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Morning news brief

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this podcast episode, we incorrectly say that Norway is seeking admission to NATO but facing challenges from NATO member Turkey. In fact, Sweden and Finland are the two countries seeking NATO membership and encountering objections from Turkey.]

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

President Biden is on an unannounced trip to Kyiv.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The surprise visit by the U.S. president comes the week that Ukraine marks one year since Russia's large-scale invasion of the country. Here's Biden speaking in Kyiv.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. And America stands with you. And the world stands with you.

FADEL: Now, in the past year, both sides have lost and gained territory in what many now describe as a war of attrition. Biden's visit is happening as Russia appears to be starting a new offensive.

MARTÍNEZ: For more on this visit, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is in Kyiv. Frank, when was there a hint that he was there?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: (Laughter) There were a couple of them, A. One is, early this morning, there was heavy security stopping cars on the road near our hotel. And that's very unusual because Kyiv, honestly, even though this is a wartime capital, it's quite calm these days in many respects. And then later today, we saw this morning Biden strolling in the center of the city with the president, President Zelenskyy. He was in front of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery. And this is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the entire country, those beautiful golden domes ensuring it's a beautiful day here. And I was out last night. And I saw that they'd actually lit it up for the first time in a long, long time. So I think that was sort of an early welcome to the president.

MARTÍNEZ: And how is this going over in Kyiv? It has to be a show of solidarity, it sounds like.

LANGFITT: Absolutely. I think that it's - you know, there was talk of another half a billion dollars, I believe, in support from the United States, additional support. But really, this is symbolic. Just as Leila was saying, you know, this is a year into the war. This is a longer slog than certainly the United States and President Putin imagined. And it's a sign, I think, of the president to say, you know, the United States is going to continue to support Ukraine, you know, over the - certainly in the next year or so.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, on the war, how would you characterize the state of it?

LANGFITT: Well, we're moving into a new phase here. As Leila was saying, it has been stagnant to a great degree in recent weeks, certainly. But about 150,000 Russian troops massed on the front lines right now. And I was talking to Ukrainian soldiers out in the Donbas in the east. And they said, you know, the Russians are not very motivated, not well-trained. And a lot of them, of course, are prisoners. But they have a big numerical advantage. And so the Ukrainians don't feel like they can take them head-on right now. I was talking to a Ukrainian sniper named Max (ph). And this is how he sees things playing out in the next few months.

MAX: (Through interpreter) Last summer, our tactic was to retreat and destroy the enemy using scorched-earth tactics without sustaining big losses while dealing big losses to the enemy. My forecast is we will apply these same tactics again.

LANGFITT: And so what Max is talking about here is trying to weaken the Russian forces as much as possible and then do a counterpunch and take back as much ground as the Ukrainians can manage.

MARTÍNEZ: And how are soldiers feeling considering that Year 2 is starting?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I mean, I think they're kind of downbeat. In talking to them, I found this really interesting. They are concerned that Russia has - and one of the commanders I talked to used the word infinite numbers of people that they can conscript and send out into the battle. Ukraine is a much smaller country in terms of population. So there's a concern that over time, they could be just really outmatched in terms of numbers and really challenging for the Ukrainians.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Kyiv. Frank, as always, thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Hey, good to talk, A.

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MARTÍNEZ: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Turkey this morning to discuss a number of pressing issues.

FADEL: It's the second stop of a three-country trip. Blinken had already planned to go to Turkey before a massive earthquake devastated the country's south two weeks ago. Now he's there. And the trip is taking on new meaning. But he's still facing some of the old issues in the close but contentious U.S.-Turkey relationship.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Istanbul. Peter, what do we know about Blinken's agenda?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, Blinken arrived in Turkey Sunday after attending the Munich Security Conference. He visited Incirlik Air Base, being used by the U.S. Air Force and others. He was given a helicopter tour of some of the areas damaged in the February 6 quake. He arrived as Turkey is winding down search and rescue operations in all but two provinces and turning to the much longer job of reconstructing many of the thousands of buildings destroyed by the quake and the powerful aftershocks that followed. So the visit has taken on a more urgent tone. Blinken is now visiting an area in mourning for what's now estimated to be at least 46,000 lives lost in Turkey and Syria.

MARTÍNEZ: And what's the U.S. doing in terms of earthquake relief?

KENYON: Well, Blinken arrived with a pledge of additional aid that the State Department says brings Washington's total commitment to Turkey and Syria to some $185 million. Meanwhile, Turkey's foreign minister says it needs more. It needs additional mobile housing, more tents from NATO, increased air support from its allies to deliver aid to areas hard to get to by road. The two diplomats met. They held a news conference at which Blinken reiterated Washington's firm support for Turkey despite their differences on some issues.

