War in Ukraine live updates: Biden sends a new weapons package to Ukraine to help defend the Donbas region
The aid includes heavy artillery weapons, howitzers and ammunition, and tactical drones for Ukraine to combat Russia's new offensive in the country's east.
Here's what we're following today:
In Mariupol: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops not to storm the steel plant where Ukrainian troops are holding out.
Another humanitarian corridor breaks down: Ukrainian officials blame Russia as a previously agreed-upon safe route out of Mariupol fails.
Lawmakers call out Meta for disinformation in Spanish: They say Russia has targeted Spanish-speaking communities by spreading false narratives about the war.
The military aid Biden just announced should start reaching Ukraine by this weekend
A senior U.S. defense official says the first flight with the military assistance just announced by President Biden will start arriving in Ukraine over the weekend. The 72 howitzers in the package, in addition to 18 howitzers that are already on their way to Ukraine, will arm five Ukrainian battalions, the official said.
These 155mm howitzers reflect the belief of the U.S. and Ukraine that heavy artillery will play a critical role in the looming fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“We think this can add significant additional firepower for the Ukrainians,” the official said.
In addition, the new U.S. military package includes Phoenix Ghost drones, described as a new type of drone that has been developed by the U.S. Air Force based on the specific needs of the Ukrainians.
The U.S. official described them as similar, but not identical, to the Switchblade drones the U.S. recently sent to Ukraine. The Switchblades include a model that can be as light as five pounds, it can be carried in the backpack of a soldier and is directed to crash into a target and detonate its explosive.
On the battlefield, the official said there’s ongoing fighting in the city of Mariupol and the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, but neither side has made significant advances in the past 24 hours.
Dozens of comic creators collaborate on an anthology to benefit Ukrainian refugees
Dozens of comic creators are coming together to help Ukraine, contributing their talent and time towards a special-edition anthology with proceeds benefiting refugees.
Comics for Ukraine: Sunflower Seeds is spearheaded by comic book editor Scott Dunbier — the special projects editor at IDW Publishing — in partnership with the comic crowdfunding platform Zoop and humanitarian nonprofit Operation USA.
Dunbier announced on Tuesday that the project had been fully funded on its first day of preorders (as of Thursday morning, it had raised more than double its goal of $35,000). He expressed his gratitude towards supporters and contributors, but said there is much more work to be done.
"There are so many families left homeless and impoverished, and the ramifications of these events are going to impact millions of people for decades to come," he said. "It's heartbreaking. Please, regardless of whether you back this campaign or not, stand with the people of Ukraine in any way you can."
Organizers say nearly all of the funds — except for hard costs like printing, credit-card fees and marketing — will go to Operation USA, a Los Angeles-based international disaster relief and development agency.
Dunbier told The Hollywood Reporter that the increasingly disturbing images of the war in Ukraine spurred him to start calling creators he had worked with in the past to ask if they'd be willing to collaborate on a book. Almost all said yes.
“Like everyone, I have been sickened by the atrocities perpetrated on the Ukrainian people for nearly two months,” he wrote on the online fundraising platform. "And I had to do something, anything, to try and help. The comic-book community is full of good and caring people who have stepped up to say, ‘I stand with Ukraine,’ and to contribute to this book.”
Comics for Ukraine will feature the work of more than three dozen comic-book writers, artists, colorists, letterers, designers and editors, which Dunbier called "an incredible roster of comics talent."
It will feature covers by artists Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave Johnson, Arthur Adams and Alex Ross. The stories within represent a mix of new and beloved comic characters from iconic creators.
"Walter Simonson, who took Marvel’s Thor to new heights in the 1980s, will have a new Star Slammers, his sci-fi property, for the first time since the 1990s," according to The Hollywood Reporter. "Howard Chaykin is writing and drawing American Flagg!, his political sci-fi satire for the first time since the end of the 1980s."
Others include new stories with original characters from pairs Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson and John Layman and Rob Guillory, as well as original stories from co-creators Louise Simonson and June Brigman, Dave Gibbons and Chris Sprouse and Mark Waid and Gabriel Rodriguez.
