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News brief: Russian military convoy, sanctions fallout, State of the Union

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Much of the war in Ukraine is taking place on video, snatches of reality quickly shared around the world.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A few of those images suggest the brutal force that Russia may yet bring to bear in the conflict. The initial Russian moves seem to have failed. Kyiv and other cities remain in Ukrainian hands. Video shows remarkable numbers of blown-up or burned-out Russian tanks and trucks along the roads. But in the last day, satellite video has shown a Russian convoy of tanks, trucks and artillery many miles long, and another video shows an explosion in a civilian area of a major Ukrainian city.

MARTINEZ: That last image is where we start our conversation with NPR's Tim Mak in Ukraine. Tim, what were you able to learn from that video?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: So we're seeing some very dramatic images of bombardment, and they're coming from the city of Kharkiv. That's in the northeast of the country, some 25 miles from the Russian border. In one video we see from the city, there's this series of explosions in the northeast area of that city, this town. NPR geolocated that video, finding that it was a residential area, filled with a shopping mall, a bank, apartments and even a sushi and wine shop. And there's another video, and it's been distributed by the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior. There's a pale-faced woman in that video who's been dragged or has crawled away from an explosion. Her leg is bleeding. And then the camera settles on this graphic scene. Here's Olga (ph). She's another resident of Kharkiv who spoke to us.

OLGA: Dead and injured are lying on the streets. Fragments of bombs and shells are found on playgrounds and in country yards where thousands civilians live.

MAK: So you heard her say the dead and injured are lying in the streets. Kharkiv's mayor says that dozens of civilians have been injured, and there have been at least nine deaths. He said four people, for example, were killed as they left the bomb shelter to try and get water. In Mariupol - that's a port city in the far southeast of Ukraine - there's been widespread power outages, and heating plants are damaged as Russian strikes have increased.

MARTINEZ: What about the capital city of Kyiv?

MAK: Well, this capital city remains in Ukrainian hands, as we've been talking about. Across the city center of Kyiv, there are these billboards going up in Russian, and I saw one of them in a photo, and one reads, Russian soldier, stop. How can you look your children in the eyes? Leave. Stay human.

The capital city remains under threat, however. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says hundreds of saboteurs have been sent to undermine defense there. And new satellite imagery provided to NPR by the company Maxar shows a column of tanks approaching the outskirts of the city. This column contains armored vehicles, artillery, logistics support vehicles. And it's many miles long. So there still is a lot of peril for Ukrainians in that city.

MARTINEZ: And what does that mean for people on the ground?

MAK: Well, the U.N. refugee agency now estimates that more than half a million people have left Ukraine, and many, many more are struggling to find their way out. I went down to the train station in Lviv - that's in western Ukraine. And it's become a hub for Ukrainians trying to leave the country through Poland. Here's Pavlo Titko. He's a leader at the relief agency of the Order of Malta. That's a humanitarian group that is feeding refugees on the ground here.

PAVLO TITKO: (Through interpreter) I think the situation is very bad because we are cut from Kyiv. The bridge is blown up. And we are short of supplies of flour.

MAK: He says he's concerned that just in a matter of a few short days, there will be widespread food shortages in western Ukraine, compounding the problems for fleeing refugees. That's not even to say anything about areas closer to the front lines, where Ukrainians and Russians are engaged in fierce fighting.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Tim Mak in western Ukraine. Tim, thanks.

MAK: Thank you.

MARTINEZ: The world is closely watching to see how a new round of sanctions impacts Russia and its economy.

INSKEEP: On Monday, we've reported the United States, the European Union and its allies targeted Russia's central bank and its sovereign wealth fund in response to the invasion of Ukraine. At stake here are hundreds of billions of dollars in the country's foreign reserves.

MARTINEZ: NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has been following this story. Jackie, the news of these sanctions on Russia had an immediate impact. The ruble plunged nearly 40%. Interest rates more than doubled. Central bank tried to calm the public. Jackie, what's happening today?

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Well, the ruble seems to have settled a bit. You know, there's still line-ups at ATMs and limits to cash withdrawals. The central bank has tried to calm people, but it's also preventing hard currency from leaving the country. You know, A, it's a dramatic step to put sanctions on Russia's central bank. It will cut the country off from most of its foreign reserves, and they're estimated to be about $640 billion. And they're held in banks here in the U.S. or Europe, Japan, and Russia cannot touch most of that money now. But, you know, on top of these sanctions, many foreign companies are leaving Russia. You know, the British oil giant BP is pulling its investment. Shell and Norway's Equinor are also leaving. General Motors is suspending exports to Russia. You know, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz are curtailing operations. So Russia has also been barred from major sporting events, and Russian aircraft are banned from using airspace or airports in many countries now, including the U.S. So all of these moves can hit Russia's economy beyond the sanctions.

