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@THISHOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Obama Imposes More Sanctions on Russia; The Search for Flight 370; Satellite Images of Floating Objects Off Australian Coast

Aired March 20, 2014 - 11:00   ET

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


MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We know that the White House has been working on this. They've been talking about expanding them in the near term. In fact, right after those sanctions that we mentioned were imposed this week, there was a long meeting to discuss how they could be furthered.

And just as this announcement by the president was announced that we knew he was going to be speaking in a few minutes, we heard the U.K.'s prime minister, David Cameron, announce that he was going to expand those very similar sanctions.

So, what the E.U. and U.S. have done so far have been extremely similar, although the E.U. had 21 people on its list whereas the U.S. had 11.

They've been really closely coordinated. So, now that we see the U.K. expanding sanctions, it seems likely at least that President Barack Obama is going to announce something similar if not the same, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Stand by for a second, Michelle.

Elise Labott is our State Department reporter. Elise, what do you expect will be the practical impact of what the president, the E.U., what they're doing?

Because for all practical reasons, it looks like Crimea now, at least the facts on the ground suggest, that this is a part of Russia.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Wolf, and that's what we've been talking about all along, that this was a foregone conclusion, that President Putting would take moves to annex Crimea. The U.S. was trying to stave off that formal measure, but that we always knew it was a Russian territory.

I don't expect any of these asset freezes or travel bans on these Russian officials to be really meaningful in terms of getting Russia to change course, but what the administrations along with the Europeans coordinating want to do is ramp this up slowly to say if you take more moves, we can continue to tighten the noose.

And, so, right now, we're talking about adding names to these lists of so-called asset freezes and travel bans, but in time, if Russia were to take more moves to move into eastern Ukraine or throughout the territory or in the region, the message is, we can ramp this up.

So, the U.S. and its allies are talking about energy sanctions, types of biting sanctions that would really hurt the Russian economy.

But we're a far ways off from that, Wolf. The message right now is, don't go any further, to President Putin.

BLITZER: And one of the problems that the U.S. has, and we're only a little bit away from the president, is that the United States has been using Russia to help with the situation in Syria to remove Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles, to help with Iran to try to get Iran to move away from some sort of nuclear-weapons program.

All of this is going to set back those efforts, right, Elise?

LABOTT: I think on Iran the Russians have a real interest in making sure that Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon, but if the U.S. were to want to tighten -- if those negotiations that are taking place with Iran right now were to fall apart, the U.S. were say to say to Russia, look, we need to tighten those sanctions on Iran to really make them feel the pinch, you could see Russia block something in that way.

On Syria, what the U.S. is saying is, listen, we've been trying to work with the Russians. They've not really being all that cooperative, so we're not really sure what we lose right now in terms of that cooperation.

But, certainly, in terms of getting the whole international community on one page on Syria, that wasn't looking good and it's looking even more dim now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah, it looks like this relationship between the United States and Russia has really taken a very, very nasty turn.

Michelle, you're our White House correspondent. Usually when the president wants to make a statement that is not previously scheduled, he goes into the briefing room.

It's interesting that now he wants to do it in front of Marine One just before he gets ready to board a flight to take him out of town.

Is there any explanation for the location for this statement right now?

KOSINSKI: No. We think it's probably just scheduling. But there obviously is some urgency to the announcement, because first we were to hear a background briefing with senior White House officials. We were going to hear that first and then it was announced that the president would make a statement.

And then all of a sudden, it was reversed, that first we will be hearing from President Barack Obama and then we'll get more detail in this background briefing.

So, yeah, it is unusual, but I have a feeling it has to do with his previously scheduled travel that he needs to make the statement that he obviously to make for some reason and then go down to Florida right after. BLITZER: And, so, the president will make the statement. I see his papers there on the stand. They're blowing. Hope they don't blow away, but he's got an aide there who's trying to make sure that those papers don't blow away, a little windy here in the nation's capital.

The president will walk out. He'll make the statement on the situation in Ukraine, the Russian decision to go ahead and formally annex Crimea and declare it is part of Ukraine.

Here's comes the president right now, walking over to the microphone from the White House. This is the South Lawn of the White House. Reporters have gathered there to hear what the president has to say.

Once the president wraps up his remarks, and we expect they will be brief, the president will board Marine One to take him down to Orlando. He's got an event there to talk about economic conditions for women. The president will also do two fundraisers in Miami, one for the DNC, one for the DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

So, here's the president of the United States getting ready to make this statement on the -- let's call it a crisis between the United States and Russia on Ukraine.

(BEGIN LIVE FEED)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATE: Good morning everybody.

I wanted to provide an update on the situation in Ukraine and the steps that the United States is taking in response.

