr. Serry, tell us what happened. What was it like?

SERRY: Yes, let me try to explain what happened. As you know, the secretary-general had asked me to go to the Crimea and actually to report back to him on the situation there. I had tried to be going there already a couple of days ago. It proved impossible then, this time also in coordination with the OSCE, which I believe is still on the ground.

We managed actually to go to Crimea. I had started my meetings, and it was my objective to meet with as many parties as possible. So, for instance, I would be meeting also with representatives of the Russian community. I saw Mr. Chubarov, the leader of the Crimean Tatars, who told me that the Crimean Tatar population is increasingly frightened of the deteriorating security situation.

And then at the request also of the Ukrainian government, they asked me also to visit the headquarters of the navy in Simferopol, which has been the object of a standoff with the so-called local self-defense forces.

When I came there, I entered the building. And I was briefed by the general. And I can tell you that I only had admiration for the courage of these people trying to defend the integrity and unity of the Ukraine. And when I left that building and wanted to go to our car, actually then, I was stopped. The car was also blocked.

And people who refused to identify themselves told me that they had received orders -- I asked from whom, they didn't answer -- to bring me immediately to the airport. They said that was in my own safety. I refused.

Then a standoff ensued for I think a couple of minutes. And then they actually pulled the driver out of the car. And some armed -- again, they were not identifiable, but they were wearing camouflage uniforms, tried to get into the car. They actually managed to get into the car.

But I managed to get out. And then I walked. Let me tell you, never -- at not one moment I was actually physically assaulted or stopped. I tried to hail a taxi. But that taxi was told to move on. And then I found a cafe where I went in with my assistants and another standoff ensued over there.

I, of course, had been calling for some assistance and some help. I was very happy actually for the press to arrive, because that made me feel a bit safer. And then, after two hours also in front of the -- of this cafe, a number of protesters appeared.

By the way, these protesters were nowhere to be seen when this started. And the situation became tense again. And then a person very much advised me to leave, and he guaranteed my safety, and I would be brought to the airport.

Well, that happened. And I arrived at the airport, and now a little standoff between people, again unidentified uniformed people at the airport. I had to wait for 20 minutes in the car, but then also, thanks to the help of some parliamentarians from the Crimean Parliament, I managed to get into the airport and two tickets had been reserved for me already to get out. And I'm now happy to be in Istanbul. Let me put this also, Wolf, in perspective. You know, what has happened to me I hope serves as a reminder to all how dangerous the situation has become in the Crimea. There is a very urgent need to de-escalate this situation.

And all those who are responsible and can do that must have cool heads, lower their rhetoric and address this situation. I am very, very afraid for what will happen if there is bloodshed. There are people fortunately at the Crimea who actually behaved there with a lot of self-restraint.

BLITZER: You know, Mr. Serry, I'm happy you're out of there because it was a very tense situation. I take it these were armed militiamen, these individuals who were preventing you from doing what your job was. Were you ever at any moment scared for your life?

SERRY: No, Wolf, I wasn't. I wasn't. I have been in some other situations, and I didn't -- I cannot say that I felt very comfortable, but I -- no, it's not that I felt directly threatened. No, I didn't.

BLITZER: What I have been told by experts, including U.S. officials, one of the nightmare scenarios they have is exactly what you're describing, some hotheads there, some thugs, if you will, they get involved in real bloodshed and who knows what could happen, how this bad situation could escalate.

That's your nightmare scenario as well. How worried are you that that could happen?

SERRY: I think it can happen. And that's why I feel that there is an immediate need to address this situation.

BLITZER: How can it be calmed down? What other step -- you're a diplomat. You were representing the United Nations, representing the secretary-general of the United Nations. You had this awful experience that we saw unfold. What needs to be done? Give us some specific recommendations.

SERRY: Well, I think, first, you need to address the situation on the ground.

A mechanism is very much needed between the parties involved on the Crimea to actually start to control the situation and to de-escalate these tensions. There may be -- there can be help from the outside if the parties accept that.

But there is this immediate need to actually de-escalate tensions on the ground. What is, of course, also very important is that the political dialogue starts between representatives from the republic of Crimea and the government in Kiev.

Of course, I have heard also grievances from the Russian population, who are -- have been telling me that they feel themselves also threatened by what has happened in Kiev. There is a lot of distrust. That can only be overcome if we find a mechanism now for all these people to start talking. BLITZER: The secretary of state of the United Nations, he's been talking to the Russian foreign minister in Paris, Sergei Lavrov, today. They are going to continue their talks, I take it, later this week in Rome.

That's a good start, but at the same time the U.N. and other organizations, international organizations want to send monitors or observers to Crimea, to Ukraine.


BLITZER: But given your experience, that could be pretty dangerous, right?

