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News brief: Ukrainian infrastructure, Biden addresses gas prices, Haiti crises

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russian forces have destroyed a third of Ukraine's power stations in the last two weeks.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Many cities and villages are without power, triggering fears of a humanitarian crisis as the country gets colder. Zelenskyy says Russia has launched a series of what he calls terrorist strikes because they're losing in the east and south.

FADEL: Here with more is NPR's Franco Ordoñez. He's been reporting near the front lines in eastern Ukraine. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Franco, Russia has clearly been targeting infrastructure and energy stations in recent weeks. What's the impact been?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it's been extensive. Zelenskyy and other leaders are calling on people to conserve electricity. The problem is not necessarily having the energy but being able to distribute it. NPR spoke to the Energy Ministry today, and an adviser explained that the Russians are targeting substations, which there are more of around the country, and they're also harder to protect. Ursula von der Leyen - she's the president of the European Commission - she said earlier today, calling the attacks a war crime.

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URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure with a clear aim to cut off men, women, children of water, electricity and heating with the winter coming, these are acts of pure terror.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Leila, it's already starting to get cold here. The World Health Organization is warning of a potential humanitarian crisis. And the WHO officials note that 800,000 Ukrainian homes have already been destroyed and-or damaged.

FADEL: Now, Ukrainian officials announced yesterday that a fifth person died from Monday's attacks in Kyiv that were carried out with Iranian drones. What has the government said about Iran's involvement?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, they're called kamikaze drones. Iran has supplied hundreds of them to the Russians, and it's really created a significant geopolitical problem. Ukraine is threatening to cut ties with Tehran. Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Iran's actions were despicable, and he said they won't be tolerated.

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DMYTRO KULEBA: (Non-English language spoken).

ORDOÑEZ: He's saying, given the amount of destruction and deaths from the Iranian drones, as well as the possible continuation of Iran's supply of weapons, that he's submitting a proposal to cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran. And he said also that Iran beared (ph) full responsibility for the damage to the relationship. But he did add that if Iran stopped supplying these drones, they could discuss remaining collaboration. And just as you said earlier, President Zelenskyy has called these attacks a sign of desperation and that Russia is basically lashing out because it's struggling in the south and also in the east.

FADEL: How is Russia lashing out in the south and the east?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Russia has been lashing out by, you know, making these attacks across the country. But what they're doing - also doing at the same time is they're evacuating different parts of the country, particularly Kherson in the south. Russia's top commander acknowledged that advances made by Ukrainians - he told Russian TV, actually, that things are getting tense. It's actually a rare admission of the problems that they have. You don't hear that very often. Right now in Kherson, it's the only regional capital Russia controls on the western bank of the Dnipro River, which divides the country. And Russia has - part of the Ukraine has been trying to isolate Russia by blowing up some bridges.

FADEL: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

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FADEL: With midterm voting already underway, President Biden is facing pressure to get high gas prices down. They surged after Russia invaded Ukraine, then slowly dropped over the summer.

MARTINEZ: But now gas prices are on the rise again after OPEC and Russia announced a production cut. So this afternoon, the president will announce what his administration is doing to try to temper prices.

FADEL: Joining us now is NPR political reporter Deepa Shivaram. Hi, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey there.

FADEL: So what's the president going to say about the moves he's making?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, the president is going to announce the release of 15 million barrels of oil from what's called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That's the stockpile of oil that the U.S. has. And that release will happen in December with about 500,000 barrels per day coming into the market. The White House says that this release will help to make sure that gas prices don't spike up, even with variables like Russia's actions in Ukraine. And this release is related to an announcement that the administration made back in March, when they said that they would release 180 million barrels from the stockpile over several months, which was the largest release ever. This 15 million number is included in that 180 million original number.

FADEL: OK, so then what he's announcing is not new. Is there something new here?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, that's true. There's no new number here because this upcoming 15 million was already anticipated. But a senior administration official told reporters last night that the president had directed his top economic officials to be in a high state of readiness and prepared to go beyond the 180 million barrels, if necessary, to keep prices stable. Overall, though, this announcement isn't that significant, and it won't really have much of an impact on gas prices, either. I spoke with Jay Hakes, the former head of the Energy Information Administration, about it.

JAY HAKES: We're talking about fairly small potatoes here with putting 15 million barrels into the market. And I think the market was probably expecting that to happen anyway.