The book is expected to be 96 full-color pages, and is expected to go to print about three months after the end of the fundraising campaign, which opened this week and is slated to run for nearly another month.
Learn more about the anthology and fundraiser here:
How Mariupol fits into war strategy for both Russia and Ukraine
Russia has heavily damaged and laid siege to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol because it holds strategic importance to Vladimir Putin's plans for Ukraine, says an expert.
"For the Russians, [Mariupol] is a major operational irritant," because it sits at a key strategic location between Rostov in southeastern Russia and the rest of Ukraine to the west, says retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack.
"More than anything else, it is a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to the Russians," Zwack says.
After weeks of heavy fighting, Russia claims it has taken control of most of Mariupol and has surrounded the massive steel plant there, where over a thousand Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are thought to be barricaded. Ukrainian leaders have called for Russia to allow civilians to escape, but Putin has told his forces to block the plant entirely.
For more on Mariupol's place in Russia's aims, Zwack joined Morning Edition to discuss: Listen here. He served as the U.S. defense attaché to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
Mariupol also has had an impact on Ukraine's strategy and morale during the war. Mariupol's resistance and ability to withstand weeks of atrocious conditions have become a symbol for the Ukrainians to rally around, Zwack says.
"If [Mariupol] indeed falls, for Ukraine, it is already an epic story. This is part of the new vision of its own nationhood," says Zwack.
While Mariupol's resistance to Russia's siege may be remembered as heroic to some, many civilians have endured tragic conditions including weeks of dwindling food, water, electricity and medicine. It is unknown how many civilians have been killed within the city since Russia invaded.
The U.S. sends fresh military aid to Ukraine to help with defending the Donbas region
President Biden on Thursday announced another $800 million package of heavy artillery weapons, howitzers and ammunition, and tactical drones for Ukraine — and said that he plans to ask Congress for more funding next week.
"With the latest disbursement, I've almost exhausted the drawdown authority I have that Congress authorized for Ukraine," Biden said, explaining weapons need to keep flowing to Ukraine “without interruption” for the next phase of its fight against Russia.
He said it was “questionable” whether Russia had taken control of Mariupol, saying there was no evidence yet that the city had completely fallen.
Biden, who met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal today at the White House ahead of his remarks, said Russia has refocused its efforts on the Donbas region, where the terrain is flatter and which requires different types of weapons from the United States and its allies.
Biden also announced $500 million in economic assistance to the Ukrainian government to help it pay its essential workers and stabilize its economy.
He spoke briefly about the new program for sponsoring Ukrainian refugees, saying it would mean Ukrainians no longer need to go through the U.S. southern land border with Mexico.
Macron accuses Le Pen of Russia ties in a fiery debate ahead of French presidential voting
French President Emmanuel Macron went for the jugular in a televised debate with far-right challenger Marine Le Pen on Wednesday.
The centrist incumbent accused Le Pen of having financial ties to Russia stemming from a loan her political party received from a Czech-Russian bank in 2014. The unpaid debt makes the conservative unfit to handle Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Macron said.
“You depend on the Russian power, you depend on Mr. Putin,” Macron said during the first and only debate ahead of Sunday’s second round presidential vote.
"I am a completely free and independent woman," Le Pen responded. “I defend France and the French because I’m a patriot and I’ve shown that all my life.”
The National Rally party leader said she was forced to borrow from the Russian-connected bank because no French bank would lend to her.
The fiery exchange shed light on the two candidates’ vastly different visions for France. Over two and a half hours, Macron presented a liberal, pro-European future for the country. Le Pen offered a deeply skeptical view of the European Union and focused on trying to paint Macron's five-year term as a failure, though the conservative has struck a unifying tone in her pitch to win the presidency.
“France needs to be stitched back together,” Le Pen said.
Post-debate polling shows that 59% of the French say Macron won the debate, compared to 39% who say Le Pen did, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
Lawmakers ask Meta to do more to tackle Spanish-language disinformation about the war
Nearly two dozen lawmakers are urging Meta to do more to curb Spanish-language disinformation about the war in Ukraine on its platform.
U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) and U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) made the ask in a Wednesday letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, which was signed by 17 other House and Senate lawmakers.
