Two Years of Russia's War On Ukraine; South Carolina GOP Primary : Up First As the Russia-Ukraine War heads into its third year, we look at the state of the conflict. Also, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has spent millions in her home state and sharpened her attacks on former President Donald Trump, hoping to chip away at his support.

Two Years of Russia's War On Ukraine; South Carolina GOP Primary

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Two years ago, Russia invaded Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DARIIA HIRNA: We are now about to leave Kyiv.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Meanwhile, the city of Mariupol is under siege.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's the Russian government who is the terrorist in this situation.

SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

I'm Ayesha Rascoe. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.

SIMON: Russia's war in Ukraine is entering its third year.

RASCOE: Many Ukrainians feel their lives are on hold. Without more military aid from the U.S., how long can they continue the fight?

SIMON: Also, what this war has meant for Russians and their president, Vladimir Putin, as he heads toward reelection.

RASCOE: And today is the Republican primary in South Carolina.

SIMON: Nikki Haley has spent millions in her home state and sharpened her attacks on former President Donald Trump.

RASCOE: Stay with us. We've got the news you need to start your weekend.

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RASCOE: Neither Ukraine nor Russia has achieved what it had hoped to when the war started exactly two years ago today. Russia expected a quick win. Ukraine predicted Russian defeat.

SIMON: And here to talk about the state of the war are NPR's correspondents in the two capitals, Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv and Charles Maynes in Moscow. Joanna, Charles, thanks so much for being with us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having us. Good morning.

MAYNES: Joanna, let's begin with you. How is the war anniversary being felt in Kyiv?

KAKISSIS: Well, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government is trying to put on a brave face and project strength. World leaders are in Kyiv today to stand by Zelenskyy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are among them. But the mood in Ukraine is one of anxiety and sadness. I keep thinking about the mother of a POW, a prisoner of war, I met a week ago in northeastern Ukraine in a village not far from the Russian border. Her name is Nataliya Kucherenko, and she has not seen her son Vova in two years. Every time, there's a prisoner exchange, Nataliya stands on the road holding a giant banner with her son's face, hoping he's among them. My producer Polina Lytvynova is interpreting for Nataliya here, and as you can hear, they're both crying.

NATALIYA KUCHARENKO: (Through interpreter) I'm standing, like, for five hours, for seven hours. Whether it's rain or even when it was, like, the frost, like, -25, I was standing in the street because I'm waiting for my son.

KAKISSIS: And after two years, Nataliya looks gaunt and haunted, as if she's a prisoner of war herself.

KUCHARENKO: Joanna, do a lot of people in Ukraine seem to feel that way?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, for sure, especially now. Last year, there was hope for a quick victory, that Ukraine would get all its territories back. But a counteroffensive last year failed to retake significant amounts of land. And then by year's end, weapons, especially ammunition, began running low. Europeans promised a million artillery shells last year, and not even half of these have been delivered. And meanwhile, future U.S. aid to Ukraine is up in the air.

SIMON: Charles, let's turn to you in Moscow. How's the two-year anniversary being marked there?

MAYNES: Well, we had a massive fireworks show here in Moscow last night to mark Defender of the Fatherland Day. It's a Soviet holiday with roots in the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany. And, of course, for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it's yet another chance to draw full circle these false historical parallels between the war against fascist Germany and his invasion of Ukraine today, which he did in a video address to the nation. Let's listen in to a bit.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin says today's soldiers and officers are continuing Russia's glorious battlefield traditions in Ukraine and calling them true national heroes and vowing to give them everything they need to fulfill the tasks ahead.

SIMON: Charles, there have been reports we've seen of Putin seeking backdoor negotiations with the U.S. that would be aimed at ending or freezing the conflict. Any evidence of that you see in Moscow?

MAYNES: Well, in comments here, Putin insists Russia's goals are still to denazify and demilitarize Ukraine, which doesn't sound like he's seeking much of a compromise. Moreover, Russia's in a much stronger position than it - this year than it was if we'd had this conversation a year ago, for many of the reasons that Joanna just outlined. You know, and, indeed, Putin projects confidence in his speeches and his actions. Just this week, we saw him fly a supersonic bomber and drive a truck over a newly constructed road, all not-so-subtle messages that we can win in Ukraine and still thrive economically despite Western sanctions.

SIMON: Joanna, what is the Ukrainian military point of view right now?

KAKISSIS: Well, the lack of military aid is clearly being felt on the battlefield. A week ago, Ukrainian troops were forced to withdraw from the eastern town of Avdiivka, which had managed to hold back the Russians for 10 years. It's been on the front line since Russian proxies, backed by Russian troops, invaded and occupied parts of eastern Ukraine back in 2014. In Avdiivka, Ukrainian troops were outnumbered and outgunned. They were rationing ammunition. The Russians had almost encircled them. And during the withdrawal, there were reports of wounded soldiers being left behind and the Russians capturing Ukrainian soldiers and then executing them. And now the Russians are advancing along several points on the eastern front line.

SIMON: Charles, I want to ask you - you were in a show last week talking about the death and the legacy of Alexei Navalny. Putin said anything about him, about that death?

MAYNES: You know, he hasn't, despite the world's attention focused on these really macabre events unfolding in the Arctic town where Navalny's body is currently in a morgue. You know, for a week, we've seen Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, trying to retrieve her son's remains, and clearly the authorities are blocking her from doing so. Navalny's team said these delays are intended to cover up wrongdoing - in other words, his murder - a charge the Kremlin, through its spokesman, denies.

But whatever the case, it seems clear the Kremlin does not want any public mourning over Navalny's death here. And it's why we've seen pressure by the state to force Navalny's mother to agree to a secret burial. In fact, she says investigators are threatening to bury him on the grounds of the prison where he died if she doesn't agree to their terms.

