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News brief: Russia invades Ukraine, Biden's reaction, Putin's rationale

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's what it sounded like in Kyiv this morning as Ukrainians face down the reality of a Russian invasion.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Russia started bombing Ukrainian air bases and other military installations around the country around 5 a.m. local time. The attacks started shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a special military operation in Ukraine during a televised speech. But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called it a full-scale invasion and a war of aggression.

MARTIN: I messaged a former member of Ukraine's Parliament this morning, a woman I met in Kyiv earlier this month, and she told me that Putin is trying to trigger panic, so, she said to me, staying calm is a kind of weapon. For more, we go now to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is on the ground in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa. Frank, thanks for being here. Can you just walk us through what happened this morning?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Sure, Rachel. It's actually a lot the way, A, described it. Not very long after Putin spoke, I heard explosions outside my hotel - clearly, missile strikes. It shook the hotel. And no surprise because Odessa is a strategic port. There's a naval base there. Actually, I'm further north now. I have moved out of Odessa. And just to give a sense, here is what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHOOSH, RUSTLING)

LANGFITT: Afterwards, there was also jets that roared over.

(SOUNDBITE OF JETS FLYING)

LANGFITT: And what happened in our hotel is a few people - actually, I think a lot of people maybe slept through it initially. But I ran into two families in the hallway. They had packed ahead of time. They were afraid that this might happen. And the father was a guy named Constantine (ph). He's a lawyer from another port city, Kherson, which was also hit this morning. And this is what he said as we were standing in the dawn, packing our vehicles.

CONSTANTINE: I am scared. I'm very scared. I'm scared for my baby. And the people don't know what do.

MARTIN: They don't know what to do.

LANGFITT: No, they don't know what to do. But what they are doing is many of them are driving away from where the attacks have occurred. So Constantine, he was heading west, many hundreds of miles to the city of Lviv - that's near the Polish border - which has become a very popular refuge for people who are - been afraid of what would happen today. And we have headed north out of Odessa ourselves.

MARTIN: We've heard that the targets were a lot of military installations. What can you tell us from your vantage point about the damage so far and any loss of life?

LANGFITT: Yeah, there were additional missile strikes in other strategic ports - Mykolaiv and the place I just mentioned, Kherson, which of course, both near the Black Sea. The city of Kramatorsk is in eastern Ukraine. That's where the Ukrainian military has been managing the fight in the Donbas and holding a lot of press conferences. And after we left Odessa, there were reports of additional explosions in the city.

MARTIN: I mean, Frank, this still has to be such a shock to people there, even though they've been living with this looming threat for so long, right?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it was. And I got to say that the difference between last night and this morning in Odessa, it was like flipping a switch. You've covered these kinds of stories, too, Rachel. Last night, I was out having dinner. It was quiet and peaceful. People, I think, didn't think it was going to happen. And then once they realized it, they packed up, and they headed north. And as we continued north, we could see more and more lines at gas stations, people buying jerry cans. I ran into a 30-year-old software engineer named Sergey (ph), and he had taken off on his motorcycle. He's heading to another city here, looking for a place, apartment, to put his family.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt, near the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Rachel.

MARTIN: President Biden called Russia's attack against Ukraine a, quote, "needless act of aggression against global peace and security."

MARTINEZ: The president also said the world will hold Russia accountable. But what form will that accountability take? Here's U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield during last night's emergency U.N. Security Council meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Russia's attack on Ukraine is tantamount to an attack on the U.N. and every member state in the chamber tonight.

MARTINEZ: President Biden will address the American people later today.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is here. Franco, the first response from the White House was a rhetorical one, right? Tell us more about what President Biden said in his statement.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Yeah, that's right. President Biden denounced the attack soon after Vladimir Putin announced the operation would begin. And in a statement, he said it was unprovoked and unjustified. Biden called it a premeditated war. And as A described, he promised that the world would hold Russia accountable. Biden went on to say that he and the first lady are praying for the, quote, "brave and proud people of Ukraine." Biden did speak with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last night about the steps that the West would take in response. You know, Biden said that he was already going to meet with G-7 leaders virtually this morning about the crisis. He says he'll also make a public address this afternoon to announce further consequences that the U.S. and allies will take on Russia.