MARTÍNEZ: And I know that Blinken was headed there to talk about other issues, one of them NATO expansion. The U.S. wants Sweden and Norway to join. But Turkey, a NATO country, has threatened to block that. What's at stake there for both countries?

KENYON: Well, that's right. And it's a potentially thorny issue for both sides. Turkey is the only member state that has yet to affirm that it will ratify expanding the alliance by adding Sweden and Finland. Here's a bit of what Blinken said.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: The United States greatly values Turkey's contributions as a long-standing and active member of the NATO alliance. And we'll keep working together to strengthen and grow our alliance, including through the accession of Sweden and Finland, which will help deliver even stronger and more capable assets to the alliance.

KENYON: Now, President Erdogan wants the extradition of some 130 people, particularly from Sweden, to face charges of supporting terrorism. Sweden says that's basically impossible. On other issues, Blinken reiterated his concern that China is considering supplying lethal aid to Russia for use in Ukraine. And he talked about Turkey's bid to buy American F-16 fighter jets. Though, he didn't offer anything conclusive on overcoming opposition from Congress.

MARTÍNEZ: So safe to say, Peter, that Turkish officials want to press Blinken on earthquake recovery support as a No. 1 priority?

KENYON: Yes, I think that's extremely likely. The death toll is, of course, expected to keep rising as the crews get to more of the thousands of buildings that were very heavily damaged or collapsed entirely in the earthquake and the aftershocks. Thousands of people will be needing more permanent accommodation. And the effort, of course, needs to begin to rebuild or construct thousands of buildings, presumably this time with state-of-the-art earthquake defenses. I mean, critics charge that too often, corners were cut in building homes in earthquake-prone areas in the past. And that left a situation where many of the buildings were less able than they should have been to withstand the shock of a quake.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thank you, A,

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MARTÍNEZ: Republican presidential hopefuls are starting to pop up in Iowa ahead of the 2024 election.

FADEL: This is a sign that primary season is getting underway. But this time around, it seems to be getting off to a slow start.

MARTÍNEZ: Here to help us get a sense of the landscape for Republicans is Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters. Clay, why has it seemed to take so long for things to really kick off?

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: I would say, first off, in modern history, we've never had a former president announce they're going to make another run for the White House. And that's, of course, what former President Donald Trump did right after the midterm election. That seemed to have maybe a bit of a chilling effect on candidates testing the waters here. We're starting to see them start coming here. You know, even if you're not officially running for president, Iowa is the place to be even if you have kind of an inkling of ambition to do so. Former Vice President Mike Pence was here last week in Cedar Rapids. Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, announced her run and is heading to Iowa today. And Pence even used his time in Iowa last week to possibly allude to his own plans, maybe.

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MIKE PENCE: Ambassador Nikki Haley did a great job in our administration. And she may have more company soon in the race for president. And I promise folks here in Iowa and all of you, I'll keep you posted.

MASTERS: So that's Pence speaking after an event at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And like I said, Haley is in Iowa today and tomorrow. Senator Tim Scott will be here later this week. Notably, Trump himself hasn't been here since he announced he's running again. But I should note that yesterday, a local group with some clout in the state called the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition - they're known for hosting presidential hopefuls. And they put out an invitation list that's got about 20 candidates they've asked to come speak at a spring fundraiser, so maybe a sign of what's to come depending on who RSVPs yes.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And I know Iowans are famous for their political chops when it comes to presidential primary candidates. What are voters telling you?

MASTERS: I was at an event a couple of weekends ago for Kari Lake. She's the failed Republican governor candidate. She was in Iowa. She drew hundreds of people who were familiar with her and just wanted to see what she had to say. And I should note, she's conveniently also from Iowa. The main thing I heard from folks there at that event at a suburb of Des Moines was they still like former President Trump. But they're eager to hear from potential newbies in 2024. Here's John Whipple, who likes Trump but would also like to see Florida Governor Ron DeSantis get into the race.

JOHN WHIPPLE: I think they would both do a good job. And it's just some people seem to - even though they support Trump, they just are kind of thinking maybe it's time to move on.

MASTERS: And there were also a lot of people at that event and other folks that I've talked to that were at the Pence event that were concerned about southern U.S. border, talking about so-called election integrity also getting some conversation here.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Clay, how has this cycle been different from previous cycles?

MASTERS: Well, the last time I covered Republicans running for president was, like, eight years ago. And the party has changed a lot. I remember in 2015, there were a lot of candidates here regularly at this time. And the caucus campaigning at that time was kind of - everybody focused on who was going to be the candidate to take out Donald Trump. Of course, it turns out there wasn't one. This time around, Iowa is still important, at least for Republicans. But it's definitely been a slower start than we saw in 2016 - or for the Democrats, for that matter, in 2020.

MARTÍNEZ: Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio. Clay, thanks.

MASTERS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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 is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.