Over the last several days, we've continued to be deeply concerned by events in Ukraine.

We've seen an illegal referendum in Crimea, an illegitimate move by the Russians to annex Crimea, and dangerous risks of escalation, including threats to Ukrainian personnel in Crimea and threats to southern and eastern Ukraine as well.

These are all choices that the Russian government has made, choices that have been rejected by the international community as well as the government of Ukraine.

Because of these choices, the United States is today moving, as we said we would, to impose additional costs on Russia.

Based on the executive order that I signed in response to Russia's initial intervention in Ukraine, we're imposing sanctions on more senior officials of the Russian government.

In addition, we are today sanctioning a number of other individuals with substantial resources and influence who provide material support to the Russian leadership, as well as a bank that provides material support to these individuals.

Now, we're taking these steps as part of a response to what Russia has already done in Crimea.

At the same time, the world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine.

For this reason, we've been working closely with our European partners to develop more severe actions to be taken if Russia continues to escalate the situation.

As part of that process, I signed a new executive order today that gives us the authority to impose sanctions not just on individuals but on key sectors of the Russian economy.

This is not our preferred outcome. These sanctions would not only have a significant impact on the Russian committee, but also be disruptive to the global economy.

However, Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community.

The basic principles that govern relations between nations and Europe and around the world must be upheld in the 21st century. That includes respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the notion that nations do not simply redraw borders or make decisions at the expense of their neighbors simply because they're larger or more powerful.

Now, one of our other top priorities continues to be providing assistance to the government of Ukraine so it can stabilize its economy and meet the basic needs of the Ukrainian people.

As I travel to Europe next week to meet with the G-7 and other European and Asian allies, I once again urge Congress to pass legislation that is necessary to provide this assistance, and do it right away.

Expressions of support are not enough. We need action.

I also hope that the IMF moves swiftly to provide a significant package of support for Ukrainians as they pursue reforms. In Europe, I'll also be reinforcing the message that Vice President Biden carried to Poland and the Baltic states this week.

America's support for our NATO allies is unwavering. We're bound together by our profound Article V commitment to defend one another and by a set of shared values that so many generations sacrificed for.

We've already increased our support for our Eastern European allies and we will continue to strengthen NATO's collective defense. And we will step up our cooperation with Europe on economic and energy issues, as well.

Now, let me close by making a final point. Diplomacy between the United States and Russia continues. We've emphasized that Russia still has a different path available, one that deescalates the situation and one that involves Russia pursuing a diplomatic solution with the government in Kiev with the support of the international community. The Russian people need to know, and Mr. Putin needs to understand, that the Ukrainians shouldn't have to choose between the West and Russia.

We want the Ukrainian people to determine their own destiny and to have good relations with the United States, with Russia, with Europe, with anyone that they choose.

That can only happen if Russia also recognize the rights of all Ukrainian people to determine their future as free individuals and as a sovereign nation, rights that people in nations around the world understand and support.

Thank you very much, everybody.

Thank you.

(END LIVE FEED)

BLITZER: So there, the president, a few reporters shouting some questions, he didn't want to answer questions.

He's going to board Marine One to fly down out to Joint Base Andrews to fly down to Orlando, Florida, but announcing several new moves that tighten the pressure on Russia in the aftermath of Russia's decision to formally annex Crimea, which is part of Ukraine but now make it part of Russia.

The president, clearly concerned about what's going on, announcing more sanctions against various leaders in Russia. He didn't name them, although other officials presumably will.

Also announcing that a bank will be sanctioned by the U.S. And he also threatened to take further sanctions, this potentially could be very significant, against key sectors of the Russian economy.

I would assume that he's referring to oil or gas exports, which would be a major blow to the Russian economy if, in fact, that were implemented, the president saying he doesn't want to escalate it like that, but the Russians clearly are now warned by the president of the United States that those steps are possible unless Russia steps back.

Michelle Kosinski is our White House correspondent. Michelle, dramatic announcements from the president as he gets ready to head down to Florida, this crisis is clearly heating up.

KOSINSKI: Yeah, I mean, he mentioned escalation, that Russia has clearly been taking escalating moves. Basically the ratification today of what he called the annexation of Crimea happened and then immediately the U.S. makes these moves.

The sanctions up to this point have been pretty widely criticized. In fact, those sanctioned in Russia called them hilarious and an honor, saying how many of these people prior who have been sanctioned even have any assets outside of Russia? And the White House wouldn't answer that question. Now, though, the president has announced that some of these people really do have significant resources and influence in Russia, a bank being added to this list of real sanctions right now.

Those are some of the things that some critics have been calling for over the last couple of days. Let's really hit someone where it might hurt them and might have some effect.