MARTINEZ: The Biden administration described the sanctions on the central bank and sovereign wealth fund as unprecedented. Is there any risk of blowback against the U.S., the EU or maybe other allies for making these moves against Russia's economy?

NORTHAM: It's unclear. You know, these are early days, and this is truly uncharted territory. The U.S. and other countries have sanctioned the central banks of countries such as, you know, Venezuela or Iran or Syria, but they're small economies. Russia's economy, on the other hand, is interconnected with the rest of the world, and it's a key energy supplier, you know, oil and gas, and that is still flowing. What's remarkable is that so many countries have agreed to go along with these sanctions, considering that there could be impacts on their own economies because so many of them have, you know, business ties with Russia, particularly European countries.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, and the intended goal of these sanctions is to get President Putin to stop the invasion of Ukraine. Are we seeing any sign of that?

NORTHAM: Not so far. As we just heard from Tim Mak, you know, there was heavy shelling overnight in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, and reports of a convoy of Russian troops and armored vehicles heading towards Kyiv. Putin met with his top officials on Monday, you know, during which he reportedly called the Western nations the empire of lies. These latest sanctions may be driving, you know, Russia into this deep, dark economic hole, but there is concern that if Putin is feeling cornered, he could double-down on the invasion of Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thank you very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you very much.

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MARTINEZ: With all this going on around the world, President Biden will give his State of the Union address tonight. And he definitely has a lot of things to talk about.

INSKEEP: Starting with the global crisis we've been discussing here. And while the economy closer to home is strong for the moment, there is some inflation. Surveys show a lot of Americans don't believe the economy is so strong, and this country does remain politically divided.

MARTINEZ: Here to talk about all this, NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, Russia's invasion of Ukraine - really on the top of everyone's mind. So how much should we expect the president to speak about it and touch on it tonight?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: A, it's going to be a big part of his speech. I mean, this is one of the largest television audiences that he'll get all year. So he's going to take the opportunity to explain to Americans what he's doing about the crisis. Here's White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

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JEN PSAKI: He will talk about the steps we've taken to not only support the Ukrainian people with military and economic assistance but also the steps he's taken to build a global coalition (ph) imposing crippling financial sanctions on President Putin's inner circle and the Russian economy.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, she says Biden will talk about the importance of U.S. leadership in the world, you know, the strength of the West when democracies rally together, but also, this situation is having a big impact on oil prices, as Jackie kind of noted, and because Russia is such a big producer and exporter. So he's expected to talk as well about steps he's taking to mitigate those price spikes here back at home.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, but what exactly can he do, Franco, about gas prices? And how important is this issue of price inflation for him, politically?

ORDOÑEZ: It's big. Polls show Americans are very concerned about rising prices, and they don't think he's doing enough about it. The fact is that inflation is largely beyond his control, but he is going to try to show he's doing what he can. You know, he's expected to outline a four-point plan to lower prices. That includes some things like making more things in America and strengthening supply chains. And you can expect to hear him talk about infrastructure. Passing that law was a highlight of the year and is expected to create a bunch of jobs. And he'll try again, as he usually does, to make the case that his White House has overseen the fastest economic growth in 40 years. He's also expected to talk about his ideas for lowering costs for child care and prescription drug prices, even though his big social safety net plan - that's the Build Back Better plan - had stalled in Congress.

MARTINEZ: The president's approval ratings are very low right now, very poor. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows 56% of respondents saw his first year in office as a failure. So what does that mean for this speech?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it means the stakes are pretty high. He needs to make a compelling case that he's done something about the issues that they care about - inflation for one. But he'll also try to showcase that he has accomplished some things that he promised to do as well. One of those things, of course, is his historic nomination of a Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, she will be the first Black woman to sit on the highest court in the nation. And after a long winter and a long two years of COVID-19, there is some optimism about the pandemic that he can point to. Just yesterday, it was announced that masks would be optional for the speech. So that could be a tangible sign of things starting to get back to normal, and I expect that's going to be a theme that he's also going to be talking about.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks a lot.

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