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News brief: Ambassador Bridge, Russia-Ukraine crisis, Kamila Valieva

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. The U.S. is warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen at any moment.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in Kyiv today. It's the first stop in a trip that will also take him to Moscow. It's the latest attempt by Western leaders to come up with some diplomatic solution that would prevent a widespread war in Eastern Europe.

MARTIN: NPR's Joanna Kakissis joins us now from Kyiv. Joanna, what do Ukrainians want to hear from the German chancellor today?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So Ukrainians want Western leaders, including Olaf Scholz, to show some moral support, to communicate something other than panic. I mean, this weekend, more than a dozen countries, including Germany and the U.S., told their citizens to get out of Ukraine immediately. Many embassies, including the American Embassy, say they're planning to move at least some of their operations to Lviv in western Ukraine, from Kyiv, from the capital. Ukraine's neighbor Poland has opened its border to Americans heading west.

MARTIN: So explain that. I mean, I guess it makes sense because it's driving distance to a NATO-allied country - right? - the west near Poland.

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's right. Lviv is in the far west of Ukraine, and the Polish border is less than a two-hour drive away. So it's very easy to get to NATO and European Union territory. I just spent a couple of days reporting in Lviv. It's this beautiful, lively city with cobblestone streets and cafes everywhere, and kids were playing in the squares. And the Ukrainians I spoke to there are really disappointed that so many Western countries are telling their citizens to flee. A historian and tour guide I met there - her name is Ivanka Gonak - she says that this panic is just making Ukrainians feel very alone.

IVANKA GONAK: I'm a mother of three children, and I'm a bit desperate because I don't know if Ukraine should rely on the help of international community. Each family that I know, they have their emergency backpacks. They feel they might need to run any moment.

KAKISSIS: And, you know, most Ukrainians, you know, they don't want to run. Remember; they've lived with Russia as an aggressive neighbor for many years. The Ukrainians I spoke to, they joke that the only locals actually running away right now are the oligarchs who flew out on their private planes.

MARTIN: So German Chancellor Scholz is going to meet with the Ukrainian president, Zelenskyy. Is that going to be tense, Joanna? Because many Ukrainians have not really been that pleased with how Germany has handled this crisis.

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's right, Rachel. The Ukrainians have not been pleased at all. They want a much more forceful support from Germany, and the German chancellor will probably be feeling some of that tension. He's expected to speak with Zelenskyy about how to stabilize the Ukrainian economy. And, you know, international fears have really taken a toll on Ukraine's currency, and international airlines are suspending flights to Ukraine, in part because the insurance rates are fluctuating so wildly. German media have also reported that Scholz also plans to hit this economic theme with Russia tomorrow in an attempt to get them to back off Ukraine. The chancellor could say, like, look; invading Ukraine is going to crush the Russian economy.

And this is pretty tricky territory for Olaf Scholz because Germany has a business relationship with Russia. The big item is the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. So Scholz has been cautious about what he says. But he has promised tough sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, and Nord Stream 2 is definitely on the table as a sanction.

MARTIN: And I guess just quickly - Ukrainians, they don't want to run, as you say. They're determined to stay. So I guess they do have to pin their hopes on diplomatic efforts?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's right. And, you know, they're going on with their lives. The No. 1 news item this weekend is the winner of Ukraine's entry into the Eurovision Song Contest.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

KAKISSIS: It's all about national identity, and it's all about looking ahead and moving forward. It's a fitting song for the moment.

MARTIN: NPR's Joanna Kakissis from Kyiv. Thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. The case of a young Russian figure skater who tested positive for a banned drug has been the talk of the Winter Olympics.

FADEL: And that talk is bound to continue, even though a sports panel ruled today that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva can keep skating in Beijing. The Court of Arbitration for Sport decision means Valieva can compete in the week's highly anticipated women's individual event, where she's the gold-medal favorite.

MARTIN: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman is with us from Beijing. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: So lots of people are paying close attention to the decision that was going to come down about this Russian skater. Was this a surprise?

GOLDMAN: Not really. You know, Rachel, it was going to be controversial either way. If they said that she can't skate, it would have been a huge blow to the games, losing one of its biggest stars, and, you know, it would have overwhelmed this last week. If the decision was what it was, that she can skate, well, there would be anger about allowing this person to compete after she'd tested positive for a banned drug, and we are seeing that anger already. So, basically, lose-lose.

MARTIN: Right. But explain this. I mean, what did the court give for allowing someone who tested positive for a banned drug to compete in the games?

GOLDMAN: Well, No. 1, she's under 16, and according to the World Anti-Doping Code, she is what's called a protected person, meaning someone who gets lower sanctions for violations and, you know, someone more likely to have her career severely affected by a suspension. This is the court's Director General Matthieu Reeb.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHIEU REEB: In particular, the panel considered that preventing the athlete to compete at the Olympic Games would cause her irreparable harm in these circumstances.

