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News brief: Mariupol evacuation, Russian troops in ex-Soviet republics, Long COVID

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Ukraine, around a hundred civilians were evacuated from the bunkers beneath a steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol. They'd been sheltered there for weeks. But reports say as soon as evacuations started, Russian shelling resumed.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Over the weekend, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic lawmakers in Kyiv. Colorado Congressman Jason Crow traveled with the speaker.

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JASON CROW: We talked about weapons issues, the current state of the battle in the south and the east, what weapons and equipment that they need to win.

MARTIN: We're going to talk about all this with NPR's Tim Mak, who joins us now from Kyiv. Tim, let's talk about the situation in Mariupol. Did these people, a hundred civilians, did they get out of that steel plant OK?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Yeah, well, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy announced that those 100 civilians were able to evacuate after the United Nations helped mediate an arrangement. So for days, this idea of a humanitarian corridor where civilians could safely leave, that was discussed between Ukraine and Russia, but those talks repeatedly failed. Now, the fighting has been centered around that massive steel plant, where some Ukrainian fighters still remain, along with several hundred civilians. According to the Ukrainian government, approximately 20 children remain in that steel mill. And they say that this morning, after an evacuation was completed, the Russian military began shelling their positions again. Now, the humanitarian situation in the city continues to be abysmal. Most of Mariupol has been bombed to rubble. Fighting has gone on there now for months, and people still live without running water or electricity.

MARTIN: I mean, the same can be said for several different cities, in particular in the east. You just came back, I understand, from a city in the Donbas region near the front lines. What'd you find?

MAK: Well, that city was called Kramatorsk, and it's nearly emptied out. Seventy-five percent of the pre-war population has left, the mayor's office told us, and it's immediately obvious why. All through the day, you hear the sounds of explosions and artillery. In the city, you see bombed-out buildings, and at night, you see these flashes of bombardment on the horizon, the movement of vehicles in the distance. Many of those who have stayed don't really have the means to leave. We met Ylena Dolgeg (ph) waiting in line for humanitarian aid. That was organized by local authorities. And it was a hectic scene as locals jockeyed for position outside what was once a school. They received some canned goods, a little milk, a little pasta. She needs it because most of the grocery stores in town are closed or have nothing left to sell. And she's been out of work since February 25, the day after the invasion.

YLENA DOLGEG: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: She told us what she wanted most was peace, that she was concerned about her son, who's in the Kharkiv region, another area that's close to the front lines. She hasn't seen her son in six months, she said, and she wants her grandchildren to be able to visit.

MARTIN: I can't imagine that she's paying attention to a visit to Ukraine by Nancy Pelosi. Nevertheless, it's significant - right? - that the speaker of the House visited Kyiv.

MAK: That's right. Pelosi led this congressional delegation that met with Zelenskyy over the weekend, and that's the second senior U.S. delegation to do so after the secretaries of state and defense visited about a week ago. Now, President Biden has requested $33 billion in funding from Congress to help aid Ukraine through the end of September, and Pelosi said they were already writing legislation to reflect those initiatives. Overnight, the White House announced that first lady Jill Biden will be traveling to Romania and Slovakia to spend Mother's Day with Ukrainian refugees who have fled the country due to violence.

MARTIN: NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks so much, Tim. We appreciate your reporting, as always.

MAK: Thank you.

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MARTIN: So what's it like to watch Putin's war in Ukraine from another country that was also once part of the Soviet Union?

MARTINEZ: This year alone, the Russian military has been operating in five countries outside of its own borders. For Russian leader Vladimir Putin, it's a way to maintain influence beyond Russia's borders. But is it really working?

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Myre has been looking into this and joins us now. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's just establish where these Russian troops are active right now outside Ukraine.

MYRE: Right. So after that obvious one, we don't have to go very far to find more. Just a few days ago, a couple communications towers were blown up in Moldova. And this is a tiny country that borders Ukraine to the southwest. Russia has about 1,500 troops in a separatist region in the eastern part of Moldova. They've been there for the past 30 years and very much against the will of Moldova's government. It's still not clear who's behind these explosions, but they do raise concerns that the war in Ukraine could spill over into Moldova.

MARTIN: I mean, the most significant support for Russia's war when it comes to former Soviet republics is Belarus, right?

MYRE: Yes, absolutely. The leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, is closely tied to Putin. He's allowed Russian troops into Belarus, and then they used Belarus as a launching pad to invade Ukraine. So the specifics of the - vary widely in these three countries - Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova. But there is a common theme here. Putin says the West wants to undermine Russia, and he wants these former Soviet republics, as well as the others, to be this protective buffer for Russia. But Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says a lot of these countries aren't so keen on playing this role.

