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Morning news brief


Ukrainian soldiers are hanging onto an eastern city that Russian forces have been trying to occupy for months.


Bakhmut is not a big city, around 75,000 people before the war drove many inhabitants away. Look at a map and you see why it has become a big focus. It's in eastern Ukraine in a region that Russia has been trying to dominate. Ukraine's armed forces are staying as long as they can.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now from the northeastern city of Kharkiv is NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis. Joanna, the focus on Bakhmut, why is it so important?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So - well, for the Russians, it would be their first significant victory in, like, 7 or 8 months. And, you know, Russian President Vladimir Putin really needs a victory at this point. Ukrainian forces have pushed the Russians out of areas they occupied early in the war, like parts of the Kharkiv region where I am right now. And as for Ukrainians, Bakhmut has become a symbol of resistance against Russia, kind of like the city of Mariupol was in the early part of the war. And as this war drags on, the Ukrainians want to show that they will keep fighting for every inch of their land.

MARTÍNEZ: Joanna, can the Ukrainians hang onto this town? I mean, and why do they seem to want it so badly?

KAKISSIS: So based on the latest reports, it doesn't look good in Bakhmut for the Ukrainians right now. Some reports suggest that Russian forces are even in parts of the town - parts of the city already. And these forces include members of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary army which operates alongside Russian military units. And they say Bakhmut is mostly surrounded. So we asked a Ukrainian military spokesman about these developments. His name is Serhii Cherevatyi. And he insists that these reports are, quote, "Russian propaganda."

SERHII CHEREVATYI: (Through interpreter) Russian propaganda is not reality. We are able to deliver ammunition, provisions and medicine to our units in Bakhmut and also take our wounded from Bakhmut.

KAKISSIS: He claims that Ukrainian soldiers are also exhausting the Russian forces in Bakhmut and depleting Russian stocks of ammunition and weapons. He would not confirm or deny that a couple of bridges have been blown up by the Ukrainians, which would indicate the beginning of a tactical withdrawal. But it is clear that the Ukrainians want to hang onto Bakhmut as long as possible so Russian forces pay as high a price as possible for as long as possible before Ukrainian soldiers are forced to abandon the city.

MARTÍNEZ: But, Joanna, I mean, after seven months of constant fighting, I mean, what's left in that city?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. There doesn't seem to be much left of Bakhmut at this point, at least based on videos posted to social media. Imagine block after block of shelled and collapsed buildings, of heaps of smoldering rubble. And yet, incredibly, A, about 10% of the population still remains in Bakhmut, hundreds of people. Many of them are older people, though there are some children with them. And they are huddled in basements without electricity or running water. We asked the military spokesman Serhii Cherevatyi about this. And he told us that by law, Ukrainian forces cannot make these civilians evacuate.

CHEREVATYI: (Through interpreter) We tell them that Russia is threatening you. But many people, especially those who are older, they are afraid of changing their surroundings. Maybe they think they will not be accepted anywhere else.

KAKISSIS: He says Ukrainian soldiers keep trying to remind these civilians that Bakhmut is the most dangerous place in the country right now.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kharkiv. Joanna, thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.


MARTÍNEZ: In China, the annual session of parliament, the National People's Congress, began over the weekend.

INSKEEP: It's a meeting of everybody who's anybody in the Communist Party and the government. In a sense, only one person is anybody, Xi Jinping, the longtime leader of both party and state. As he prepares for a third term, his country faces the damage of the pandemic and the strain of competition with the United States. He's expected to reshuffle some personnel.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's John Ruwitch joins us from Beijing. He's following the Congress. John, what's going to happen there this week?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Well, the big thing is going to be that personnel reshuffle, those personnel changes in government. They're going to be sweeping. And this is being seen, as Steve mentioned, as sort of a continuation of Xi Jinping's efforts to consolidate power. You know, Xi Jinping himself will get a third term as president. That hasn't happened in many, many years. There will be a new premier, who's the No. 2 in the government, new vice premiers, who play a key role in policymaking and administration, new cabinet from the defense minister, central banker on down.

The reshuffle brings a period of a bit of uncertainty, though, you know? Some of the people who are leaving have a lot of experience and are arguably market-oriented. The new guys, some of the key ones at the top especially, have limited experience on the national level. And by and large, they're Xi Jinping's allies and are believed to have gotten where they are because of that. They face huge challenges. And Willy Lam, who's an expert in Chinese politics at the Jamestown Foundation, is not optimistic about what Xi Jinping is doing here.

