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News brief: Russia under pressure, North Korea missile tests, LA City Council turmoil


You can break the Russian invasion of Ukraine into two conflicts. There's the physical war - people killed, buildings destroyed. And there's the information war over what the conflict means.


On Monday, Russia launched dozens of missiles into Ukrainian cities. The places struck ranged from an energy company headquarters to a playground. It's hard to say the strikes on civilian targets affected Ukraine's military, but they may have been intended to have an effect inside Russia.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes is joining us now from Moscow. Hi, Charles.


FADEL: Good morning. So Russia apparently responded to the bombing of a symbolically important bridge. What else were those attacks saying?

MAYNES: You know, it seems part of an effort to quell growing doubts here in Russia about how the conflict is unfolding. For weeks, we've seen growing criticism among hard-liners here over the military strategy. They argue Russia has essentially been losing in Ukraine because the Kremlin was fighting with one hand tied behind its back. In other words, Russia wasn't using the full force available to it. And in that sense, yesterday's attacks appeared not to be a one-off but signal this conflict is escalating. There were more attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure reported this morning.

And don't forget - just hours after this Saturday bridge incident, we saw Putin promote a new battlefield commander - this is General Sergey Surovikin - to oversee the military operations in Ukraine. Surovikin is seen as a more ruthless military strategist based on his past experience overseeing, for example, Russia's military operations in Syria, particularly using rocket attacks.

FADEL: So what has been the response, then, especially from hard-liners, to these attacks from these critics?

MAYNES: Well, nothing short of joy among nationalists and Kremlin loyalists. Ramzan Kadyrov, for example, the strongman leader of Chechnya, who was - who's really gone after the defense ministry over these recent setbacks, now says he's 100% behind this new, tougher approach. Others, like Dmitry Medvedev, who's a member of the Security Council, seem to view the attacks as basically a reboot of Russia's military campaign. You know, he's again talking about the total dismantling of the Kyiv government. And remember - that was an early goal of Putin's in the conflict. And then there's Anton Krasovsky. He's one of the more provocative propagandists on the state-sponsored RT Russia Television channel.


ANTON KRASOVSKY: (Speaking in Russian).

MAYNES: So here's Krasovsky on television saying this was a fantastic day, and he literally danced to the news. This is what Russians, he claimed, had been waiting for all these months, you know, proof they were winning. And he said he wanted to wake up every morning and read the same pain was being inflicted on the enemy.

FADEL: But does this, then, back Putin into a corner? Because he'll have to keep delivering on these - on this more forceful approach. So does he run the danger of possibly looking weak again if he doesn't?

MAYNES: Well, it's true they want Putin to go all in, but it may not be that simple. Russia has massive firepower, like - the likes of which we saw yesterday, but supplies aren't unlimited. Even bombing Ukraine on a massive scale, if it inflicts damage, it kills people, but it doesn't change the situation on the battlefield. And there, you know, Russia's struggles continue. In recent weeks, it's lost large swathes of territory in areas Moscow claim to have already annexed, and a mobilization drive, an effort to inject new troops, has struggled amid sloppy implementation and resistance from the public. So yesterday's attacks seem to have pushed those problems into the background but just for now.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you so much for your time.

MAYNES: Thank you.


FADEL: Russia is not the only country making threats of nuclear strikes.

INSKEEP: North Korea is telling a story about its recent missile tests. It has conducted seven rounds of tests in the past couple of weeks, and the government now says those launches all simulated attacks on South Korea, using tactical nuclear weapons. North Korea also restated its position that it's not interested in dialogue with the United States or South Korea.

FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul and joins us now. Hi, Anthony.


FADEL: So tell us more about what North Korea had to say about its recent tests.

KUHN: So North Korea's state media reported Monday that all seven of these recent tests involved nuclear-capable, short-range, intermediate-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. And the test simulated wartime attacks on South Korean ports, airports and command facilities. And leader Kim Jong Un personally oversaw some of the launches. What state media reported about the intentions were that the drills were supposed to show the effectiveness and readiness of the North's tactical nuclear forces and also send a warning to the U.S. and South Korea at a time when the U.S. has been ramping up its own military exercises with South Korea and Japan.

FADEL: And when did North Korea get tactical nuclear weapons? And what does it change?

KUHN: Experts believe that North Korea probably decided to get tactical nukes in 2019 after a failed summit in Hanoi between then President Trump and Kim Jong Un and that Kim publicly announced his intention to get these weapons in January of 2021. Now, Lee Ho-ryung (ph), who's a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, argues that these weapons are not new. What North Korea is trying to do is deploy them in new ways so that they can avoid being detected or intercepted by the U.S. and South Korea. Here's what she said.