ANDREW WEISS: Nearly all of the post-Soviet countries have a lot of heartburn about looking to Putin as a benevolent security guarantor. Left to their own devices, none of these countries really wants to be back under the Kremlin's wing.

MARTIN: That's interesting. What about the war itself? I mean, what about people living in these countries? Do they support Putin's war?

MYRE: Well, we haven't seen a lot of that - not only from the people, but even from the leaders, there's been a lot of ambivalence. When there was a U.N. resolution, many of these former Soviet republics abstained. And Putin likes to say in Ukraine and elsewhere that he's trying to protect ethnic Russians who live outside of Russia's borders, and that takes us to a fourth country with Russian troops, which is Georgia, on Russia's southwestern frontier. Putin said he was protecting Russians when he sent troops there in 2008 for a brief, bloody conflict. Russia seized a big chunk of Georgian territory. Russian troops are still there to this day in a conflict that is effectively frozen. And we should note that some of the Russian troops in Georgia have been sent to help in Ukraine, which is an example of how these conflicts overlap.

MARTIN: Putin also sent troops to prop up friendly leaders. He's done this before - right? - when they get in trouble. Remind us of the situation in Kazakhstan.

MYRE: Yeah. Just back in January, Putin sent troops into the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan to help the country's autocratic ruler put down these widespread protests. Now, the unrest was stamped out, and the Russian troops left after just a few weeks. So you might think that a grateful Kazakh leadership would stand with Putin when he invaded Ukraine just a month ago. But that hasn't been the case. Kazakhstan says it supports Ukraine's full sovereignty. It's sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine - certainly not the way that Putin expected to be repaid. We often hear about Putin wanting to reconstruct the Soviet Union - a Soviet reunion, if you will - but this really seems to be a challenge and a bit of a fantasy.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you so much for this, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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MARTIN: Scientists at the National Institutes of Health are now recruiting about 20,000 people as part of an ongoing research project to get to the bottom of long COVID.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, since the pandemic began, many people have reported COVID symptoms weeks and months after recovering from their initial illness. Last year, the National Institutes of Health awarded 470 million to researchers all over the country to learn why, and they're looking at more than just fatigue and brain fog in the weeks after infection. They want to know why some so-called long-haulers go on to develop brain or heart problems, metabolic disorders, even autoimmune conditions.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: I mean, we've been hearing about long COVID for a long time - two years after the pandemic has begun. Have most people improved or recovered from these lingering symptoms?

AUBREY: Well, there's some data to show that most people who were sick enough to be hospitalized with COVID had not fully recovered one year out, and that's concerning but not completely surprising, given many of these patients were older, had underlying conditions. But most people, Rachel, don't fall into this category, and many who experience lingering symptoms after COVID do go on to make a full recovery. Whether it's most is something this NIH study can help determine. And one of the doctors leading it, Dr. Stuart Katz at NYU, he knows firsthand the uncertainty, the fear that lingering symptoms bring. He got COVID in late 2020, and he was very spooked by what happened next.

STUART KATZ: I have to walk two flights of stairs from my apartment to the street level, and I've been doing that every day for years. It's never a problem. I'm a cyclist. I'm in good shape. I - that's never been, you know, an effort. But after COVID, every time I walk those steps, I would get to the top, and I'd be out of breath, and my heart rate would be going, like, 120 beats a minute.

AUBREY: Now, this went on for several months, and he was so surprised to be hit so hard with these post-viral symptoms.

MARTIN: I mean, that's irony, I guess.

AUBREY: Right.

MARTIN: One of the doctors leading the big NIH study ended up with long COVID himself.

AUBREY: Right?

MARTIN: I mean, how did he just keep doing his work?

AUBREY: Well, he told me for several months it was really tough. He was feeling a lot of exhaustion.

KATZ: So I would find that I would have to, you know, take a break in the mid-morning and, like, even take a nap and then maybe take another break in mid-afternoon and take another nap.

AUBREY: Now, eventually, he got his energy back, and now he tells me he has no lingering symptoms.

KATZ: In terms of my day-to-day sense of health, I do feel like I'm back to my pre-COVID baseline.

MARTIN: Which is great, right?

AUBREY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is his experience typical, then?

AUBREY: There are lots of stories of full recovery. But for some, the symptoms just really persist. And the NIH study aims to better understand why a small fraction of people have ended up with a whole range of post-COVID symptoms - everything from the onset of diabetes, autoimmune diseases, higher risks of neurological and cardiovascular issues.

KATZ: The bottom line is that we have this huge number of Americans that were infected by COVID, and even if just a small percentage wind up with these long COVID syndromes, it's a lot of people, and this is really devastating their lives. So we have a whole spectrum, and you want to be able to help them.

AUBREY: People interested can check it out at recovercovid.org. That's the study website. Researchers are now aiming to enroll participants all over the country.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.