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News brief: Russia-Ukraine diplomacy, gas prices, anti-lynching measure

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Can anyone talk Russian President Vladimir Putin out of his course in Ukraine?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Leaders of Israel, France and Germany have been calling or meeting with Russia's leader. If he won't stop the unjustified assault on a smaller country, they'd at least like him to ensure the safety of civilians. So far, they haven't accomplished very much. The top U.S. diplomat, Antony Blinken, has been visiting NATO allies in Europe and warning against expanding the war.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: If there is any aggression anywhere on NATO territory, on NATO countries, we, the United States, all of our allies and partners will take action to defend every inch of NATO territory. It's as clear and direct as that.

INSKEEP: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has been covering the diplomats from around the world. Hey there, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So I saw that Blinken met his counterpart from Ukraine the other day, and they even walked together on Ukrainian soil, so a dramatic gesture. But what has Blinken been saying as he travels through the region?

KELEMEN: So Secretary Blinken has mainly been trying to reassure allies that the U.S. is going to do what it can to help Ukraine defend itself. But he's also making clear that the U.S. does not want a wider war. So, for instance, there will not be a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine, but the U.S. will defend NATO members.

It's been interesting to see that other countries are really taking the lead in talking directly to Russia and Ukraine and offering to mediate - Israel, in particular, but also France and Germany. The U.S. has not been out on the forefront on that. Instead, it's bolstering allies and leading efforts to impose sanctions on Russia.

INSKEEP: Yeah, let's talk about those sanctions. Of course, they were initially threatened to try to prevent Russia from invading. That did not work. Now the sanctions are in effect, and more and more of them all the time. They're imposing a real cost on Russia. But is there a policy goal to keeping them in place?

KELEMEN: Well, Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft has been wondering about that. You know, you hear a lot in D.C. about how Putin miscalculated. Now he's paying a price with these sanctions. Some even suggested that this could spark some kind of Kremlin coup or popular uprising. And Lieven has his doubts. Take a listen.

ANATOL LIEVEN: If the Washington discourse is, you know, now about how we must change the regime in Russia and, you know, do our utmost to weaken the Russian state, you know, you cannot do that and claim that you are actually acting in the interest of the Ukrainian people because you're not. You're condemning them to an endless war for U.S. geopolitical purposes. There is nothing moral about that - nothing.

KELEMEN: Because, you know, we've seen Russia isn't backing off. Instead, it's shelling areas and surrounding major cities. And it has a recent brutal history of doing that in places like Chechnya and Syria.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, the United States is determined, the Biden administration is determined not to directly intervene in this war. They're doing the things they're doing. They're arming Ukrainians. They're imposing sanctions. But what can diplomats realistically accomplish?

KELEMEN: Well, that's the hard part, Steve. You know, Sergey Radchenko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says this war has made both sides dig in.

SERGEY RADCHENKO: In cases like this, the negotiated middle ground looks extremely ugly and looks extremely inelegant. And I think what we'll ultimately arrive at is something that satisfies no one but at least is better than a hot war.

KELEMEN: You know, Russia says it will pull back only if Ukraine agrees to formally abandon efforts to join NATO and give up Crimea and parts of the Donbas. But Putin, you know, really seems willing to risk many lives, both Russian and Ukrainian, even though he's facing a lot more resistance in this war than he expected.

INSKEEP: Michele, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

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INSKEEP: Gas prices here in the United States set a new record high - around 4.17 per gallon on average. That's up 55 cents in the last week.

MARTIN: Needless to say, the increase is driven by the news. Oil prices were already rising, and then Russia invaded Ukraine. The war has not yet significantly disrupted global supplies, but some U.S. officials are talking about restricting their purchases of Russian oil.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does this increase affect consumers?

HORSLEY: Well, it's going to add to the pain in people's pocketbooks, obviously. Now we should note, if you adjust for inflation, gas is still cheaper than it was back in 2008, but that's probably not much comfort to anyone who's had to fill their tank in the last few days. And if you think your fuel bill is high, imagine the poor truck drivers. Diesel prices are even higher - 4.75 a gallon. That's up nearly 75 cents over the last week. And, you know, drivers like Monte Wiederhold are buying hundreds of gallons of fuel every time they fill up.

MONTE WIEDERHOLD: We have fuel cards that you can use at the truck stop. We'll probably have to go back in and raise limits on it because some of them only have, like, a $750 limit.

HORSLEY: Wiederhold says his customers do pay a surcharge for fuel, but lately, diesel costs have been rising so fast it's hard for that surcharge to keep up. And, of course, ultimately, these higher diesel costs will be reflected in the price of everything that travels by truck, which is most stuff.

INSKEEP: The Biden administration had been reluctant to sanction Russian oil because they wanted to avoid this kind of price shock here in the United States. What's changed?

