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Obama Statement on Ukraine; U.S. Curtails Bilateral Engagements with Russia; John Kerry Speaks on Ukraine

Aired March 6, 2014 - 13:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're following breaking news. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. We have just learned that President Obama is about to step into the White House briefing room. There you see the reporters, the producers, the camera crews, they're all getting ready. The president is going to make a statement, we're told, on Ukraine. This is a surprise addition to the president's schedule. We don't know what he is going to say.

But let's bring in our White House Correspondent Michelle Kosinski. Only moments ago, they alerted us the president would be walking into the briefing room. Michelle, this is an important day. Lots going on. Set the scene for us.

Unfortunately, Michelle is no longer there. We're going to reconnect with her. We just lost her a moment. Jim Sciutto, our Chief National Security Correspondent, is here. Jim, standby for a minute. Michelle is now ready. Michelle, are you there?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I hear you now, Wolf. Hopefully --

BLITZER: All right, set the --

KOSINSKI: -- you can hear me.

BLITZER: -- set the stage for us because as our viewers have just been told, the president is about to make a statement on Ukraine. What do we know?

KOSINSKI: Right, we expect to hear from him soon. And, I mean, events are happening quickly. Now, we're hearing from Russia, after the foreign minister met with other leaders today in Rome, saying that he did not find common ground with the west. He was going to take the suggestions that secretary of state Kerry made to him to sit down and talk to Ukraine, to let in international observers. Take those back to President Putin and then make a decision from there.

He didn't respond directly to the sanctions that were imposed by the U.S. today with the president signing this executive order targeting individuals that would be deemed by the U.S. government to have undermined democracy in Ukraine, threatened security, misappropriated state funds or exerted authority without authorization from the government of Ukraine. It also makes it -- put a prohibition on funding this kind of activity.

And also, visa bans, not letting people into the United States as well as revoking visas. Senior administration officials told us today that they were still working on the asset bans as to who exactly would be targeted. But when it comes to the visas, they already had a list of people who would not be able to gain access to the U.S. And if they're already here or already had a visa, those would be revoked. And they're being notified now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And so, the president, presumably, will be elaborating on that. We don't know if he has a major announcement to make but he does want to speak about the situation in Ukraine. That's why they have literally, just moments ago, alerted the news media that the president will walk into the briefing room and make that statement.

Jim Sciutto, our Chief National Security Correspondent, is here, Gloria Borger is here as well, Chief Political Analyst. It's not every day that the president, all of a sudden, says, you know what? I want to speak to the American people, indeed the world, and let them know something. We don't know what he's about to say.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question, it will be interesting to hear what he has to say because you have this diplomatic path that is underway in Rome and Europe led by secretary of state John Kerry. But it's stumbling, at this point. As Michelle noted, the foreign minister of Russia saying in public that he has now found common ground with the U.S. on a way forward. And they can't even find and agree on the format for getting the Ukrainian foreign minister involved in these talks.

As you know, since yesterday, this has been the goal of secretary of state John Kerry. He carried him on his plane from Kiev to Paris hoping to get Lavrov and the Ukrainian foreign minister in the same room. He hasn't been able to do that and the word today is they're still working on a format. So, I think the danger here is we're getting in the stage where there are talks about talks. And what are those talks producing?

Meanwhile, at the same time, you have facts on the ground in Ukraine, in Crimea, that are with each day passing become more established facts on the ground. And the fact is that Russia has those troops on the ground. Russia is establishing control. You have political moves now taking place in Crimea, a vote coming up talking about autonomy and so on. So, the longer you talk without progress --

BLITZER: Hold on one second, and Gloria, because Jim Acosta's is over in the briefing room right now. He's getting some more information. Jim, what are you learning?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just talked to a senior administration official in the last few moments. You'll have to pardon me here, everybody is getting set in the briefing room. But a senior official just told us a few moments ago not to expect any major announcements from the president but that he will reinforce basically where the administration stands this morning with respect to Ukraine, with respect to Russia. I suspect he will talk about those sanctions, will talk about those visa bans that Michelle and Jim just talked about.

But one of the crucial questions at this hour, Wolf, is the unfolding situation in Crimea from a political standpoint. This talk that, perhaps, they might try to seek to become part of Russia and that they may be voting on this. Ukraine has obviously said they're opposed to that and now the State Department has said, no, that is not going to happen unless Ukraine, the government in Kiev, signs off on that.

