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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the Capitol of Ukraine today. The unannounced visit to Kyiv is the first by a senior U.S. official since Congress passed a $60 billion aid package last month.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And it comes as Ukrainian troops are struggling to push back a new Russian offensive along the northeastern border, not far from the country's second largest city, Kharkiv. Meanwhile, Ukraine, which already has a shortage of soldiers, is moving troops from other parts of the front line to respond.

FADEL: With me now to discuss the latest is NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Good morning.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Joanna, let's start with the latest in this war. How did Russia break through Ukraine's defenses here?

KAKISSIS: So Leila, Ukraine has been warning for weeks that Russia was amassing troops along this part of the border as part of a new offensive. And then this past Friday, Russian troops stormed into Northeastern Ukraine in two formations toward the city of Kharkiv and a town called Vovchans'k. Thousands of Ukrainians have since fled. The Russians moved quickly through a border area called the gray zone - it's a contested area between the two countries, and they say they have captured several small villages there. Some soldiers told Ukrainian media that the area was not well fortified. We did speak to a soldier named Dima Yermolovich (ph) who is serving in the area. Here he describes the challenges.

DIMA YERMOLOVICH: (Through interpreter) It is really hard to keep back Russians without enough equipment, being as outnumbered as we are, as they attack again and again with tanks and infantry, with troops that really prepared for this assault.

FADEL: So soldiers feel outnumbered. They're not well equipped. What about civilians? What have the past few days been like for them?

KAKISSIS: Well, it's been very scary and chaotic based on what we've been hearing from emergency workers trying to get the civilians out. We spoke to Grigory Cherban (ph). He's a local volunteer helping to evacuate people from the town of Vovchans'k, and that town is just 5 miles from the Russian border, and he described how quickly conditions deteriorated there.

GRIGORY CHERBAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: So he's saying that in the few hours he was in the area, the Russians dropped at least three guided aerial bombs, which are highly destructive. And then after that, there was constant gunfire. Suddenly, the requests for evacuations increased dramatically. And, you know, this town, Vovchans'k, used to have a population of 17,000. Only a few hundred people remain there. Most of them are elderly. Rescue workers said they have refused to leave. The townspeople have already lived through one recent Russian occupation for the first few months of 2022 until Ukrainians managed to regain control later that year, and now this town faces another occupation.

FADEL: So how does this offensive affect Ukraine's overall position on the battlefield?

KAKISSIS: Well, this means that Ukraine is now moving troops to this part of the front, and Ukraine does not have troops to spare. They're also defending the eastern part of the front line where the Russians are closing in on key towns there. There is a new conscription law that goes into effect this month, but it will be several months before new soldiers are drafted and trains. So this is something that is still going into effect.

FADEL: And really quickly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kyiv, what message is he carrying with him?

KAKISSIS: He's meeting with top officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and he's here to say that the U.S. continues to stand by Ukraine.

FADEL: NPR's Joanna Kakissis In Kyiv. Thank you, Joanna.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: President Biden is set to announce new tariffs on Chinese imports today.

MARTIN: The White House says the move, valued at $18 billion, is to protect key American sectors. It also says that China doesn't play by the rules when it comes to trade. And this is all happening in an election year. President Biden is running against former President Donald Trump who slapped hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tariffs on Chinese goods during his time in office.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So the new tariffs will target electric vehicles, semiconductors, and solar cells. Why is the administration focused on these goods?

KHALID: Well, most of these tariffs will cover items that the Biden administration has sought to invest in through legislation, like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Chips And Science Act. And so, you know, the argument here is that it would be self-defeating for the administration to be pouring billions of dollars into boosting American manufacturing through those investments, while at the same time, allowing cheap Chinese imports. To give an example that you mentioned, Biden will double the tariffs on solar cells and semiconductors. But the big one, Leila, is that existing tariffs on electric vehicles will quadruple from roughly 25% all the way up to 100% tariff rate. And this is really interesting because experts will say that there are not a whole lot of Chinese EVs currently being imported into the U.S. But the administration is, in theory, trying to get ahead of the curve because they say China could unfairly flood the market, and they are trying to prevent that from happening.

FADEL: Okay, so these are all new tariffs, but what happened to the $300 billion worth of tariffs that Trump imposed?

KHALID: Yeah. Well, when Trump first enacted those tariffs a few years back, some Democrats did warn that they could really hurt the economy and that American consumers would pay the price. When President Biden came into office, his team began reviewing existing China policy and specifically these tariffs. And today, the White House says it is keeping them in place. I asked Michael Froman about this. He served as the US trade representative in the Obama administration.