And you mentioned, yeah, expanding this to certain sectors of the economy. Absolutely that has an effect and it is real as the administration has been saying.

BLITZER: And the president pointing out that, if the U.S. were to do so, right now it's just a threat. He signed executive order that would authorize such a step.

It would be painful for the Russians, for example, if oil and gas exports were sanctioned, but it would also be painful, as the president says, it would have global implications for others, because a lot of oil and gas from Russia goes to Europe. And they would suffer, especially some of the allies, including Germany.

Elise Labott, you've been covering this story from the beginning. It looks like the Russians are certainly not going to back down. But the president is not backing down either.

LABOTT: Wolf, the president isn't backing down, but he's also leaving himself room to ramp it up.

As we said, these sanctions today on these additional Russian officials and so-called crones of the government, this is a message to send to President Putin.

If the cronies start to feel uncomfortable that their pocketbook might be affected, maybe they could put on support on President Putin to move another way.

But what the president really did by giving himself this extra authority for these other key sectors, this is an extraordinary tool if he uses it, Wolf.

In talking to officials over the last couple of days, they said, listen, we have these great tools. Now, we have to decide if we're really prepared to use them, because as you said, Europeans would really feel the pinch. The global economy would really feel the pinch. No one really wants to do that.

And, so, the president left room for diplomacy to have a chance. Secretary of State John Kerry just said he's going to be meeting with the Russian foreign minister over the weekend in Europe.

And, so, the hope is that they won't have to take these steps, but now, if Russia -- the message is, don't take this further. Don't move into eastern Ukraine because we could really whack you.

Wolf? BLITZER: Yeah, the president. trying to reassure the NATO allies that the U.S. will be there. And he's also obviously concerned, talking about a possible Russian incursion into the southern or eastern part of Ukraine, looking at the Russian troop movements right now.

That has not happened yet, but the U.S. clearly concerned about that.

Once again, the president, announcing new sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of its decision to go ahead and formally annex Crimea.

Much more on this story coming up throughout the day.

We'll take a quick break. When we come back, we'll get back to the mystery surrounding the Malaysian airliner.

Our coverage will resume with Michaela and Berman, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello there, everyone. I'm John Berman.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Michaela Pereira.

BERMAN: @ THIS HOUR, a potential breakthrough, with the word being potential, in the search for the jetliner that disappeared with 239 people on board.

PEREIRA: A debris field has been spotted in the ocean. The question is, could it be from Flight 370? The goal now obviously is get to it and pinpoint it visually.

Australian satellite images you're seeing on your screen right now spotted two large objects bobbing in the water off Australia about 1,500 miles southwest of Australia. One of those objects is about 79 feet long, the other some distance away, in fact around 14 miles way, is around 16.5 feet long.

Just within the past two hours, Australia's Maritime Safety Authority tweeted that their search has ended for the day. One of their Air Force planes flew over the area earlier but was unable to find or spot any debris because we're told rain and clouds, the weather in the area limited their visibility.

Good news. A Norwegian ship has reached the area. Additionally, officials say an Australian ship and more planes will be dispatched, including a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon and New Zealand Air Force Orion.

BERMAN: So many resources now headed that way. Nevertheless, authorities do caution these objects we have been looking at all morning, they may not be debris from the missing plane. But they all say it's the best lead so far some 13 days after the Boeing 777 just up and vanished.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN YOUNG, AUSTRALIA MARITIME SAFETY AUTHORITY: This is a lead. It is probably the best lead we have right now. But we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it's really meaningful or not. And I caution again, they'll be difficult to find. They may not be located - associated with the aircraft. And we have plenty of experience in that of other searches.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: The race really is on now to get eyes on those floating objects. We want to bring in Lt. Col. Michael Kay; he's a former pilot, British military officer. Also joining us is Christine Dennison, an ocean explorer and expeditions logistics expert.

And Christine, let's talk about the logistics of this. How hard will it be to get out there, to get eyes on this possible debris? And what will it take to confirm that it's actually from Flight 370?

CHRISTINE DENNISON, OCEAN EXPLORER & EXPEDITIONS LOGISTICS EXPERT: Right now they're in what I call Phase One of discovery and trying to figure out what's going on. So they're really working with visuals. They've got aerials, they have helicopters. They're working with the P-3, which is a surveillance jet which is picking up magnetic signatures. So I would think -- these images are a couple days old. They have something that they've been following. And so they're going to try and really make contact with these, visually see them to see what they are that's floating in the ocean. Unfortunately they're being hampered by wind, very bad visibility, which is an issue when you're trying to do a visual inspection of the debris.

BERMAN: And they're 1,400 miles off the coast of Australia right now.