SERRY: Well, you know, I feel that certainly would also be one way of trying to cool down the situation, if you can send international observers.

And this is also what the OSCE mission, which is still on the ground, is discussing with parties there they are meeting with. But I think it is also very important that, on the international level -- you mentioned the discussions which have started now in earnest, I hope, between the United States, Russia and others -- that there is a collaborative international effort, of which the United Nations can also be part, to actually ensure that we can address the situation on the ground.

You know, Ukraine threatens to be pulled apart if the rhetoric between East and West are only increasing, rather than decreasing.

BLITZER: Robert Serry, the special United Nations envoy to Ukraine, he was in a very tense situation in Crimea today, but he's now out. He's in Istanbul getting ready to report to the U.N. secretary- general.

But thanks for your report here on CNN. Thanks for your report to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Good luck. We're happy you're safe and sound, Mr. Serry. Thank you.

SERRY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, as tension rises, we are going to map out the latest military moves in the region. Our own Jim Sciutto is here, together with retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt.


BLITZER: Troubling signs, as tension between Russia and the West rises over the presence of thousands of Russian forces in Ukraine's Crimea region.

Let's get some more with retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, and chief national correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Guys, thanks very much. So, U.S. officials, General, tell us that there are still thousands and thousands of Russian troops. They were engaged in an exercise just outside of Ukraine. That exercise has ended, but they're still there. They're not in their barracks. How worried should U.S. officials be, NATO officials, as they see what's going on?

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), FORMER U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR PLANS AND STRATEGY: Well, I don't think they should be worried, but they should watch it carefully.

Obviously, Putin is keeping them there just in case things get worse. But as long as they're sitting in their places, staying in their barracks, being watched by our intelligence assets, I think we can relatively...


BLITZER: Today, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, they announced some NATO-U.S. military moves.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: They did, basically to reassure our NATO allies in the region, to expand existing operations there in some ways.

So, what they're going to do, they're going to put a few more aircraft, most likely C-130s, F-16s here in Poland -- there's an existing air detachment there. They might extend it or expand it.

They're also up here -- it's not on the map but it's up in this direction, the Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. They don't have their own air force, so the NATO runs their own air patrols for them. They are going to add some observation planes there, F-16s, possibly P-3 Orions.

And then coming up in the next several weeks, you will have a U.S. destroyer come in to the Black Sea. To be clear, that was previously scheduled. It's a routine trip, but they will keep it going. When you look at the map now, you have some extra planes here, a few here, a navy ship here, a bit of a pincer movement, right, around the Ukraine to demonstrate that commitment.

This is not kinetic. They're not going to fire any guns. There are no boots going anywhere near on the ground, but at least reassures these allies here that the U.S. is still involved.

BLITZER: And these are NATO allies that we're talking about, Poland and the Baltic states.

But one of the things, the nightmare -- I was talking about this with the special U.N. envoy, a miscalculation, that's what everybody is worried about right now, that this could explode because some low- level types could perhaps start killing people.


And we saw that the other day at the airfield where we had the Ukrainian soldiers marching out, the Russian soldiers firing warning shots. Imagine where we'd be right now if that had turned, as Jim said, into a kinetic operation.

BLITZER: Some are already concluding, Jim -- and I know you have been speaking to a lot of officials -- for all practical purposes, Putin has won. He's got Crimea, in effect. It's under his control. He can rest easy now.

SCIUTTO: There is definitely that school of thought, and some people who are very close to the administration, advised the administration.

He's made it clear he's not going to give this up, right? So what are the next steps? The hope is that he doesn't expand military operations from the Crimea area into Eastern Ukraine. That hasn't happened yet.

But even if he takes his troops back to the bases here, there's talk of a political move as well, that Crimea is somewhat autonomous, making it even more autonomous, in which case he wouldn't have to bring it physically out of the union of Ukraine, but if it's more autonomous, pledging allegiance in effect to Russia, that's a win. That's a strategic win. It's a political win.

BLITZER: You heard our exclusive interview with the special U.N. -- he had a harrowing experience today. You know this, this individual. He's been in some harrowing experiences over his career.

KIMMITT: No, he has been. He's been down to the Balkans before. He's seen some pretty tough things. It sounds like what he went through today was pretty harrowing for him, as you say.

BLITZER: Yes, he was shaken, shaken up by that, but he's OK.

Thanks to you, General, for coming in, and, Jim Sciutto, as usual, thanks to you.

Just ahead, some other news we're following, including a mosquito- borne illness described as excruciatingly painful, why health officials now believe it's heading to the United States.


BLITZER: Continuing the breaking news coverage, Secretary of State John Kerry gearing up for another round of Ukraine crisis talks in the coming days after intense discussions in Paris that included Russia's foreign minister.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, has our report.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a day to turn down the heat, as Secretary of State John Kerry announced he and foreign ministers from Russia and Ukraine had finally agreed to start talking. JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with Ukrainians in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis. I would rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday.

