News brief: Moskva sinks, impact of sanctions, Musk's Twitter bid
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Russia says its missiles struck Kyiv overnight, and the choice of targets was revealing.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In a statement, Russia's defense ministry says it struck a Ukrainian defense plant that makes missiles, including anti-ship missiles. Ukraine has not confirmed this, but the timing of the alleged strike makes it seem like retaliation for Ukraine's missile attack on a Russian ship, which Russia denies ever happened. Russia claims a fire broke out when ammunition exploded on the Moskva and also that the ship sank in stormy seas as it was being towed to shore.
FADEL: We're going to try to understand what actually happened. And to do that, we've got NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre with us. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.
FADEL: OK, Greg, what have we confirmed about this Russian warship?
MYRE: Well, the one point that everybody seems to agree on is that the Moskva is heading to the bottom of the Black Sea, if it's not there already. And that is very significant, no matter what caused it. This is the Russian flagship in the Black Sea, a guided missile cruiser. The Ukrainians are insisting, as we just noted, that was hit by two missiles about 60 miles off the port city of Odesa. Now, Russia still says there was an internal explosion, and it made no mention of casualties among the sailors believed to number about 500. And the Russians also talked about this stormy weather, but the weather reports say the conditions in the Black Sea were mild. So that certainly doesn't help their credibility. The Pentagon, meanwhile, says it can't confirm that the ship was hit by missiles, but it can't refute it either. It says something significant caused an explosion.
FADEL: OK. So we don't know exactly how, but the Russians lost the ship. How significant is this? Will it hurt Russia's naval capabilities?
MYRE: Losing one vessel, even a flagship, isn't going to cripple the Russian navy. But it does reinforce this larger narrative that the Ukrainians can still deliver powerful blows to Russia by being more nimble, more agile, more creative. And this is the second ship that Russia has lost off the southern coast of Ukraine. And the Pentagon said that several other ships, Russian ships in the Black Sea, pulled back further from the coast after this episode with the Moskva. So that certainly suggests that the Russian navy is a bit jittery.
FADEL: So is this the latest example of Russia just underestimating Ukraine and paying a heavy price for it? I understand CIA Director William Burns had something to say on this topic.
MYRE: Yeah. Burns was a former ambassador to Russia. He's been studying President Vladimir Putin for many years. And he likes to joke that Putin is the cause of his gray hair. In a speech yesterday at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Burns said he thinks that over time, Putin has stopped taking the counsel of his advisers. He thinks he always knows best, and he thinks this has led Putin to make some very bad decisions, like the invasion of Ukraine.
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WILLIAM BURNS: His circle of advisers has narrowed. And in that small circle, it has never been career enhancing to question his judgment or his stubborn, almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia's sphere of influence.
FADEL: Did he say anything about U.S. intelligence cooperation with Ukraine?
MYRE: Yes, he did. He said the CIA is working very closely with Ukraine, and this certainly wasn't a given. Russian intelligence has long been very active in Ukraine, and there were concerns that any sensitive information in the U.S. - from the U.S. shared with Ukraine could be picked up by the Russians. But Burns said this close cooperation began months before the war started, carries on to this day, and he believes that it has helped the Ukrainians on the battlefield. Still, he warned everybody to expect or be prepared for a protracted conflict.
FADEL: NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.
MYRE: My pleasure.
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FADEL: President Biden says Western sanctions have crippled Russia's ability to do business.
INSKEEP: This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally responded and said that simply isn't so. In numerous speeches, the Kremlin leaders said Western sanctions aimed at punishing Russia have failed.
FADEL: From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes has been tracking this all, and he joins us now. Hi, Charles.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.
FADEL: So, Charles, you've been there in Russia since the beginning of the conflict. Can you describe for us what these sanctions feel like?
MAYNES: Yeah, you know, it's been quite a ride. When sanctions kicked in, the currency, the ruble, cratered, and that sent people scrambling for dollars and euros. Then we saw a run on goods, mainly out of a fear of inflation or that items might disappear. You know, some you might expect, like iPhones; others were more surprising, like sugar. Now, most of these items are back on the shelves, but prices are up across the board. And of course, there's also been this exodus of foreign companies from Russia - so a lot of shuttered storefronts. That said, the ruble, it's back, almost to where it was before the conflict began. And that's thanks to government efforts to prop it up artificially and, of course, money coming in from Russian energy exports. But all of this has created a kind of weird sense of normalcy, although I really hesitate to use that word given the conflict underway.
FADEL: And has Putin seized on that idea, that things are pretty normal and at least manageable?
MAYNES: Yeah. You know, this week in multiple settings, he was defiant and made the case that what he called the blitzkrieg of sanctions had failed. Putin's basic message was sanctions present Russia with opportunities to become more self-reliant and to build new partnerships. Let's listen in.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).
