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News brief: Russia faces sanctions, Russia sends 'peacekeepers' to Ukraine, Trump app

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia has sent troops into eastern Ukraine. Is this an act of war or the continuation of the same conflict that's been happening there for the past eight years?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Well, that's what the U.S. is trying to decide in order to figure out how to respond. The Biden administration already announced that Americans can't do business in the separatist regions of Ukraine that Putin has now declared independent. But the U.S. is holding back on a fuller set of sanctions against Putin. The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting last night on Ukraine, and this is what U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: President Putin is testing our international system. He is testing our resolve and seeing just how far he can push us all. He wants to demonstrate that, through force, he can make a farce of the U.N. We must act together in response to this crisis.

MARTIN: So what does that look like? NPR's Jackie Northam is here with us this morning. Hey, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So what can you tell us about how the U.S. and NATO allies have responded to this latest provocation by Putin?

NORTHAM: Well, the first reactions have been to launch sanctions against Russia. Just this morning, Prime Minister Boris Johnson from the U.K. told an emergency national security meeting that the U.K. would launch a barrage of sanctions against the country. He didn't specifically say what they were but that Russian economic interests would be hit hard and that there were - there was no place for Russian oligarchs to hide. The U.S. is also sanctioning Russia, but it's a far more limited approach, just targeting these two breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and that will prevent any Americans from doing business there or bringing any goods or technology from the region. But to be clear, these are limited sanctions by the U.S. and much different than the ones the U.S. has been promising to impose on Russia for the past couple of weeks should it invade Ukraine, not just these breakaway regions.

MARTIN: Right. And so that's what the U.S. is trying to define, whether or not this constitutes an invasion of Ukraine. What would those broader set of sanctions look like?

NORTHAM: Well, they target and try to cripple Russia's economy - so, you know, sanctioning some of its biggest banks, preventing them from being part of the, you know, global financial market, withholding any U.S.-made technology to Russia which could hamper Russia's efforts to, you know, modernize its military and also threatening to stop this new natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany from going online. And it's natural gas that helps prop up Russia's economy.

MARTIN: So what would it take for the U.S. to decide that Russia has now crossed that line and that it's appropriate to target Putin and his close allies, those banks, as you were talking about, with these sanctions?

NORTHAM: Well, a senior administration official says it all depends on what Russia does now. So who knows? Perhaps if Russia moves further into Ukraine, that could spark these serious sanctions we're talking about. And in fact, the U.S. says it is expected to announce another round of sanctions today against Russia.

MARTIN: So Putin has declared these two states as independent. He has sent forces into the Donbas and Luhansk regions. The U.N. had to hold an emergency Security Council meeting. Where is diplomacy at this point, Jackie?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, there's - the window for a diplomatic resolution to this crisis is quickly closing. There's no question about that. As you mentioned, the U.N. Security Council met, but there was no action taken. Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart, and he was supposed to be meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday. No word if that's going to happen.

MARTIN: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thank you.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

MARTIN: OK, so as the U.S. and NATO try to figure out how to hold Putin accountable for this latest move, Ukrainians now feel under threat in a new way.

MARTINEZ: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is trying to reassure his people. He said yesterday that Ukraine's internationally recognized borders would remain that way and that there was no reason for chaotic actions.

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes is with us. He is in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don near the Ukrainian border. Charles, thanks for being here.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Happy to do it.

MARTIN: So what are you hearing from Russians there?

MAYNES: Well, you know, first of all, you know, much of these events happened here late into the night, so Russians here in Rostov and elsewhere woke up this morning to the news and a new reality, you know, that the Kremlin had taken actions that could lead to war or crushing sanctions or possibly both. And we now have news that Russian tanks are in these so-called republics as part of what Russia says is its peacekeeping force. Russian state TV is showing celebrations in the separatist regions, as well as - I've been getting messages from Russian nationalists at home. They've long championed independence ever since taking part in a Russian-backed proxy war in east Ukraine in 2014 - really, part of this broader Kremlin effort to undermine Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO and the EU.

But, you know, less clear, I think, is what the rest of Russia will make of this should violence in Ukraine spiral, and that certainly looks possible. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed overnight, dozens wounded. The separatists are now talking about seizing additional territory in the Donbas now that they have Russian backing. And meanwhile, Russia is accusing Ukraine of shelling civilians, even staging attacks on Russian territory here where I am in Rostov Oblast. This is near the border again. And all this could be used as a pretext for further military action, which, of course, is what the U.S. and allies have been warning about all along. I mean, just on a personal note, I made a visit to the border yesterday, and I could see tanks and military vehicles tucked in the woods to the side of the main highway, and that's just one part of this large force of some 150,000 Russian troops now that seems to be an invasion force.

