Russia says it will pull some troops back from Ukraine's border as diplomatic talks continue

Published February 15, 2022 at 8:08 AM EST
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Maxim Shemetov
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall in Moscow on Tuesday.

Good morning,

We're following these top stories today:

Russia-Ukraine standoff: In an apparent shift in tone, Russian officials saytalks with the U.S. and NATO allies are "far from exhausted" as Germany's chancellor visits Moscow to underline his country's support for Ukraine.

Ottawa truck protests: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers to end the anti-vaccine protests in Ottawa.

Olympic doping: U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson called out the decision to allow Russian skater Kamila Valieva to compete at the Olympics despite her positive drug test. Richardson was denied a chance to compete in last summer's Olympics when she tested positive for THC, the intoxicant in marijuana.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, The Mazars accounting firm says it can no longer stand behind a decade’s worth of financial statements that it prepared and signed for former President Donald Trump and his family business.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Chris Hopkins)

World leaders

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will deliver Harvard's commencement address

Posted February 15, 2022 at 11:23 AM EST
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, wearing a dark top and dangling gold and pink earrings, speaks while standing in front of two men wearing suits and blue face masks.
Fiona Goodall
Getty Images AsiaPac
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media at a vaccination center in Auckland, New Zealand, on Feb. 4.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will be the principal speaker at Harvard's commencement ceremony in May, the university announced on Monday.

Ardern has served as prime minister since 2017, when she became the third woman to hold that title and the youngest person to do so in more than 150 years. Harvard President Larry Bacow called her "one of the most respected leaders on the world stage" in a statement announcing the news, which also notes she will receive an honorary degree.

"From climate change and gender equality to COVID-19, she has modeled compassionate leadership that has brought together empathy and science-based solutions to address the most challenging issues of our time," he added. "I very much look forward to her address.”

Ardern will address the class of 2022 at the first of the school's commencement ceremonies on May 26, The Harvard Crimson reported.

Harvard will hold a second ceremony three days later for the classes of 2020 and 2021, whose graduations were held online because of the pandemic. That speaker will be announced in the coming weeks.

Ardern announced on Tuesday that she will be visiting the United States in May, in what SkyNews notes will be her first overseas trip since New Zealand implemented strict border restrictions in 2020.

The visit is part of the government's "reconnection strategy," her office said in a statement, adding that she will focus on trade on the U.S. West Coast involving New Zealand's high-technology export sectors.

“New Zealand is in demand internationally," she said. "A priority for our international engagement is to focus on trade opportunities that accelerate our recovery raise New Zealand’s profile in key export markets."

Her office also confirmed that she will be speaking at Harvard.

Harvard says Ardern will be the 17th sitting world leader to deliver its commencement address. Recent speakers include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis.


Space junk piece set to crash into the moon likely from a Chinese rocket, not SpaceX, astronomers say

Posted February 15, 2022 at 11:11 AM EST

The piece of old space junk expected to crash into the moon in early March that was originally thought to be from SpaceX is actually an old Chinese rocket, multiple astronomers believe.

Independent astronomer Bill Gray, who first identified that this piece of junk would hit the moon, posted a correction on his websiteProject Plutoon Saturday. He first started tracking this particular piece of junk in March 2015, around one month after the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was launched. At the time, he says, he and others identified it as the rocket's second stage.

"The object had about the brightness we would expect, and had showed up at the expected time and moving in a reasonable orbit. Essentially, I had pretty good circumstantial evidence for the identification, but nothing conclusive," Gray said in his blog post.

He added that working off of circumstantial evidence in identifying space junk is not that unusual.

"Identifications of high-flying space junk often require a bit of detective work," Gray said, "Sometimes, we never do figure out the ID for a bit of space junk."

But on Saturday, Gray said he received an email from Jon Giorgini at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which keeps track of active spacecrafts. Giorgini pointed out that it was unlikely the piece Gray had identified was from the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, because of the gap between the rocket's trajectory, which was not close to the moon, and this piece of the rocket that supposedly ended up near the moon.

Gray says he now thinks the rocket piece is from the Chang'e 5-T1 mission, which launched by the Chinese National Space Administration in October 2014.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, also used data he had and came to the same conclusion. McDowell says that attached to the Chinese rocket was a radio from LuxSpace, which tracked the data of their package. He saved the data from LuxSpace, which helped verify Gray's assessment that the space junk is from Chang'e 5-T1.

Gray and McDowell both add a caveat.

"In a sense, this remains 'circumstantial' evidence," Gray says of his new finding. "But I would regard it as fairly convincing evidence, the sort where the jury would file out of the courtroom and come back in a few minutes with a conviction."