PEREIRA: To say that this is a gnarly part of the ocean is sort of an understatement. This is in the middle of nowhere. Michael, let's bring you in and talk about the fact that that is certainly a challenge for them, where this is located. You seem to think that there's something encouraging about where this location has -- where the debris was found.

LT. COL. MICHAEL KAY, BRITISH ROYAL AIR FORCE (RET.): Yes, Michaela, I'd just like to temper sort of the enthusiasm. I don't mean to sound downbeat but actually getting unequivocal evidence is going to be an incredibly hard task. We've already alluded to the fact that it's about 1, 600 miles off the southwestern tip of Australia. In terms of the air assets that we've got looking at it, Christine has already alluded to the P-3 Orion. That travels at about 240 knots; that's four miles a minute. It's a five hour transit out there, it's got a 13 hour endurance time. So if it's five hours there and five back, that's three hours over a very large part of the ocean.

We then take into account inclement weather. I've done search and rescue operations and when the weather comes down, you have drizzle, the slot (ph) range and the visibility comes right down. So if you're looking and operating in an area which is turbulent for the crews with the visibility of less than five kilometers, it's going to take a long, long time to do this.

As you've already mentioned, there are ships coming into the area. There are satellites being retasked with higher resolutions on it. So hopefully it will provide some form of indication.

However, what I would say about this is that in terms of positives, if this aircraft were to have traveled to that location from the last known point, which is in the middle of the South China Sea, it's commensurate with what the endurance would be of a Boeing 777, around seven hours. So if we were looking at a theory - I say if we were looking at a theory -- of incapacitation of the crew and the aircraft was on the flight director, then this would be around the arc on the endurance circle where the aircraft would start to come down.

But for me, as an investigator in the past, being on Board of Inquiries, there are other aspects that I'd be looking at outside of this area to corroborate this evidence.

BERMAN: You wouldn't just put all your eggs in this basket right now, this search? What else would you be looking at then?

KAY: Yes, no, absolutely not. I mean, what's been quite saddening and disappointing for me is the inconsistencies that we've had from the radar traces from Thailand through to Malaysia through to Indonesia. Malaysia and Thailand to have indicated that there might have been a presence of 370 around the Malacca Strait. Indonesia completely denied seeing absolutely anything.

There's inconsistencies there. If you draw a straight line from where the aircraft was last seen in the South China Sea, and you draw all the way down to the search area, that line is going to be pretty consistent, i.e., because it's not going to have fuel to deviate off it, you could pretty much draw a fairly good corridor in the sky to say the path that it would have had to have traveled in order to get to that crash location. I would be going back to the Indonesians and the Malaysians and saying, go back and have a look at your radar. Because there are unusual things that would appear on that. The track goes close to Singapore airspace. Hugely busy airspace. It's the doorstop, it's the leap frog to getting into Europe.

And also, any indications of aircraft that don't have VFR (ph) flight paths, that don't have IFR (ph) flight plans, so they're not part of routine traffic, anything that's unusual, a trace that doesn't have squawk, there's bound to have been something which would have bore suspicions to Indonesia air control.

PEREIRA: Those are all things that they're going to have to look at. And one would trust that those are the --

BERMAN: I'm sure they haven't shut down any avenues yet.

PEREIRA: Let's hope they haven't. Christine, I want to ask you something. Like, so if we consider the fact that if this is - let's go with the theory that this is debris -- there's no real evidence that the flight recorder, the data recorders could be even anywhere near there. Because if the plane broke apart, and it entered the water in pieces, the tail could be somewhere else entirely. We know that currents may have moved this. This is not the end of the challenge even if we get there and identify it as the debris from the plane. DENNISON: Absolutely. At this point, what they're working with are leads. Everything is a possible lead at this point. And until they identify the debris -- and what they're going to do is visually try to see what this is that they're seeing floating and then sort of, if they can pick it up, then trace it back. They're going to look at the objects and see what marks are on them. This will give them an idea of has it been in water for how long, currents - and they're going to have a lot of work to do. And unfortunately it's just more time.

PEREIRA: It's very deep ocean.

DENNISON: It's a very deep, it's a very large ocean they're still searching in even though it's been considerably -- they found an area which is considerably smaller, it's still a lot to cover.

BERMAN: And, remember, these pictures were taken four days ago. It's taken four days to analyze these satellite images to even get these planes and these surface vessels heading out to that region.

KAY: And let's look at Air France 447 as well. We know where that location was; it took two years to find the black box and the transponder was on and we knew where the location was when it went down.

BERMAN: All right, Michael Kay, Christine Dennison, great to have you here. Thanks so much.

DENNISON: Thank you.

PEREIRA: Ahead @ THIS HOUR, so where exactly was the debris found in this satellite image from the Indian Ocean? Our Tom Foreman is going to walk the map and show us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)