And so, there is sort of a diplomatic political question here for this president. We'll have to wait and see if he addresses that as well. But we're hearing from a White House, from a senior administration official that this is sort of reinforcing where things stand now. He may talk about John Kerry, talk about the diplomatic efforts that Jim and everybody has talked about.

BLITZER: Hold on, Jim. Here comes the president. Let's listen in.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody. Before Jay takes some of your questions, I want to provide a brief update on our efforts to address the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Since the Russian intervention, we've been mobilizing the international community to condemn this violation of international law and to support the people and government of Ukraine.

This morning, I signed an executive order that authorizes sanctions on individuals and enemies responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine or for stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people.

According to my guidance, the State Department has also put in place restrictions on the travel of certain individuals and officials. These decisions continue our efforts to impose a cost on Russia and those responsible for the situation in Crimea. And they also give us the flexibility to adjust our response going forward based on Russia's actions. We took these steps in close coordination with our European allies. I've spoken to several of our closest friends around the world, and I'm pleased that our international unity is on display at this important moment.

Already, we've moved together to announce substantial assistance for the government in Kiev. And today, in Brussels, our allies took similar steps to impose costs on Russia. I am confident that we are moving forward together, united in our determination to oppose actions that violate international law and to support the government and people of Ukraine. And that includes standing up for the principle of state sovereignty.

The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law. Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine. In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.

While we take these steps, I want to be clear that there is also a way to resolve this crisis that respects the interests of the Russian federation as well as the Ukrainian people. Let international monitors into all of Ukraine, including Crimea, to ensure the rights of all Ukrainians are being respected, including ethnic Russians. Begin consultations between the government of Russia and Ukraine with the participation of the international community. Russia would maintain its basing rights in Crimea provided that it abides by its agreements and respects Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

And the world should support the people of Ukraine as they move to elections in May. That's the path of de-escalation. And Secretary Kerry is engaged in discussions with all of relevant parties including Russia and Ukraine, to pursue that path. But if this violation of international law continues, the resolve of the United States and our allies and the international community will remain firm.

Meanwhile, we've taken steps to reaffirm our commitment to the security and democracy of our allies in Eastern Europe and to support the people of Ukraine.

One last point, there's been a lot of talk in Congress about these issues. Today, once again, I'm calling on Congress to follow-up on these words with action, specifically to support the IMF's capacity to lend resources to Ukraine and to provide American assistance for the Ukrainian government so that they can weather this storm and stabilize their economy, make need reforms, deliver for their people all of which will provide a smoother pathway for the elections that have already been scheduled in May.

Today, the world can see that the United States is united with our allies and partners in upholding international law and pursuing a just outcome that advances global security and the future that the Ukrainian people deserve. Now, that's what we're going to continue to do in the days to come until we have seen the resolution to this crisis.

Thanks very much. And Jay and Ben and others will be happy to take your questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE.)

BLITZER: So, there, you have the president of the United States making a very strong statement, a statement that was seen not only here in the United States but around the world, especially in Moscow. He was clearly making the point that there is a way out diplomatically but, in the meantime, the U.S. will start using sanctions as a way to get involved and make sure that Russia does not formally take over part of sovereign Ukraine which would be Crimea.

Let's bring in Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. diplomat who's been watching from Harvard University. So, Nick, this looks like this is a stand up. For all practical purposes, I think this referendum that they've scheduled in the coming days in Crimea to become part -- formally part of Russia that seems to be that train is leaving the station, although, the president says flatly, that would be a violation of international law.

NICHOLAS BURNS, PROFESSOR, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL OF GOVERNMENT: Well, the president's correct about that. And, Wolf, I think you're hearing from the president of the United States deep frustration over the unwillingness of the Russian government to meet anybody halfway here. A referendum in Crimea on March 16th would be farcical because no people can have a free vote when they're being occupied by a foreign military force. And indeed, Wolf, recent public opinion polls in the last couple of months in Crimea seem to indicate that a lot of people in Crimea want to stay with Ukraine. So, we've got to oppose that.

And you saw, Wolf, that the president put forward and announced, again, these sanctions. If the U.S. and E.U. can work in tandem, if they can both push sanctions, there's a chance that they could raise the cost to President Putin for what's happened.

BLITZER: Are these sanctions that were announced by the president and the White House today, are they really going to make any difference in terms of affecting Putin's thinking?