McDowell says the new data means we can be 90% sure it's a Chinese rocket part, but not 100%.

The estimate on when the piece of space junk will hit the moon is still March 4.

Jam out

Snoop Dogg and Kelly Clarkson will host a U.S. version of the 'Eurovision Song Contest'

Posted February 15, 2022 at 10:59 AM EST
Snoop Dogg, wearing a blue and yellow tracksuit, poses with his arms outstretched and a gold microphone in hand while performing at the Super Bowl.
Kevin C. Cox
Getty Images
Snoop Dogg performs during the Super Bowl LVI halftime show Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Southern California.

Snoop Dogg and Kelly Clarkson are bringing Eurovision stateside.

The stars will be hosting an upcoming musical competition in which performers from across the U.S. will vie for the title of best original hit.

NBC's American Song Contest will feature live performances representing all 50 states, five territories and Washington, D.C. There will be three rounds of competition, with audiences set to choose one winning act by popular vote.

"An incredible solo artist, duo or a band will represent each location and perform a new original song, celebrating the depth and variety of different styles and genres across America," NBC said in a release.

The competition was first announced in 2020, and Clarkson and Snoop Dogg were announced as hosts during an advertisement that ran during the Super Bowl (at which the rapper was one of the halftime show performers). The 56 competitors will be announced at a later date, NBC said.

The competition is based on the Eurovision Song Contest, which has been a global mainstay since it began in 1956 and attracts some 200 million viewers each year, according to NBC. The two also share the same producers (the U.S. show is also produced by those involved with the singing competition The Voice).

"I have been a fan and love the concept of Eurovision and am thrilled to bring the musical phenomenon to America," Clarkson said in a statement. "I'm so excited to work with Snoop and can't wait to see every state and territory represented by artists singing their own songs."

American Song Contest will premiere on Monday, March 21 and run for eight weeks. The finale is scheduled for May 9, which Eurovision notes is just one day before the Eurovision Song Contest first semifinal.

The Eurovision semifinals and final are available in the U.S. on NBC sibling streaming platform Peacock as part of a two-year deal, according to Deadline.

Clarkson — who rose to fame as the winner of the first season of American Idol — spoke about the competition in a Tuesday segment of The Kelly Clarkson Show. She said she's excited that all parts of the U.S. will be represented, saying, "We're pretty divided as a nation." She also applauded its focus on songwriting.

"There's a lot of shows out there that have competitions with singing or artists or whatever, and it's really cool because the best song wins out," she said, adding that working with Snoop Dogg is another highlight.

The rapper returned the compliment, writing in a statement: "I am honored to host 'American Song Contest' alongside my lil sis Kelly Clarkson, aka Miss Texas."

Member Station Reports

Families of Sandy Hook victims say they have reached a $73 million settlement with the maker of the murder weapon

Posted February 15, 2022 at 10:37 AM EST

Families of victims killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting say in a court filing that they have reached a $73 million agreement with the company that made the murder weapon.

"These nine families have shared a single goal from the very beginning: to do whatever they could to help prevent the next Sandy Hook. It is hard to imagine an outcome that better accomplishes that goal," said Josh Koskoff, an attorney for victims' families, in a statement on Tuesday.

"This victory should serve as a wake up call not only to the gun industry, but also the insurance and banking companies that prop it up," Koskoff added.

The Dec. 14, 2012, shooting left 20 students and six staff members dead.

Two years later, relatives of victims sued the Remington Arms Co. in a Connecticut court. They alleged that the manufacturer marketed and sold assault rifles to civilians, “prioritizing profit over public safety.”

Now, that suit appears to be coming to a close.

“The plaintiffs in this action hereby give Notice that a settlement agreement has been executed between the parties,” read a Tuesday filing from attorneys representing the estates of people killed in the shooting.

Jury selection in the 7-year-old case was set to begin this September. But now,according to the filing signed by the plaintiff’s attorney Josh Koskoff, there’s a request for a hearing to have the case withdrawn.

An initial settlement was offered to the plaintiffs last July. The defense sent “an offer of compromise” to the estates of nine of the victims in a deal worth about $33 million — $3.66 million to each party. Now, almost seven months later, there’s an apparent agreement. The terms have not yet been disclosed.

A press conference is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

For more, head to Connecticut Public.


Novak Djokovic says he’s willing to miss Grand Slam tournaments rather than get vaccinated

Posted February 15, 2022 at 10:22 AM EST
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, right, walks surrounded by fans as he arrives for a ceremony in the coastal city of Budva, Montenegro, on Jan. 28.
Savo Prelevic
AFP via Getty Images
Fans surround Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic (right) as he arrives for a ceremony last month in the coastal city of Budva, Montenegro.

