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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Satellite images of Ukraine show a landscape transformed.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The images show the dam break earlier this week altered the shape of the Dnieper River. Entire waterfront neighborhoods that stood on dry land are now underwater. The dam itself is largely swept away. Ukraine blames its collapse on Russia. Russians who occupy that region of southern Ukraine deny it.

INSKEEP: All of this happened in a region where Ukrainians were widely expected to launch an offensive against Russian troops. So what's this mean for civilians and for the war? NPR's Greg Myre is in Kyiv. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does this flooded area relate to the battlefield?

MYRE: Well, the dam is on the Dnipro River, the main river that runs north-south through Ukraine. It is the front line in this area. The Ukrainians are on the west side. The Russians are on the east side. If you go a little further south of the dam, 50 miles to the large city of Kherson, the Russians fire across the river every day. It's one of the hardest-hit urban areas in Ukraine. So it's very much part of the fighting now. And as you noted, it could be part of a Ukrainian effort to cross the river and drive out the Russians.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We don't know the Ukrainians will attack that way. And, in fact, all of the telegraphing in that direction would almost imply they might attack somewhere else. But does the flooding there make the potential military problem harder?

MYRE: Absolutely, if, indeed, that's the case. We know, generally speaking, the Ukrainians probably will want to attack somewhere in the south to try to cut the Russian forces in two. We know that river crossings are always difficult military operations. So if you flood the area, it could certainly make it more difficult. The Ukrainians have already addressed this, saying they have all the necessary watercraft for such an operation, and they're not talking in any detail about what they might do militarily. One quick historical note here. In World War II, the Soviets blew up a dam in this area about a hundred miles north on the same river in an attempt to prevent a Nazi German offensive. So there is a precedent here.

INSKEEP: Yeah, we don't know the cause of this dam break, but we do know that dams have been deliberately broken for various reasons in past wars. Greg, I want to ask about the people in those satellite images from Maxar that we've been looking at. How many people got away?

MYRE: Well, Steve, the initial fear was this torrent of water could cause huge numbers of casualties, especially when it reached this big city of Kherson further south. Now, the water was so powerful. We saw video of a house that was lifted off its foundation and swept down the river intact, just like it was a boat. In a town next to the dam, a zoo was flooded and more or less 300 animals were killed. But Ukrainian officials, including the prime minister, say no human deaths have been reported on the western side of the river, which Ukraine controls. There are media reports on the Russian side that a few people are missing, and that's the side, as I noted, that Russia occupies.

INSKEEP: How do we find out who's responsible?

MYRE: So Ukraine and Russia continue to accuse each other, and it'll be hard to investigate because the dam is gone and the river is the front line in the war, as we noted. Now, we should emphasize a couple points. Russian troops seized the dam at the very beginning of the war in February last year and have been in control ever since. Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is claiming that Russia blew up the dam from the inside. Now, there are the Ukrainian forces nearby on the western side of the river, but it's not clear how they could conduct a massive sabotage operation without being detected. This is a huge - or was a huge dam. It can't be taken out with a single missile. Also, we should note, Russia has attacked Ukrainian infrastructure, civilian targets, throughout the war. Russia spent the entire winter firing missiles at Ukraine's electrical grid in every corner of the country.

INSKEEP: Greg, I want to follow up on one other thing. We said on the program yesterday, that this dam break might potentially affect a nuclear power plant. Did it?

MYRE: So far, no, and it doesn't look like it will. We're talking about the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. It's less than a hundred miles upriver from the dam. And our colleague Geoff Brumfiel has done some really good reporting on this and says the bottom line is there's no direct or immediate threat to the plant, which has six nuclear reactors and is the largest such plant in Europe. The dam created a reservoir that's used to cool the nuclear facility, and that reservoir is rapidly disappearing with the dam gone. But Geoff spoke with a number of experts, and they say there should continue to be sufficient water to cool the plant, which, we should note, is also under the control of the Russians.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks for your reporting there in Kyiv.

MYRE: Sure thing, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Former Vice President Mike Pence is celebrating his birthday today in an unusual way. He's in Iowa, getting ready to announce his campaign for president.

MARTIN: Pence is the latest to join a growing field of 2024 GOP candidates, and he's got some familiar conservative talking points.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: We will kick these liberal meddlers out of our gun stores and out of your lives.

MARTIN: But he also has a task that's unique to him, explaining how he's a better choice than the man he governed alongside for four years.

INSKEEP: NPR political correspondent Kelsey Snell is in Des Moines, Iowa. Hey there, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: How are things in Iowa?

SNELL: Well, it is presidential season out here. And, you know, Iowa's actually a pretty popular place right now. Pork Expo is kicking off across town, with the Pence presidential campaign, you know...

INSKEEP: OK.

SNELL: ...On the other side.

INSKEEP: All right.

SNELL: Yeah. You know, all that kind of makes getting a hotel room or a rental car pretty tough. But moments like these happen a lot in Iowa. Their caucuses are typically the first voting test in a presidential primary, and Pence is already spending a lot of time here. He was just here last week, riding a motorcycle at a big event with other candidates, and they will be back a lot. The caucus process in Iowa is really known for bringing out engaged voters, and Pence had success in 2016, appealing specifically to evangelicals. That's part of why he was chosen to be the vice presidential candidate. And that might have some advantage for him if he's trying to appeal to traditional, engaged elements of the GOP here in Iowa.

