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News brief: Possible Biden-Putin summit, hate crimes trial, regular health screenings

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The window to resolve the Russia-Ukraine tensions diplomatically, it's still open.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah, the White House says President Joe Biden is willing to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in principle, as long as Russia does not move military on Ukraine, something the White House says could happen at any moment. But this morning, the Kremlin cast doubt over the possibility of top-level talks.

FADEL: For more, we're joined by NPR's Frank Langfitt in Kyiv. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Frank, break it down for us. Is this Biden-Putin summit going to happen?

LANGFITT: It's not quite clear. You know, French President Emmanuel Macron was working the phones not only with the U.S. and Russia but also with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to try to set up a meeting to broker a cease-fire out in eastern Ukraine. And that's where Ukrainian government says the Russian-backed separatists have been - they've sort of dramatically increased shelling in the last four days. And the plan, if it happens, would be for Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Russian - Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, to meet on Thursday to work out the details. But just as A was saying, you know, the Kremlin spokesman came out this morning saying it's premature to prepare for a summit, and the dialogue should continue between foreign ministries and political advisers.

FADEL: So how are reports of this possible meeting being received in Ukraine?

LANGFITT: Well, anything that doesn't involve an invasion is always welcome here.

FADEL: Right.

LANGFITT: And so Ukrainians in social media - I'd say it was qualified relief, but I would also say for the moment because we're sort of on these 24-hour cycles. But they're also wondering, hey, if there are these talks, why aren't we going to be a part of these talks?

FADEL: Right.

LANGFITT: And you can understand from Ukraine's point of view, you know, they're always concerned that these bigger powers will make some decision that affects them and kind of cut them out. So if there were a summit to actually happen, there also would be plans for a much wider meeting, which - you know, involving the future of security in Europe so that the Ukrainians would not feel left out.

FADEL: So since Thursday, there's been increased violence in the area known as the Donbas, in the country's far east, including two Russian separatist enclaves. What's going on there now?

LANGFITT: Yeah, Ukrainian government says forces in the area that's occupied by these Russian-backed separatists continued heavy artillery today. And analysts view this violence, Leila, in a number of different ways. One, it could be a prelude to a possible attack. But it's also a way to continue to raise pressure on Ukraine and the West for negotiations. And I guess I want to point out here that Russia has said it does not plan to invade, even though it has enormous number of forces along the Ukrainian border. And most Ukrainians don't think Russia will invade, either. They think it would be catastrophic not only for Ukraine but also for President Putin and Russia. And instead, they see this kind of pressure and what's happening in the east and all of these troops as a way to continue to damage the country and pressure to align with Russia instead of the West, which - the West is really where most people here see their nation's future.

FADEL: I've got to ask you before I let you go about this reported kill list. The U.S. wrote to the U.N. human rights chief in Geneva warning that the Russians have created a hit list of people in Ukraine to detain or kill if they invade. What more do we know about that?

LANGFITT: Yeah. This was put out - this was published by The New York Times and also linked to with The Washington Post. And it says, among other things, we have credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation. We should say we haven't seen any evidence of this. We haven't confirmed the letter. The Kremlin calls it an absolute lie. But I have heard about this, actually when I arrived here more than a week ago, from a very well-placed Western source. So that's where we stand.

FADEL: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Kyiv. Thank you so much.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Closing arguments are happening today in the federal hate crimes trial of the three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.

MARTINEZ: The 25-year-old Black man was jogging through a coastal Georgia neighborhood two years ago when the men chased him down and killed him. The trio were sentenced to life in prison on the state murder conviction but now face federal civil rights charges.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now to discuss. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Debbie, would you start by just reminding us who the defendants are and what this federal trial is about?

ELLIOTT: Well, father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan are all charged with attempted kidnapping and, as we said, violating Arbery's civil rights, specifically using force to interfere with his right to use a public street. Federal prosecutors say the defendants targeted Arbery because he was Black. They chased him with pickups until he was cornered, and then Travis McMichael shot him to death at close range with a pump action shotgun. Now, the facts of the murder are not in dispute. The question here is motive - why these men went in pursuit of Ahmaud Arbery as he ran through their neighborhood outside of Brunswick, Ga. Prosecutors say it's because they assumed the only reason a Black man might be running down their street was to flee after committing a crime. It's an assumption prosecutors say they would not have made had a white man been out for a run.

