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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Leaders from Ukraine and its allies gathered around a table in Germany today.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

They're discussing how to help Ukraine as Russia's invasion nears its first anniversary. Many nations are sending aid, and one nation faces extra pressure to send more. Germany has yet to allow Ukraine to receive German-made battle tanks.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz has been covering the war in Ukraine, and he joins us now from Germany. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning.

INSKEEP: What are defense officials putting on that table?

SCHMITZ: Well, the U.S. is presenting its latest package of military assistance for Ukraine. This one is worth $2 1/2 billion, and it includes hundreds of armored fighting vehicles and more support for Ukraine's air defense against Russian attacks. Yesterday, a group of European countries, including the U.K., Poland, Denmark and the Baltic states, announced what it called unprecedented military aid to Ukraine, including artillery, air defense systems, as well as infantry vehicles. In fact, Finland is increasing its commitment to more than half a billion dollars, a lot for that country. So it seems we've got several countries, Steve, willing to spend lots of money to help Ukraine fight what many see as a renewed Russian offensive that may come soon.

INSKEEP: That all sounds impressive. So what's the pressure on Germany specifically?

SCHMITZ: Well, the Leopard 2 battle tank is a tank that's made in Germany, and it's seen as one of the world's most state-of-the-art tanks. And Ukraine has been asking for them since the war began. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been under increasing pressure by Germany's closest allies to give the OK for these tanks to be exported to Ukraine. Poland has already offered to send more than a dozen Leopards to Ukraine, but legally they would need Germany's permission to do that. Scholz has repeatedly refused to do this. I spoke with Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook of the Bertelsmann Foundation, a Berlin think tank, about this. And here's what she said.

CATHRYN CLUVER ASHBROOK: Clearly, it seems to be that the world is coalescing around the idea that Germany not only needs to make way for its Leopards to be sent to Ukraine, but also those countries that want to furnish German-built Leopards - that it needs to make the legal grounds clear that that can be done. That has to be an executive decision. Otherwise, Germany will continue to isolate itself in the allied efforts to support Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Yeah, but I'm just thinking - Germany has sent other kinds of aid, however reluctantly. What's the holdup on the tanks?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, and Germany continues to say that. You know, German media reports that Scholz would be willing to give his approval to deliver these Leopard tanks if the U.S. also sends Abrams tanks.

INSKEEP: Oh, the strongest and biggest American tank.

SCHMITZ: That's right.

INSKEEP: He wants those to go as well. What does the U.S. say?

SCHMITZ: Well, the Pentagon's undersecretary for defense policy, Colin Kahl, told reporters on Wednesday the U.S. will not send Abrams tanks to Ukraine because they are too difficult for Ukrainian troops to maintain. But many observers are not buying that. Retired U.S. General Ben Hodges responded on Twitter that this is condescending to Ukrainian troops, who have been sort of MacGyver-ing solutions to all sorts of problems throughout this war. It should be mentioned here that Germany's Leopard tanks are also difficult to maintain. I think Chancellor Scholz wants to make sure that Germany does not stand out as one of the only countries to send battle tanks to Ukraine and would prefer that the U.S. join him in that effort. And that's likely going to be priority No. 1 today when they're - discuss this in Ramstein.

INSKEEP: I guess we should underline this. Every ally, including Germany, is thinking about how much can they do for Ukraine without crossing some red line with Russia. Is that right?

SCHMITZ: That's exactly right. Scholz has repeatedly said that. And he has said also that he just doesn't want to cross that line so that Russia could retaliate in a more deadly way.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin, thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This weekend marks 50 years since the Supreme Court's Rowe v. Wade decision.

MARTÍNEZ: The ruling established a constitutional right to abortion during the early parts of pregnancy. It also froze many state laws that banned abortion, and it led to a generationslong drive to overturn it, which included an annual March for Life in Washington. Last year, the Supreme Court overturned its abortion decision, but the annual march goes ahead today.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon is covering the March for Life. Hey there, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the organizers' thinking in going ahead?

MCCAMMON: Well, the march started in 1974, one year after the Rowe v. Wade decision, and it was a direct response to it. So, of course, the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision last year - with that, the movement achieved its goal of overturning Rowe. But they note that about a dozen states have enacted abortion bans in response to that decision. And in many states, abortion remains legal. So activists involved in the march say there's more work to do until abortion is unavailable anywhere. Denise Harle is with the conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom and is participating.

DENISE HARLE: It's kind of just beginning in a lot of ways. This next phase of the pro-life movement is so important and really exciting because there's still a long way to go.

MCCAMMON: So this year, Steve, the march, instead of ending at the Supreme Court, is ending between the Supreme Court and Congress as a sign that they see the fight as continuing at all levels of government.

