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News brief: Ukraine invasion, U.S, intelligence, GOP criticizes Biden

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ukrainian officials say that their capital city is under direct fire from Russia.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia is targeting civilians in Kyiv, something the Russian Defense Agency denies. Zelenskyy also said the Russian invasion has killed at least 137 Ukrainian troops and civilians around the country; so far, hundreds more have been wounded. Ukraine's leader also says he is, quote, "target No. 1" as Russia tries to overthrow the democratically elected government.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Tim Mak is in Ukraine. I spoke with him earlier this morning about the latest.

So, Tim, where are you right now, and what are you seeing?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Well, I'm standing right now in a field in central Ukraine. Like so many others, we're using these small rural routes in order to travel in order to avoid the major roads where we've seen a lot of reports of traffic jams and clogs as people try to escape Kyiv and push towards other areas.

MARTINEZ: Tim, what's the latest regarding the fighting and an update on the battlefield?

MAK: Obviously, it's a very fluid situation, but we're receiving some reports that the initial stages are not going as well for the Russian military as they might have hoped. A strategic airport 15 kilometers west of Kyiv was initially captured by a Russian air assault. And it would have given them the opportunity to land forces right outside the capital city. But Ukrainian forces have now recaptured it in a counteroffensive. Ukrainians are also reporting that they've halted an element of Russian tanks north of Kyiv by blowing up a key bridge. The Ukrainian defense minister called on residents in a northwest suburb of Kyiv to prepare Molotov cocktails for the ongoing fighting.

MARTINEZ: So, Tim, what does all this mean for the next few days?

MAK: Well, the outlook really still looks quite bleak for the Ukrainians. So while they're claiming some positive news, there are some signs that the Russian military is pushing closer to Kyiv. And more troops have been seen in Belarus headed in the direction of the capital city. A senior American defense official says that this is just the initial stage of a longer, larger scale attack and invasion, with the Russians making the taking of Kyiv one of their key priorities. Western intelligence predicts that Kyiv will be encircled and that the Russian military will be able to do so soon due to overwhelming military superiority. A senior Western intelligence official says that the Russian government seeks the removal of the Ukrainian government and the installation of a puppet regime; also foreseeing a brutal occupation ahead.

MARTINEZ: How do things look generally on the ground where you are?

MAK: From the folks that we've been speaking to out here, there's a real sense of shock. I mean, many Ukrainians did not think that the war would break out in such a dramatic and large-scale fashion. We spoke to Halyna Oleksander (ph), a Ukrainian who gathered along with many men of all ages in a town square in central Ukraine to enlist in the military.

HALYNA OLEKSANDER: It's unbelievable for all of us because always they said that we are brothers, we are brothers nations.

MAK: Ukrainians are still digesting what this dramatic development means for their future. But what is clear is that military-age males all across this country are mobilizing for the coming fighting.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Tim Mak. Tim, thanks a lot.

MAK: Thanks so much.

MARTINEZ: The Russian invasion of Ukraine is unfolding largely as the U.S. was predicting for weeks.

MARTIN: However, accurate U.S. intelligence, some of it shared publicly, did not prevent the Russian invasion from happening. So what role will the U.S. play now in stopping a land war in Europe?

MARTINEZ: For more, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, U.S. intelligence has been very accurate here in contrast to some recent U.S. wars. But how significant is that since it didn't stop Vladimir Putin from going ahead with the invasion?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, yeah, that's true. And the backstory here is that CIA Director William Burns went to Russia last November, and he told the Russians about what the U.S. already knew, and the hope was this would actually deter Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Obviously, it didn't do that. Still, Putin probably had to - didn't expect these details of his plans to be broadcast to the world, and he certainly had to factor that into his thinking. And I spoke about this with John Sipher. He's an ex-CIA officer who served in Russia. He supports this effort to share intelligence publicly and says this opinion is pretty widely shared with other ex-intelligence officials he speaks with. And while this approach didn't stop Putin, it did counter the Russian disinformation narrative, the notion that Ukraine was somehow threatening Russia. And he says the U.S. sharing of intelligence did help establish a factual narrative that Western governments and their publics could work with as they tried to figure out how to respond.

JOHN SIPHER: Just trying to get information out on what they know the Russians are up to try to tell both publics in Europe and in the United States here is the kind of stuff we can expect from Russia. Here's their game plan. They try to create sort of false stories. They try to create false narratives.

