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News brief: Ukraine airspace, Senate abortion-rights bill, New Mexico wildfire

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia's giant air force has not done it much good in Ukraine.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Its failure runs parallel to the frustration of Russian forces on the ground. Russia does not control the skies, which is one reason it's still possible for Ukrainian forces to keep fighting and for the U.S. to keep shipping them supplies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led the House last night in voting for a $40 billion aid package, even more money for supplies than President Biden requested.

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NANCY PELOSI: We think the size of the package is significant because it will enable the Ukrainians to more efficiently and quickly - to deal with the challenge that they face.

INSKEEP: So how has Ukraine kept fighting in the air? NPR's Brian Mann has been hearing from some of the people who are doing it. Hey there, Brian. Who'd you talk with?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I've been talking to Ukrainian fighter pilots, including a guy who goes by the call sign Juice. For security reasons, we can't use his real name. And he told me they expected Russia's bombers and jets to hit really hard and fast.

JUICE: We were waiting for a much more effective threat from the Russian air force side.

MANN: And it's easy to see why. An industry trade journal called FlightGlobal estimates the Russian air force has roughly 1,500 military aircraft. The Ukrainians, by contrast, have around 100. Russian planes are also far more modern and lethal than the antique MiG-29 jets that Juice flies.

JUICE: It's great problem to fight with their fighters for us, because they have an advantage in this technology. Unfortunately, our jets are not capable to be effective against them.

MANN: I also spoke with Mark Cancian with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he says most military experts expected the start of this war to look something like the opening of the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003.

MARK CANCIAN: Hammer them for 48 hours until their air defenses and their air forces were defeated and then get air superiority, if not actually air monopoly.

MANN: But, Steve, Russia didn't do that. Its air campaign has essentially been a bust.

INSKEEP: Well, you've just listed the reasons they should have done that, or so it seemed. Why did it go wrong for Russia?

MANN: Some experts think Russia's big fleet of aircraft just hasn't been well maintained. And they also don't appear to have the logistical support, the fuel and the spare parts, to keep their jets flying. But another factor is the Ukrainians. In the years after Russia first annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas in 2014, Ukraine developed a pretty sophisticated air defense system, using that fleet of fighter planes working in tandem with surface-to-air missile systems. The Ukrainians I spoke to believe Russian pilots just don't have the training and experience to deal with that kind of threat. Here's a Ukrainian MiG pilot who goes by the call sign Moonfish.

MOONFISH: Sometimes we are able to hear their communications. When you hear those, they are actually really scared. And if anything goes wrong, they just turn away.

MANN: A senior U.S. defense official also told NPR the Ukrainian air force is being helped by real-time intelligence from the U.S. And experts think the Ukrainians are going to get better and better at defending their airspace, in part because of better weapons that are coming in from the U.S. and Germany.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, Russia has that sheer weight of numbers. Have they succeeded in some ways?

MANN: Russian long-range bombers are launching cruise missiles, hitting civilian and military targets. It's not a game changer, experts say, but that is a factor. Ukrainian officials also acknowledged the Russians have established air dominance over parts of the Donbas region in the east, where some of the heaviest fighting is underway. But again, Steve, that's a tiny fraction of the country. Much of Ukraine remains effectively a no-fly zone for Russian planes and pilots.

INSKEEP: Can you just describe why that matters so much to the war on the ground?

MANN: Yeah, everyone I talked to says this is huge. You know, Ukraine is a vast country, and because the danger of Russian air attack is so limited, Ukrainians can operate their trains. Their roads are busy with supply trucks. That means the military can bring supplies, ammunition and weapons all the way to the front lines. Supplies are also flowing to critical cities like Kyiv and Odesa. Experts say if Russian aircraft were patrolling overhead, able to drop bombs at will the way they were able to do over Syria, this war would look entirely different.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann is just out of Ukraine. He's today in Zurich, Switzerland. Brian, safe travels.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Here in the U.S., the Senate votes today on a bill to write abortion rights into federal law.

MARTINEZ: Democrats scheduled this in advance of a Supreme Court ruling on abortion. An early draft of a decision suggests its justices might be on their way to overturning Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion. Senator Patty Murray says that's why they're voting now.

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PATTY MURRAY: When we vote on this bill, every single senator is going to have to go on the record as to whether they want to take their constituents' rights away.

INSKEEP: NPR Congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is on the line. Good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we should state the obvious. This isn't going to pass.

SNELL: Right.

INSKEEP: Democrats need 60 votes. They ain't got them. But will Democrats themselves be united?

SNELL: You know, that is, at this moment, still unclear. And as is often the case, we are watching Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Now, he has voted against abortion protections in the past, but he has avoided giving reporters any answer on this specific bill. Now, the legislation they're voting on would guarantee the right of women to obtain abortions and for providers to provide them without, as the bill calls them, "medically unnecessary restrictions." A version of this bill did fail in February. And, you know, Democrats say they're trying again because they say this is different now. It is a live issue. This is not a theoretical question as a result of that draft opinion. Now, Manchin voted against the version of the bill that was on the floor in February. And there had been some hope among Democrats that they could pressure two Republicans, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, to vote for this bill because Collins and Murkowski have supported abortion rights in the past, but that seems kind of unlikely at this point. You know, Collins and Murkowski have their own bill, and that does include some restrictions that Democrats reject.

INSKEEP: On the other side, would Republicans really pursue an abortion ban if they regain control of Congress?