INSKEEP: What are those battles this year?

MCCAMMON: Well, a lot of them are at the state level. Abortion opponents want to go further, expand the number of states that have banned abortion. In Virginia, for example, where abortion is currently still legal, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin is backing a proposal to ban the procedure after 15 weeks. There are efforts underway at both the state and federal levels to restrict access to abortion pills, which now account for most abortions in this country. And many anti-abortion groups want to see a national 15-week ban. That, of course, is a longer-term effort on their part, because right now they don't have the votes in Congress or, of course, the presidency.

INSKEEP: So if that's what abortion rights opponents are going for in 2023, what about groups who support abortion rights?

MCCAMMON: Well, of course, they're trying to hold off new state restrictions. They want to protect abortion providers in states with legal abortion and expand access to care. And they're trying to keep voters focused on the issue. Rachel O'Leary Carmona is executive director of the Women's March.

RACHEL O'LEARY CARMONA: We've seen successes in every place that a ballot measure has gone in front of the people. The people have come down on the side of reproductive freedom and abortion rights.

MCCAMMON: And she's energized by the November midterms, where several states had abortion-related questions on the ballot. That's going to be a key strategy for abortion rights activists in many states going forward. And as they point out, you know, years of polling, including a new NPR/Marist poll out just this month, have found that a majority of Americans support access to legal abortion. So that's a reality that anti-abortion groups like the March for Life will have to contend with as they celebrate abortion bans that often, Steve, are out of step with the majority of public opinion.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon, talking with us as organizers prepare for another annual March for Life. Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The Lunar New Year begins this weekend, which means it will be the Year of the Rabbit.

MARTÍNEZ: It's a big deal in much of the world, and especially in China. Hundreds of millions of workers there have moved from their villages to big cities, and the Lunar New Year is when they travel home to see friends and family. This year they do it without mandatory COVID testing and lockdowns. China's elimination of its zero-COVID policy makes travel easier, but also more hazardous.

INSKEEP: Just how hazardous? Well, we've brought in NPR's Emily Feng to talk about that. Hey there, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

INSKEEP: How many people in China are getting sick with COVID?

FENG: Well, according to Peking University, which is one of China's top universities, nearly 1 billion people have gotten sick.

INSKEEP: Whoa.

FENG: But Chinese public health authorities say the surge is getting better. This week, they said the number of critical cases is going down because the number of people going to hospitals is dropping. Of course, conveniently, this is coming just in time for holiday travel to begin. A few hours ago, the vice premier was trying to reassure the public again. She said that prevention was going well and medical services were stable and cases were decreasing. But take that with a grain of salt because the Chinese health care system right now doesn't have the capacity or really the incentive really to test everyone and report accurate numbers. And this also means the official death rate, for example, is about several hundred thousand times lower than the global average. In fact, this week, one research firm in the U.K. called Airfinity revised upward their estimates for what they think the daily death toll from COVID in China is. They say based on the numbers they have from Chinese provinces, about 33,000 people are dying a day from COVID, and that's just going to go up at the end of the month because of holiday travel.

INSKEEP: Thirty-three thousand a day - so it's like a small city is dying today in China, and another small city will die tomorrow in China, day after day after day. But people are still traveling anyway?

FENG: Right. Transport authorities say they expect people to make 2.1 billion trips this month. So people don't seem to be concerned. They say they've already gotten sick and recovered. NPR went to Beijing's largest train station this week to witness the spring migration, as this holiday travel is called, and everyone there said their families back home already got sick, and they recovered from COVID, so they're not worried about it. And actually, what they're more concerned about are finances because the economy is still slowing. Zero-COVID controls over the last three years really hurt consumption, and it especially hurt working-class people like driver Wang Feng. He's from northwestern Shaanxi Province in China, and he says he's really worried about money.

WANG FENG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying after three years of the pandemic, he's nearly broke because people spent less on taxis. And he feels a lot of pressure since he's the sole breadwinner and has a mortgage to pay off. So this year, when he goes home for the Lunar New Year holidays, he says he's not giving any gifts, and he's giving less money in those red packets you traditionally give out to children.

INSKEEP: Oh. Well, that's normal, I guess, for China's economy, given that the economy has slowed down so much in the past year or two. But could that change now that they've lifted so many COVID restrictions?

FENG: There's a lot of optimism, but also a lot of uncertainty because people will go out and travel and spend again. But also a lot of people lost jobs or income over the last three years, so they're going to be saving rather than spending. And these underlying economic issues - local government debt, a pretty unstable property market - those are all going to remain in China in the long term. And while this is far from certain, if there is some more infections there yet that emerges in China, that could set the country back again.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng, always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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