MARTIN: So what are those going to be? Because Biden has insisted U.S. troops are not going to go into Ukraine, even though the Pentagon, we should note, has now moved even more U.S. forces into Eastern Europe. But short of a military response, I mean, it's going to be sanctions, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yes. I mean, the president has already announced that the White House has described as the first tranche of sanctions, and those included penalties against two major Russian financial institutions, along with the government's ability to access Western financing. You know, also, sanctions were imposed against the Russian-owned company that is building the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. But Biden has warned those were just the start. And the administration has basically been telegraphing what could come next. Those include targeting more Russian elites, more banks and export controls, which would basically be cutting Russia off from some critical technology it needs, like semiconductors. The administration and members of Congress have also been talking about providing additional assistance to Ukraine and allies and partners.

MARTIN: It's been kind of bizarre, Franco, to watch how this has unfolded because the U.S. would - you know, there'd be some strategically leaked intelligence saying Russia was going to do X, Y, Z, and then Russia would do it. In many ways, this has happened the way the Biden administration has predicted.

ORDOÑEZ: The administration has really been warning about all this in such explicit terms, and it does follow very closely to the outline described by Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week at the United Nations. And I think it's been notable throughout all of this how forthcoming U.S. has been with intelligence. You know, Putin has repeatedly accused the West of fearmongering, that there was nothing to see, but it has all proven basically to be true. And the White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain was tweeting just last night and retweeted a commentator who said, basically, I wish the intelligence was wrong, but they called this right.

MARTIN: We should also note, I mean, it wasn't that many weeks ago when President Biden said if Russia invades Ukraine, it would, quote, "change the world."

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely.

MARTIN: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thank you. We appreciate it.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. Before the tanks rolled in and the missile attacks began, Vladimir Putin put out a video statement, as we heard, making the case for this attack.

MARTINEZ: In that address, Putin accused the U.S. and its allies of ignoring Russia's demands to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and for security guarantees. So how far is he willing to go to get what he wants?

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes is in the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, near the Ukrainian border. Charles, so Putin released this video announcing this attack on Ukraine in advance. Tell us more about what he said in that statement.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Sure, Rachel. So yeah, just before 6 a.m. local time, Putin went on national television, announced what the West had been predicting for weeks - that a Russian military campaign against Ukraine had begun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin says he ordered a special military operation to protect people in the Donbas, who he argued were being subjected to genocide by the government in Kyiv. He went on to say that the additional goal of the mission was the demilitarization and what he called the de-Nazification of Ukraine. Now, Putin's reference to Nazis is part of a wider argument he's made in the past that Ukraine's 2014 revolution, in which protesters overthrew a Moscow-backed government in favor of a pro-European vision for the country, that instead brought a fascist junta to power, intent on cleansing Ukraine of its Russian-speaking population.

Now, there's no evidence of that, but Putin called on Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their arms voluntarily and to return to their homes, rather than fight to protect these so-called fascists in power. And while he claimed Russia had no intention of occupying the country, Putin's language certainly suggests that he has designs on regime change in Kyiv. I should also add, he warned outside countries from getting involved, saying that they would face a ferocious Russian response if they did.

MARTIN: So you mentioned this call for de-Nazification. I mean, do Russians buy that, this justification?

MAYNES: Well, some do, and some don't. But, you know, Putin also coached his argument, saying that Russia was coming to the defense of these Donbas statelets that the Kremlin formally recognized earlier this week and to which Moscow has promised security guarantees. So in the face of so-called ethnic cleansing, they're going in. You know, but he also argued NATO's expansion towards Russia's borders presented this existential threat to Russia. It was a matter of life or death, in his words, and that Russia was acting in self-defense here. So he railed at NATO's triumphalism after the Cold War. He accused the U.S. of trying to destroy Russia from within and said it was Ukraine's ambitions to join the NATO alliance that had now brought that threat to Russia's doorstep.

MARTIN: I mean, what are you hearing, Charles, from Russians about this? Have there been any protests these last weeks over the potential of a Russian invasion of Ukraine?

MAYNES: Well, I think people have been kind of caught up in two camps - whether to believe this was really happening or sort of willfully ignoring the prospect of this. It's early going on yet. Of course, we've heard some celebrities, for example, saying - you know, calling for an end to war. Also, we've heard from Russia's most famous dissident, the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, saying - and we've seen some protesters picketing as well. But, you know, even from where I am in Rostov-on-Don, you know, in conversations with people, they say they're against military action. They wondered how they could influence events. You know, a yearlong crackdown here has decimated the Russian opposition. And we'll see how Russians react to these sanctions that are forthcoming. Already, the ruble has lost value, and the Russian markets are down over 45%.

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes. We appreciate your reporting from the Russian south. Thank you so much, Charles.

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