Tennis star Novak Djokovic says he won’t be getting vaccinated against COVID-19, even if it means he can’t play in Grand Slam tournaments this year. But Djokovic also says that his decision is entirely personal and that he shouldn’t be lumped in with anti-vaccination activists.

“I understand the consequences of my decision” not to be vaccinated, Djokovic said in an interview with the BBC that was released on Tuesday.

Noting the global nature of his sport, with tournaments held in numerous countries throughout the year, Djokovic said he knows his decision to refuse the vaccine means he can’t travel to most tournaments, including possibly the French Open in late spring and Wimbledon in London in the summer.

“That is the price that I’m willing to pay,” he said.

Djokovic said he made his decision based on his status as “an elite professional athlete,” one who is very concerned about anything he consumes, from water to food and supplements. But he said he’ll keep an open mind about getting the COVID-19 vaccine in the future, adding that it’s wrong to consider him an ally of the anti-vaccine movement.

“I was never against vaccination,” Djokovic said, adding that he knows the vaccination effort is an important part of the fight to end the pandemic.

Djokovic has won 20 Grand Slam singles titles, a mark he shares with Roger Federer. The two had been tied with Rafael Nadal, who now owns 21 championships after winning the Australian Open last month. Djokovic had hoped to win that title -- but he was deported from Australia over his vaccination status.

Standoff in Eastern Europe

More U.S. troops deploy to Poland under Russia-Ukraine tensions

Posted February 15, 2022 at 10:15 AM EST

Fort Bragg paratroopers are among nearly 5,000 infantry brigade soldiers that the Department of Defense is sending to Poland amid a growing Russian presence near the Ukraine border.

Moscow has more than 100,000 troops deployed near Ukraine but insists it has no plans to attack. On Monday, Russian officials said they were prepared to continue talks about the country's security grievances.

But the U.S. and other Western nations have repeatedly sounded alarms about the danger. The Biden administration has said that an invasion could happen at any moment.

Sgt. Khristie Flake of Houston says the Fort Bragg troops are ready. "We train every day, and we're prepared to take on any challenge as the 82nd Airborne," she said.


San Francisco police face criticism for using rape victims' DNA to identify potential suspects

Posted February 15, 2022 at 10:09 AM EST
San Francisco police cars sit parked in front of the Hall of Justice on February 27, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
San Francisco police are investigating a newly discovered practice of using rape victims' DNA to search for suspects in unrelated crimes.

San Francisco officials are criticizing the city’s police department over what officials say is a newly-discovered practice inside the department of searching a database containing DNA collected from sexual assault victims to identify them as possible criminal suspects.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin said using rape kit DNA to search for suspects in separate investigations treats victims “like evidence, not human beings” and called for the practice to end.

“Rapes and sexual assault are violent, dehumanizing, and traumatic. I am disturbed that victims who have the courage to undergo an invasive examination to help identify their perpetrators are being treated like criminals rather than supported as crime victims,” Boudin said in a press release Monday.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it was a violation of a sexual assault victim’s privacy to use their DNA profile to possibly incriminate them in an unrelated investigation.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said he has ordered an investigation into the matter, according to The Associated Press.

"We must never create disincentives for crime victims to cooperate with police, and if it's true that DNA collected from a rape or sexual assault victim has been used by SFPD to identify and apprehend that person as a suspect in another crime, I'm committed to ending the practice," Scott said.

A California state senator said he was considering introducing legislation to end the practice statewide.

Catholic Church

An Arizona priest used one wrong word in baptisms for decades. They're all invalid

Posted February 15, 2022 at 8:59 AM EST

A Catholic priest in Arizona has resigned after he was found to have performed baptisms incorrectly throughout his career, rendering the rite invalid for thousands of people.

The Catholic Diocese of Phoenix announced on its website that it determined after careful study that the Rev. Andres Arango had used the wrong wording in baptisms performed up until June 17, 2021. He had been off by a single word.

During baptisms in both English and Spanish, Arango used the phrase "we baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." He should have said "I baptize," the diocese explained.

"It is not the community that baptizes a person and incorporates them into the Church of Christ; rather, it is Christ, and Christ alone, who presides at all sacraments; therefore, it is Christ who baptizes," it said. "If you were baptized using the wrong words, that means your baptism is invalid, and you are not baptized."

Diocese spokesperson Katie Burke told NPR over email that Arango is believed to have used the incorrect word since the beginning of his priesthood in 1995.

