Morning news brief
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Two presidents are talking of a mutiny in Russia.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Biden commented after staying carefully silent for days. We'll hear him in a moment. Russia's Vladimir Putin also fell silent for a couple of days, but then he gave a speech about the private military contractors who briefly marched toward Moscow. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, called off his advance and accepted exile in Belarus.
FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes joins us now from Moscow to discuss. Hi, Charles.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.
FADEL: So what did Putin say to the Russian people?
MAYNES: You know, state media initially reported Putin's spokesman had billed this speech as determining the fate of Russia. The spokesman now says he never used those words. Either way, this address seemed less about the future of the country and more about Putin reasserting control, placing himself back at the center of events. The Russian leader was visibly still angry about the uprising, denouncing the leaders of the insurrection as criminals, but making clear that he, Putin, had been firmly in charge the whole time. Let's listen.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).
MAYNES: So here Putin says that from the very outset of events, he gave direct orders that steps should be taken to minimize bloodshed, but that had required time, mainly for the Wagner fighters to realize the mistake they'd made and the futility of the uprising. Now, Putin also said this deal for Wagner, this amnesty initially brokered by the leader of Belarus, was in fact Putin's idea. Wagner fighters, Putin said, now had a choice. They could sign up with the military, go home to their families, or choose exile in Belarus, where Wagner's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin - that's Putin's former ally who led the rebellion and who the president did not mention by name in his speech - has also been offered safe passage.
FADEL: So what do we know about Prigozhin at this point? Has he taken the deal? Do we know where he is?
MAYNES: Yeah. Belarussian media today reported that a plane believed to be used by Prigozhin landed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, this morning. Also, Russia's Federal Security Services, the FSB, announced this morning they dropped this insurrection charge against Prigozhin and the rest of the Wagner fighters. The question now seems to be whether Prigozhin will keep his end of whatever bargain he made with Putin. Yesterday, Prigozhin issued a mea culpa on social media in which he basically said this was all a big misunderstanding, that Wagner was protesting a decision that would put them under the authority of the Defense Ministry leadership, leadership they consider incompetent, but they had never had any desire to overthrow the government or challenge the Russian leader.
FADEL: It feels like as quick as it started, it ended. So is all this really over at this point?
MAYNES: You know, it does seem too tidy an end to what's been a really messy subplot of infighting between Prigozhin and the military leadership amid the war in Ukraine. Lost in all the political intrigue here is the fact that as many as 15 Russian servicemen were killed in fighting between Wagner and the army as Prigozhin's mercenary led this Mad Max-style run on Moscow Saturday. Also, the initial reason for all this, you know, these Wagner allegations of incompetence by the top brass, are still out there, left to fester. In his comments yesterday, Prigozhin said the ease of Wagner's move into Russia, seizing a major city in the south and then moving on to the capital, was all the proof you needed. And yet President Putin met with his top security officials, including the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who's been on the receiving end of Prigozhin's ire this whole time, and basically told them job well done. And actually the Kremlin seems to be pushing the idea that this whole episode is in a way something to celebrate, that Russia's enemies wanted the country to descend into civil war, and instead Russians had come together and stopped it. You know, they passed the test when it mattered most.
FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thank you.
MAYNES: Thank you.
INSKEEP: President Biden said nothing in public about Russia's crisis until the weekend of action was over.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We had to make sure we gave Putin no excuse - let me emphasize - we gave Putin no excuse to blame this on the West or to blame this on NATO.
FADEL: So that's Biden explaining the silence. NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez was listening, and he's here with us now. Hi, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.
FADEL: So what did you learn?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, yesterday Biden gave a little more insight to all that he was doing at Camp David during all this action was happening. You know, he said he was getting hour-by-hour updates from his national security team and that he directed them to prepare for a range of scenarios. He didn't go into details, though. And he also said that it's too early to draw any conclusions about the lasting impacts but that his team continues to assess the fallout. And as you noted at the top, the key message he wanted to deliver - and he wanted to deliver it to cameras - was that the United States had nothing to do with Russia's troubles and that this was an internal struggle with the Russian system.
FADEL: So explain that. Why was that so key to make sure the U.S. wasn't perceived to have been involved?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, a little of it might have to do with knocking down this Russian state media account alluding to an investigation of Western involvement. But what this really seems to be about is wanting to kind of stay out of a very fraught situation. I spoke to Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who advised the Biden transition team on Russian policy. You know, she says Biden was making it clear to Putin that the administration was not going to try to exploit this incident for its gain.
