Possible Russian invasion is 'biggest crisis in post-Cold War relations': Pannell

The Powerhouse Roundtable breaks down the latest news on "This Week."
12:25 | 01/16/22

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Transcript for Possible Russian invasion is 'biggest crisis in post-Cold War relations': Pannell
- The intelligence community does not yet assess that President Putin has made his decision, but they're putting themselves in a position to try to create a circumstance in which they try to put the blame on the Ukrainians when, in fact, it is the Russians that are causing the escalation. If Russia wants to continue on the path of diplomacy, we're ready to continue on it. If Russia wants to move forward with the military escalation, we are ready to respond. - President Biden's National security advisor Jake Sullivan talking about the latest standoff with Russia. Let's bring in the roundtable to talk about all this. ABC News chief White House correspondent Cecilia Vega, congressional correspondent Rachel Scott, our senior foreign correspondent Ian Pannell, and Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition and Up First. Welcome to all of you. And Ian, I want to start there overseas from your perch in London there. You've just heard what Jake Sullivan said, 100,000 Russian troops are still massed on Ukraine's border. They're talking about a false flag somehow going in and blaming Ukraine. Where does this stand right now? What does Putin want? And why is this so important to Americans and others? - Yeah, Martha, I mean, that's the multimillion-dollar question, is that what Putin really wants? I think even experienced Kremlinologists are divided about that. The risk couldn't be higher. I mean, this is already, I think, the biggest crisis in post-cold war relations. Any further incursion into Ukraine, which some people think could happen, would undoubtedly move NATO forces, including US troops, I think, perilously close to conflict. I think there's a sense amongst diplomats that these talks are one of two things, either a feint by Putin-- in other words, they have no intention of seriously negotiating, some kind of military response is unavoidable-- or this is hardball diplomacy to try and get America's attention, a seat at the top table, and they are ready for a compromise centered around things like short-range missile agreements and military exercises. But what they say they want is categoric guarantees that Ukraine won't join NATO. And the Biden administration has categorically ruled that out. The Kremlin now awaiting a written response. But Martha, I think this could likely be the week that we really know what Putin is planning. MARTHA RADDATZ: And if there is an invasion, which looks likely, and the administration has basically said it could happen any time from now until mid-February, how does the US respond to that? What are the Russians do if we put big sanctions on them? - Yeah, I mean, that is the question. And the Russians have talked about a number of options. I mean, one of the things that we've seen over this last week-- and the US administration has taken a highly unusual step, I think, in releasing so much declassified intelligence material to try and back up these claims, as you said, of this false flag operation, potentially trying to incite a Ukrainian response that would then trigger a Russian intervention. I mean, Russia certainly has the troops there, around 100,000. They're massed. They could launch a multi-pronged attack. What Vladimir Putin has talked about is a military technical response if his concerns aren't met. And everyone's trying to second-guess what that actually means. To be clear, the Kremlin has consistently ruled out that it actually plans to invade. We've seen this cyber attack in the last day or so also being blamed on Russia. But I think there's another concern here. Vladimir Putin last year said, and I quote, "Russia's response will be asymmetrical, fast, and tough if they don't get what they want." And his chief negotiator-- this didn't get much press attention, but his chief negotiator at those talks with the US administration now refusing to confirm or rule out deploying military assets to Cuba or Venezuela. MARTHA RADDATZ: And Ian, I want to ask you just one more question from there overseas before we turn to the others. The battle against COVID worldwide, we haven't talked about that much. There are estimates that half of Europe could be infected. Give us a brief description of what's going on around the world. IAN PANNELL: Yeah, I mean, that's true. I mean, omicron is essentially running rampant. The WHO this last week saying every single country in Europe and Central Asia are now reporting cases, every single country. And the numbers are just rising exponentially. I think, as we're seeing in the US, it's those areas with low vaccination rates that are being worse affected, and those people who have been triple-vaxed largely avoiding serious illness and death. That's certainly the case here in the UK. But here, I think, is where America and the world are on different paths, the responses and the restrictions. Austria is amongst a number of European countries who are essentially banning those who aren't vaccinated from most public places. No COVID pass, no access. Others like China still trying to pursue this zero COVID strategy, especially as they have the Winter Olympics less than three weeks away. Here in London, cases are going down. But Martha, it isn't COVID that people are talking about here, it's Boris Johnson. A bad week for the president, as you've been talking about. But a very bad week for the Prime Minister, a number of revelations of drinks-fueled parties at Downing Street when the rest of the country was in strict lockdown. Boris Johnson attending at least one of them. Now first-- MARTHA RADDATZ: Right in the middle of COVID. - --to apologize to the queen. MARTHA RADDATZ: Exactly, Ian. And I want to turn to Cecilia on this here at home. You heard Dr. Murthy. You heard Tom Bossert. The Supreme Court decision was a real blow. CECILIA VEGA: This was a huge blow to the administration's efforts to tamp down the spread of this vaccine, Martha. And so what you're seeing now from a strategy perspective is the administration essentially going back to square one. They're back to appealing to private employers and states around the country to do this on their own in the wake of this mandate. But the reality is you've had 27 states join in this appeal to fight to challenge this measure in court. So they're not going to go there on their own. Some experts are saying that the administration might try to take, could potentially try to take a more narrow approach and go at this, again targeting companies where perhaps employees are particularly vulnerable, front-line, public-facing jobs or companies with poor ventilation systems. You're certainly seeing the administration really try to put the president out there to talk about COVID. We've seen him do a number of public briefings, if you will, talking about COVID in the last couple of weeks. Certainly, they're leaning heavily into this now billion free at-home tests that they're going to send around. But as you were saying, those tests are coming well after omicron, frankly. Medical experts say this is going to be a huge disservice, this ruling, to the effort to get this vaccine under control. But make no mistake, Martha, that was a major blow to the administration's attempt to deal with COVID. MARTHA RADDATZ: And Rachel, as you heard me read that, the statement from the Democratic Senator, they're getting angry too. RACHEL SCOTT: You're exactly right. And this is not exactly what the White House wants to hear from members of their own party. You had a group of five Democratic senators who sent a letter to the White House, asking why more was not done sooner when it comes to getting testing out to Americans, asking what the administration was doing back in November when we were learning about a new variant that could possibly come into the United States. 