HORSLEY: That's right. Oil is by far Russia's most lucrative export. And right now, Russian oil sales are helping to bankroll Putin's war-fighting machine, even as lots of other commerce with Russia's been choked off. Economist Simon Johnson at MIT co-authored an op-ed with an adviser to Ukraine's president in which he urged the U.S. and its allies to limit Russian oil sales. Johnson argues whatever price Americans have to pay in higher gasoline cost pales to what Ukraine's going through.

SIMON JOHNSON: If we have an inflation shock and we deal with it, that makes our lives a bit harder. But we will get through that, and we will be fine. The Ukrainians are not fine. They are being slaughtered.

HORSLEY: Now, the Biden administration has been talking with allies about possible restrictions on oil from Russia. The administration's also trying to find substitutes for any Russian oil that does go off the market. It's been talking with Venezuela. Of course, it's been trying to revive the Iran nuclear deal. It's urging the Saudis to pump more. And, of course, the White House would also like to see more domestic oil production here in the U.S.

INSKEEP: How high are oil and gas prices likely to go before this gets addressed?

HORSLEY: You know, it depends on whether a significant chunk of Russian oil is, in fact, taken off the market and what, if anything, replaces it. So far, the U.S. and allies have been remarkably united in their efforts to raise the cost of this invasion for Russia. They've imposed more sanctions more quickly than a lot of analysts had expected. But it's not clear they can maintain that united front when it comes to Russian energy. David Goldwyn, who's a former energy envoy at the State Department, says Europe is much more dependent on Russian oil than the United States.

DAVID GOLDWYN: The U.S. can substitute, you know, Colombian or Saudi or Mexican or Canadian crude. We can do without it. It's very different for Europe.

HORSLEY: Still, the prospect of higher energy prices is rattling financial markets. The Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled nearly 800 points yesterday. It's now in correction territory, meaning it's fallen more than 10% from its recent high. And the tech-heavy Nasdaq is down more than 20%.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

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INSKEEP: Last night, Congress reached a civil rights milestone.

MARTIN: After more than a century of failed attempts, lawmakers sent President Biden a bill that makes lynching a federal hate crime.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: And after so long, the Senate has now finally addressed one of the most shameful elements of this nation's past by making lynching a federal crime.

MARTIN: That's Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking as the bill passed the Senate last night by unanimous consent.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell joins us with more. Hey there, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Passing a bill by unanimous consent makes it sound easy, but I don't think this was.

SNELL: No. Congress tried more than 200 times to pass an anti-lynching bill before this legislation made it through both chambers. So as Rachel mentioned, this was first attempted more than a century ago, and each time the bills have failed. So the bill that passed yesterday also passed the House last week on the last day of Black History Month. And, you know, the House had passed bills before, but this unanimous action in the Senate is actually a really big shift.

So the earlier version that was sponsored by Congressman Bobby Rush, a Democrat of Illinois, actually easily passed the House two years ago. At the same time, in the Senate, Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, and also Vice President Kamala Harris, when she was in the Senate, all had a companion version. They tried to pass the bill in 2020 after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. At the time, it was blocked by Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

INSKEEP: Interesting. One senator, of course, can sometimes block a bill.

SNELL: Right.

INSKEEP: But in this case, last night, the bill passed by unanimous consent. Does that mean that Rand Paul changed his mind?

SNELL: Well, back in 2020, Paul said he thought the bill wasn't precise enough, and he accused the sponsors of crafting a bill that would lead to excessive sentencing. He said - and I'm going to quote here - that the bill would define lynching, quote, "so broadly as to include a minor bruise or abrasion." You know, his comments and his objections really set off this tense and deeply emotional fight on the Senate floor. It was just one week after George Floyd was killed. You know, Booker and Harris gave really heated and heartfelt speeches, pointing out that Paul was blocking a bill as mourners still gathered in protest in Minneapolis. Here's part of how Harris responded at the time.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Black lives have not been taken seriously as being fully human and deserving of dignity. And it should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it and recognize it by federal law.

SNELL: So this time, Paul was a co-sponsor of the bill. You know, he said it was always his goal to strengthen the bill, and he called lynching a heinous crime and worked with the three Black senators - so Scott and Booker, plus Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock - on this version.

INSKEEP: So now it's passed. It goes to President Biden's desk. How does it fit with his other civil rights priorities?

SNELL: Well, yeah, it was a major priority for Democrats, but this is just one element of a longer list of mostly stalled plans. You know, Biden promised to update the Voting Rights Act. And while voting rights bills have passed the House several times, they've been repeatedly blocked by Republicans in the Senate. You know, Senators Booker and Scott, who led on this anti-lynching bill, were also the lead negotiators on policing reform legislation last year, but that's another key piece of Biden's racial justice agenda that stalled out.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks for the update. It's always a pleasure to hear from you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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