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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine is facing a crisis over billions in military and economic aid from its most important backers, the United States and the European Union. Europeans are divided, the U.S. Congress is frozen, and the White House says Russia will win this war without more funding.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Bad timing. Ukraine's counteroffensive has stalled, and Russian forces are advancing.

MARTIN: NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis is with us from Kyiv to tell us more about all this. Hello, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: So why is aid to Ukraine up in the air right now?

KAKISSIS: So, Michel, let's start with the United States, which has been, perhaps, Ukraine's biggest global champion. U.S. aid to Ukraine is set to run out at the end of this year, and now it looks unlikely that Congress will approve new aid before then. Republicans say they won't approve a spending bill that includes $61 billion for Ukraine unless there's money for a border wall with Mexico. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was supposed to speak via video link to the Senate, but he canceled at the last minute. Zelenskyy's chief of staff, though, is in D.C., and Ukraine's foreign minister insists that the Ukrainians are lobbying everyone to make sure the funding comes through.

MARTIN: And what about the European Union, Ukraine's other major supporter? And they're closer to the action, frankly.

KAKISSIS: That's right. Well, it turns out that the leaders of the European Union are also divided. They're supposed to meet next week to discuss a budget that includes the equivalent of about $54 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine. And they're also set to decide whether to open membership talks with Ukraine. But any decisions, Michel, require the approval of all 27 member states. And right now, the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, he says he opposes more aid to Ukraine, as well as opening EU membership talks. Orban is close to the Kremlin, as is another EU leader, the prime minister of Slovakia.

I spoke with a Ukrainian journalist and soldier, Pavlo Kazarin, about this, and he told me that all this uncertainty only helps Russia.

PAVLO KAZARIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He's saying, if what we're talking about here is decreasing or stopping aid or the supply of weapons, of course this means that Ukraine will lose more territory.

MARTIN: So, Joanna, tell us more about what's happening on the battlefield now.

KAKISSIS: Yeah. Well, even as winter sets in, parts of the front line are on fire. For the last couple of months, Russian forces have been pushing hard to capture Ukrainian land on two fronts in the east. The most difficult battle is around a town called Avdiivka. Before the war, it had about 32,000 people. It also has Ukraine's largest coke plant. And that's the fuel, not the soda. Now only a few hundred residents remain in Avdiivka. They're hiding in basements, and the Russians are advancing.

MARTIN: And what about the Ukrainian counteroffensive that we've heard so much about?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. Well, the ground operations for Ukraine's counteroffensive are largely stalled, in part because Russian forces have fortified their positions and land mined the front, especially in the south. I spoke to a member of Ukraine's parliament, Solomiia Bobrovska, as she serves on the defense committee, and she tells me what she's hearing from her constituents.

SOLOMIIA BOBROVSKA: These days, people are exhausted. People are tired. People understand that if you want to get victory and to take one village and to put one flag, it costs a lot. And that's a long way we have to go still.

KAKISSIS: And so it feels like this will be a very bleak winter. The mood around the country is much more pessimistic than it was last year.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Joanna, thank you so much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Back here in the U.S., after nine months, Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville has allowed more than 400 military promotions to proceed.

INSKEEP: He'd been putting a hold on Senate votes to approve those promotions. A hold like this is the prerogative of any senator, though it's rarely used to this extent. Tuberville was protesting a Pentagon policy that reimbursed service members for traveling for abortion services. He admits he failed to change that policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOMMY TUBERVILLE: We didn't get the win that we wanted. We've still got a bad policy. We've tried to stand up for the taxpayers of this country.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So as we've just said, this has been going on for months now. What made Tuberville decide to back down now? Like, why now?

WALSH: Really, political pressure. But notably, some of the most public criticism came from fellow Senate Republicans who were growing frustrated. Some sharp rebukes came from military veterans, like Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, who warned about the damage this was causing to the military. Also, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was planning a vote to get around Tuberville's hold, to change how the Senate approves military promotions, and some Senate Republicans were open to voting for that.

Senators complained Tuberville was blocking hundreds of officers' promotions over a policy that they weren't involved in crafting. This was a policy put into place after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. It covered the costs service members incurred for accessing abortion services. Some needed to travel out of state following new laws banning the procedure. Tuberville admitted the holds didn't work, but he said he might fight the policy in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUBERVILLE: I think we saw some success. We didn't get as much out of it as we wanted. But again, when they change the rules on you, I had no opportunity to - other than possibly down the road, a lawsuit.

