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News brief: Russian military strikes, Democrats midterm strategy, opioid crisis

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A short time ago, we had a graphic illustration of life in this unpredictable Russian war on Ukraine. Air raid warnings sounded in this city in the western part of the country, and we went downstairs to a bomb shelter where people gathered with their pets and families. Russian missiles have been striking cities here in western Ukraine today. They're hitting cities not far from the borders with NATO allies. And this suggests one way that Russia may be adapting after its early failures in the war.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So let's talk through the Russian adaptations with NPR's Ryan Lucas, who is also in Lviv. Hey there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: I would imagine you were also affected by that same air raid warning in the last little while.

LUCAS: I was, indeed. We all had to scramble down to the basement of where we are about 20 minutes from Leila and got the all clear, and now we're back up in our rooms.

INSKEEP: OK, so how does this fit in with the broader Russian attacks today?

LUCAS: Well, those attacks, the strikes that happened were in the cities of Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk, as Leila said, in the west of Ukraine. In both places, the Russians appear to be targeting airfields, although the strike in Ivano-Frankivsk at least was only near the airport there. But both of these cities are in western Ukraine, as we have said. They are hundreds of miles from the fighting that's raging in the country's north and east and south. In the early days of the war, Russia did hit military targets this far west and actually a little bit farther west, but cities out here have generally been safe and unscathed in this war so far.

INSKEEP: OK, so maybe that's changing or at least it has changed for this day as we watch to see what Russia does after its frustrations of the early two weeks of this war. There was an offensive against Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. It seems very much to have stalled for many days. Any change?

LUCAS: There is a bit of change there. It does appear to be moving. There was that long Russian convoy that was backed up for something like 40 miles outside of Kyiv. Satellite imagery released by Maxar Technology now shows that that convoy appears to have dispersed. Some of the tanks and other vehicles appear to have moved into wooded areas. Ukrainian forces had been harassing this convoy, hitting it with anti-tank missiles, really slowing Russia down. But with this redeployment now, Russia's offensive against Kyiv could be entering a new phase. Here's the city's mayor, Vitali Klitschko, speaking last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VITALI KLITSCHKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LUCAS: He's saying that Kyiv is under threat and that the city, along with the military, is turning Kyiv essentially into a fortress. But, of course, a renewed Russian offensive wouldn't be good news for Kyiv, but it also would be bad news for several towns and villages on the capital's outskirts because those towns and villages have been heavily hit by fighting for several days, and residents are desperate to get out.

INSKEEP: Are civilians having any more success in getting out of the hardest hit areas?

LUCAS: Well, this has really been a daily struggle here. The first attempts at a cease-fire in several places to allow civilians to evacuate did break down after evacuation routes were shelled and civilians were killed. But in the past few days, some of these cease-fires have held and people have been able to escape. Ukraine's deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said last night that over the last two days, more than 80,000 people were able to escape cities under Russian attack. They've gotten out of the northeastern city of Sumy and some nearby towns. But that's really an exception. These temporary cease-fires have failed more often than not. The most notable example of that is Mariupol in southern Ukraine. That's where a maternity hospital was hit earlier this week. We saw horrific images from that. The mayor and residents say the city has no power, no heat, no water. Food is running low. Vereshchuk, the deputy prime minister, put it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IRYNA VERESHCHUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LUCAS: Mariupol, she says, is truly a humanitarian catastrophe. But today, there are efforts yet again to get a cease-fire to help civilians get out.

INSKEEP: Ryan, thanks for your reporting, really appreciate it.

LUCAS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas is in Lviv, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Democrats face three facts about this year's midterm elections. They are the party in power, the party in power often loses seats, and they can't afford to lose any.

FADEL: Last night, President Biden offered them a pep talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Coming out of the State of the Union, we are the strongest position we've been in in months. We have a record, a record to be proud of.

FADEL: Today, he goes to Philadelphia, where House Democrats are plotting their way forward to November.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us once again. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How concerned are Democrats?

LIASSON: Democrats are really concerned. As you said, the party in power generally loses a lot of seats in the midterms, and Democrats have a bare minimum majority in the House and the Senate, so there's lots to worry about. But I think that up until recently, there was a lot of criticism from Democrats about the White House political operation. They didn't feel there was any clear message coming out of the White House. But now Democrats are feeling that after a long time off the field politically, the White House is finally cranking into gear, starting with the State of the Union. You heard President Biden say that. And they're a little more hopeful, and you can hear that by the reception the president got at the meeting last night.

INSKEEP: What exactly is different about what the president is saying or doing?