MARTIN: Ukraine's President Zelenskyy is trying to reassure Ukrainians, but that is a really tough job right now - right? - I mean, after Russia took Crimea in 2014, now has recognized these two Russian-backed regions of Ukraine as independent.

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a speech late, late last night calling the Russian move a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty. He said Ukraine wanted peace but would not give anything away to anyone. He also called for a clear and effective response from the international community. Let's listen in.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here Zelenskyy is saying that this is the moment when Ukraine finds out who its real friends and partners are and who will continue to push back against Russia with just words alone. You know, I think it's fair to say this is really the latest example of Zelenskyy's frustration with Western powers who have been warning Russia behind the scenes of what could happen if it attacks Ukraine, rather than openly spelling out what will happen.

MARTIN: Charles, I want to ask you about the meeting, the speech, that Putin had yesterday because he's such a black box - right? - on the international stage. It's very rare to be able to understand exactly what's happening in his mind or his decision-making process. So every opportunity to see him in a public setting gives us some clues. So what did you see in his meetings yesterday that were put on public television, in his speech?

MAYNES: Yeah, this was a really, really angry speech. And what struck me was that although much of it was a chauvinistic harangue about Ukraine, the other part focused on what Putin sees as the West taking advantage of Russia after the end of the Cold War - you know, anger over NATO expansion eastward towards Russia's borders and about what Putin argues are Western designs to contain or even destroy Russia today. And Putin's obsessions with these topics haven't been resolved in any way by this move into the Donbas, which suggests that yesterday's drama is a prelude to more brinkmanship or perhaps even conflict to come.

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Former President Donald Trump has a new social media app.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, it's called Truth Social, and it's trying to be a conservative-leaning alternative to Twitter, which banned Trump last year.

MARTIN: So many questions. Let's put them to NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So I heard that the launch of this social media app, Truth Social, did not go to plan.

ALLYN: (Laughter) Yeah, not exactly. So there was tons of interest. The app was released Monday morning and quickly shot to the top of Apple's most-downloaded list. But many people, myself included, who tried to check it out were stuck in a kind of tech doom loop. You know, there are these email confirmations that were promised and never arrived. You'd put in a code and get an error message. This was widely reported across Twitter and other social media. Those who were able to make accounts were placed on a waitlist with some hundreds of thousands of people in front of them.

MARTIN: Bless you for doing that for the sake of journalism, Bobby.

ALLYN: (Laughter) Right.

MARTIN: So just remind us of the larger context here. Twitter, of course, banned Trump, but say more about his agenda with this app.

ALLYN: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, since he was banned from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube after statements he made urging supporters to storm the Capitol, you know, he has wanted to start his own Twitter-esque service. And he's enlisted former Congressman Devin Nunes to lead the effort. Nunes recently went on Fox News to talk up Truth Social. He says all the bugs will be worked out by the end of March and that it's all about, you know, giving people their voice back and creating a social media platform that's not controlled by a big Silicon Valley company. And let me remind you, this is a really crowded space, Rachel. There's, like, half a dozen other conservative-leaning, you know, social media apps trying to pull people away from the Twitters and Facebooks of the world.

MARTIN: Right, so he has competition, even Donald Trump has competition, in that space. So does this app, then, with Trump's name attached to it - does it have any kind of shot of breaking through?

ALLYN: Certainly has a very powerful publicity machine. I mean, Trump allies like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz are talking it up. So is Fox News star Sean Hannity. It has raised hundreds of millions of dollars. So given these big names and its sizable fundraising, you know, it does have potential. But experts I talked to are pretty doubtful that it will ever come anywhere close to replacing Twitter. Here's Hunter College professor Jessie Daniels, who studies online extremism.

JESSIE DANIELS: I think part of what he has found so valuable, especially about Twitter, is that it both is relied upon by journalists as a source, and it's used by a real cross-section of people politically, and so Twitter becomes a kind of target-rich environment.

ALLYN: In other words, Truth Social might not be that, right? Twitter has some 300 million users and lots of different views, lots of viral squabbles, and if a platform is mostly like-minded people - you know, basically an echo chamber - you might not have those fights that make Twitter create so many headlines.

MARTIN: Although it can serve to animate his base, couldn't it?

ALLYN: That's true. No, that is very true. You know, but - you know, there's also only so many people interested in a nonmainstream alternative to Twitter. So it's sort of - you know, are these people, really, who are at other sites going to go to Trump's news site? And I will note here, Rachel, that I checked out the app's terms of service, and there is one thing that is prohibited on Truth Social, and that is, quote, "to disparage, tarnish or otherwise harm the backers of the site." And I imagine that means Donald Trump.

MARTIN: NPR's Bobby Allyn. We appreciate your reporting on this, Bobby. Thanks.

ALLYN: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
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.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.