News brief: Mariupol latest, Biden's Asia visit, DHS Disinformation Board
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The U.S. Congress has approved an additional nearly $40 billion to Ukraine for weapons and humanitarian aid. That's nearly triple the amount of the last aid package.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, more than a thousand soldiers have been evacuated from that steel plant in Mariupol. This as Russia consolidates its control of the city, which is strategically really important because of Mariupol's position on the coast. Ukrainian officials are also out with some new, grim numbers. They say tens of thousands of people were killed during the months of bombardment and some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
FADEL: NPR's Joanna Kakissis joins us now from Kyiv, Ukraine. Good morning, Joanna.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.
FADEL: So, Joanna, what's the latest out of Mariupol? Are there any Ukrainian soldiers still holed up in that plant? Or is this really over?
KAKISSIS: So in addition to those who have surrendered, there could be even more soldiers still barricaded under the Azovstal plant. You know, officially, we don't know much because the Ukrainians have put a lid on all information about the plant since the soldiers started leaving it earlier this week. But on Thursday night, there was this cryptic video posted by a soldier that has been defending the plant. His name is Sviatoslav Palamar (ph), and he's a commander of Ukraine's Azov Regiment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SVIATOSLAV PALAMAR: (Through interpreter) Glory to Ukraine. Today is the 85th day of war. Me and my military command are in the territory of Azovstal now. There is some operation underway. I won't go into details of that. Thanks to the whole world, and thanks to Ukraine for support.
KAKISSIS: So he appears to be claiming that he and other Ukrainian soldiers remain inside the plant. We do not know if that's true, but it does suggest that this story has not ended.
FADEL: And what do we know about the soldiers who have surrendered? What's happening with them? Where are they?
KAKISSIS: Well, we know that they've been taken to Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine's east. On private Telegram channels, supporters of Russia's war are celebrating the capture of these soldiers, calling them Nazis and pigs. The International Committee for the Red Cross says that they're registering Ukrainian soldiers as prisoners of war. Earlier this week, Ukrainian officials were talking about bringing the soldiers back to Ukraine as part of a prisoner exchange. But since then, the Ukrainian authorities have gone silent. And some Russian politicians are saying that the Ukrainian soldiers should be put on trial and even face execution. But the Geneva Conventions state that combatants cannot be put on trial just for participating in battles.
FADEL: So this Ukrainian city, Mariupol, is destroyed after weeks of bombing and shelling by Russian troops. And Russia now controls it. Tell us why Russia wanted it and how Russia will capitalize on taking control.
KAKISSIS: Sure. Controlling Mariupol means Russia secures a link between the Russian border and Crimea. Russian media reports suggest that Russia is taking steps to secure its hold over southeastern Ukraine. It's not clear yet how this will look - what this will look like. Russia's deputy prime minister for infrastructure, Marat Khusnullin - he was quoted by Russian news media saying that, you know, "these areas have a worthy place in our Russia family." Russia has also installed proxies to serve as local politicians. So the Russians are clearly planning on staying here for the long haul, even though Ukrainians have pushed them back in other parts of the country.
FADEL: NPR's Joanna KAKISSIS in Kyiv, Ukraine, thank you so much for your reporting.
KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Leila.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FADEL: What do you do when you go to someone else's house for the first time? Bring some flowers, banana bread, maybe some new promises about your commitment to Asia?
MARTIN: President Biden is on his first trip to Asia as president. He is in Seoul today and then heading to Japan over the weekend. In both countries, South Korea and Japan, the Biden administration will try to coordinate more closely with allies like those countries. But it's really about China. And no doubt Russia's invasion of Ukraine will also be on the agenda.
FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul to outline the visit. Thanks for being here.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thank you.
FADEL: So what has President Biden's South Korean counterpart said about ties with the U.S.?
KUHN: Well, you know, the official rhetoric is always of the ironclad ties between the two nations. But I think beneath the surface, there have been feelings in both Seoul and Washington that their priorities are a bit different. In recent years, many in Seoul have felt that Washington needs to be more proactive in getting North Korea back to nuclear negotiations, while many in Washington feel that the previous South Korean administration has been too cautious in its criticism of China. Now, the new South Korean president, Yoon Suk Yeol, has pledged a tighter alliance with Washington, but he's also said he wants to maintain good ties with Beijing. So I think people are watching to see if he moves decisively towards either Beijing or Washington on this trip.
FADEL: Interesting - so kind of cautious. North Korea is in the middle of what it claims is its first COVID outbreak, but there are also concerns that the North could test an atomic bomb while President Biden is in Seoul, right?
KUHN: That's right. There may be some discussion of trying to help North Korea with its outbreak, but North Korea has refused all offers of aid so far. As for the missile tests, North Korea always has some missiles to test, and they just want to time them for maximum political impact. But Seoul says it has a contingency plan in case that happens, which could be to duck the two presidents into a military command bunker or something like that.
