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News brief: Ukraine-Russia, omicron cases decline in places, Palin v. 'Times'


The United States is preparing for Russia's possible invasion of Ukraine.


More than 100,000 Russian troops have taken positions to the south, east and north of Ukraine's capital. For the record, Russia denies any plans to invade, but President Vladimir Putin has been making demands of the West. Now the U.S. State Department is reducing staff levels at the embassy in Ukraine's capital. The U.S. is also sending lethal aid to Ukrainian military forces. Ukraine is not a formal U.S. ally, but several neighboring nations are part of the U.S.-led NATO alliance. And NPR has confirmed that President Biden is considering sending additional U.S. troops to those countries.

INSKEEP: And let's pick up the discussion right there with NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How big would this U.S. deployment be if it happened?

MYRE: U.S. officials are saying Biden is considering a plan to send up to 5,000 U.S. troops to the NATO countries in Eastern Europe. Now, a few important caveats here. No final decision has been made. This is a plan that emerged as Biden was at Camp David this weekend and met with his national security team. The U.S. already has tens of thousands of troops in Western Europe, and so some of these could be moved further east. Poland and Romania are seen as the most likely options; possibly others as well. Other NATO countries could contribute troops also, though not clear which ones.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking this through. That's a relatively small number of troops compared to Russia's more than 100,000 there. So this is a signal, I guess, a signal not to mess around with NATO countries, a signal of U.S. and Western resolve. But could any of them become directly involved in Ukraine?

MYRE: As of right now, no, Biden has ruled this out. There's no indication that the U.S. or NATO has changed this position and is prepared to send troops into Ukraine. If Russia invades, Ukraine would be largely on its own against this much stronger Russian military. But if the U.S. and NATO do move troops into Eastern Europe, this would be a signal, as you say. This would be a direct challenge to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He's demanding that NATO remove the relatively small number of troops that are already there. There's also talk that U.S. and NATO troops could be sent - additional troops could be sent after a first wave is sent.

INSKEEP: Now, the U.S. and its allies seem to be calling out Russian plans in recent days. The U.S. the other day warned of some kind of false flag operation that would give Russia an excuse to invade, and then over the weekend, the U.K. specified something that Russia might want to do. What was it?

MYRE: Right. Britain says that Russia is planning to oust the Ukrainian government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and replace it with current or former Ukrainian leaders who would be friendly to Russia. Now, Britain didn't say how Russia might do this. It didn't provide any details or evidence. Still, it's quite significant that Britain went public with this sensitive information and, apparently, in an attempt to head off any such Russian moves if they are indeed in the works. In recent days, we're hearing more about Russian troop movements - Russian forces in Belarus, a friendly country. But these Russian troops would be in position there in Belarus. If they were to go into Ukraine, they would be less than a hundred miles from the capital, Kyiv.

INSKEEP: Well, what does this mean for all the diplomatic efforts?

MYRE: Well, they're still underway, but this weekend seemed to show developments moving in the opposite direction. Secretary of State said - Antony Blinken said they're still focusing on diplomacy and could have more talks, but we haven't seen any breakthroughs this past two weeks when there have been intensive talks.

INSKEEP: Greg Myre, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

MYRE: My pleasure.


INSKEEP: The state of the pandemic this week depends on where you are.

MARTIN: New cases of the coronavirus are dropping off sharply in areas of the Northeast and the Midwest. Even so, many places in the South and the West continue to see record numbers of new infections, and more than 150,000 people are hospitalized across the country.

INSKEEP: So where do we stand? NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us many Mondays and is here once again. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so it does seem that lots of the country is past the omicron peak.

AUBREY: That's right. Looking at the map, Washington, D.C., and New York have about half as many cases compared to their peaks. Cases are also dropping in parts of the Midwest. Florida and Texas have started to see a decline in new infections. But a lot of areas are still in the thick of it, Steve - Utah, Oregon, as well as Alabama, Tennessee. I spoke to an emergency medicine doctor, Jeff Pothof at UW Health - that's in Madison, Wis., - where they are still struggling to admit all the patients who need a bed.

JEFF POTHOF: Right now it's as bad as it's ever been. We're still seeing a ton of COVID patients. And we're still in the situation where every day we're postponing, you know, elective surgical cases. We're also postponing what we call Tier 3 and Tier 4 surgical cases, which are cases that, you know, you can postpone for a week or two but not really much longer. We're doing all that, and we still can't make everyone fit.

AUBREY: He says smaller hospitals in the region transfer patients into his hospital, but his hospital hasn't been able to take them all. And this comes at a time when, nationwide, deaths from the virus are up to nearly 2,000 deaths a day.

