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News brief: Ukraine-Belarus border, Winter Olympics, storm hits Memphis hard

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Officials here in the United States are warning of possible attacks there in Ukraine, where Rachel is. Russian President Vladimir Putin has only one of two things that he needs to invade. He does have troops on the border, but he does not have an excuse. And the U.S. now alleges Russia is manufacturing one in case it is needed. Here's Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby yesterday.

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JOHN KIRBY: The Russian government, we think, is planning to stage a fake attack by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces against Russian sovereign territory or against Russian-speaking people.

INSKEEP: U.S. officials there referring to their own intelligence assessments, so they have not revealed sources or evidence for the statement. But, Rachel, let's game this out. How would a false flag operation work?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So the U.S. says something like this would happen in the Donbas region. This is in the east, where Russian-backed separatists already control a lot of the territory there, right? So it would work in that the U.S. is suggesting Russia would stage an attack on the people there who are sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, and then they would make it look like it was carried out by Ukraine with the help of the U.S. and its allies. But again, as you noted, the U.S. has put out this intelligence assessment or confirmed it, but they have provided no evidence to back it up.

INSKEEP: So the allegation is that Russia would pose as a protector of Russian speakers inside Ukraine, and that would be an excuse for a plausible invasion. What do Ukrainian officials think of this?

MARTIN: Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba released an online video today. He said that they're basically waiting for more details. But he added that the government here isn't surprised by this U.S. intelligence. I'm going to read a quote. "Since 2014, we've seen a lot of insidious actions by the Russian Federation." So, Steve, you also have to keep in mind, the government here has complained from the beginning that the U.S. is overhyping the threat and playing into Russia's hands by doing so. So this initial reaction from the Ukrainian government could be about trying to put this in a broader historical context about Russian behavior here.

INSKEEP: So as all this happens, Russian troops remain massed on several Ukrainian borders, including the northern border with Belarus, where you were yesterday. What did you see?

MARTIN: Yeah. So on our drive from Kyiv - it takes about four hours or so - we did see a convoy of what looked like Ukrainian military vehicles heading north, but when we actually got to the border checkpoint at Belarus, it was very quiet. I mean, traffic back and forth is way down because of COVID. And we talked to the guy in charge - young, 24 years old, the lieutenant. He wouldn't confirm how many Ukrainian border patrol agents or military are up there at the border, but he did say the number has increased in recent weeks. And when we talked to people who live in the villages who are right there next to the checkpoint, they told us they do hear military jets overhead, but they're just moving through their everyday lives, like they usually do.

INSKEEP: Did this 24-year-old lieutenant seem concerned about the prospect of Russian tanks coming to his checkpoint?

MARTIN: If he was, Steve, he didn't tell me. I mean, interestingly, we found out he's actually from Luhansk, which is another region in the east that Russia invaded in 2014. So this isn't just theoretical for him, the threat from Russia. When that war started, his military academy was shut down. He was sent home. His life was turned upside down. When I asked him if this all feels like another chapter in the same long conflict between Ukraine and Russia, he said, no, that it actually didn't. And when I asked why, he pointed out that the Ukrainian government has put more money into building up its military. And today, he says, Ukraine is stronger.

INSKEEP: Well, Rachel, thanks for your reporting this week from Ukraine. We'll continue listening for it on MORNING EDITION. And we go on.

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INSKEEP: Some other news now. Some of the world's best athletes have gathered inside a COVID-safe bubble around Beijing.

MARTIN: The Winter Olympics are beginning there today. Nearly 3,000 athletes will compete in the coming days - the skiing, the skating and, yes, the curling. But these Winter Games are about so much more than sports.

INSKEEP: Didn't know you were so excited about the curling (laughter). NPR's Brian Mann is in Beijing. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How do these games begin?

MANN: Well, we're going to see athletes from all these nations come parading in. Two flagbearers from the U.S. in this traditional ceremony will be John Shuster. He is a curler, in fact. That's the sport, of course, where they use brooms to guide those stones over the ice.

INSKEEP: All right.

MANN: His team won a surprise gold medal four years ago. The other flagbearer is going to be speed skater Brittany Bowe. She's actually subbing for veteran bobsled racer Elana Meyers Taylor, who was chosen to carry the flag for the U.S. but had to isolate after testing positive for COVID. So right out of the gate, Steve, we're sort of feeling the pandemic here. And then after the athletes, we're going to have a big show, although, again, because of the pandemic, the spectacle here is expected to be scaled back.

INSKEEP: Pandemic security, of course, is incredibly strict at these games. I get the impression the athletes will have hardly any contact with ordinary people in Beijing. Is there going to be an audience at this ceremony?