LIASSON: I think there's a little shift in emphasis. Biden is trying to regain his brand as a unifier who can competently govern. You know, for a while, he lost the plot, couldn't get COVID under control, couldn't get his own Democrats to pass his agenda in Congress. But now he talks about a unity agenda. He's focused on popular things, like helping veterans and funding cancer and passing legislation to make America more competitive with China. And Democrats are feeling a little bit more confident.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the situation here. We've been following redistricting. I know the Democrats have not been harmed as much as they feared. They might be harmed, but they're still seen as being at a disadvantage politically. What are their biggest challenges?

LIASSON: They have a lot of challenges, but inflation is one of the biggest ones. We just got another terrible inflation report yesterday. And there's very little that presidents can do about inflation. But Democrats are saying that because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they might be able to change the politics around inflation a little bit. You hear Biden talk about Putin's price hike at the gas pump. Of course, Republicans who have been trying to blame inflation on the president say that prices were rising even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Democrats say that they see several polls that show Biden's approval rating ticking up a little bit. One of them is our own NPR poll. They say Democrats are coming back. Independents are giving the president a second look. A president's approval rating is really important for how his party does in the midterms. And now they're talking about maybe they can survive, hang on to the majority in the Senate and keep losses in the House, not necessarily hang on to the majority but keep losses in the House to a minimum.

INSKEEP: Americans sometimes swing behind their president during a time of war. The United States, of course, is not at war. You can't exactly rally behind the flag, but are people rallying around the Ukrainian flag?

LIASSON: Yeah, I think they actually are. I think the bump in approval ratings that the president got after his State of the Union was because of Ukraine. The first part of the speech was all about the war in Ukraine, and that's all that most people watch. He has Putin as a foil now. President Biden is a wartime president. He's the leader of the free world. And the free world, at least for now, is unified against Russia and for Ukraine. The same thing is happening in Congress. There's bipartisan support for his policies towards Russia. Is it enough to change the dynamic of the midterms? We'll see.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks, as always.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Members of the family whose company makes OxyContin had to listen yesterday.

FADEL: Sackler family members were in court, and for more than two hours, they heard testimony from people who say their lives were destroyed by the Sacklers' company, Purdue Pharma.

INSKEEP: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is with us, Brian. Good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was it like?

MANN: It was raw and often angry. You know, this opioid crisis has killed half a million people in the U.S. Millions more have suffered addiction and loss, and a lot of that pain just exploded in this federal court hearing. People who spoke laid their suffering directly at the feet of three members of the Sackler family who attended this hearing. They blasted the Sacklers for earning billions of dollars, pushing opioid sales long after addiction rates and overdose deaths were clearly surging. Here's Ryan Hampton, who survived OxyContin addiction.

RYAN HAMPTON: I am one of the millions of people you preyed on to make your fortune. I am one of the living survivors of your monumental greed. You dedicated your life to ruining ours.

MANN: And I should say, Steve, we weren't allowed to record the actual court hearing. So Hampton read afterward from his prepared remarks during an interview with NPR.

INSKEEP: Well, what did the Sacklers say after having to sit there hearing people say to them directly, you ruined our lives deliberately?

MANN: Yeah, this was remarkable. They said nothing. This happened on a Zoom call. David Sackler and Theresa Sackler were visible on screen the entire time. They showed no expression, no emotion. They never spoke. Richard Sackler wasn't visible on screen. He was also silent. And this lack of response was especially notable when family members held up photographs of their dead children. Sheryl Juaire brought pictures of her two sons, Corey and Sean, who both died of fatal overdoses, one just last summer. I asked her why parents thought it was important to show these pictures.

CHERYL JUAIRE: Because they never want their child to be forgotten. We bring them out. We talk about them all the time just so nobody will forget them.

MANN: And the Sacklers have long maintained they did nothing wrong in all this, nothing illegal or unethical. They've repeatedly declined to offer an apology, though their company, Purdue Pharma, has pleaded guilty to federal crimes twice for its opioid sales practices.

INSKEEP: Brian, did people find some comfort just in being able to tell their stories?

MANN: Yeah, again and again, they told me, Steve, it was important to have this chance to speak directly to the Sacklers and to be heard by the Sacklers. Kara Trainor was addicted to OxyContin and says her 11-year-old son is now disabled after being born opioid dependent.

KARA TRAINOR: It has impacted me, and now it's impacting my son. That's why I'm here. I think it was really important for our voices to be heard. I think that's part of healing and closure, maybe.

MANN: And now that victims have had their say, Judge Robert Drain is expected to approve a bankruptcy settlement with the Sacklers, where they'll pay roughly $6 billion in exchange for immunity from future opioid lawsuits. The Sacklers fought hard to win that legal protections, a big victory for them. But the people who testified yesterday told me this hearing was part of an equally important fight to shape the way the Sacklers will be viewed by history. They were once one of the most respected philanthropic families in the world, and now museums and universities continue to sever ties with the Sacklers and strip their name off buildings.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS WILL DESTROY YOU'S "THEY MOVE ON TRACKS OF NEVER-ENDING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.