MARTIN: OK. He says he had some success. Did he?

WALSH: No. I mean, no policy change at all. I mean, he argues he put a spotlight on the issue, but he also admitted any legal fight he could wage could take a really long time to play out. His hold to block actions on these promotions was really unprecedented in terms of how many people it impacted, how long it lasted. But as Steve mentioned, under Senate rules, any one senator has the ability to place these holds. Schumer warned this episode should be a warning to others to not do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: He held out for many, many months, hurt our national security, caused discombobulation to so many military families who have been so dedicated to our country and didn't get anything that he wanted.

MARTIN: And what's the Pentagon's response to this whole episode? And I also want to know, he hasn't dropped all the holds, has he? There are still some that he's holding up.

WALSH: Right. He's still holding up 11 four-star generals. Tuberville says he wants a more thorough vetting of these top leaders. The Pentagon is pushing for them to be approved quickly. The Pentagon spokesman, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, stressed that these generals include the vice chiefs of various services, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, the Northern Command, commander of Cyber Command, Space Command. Ryder says these are all key areas overseeing a lot of policy and need Senate approval quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT RYDER: Clearly, vital and critical organizations, all of which require experienced senior leaders in those positions.

MARTIN: Quickly, Deirdre, before we let you go, what were the repercussions of this backlog on the families of service members?

WALSH: A lot of people were in limbo for months. Officers were unable to move for their new positions. That impacted their spouses getting jobs or their kids starting new schools. Schumer brought up the promotions hours after Tuberville released the hold, and over 400 were approved by voice vote.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, thank you.

WALSH: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Four of the remaining Republican presidential candidates will be onstage for tonight's debate in Alabama.

INSKEEP: And four is the smallest lineup so far - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Former President Trump will not be there, instead attending a fundraiser near Miami.

MARTIN: NPR's Franco Ordoñez is here with us to talk about the stakes of this fourth Republican debate, and he's actually here with us in the studio. Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: OK, so who are you going to be watching most closely?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Michel, I'm going to be watching Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. I expect a lot of people will be, also. I mean, Haley's got some momentum. She's actually caught up to DeSantis in the polls. And that's really led to some greater interest for her on the campaign trail, as well as with donors. You know, she's also picked up some big-money donors in recent weeks. And this debate is another chance for her to make the case that she's the best alternative to Trump, who, of course, is still the front-runner. DeSantis - he, meanwhile, is going to try to defend his second-place position. He's really fighting for attention.

MARTIN: OK, so the debate is in Alabama, but the Iowa caucuses are just six weeks away. So how are they going to sort of handle that or speak to that?

ORDOÑEZ: Right, right. You know, there's going to be a lot of Alabama Republicans in the room, but they don't vote until Super Tuesday, which is in March. Republican strategist Doug Heye told me that's just too late. He says the most important voters are in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

DOUG HEYE: Now, you still have to win over the room because if you don't win over those Alabamans in the debate room, that may fall short of what people see, then, on TV. But if you're Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis especially and you want to have a breakout moment here, that breakout moment is defined by how you translate into the polls into those early caucus and primary states.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, he expects the candidates will be spending a lot of time speaking to issues that are important to voters in those three states. And plus, you know, a Republican primary - there's really not a lot of difference between the policy positions for those remaining candidates, so they need to stand out in other ways. It's going to be more about personalities.

MARTIN: OK. But the biggest personality, Trump, won't be there. I think - Franco, I think we keep saying this over and over again. I mean, this is the fourth debate. This is the fourth time he hasn't gone. Has his absence made a difference?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it really hasn't dented his support. You know, he still, of course, is going to be, you know, the elephant who is not in the room. He's going to likely dominate all parts of the conversation - or at least many parts of the conversation. We'll see if the candidates go after him directly, which they haven't so much. And his hold really remains very strong.

MARTIN: But this time he doesn't have some separate event planned to coincide with the debate.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that's probably the biggest change. There's no counterprogramming, per se. You know, he hasn't scheduled any other events to kind of steal attention away. And that's, you know, not insignificant. I mean, that means maybe more Republicans will tune in to the debate. And really, with fewer candidates onstage, that means they might have some more time to talk. They might have some more time to shine.

But, you know, again, this is still very much a race for second place. And these debates, they're kind of supposed to be these big events in the presidential primaries - you know, these marquee nights. But Trump's absence has kind of sapped some of that energy away, kind of taken away some of the drama that we've come to expect every four years.

MARTIN: All right. That is NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Michel. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.
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