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News brief: U.S.-Russia meeting, diplomatic boycott of Olympics, DOJ sues Texas


Much of the stability of the world depends on the U.S. competition with two great rivals.


Russia was the great rival of the past, China seen as the great rival of the future, and both are causing plenty of tension in the present and are in the news this morning. We begin with Russia. Today, President Biden holds a video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has built up troops along the border with Ukraine.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes joins us from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's start with the facts on the ground. What is Russia doing on the Ukrainian border?

MAYNES: Sure. For the past several weeks, U.S. intelligence officials have seen Russian forces - an estimated 100,000 troops or perhaps even more - gathering within striking distance of the Ukrainian border. And that's prompted concerns Russia's about to stage an all-out invasion. Now, Russia insists these are its own troops on its own territory, that it has no aggressive intentions. In fact, they say it's Ukraine building up its forces. But there's some recent history here, you know, we can't ignore. Russia has seized territory from Ukraine in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. It's also started a proxy war by backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas later that same year. And that war has led to over 13,000 deaths. But it's important to point out here, you know, even the Biden administration says they simply don't know what Putin's intentions are, just that the threat there is significant.

INSKEEP: One thing the U.S. does know is that it would like to support the government of Ukraine. So what can Biden tell Putin in this video call?

MAYNES: Well, he's warning that the cost of any Russian invasion will be high, and he's reinforcing a message that his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, gave to his Russian counterpart when they met recently, said that Moscow would face high-impact sanctions for any military action. But Biden's team also says the president certainly prefers diplomacy here, and he's hoping to rejuvenate a stalled peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia called the Minsk Accords that, at least in the past, has quelled the fighting in east Ukraine, however imperfectly.

INSKEEP: OK, so it sounds like the United States would like to avoid a full-scale shooting war. But there's the question of Vladimir Putin. What does Vladimir Putin really want?

MAYNES: Well, you know, he's upped the stakes beyond peace in the Donbas. He's worried about Ukraine joining NATO, and he wants a guarantee from Biden and the U.S. and its allies that that's not going to happen, you know. And this really is Putin trying to renegotiate NATO's march eastward after the fall of the Soviet Union. He's always seen that as fundamentally unfair and certainly a danger to Russia's national security. In fact, he's called NATO's presence in Ukraine a Kremlin red line. And on that point, I spoke with Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian analyst with R.Politik who argues, here, Putin isn't bluffing.

TATIANA STANOVAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: And so what Stanovaya here is saying is that Putin believes things have gotten to the point where either the West has to finally take Russia's security concerns seriously or he's ready to go to war.

INSKEEP: OK, so Russia is casting this as a confrontation really with the United States and its allies. But the actual threat is to Ukrainians. What do they say?

MAYNES: Well, they argue Ukraine is an independent country, and it's up to them to decide whether they want to join NATO or not. It's probably important to point out here that nobody in NATO is actually talking about joining the alliance, at least not in the foreseeable future. Now, as Biden goes into these talks, he's essentially negotiating on Ukraine's behalf. And so some are expressing concern that the U.S., given other priorities, might appease Moscow. But fundamentally, you know, certainly Biden, the optics of trying to cave in to Putin are something that would look bad going forward. So I think there's a sense among most Ukrainians that he's got their back.

INSKEEP: Charles, thanks for your insights, really appreciate it.

MAYNES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes is in Moscow.


INSKEEP: The United States faces a simultaneous confrontation with China.

ELLIOTT: The Biden administration says the U.S. will not send government officials to the Winter Olympics in Beijing early next year. The diplomatic boycott is in response to China's treatment of Uyghurs and other populations. Here's White House press secretary Jen Psaki.


JEN PSAKI: I think this is just an indication that it cannot be business as usual. That does not mean that we are - that is the end of the concerns we will raise about human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

INSKEEP: Let's go to Beijing next because NPR correspondent Emily Feng is there. Hey there, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How is China responding to this diplomatic boycott?

FENG: They are quite peeved. Today, China came out, they accused the U.S. of politicizing the Olympics and, according to a foreign ministry spokesperson, of, quote, "tarnishing the Olympic spirit." Here's that same spokesperson today at a press conference about this boycott.


ZHAO LIJIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying, "the Winter Olympics is not a stage for political posturing. To boycott an event the U.S. was not even invited to anyways is to confuse black for white." He then threatened countermeasures, though it's not clear what those are yet.

INSKEEP: I just want to note, U.S. athletes are still going to go. The competition will still go ahead, and in fact, there will be a lot of officials from other countries. Vladimir Putin comes to mind. So does China care if American diplomats show up or not?

FENG: They are trying to play it down. And indeed, some Chinese officials are saying this is not a big deal if the U.S. doesn't come. The same spokesperson, which you just heard earlier, tweeted yesterday, no one actually cares whether or not American politicians come to Beijing.