MYRE: And he says as a result, NATO countries have been very united. And we've seen this largely united response politically, and we're also seeing it on issues like sanctions.

MARTINEZ: Now, the U.S. and NATO have been clear they are not sending fighters into Ukraine. So what are they doing for Ukraine?

MYRE: Well, there is a NATO summit today. They're talking about next steps. President Biden said yesterday that he's sending 7,000 more U.S. troops to Europe. This is part of his larger effort to reassure the NATO allies, especially the ones on the eastern flank. And Biden told Ukraine's President Zelenskyy that the U.S. would provide humanitarian aid. U.S. troops are in Poland, for example, ready to help with refugees heading out of Ukraine. U.S. troops won't cross the border, but they can help if refugees are coming out of that country. And beyond Europe, the U.S. is working to organize global support for Ukraine and trying to isolate Russia and Putin. We'll see a lot of these efforts out in the open, but there will also be other actions taking place behind the scenes.

MARTINEZ: What are those behind-the-scenes actions?

MYRE: So Biden said the U.S. was prepared to counter any Russian cyberattacks. The U.S. has been helping Ukraine with its cyberdefenses. Ukraine has been hit but not as hard as many had predicted, at least to this point. The U.S. is also sharing intelligence with Ukrainians. The U.S., as we've seen, had great visibility into the Russian preparations for this war and will likely still have pretty good visibility into the next Russian moves. And if Russia does take - occupy Ukraine, the CIA could certainly play a role in assisting a Ukrainian insurgency. This is the kind of thing the agency has done many, many times in the past.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure.

MARTINEZ: It is a midterm election year here in the U.S., and there are real political consequences of what's happening in Ukraine.

MARTIN: Some Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have used the moment to lambast President Biden for political gain, even though many of them agree that Russia's war in Ukraine is unjust. This is all playing out at CPAC, a big annual conservative conference happening this week in Florida.

MARTINEZ: NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben has been following all of this. Danielle, there has been broad, bipartisan support for Ukraine on Capitol Hill. What are we hearing in the wake of the invasion?

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Well, from a lot of those Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, yes, they have been supporting Ukraine, slamming Vladimir Putin but also slamming Joe Biden as weak or even partially to blame. Here's Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at a press conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MITCH MCCONNELL: I think the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August was a signal to Putin, and maybe to Chinese President Xi as well, that America was in retreat, that America could not be depended upon and was an invitation to the autocrats in the world that maybe this was a good time to make a move.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, a fair number of Republicans, McConnell included, had been saying for days that Biden's sanctions were too little, too late. And it's worth noting here that there had been a bipartisan push in the Senate for tough sanctions. Bob Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, yesterday in a statement said that he wants more to be done yet. And we should also add here that Biden yesterday said they're holding back on some of the tougher measures, like cutting off Russia from international banking, because of allies in Europe.

MARTINEZ: And we mentioned the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, is gathering in Florida right now. What is the response there?

KURTZLEBEN: You know, Russia and Ukraine are really not very central at all. There was a discussion yesterday of foreign policy and K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser under Trump, she did speak fairly extensively on the topic. But as far as politicians go, people who are mentioned as possible 2024 candidates, for the most part, they're avoiding it. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis didn't mention Ukraine or Russia at all in his speech, and he is one of the big names that is thrown around for 2024. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley probably got into it the most of everyone, largely in the context of gas prices and the U.S. energy industry, which have been existing criticisms of Biden from the GOP. But, really, the focus has been on things that reliably fire up the GOP base, so culture war issues, how race is taught in classrooms, COVID prevention measures, that sort of thing.

MARTINEZ: One name we haven't mentioned - Donald Trump.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, as far as prominent Republicans go, he's kind of alone. One conservative-leaning foreign policy analyst I spoke to yesterday pointed out that, you know, look, there are isolationist Republicans, there are interventionist Republicans, and then there's Trump, who is in his own camp of being guided by the ideology of self-interest. Now, what we have heard of him is he has twice in the last couple of days praised Vladimir Putin, saying words like smart, savvy, that those are how he would describe him for invading Ukraine. When Josh Hawley was asked about those comments last night, he shot that down very quickly, saying Putin is unequivocally the enemy. Last night, Trump also released a one-line statement saying, quote, "if I were in office, this deadly Ukraine situation would never have happened." But he has not yet spoken at CPAC. He is set to speak Saturday night, and we'll be watching very closely because if he's going to run again, his foreign policy views on this are incredibly relevant.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben. Thanks a lot.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.