INSKEEP: OK, so he's appealing to a base group. He's trying to have some fun. But he faces a serious question, which is, how would he distinguish himself from the former president, who he served as vice president for four years?

SNELL: Well, you know, so far, he sounds a lot like the Mike Pence that ran in 2016, which is actually pretty interesting because a lot has changed in American politics since then and within the Republican Party in particular. You know, he talks about free trade and fair markets, Christian family values and conservatism. He talks about his opposition to abortion. But what he doesn't really talk much about is Trump. One thing he does talk about is respecting the Constitution, which is meant to be a shot at Trump. But he doesn't really talk about formative moments, like January 6, when that pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol, including people who were chanting, hang Mike Pence. So, you know, Pence has said that Trump was wrong about January 6 and criticized him in the past, but that is not the central message of his campaign, at least not so far.

INSKEEP: OK, so at least they differ on the hanging vice presidents issue. But when we look across the nearly a dozen people running for the nomination, have they done much to distinguish themselves from each other?

SNELL: I mean, I think we kind of have to take them all as different examples. You know, we're even seeing the field expand this week. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie got in yesterday and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum is planning to get in today. You know, they're both long shots. But I want to talk about Christie in particular, because he is interesting. He's aggressively targeting Trump. He's doing what Pence really hasn't. He's calling out Trump for all of the ways he altered the party, and he's really set on taking Trump down. It isn't clear that Christie has the support to actually do that, but he wants to be a factor in the debates and he wants to be an aggressive Trump critic.

You know, that's really not what we're seeing from a lot of others in this race, though, as I mentioned about Pence. Trump is certainly a bigger factor in the polls than he appears in their speeches. He's very popular with Republican voters. And just like in 2016, Republican challengers in this field don't really seem to know how to talk about him. But it's early, and a lot can happen. Lots can change, and Trump is still facing significantly - legal jeopardy in multiple states and in the District of Columbia. You know, this is just the start. And these candidates are going to start bumping into each other and establishing messages about the campaign as it wears on.

INSKEEP: NPR political correspondent Kelsey Snell is in Des Moines. Kelsey, I hope you get a chance to drop by the Pork Expo in addition to the...

SNELL: (Laughter) Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: ...Presidential announcement today. Kelsey Snell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Wow, the two biggest organizations in pro golf are merging.

MARTIN: The PGA Tour has run big tournaments for generations, but it faced a challenge from an upstart with a lot of money. That would be the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Tour. That's L-I-V pronounced, as we said, LIV, like live large, which the tour did, offering eye-popping paychecks to attract players from the PGA.

INSKEEP: Zach Helfand of The New Yorker joins us now with the latest. Good morning.

ZACH HELFAND: Good morning.

INSKEEP: These two tours were fighting. Why did they merge?

HELFAND: So this was something that came as a big surprise to almost everyone involved. Even some of the star players didn't know that this was coming. But it's also one of those things that, from a business standpoint, a lot of people, with the benefit of hindsight, could say, oh, yeah, we could see why this happened. The Saudis wanted a golf tour. They wanted power and prestige, and they had a lot of money. And the PGA Tour was always happy to take a lot of money, and they had a golf tour to offer and they had power and prestige to offer. So each side really had what the other wanted.

INSKEEP: I want to understand. Is this a merger of equals or is it a takeover?

HELFAND: That's a good question. It depends how you view it. They're establishing a new entity, which will oversee LIV. There's a question of whether LIV will live on. And it will also oversee the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour gets - it's probably going to be about $3 billion from the Saudis, and they get to retain voting rights control over the board of directors. But the head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund gets to be the chairman of the board.

INSKEEP: Ah, OK. So a Saudi choice to be chairman, but the PGA Tour forces have the majority of the board seats. That's what you're saying?

HELFAND: Yeah. It's kind of a power-sharing agreement. The PGA Tour retains more control, though, with the voting rights.

INSKEEP: So I have to ask about the reputation of Saudi Arabia and human rights abuses there, which golfers have noted. Phil Mickelson, one of the biggest stars, said last year that he viewed LIV as a Saudi vehicle to improve the reputation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, conceal his poor record on human rights. How are pro golfers answering those kinds of accusations now that they've joined forces with the Saudis?

HELFAND: They're happy to gloss over it once they are part of the Saudi outfit. So it's one of those things that I don't know that most golfers really care that much about. Some of them do. A lot of them use it, if it's convenient. I think the reputation-laundering aspect of this has been a little bit overblown. From the people I've talked to who know MBS or speak to MBS, he knows that a golf league isn't going to wash away the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, for example. But they're using it as a business and as an economic tool. They want to transform their economy, become a tourist destination, get one up over the Emiratis, who also have golf interests. And this really serves that need.

INSKEEP: So we'll see a lot more pro golfers in Saudi Arabia, is what you're telling me.

HELFAND: Very likely.

INSKEEP: Zach Helfand of The New Yorker, thanks very much.

HELFAND: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.