SIMON: Joanna, let's turn to you for some thoughts about what Ukrainians seem to be hoping for in 2024.

KAKISSIS: Well, at the very least, the Ukrainians are hoping to keep the Russians from advancing. Ukraine is making its own weapons, hoping to at least offer some supplies to their troops. They're continuing to lobby their Western allies, especially Republicans in the U.S., to keep up support. And to increase morale, Ukrainian leaders are focusing on some wins, especially in the Black Sea, where the special forces pushed back Russia's naval fleet by attacking it with Ukrainian-made sea drones.

SIMON: And, Charles, what's the view from Moscow?

MAYNES: You know, amid all this projected confidence from the Kremlin, there are certainly tensions bubbling below the surface, among them the demands of these families of some 300,000 civilians who were mobilized for the war over a year ago. These families are now protesting openly for the return of their loved ones from the front. Meanwhile, we have tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands injured. And at what gain?

You know, Russia claims to have annexed four more territories from Ukraine in name, but it still doesn't control any of them fully, at least not yet. And so we see growing signs of war fatigue here, even among Putin supporters, in an environment where criticizing the war can land you in jail. A poll show majority of Russians would welcome Putin declaring the war over tomorrow if the Kremlin leader were to do so.

SIMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you both very much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

MAYNES: Good to be with you.

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SIMON: Both former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley have never lost an election in South Carolina.

RASCOE: That changes today for one of them after votes are tallied in the South Carolina Republican primary.

SIMON: NPR's Stephen Fowler joins us. Stephen, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: Trump is running as a kind of de facto incumbent. He's at CPAC today in D.C., but he had a rally in Rock Hill, S.C., last night. What did he tell people?

FOWLER: Well, Scott, it was typical Trump fare - railing on President Joe Biden and Democrats, recapping achievements during his first term and previewing what he'd do if elected again. That includes things like mass deportations and a push for more tax cuts. But what's been notable recently on the campaign trail is this dire tone, both from Trump and his supporters, about this election and what would happen if he didn't return to the White House, like this comment about the economy if he loses on Election Day, which is November 5.

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DONALD TRUMP: If we have a tragedy happen on November 5, it would be a tragedy. In the opinion of many and in my opinion, you will have the largest stock market crash we've ever had because a lot of the stock market - 'cause the only thing that's doing well is the stock market. And it's doing well because the polls are all showing that we're winning by a lot.

FOWLER: I mean, there's many reasons Trump is doing so well in the GOP primary, but this vibe of him losing as an existential threat to the future of America is becoming a dominant part of his messaging.

SIMON: And let me ask you about Nikki Haley. Of course, she was Trump's ambassador to the U.N., but before that, South Carolina's governor. And yet the polls indicate that she's trailing substantially. If she loses today is it the end of her presidential campaign?

FOWLER: Not according to Haley, who gave a state-of-the-race briefing this week that it keeps the lights on for a few more weeks no matter today's outcome.

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NIKKI HALEY: I'll keep fighting until the American people close the door. That day is not today, and it won't be on Saturday, not by a long shot. The presidential primaries have barely begun.

FOWLER: Haley's main argument is that Trump and President Joe Biden are too old and that the country needs a younger, more competent leader. Pointing to the 91 criminal charges against Trump, Haley also says he's the chaos candidate that may excite the Republican base but hurts the party in races where it counts. The thing is, though, that's about the only daylight between Trump and Haley. They have largely the same policies and stances, and she was even part of his administration as U.N. ambassador. And as you just heard, her argument is that the race isn't over because only a small handful of states have voted.

SIMON: If Donald Trump wins today's primary contest in South Carolina, as currently projected, if Nikki Haley stays in the race as she is currently pledged to do, how do things move ahead?

FOWLER: Well, Scott, for the Trump campaign, it's simple. He's winning, plans to keep winning and is itching to fully pivot to the general matchup between President Joe Biden. For the Haley campaign, it's a little bit different. They're making a multimillion-dollar ad buy heading into Super Tuesday, where more than a dozen states have primary contests in two weeks. They've acknowledged it's an uphill battle, but there are a few factors at play here. One, Haley has the money to keep going past South Carolina. Two, Haley's still winning a meaningful share of the primary votes, even if it isn't translating to winning the delegates needed to get the nomination. So, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Nikki Haley will not win the GOP presidential primary in South Carolina or the party's nomination. But her argument is more about what's coming in November, namely that she says Trump can't win a general election.

SIMON: NPR's Stephen Fowler in Columbia, S.C. Stephen, thanks so much for being with us.

FOWLER: Thank you.

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RASCOE: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, February 24, 2024. I'm Ayesha Rascoe.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon.

RASCOE: Danny Hensel produced today's podcast with Martin Patience.

SIMON: And you can dial M for our editors. They are Mark Katkov, Megan Pratz and Melissa Gray.

RASCOE: Wait. another M - our director is Michael Radcliffe, but the Ms stop there. Our technical director is Hannah Gluvna, and we've also had engineering support from Carleigh Strange, Nisha Hinus (ph) and Phil Edfors.

SIMON: Evie Stone is our senior supervising editor. Sarah Lucy Oliver is our executive producer, and Jim Kane is our deputy managing editor.

RASCOE: Tomorrow on UP FIRST, hundreds of people have settled in Ghana since a Pan-African village was established there five years ago for anyone who's part of the African diaspora. But now there's tension between Ghanaians and the newcomers over land ownership.

SIMON: For more news, analysis, interviews about books and music and, you know, sometimes just plain fun, you can always tune in to Weekend Edition on, of course, NPR.

RASCOE: Find your stations at stations.npr.org.

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