INSKEEP: But the numbers of new cases, as you mentioned, are down in many places. So are we at the turning point or beyond it?

AUBREY: You know, some models suggest the worst is over or close to over, predicting deaths will begin to decline soon in the coming weeks, and cases will continue to come down. Here's Ali Mokdad of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

ALI MOKDAD: What we are seeing right now in many states - it's coming down as fast as it went up. And come March, April, we should be in a very good position. Our infections would be very low. I am willing to bet right now - I'm not into betting as a scientist, but spring breaks will happen, and we should feel for a while that we are in a very good position.

AUBREY: So you can hear some optimism there.

INSKEEP: We should feel for a while that we're in a good position, he says, meaning that this could get worse again.

AUBREY: You know, none of the experts I've been talking to regularly throughout this pandemic is willing to emphatically say, hey, this is over. I mean, scientists know the virus will continue to mutate. But there is a consensus that we're in a much better situation, given so many people have been infected, and so many people have been vaccinated and boosted. We're more protected. I spoke to Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota, who says we are likely headed into better days soon.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: For the everyday person, it is very hopeful that we can see that new normal where people can not feel at threat being in a public place, but I worry that we could see another variant that could put us back into the same kind of position that we saw with omicron.

AUBREY: The good news is vaccine-makers continue to work on vaccines that can target variants or offer broader protection, and there are a lot more therapies to treat COVID now, including the new antiviral medications. So the idea is that future waves should be more manageable.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is right around two years of pandemic reporting. Allison, thanks for your endurance.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.


INSKEEP: Sarah Palin gets her chance in court starting today.

MARTIN: The former vice presidential candidate filed a defamation suit against The New York Times. Five years ago, the Times put two false statements into an article about the Republican politician. The paper soon made a correction. But Palin's suit could erode the broad protections against libel suits that the news media have enjoyed for decades.

INSKEEP: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has followed the case. David, good morning.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is this case about?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, this case involves an editorial written by The New York Times in which it explicitly linked a graphic that was presented in an appeal to conservative voters sent out by Sarah Palin's political action committee to the shooting of Gabby Giffords some years earlier, which gravely wounded her and wounded a dozen others. No evidence was found, actually, that the shooter had ever seen those messages from Palin, and the editorial also mischaracterized the graphic, which drew crosshairs on congressional districts. The Times wrongly indicated it symbolically targeted the actual members of Congress. They did this in an editorial six years after the shooting, hours after a Republican congressman was shot at a baseball game. And these errors - and it's important to note this - were inserted into the editorial by James Bennet, at that time the Times' top opinion editor. He was seeking to make a larger point about gun violence and heated rhetoric.

INSKEEP: But in this case, made a false point. So how has the paper explained the way that would have happened?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they got it really wrong. They made public corrections within hours. You know, the private text messages and communications that have surfaced as part of the evidence this case have shown that James Bennet showed contrition privately pretty much immediately once he registered what happened. David McCraw - he's the deputy general counsel of The New York Times - said to The Washington Post a year or two back, he said this was an honest mistake, not an exhibit of actual malice. And, Steve, as you know, that phrase - actual malice - that's the legal standard that Palin's attorneys will have to meet. That is, that the Times either knew what they were saying was wrong in the moment or showed reckless disregard for the facts. Given the way in which our laws protect free speech, that's a pretty tough standard for any former public official to meet.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that that actual malice standard grew out of a previous case decades ago involving The New York Times...


INSKEEP: ...Which has been involved in libel lawsuits before but prevailed. So why do people think that Palin has a chance here?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it could be hard for her to show actual harm done - that is, she hasn't lost a job that we know of or something like that. The strongest element is that it had been widely known for years no evidence had surfaced to show a connection between the shooting in Arizona and Palin's mailings and that The Times had reported that lack of connection, too. Bennet had added the wrong material, as I said, into the draft. It was rushed out on deadline, as Bennet later acknowledged. And let's be clear - the fact that it's part of the opinion section doesn't get The Times off the hook because the editorial is purportedly grounded in fact.

INSKEEP: So what happens if the Times should lose?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look; a jury verdict could reach the tens of millions or, theoretically, the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to media lawyers I've talked to. Palin's attorney want to introduce evidence about other journalistic lapses by Bennet while he was at the Times. He left in 2020 after other controversies. The Times says, hey, we've got to focus on this specific incident involving Palin; it's not about ethics or practices but the law here. People tell me anything can happen if it goes in front of a jury. And Palin's attorney - let's be clear - have asked the court to send the media a message.

INSKEEP: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks.


(SOUNDBITE OF LONE'S "JADED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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