GOLDMAN: Now, Reeb also noted that - what he called the untimely notification of the results. And, Rachel, that's at the heart of this mess. Valieva ever give a drug test sample Christmas Day last year, and the result wasn't revealed for another 40-some days, during these games and after she'd already competed and helped Russia win the team competition. This should have been dealt with much quicker, especially, you know, since Valieva was projected to be one of the stars of the Olympics. And we still don't know why it took the drug testing authority so long.

MARTIN: So we just heard the court's director, Matthieu Reeb, say this is about, you know, protecting this young person, Valieva, from "irreparable harm," quote-unquote. But what about those competing against her?

GOLDMAN: Good question, yeah. It's tough, I mean, if you're in the women's individual event and you know the favorite, who will skate, tested positive for a banned drug. And we don't know if it was an actual intentional doping. The court didn't rule on the merits of this case. All of that happens at a later time. But yes, suddenly, this entire competition has a huge question mark hanging over it. And it brings to light once again Russia's ongoing issues with banned drugs. This is the fourth straight Olympics where Russia has been under this dubious sort of punishment. Its flag and anthem are banned. Athletes aren't referred to directly as Russian athletes. Many, you know, continue to call it a farce.

MARTIN: Right. Like, my young children don't understand (laughter) what it would be like for Russia to actually have a proper team because it's not really an Olympics unless there's a Russian doping scandal, and they have to compete as individuals.

GOLDMAN: Exactly right. You know, critics say it's because Russia never has been truly punished for its doping offenses. In reality, Russia is a hugely rich and powerful Olympic stakeholder, and for the IOC, critics say, it's better to slap Russia's wrist than hand down meaningful punishment that would force the country to confront its doping issues and perhaps truly reform.

MARTIN: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman reporting from the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Thanks, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: One of the main economic arteries between the U.S. and Canada is now back open.

FADEL: Canadian police yesterday cleared protesters who had been blocking the Ambassador Bridge for nearly a week. The bridge connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The protesters used trucks, RVs and pickups to block the bridge. They're demanding an end to all COVID-19 mandates. So this crossing is now open, but there are still even bigger protests happening in Ottawa.

MARTIN: Emma Jacobs joins us from Montreal, where she's been following all this. Emma, thanks for being here.

EMMA JACOBS: Thank you.

MARTIN: So the Ambassador Bridge is back open. Just tell us what went down.

JACOBS: First, some context. The Ambassador Bridge carries a quarter of trade between the U.S. and Canada. It's a route a lot of food takes from the U.S. into Ontario. Auto parts get carted back and forth between assembly plants in Ontario and Michigan. This blockade had become so disruptive to the automakers a number of plants canceled shifts and sent workers home. Saturday morning, large numbers of police arrived just after 8:00. A lot of the protesters and vehicles left early on, but a couple hundred demonstrators, mostly on foot, including children, remained all day. Finally, by Sunday morning, their numbers had fallen to just a few dozen people. That was when large numbers of police moved again to definitively clear the roadway. City of Windsor police said they had made more than two dozen arrests in total and towed 10 vehicles. The bridge reopened yesterday evening.

MARTIN: Wow. That is quite a scene in Windsor. You, I understand, are going to head to Ottawa today. Can you tell us more about what's happening there 'cause the protests continue, huh?

JACOBS: In Ottawa, this is the beginning of a third week of noisy protests. A couple hundred big-rigs and other vehicles have been parked downtown surrounding Parliament. On the weekends, they've been joined by thousands of people, and the nights have been much louder. On Friday night, the demonstrators put up a stage for a concert. Residents have complained about the noise and aggressive behavior of some demonstrators and have expressed frustration and anger that police have not enforced the law.

MARTIN: There's these signs I understand some people are carrying saying, make Ottawa boring again?

JACOBS: Yes, accurate.

MARTIN: (Laughter) I guess a lot of people are sort of sick and tired of the inconvenience. I mean, when this bridge, these protests have all been dispersed, as we see on the Ambassador Bridge, is that going to embolden more of the protesters, especially in Ottawa? Or is it going to, you know, defuse the situation? What do you think?

JACOBS: I don't think that the protesters in Ottawa are immediately ready to go home. On Sunday, a group of residents took it into their own hands to block vehicles, and things actually became so tense that police escorted them away. But at the same time, the mayor agreed to meet with the demonstrators if they move vehicles away from residents and closer to Parliament, and the leaders couldn't really even agree on that.

MARTIN: Well, we so appreciate your reporting on this, Emma, and we'll keep checking in with you. Reporter Emma Jacobs from Montreal. Thank you.

JACOBS: Thank you. 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.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.