WILLY LAM: He is much more interested in promoting people who he can trust, who are loyal to himself, rather than people who are experts in finance or in other areas of administration.

RUWITCH: One more quick thing to add is that the parliament is going to pass a plan to reform and restructure state institutions. The details haven't been made public. There's speculation that it will mean more centralized regulation of finance, security agencies, technology. And again, analysts see this as just more, you know, consolidation of power in the hands of Xi Jinping and the party.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And the challenges that China faces - I mean, coming out of zero COVID, the economy is sluggish right now. And there's been a lot of pushback on government policies.

RUWITCH: Correct. You know, one thing this parliament does is sets targets for the coming year. And the outgoing premier announced the new GDP target for this year on Sunday. The target is around 5%. That's the lowest it's been in years. And it comes after China, you know, recorded 3% growth last year, which was among its lowest in a half a century. There're knock-on effects of the economic problems brought on by those zero-COVID policies. Local government finances are strained. And that's created some friction and even sparked recent protests, like in cities like Wuhan and Dalian, over government health care coverage, things like that. We talked with a retired guy here on the streets of Beijing. His surname is Zhang (ph). And like a lot of people in China, when he was speaking frankly about policies, he didn't want us to use his full name.

ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He told us he's watching the congress pretty closely. His main concerns are those sort of bread-and-butter issues like health care, his pension. He's disillusioned, though.

ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He thinks that the leadership is increasingly out of touch. They don't get what it's like for normal people anymore. And he says there's just no easy way for people to make their concerns heard.

MARTÍNEZ: And, John, what about the friction China's been having with the U.S. and other Western countries? Will that come up?

RUWITCH: It will. It hasn't come up publicly yet. The foreign minister is due to hold a press conference tomorrow, I believe. And in a week, you know, the new premier will meet the press. Xi Jinping himself will give a speech. So we'll hear about it. I wouldn't expect any major policy changes or major shifts in the direction of China's stance toward the U.S. or Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. John, thanks.

RUWITCH: You bet, A.


MARTÍNEZ: After decades of debate, a historic U.N. agreement will lay out a framework to oversee and protect marine biodiversity in a world that's, really, increasingly hostile to life underwater.


RENA LEE: The ship has reached the shore.


INSKEEP: Negotiators announced a deal over the weekend after long negotiations. The treaty still has to be ratified by the United Nations and could take years to go into effect.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now to talk about the details is Dino Grandoni of The Washington Post. Dino, so what do we know about the agreement and what it could protect?

DINO GRANDONI: Yeah, so this is an agreement to protect what are called the high seas. These are areas more than 200 nautical miles away from the coast. And it's area generally where no one nation has control. And for years, there had been no way to designate any of that part of the ocean for conservation protection. Now, what this treaty does is gives nations a path for proposing areas for protection and then actually enacting those protections.

MARTÍNEZ: So what's at stake here? I mean, it sounds like it's a big deal here.

GRANDONI: Yeah, I mean, what's at stake, to, you know, put it mildly, is life on Earth. Right now, we're in the middle of what many scientists call an extinction crisis. More than a million species - or about a million species of plants and animals - are at risk of extinction. And Earth's oceans are the largest physical habitat on Earth. And it's one that has creatures that many people depend upon for protein, Millions of coastal residents eat seafood for sustenance.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So here's the thing, though. I mean, how will this treaty be enforced if one country doesn't play ball on this?

GRANDONI: Well, that's the very difficult thing when it comes to conservation treaties in general historically - or international agreements in general. We have agreements for illegal fishing and even slavery and seafood vessels. But those are still rampant problems on the oceans. And it's a very, very difficult thing to police, frankly.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, when it comes to the amount of time that this deal has been in the works, 20 years, why did it take so long to reach an agreement of this kind? You would think everyone would want to protect the oceans.

GRANDONI: Now, that's a good question. It took a long time because there were a lot of issues to hammer out. You know, how exactly would these designations work? What was the voting process? But one of the really interesting sticking points was what's called genetic resources. Who exactly profits, for example, if some scientists discover a compound in a sea creature that helps treat a disease? This isn't really a hypothetical. We found chemicals in - derived from sea sponges that help treat cancer. If one of these compounds is found in a creature in the high seas, which is supposed to be a global commons, developed nations are now supposed to share some of those profits with developing nations.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Dino Grandoni covers biodiversity and climate change at The Washington Post. Dino, thanks.

GRANDONI: Thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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