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News brief: Latest in Ukraine, NATO's Ukraine options, Ketanji Brown Jackson

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukrainian officials are emphatically rejecting a call by Russia to surrender the southern port city of Mariupol.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

That's the city besieged and bombarded by the Russians for weeks now, though Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN he is willing to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin about negotiating an end to the fighting.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) I am ready for negotiations with him. I was ready for the last two years. And I think that without negotiations, we cannot end this war.

FADEL: NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from southwestern Ukraine. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

FADEL: So let's start with the deteriorating conditions in Mariupol, which the Russian military has encircled. What's the latest?

MAK: Well, hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped in that city, and they have dwindling supplies of food and water and no electricity. You may remember that Mariupol has been the site of at least two bombings of buildings where Ukrainian civilians were seeking shelter - one in a school, another in a theater.

FADEL: Yeah.

MAK: On Sunday, the Russian military demanded that this embattled southeastern city surrender, after which they said they would let civilians leave and humanitarian aid enter. But so far, Ukrainian officials have absolutely refused. An adviser to the city's mayor used an expletive, actually, in response to the ultimatum and said that they would not be surrendering. They said this in a Facebook post. The deputy prime minister of Ukraine said in an interview with the Ukrainian newspaper that the Russian demands were eight pages of, quote, "delusions," that the Russians have taken the people of Mariupol hostage and that a surrender would not happen.

FADEL: So you're in the city of Odesa right now, which is in the southwest of the country. Can you tell me what conditions are like there right now?

MAK: Well, the feeling in the air, in a word, is defiant. This is a port city along the Black Sea. It's usually a tourism hot spot. It's renowned for its 19th century architecture and world-famous opera house. In pre-war times, this city would be bustling with people going to bars and clubs or even the local, highly regarded jazz venue. But now the streets are blocked off by checkpoints and anti-tank hedgehogs, sandbags, and they're guarded by men with rifles everywhere you look. Here's the mayor of Odesa talking about their preparations.

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GENNADIY TRUKHANOV: (Through interpreter) There is a proverb - if you want peace, be ready for the war. So we're ready for that attack, from the very first day of the beginning of the war.

MAK: The Ukrainian military says they're confident they'll be able to repel any assault in the Odesa region. NPR was permitted to review some of their defenses during a trip in the last 24 hours, and we observed hardened fighting positions, armored vehicles and mined beaches, ready to repel a Russian attempt. But whether that will be enough, we don't yet know.

FADEL: So Odesa getting ready. Let's talk about the rest of the country. We've seen the Russian military stalled in the areas around Kyiv over the last week. Russian forces still haven't taken control of any major Ukrainian city. What can you tell us about the latest?

MAK: Well, we're seeing Ukrainian officials on the lookout for new fronts possibly opening and not just in the south, where the Russian military has seen more successes. Overnight, the governor of Rivne - that's a region along the northern border with Belarus - announced that they had been struck with two missiles. And there's been concern in recent weeks that Russia and even Belarusian troops might open a new front up there. These strikes in Rivne seem to indicate that the Russian military wants to keep open that possibility or at least have the Ukrainians thinking so.

FADEL: That's NPR's Tim Mak in Odesa. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thank you.

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FADEL: President Biden heads to Brussels later this week for a NATO summit on Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: Pressure continues to grow on the military alliance to provide more weapons to Ukraine. So what next steps could they take?

FADEL: We're going to ask NPR's Frank Langfitt. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Frank, first remind us what kind of role NATO member states have been playing in the war in Ukraine.

LANGFITT: Yeah, they've been - Leila, they've been arming the Ukrainians at an astonishing level - I mean, where you are, in fact, a lot of this has probably been happening - on some of the smaller roads, even the main roads.

FADEL: Right.

LANGFITT: In recent weeks, EU and NATO allies have sent hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons into Ukraine. There are no Russian checkpoints, as I still understand it, out there in the west for now, and so from all we understand, they've been flowing through unimpeded. Ambassadors from NATO countries that I spoke to in Brussels didn't want to give any details for obvious reasons. But here is what Juri Luik - he's Estonia's ambassador to NATO - told me recently.

JURI LUIK: Obviously, the Ukrainian forces wouldn't be so successful if they wouldn't have modern weaponry, particularly the anti-tank missiles and MANPADS Stingers.

LANGFITT: Can you give me some sense of how much weaponry has gone into Ukraine?

LUIK: I can only respond that it's a lot.

LANGFITT: And Luik told me that NATO allies slashed the usual bureaucracy to speed up this process.

LUIK: This has all been cast aside. The distance from sending the weapon to reaching the people who use it is really - it's been taken to absolute minimum.

FADEL: As we've reported, the Ukrainians have been asking for a no-fly zone since the beginning of the Russian invasion. NATO says no, it doesn't want to widen the war. But as civilian deaths mount, could there be more public pressure for NATO to do more? How might it respond to that type of pressure?