But a good portion of the Chinese-language discussion I saw on Chinese social media today about the U.S. boycott was censored, suggesting that Beijing is a bit sensitive about this U.S. snub, which is why they're trying to minimize public discussion about it. And that's because Beijing does care about the Olympics. At the end of the day, despite their denials that it is a political event, this is a geopolitical sports game, no matter how Beijing tries to play it. It's a chance for Beijing to show off how it's managed the pandemic, and it's a chance for the host country to show off how its culture is to thousands of international journalists.

So these games were always a prestige event for China, and they're especially politically fraught this time around because the ruling Communist Party here has pressure from both sides. They've got pressure from their own citizens to pull this off during a pandemic, and internationally, they're going to have to do this under very close watch while keeping all these athletes and journalists safe with very strict COVID prevention rules.

INSKEEP: There is a reason that China invested in hosting the Olympics once again. Is it possible that other countries may follow the United States and keep their officials at home?

FENG: Likely, yes. I've been speaking to diplomats stationed here in Beijing, mostly from allied countries to the U.S., and they're under significant pressure from the U.S. to follow suit and join in in a diplomatic boycott. And that's why Beijing is upset because a U.S. boycott could mushroom into a multilateral boycott. Lithuania and New Zealand have already announced one. Other countries will likely follow soon.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing, thanks so much.

FENG: Thanks, Steve.


INSKEEP: OK. In this country, the U.S. Justice Department is suing the state of Texas again.

ELLIOTT: This time over the state's redistricting plan, which the DOJ calls discriminatory. Federal law prohibits congressional district lines that deliberately diminish the power of racial minorities. The Biden administration had already sued Texas over new laws on voting and abortion.

INSKEEP: Ashley Lopez of member station KUT is covering this story from Austin. Good morning.


INSKEEP: What exactly did Texas do that got it sued?

LOPEZ: So DOJ officials allege that Texas lawmakers violated the Voting Rights Act when they drew up new political districts this year. The Voting Rights Act, of course, is a civil rights-era law that protects the voting rights of racial minorities. And in this case, the DOJ is specifically concerned about how Texas' new maps affect Latino and Black voters. According to them, Texas intended to discriminate against these communities when they drew up new political boundaries for the next decade.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note there was going to be a lawsuit regardless because other groups had sued Texas already over the maps. Why did the Justice Department join in?

LOPEZ: Yeah, that's right. So a lot of this has to do with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision back in 2013 to strike down a part of the Voting Rights Act. In particular, the court got rid of a part of the law that required some states, including Texas, to get clearance by the federal government before they enact new voting maps or laws. And U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has been saying that this is something he was worried about as states prepared to draw new maps this year. Here's Garland in a press conference yesterday.


MERRICK GARLAND: Earlier this year, I noted that this redistricting cycle would be the first to proceed since 1960 without the protection of pre-clearance. But I also said that the department would use all available authorities and resources to continue protecting the right to vote.

LOPEZ: And Garland said this lawsuit against Texas is part of that work that he promised to do.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking this through. So in the past, Texas had to get permission in advance for its maps. That is no longer the case. Texas is able to just do a map and say to the United States, sue us if you don't like it. And, of course, they're going ahead and suing them. So what specifically did Texas do that, at least according to the federal government, would concern them about diminishing the voting power of racial minorities?

LOPEZ: Yes, that's right. And the concern is that even though racial minorities in Texas made up 95% of the state's population growth in the past decade, state lawmakers drew maps that didn't give those communities more voting power. For example, this population growth led to the state getting two new congressional seats. But DOJ officials say Texas designed both of those new seats to have white voting majorities. In the lawsuit, they also say state lawmakers denied Latinos opportunity districts in West Texas and in the Houston area, and they broke up communities of color in the core of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and put those voters in districts with white voters.

The DOJ said the redistricting process in Texas in general was rushed and didn't have adequate amount of public input. Merrick Garland also pointed out that Texas has a bad history with redistricting. Since the 1960s, Texas has been found to violate the Voting Rights Act every time it has drawn new political maps. So the DOJ says this is part of a long-term problem in Texas.

INSKEEP: Wow. Every time. So what did Texas Republicans say in response?

LOPEZ: Well, our attorney general, Ken Paxton, said the lawsuit is absurd and a ploy to control Texas voters. He said on Twitter that he was confident the state's redistricting efforts will be proven lawful. And what Republicans in Texas have said all along is that they were not taking aim at communities of color when they drew up these maps. They were just creating advantages for their party, which is something the U.S. Supreme Court has said is OK for parties in power to do.

INSKEEP: That's exactly right. Chief Justice John Roberts said, if you can prove it was for party purposes and not racial purposes, you may get away with it. Ashley, thanks so much.

LOPEZ: Yeah, thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Ashley Lopez of KUT in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "RELIEF") 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.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.