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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

It's been nearly two years since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and this weekend Russia secured an important win. Its forces occupied a strategically important town in Ukraine's east.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

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Now, Ukrainian soldiers spent months defending it, but they're running low on ammunition and weapons. The White House blames Congress for holding up military aid, and Ukrainians fear more losses without more support.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now to discuss all this is NPR's Joanna Kakissis, who is in central Ukraine. Joanna, first tell us about this town and why its occupation by Russia is significant.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So, A, the town's name is Avdiivka. And in Ukraine, it's been a symbol of resistance. Russia has been attacking Avdiivka for 10 years, ever since Russian proxies occupied part of eastern Ukraine back in 2014. The Russians really stepped up their attacks on Avdiivka last October, destroying nearly the entire town and driving out nearly all of the 30,000 residents. Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his soldiers on the Kremlin website, and now Putin can tout this battlefield gain ahead of next month's presidential elections. Ukrainians, of course, are heartbroken. They're on edge. The capture of Avdiivka sets up Russia for more gains in eastern Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And the White House noted that Ukraine's lack of ammunition played a role in Russia's takeover of Avdiivka. Is that what Ukrainians are saying, too?

KAKISSIS: Yes. Many are saying that. A Ukrainian lawmaker told me Ukraine is being held hostage by election-year politics in the U.S. She's referring to how Republicans in Congress have been blocking a military aid package to Ukraine. And at the Munich Security Conference this weekend, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, look, we do not have enough weapons, and we will lose if we can't get more soon. Meanwhile, Russia already had a much bigger arsenal than Ukraine, and now it's getting even more weapons from Iran and North Korea.

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The Ukrainian soldiers defending Avdiivka also said that they were outgunned by the Russians, and on land that's flat with no cover for them. The 110th Mechanized Brigade defended Avdiivka for two years, and they shared some videos with NPR of soldiers talking about the withdrawal. Here's a soldier identified by his military call sign Munch. He's heard here through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNCH: (Through interpreter) The exit from Avdiivka was difficult, to put it mildly. Everyone knows the Russians have no problems with the supply of ammunition, no problems with firepower. So they shoot everything at us. Everything possible was flying there.

KAKISSIS: Munch also mentioned how over months of intense fighting, the Russians would just send wave after wave of soldiers. No matter how many Russian soldiers were killed, there were always more coming. Ukrainian soldiers were about to be encircled in Avdiivka, so military chief Oleksandr Syrsky decided that the human cost of keeping them there was just too high.

MARTÍNEZ: So does the fall of this city signal that maybe Russia is gaining momentum in this war?

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KAKISSIS: Well, in the short term, I think the answer is yes. In Munich, Zelenskyy said Ukraine is trying to build its own arsenal, but also said Ukraine cannot defend itself from Russia alone. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself, why is Putin still able to continue it?

KAKISSIS: Zelenskyy is once again asking the West to not see this as only Ukraine's war, but one that will grow much larger if Russia keeps winning.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Dnipro, Ukraine. Joanna, thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

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MARTÍNEZ: Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says his government won't be swayed by international pressure and is still making plans for an offensive in southern Gaza, in the town of Rafah, for the stated goal of eliminating Hamas.

FADEL: But Rafah is where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians have fled, squeezed up against the Egyptian border. It's the last place so many have sought refuge from the Israeli military campaign, and much of the world is warning against the invasion because of the toll it will take on civilians.

MARTÍNEZ: For more on this, we called on NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Greg, we've been hearing about a possible Israeli operation in Rafah for weeks now - for a couple of weeks. How likely is it, and where would people go if this happens?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Yeah. The Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, says this is still his intent, that he won't allow any part of the Hamas military force to survive in Gaza. He says that would essentially be a win for Hamas and a loss for Israel. Now, Netanyahu has called for both a military plan and a blueprint to evacuate these more than 1 million civilians, most of them living in tents. But there's been no word of such a plan, and it would be extremely complicated. So the thinking is, before any Israeli military operation takes place, we're likely to see efforts to evacuate civilians on a large scale. We're not seeing that now. And many of these displaced say they simply have nowhere else to go.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, after more than four months of this, how much damage has the Israeli military done on Hamas?

MYRE: Well, it's been quite considerable, Israeli officials estimate - and this is just an estimate - about 10,000 Hamas fighters have been killed and a similar number injured. We can't independently confirm this. And Hamas refuses to give figures. But if accurate or reasonably so, this is probably half or more of the Hamas fighters. We've also seen an almost complete halt to the Hamas rocket fire coming out of Gaza into Israel. But Hamas shouldn't be underestimated. This is the analysis of Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel.