BURNS: You know, I think Putin is confirmed in his strategy. He's trying to keep Ukraine in the orbit of Russia. That's why he invaded Crimea. And that's why he's been trying to intimidate the new government in Ukraine. He's used the same tactics, as you know, with Georgia in 2008, with Moldova, with Armenia. And so, he's trying to recreate this Russian (INAUDIBLE.) I don't think the sanctions will change his behavior, but they're going to further isolate him and they're going to impose some costs. And it's very important that there be this economic and political pushback by Germany, by the United States and the rest of Europe on Russia.

BLITZER: That's critically important. I know you've got to run. Nick Burns, thanks very much. The retired U.S. diplomat --

BURNS: Thank you.

BLITZER: -- now at the Kennedy School Harvard.

Jim Sciutto, Gloria Borger, they're with me right now. So, you heard the president. We all heard the president. Jim, very strong statement. The key question that he says that he thinks the allies can work together. He's confident that the U.S. and the Europeans can work together. Is that confidence well (INAUDIBLE), should we say?

ACOSTA: Well, you did have a statement today from the European council president, Herman Van Rompuy, saying that the E.U. would impose sanctions as well if Moscow doesn't change its ways there. But that, of course, has to be backed up with action. It appears the spark for the president's comments today was the referendum, this idea of a March 16th referendum to -- for independence in Crimea.

But also as Nick Burns said, his frustration, I mean, the paths that so far the president has chosen as their strategy for this unified sanctions, they're not moving very quickly, at this point. The diplomatic path, as we were talking before the president came on, they're still talking about the format for talks. And meanwhile, as they're talking about talks, the facts on the ground are being further established. GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you say the facts on the ground are being established. What I think you mean by that is that there's Russian domination of Crimea no matter -- no matter what occurs in this referendum. And I think what you're hearing from the president, reading between the lines, is, look, as Nick Burns says, it's a farce. It's illegitimate. We know in advance what the outcome of this referendum is going to be, so I'm going to tell you before the vote that it doesn't really matter.

But, in essence, no matter what vote occurs to a certain degree, Putin has accomplished what he set out to accomplish which is to, you know, to establish his dominance there and sort of no matter what else occurs. And I think that's what's sort of frustrating the administration and frustrating the president.

BLITZER: Here's my question to both of you. It looks to me like John Kerry, the Secretary of State, doesn't seem to be making much progress in his talks with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister. Otherwise, the U.S. would not have released these sanctions, announced all these sanctions that were announced today. The president would not be going out in the middle of intensive diplomacy making a strong statement like this. It looks like maybe the president thinks that this kind of tough talk and tough action from the U.S. can help Kerry. Others will say, well, Kerry doesn't seem to be doing much anyhow so the U.S. might as well start taking those kinds of actions.

SCIUTTO: Well, we'll see. I mean, Sergey Lavrov says that he has to go back to Russia now to discuss the format of these talks. We're talking to the Ukrainian prime minister. Listen, if you're going to talk to the Ukraine prime minister, you can make that decision on the ground. You can make a phone call back to Moscow. It appears that they're dragging -- they're dragging this out.

And, you know, talking about what Russia has accomplished here, Stephen Hadley, former National Security Advisor for President Bush, was on the air last night. He made a very good point about the strategies. It's not just about military action. It's about Russia establishing these territorially question marks --

BORGER: Yes.

SCIUTTO: -- in these various countries. They did the in Georgia. They had those provinces, breakaway provinces. They're doing it now here, that makes it impossible for Ukraine to join E.U. or join NATO because they have these territorial questions. That's a success already.

BORGER: So, the more ambiguous you make it, --

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BORGER: -- the better it is for Russia.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BORGER: And that's -- and that's the problem that they're confronting in the administration.

BLITZER: The president was pretty blunt right now. He didn't want to take questions from reporters, leaving that to his White House press secretary, Jay Carney. But the president says there will be a cost on Russia. He's confident the allies can work together. There - and as far as the United States is concerned, there's a sovereign country of Ukraine, which includes Crimea. And Crimea is not going to split off as far as the U.S. and the European Union are concerned. Although, for all practical purposes, looks like the Russians are controlling. You were watching Russian TV and what are they already showing?

SCIUTTO: Well, they showed Crimea as part of the -- in their map, they showed Crimea as part of Russia already.

BORGER: Right.

