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News brief: explosions in Ukraine, midterm preview, protests continue in Iran

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russian missiles have hit multiple Ukrainian cities, including the capital, Kyiv.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Russian strikes come after multiple Russian setbacks, including an explosion on a symbolically important bridge. People awoke Saturday to images of the partial destruction of the bridge from Russia to Crimea. President Vladimir Putin personally opened that bridge after Russia illegally seized Crimea in 2014. These days, the bridge is used to supply Russian forces that are retreating in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: So what is the Russian response? NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Kyiv. Hey there, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's it been like there?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. We woke up to some big bangs this morning here in Kyiv. And what's partially notable about that is that there have not been missile strikes on the capital here in months. At the moment, I am currently at Shevchenko Park. Two missiles hit on either side of this park. One hit a playground right in front of a museum. And then on the other side, where I am at the moment, it hit right in the middle of a very busy intersection at 8 a.m. when a lot of people were on their way to work. You know, the coroners here, they have been loading body bags into a white van. There's vehicles sort of strewn all over the intersection. It was a major explosion right here in the middle of the Ukrainian capital.

INSKEEP: Jason, when you say a missile struck a playground - stating the obvious - that's not a military target. Is there any sign of a military target anywhere near these missile strikes?

BEAUBIEN: You know, this is right in the middle of the capital. So there are some government buildings close to here. But this really is very much a cultural center. There's a university right near here. There's a major museum. And many people are saying that this seems to be targeting some of the, you know, things that are really near and dear to people in Ukraine and also just making it clear that they're able to hit right in the middle of the capital.

INSKEEP: OK. So you said body bags. Civilians would appear to be killed in a civilian area in Kyiv. How does that fit in with strikes elsewhere in the country?

BEAUBIEN: There have been strikes all across the country. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this morning said this has been a very difficult morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: He says that there have been dozens of missile and drone strikes all across the country. He says the targets seem to be energy facilities and, he says, people. He says the goal of the Russians is to create panic and chaos. And, you know, we are getting reports from the very west, in Lviv, up near the Belarusian border, there's attacks there, out in Dnipro, in the south. And obviously, here, we've heard upwards of 75 missiles coming in. Officials here say they've shot down about 40 of them. But, yes, major missile strikes all across the country.

INSKEEP: Jason, I'm just thinking about this. It's obviously deadly and devastating when a missile strikes, but it's also a reminder that the missiles are flying where Russian troops cannot go. Russian troops have been on the retreat in recent days and in recent weeks. What do Ukrainians expect next?

BEAUBIEN: Well, Ukrainians are bracing for more missile strikes, given that there have been sort of these counteroffensives by the Ukrainians that are pushing back the Russian troops. This is the one weapon that they really can unleash on Ukraine. And people here are afraid that there is going to be more of these in the hours and, potentially, days to come.

INSKEEP: Jason, thanks for your reporting, as always. Good to hear from you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien in Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Throughout this month, Americans are voting in the midterm elections.

FADEL: Republicans are considered favorites to capture the House. Democrats are favored to keep the Senate. But nothing is really predictable with so much on the line. Democrats are hoping abortion and other issues will limit the losses often suffered by the party in power. And Republicans had hoped to make the election a referendum on President Biden. But his predecessor has pushed to make the election about himself. Former President Trump campaigned in Arizona and Nevada over the weekend. He favors Senate candidates there who embraced his false claims about the election he lost, and he praised the size of the crowd that attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Do you know the biggest crowd I've ever seen? January 6.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: And you never hear that. It was the biggest. And they were there, largely, to protest a corrupt and rigged and stolen election.

FADEL: All of that, of course, is not true.

INSKEEP: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is covering the midterms. Hey there, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So the former president went to Nevada and Arizona. What's the importance of those states?

MONTANARO: Well, these are two of the closest Senate races in the country, with Democratic incumbents Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Mark Kelly in Arizona. You know, the Senate is 50-50. Republicans need to net just one seat to take control of the Senate. And these are two of their top targets. You know, Democrats are playing defense. But how far these Republican candidates have had to go to get Trump's endorsement is a real wildcard. Trump's far less popular with swing voters, independents, Latinos and Asian American voters, who are all key in both of these purple states.

INSKEEP: I just want to note how unusual it is that Donald Trump is campaigning in this midterm after his election defeat. Normally, the former president is off the stage. The current president faces a kind of referendum in the midterms. And very often, the president will lose some ground, showing a little bit of dissatisfaction with what's going on. Republicans would love to make this a referendum on Joe Biden. But Donald Trump keeps saying, wait, wait - what about me? It's about me. It's about me.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, look - he's a factor here. And Democrats believe highlighting Trump's ties to these Republican candidates and abortion rights can really help them. But Republicans are using crime and the cost of living against Democrats, and the economy, really, is a main concern in many places, especially in a place like Nevada, which has a high white working-class population and a lot of working-class Latinos. Republicans really see an opportunity with Latinos because of that.