"I do not have an exact number of people affected, but I believe they number in the thousands," she added.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said in a statement that the error was first reported to him and confirmed after an investigation by diocesan officials in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. He noted that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith affirmed in 2020 that baptisms conferred with the phrase "We baptize you" are not valid.

Similar discoveries were made in 2020 in Detroit and Oklahoma City, Burke said. She added that Arango's error "was brought to the attention of the diocese by lay faithful who were aware of it happening in other places and of the Vatican's response, and who knew it to be incorrect when they heard it happen here in Phoenix," which she estimates must have been around June 2021.

As far as the diocese is aware, all of the other sacraments that Arango conferred are valid. But because baptism is the "sacrament that grants access to all the others," a botched baptism could invalidate any subsequent sacraments, including confirmation, marriage and holy orders.

"What this means for you is, if your baptism was invalid and you’ve received other sacraments, you may need to repeat some or all of those sacraments after you are validly baptized as well," the diocese said.

Arango — who first joined St. Gregory Parish in 2015 after decades of religious service in Brazil, California and Arizona — apologized for the inconvenience his actions had caused and told the community that he resigned as pastor effective Feb. 1.

He said he would devote his energy and full-time ministry "to help remedy this and heal those affected." He remains a priest in good standing, according to the diocese.

"I do not believe Fr. Andres had any intentions to harm the faithful or deprive them of the grace of baptism and the sacraments," Olmsted wrote. "On behalf of our local Church, I too am sincerely sorry that this error has resulted in disruption to the sacramental lives of a number of the faithful. This is why I pledge to take every step necessary to remedy the situation for everyone impacted."

Olmsted is seeking help in identifying those in need of the sacraments and encouraging anyone who believes their own baptism was affected to call their parish for more information. The diocese also has an online form for people to fill out if they or their child was baptized by Arango.

Officials said they are working closely with Arango and his former parishes to notify anyone who may have been baptized invalidly. It advises people who are unsure about Arango's involvement to check their files for a baptismal certificate or refer back to photos and videos from the ceremony.

The diocese said that while the situation may seem legalistic, the words, materials and actions are crucial aspects of every sacrament — and changing any of them makes them invalid.

"For example, if a priest uses milk instead of wine during the Consecration of the Eucharist, the sacrament is not valid," it said. "The milk would not become the Blood of Jesus Christ."


Trudeau invokes first-ever use of Canada's Emergencies Act over truck protests

Posted February 15, 2022 at 8:40 AM EST
Justin Trudeau speaks in front of a podium with a maple leaf on it. Behind him are Canadian flags.
Dave Chan
AFP via Getty Images
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on the trucker protests on Monday.

Canada's prime minister has invoked emergency powers never used before in a bid to dislodge truckers protesting COVID-19 precautions and other restrictions.

"We'll always defend the rights of Canadians to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, but these blockades are illegal," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a press conference Monday. "If you're still participating, the time to go home is now."

Trudeau invoked the country's Emergencies Act to allow the government more authority to respond to the protesters blocking streets and disturbing residents in downtown Ottawa.

Groups opposing Trudeau's government and demanding an end to COVID-19 precautions have been demonstrating for weeks, disturbing parts of the capital with near-constant honking and blocking some border crossings with tractor-trailers.

Canada's Emergencies Act grants temporary additional powers to the federal government to respond to crises. Created in 1988, this is the first time the act has been inoked. Trudeau said that while the act would be used to support law enforcement agencies dealing with the protests, it wouldn't be used to call in the military for assistance.

The act may also allow authorities to compel reluctant tow companies to work with police to tow vehicles that are obstructing streets, reports NPR's Emma Jacobs. Jacobs joined Morning Edition with the latest on Canada's efforts to end the demonstrations. Listen here.

Trudeau noted Canada has turned away non-Canadians trying to enter the country to join in the protests. At the border crossing in Coutts, Alberta, police said they had seized more than a dozen guns with ammunition from protestors blockading the border with Montana, reports Jacobs.

Authorities this week cleared a border blockage at the Ambassador Bridge between Ontario and Detroit after it was closed off for days by protesters.

Russia-Ukraine crisis

Russia appears to be shifting its tone as diplomatic efforts continue

Posted February 15, 2022 at 8:00 AM EST
Two soldiers wearing coats and fur hats stand behind a wreath with a black, red and yellow flag, while a man in a black jacket holds it on the other side.
Maxim Shemetov
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin Wall in Moscow on Tuesday.