In it, they accused Meta of failing to make progress in combatting Spanish-language disinformation even before Russian state-owned media outlets began their current campaign, and demanded accountability and further action.
“Since the beginning of the year, Russian state-controlled outlets have made a concentrated effort to target Spanish-speaking communities to spread false-narratives leading up to, and in the aftermath of, the invasion of Ukraine,” they wrote. “The viral spread of these narratives stands in stark contrast to assurances that Meta made to the public and Members of Congress that it is prioritizing the pressing needs of Hispanic communities in the United States.”
Meta spokesperson Kevin McAlister told NPR over email that the company is removing content related to the war in Ukraine that violates its policies, as well as working with third-party fact-checkers to debunk false claims. When they rate something as false, Meta moves that content lower in the feed so fewer people see it.
"We’re also giving people more information to decide what to read, trust, and share by adding warning labels on content rated false, and applying labels to state-controlled media publishers, including ones cited in the letter," he said, adding that Meta has demoted content from Russian state-controlled media outlets on its platform around the world.
The lawmakers say Russian-owned media outlets are increasingly publishing more content referencing Ukraine in Spanish compared to many leading Spanish-language news sites, giving those posts an especially wide reach across the U.S. and Latin America.
They pointed to RT en Español as an example. Meta has banned RT and other state media in the European Union, but not in North America.
They say that the outlet misleads its more than 18 million Facebook followers with "propaganda claiming Putin's false justification for the unwarranted acts of aggression against Ukraine" and otherwise downplaying the invasion. Its Facebook page saw nearly double the engagement of its daily average during the last week of February, they wrote.
"Russian government outlets also saw their Spanish-language efforts outperform U.S. counterparts on audience engagement by a ratio of more than 3 to 1 in the last two weeks of January," they added. McAlister notes that this was before Russia invaded Ukraine in February and before the company announced any steps against state-owned media outlets.
The lawmakers also point out that Spanish-language disinformation about the war is not mentioned at all in the quarterly threat report Facebook released earlier this month, which they say demonstrates that the company doesn't see the problem as "a critical priority for the health of our democracy."
Their letter builds on earlier criticisms of Meta's handling of Spanish-language disinformation by elected officials and advocacy groups.
As NPR has reported, advocates said last year that even as the company tightened certain policies to address misleading content about the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election, the gap between English- and Spanish-language moderation has left Latino communities more vulnerable to disinformation.
Several of those groups started a campaign called "Ya Basta Facebook," urging the company to be more transparent about how it handles posts in Spanish and demanding it create a new executive role overseeing Spanish-language content moderation in the U.S.
Researchers have also accused Facebook of failing to fully enforce its own rules when it comes to content in languages other than English.
For example: The international advocacy group Avaaz found in April 2020 that Facebook flagged 70% of English-language posts with misleading information about COVID-19, compared to only 30% of misleading posts in Spanish. And an October 2021 Nielson report said that 28% of the news websites where Latinos make up 20% of the audience contained content that was flagged as being "mixed, biased, extremely biased, conspiracy or pseudoscience."
According to the lawmakers, 26 members of Congress publicly asked Facebook in July to provide proof of its investment in efforts to combat non-English language misinformation.
They say the company didn't answer their questions directly, and instead attributed the increased rate of hate-speech takedown globally to “… a whole package of AI technologies [that] made leaps forward in the past year.”
"The lack of Meta’s action to swiftly address Spanish-language disinformation globally demonstrates the need for Congress to act to ensure Spanish-speaking communities have fair access to trustworthy information," they concluded.
They are asking the company to respond to six written questions about its practices, policies and plans regarding foreign disinformation and content moderation.
Editor's note: Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.
Biden announces a U.S. sponsorship program for Ukrainian refugees
The Biden administration is rolling out a new program Monday for Ukrainian-Americans and other sponsors to bring Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country to the United States for up to two years, officials told reporters.
The program, called Uniting for Ukraine, will have a website for sponsors to upload affidavits pledging to financially support their family members. USCIS will vet those affidavits, and the sponsored Ukrainian nationals who pass a screening process will be able to travel to the United States. Administration officials described the process as “streamlined” though they did not provide estimates on how long it would take.