SNELL: Well, you know, it kind of depends on who you ask. If you ask Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he says that Republicans do not support getting rid of a filibuster and no issue is exempt from that, though, you know, he never explicitly said that they would never get rid of the filibuster to pass an abortion ban.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: I think the sentiment in my conference is for this issue to be dealt with at the state level, if we are, in fact, confronted with a final Supreme Court decision that throws this issue back into democratic processes.

SNELL: That's a long way of saying he wants to let the states decide. You know, he also said that both parties have held abortion votes in the past, and both parties have failed to get 60 votes when they've tried. But this is right now. Even if Republicans win control in November, President Biden would still be president, and there's virtually no chance that they'd have enough votes to overcome a veto. So this is a question for some time to come.

INSKEEP: OK, Congressional stalemate, as on many, many issues, as a matter of fact. So what do Democrats, the people in control for the moment, plan to do next?

SNELL: There really isn't much that they can do. You know, some are promising a vote, and they want to keep voting and voting and voting to keep up the pressure. But, you know, that's not really a tactic meant to change the votes inside of Congress. It's more of a defensive strategy and an attempt to show voters that Democrats are trying on an issue that's very important to voters. And it's not clear that voters actually think that's useful. Virtually every Senate Democrat I've spoken to - and that's dozens in the past week - says that they just need more Democrats in the Senate, so they plan on campaigning on it. But like you said, this is a tale Democrats are all too used to right now. Police reform, voting rights, climate change - you know, all of these things are things that voters want and Democrats can't pass.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelsey Snell, thanks, as always.

SNELL: Thanks.

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INSKEEP: Record dry conditions have made it hard for firefighters to contain a wildfire in New Mexico.

MARTINEZ: Todd Abel is a federal operations chief for Southwestern fires.

TODD ABEL: That fire had a lot of energy. And what I mean by that - it throws spots out in front of it. It moves extremely fast. There's no way to get people in front of it to do anything with it. We couldn't even get aircraft to drop retardant in front of it.

MARTINEZ: This fire started as two smaller fires. It's now reaching as many as 30 square miles per day. East of Santa Fe, it's destroyed hundreds of homes as thousands evacuate.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Las Vegas, N.M., meaning it's very early where you are. Eric, good morning.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are conditions like there?

WESTERVELT: Well, they've got these unusually high winds, and many meteorologists and firefighters on the line are calling these winds, you know, unprecedented. They just haven't seen them before. I mean, it's called the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire, and the wind just doesn't seem to let up, Steve. I mean, it's yet another example of sort of extreme weather we keep seeing in this era of climate change. I mean, they've had more than 20 days of these red flag warning. That's extreme wind, 40 to 70 miles per hour, during this fire, just over a month old. That includes six straight days of red flag warnings, Steve. And today and tomorrow are again red flag days. And everyone you talk to says, look, we just haven't seen this many dangerously high wind days in a row. Dave Bales is the fire incident commander here.

DAVE BALES: Man, I tell you, it's - that's been a huge challenge for us. And I've been doing this for just about 3 1/2 decades, and I have not seen that many red flag events in a row. Specifically, this last event we just went through was up to five days straight of a red flag, you know, day and night.

WESTERVELT: And Steve, that last point is key, day and night. They're lasting longer. Usually red flag days, you know, the wind sort of dies down at night. That's the pattern, but not on this fire. On several days, these howling winds have lasted throughout the night, and that's created really dangerous conditions, as we heard from Todd Abel at the top there - you know, tossing embers 1, even 2 miles from the main fire, where crews have built containment lines.

INSKEEP: How are the evacuations going?

WESTERVELT: The people in the path, for the most part, have evacuated if they're in the direct path of the fire. Some 300 structures, including dozens of homes, have been destroyed. And as, you know, the intense winds continue and the fire spreads, the shelters are filling up. But not everyone in the fire's path has left their homes. So police continue to, you know, encourage locals to heed the evacuation orders in their area when they're given.

INSKEEP: OK, you got to tell us about how this fire started. I gather that one portion of it, one of the two fires that combined into one, started intentionally. What happened?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. This was an intentional or prescribed burn set by the U.S. Forest Service and the Santa Fe National Forest. The wind picked up, and the blaze just took off. The fire then merged with a separate, smaller wildfire a few weeks later, and it's become this big blaze known as Calf's Canyon. And people are frustrated and angry that, you know, this big disruption was caused in part, it looks like, by, you know, an intentional blaze that got out of control. Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation and others have called for a full investigation. The Forest Service says it's doing its own internal investigation. And New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham yesterday said the federal government should accept significant liability and pay for much of the wildfire recovery.

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MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: For me, it's negligent to consider a prescribed burn in a windy season in a state that's under an extreme drought warning statewide. So I think that it is likely, likely, that Congress and most of our federal partners accept that there is significant federal liability.

WESTERVELT: Steve, I would add, I spoke with an official at the Santa Fe National Forest, which did this burn. She told me they've been doing prescribed burning in that part of the forest for over 10 years with many successful burns, and they had a strict burn plan for this one as well. They looked at weather, wind and moisture as they do in all of these prescribed burns. And the official said, look, the weather forecasted, you know, was - conditions were within the parameters for a safe burn. But again, this has been an unprecedented wind event, and that controlled burn quickly got out of control.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Las Vegas, N.M. Eric, thanks.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.