MANN: Very small crowd - mostly journalists and VIPs. But here's a big story developing here. One notable guest is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to attend the ceremony. He's made a high-profile visit this week with China's President Xi Jinping. They've been talking about economic ties between these countries, including a new energy deal. It's a big contrast to the official position of the U.S. government. Of course, the Biden administration decided back in December to stage a diplomatic boycott of these Winter Games because of what the White House calls ongoing genocide and crimes of humanity against the Uyghur people here in China. So while the pandemic's shaping a lot of the Olympic experience here, politics and questions about human rights also front and center.

INSKEEP: Which the people who run the Olympics say is not what they would like. They would like this to be a show of nations coming together, something that's about peace or really not about politics at all, just about sport. But Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president, has had to be asked about the persecution of Uyghurs in China. He's been asked about the decision to hold the games in China at all in this authoritarian country. How does he respond?

MANN: Yeah, he - as you say, he's trying to make this all about sports, saying politics don't mix here. Here's what he had to say.

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THOMAS BACH: If we are taking a political standpoint, then we are putting the games at risk.

MANN: But of course, Steve, with Putin in the stands tonight with President Xi, the optics are just unavoidable. These two authoritarian leaders will be front and center as these Winter Games get started.

INSKEEP: What do you hear from the athletes about all of this?

MANN: Well, you know, again and again, athletes from the U.S. say they're trying to pivot from all that - from the pandemic, from the politics - and just trying to enjoy this moment. Here's Maggie Voisin. She's a freestyle skier from Whitefish, Mont.

MAGGIE VOISIN: I'm really pleasantly surprised with just how much we've been able to do and how much we've been able to interact with other countries. It's really just been such a wonderful experience. And we're fired up to get this show going.

MANN: So for a lot of these athletes, Steve, you know, the next couple of weeks, they're going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is competition they've been training for, in many cases, their whole lives.

INSKEEP: Brian, good to hear from you. Enjoy the games.

MANN: All right. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann is at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. They are being broadcast live in the U.S. on NBC this morning with a repeat broadcast coming up this evening.

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INSKEEP: For millions of Americans, the national news is right outside their windows.

MARTIN: For some, it's even inside the house. A winter storm hit much of the country's midsection, and we're told more than 250,000 households lost power, from Texas to Maine.

INSKEEP: We've called one of the hardest-hit places - Memphis, Tenn. - which is where Christopher Blank reports for WKNO. Christopher, good morning.

CHRISTOPHER BLANK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Did you lose power?

BLANK: I am one of the 135,000 people to lose power, yes.

INSKEEP: In the Memphis area. So, I mean, like, is it cold where you are? Do you have heat, at least?

BLANK: Well, it's warm here at the radio station, I will say that. It's cold elsewhere.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Well, that's good to know. The equipment inside a radio station does tend to heat things up - all the big production boards and so forth. So what caused such a major outage?

BLANK: Well, the short answer is trees. This is a city of trees. And yesterday afternoon, they became encased in ice, and then some wind came. And at one point, my neighbors and I were just standing outside watching massive limbs crash down, one after another. And as a homeowner surrounded by 100-year-old oak trees, I can honestly say that I have never been more afraid of them.

INSKEEP: I imagine so, as you're watching that happen. What do you think made the effect of this storm worse than people might have anticipated?

BLANK: Well, you know, we call ourselves the Mid-South here. You would think that a Midwestern city would be used to something like this. But when ice happens here, we kind of act like it's not supposed to. You may remember that last year's big winter storm caused some major power outages in Texas, but that wasn't the problem here. Here, we didn't have water, and that's because the city's pumping stations froze up, and miles of pipelines burst, and it took more than a week to get fresh drinking water. This year, we have water but no power. So cold weather is basically our kryptonite.

INSKEEP: Does this, as people observe this, suggest a lack of preparation by the utilities?

BLANK: Well, you know, because it only snows or freezes a few times a year around here, normally things just shut down for a day or two. But two years in a row now, people are starting to wonder if this could be the new normal with climate change. But also, I have to say that there is this user side of public services, especially here in the South. Nobody expects frozen bridges, but because of that, we had a 16-car pileup on one end of town, and on the other a tractor trailer jackknifed and shut down one of the Mississippi River bridges for a few hours. So it's a big mess.

INSKEEP: So you're camping at the radio station until your power comes back on. Other people are doing whatever they can. How long are the outages expected to last?

BLANK: Well, our public utility - Memphis Light, Gas and Water - warned us yesterday afternoon that this was not going to be a quick fix. There are 50 crews working 16-hour shifts. It could take through Sunday to get the power back. And in the meantime, schools and colleges are closed. A number of flights have been canceled. And even FedEx, which is headquartered here, said that some packages could be delayed.

INSKEEP: Christopher, thanks for the update. And hope you're able to stay warm.

BLANK: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Christopher Blank is the news director and a temporary resident of WKNO in Memphis, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.