SCIUTTO: You know, that's a -

BORGER: Didn't take long (ph).

SCIUTTO: It's a fad de comple (ph). It's a fact on the ground as far as Russian TV is concerned, yes.

BLITZER: Yes.

SCIUTTO: And, you know, speaking about frustration with Kerry and Lavrov, remember, this is just a month ago Syria talks, right, with - you know, that Secretary Kerry had invested an enormous amount of time and political - diplomatic capital in -

BORGER: With Lavrov.

SCIUTTO: Lavrov, a key partner. Depending on Lavrov's leverage against Bashar al Assad. Those didn't go anywhere either. So two times in a row you've had this immense frustration with Russia.

BORGER: And the interesting thing to me also about what the president said today is that he was calling upon Congress to move forcefully with sanctions, et cetera, et cetera. He doesn't really have to do that. Congress is already moving on its own and pretty quickly. But I think he's going to have to make that statement.

BLITZER: All right, hold on a second. John Kerry, the secretary of state, now about to speak himself.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Good evening, everybody. It's a great pleasure for me to be back in Rome. I'm especially pleased to be here in Rome at a time when Italy is making a transition in a -- with a new government and making progress, important progress in growing its economy and tackling unemployment.

Tonight, I will have the pleasure of meeting with Italy's new foreign minister, Foreign Minister Mogherini. And I'm hopeful. We were supposed to also be joined by the prime minister, but he's on his way back from Brussels, maybe a little bit delayed. We hope he can make it. I want to assure our Italian friends that the United States intends to continue to deepen our economic and security partnership with this government, including our shared commitment to negotiating an ambitious transatlantic trade and partnership -- investment partnership agreement. We believe that such an agreement would be enormously helpful to all of our economies. (INAUDIBLE) states (INAUDIBLE) and help create wealth. And at this time, the global economy needs that kind of trade partnership. President Obama, as you know, will be here shortly, at the end of March, and I look forward to joining him here at that time in order to talk about these valuable partnerships and many other issues.

The reason that my counterparts and I came to Rome today was to demonstrate our commitment altogether, a huge number of countries. They came together to demonstrate our commitment to Libya's democratic transition. And we recognize that this is really a pivotal moment for Libya as it drafts a post-revolution constitution and moves towards national reconciliation and elections.

I can tell you that we in America, who are still perfecting our democracy and working and struggling to make it work as effectively as possible, and it goes up and down as we all know, we very well know from our own history the difficulties we had centuries ago in developing our constitution and giving it full bloom, that this is hard work. It doesn't happen overnight. And it is something that takes devotion and commitment and courage. And I think today we heard from the prime minister and the president of Libya, their dedication to helping to make this transition work.

We also know that Libyans did not risk their lives in the 2011 revolution just to slip backward into thugery and violence. And as I told President Abu Sahmain today, as well as Prime Minister Zeidan, we have no illusions about the challenges ahead, but we are committed to work very, very closely with the government of Libya, but also with our partners. And Italy is one of the central partners in the effort to help Libya in this transition, together with France, Great Britain, Germany and others. And we will continue to work closely to fight terrorism, to prevent the spread of conventional weapons and to secure those weapons where they should be secured and to build democratic institutions.

Now, let me say a word about a subject that I know is on everybody's mind, and that's the question of Ukraine. Just a few moments ago, President Obama spoke in Washington and laid out the steps that he has ordered with respect to the situation at this time, which are in keeping with precisely what we said last week we would do as a consequence of the steps that Russia decided to take with respect to Crimea.

As you have heard me say all week, the choices that Russia has made escalated this situation. And we believe that Russia has the opportunity now, together with the rest of us, but Russia particularly has the opportunity now to make the right choices in order to de- escalate.

The United States also has choices to make. And President Obama has been clear that we cannot allow Russia or any country to defy international law with impunity. There's no place in the community of nations for the kind of aggression and steps that we have seen taken in Crimea, in Ukraine, in these last days.

So today, as we announced we would last week, we have taken specific steps and the State Department also has taken specific steps in response to what has occurred. Starting today, President Obama's direction, the State Department, is putting in place tough visa restrictions on a number of officials and other individuals. And the United States will not grant visas to those who threaten the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine. And if they already have one, it will be revoked in those individual cases.

Now, let me remind you that this decision comes on top of our existing policy to deny visas to those who are involved in human rights abuses or political oppression in Ukraine. And it is also on top of other steps that the United States has already taken, which we have announced.