FADEL: Now, President Biden appears to be prioritizing economic issues, but that's tied to geopolitics, too - right? - countering China's influence.
KUHN: Well, yeah. A lot of the visit will focus on economic security, which includes preventing rival powers from stealing technology, cutting supply chains, dominating high tech in things like superconductors and electric vehicles, both of which South Korea is a key player in. So President Biden will tout South Korean investments in factories in the U.S. to make those things. And President Yoon is expected to sign on to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is a regional trade agreement that the Biden administration has come with - come up with partly to compete with China.
FADEL: How is the Biden administration trying to show that it can be a leader in Asia at the same time as it supports Ukraine?
KUHN: Well, it's got Seoul and Tokyo on board, and they've joined in sanctions on Russia. The U.S. has reportedly asked South Korea to sell Ukraine some weapons to fight Russia, but Seoul has so far declined. Now, I asked Wi Sung-lac about this. He's a former South Korean ambassador to Russia and former top negotiator on the North Korean nuclear issue. Let's hear his concerns.
WI SUNG-LAC: So broadly speaking, China, Russia and North Korea is, in a sense, on one side. And on the other side, we have United States, Japan and South Korea and the West. That faultline will be deepened, I think, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
KUHN: So what he's saying is that Seoul is concerned that they could - that Russia and China could support North Korea and make life difficult for them.
FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn, thanks so much.
KUHN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FADEL: Three weeks. That's how long it took for the Department of Homeland Security to first announce and then suspend a board to combat disinformation.
MARTIN: Those three weeks were pretty much a nightmare for the Disinformation Governance Board and specifically its leader, Nina Jankowicz. She came under this relentless, sometimes vicious attack - line of attack that came from right-wing media. Also, it was coming from Republican lawmakers. They were all accusing her of partisanship and attacking her tweets, even the silly TikTok video she made.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)
NINA JANKOWICZ: (Singing) Oh, information laundering is really quite ferocious. It's when a huckster takes some lies and makes them sound precocious by saying them in Congress or a mainstream outlet service. Information's origins seem likely less atrocious.
FADEL: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us now to break down just what happened. Hi, Shannon.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.
FADEL: So we're talking about an expert in online disinformation who then becomes the target of online disinformation. Can you take us through what happened?
BOND: Right. I mean, as you said, Jankowicz is a well-regarded authority here. But look. There was a lot of criticism of this Disinformation Governance Board, including from the left. But conservatives in particular seized on Jankowicz as the face of this board. You know, first they distorted her role, the board's purpose. They made it out to be some kind of Orwellian suppressor of free speech. And then the attacks got really personal, much more than just making fun of her TikTok videos. Jankowicz received an onslaught of online abuse, harassment, even death threats.
FADEL: Wow. How did things get so out of control so quickly?
BOND: Well, DHS did not really explain what this board was designed to do. And in the absence of that information, many assumed the worst, that it was an attack by the Biden administration on free speech. But when I spoke with Jankowicz yesterday, here's what she said.
JANKOWICZ: Basically, everything you may have heard about the Disinformation Governance Board is wrong or is just a flat-out lie.
FADEL: Flat-out lie. OK. Why was the Disinformation Governance Board created? And what was it supposed to do?
BOND: Well, Jankowicz and DHS say this was, you know, an internal working group, kind of anodyne. It was a group of technocrats charged with coordinating efforts across DHS. So, for example, if there were fake videos spreading about a natural disaster, the board would consult with FEMA on how to reach people with accurate information. It was supposed to make sure different parts of this large agency were working in sync, not police speech. But again, that was not communicated during the rollout. And then when the board itself and Jankowicz came under these attacks, DHS just did not respond with any semblance of speed.
FADEL: Oh, my gosh. The irony - the Disinformation Governance Board taken down by disinformation. Now Jankowicz has quit, right? What happens to the board?
BOND: Well, DHS says it's on pause while they review how best to continue their work on disinformation. That pause is going to last 75 days, which in internet time, might as well be a century.
BOND: And this decision to suspend the board was the last straw for Jankowicz. She says this whole ordeal embodies the very challenges the board was supposed to help address.
JANKOWICZ: I don't think governments are equipped to handle disinformation campaigns. I don't think governments are thinking very deeply about what to do when their employees are the subject of harassments and death threats and absolute mischaracterization of the work that they've done and committed their career to.
BOND: So, you know, at the end of our interview, I asked Jankowicz how she felt about all of this now. She said she's disappointed. She's tired. She's pregnant and about to go on maternity leave with her first child. And she's asking herself, was this all worth it?
FADEL: NPR's Shannon Bond. Thanks, Shannon.
BOND: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.