50 other Democratic lawmakers sending another letter to the White House, essentially asking them to sort of ramp up and take additional steps. I've certainly talked to many on Capitol Hill who feel like the administration was caught flat-footed on this. And they're asking them to mitigate those failures going forward. MARTHA RADDATZ: And Steve, we talked about messaging, but that's important here. Can the CDC really regain the public's trust after all this confusion? STEVE INSKEEP: This is an enormous challenge. And it gets at one of the things that had been a strength of the Biden administration. They had cast themselves as competent. They were a lot of people who'd been in government before. But I think that Tom Bossert, who you had on earlier, was quite insightful in that you need to be very clear and direct in your communications and also find the right way to acknowledge errors. This is a case where there don't seem to be enough tests in the country or the world. And people are frustrated on a front-line basis. People can see that in their own lives And that's something the administration knows they need to get their hands around. MARTHA RADDATZ: And Cecilia, I want to turn to voting rights, which of course, we've been talking about this morning. You were down in Georgia with the president when he gave that fiery speech. You heard Congressman Clyburn saying it was just fine. But it really did seem counterproductive? CECILIA VEGA: Yeah, I mean, you could say he managed to offend almost all sides, many sides on this one. Look, this was the president's attempt, the White House attempt to really fire up the base in the wake of that fiery speech that he gave a week earlier on the anniversary of January 6. The White House said they wanted to send the president to Atlanta. They were sending a very clear message to send him to the heart of the Civil Rights movement to really play upon what's at stake from a historical perspective. Martha, I got to tell you, I was talking with voting rights organizers down there. I was shocked at not just how livid they are at the White House over voting rights and how they feel like this is all coming too little, too late on this one, but how they're not afraid to say it publicly. They are blasting this administration to the point that, as you said, so many of them, very prominent voting rights advocates, skipped out on this event altogether, basically a boycott. You saw Stacey Abrams not go. She said she had a scheduling conflict. One person that I was speaking to down there in Atlanta didn't mince any words. They said the feeling is very much that this White House prioritized bridges and infrastructure over protecting the right to vote for Black and brown Americans, who they very much feel votes are at-risk. Look, the White House is sounding exceptionally defeated when you talk to people privately right now and even publicly. I mean, the president didn't mince words on Capitol Hill last week. He really looked like he took one when he went into that meeting and came out. He was so deflated talking to the press. They say they're going to try again. You heard Congressman Clyburn there, Martha. They don't really have a path forward at this point. They don't have those votes. MARTHA RADDATZ: And Rachel, I want you to jump in on that. It was no surprise that Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin don't want the filibuster. RACHEL SCOTT: No surprise. But what was particularly, I think, surprising for a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill was the timing of the speech that Senator Sinema gave. Less than an hour before the President of the United States comes to Capitol Hill to try and wrangle his party together, she took to the Senate floor and reiterated her stance, saying that she will not support changing the Senate rules, even if that means passing voting rights legislation that she actually does support. They are dug in on this one. There is just no way around it. And so what we will see is the Senate take up debate on voting rights legislation. But for the fifth time in the last year, it is expected to fail once again, Martha. - And Steve, I want to turn to Republicans, specifically one Donald Trump. You had quite an extraordinary interview with the former President this week where he basically walked away and hung up on your interview. He is not going away, a big rally last night in Arizona. Of course, not talking about vaccines but talking about the stolen election which wasn't stolen. STEVE INSKEEP: Yeah. I want to be really clear about this. President Biden, in some criticisms of the former President on January 6, said-- and I'm paraphrasing here-- that Trump was trying to soothe his ego by denying the reality that he lost. I think it's more than that. I think it's bigger than that. It is a large, organized political strategy that keeps the former president relevant, keeps him talking about the possibility of running again in 2024, which he hinted at at a rally last night, and also positions Republicans to deny the results of future elections, should they lose them. And it's odd because Republicans seem really well-positioned to do well this fall in 2022. And yet, some Republican figures, including the former President in our interview, are already talking about the possibility that Democrats will, quote, "steal the election again," as Democrats did not do in 2020. MARTHA RADDATZ: And Rachel, I just want you to have the last word here. We have about 30 seconds. How nervous are Democrats about the midterms? RACHEL SCOTT: Extremely nervous about the midterm elections. When they're looking at the agenda right now, they're seeing voting rights legislation stalled, Build Back Better, the president's domestic agenda. Police reform did not make its way through. They are extremely concerned about the upcoming midterm elections and about what message they are sending to voters in these following months in which their party is essentially at a standstill at this moment in terms of key Democratic priorities. MARTHA RADDATZ: Thanks to all of you. We have a lot to talk about for the rest of the year.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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