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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Ukrainian officials are denying involvement in an alleged drone attack on the Kremlin.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia's accusing Ukraine of attempting to use a pair of drones to assassinate President Vladimir Putin. Video emerged online showing explosions in the center of Moscow above the Kremlin.

MARTÍNEZ: But who did it and how? That is now the subject of a fierce debate between Russia and Ukraine. Here to break it all down, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, facts are a bit thin right now, but we can at least talk about some motives. So why wouldn't Ukraine be the most likely suspect?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, they certainly seem to be, A. We keep seeing these increasingly brazen attacks, some up to a couple hundred miles inside Russia. Almost all of them are carried out with drones. And Ukrainians have been speaking openly about the possibility of drones that could reach Moscow. This includes comments by the military intelligence chief who said recently that Ukraine was close to developing a drone that could reach Moscow, more than 300 miles away. And a Ukrainian tech entrepreneur has offered a half-million dollars to anyone who could land a drone in Red Square just outside the Kremlin walls.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, but Ukraine officially announced it's not us.

MYRE: Correct. Here's Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking yesterday during a visit to Finland.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: We don't attack Putin or Moscow. We fight on our territory. We are defending our villages and cities.

MYRE: Now, in the past, Ukraine has been very coy, neither confirming nor denying attacks inside Russia. So Zelenskyy's very direct denial is different than what we usually hear.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Then who else might be a suspect?

MYRE: Well, some Ukrainian officials have suggested without evidence that Russia may have staged this attack against itself. The Ukrainians say Russia is calling this an assassination attempt against President Vladimir Putin and could then use that accusation to carry out a major attack it was already planning to do. But so far, these are unfounded claims. And also this attack on the Kremlin is hugely embarrassing for Russia. Putin launched this invasion last year with the expectation he would capture Ukraine and its capital in a matter of days. Now, the headline is "Putin Survives Attack On The Kremlin."

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. But, you know, the Kremlin has layers of security. So how could something like this happen in a place that's really so heavily guarded?

MYRE: Well, that's probably the question Russian security officials are pondering today. But we have seen repeated Russian security lapses in this war, particularly by the air force. And if we go back a couple decades, there's some history at this very spot. In 1987, when the Soviet Union still existed, a West German teenager, Mathias Rust, flew a small Cessna plane several hundred miles and touched down on the edge of Red Square. Now, he was promptly arrested, and shortly after that, several top Soviet air force officials lost their jobs.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Let's look ahead, though, and kind of think about what this latest attack on the Kremlin might mean on the battlefield in the coming days.

MYRE: So first, we're looking to see how Russia responds. Russia did fire more missiles and drones at Kyiv and other cities today, but in number similar to what we've seen in recent days. And then second, we were already looking for a major Ukrainian ground offensive. There's a strong sense that this campaign could begin very soon. And the focus is expected to be on southeastern Ukraine, where Russian forces are dug in.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: Sure thing, A.

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MARTÍNEZ: Yet another cease-fire in Sudan is off to a rocky start in the capital.

FADEL: The Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces agreed to a mediated seven-day cease-fire starting today. But the fighting is still going on, and that's been the pattern. Other attempts at cease-fires have provided brief lulls in the fighting, but all of them eventually fell apart. And the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the humanitarian catastrophe. Although some aid has reached the country, the worst affected areas, like the capital Khartoum or the remote region of Darfur in west Sudan, are struggling to get relief.

MARTÍNEZ: Emmanuel Akinwotu is in the region in the neighboring country of Chad. Emmanuel, the United Nations is trying to negotiate safe passage for aid with the two opposing sides. So how critical is the situation in Sudan right now?

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning. It's very critical. You know, more than 100,000 people have fled, and there are expected to be far more. In the last few days, I've been speaking to doctors, and they've been describing how the health system is collapsing under this conflict. You know, most hospitals in Khartoum have shut. Some have been attacked or are even occupied by fighters. Thousands are injured but can't get treatment. And, you know, they're struggling for the most basic supplies like blood bags. I spoke to doctors who said they didn't have anesthetic. So when they were forced to operate on patients who were shot or wounded, they were dying from shock and trauma. And the U.N. at the moment are urgently trying to get assurances from both sides - the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces - that this latest cease-fire will hold at least enough to create safe routes so that help can reach where it's most needed. But that hasn't been the case so far.

MARTÍNEZ: I mentioned how you're in Chad. It shares a border with the Darfur region in western Sudan. That's a region that's seen a lot of the worst violence in the past couple of weeks. What's happening there?