We're hearing that Russia could be planning to invade Ukraine on Wednesday. We're also hearing that officials there say that talks with the U.S. and NATO allies are "far from exhausted" and that they will be withdrawing some troops from the border.

All of this comes on the day that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visits Russia to restate Germany's support for Ukraine — after facing criticism for sending mixed signals of his own.

NPR's Charles Maynes joined Morning Edition from Moscow to walk us through the latest.

"On the one hand, the fundamental dynamics haven't changed: Russian forces remain in the region, the Kremlin's demands that NATO pull back from Eastern Europe and bar Ukraine from membership in the alliance are still there," he says. "And yet Russia seems to be shifting its tone."

Listen here or read on for highlights.

Russian officials signal more diplomatic talks, fewer troops at Ukraine's border

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday to fill him in on efforts to get the West to bend to Russia's security demands. He said talks over the last few weeks have allowed Russia to explain its positions and why they are justified, and he described diplomatic efforts as "far from exhausted." Putin essentially said "fine," according to Maynes.

Putin also met with Russia's defense minister, who has said that Russian military exercises — how Moscow has been characterizing the buildup of troops on the border with Ukraine — would be ending soon. The ministry announced Tuesday that some troops will start returning back to bases, though it remains to be seen how that will play out.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is calling for a day of national solidarity

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the nation Monday night, taking a jab at Western intelligence reports that predict a Russian invasion on Wednesday.

He said that while he believes Russia is a threat, he also believes the West has overstated the likelihood of an invasion and is playing into Moscow's attempt to sow panic. Zelenskyy has declared Wednesday a "Unity Day," which will emphasize national solidarity and the capability of Ukraine's armed forces.

Scholz is in Moscow, a day after visiting Kyiv

Germany's chancellor has been criticized in the media for "essentially sitting out the Ukraine crisis" and not really engaging diplomatically until recently, Maynes explains. Germany hasn't joined the U.S. and other Western allies in sending arms to Ukraine, instead offering helmets and hospital beds.

He tried to smooth some of that over during Monday's visit to Kyiv, pledging German support for Ukraine and promising "far-reaching" (but unspecified) sanctions if Russia does invade. Maynes says Scholz comes to Moscow bearing that same message — that the West is open to dialogue but will impose sanctions if need be.

"Maybe timing here is everything, but the question is how far Scholz is really willing to go on this sanctions front," Maynes adds, pointing to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as an example of a divisive issue among Western allies.

Winter Olympics

Sha’Carri Richardson would like a word after Valieva is allowed to compete at the Olympics

Posted February 15, 2022 at 7:49 AM EST

U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson is calling out Olympic and anti-doping officials, after Russian skater Kamila Valieva was allowed to compete despite testing positive for a forbidden drug.

“Can we get a solid answer on the difference” between their situations? Richardson asked on Twitter, after mediators ruled that Valieva should be allowed to skate in the women’s individual competition in Beijing.

“The only difference I see is I’m a black young lady,” Richardson said.

“It’s all in the skin,” she added.

Richardson won the 100-meter race at the U.S. Olympic trials early last summer, but after it was revealed that she had tested positive for THC, the intoxicant in marijuana, she was denied a chance to compete at the Tokyo Olympics.

THC is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances -- but so is trimetazidine, the drug that was found in Valieva’s test sample. The heart drug is believed to be able to boost athletes' endurance and blood efficiency.

In other words, it can boost athletic performance, while THC does not. Richardson pointed out that difference in her tweets responding to the ruling on Valieva’s eligibility at the Winter Olympics.

Richardson, who like Valieva was favored to win a medal in her sport, also noted a stark difference in how their positive tests were handled.

While the Russian star failed a test that was submitted in December, she somehow avoided a suspension. News of the positive test only began to trickle out after she helped her team win a gold medal in Beijing. In contrast, Richardson said, her drug test result quickly became public knowledge. “My name & talent was slaughtered to the people,” she added.

Valieva is being allowed to compete in Beijing under a cloud of suspicion — and in an extraordinary move, the International Olympic Committeesays thatif Valieva wins, a medal ceremony won't take place until a doping investigation is completed. That could thrust the singles competition into the same limbo that is holding up medals for the team event, in which Russia took gold and the U.S. silver.

Richardson’s suspension just before the Tokyo Olympics triggered an outpouring of support for her and criticism for anti-doping rules, particularly because cannabis has shed much of the stigma it once carried. Dozens of U.S. states have legalized its use to some degree.

Cannabis remains on the list of banned substances that the World Anti-Doping Agency released shortly after the Tokyo Olympics. But the agency said in September that it will review the ban, citing "requests from a number of stakeholders" in international athletics.