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News brief: Ukraine-Russia Talks, Ukrainians Flee, Germany's defense spending

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You can find a sign of Russia's isolation this morning in the fall of the Russian ruble.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A couple of years ago, it typically took 60 rubles to buy one U.S. dollar. In recent weeks, it's been more like 80. And in trading today in Moscow, U.S. dollars cost well over 100 rubles. People are selling off Russia's currency as worldwide sanctions take hold. Over the weekend, European nations blocked Russian airlines from their airspace. The oil company BP says it will unwind its investment in Russia. The U.S. is blocking Russia's central bank from accessing its current currency reserves. The U.S. and European nations are blocking some Russian banks from a payment system called SWIFT. Here's Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

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DMYTRO KULEBA: It is critically important that Russia is disconnected from SWIFT on the fullest possible extent - all possible banks. Don't play political games, and stop earning money soaked in our blood.

MARTINEZ: As we'll hear in the next few minutes, Europe is abruptly planning to spend more on its own defense. It's also sending weapons, including fighter planes, to Ukraine.

INSKEEP: We're about to hear from Berlin, from Ukraine's border with Poland and from inside Ukraine, where we found NPR's Tim Mak. Hey there, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, there.

INSKEEP: We're on the fifth day of the Russian invasion, although I'm sure it feels like more than that to you. They've been trying each day to reach the capital, Kyiv. What are you hearing?

MAK: Well, so one of the big things is that even as the Russian army advances on that capital city, the fear has been all along that Russian saboteurs might try to decapitate the leadership in Kyiv and install their own regime, and that would be an easy way for the country to fall into Russian hands. An adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed this report that, in Kyiv, there are hundreds of Russia-aligned mercenaries from the Wagner Group, this private military company, and they have orders, apparently, to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and overthrow the current government. These reports come as Ukrainians, who are pretty outmatched by Russian military numbers and firepowers, have made a real stand to keep the city out of Russian hands for now.

But, you know, all signs are that Ukrainian morale is very high, even as in the south more land appears to be in Russian hands. The country is more unified now than it's been at any other time in living memory. I had this exchange with a member of Ukraine's Territorial Defense here in western Ukraine.

If you had a message for the Russian military and Vladimir Putin, what would it be?

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Through interpreter) Go home 'cause you will die here.

INSKEEP: Go home 'cause you will die here. The Ukrainians have made some dramatic strides in the information war, with the messaging. I can think of the president saying, I want ammunition, not a ride. I can think of a saying that we can't really repeat that some defenders on an island made before they were attacked. At the same time, though, the Ukrainians have agreed to talk with the Russians. What exactly is happening?

MAK: Well, there seems to be at least an effort to try the diplomatic option. There was this Ukrainian delegation that's arrived at the border of Belarus for negotiations. It's a little unclear how serious this effort is because neither sides really seems to be holding out for a breakthrough. It should be noted that Belarus is not exactly neutral territory. Russian troops launched its assault on Kyiv from that location, and the Belarusian government is very close to Putin's. The Russians have said that they want Ukraine to declare neutrality, give up its quest to join NATO. And they'd really like a government that's pretty aligned with Moscow, more aligned with Moscow than the West. The Ukrainian delegation says they want to talk about a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian troops. So they're pretty far apart, to put it mildly.

INSKEEP: OK. We're talking with NPR's Tim Mak, who is in Ukraine. Tim, thanks very much for your coverage these last several days.

MAK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Many Ukrainians who flee the country are crossing the border into Poland, and our colleague Leila Fadel is in Poland's border city of Chechov (ph). Hey there, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hi.

INSKEEP: What have you been seeing?

FADEL: So, I mean, the journey here for people is long and hard, and it's a steady stream of Ukrainians coming across. They're waiting in lines of cars for days in some cases, in freezing weather. It's so cold at night especially. And some people just abandoned their vehicles to walk the distance. Others waited to catch trains that are so full that people have to stand for the duration of the ride into Przemysl, which is about six miles from the Ukrainian border inside Poland. And men between 18 and 60 years old, they can't make the journey at all. They're barred from leaving the country. They're expected to stay behind and help with the war effort. So trips between major Ukrainian and Polish cities that would normally take maybe two or four hours are now taking anywhere between 15 and 48, depending on the route and the congestion. So those who do finally make it over, when you talk to them, they're clearly still in shock that Russia invaded, that their capital is surrounded, that they're now refugees. The U.N.'s refugee agency says so far 422,000 Ukrainians have fled Ukraine, almost half of them to Poland.

INSKEEP: Who are some of those 422,000 people?