AKINWOTU: Yes, of course. You know, Khartoum has clearly been the epicenter of this horrible fighting. But across Darfur, in Sudan, the fighting has been incredibly intense and sadly with less visibility than in other areas like Khartoum. You know, this region has seen immense suffering. There was a horrific war in Darfur about 20 years ago, and now there's this conflict that has been devastating there. I spoke to Mohamed Gibreel Adam, who is MSF coordinator in the city of El Fasher in Darfur, and he said that there was actually only one functioning hospital in a city of nearly a million people and that they were on their own.

MOHAMED GIBREEL ADAM: There is no water, and there is also no electricity and also no market. And all the humanitarian actors, especially the international community, have left, evacuated the town. So they felt like there is a fear, lack of protection, like hopeless. They're feeling that they were left alone in this kind of dire and very critical situation.

AKINWOTU: And this is why there are about 30,000 people so far who fled to Chad, and that number could grow to over 100,000. And even before this conflict started, there were about half a million refugees, Sudanese refugees, in Chad. And so that's really heaping immense strain on an already tense humanitarian situation here.

MARTÍNEZ: And how are neighboring countries such as Chad feeling the impact of this conflict?

AKINWOTU: Well, you know, Chad is one of seven countries which borders Sudan. And sadly, many of these countries are unstable, like Chad, you know, shaken by conflicts. There are armed groups, coups. For the moment, the real strain is humanitarian because of so many refugees already crossing these borders. But, you know, Chad is really sensitive to this conflict also because of ethnic groups which share these borders and militias. So, you know, this is a really tense situation.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Emmanuel Akinwotu. Emmanuel, thanks a lot.

AKINWOTU: Thank you.

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FADEL: A heated hearing Tuesday put frustrations with the government on full display as senators examined the ethics of the Supreme Court. It's part of a larger conversation about just how the American people are feeling about their elected and not-quite-elected officials, as well as some of the most important institutions in American life. Here to explain more about this historic low in approval is NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

FADEL: So, Domenico, let's start with the Supreme Court, which was in the spotlight this week. Usually, this is the branch of government that enjoys the highest approval, and it used to not even be close, but that's not the case anymore, right?

MONTANARO: Right. You know, trust in the judicial branch has really fallen sharply since 2020. And our last NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 62% have little to no confidence in the court. That's driven mostly by Democrats, but also independents. That perception of a lack of confidence is something the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, picked up on during this hearing about Supreme Court ethics.

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DICK DURBIN: The highest court in the land should not have the lowest ethical standards. That reality is driving a crisis in public confidence in the Supreme Court. The status quo must change.

MONTANARO: You know, judges really shouldn't have their fingers in the wind, but public opinion is very relevant to the Supreme Court. You know, Congress was given the purse. The president was given the sword. But the court needs legitimacy in order to be a trusted final arbiter on major issues. But that's really frayed in recent years.

FADEL: So we heard it described as a crisis of confidence. Why is the court seeing such lagging approval? Presidents and Congress - you know, they've long been disliked and are at near historic lows themselves. But what does this data tell us about the why for the Supreme Court?

MONTANARO: Yeah, when you look at it, there's really three factors here. You know, the decline started with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Republicans had rushed to put Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative, on the court. And that, of course, was after President Obama was denied the chance to appoint a Supreme Court justice to replace the late conservative Antonin Scalia for more than a year. You know, the court's numbers then really nosedived after the Dobbs ruling last year that overturned the guaranteed right to an abortion and, most recently, the scrutiny on lavish vacations as well as property deals made by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch that were not disclosed. The ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, though, sees this criticism as mostly politics.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: This assault on Justice Thomas is well beyond ethics. It is about trying to delegitimize a conservative court that was appointed through the traditional process.

MONTANARO: But this isn't just the Supreme Court. It's really just the tip of the iceberg of the distrust that we're seeing for a host of institutions. And if you can't have unity over standardized ethics for the Supreme Court, it's going to be tough to find it for much of anything else.

FADEL: What are the consequences, Domenico, of this level of distrust in all three branches of government?

MONTANARO: Well, we're already seeing it - you know, division, polarization, hyperpartisanship with little really able to get done. It makes it hard for the most powerful country in the world to show a united front abroad when that kind of thing is happening. You know, America's allies are concerned about the U.S.'s ability to lead - for how long it'll be able to as well. And America's adversaries like China, Russia and North Korea are trying to capitalize on American division.

FADEL: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.