INSKEEP: So there's a handful of states that can decide control of the Senate. Trump was in two of them that you mentioned, Arizona and Nevada. There's a couple of others like, I don't know, Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania. And then there is Ohio, where Republicans were expected to walk. And the Republican nominee, J.D. Vance, for Senate, is instead facing a tough challenge from Tim Ryan, the Democrat.

MONTANARO: Yeah, it's really a great example of a place where Republican ad spending has made a huge difference. You know, Ryan had a big lead, and that's now shrunk, on the heels of the Senate Leadership Fund, a group tied to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, spending $52 million in just the last two weeks in some key races to boost Republicans. It shouldn't need to be that way in Ohio for Republicans, a state that's leaned pretty heavily Republican. Because of that, Democrat Tim Ryan is trying to appeal to the middle. Listen to part of this ad with Ryan and his wife, Andrea.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

TIM RYAN: But if we have ten conversations in one day...

ANDREA ZETTS: And we agree on seven.

RYAN: ...We crack a bottle of wine.

ZETTS: Yes, we do.

(SOUNDBITE OF POP)

RYAN: The same goes for the country. We have to stop the stupid fights.

ZETTS: And find some common ground.

RYAN: And be Americans first.

ZETTS: Now, that I can agree with.

MONTANARO: You know, that's really something we've seen in places where candidates are running against the grain. And, you know, tonight's debate and all of these debates down the stretch in Ohio and other places will be critical because, for many viewers, this will be the first and only times they'll be able to hear these candidates outside their filtered ads.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Iranians have not stopped protesting nearly a month after the death of a young woman in police custody.

FADEL: Iran's government has cracked down on demonstrators, and a Norwegian human rights group says at least 185 people have been killed. Still, social media videos over the weekend showed continued marches.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the story from Istanbul. Hey there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So not a lot of independent journalists are allowed on the ground in Iran right now, and so you're sifting through the facts from outside and trying to understand what's going on. What are you learning?

KENYON: Well, this harsh crackdown by security forces does continue. Fatalities are rising. But demonstrators continue to gather in dozens of Iranian cities to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Iran's Kurdish minority. Now, she died in police custody after being detained for improper attire - not wearing the Islamic hijab correctly, according to the police. Her family rejected the official explanation that she fainted and later died of natural causes, saying there was evidence she'd suffered blows to the head and body. Police denied that. The ensuing protests have spread from the largely Kurdish area in northwest Iran, where Amini was from, to cities across the country. And if the government was hoping a violent crackdown would make people too afraid to take to the streets, well, that hasn't happened yet.

INSKEEP: At least that's what we see on social media. What can you learn there?

KENYON: Well, the authorities have tried to cut that out. They don't want to see these videos showing up. They have cut communications access. And they also hope that will make it harder for demonstrators to organize their protests. But videos do continue to appear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

(CROSSTALK)

KENYON: Now, this one posted to Twitter by the activist group 1500 Tasvir shows a couple being beaten by the police in the central city of Rafsanjan. According to the post, the man begs police not to hit his wife, who he says is pregnant. The video shows both being hit and then bundled into a waiting police vehicle. We should also note some human rights groups are saying security forces are sometimes using live ammunition to quell these protests. The government also denies that.

INSKEEP: How did things go when Iran's president visited a university campus the other day?

KENYON: Not well. President Ebrahim Raisi visited Al-Zahra University in the Iranian capital. He reportedly recited a poem that compared rioters with flies. Iranian media report Raisi was met with chants of get lost and mullahs get lost, led by female students. Raisi, of course, is a hard-line conservative. He staunchly defended the security forces. He's echoed the supreme leader's claim that the demonstrations were planned and fomented by the U.S. or Israel or some other foreign power. But Raisi clearly didn't find many supporters on that campus.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and of course, we had the U.S. envoy to Iran on our air the other day who said there's no way the United States could foment these protests. The problem is the problem that people have with their government in Iran. How is the international community responding, though?

KENYON: Well, in Europe, Germany's foreign minister wants the EU to impose entry bans and asset freezes on those responsible for the repression. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has promised further costs will be imposed on those responsible for the crackdown. It's a question what those will be, and that's what we're waiting to find out.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much for the update. Really appreciate it.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.