ANDREA KENDALL-TAYLOR: There is a long-held belief, not just for Putin but really of the security services in Russia, that the United States will seek to use instability to try to break up the Russian state and to keep Russia down.
ORDOÑEZ: And with so much tension, you know, the biggest fear is a misunderstanding, the kind of misunderstanding that could spiral out of control. And there is another audience here, and that's the rest of the world. Kendall-Taylor says the White House is trying to counter that narrative that the U.S. likes to meddle in the domestic affairs of other countries, and that's something that Russia and China like to promote.
FADEL: But did the administration say anything about what this has done to Putin's grip on power?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said yesterday that it does show Russia's military is not as vaunted as the Kremlin likes to make it out to be. But he also cautioned that, you know, those who are trying to predict Putin's demise - he noted that Putin still commands a very large and capable military, and tens of thousands of Russian troops are still fighting in Ukraine and fighting very vigorously.
FADEL: Yeah, I mean, and also just to remind people, this private mercenary group that march towards Moscow is key in the fighting in Ukraine for Russia. Did the White House say anything about what this means for Ukraine and also for Russia's stability?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, the White House says it's too soon to really say how this will all play out. But it will be clearly an important item discussed at next month's NATO summit. And it also raises some concerns about instability in Russia, a lot of concerns, which is always a big deal when dealing with a nuclear power. And I'll also point out that the White House says it remains committed to Ukraine and that there will be another financial package for Ukraine announced later this week.
FADEL: That was NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Leila.
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FADEL: Lawyers for tribes in the American West are in court today.
INSKEEP: They want to stop construction of the nation's largest lithium mine. It's designed to dig up a strategic metal on federal land that the tribes consider sacred ground.
FADEL: NPR's Kirk Siegler is covering the story, and he joins us now. Hi, Kirk.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.
FADEL: Good morning. So this goes back to the Trump administration, which, in its final days, approved the mine. But the Biden administration wants the mine too, right?
SIEGLER: They do. And this was approved in early 2021, as you say, right before President Trump left office. Lithium is considered a strategic mineral by the U.S. It's also needed for electric vehicle batteries, among other things. And a lot of it we have to import right now. But as you say, the mine is on ancestral land, federal public land, but land considered sacred by West Coast Paiutes. It's believed to be near and adjacent to and on the site of a ancient massacre of West Coast Paiutes by the U.S. Cavalry back to 1865. One of the tribes that has been bringing the court challenges is the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. And their chairman, Arlan Melendez, told me that once again, in his words, Native people are being asked to get out of the way for American progress.
ARLAN MELENDEZ: It's almost like we're going backwards in the respect that Native Americans are getting as far as those sacred sites.
SIEGLER: And, Leila, Melendez's small tribe has played a big role in the court battle to stop the mine. This latest appeal occurs here in California this morning.
FADEL: So those who are building the mine, who are backing the mine, I mean, what are they saying?
SIEGLER: Right. So to be clear here, a federal judge earlier this year approved the mine to go forward, so there has been some initial construction by a company called Lithium Americas and specifically Lithium Nevada. They've declined an interview request by NPR, citing today's court hearing. But, you know, they've maintained that they have followed all of the environmental laws required, and they're partnering with one local tribe that is actually in favor of this mine, the Fort McDermitt and Shoshone tribe. And they're planning to hire workers from the local tribes. I mean, the argument here basically, Leila, is that no energy development comes without some impacts. And if you're going to make this whole-scale transition and try to transform our energy grid - you know, lithium is needed for EV batteries - you're going to need mining of some sort. Now, I talked to Corby Anderson about this. He's a metallurgist at the Colorado School of Mines.
CORBY ANDERSON: If we don't permit and get this mine going, what happens to the next one? Do we wait ad infinitum? Meanwhile, there's these stakes in the ground to create electric vehicles and require their use. Yeah, we're going to have to go somewhere to get the lithium.
SIEGLER: And so Anderson told me that the country can still transform its energy grid probably without this mine, which, by the way, would be the largest lithium mine in America. But we'd have to continue to go abroad to countries like China and other nations that are seen as hostile toward the U.S. And we've all been through the pandemic and seen the supply chain disruptions. And so the backers are saying we need this mine.
FADEL: NPR's Kirk Siegler, thanks.
SIEGLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.