ACOSTA: As Kerry insisted that Russia pull back its forces, the Obama administration took a moment to give dialogue and diplomacy some room to breathe. After days of sharp words with Vladimir Putin including that phone call last Saturday, President Obama avoided questions on Ukraine and only made a glancing reference to the standoff at an event on the minimum wage in Connecticut.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It doesn't matter whether it's in Central Europe or in the Middle East or Africa, individuals want a chance to make it if they try.

ACOSTA: One day after the president spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about ideas for a diplomatic off-ramp for Russia, she pitched them to Putin. Up on Capitol Hill, the administration's word of the day was de-escalate.

JACK LEW, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: Our ultimate goal is to de- escalate the situation in Ukraine.

ACOSTA: Whether it was Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warning of sanctions against Russia or the Pentagon's top brass on plans for NATO to beef up its presence in Eastern Europe.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: We want to provide NATO's leaders with options that stabilize and not escalate tensions in the Ukraine.

ACOSTA: The only escalation in sight was between Republicans and the administration over its handling of Ukraine, with John McCain accusing the intelligence community of missing Putin's designs on Crimea.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It was another massive failure because of our misreading, total misreading of the intentions of Vladimir Putin.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I said that early last week we were well aware of the threats.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: Can you think of any place in the world, any place where we're better off now than we were when he came to office?


ACOSTA: Administration officials say they're still looking at an initial round of sanctions to impose against Russian targets. That, of course, prompted a retaliatory threat of sanctions of their own from the Russians.

I asked a senior administration official about that and they said that they really don't want to comment on the Russian threat, only that they're focused on diplomatic efforts to resolve this crisis. And speaking of those diplomatic efforts, Wolf, we know that the president spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron today about the crisis in Ukraine and the vice president talked to the president of Latvia.

Wolf, they have been burning up the phone lines lately.

BLITZER: Yes, the diplomacy continuing full-speed ahead. Let's hope it works.

Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Let's go to Paris right now. Our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, is there. She's traveling with the secretary of state.

Intense meetings today, Elise. The secretary said he'd rather be where all of the action is right now as far as the diplomacy is concerned. Did you get the sense that there's any -- any ground for serious optimism right now?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I would say cautious optimism. They didn't get that meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Ukrainian foreign minister that they've been trying to get together all day, but you did have a lot of intense diplomacy. Kerry met with Lavrov there times in various groupings of the other form ministers. Then they sat down together.

You had that call between Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and President Putin, in which she's pitching this German/French plan which has some elements that the Russians would like.

And tomorrow Secretary Kerry will go to Rome and he'll meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov again. So you have the real beginnings of a seedling, if you will, of a diplomatic process. And everyone wants to de-escalate the situation. But I will say, Wolf, the State Department just sent out a fact sheet, and it's called "President Putin's Fiction: Ten False Claims about Ukraine." I'm now sure how that's going to go down as far as de-escalation when Secretary Kerry meets the foreign minister tomorrow in Rome.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens. Elise Labott, traveling with the secretary. She's been very busy.

Let's take a quick now at some of the other stories we're following this hour in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The House investigation into the IRS targeting of conservative groups hit a wall today when former IRS manager Lois Lerner once again refused to testify before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.


LOIS LERNER, FORMER IRS MANAGER: My counsel has advised me that I've not waived my constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment, and on his advice, I will decline to answer any question on the subject matter of this hearing.


BLITZER: Republican Chairman Darrell Issa during the meeting angering Democrats who wanted to speak. Issa ordered microphones cut off, prompting the ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, to shout his statement. It was ugly indeed, the entire episode. I've covered Congress for a long time, don't remember anything along those lines.

Meanwhile, the Senate has rejected President Obama's pick to lead the Justice Department's civil rights decision [SIC]. Debo Adegbile's nomination sparked controversy because of his role defending a man who was convicted of killing a police officer in Philadelphia back in 1981.

Seven Democrats sided with Republicans, rejecting the president's nomination. President Obama calls the vote a travesty.

The Obama administration has announced another Obama care extension. Insurers are now being told they can keep customers on the policies that don't comply with the president's signature law for another two years. The second time the deadline has been moved, as with the last extension, state insurance commissioners will have to sign off on it.

U.S. health officials are bracing for the arrival of a new mosquito- borne virus that's now spreading through the Caribbean. The virus causes fever and pain that victims describe as debilitating and excruciating. Rarely fatal, but there's no vaccine or cure. The virus was first identified in Africa and has spread through Asia and Europe in the last decade.

That's it for me. Let's step into the CROSSFIRE right now with hosts Van Jones and S.E. Cupp. They're debating President Obama's approach to the crisis in Ukraine.