FADEL: So testimony wrapped up on Friday, and you mentioned a few things, but tell us more about the government's case and the evidence it laid out to try and prove that these three men were motivated by racism when they murdered Arbery.

ELLIOTT: Well, in testimony last week, they pretty much used the men's own words to show that long before they killed Ahmaud Arbery, they held racist, offensive and demeaning views of Black people and, in the case of the McMichaels in particular, supported violence against African Americans and vigilante justice. That came from cellphone messages, social media posts, as well as conversations. For instance, a white woman who served under Travis McMichael in the Coast Guard testified on Friday that he had made racist and vulgar sexual comments to her after he learned that she had once dated a Black man. In jailhouse tape recordings, Greg McMichael was heard in a phone conversation referring to Arbery's killing and saying, quote, "no good deed goes unpunished."

FADEL: Wow.

ELLIOTT: There was also evidence that the third defendant, "Roddie" Bryan, had used racial slurs and had made offensive comments about the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

FADEL: What about the defense?

ELLIOTT: You know, none of the defendants testified. I think most of the defense in this federal trial will be coming during the closing arguments today. After the prosecution rested its case on Friday, no witnesses were called by lawyers for either Travis McMichael or "Roddie" Bryan, and Greg McMichael's attorney only put on a very brief testimony from one of their neighbors. During opening statements, defense attorneys had denounced their racist views of their clients but said there's no evidence that these men chased Ahmaud Arbery solely because he was Black. They say they went after him because he was the guy that they had seen on surveillance video going into a home construction site without permission at night on several occasions. So the jury could be weighing those two opposing views today, and we'll see what happens.

FADEL: So it sounds like the jury could begin deliberations as early as today.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, after the closings, the judge will likely charge the jury, and they could get started.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thank you so much for your reporting.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: As the U.S. continues to see declines in COVID cases and hospitalizations, new mask guidance is expected soon from the CDC, perhaps as soon as this week.

MARTINEZ: After nearly two years in the pandemic, it's important to start thinking about preventative health again.

FADEL: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to talk about all of this. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So I have to say, it was pretty recent that the CDC advised everyone to wear N95 masks, and now it's considering loosening mask recommendations. So what's changed?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, cases are way down. There's been about a 75% decline since the start of February. And perhaps more importantly, the number of people hospitalized with COVID is down, too, about 40%. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says this is a key metric. So as these trends continue, hopefully in the right direction, the agency is reevaluating.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen.

AUBREY: Many states and cities have already lifted masking requirements. But I think the seed that's being planted, Leila, is that COVID isn't being eradicated, so masking could come back in the event of another outbreak.

FADEL: OK. What about lifting mask mandates in schools?

AUBREY: Dr. Walensky has said, for now, the CDC is sticking with the recommendation to keep masks on in schools, though some states have already lifted or set dates to lift requirements. And there really are differing opinions among infectious disease experts. Some say there's not much benefit of keeping kids masked if the wider community is not...

FADEL: OK.

AUBREY: ...Especially if kids are not wearing high-quality masks. Others say, with many children unvaccinated, keep the masks on, given the virus is still circulating. In California, officials say they will reevaluate school masking, which is still in effect for now, at the end of this month.

FADEL: So I want to pivot, Allison. I want to ask about some new studies out that suggest a lot of Americans neglected preventative health care during the pandemic, everything from cholesterol checks to cancer screenings. Does that mean more people are sicker with non-COVID illnesses now?

AUBREY: Well, the pandemic has had a pretty chilling effect on prevention measures, such as cancer screenings, as you say. Take mammograms - fewer women have had them, and now when breast cancers are detected, they're more likely to be detected at a later stage. A new study from UC San Diego found prior to the pandemic, 64% of breast cancer patients were diagnosed at Stage 1, early on, but that dropped to about half. Dr. Connie Lehman is director of the breast imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital. She says this trend is very concerning.

CONNIE LEHMAN: The very good news about breast cancer is when we detect it early, we cure it, which is why we have so many women that are breast cancer survivors. However, when we diagnose breast cancer late, it's a very different story. The treatment is much more aggressive, and unfortunately, the percentage of women that will die goes up dramatically when the disease is diagnosed at a late stage.

AUBREY: So if you are due for a mammogram, schedule it. The American Cancer Society recommends annual screenings for women in their mid-40s to mid-50s, then the option of every other year after that. And they say for people 45 and up, think about scheduling a colonoscopy, the best way to detect early-stage cancer.

FADEL: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLUSHII'S "SAPIENT DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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