President Biden pledged during a trip to Europe last month that the United States would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians and other people displaced by the war in Ukraine. Administration officials told reporters that most of the 100,000 people will enter through this new program.
Almost 15,000 Ukrainians have crossed into the United States during the past three months, mainly over the land border with Mexico. But starting Monday, U.S. officials will largely stop allowing Ukrainian nationals to enter the United States this way unless they’re sponsored through the new program, officials told reporters.
Ukraine blames Russia for another failed evacuation attempt from Mariupol
Ukrainian officials say a previously agreed-upon humanitarian corridor to evacuate thousands of civilians from Mariupol has broken down, with only four evacuation buses able to leave the city yesterday. Ukrainian officials blamed Russia for failing to observe the ceasefire.
The government said it had reached an agreement with Russia on a corridor to bring thousands of trapped civilians out of the city yesterday, but Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk says it did not work out as planned.
She wrote on social media that the Russians failed to control their forces and could not ensure a proper ceasefire.
It's just the latest attempt to evacuate citizens from Mariupol that has failed. Tens of thousands of civilians remain holed up in the besieged city, including more than 1,000 at a steel plant.
Ukraine desperately seeks to hold on to the strategic port city that, if lost, would allow Russia to connect by land to Crimea.
Putin orders troops not to storm Ukraine's last holdout in Mariupol, a marked change
Russia has tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, saying it wants to give the U.S. and its allies "something to think about."
As Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep notes, the threatening gesture comes at a moment of continued frustration for Russia: The U.S. is sending more weapons to Ukraine, and its forces still don't have full control of the besieged port city of Mariupol.
In a televised meeting (which is not uncommon), Russian President Vladimir Putin told his defense minister not to storm a giant steel plant complex that Ukrainian forces still hold. He said he'd rather keep the plant sealed off ("so that not even a fly comes through") and avoid losing the lives of even more Russian soldiers.
Ukrainian media was quick to discount this announcement, saying Ukrainian troops remain in the city and are continuing to destroy enemy equipment, NPR's Tim Mak tells Inskeep from Ukraine.
"It's hard to make sense of how abandoning this effort to take over the last Ukrainian holdout in the city could be portrayed as a Russian success," he adds. "What we can say is the fact that Russia appears to be switching tactics here, and basically signaling that they've given up on these repeated attacks they've been executing on the holdouts; that's a significant development."
Listen to their conversation and get more details from Mak below.
Civilian evacuations are stalled in Mariupol
Ukrainian soldiers and civilians remain in the steel plant, and Mak says they've been focused on trying to evacuate people from the city. A deal struck between Russia and Ukraine for a humanitarian corridor yesterday fell through, with only four buses able to leave despite officials' hopes of evacuating thousands of people.
Ukrainian officials claim that Russia wouldn't hold to the ceasefire, and are hoping to send in more buses today.
Those who manage to flee face harrowing journeys
Mak has been traveling to the edge of the Donbas, where Russian forces are massing, and in the process getting a sense of what it's like for civilians trying to leave Russian territory.
He spoke to Sergei Protsenko, a restauranteur from Kherson, near the front lines of fighting in southern Ukraine. Protsenko crossed nine different Russian-held checkpoints to make it into Ukrainian-held territory and says he was told to strip down to see if he had any tattoos related to the Ukrainian military.
Now in Odesa, smoking a cigarette and looking out at the sea, he says he feels a huge sense of relief.
Hopes for a peace plan are mixed
Some Ukrainian officials believe there's an upside in talking to the Russian government on specific issues, like humanitarian corridors and prisoner-of-war exchanges, Mak says.
But, he adds, talks for a broader agreement that could end the war don't look promising at this moment. He says a real turning point — after the most recent round of peace talks — was when Russia withdrew from areas around Kyiv and left evidence of atrocities in places like Bucha.
"You could really feel public opinion shift dramatically overnight," Mak says. "Even those inclined against violence said there could be no negotiations, no broader discussions with the Russian government after photos of, for example, dead civilians emerged from those areas."
Looking ahead, he says any serious negotiations may not take place until the results of the next Russian offensive are clear.