LEE HO-RYUNG: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: She says, "I think the variety of launches betray North Korean military units' fear of Kim Jong Un, who is demanding that the military come up with solutions and tactics." She adds that these tests are a result of that fear and, in a way, betray their vulnerabilities. So basically, she's skeptical that the North's tactical nuclear forces are as effective as Pyongyang claims.

FADEL: But do North Korea's tactical nukes make nuclear war more likely?

KUHN: Arguably, yes. North Korea recently updated its nuclear doctrine and wrote that doctrine into law. And Lee argues that these tests were meant to show that the military can enforce that law. The law says that North Korea can use its nukes preemptively - that is, it can launch them not because it's been attacked but simply because it's losing in a conventional war. And previously, Kim Jong Un has been the only one with the authority to launch nukes, but now Kim apparently intends to delegate authority to use tactical nukes to frontline military commanders so that they can win on the battlefield, and even if Kim is killed in a decapitation strike, North Korea can still retaliate.

FADEL: At this point, is North Korea's nuclear arsenal complete?

KUHN: No. Experts have been saying for some time that North Korea's plan was first to develop tactical nukes, then progress to upgrading intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs, and nuclear tests. In other words, they want to show first that they can hit U.S. military bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam and then show that they can hit the U.S. mainland. Seoul and Washington have been watching for signs of these tests, and a logical time to do them would probably be after China's Communist Party Congress in late October.

FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul. Thank you.

KUHN: Thank you, Leila.


FADEL: Los Angeles is roiling in scandal as the City Council president, Nury Martinez, stepped down after being caught making racist remarks in a leaked recording.

INSKEEP: Yeah, someone recorded her conversation in which she was discussing redistricting with two other council members, Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo. They were talking about how to keep a strong Latino presence on the LA City Council. Now some people are calling for all three members to resign.

FADEL: For more, we're joined by KQED's Saul Gonzalez in Los Angeles. And just a warning - we're going to be discussing the racist things that Martinez said. Hi, Saul.


FADEL: OK. Saul, so just tell us exactly what was said and what happened in these recordings.

GONZALEZ: OK. Let me make this really simple because a lot was said.

FADEL: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: In audio obtained by the LA Times, then-Council President Nury Martinez compared the adopted Black son of a white city council colleague to a changuito - that's Spanish for little monkey. And she uses this phrase - little, short, dark people. That's an apparent reference to Oaxacan immigrants. She also calls the LA County DA as being, quote, "with the Blacks." Now, councilmembers Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo were also part of this conversation in which the group discussed redistricting and Latino representation on the council. And there was a very prominent LA County labor leader also present.

FADEL: And so a lot of this racism directed at Black people. How is the Black community reacting?

GONZALEZ: Well, many in the Black community are reacting with just anger and despondency and sadness to these comments. Here's how Irma Hallwood (ph), a Black labor activist in LA, told me how she felt. We spoke at a church in South Los Angeles where Black religious and civil rights leaders had gathered.

IRMA HALLWOOD: Hurt, angry, disappointed. I won't say the rest because I'm in the house of God. But I'm very disappointed, betrayed.

GONZALEZ: Some are also expressing concerns about how genuine some Latino leaders have been when they've talked about forming Black-brown alliances around common issues like economic justice and police reform. In the past, there have been tensions between these communities over such issues as immigration and jobs. And there have been instances of Latino gangs targeting Black residents in some neighborhoods. And the Black community has this long-term anxiety about, really, their place in Los Angeles. They've seen their size - the size of their population shrink relative to other communities. They're now under 10% of LA's population, while, of course, the Latino population has boomed over the last generation or two, and Latinos now account for roughly half of LA's population.

FADEL: Yeah, and the comments were also made during a conversation about redistricting and Latino political power. So can you give us some context about the political dynamics here?

GONZALEZ: Well, you know, it all orbits around political clout, right?

FADEL: Right.

GONZALEZ: I mean, where district lines are drawn is - that's incredibly important to different racial and ethnic groups who want to make sure that they can elect a person who represents their interests and their communities and experiences at city hall. Now, people in favor of coalition building, they don't want that redistricting to become a zero-sum game between Black people and Latinos in LA, although the council members who were captured on tape seem to be talking in just those terms, mainly protecting the position and clout of Latinos at city Hall.

FADEL: KQED's Saul Gonzalez in Los Angeles. Thank you for your time.

GONZALEZ: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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