LANGFITT: Well, I think one answer so far, Leila, is probably better, more effective weapons. We've seen that Slovakia's offering to send sophisticated Soviet-made missile systems that can take down jets that are miles up in the air. Russia, of course, has said, as in the past, shipments like these are legitimate military targets. Slovakia has just already received Patriot missiles from other NATO allies to protect itself against Russia, and Poland, another NATO ally, plans to propose peacekeeping force in Ukraine. But NATO still says they do not want any NATO troops on the ground. You know, the U.K. Ministry for Defence here, they see Russia as pursuing a war of attrition using indiscriminate firepower, which, of course, means continuing to strike civilian targets. But there's still a great reluctance among NATO allies to risk direct conflict between NATO and Russia. Edgars Skuja (ph) - he's Latvia's ambassador to NATO - here's what he said.

EDGARS SKUJA: Emotionally, we would see more active support and engagement. But from the rational perspective, from understanding that we have to protect NATO citizens from escalation, this is where we are. Of course, it's not easy, but it is something where we draw a line between emotional and rational decision.

LANGFITT: And so for now, Leila, I think NATO's going to continue to pour a lot of weapons into Ukraine, doing all it can to avoid being a combatant in the war but also knowing that death and destruction is expected to only become worse.

FADEL: All right. That's NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thank you for your reporting.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Leila.

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FADEL: Confirmation hearings begin today for President Biden's nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

MARTINEZ: If confirmed, Jackson would be the first Black woman to serve on the nation's highest court.

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KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, will inspire future generations of Americans.

MARTINEZ: Democrats say she's unquestionably qualified and prepared for the role. And they're hoping, even in these deeply partisan times, that at least a few Republicans will agree and vote for her confirmation.

FADEL: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell will be covering the hearings all week, and she joins us now. Good morning, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So let's start by - if you could, just give us a general idea of what we can expect to hear this week.

SNELL: Yeah, today's the first day, and that's basically all about opening statements. Every member gets a chance to say their bit about Jackson, and then she herself gets to speak. Usually, it's just a general overview of the nominee's personal stories. So we'll be hearing about her qualifications and what she would bring to the court, a kind of easing in. Tuesday is a marathon, though. They will have short breaks for lunch and dinner, but every single member on the committee gets 30 minutes to question her. And Wednesday will involve more questions, but we expect a much shorter day. And then Thursday is character witnesses, friends and family kind of giving their perspective on the judge. This is usually a less intense day. So this is usually about a week of questions, then about a week or so later, the committee will meet again for a public session to vote on her nomination, with the hope for Democrats of holding a final floor vote before Easter.

FADEL: So Republicans are already attacking Judge Jackson. For instance, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley tweeted an allegation that Jackson has a record of being soft on sex offenders, among other things. How representative is that of what you expect to hear from Republicans this week?

SNELL: Well, to start with, I will say that Hawley's comments have been repeatedly debunked, and independent fact-checkers have said the allegation is completely false. Most Republicans I talked to have completely avoided talking about Hawley. You know, they usually pivot to saying they have questions about her record, but they're going to ask them, you know, in the hearing. They've mostly tried to avoid even acknowledging some of the attacks that people like Hawley are discussing. One good example is Senator John Barrasso. He's one of the top Republicans in the Senate. Here's how he described it yesterday on ABC's "This Week."

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JOHN BARRASSO: Going through the record, there are some concerns that people have about her being perceived as soft on crime. That's all going to come out with the hearings. But they're going to be respectful, they're going to be thorough, and they're going to be fair.

SNELL: I've heard other Republicans raise questions about her work representing Guantanamo Bay detainees and how she would approach questions of the law. But Hawley is on the Judiciary Committee, and he will have an opportunity to make these allegations on live TV, regardless of what Republican leaders hope or plan for.

FADEL: So how are Democrats preparing to respond to these attacks?

SNELL: Yeah. They say they've got an organized plan to counter attacks like this. Here's Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, also on ABC.

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DICK DURBIN: There's no truth to what he says. And he's part of a fringe within the Republican Party.

SNELL: You know, when I talk to Democrats, they say their main goal right now is to ensure Jackson gets bipartisan support with her nomination when it comes up for a final vote on the Senate floor, you know, but they don't necessarily need Republican votes to confirm her, and there are no major hurdles seen for Jackson at this point.

FADEL: Now, Kelsey, we've got some other news from the Supreme Court last night about the health of Justice Clarence Thomas. What do we know about that?

SNELL: He's hospitalized with an infection. The court announced last night he was admitted on Friday with flu-like symptoms. Now, Thomas is 73 years old, and he's one of the court's conservative stalwarts. His condition is said to be improving, and the court statement said he should be released in the next day or so. There are arguments at the court this week, so he'll be able to participate in rulings even if he's not there, by reviewing the written materials in those cases and with audio recordings of the arguments.

FADEL: That's NPR's congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thank you so much.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: And we want to alert you of a developing story this morning. A Chinese plane that was carrying 132 people has crashed in the Guangxi Mountains. Firsthand accounts posted online say the plane plummeted suddenly. Flight registration status shows the Boeing 737 plane to have been in use for nearly seven years. The flight was traveling from Kunming city to Guangzhou. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.