Now, at the same time, President Obama has issued an executive order that gives the Treasury Department the legal framework to sanction those who threaten Ukraine's sovereignty, security and democracy. Those who contribute to the misappropriation of Ukraine's state assets, and just as importantly those who try to assert government authority over any part of Ukraine without authorization from the legitimate government in Kiev.

I want to emphasize, and there's a reason why only the legal framework was put in place and not the specific designations, and that reason is that even as we will keep faith with what we have said we would do, we want to be able to have the dialogue that leads to the de-escalation. We want to be able to continue the intense discussions with both sides in order to try to normalize and end this crisis. And we will absolutely consider, if we have to, additional steps beyond what we've done, but our preference, and the president has said this and I have said this, is to emphasize the possibilities for the dialogue that can lead to the normalization and diffusing of this crisis.

Yesterday in Paris, we had lengthy discussions. And we met also, obviously, with our Ukrainian counterpart, the foreign minister of Ukraine, and discussed with him Ukrainian thoughts about what should form the centerpiece of our approach to this effort to negotiate. And with the Ukrainian view in mind, and with the input of all of our allies in the European community, we have made suggestions to Foreign Minister Lavrov, which he is currently taking personally to President Putin, in Sochi, I believe. And we have agreed to stay in close touch in order to see if there's a way forward try to get to the negotiating table with the parties necessary to be able to stabilize this.

We've been in very close touch all day with our European counterparts, both those who were here in Rome, as well as by telephone for those who were in Brussels. And we agreed that over the course of the next hours, next days, there is an imperative to try to move quickly in order to prevent a mistake or misinterpretation or any other measures that might preclude our opportunity to be able to find the political solution that we believe is the best way to proceed. The Ukrainian people, we are convinced beyond any doubt whatsoever, want nothing more than the right to determine their own future. And they want to be able to live freely in a safe and prosperous country where they can make the choices that people make in other countries around the world. And they have the international community's full support. And while we reserve the right to take steps beyond those things that were announced today, we want President Putin and Russia and everyone to understand our preference is to get back to a normality and get back to a place where the rights of the people of Ukraine will be respected and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation will be respected.

The United States will continue to stand with Ukrainian people, as will our allies and friends in the European community and elsewhere, in order to stand up for the values that we all believe and our fellow -- that define our fellow democracies.

So thank you very, very much, and I look forward to the opportunity to take a couple questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Great. Thank you. The first question is from Elise Labott of CNN.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

You said that the Ukrainian people have the right to determine their own future. Does that include the people of Crimea? Don't they have the right to determine their own future? Are there any conditions under which the U.S. might accept a referendum as part of the solution?

And then on your meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Minister Fabia (ph) has said that he's forming this contact group and that the Russians might agree. Did you talk about this with the minister? And do you see this as a useful mechanism that might happen in the coming days?

And lastly, I'm wondering if you talked to him about the fact that he told you last week that there -- the exercises that the Russians were doing had nothing to do with Ukraine. We now know that that was a pretext to mask the Russian intervention.

KERRY: What was the first part of that question? I'm sorry.

LABOTT: Well, we understand -

KERRY: We now know what?

LABOTT: Well, we know that this exercise did have a lot to do with Ukraine and perhaps it was a pretext for Russia to go into the Crimea. I'm just wondering, you've invested a lot in your relationship with Minister Lavrov and I'm wondering if you feel misled by him at all and whether you spoke with him about that.

Thank you. KERRY: Well, let me take the first part of that question. Crimea is part of Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine. And we support the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine needs to be involved in any kind of decision with respect to any part of Ukraine. Any referendum on Ukraine is going to have to be absolutely consistent with Ukrainian law. And it's my understanding that the constitution of Ukraine requires all -- requires an all-Ukraine referendum. In other words, every part of Ukraine, all Ukrainians, would have to be part of a referendum with respect to the territory of Ukraine. So, therefore, the proposed referendum would violate the constitution of Ukraine and international law and the sovereignty of Ukraine itself.

LABOTT: (INAUDIBLE).

KERRY: If it were -- if it were - if it adheres to the constitution of Ukraine, it's up to Ukrainians to define that. It's not up to the United States or Russia to make that decision. Ukrainians need to live by Ukrainian law. And according to the constitution. And their constitution would require precisely what I just said. So that is, I think, critical to anything that would flow.