SHIVARAM: Hakes told me that this announcement doesn't move the needle too much on pricing, but he did say, overall, the release of the 180 million barrels did help people get through what he calls a rough patch from earlier this summer, when gas prices were higher. He also said that this move from the administration could be interpreted as pushback on OPEC+, which recently said they would slash oil production by 2 million barrels per day. And he said that with this announcement, the administration is signaling to OPEC, you know, hey, look - we have tools at our disposal, too.

FADEL: So these stockpiles are there for times of natural disasters, huge supply shocks. Are they going to be refilled for a future emergency?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, White House officials said there are about 400 million barrels of oil remaining in the stockpile after the 180 million barrels are drawn out. That's a four-decade low. And the White House says they do have a plan to refill the reserve. They want to buy back the oil once prices fall below $72 per barrel. That's about $10 less than what it costs now. Officials say that the amount would give domestic producers some certainty so that they can keep pumping oil. But the exact timeline on when and how that process would happen is still a little unclear.

In the meantime, the president, in his speech, is going to call on oil and gas companies to pass their savings on to consumers. And this is all happening just weeks before voting ends in the midterm elections. With inflation and the economy being top issues for voters this year, Biden and Democrats want to come out ahead on any actions they're taking to level out costs.

FADEL: NPR's Deepa Shivaram. Thanks.

SHIVARAM: Thank you.

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FADEL: Haiti's government is pleading with the international community to send foreign forces as the country faces a deepening humanitarian crisis.

MARTINEZ: That's because food, fuel and water are scarce, and nearly half the population doesn't have enough to eat. Gangs control supply lines, and health care workers are battling an outbreak of cholera with limited medical supplies.

FADEL: Joining us now is Jacqueline Charles with the Miami Herald, who has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for more than a decade. Thanks for being here, Jacqueline.

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So tell us what the situation on the ground is in Haiti.

CHARLES: We are currently in Week 6 of this gang blockade. The main fuel terminal, roads, as well as the seaports, they remain blocked. Schools are still closed. People just really cannot get around. You have a situation where - you mentioned cholera. We also have an outbreak in the prison system. Warehouses owned by World Food Programme charities, they've been looted. We still have sporadic anti-government protests where Haitians are demanding the resignation of the current prime minister. The situation is very volatile, and there is a dire humanitarian crisis.

FADEL: So how did it get to this point? I mean, Haiti once had one of the fastest-growing economies in the Americas and now is one of the region's most volatile.

CHARLES: This is a country that has been struggling with democracy. I mean, 36 years after the fall of the dictatorship, we are seeing a country where all economic activity today has ground to a halt. You have gangs that have basically attacked state institutions, waves of violence, widespread reports of sexual violence by gangs. Every year - every four years or five years, we've had elections, you see. You know, they always become controversial. We are currently in a transition. The president was assassinated last year. We still don't know who did it and the motivation. So this is really a situation where, you know, Haitians will tell you we didn't get here by ourselves.

FADEL: Yeah.

CHARLES: They often talk about, you know, international communities, particularly the United States, and their policies. But it really is a very sad situation today.

FADEL: Now, Haiti has called for international military assistance to combat gangs. The U.N. Security Council is weighing a U.S. and Mexican proposal to send such a force. How likely is that to happen? And what are the concerns, given the history of international interventions in Haiti?

CHARLES: Well, this is a very sensitive issue in Haiti. The United States has said that they do not want to lead such a force. So far, we don't see anybody in the international community, you know, raising their hands and saying, hey, we're going to go in. At the same time, you have a police force that is barely 12,000 for a population of 12.5 million. Just yesterday, there was a police commissioner who was killed in a red zone that's had issues with gangs and continues to have issues with gangs. I mean, the police force is saying, hey, we need help. We are outmanned, outgunned. There's a U.S. arms embargo. But yet Haiti is flooded with guns and ammunition that are coming from the U.S.

FADEL: In the few seconds we have left, how might this crisis spill over across the region, including here in the U.S.?

CHARLES: It is already spilling over. We're in the largest Haitian boat migration crisis since, you know, 2004. Just yesterday, more than a hundred Haitian migrants were found on an uninhabited island of Puerto Rico. And, of course, Haitians continue to cross the southern border of the U.S.

FADEL: Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald. Thank you so much for your reporting.

CHARLES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.