CHUCK FREILICH: We've been so surprised by their capabilities since the war began, the vast, vast tunnel network, which is just mind-boggling, their rocket capability. I would be cautious in saying that they probably don't have too much in Gaza. They may have, and they have a lot more than we thought.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Greg, given all that, I mean, what's the war looking like on a day-to-day basis in Gaza?

MYRE: So we're seeing the Israeli tanks and other armored vehicles continuing to gain ground, but they're still facing resistance from Hamas. Israel says this is largely small-scale resistance. Hamas is no longer fighting in larger, organized unit. And the main fighting is in the southern city of Khan Younis. Israel says it's in control, but not full control. Khan Younis is about 7 miles north of Rafah. This is the distance separating the main Israeli force from the last major stronghold of Hamas, as well as all those displaced Palestinians.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Benjamin Netanyahu says his goal is to destroy Hamas militarily and politically. So far, does that seem realistic?

MYRE: Well, on the military side, Israel has made progress. It controls most of Gaza. It says it's defeated 18 of the 24 Hamas battalions. So, if accurate, that means Hamas has been badly weakened but not destroyed. On the political side, the Hamas leadership, both internal leaders in Gaza and external leaders, are still intact. And the group has long had public support in Gaza. So it seems politically, it's still reasonably strong.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: Sure thing, A.

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MARTÍNEZ: Construction is underway on a controversial state military base camp in Eagle Pass, Texas.

FADEL: The base that was authorized by Governor Greg Abbott will span 80 acres and house up to 2,300 National Guard soldiers. Their mission is to secure the Texas-Mexico border, and the project represents the latest escalation in a tug of war between the Biden administration and Texas over who controls immigration on the border.

MARTÍNEZ: Texas Public Radio's Pablo De la Rosa is here with us to share more. Pablo, so why is the state building this base?

PABLO DE LA ROSA, BYLINE: So this is another step of many over the past three years of just continuous expansion on the governor's border security mission, Operation Lonestar, to deter migration on the border. But more than anything, it's a really big leap towards making that mission much more permanent. So it's a big move. But we've seen him challenge the federal government's exclusive purview on immigration enforcement from the very beginning of Operation Lone Star. You know, he's greatly expanded the militarization on the border, deploying barriers which some have called dangerous in the water, deploying heavily armed tactical marine units on the water. So we first heard about this from Governor Abbott when he spoke about the new military base from the construction site on Friday.

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GREG ABBOTT: Our goal is to make sure that we expand the effectiveness of that razor wire to more areas along this border. Having the soldiers located right here, right by the river, they will amass a large army in a very strategic area.

MARTÍNEZ: We mention that it's in Eagle Pass. That's where the base is going to be built - pretty much the symbolic center of Greg Abbott's immigration fight. What's the community in Eagle Pass's reaction?

DE LA ROSA: This announcement really blindsided basically everybody. You know, nobody knew anything about this. I spoke to a few people throughout the weekend. Even two state reps I talked to hadn't heard about this project. This town, Eagle Pass, has gone through so much over the past few weeks and months, you know, since Texas took over Shelby Park by the Rio Grande, kicking out the federal government. This is a public community space where, you know, people celebrate birthdays. They've celebrated Easter. Now it's totally militarized.

And I had a chance to speak with Jesse Fuentes, who's a longtime resident. He owns a kayak business on the water, where those buoys are that I just mentioned. He's a plaintiff in litigation with the state over those barriers, and I had a chance to speak with him.

JESSE FUENTES: He's created his own immigration force, his own immigration courts. I mean, why are we allowing this to happen? Why are we allowing our governor to become a dictator and authoritarian as to how policy is supposed to be enforced when it comes to immigration?

MARTÍNEZ: So, Pablo, what are the chances, then, for this becoming yet another legal showdown between Texas and the federal government?

DE LA ROSA: It's definitely a part of it. I mean, the governor has argued in a variety of ways that he believes the state has a right to secure the border. Of course, you know, constitutionally, that has always fallen under the purview of the federal government - exclusive purview - of the federal government. So we're actually waiting to hear how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on some Department of Justice lawsuits against Texas over these barriers.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Pablo De la Rosa of Texas Public Radio. Pablo, thanks.

DE LA ROSA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.