FADEL: Yeah, I met Oksana Onofriichuk yesterday, who was fresh off a 15-hour train ride with a baby and her two daughters, not to mention the hours and hours before that where they waited in a barely moving line of cars, before giving up and walking to the train. Of course, she had to leave her husband, a youth pastor, behind at the train station. He's not allowed to leave.

What did you tell him before you left? What was your...

OKSANA ONOFRIICHUK: That I love him very much, and I want him to be safe, and I want him to come here and pick us up because I won't make it alone there (crying).

FADEL: I also met 23-year-old fashion photographer Juliana (ph) from Lviv who made it out a few days ago. She took nothing but the bare essentials and left something behind her for other Ukrainians making the journey westward.

JULIANA: I took two sweaters (laughter).

FADEL: Two sweaters.

JULIANA: Two sweaters, yes. My camera and my computer, documents and money. And that's all. And I leave my key from my apartment to my friends and said, you can - I don't know - give this key to your friends.

FADEL: That key will go to someone internally displaced, escaping the cities under attack.

INSKEEP: Leila, we've seen the miles-long lines of cars in Ukraine at the border, people waiting for their turn to get out and into Poland. Have you noticed people also heading the other way into Ukraine?

FADEL: Yeah, actually, we have. I mean, we met several people going back to fight or to be with their families. This is a border town, so a lot of Ukrainians work here, but their families are back home, and so tens of thousands are coming into Poland for safety, but some are going the other way. They just want to get home to be with their fellow countrymen in this time of war. They say they want to fight or resist in their own ways, whether it's refusing to be displaced or taking up arms.

INSKEEP: OK. Our MORNING EDITION co-host Leila Fadel is on the border between Poland and Ukraine. And, Leila, we'll be listening for your reporting throughout the week. Thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now, in addition to sanctions on Russia, European leaders are considering their own future security.

MARTINEZ: Germany - Europe's biggest economy - has been reluctant for years to spend as much on defense as its NATO allies would like. Now, over the weekend, Germany's chancellor told legislators he wants to change that. He wants a dramatic increase in defense spending.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Berlin. Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How dramatic a change is this by Germany?

SCHMITZ: Well, the Germany that is waking up today is not the same Germany as last week. Yesterday, in a speech to the Bundestag, Germany's Parliament, Olaf Scholz did away with years of Angela Merkel-era foreign security policy, and he announced the country would set up a special fund of 100 billion euros to fund Germany's armed forces and, from now on, would spend at least 2% of its GDP on its military. When Scholz announced this, the Bundestag erupted into applause. This was a shocking about-face for a country that has, for years, been stubbornly reluctant to invest in its own military. Last year, Germany spent only 1.4% of its GDP on its defense, so this new commitment is a game-changer for Europe and its security. Scholz defended the move by saying this.

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CHANCELLOR OLAF SCHOLZ: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Steve, he's saying here that Putin wants to reestablish a Russian empire and fundamentally reorder Europe according to his own ideas by using military force, and that forces the question - what capabilities do we have to counter that threat? This is a turning point in German history, and it has met with a gush of support from throughout Europe. In fact, right after Scholz announced this, more than 100,000 people poured into central Berlin in front of the Brandenburg Gate to show their support for Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Rob, I want to ask what Europe is doing for Ukraine, but I want to dwell on this first for a few seconds. If Scholz is talking about increasing defense spending, he's talking about buying weapons or recruiting troops that might be online two years or five years or 10 years or 15 years from now. This takes time. Are Europeans seeing that this is a generational change, that the future is going to be very different than the past generation?

SCHMITZ: Absolutely. And, you know, yes, these changes may happen in the next couple of years, but more immediately, Germany has dropped its ban on sending weapons to conflict zones, as has the EU. So we're seeing big, big changes in this part of Europe.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk that through, then. What are Europeans doing for Ukraine now? It just seemed like a flood of headlines over the weekend.

SCHMITZ: It was. And yesterday, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a raft of new punitive measures. First off, the EU has asked all its 27 members to close their airspace to Russian-owned, -registered or -controlled aircraft. This morning, departure boards at Moscow's airports showed dozens of canceled flights to cities across Europe. That's just the start. Von der Leyen also announced the EU will, for the first time, finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country under attack. This is also a landmark move. Those shipments, which will include fighter jets, will commence immediately to Ukraine's military. Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, had this to say about the bloc's about-face on this issue.

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JOSEP BORRELL: Another taboo has fallen, the taboo that the European Union was not providing arms in a war. Yes, we are doing - because this war requires our engagement in order to support the Ukrainian army.

SCHMITZ: And, Steve, just quickly here, the EU also banned Russian state-backed media outlets and also put new sanctions on the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.

INSKEEP: Oh, because Lukashenko, of course, has been supportive and seems to be dominated by Russia. Rob, thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.