MICHAEL FROMAN: One of the challenges is once tariffs have been imposed, it is quite difficult politically to reduce them because the affected industry tends to get used to them, like them, operate with them as baked into their plans.

KHALID: And, you know, frankly, also, diplomatically, it's challenging for Biden to roll these tariffs back because China has not really improved any of its trade practices. And so, you know, what's the incentive for Biden to change course, particularly in an election year when his likely opponent is indeed the architect of the existing tariff program?

FADEL: So Biden criticized Trump's approach to China during his campaign in 2020. So today, how does this Biden plan differ from what Trump has said about his vision for similar tariffs?

KHALID: Well, to be clear, the Biden White House is keeping the Trump tariffs in place. And they say they have helped diversify the supply chain somewhat away from China. It is also adding new tariffs, but only in certain specific areas. They say that this is a targeted approach, and they emphasize that they are combining the tariffs with a larger plan to boost American manufacturing. Former President Trump has also promised to increase tariffs if he were to win a second term in office, but it's difficult to pin down exactly what he would do. He has specifically singled out the Chinese auto industry, but he's also spoken about slapping an across the board 10% tariff on imports from every country, not just China. Now, economists will tell you that the cost of tariffs, by and large, are paid for by American consumers.

FADEL: Is there a chance things could escalate?

KHALID: There is that concern. I mean, remember that China reacted strongly to Trump's tariffs when he put them in place, but we'll see how this announcement plays in China. The administration has - says that they've brought up unfair trade practices multiple times to Beijing. And so the White House says that this is not going to come as a surprise to China.

FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid Thank you.

KHALID: Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Criminal gangs from China and Mexico are flooding the U.S. with fentanyl and other deadly drugs at an unprecedented rate.

MARTIN: Yes, that's according to two new studies that show fentanyl smuggling has increased dramatically despite efforts to target cartels and tighten border security.

FADEL: NPR Addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us. Good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to keep fentanyl out of American communities. Have efforts to stop the flow of the drug been effective?

MANN: Well, the results have really been mixed. As you mentioned, the U.S. has worked to tighten border security. It's targeting Mexican cartels here inside the U.S. and around the world. And the good news, really, is that police are seizing a lot more fentanyl in the form of these counterfeit pills. They're shaped to look like the pain pills you might buy at the pharmacy. In 2017, there were 50,000 of these pills seized. By last year, that had surged to 115 million pills. Dr. Nora Volkow is head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She says these counterfeit pills are flooding the whole country, but the supply is especially heavy in Western states, including Arizona and California.

NORA VOLKOW: Surprised me because I did not expect the greatest entry of these pills was in the West. And this new data shows the magnitude, number of pills was greater in the West than in the East. So it's shifting.

MANN: So a lot more pills being seized, Leila. The bad news here is experts, including Volkow thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg for every counterfeit fentanyl pill they're seizing. They believe a lot more of this deadly drug is getting through.

FADEL: The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration released a new report on efforts to stop fentanyl smuggling. What did they find?

MANN: Well, it's not good news. The DEA says the Mexican cartels and Chinese criminal gangs are more powerful, more sophisticated than ever. According to this report, the Mexican cartels now control whole shipping ports in Mexico to maintain their fentanyl supply chains. Chinese gangs have also gotten better at using cryptocurrencies to move drug profits around and hide them from authorities. Again, there are some successes, more of these fentanyl pills being seized. But fentanyl is so cheap, so easy to make. The gangs are just churning out more. The DEA report found that all of these efforts failed to make fentanyl harder to find or more expensive to buy in any part of the U.S.

FADEL: Brian, with so much fentanyl available, what does this mean for communities?

MANN: Yeah. So there are signs, Leila, that overdose deaths are leveling off, maybe even declining a bit. In part, that's because the public health response is getting better. More people, for example, are carrying naloxone - that's this easy-to-use drug that can reverse opioid overdoses. That appears to be helping. But overdoses are still running well above 100,000 deaths a year. Fentanyl is a leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. So this is still a really deadly public health crisis. And there's one other concern I'm hearing about from addiction experts. This pipeline of synthetic drugs described in these two new studies - it's not just getting bigger, it's also increasingly unpredictable and dangerous.

Fentanyl is the big threat right now, but gangs are pushing lots of other toxic substances and drug cocktails. They're making drug use more and more perilous. No one's really sure what's coming next. And so far, no one's found a way to shut down or even slow this drug pipeline.

FADEL: NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Thank you, Brian.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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