MAYNES: So here, Putin is saying that economies always adapt. And if you can't find something in one country, well, you can go to another, that it's unavoidable. You know, and behind this idea is that what they can't get from the West you can now get from China or India. And what Russia currently sells to the West, mainly oil and gas, it can provide to new, friendlier markets if it comes to that.
FADEL: So does Putin have a point here? Can Russia just pivot its whole economy to the east?
MAYNES: Well, experts aren't as optimistic. You know, they say these sanctions will be devastating. It's just too early to see. At least that's the view of Natalia Zubarevich. She's a specialist on Russia's regional development with Moscow State University.
NATALIA ZUBAREVICH: (Speaking Russian).
MAYNES: So Zubarevich calls these sanctions a genuine shock to the Russian economy but says we'll only feel the real impact starting in May or June when she says production lines will break down. Now, she argues the reason here is imported parts. Most of what's made in Russia comes with at least some component made in the West, most of it high tech, which China can't provide. And so without these parts, work will just stop, she says, you know, in car factories and offshore drilling for gas, in airplane manufacturing and so on. And of course, all this impacts people's lives.
FADEL: Yeah. So what do we know about what Russians are thinking about sanctions? Do we know?
MAYNES: Well, sort of. You know, polls will tell you a vast majority of Russians, over 80%, support Putin's policies in Ukraine, although most have only access to state media. And that media presents the view that these sanctions are the West trying to keep Russia down. In conversations I have, I also hear another view. You know, people say that this will all be over soon. How realistic that is is questionable. But it's a view the Kremlin can certainly live with, at least for now.
FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you, Charles.
MAYNES: Thank you.
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FADEL: Elon Musk is the world's richest person. He runs Tesla and SpaceX. And now he wants to buy Twitter.
INSKEEP: The billionaire's offer values Twitter at more than $43 billion. Musk says he knows how to unlock the company's potential, which is why he's offering more than its past value. And he calls it, quote, "extremely important for the future of civilization."
FADEL: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us to discuss. Hi, Shannon.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.
FADEL: So why does Elon Musk want to buy Twitter?
BOND: Well, of course, Elon Musk knows Twitter really well, right? He tweets all the time. He posts lots of memes. He knows how to get people really riled up. He's like a creature of this platform. And as Musk sees it, Twitter is a public square and has an obligation to let people speak freely. Here's what he said at a conference yesterday after he made this takeover offer.
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ELON MUSK: Well, I think it's very important for - that it be an inclusive arena for free speech.
BOND: But Twitter, like most major social media companies, has increasingly been tightening its rules about what people can say to crack down on disinformation and hate speech. And Musk seems to see this as unfairly restricting speech. But, of course, getting rid of these rules would be a big change.
FADEL: So Musk has a lot of opinions about what needs to change at Twitter. What would it look like under Musk? What would Twitter look like?
BOND: Yeah, I mean, these speech rules are not the only changes he's called for. You know, of course, he's an avid user. Lately, he's been tweeting about Twitter. He's polled people about an edit button which would let you change tweets after they're posted. He suggested the company should rely less on advertising and more on subscriptions to make money. And look, Leila, you know, Musk is a successful product guy. You know, you can just look at what he's done with Tesla. So he may have some good ideas here about revamping the way that Twitter works.
FADEL: True, Shannon, but he's also rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with how he's run Tesla, right?
BOND: Yeah. I mean, he has clashed with regulators over things like product design, including Tesla's self-driving features. He famously got in a lot of trouble with the SEC over his tweets, including a claim he made a few years back that he was going to take Tesla private. Of course, there's also the issue that he already runs two companies, Tesla and the rocket company SpaceX. Is he really going to take on a third? He says he doesn't have confidence in Twitter's current management, but we don't know if he wants to run it himself or bring in a new team. He said yesterday he's not interested in the economics of the business. And we've seen how mercurial he can be. He's fixated on Twitter right now. At that conference, he said, quote, "I don't like to lose," but what if he eventually loses interest in Twitter?
FADEL: So how do people at Twitter feel about all this?
BOND: Well, some employees are dismayed by this whole saga. They're worried about the changes Musk is calling for. The company held an emergency all-staff meeting after this news came out on Thursday. CEO Parag Agarwal said the board is evaluating the bid and will make a decision in the best interests of shareholders. But Musk has been tweeting that shareholders are the ones who should decide. But at least one big Twitter investor, Prince Al Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, he said he will not support Musk's bid. And ultimately, the board will make this call on whether to move ahead. Meanwhile, Musk is threatening he could sell his stake if he doesn't get his way. At the staff meeting, when one employee compared Musk's bid to a hostage situation, Agarwal pushed back. He says he does not believe that Twitter is being held hostage here.
FADEL: NPR's Shannon Bond. Thank you, Shannon.
BOND: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.