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Week in politics: Biden is feeling the pressure to end the war in Ukraine

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

There's considerable urgency to do something to end or at least de-escalate the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. has already stationed additional forces in Eastern Europe and is leading NATO members in providing weapons to Ukraine. But as of right now, Russian airstrikes continue to batter Ukraine. We're joined now by NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: So, Ron, President Biden is under tremendous pressure to take effective action against Russian President Vladimir Putin - everything from pushing for international oil sanctions to declaring a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Now, the U.S. has taken some action, the latest coming yesterday as the president announced that he'll work with Congress on legislation to revoke Russia's permanent normal trade relations. Tell us more about that. How badly will that hurt Russia at this point?

ELVING: It's another brick in the wall that's being built between Russia and the world, David. It's part of the process of making Russia an international pariah. And the hope is that there are people close to Putin who will want to be part of the larger world, who will want to make money beyond Russia's borders. Those people would need to put increased pressure on Putin to relent, to come to terms with reality in what's happening in Ukraine. Now, it can get attention with some of the things that we have done, but want to point out that what really matters is hammering down the ruble. What really matters is freezing those assets that Russia had in foreign currency. That's what's going to make the difference, if anything.

FOLKENFLIK: OK, but bombs are falling right now. The sanctions we've talked about, the stripping of trade status - that feels like it'll take a while to take effect. Is there anything else the U.S. could do?

ELVING: It will take a while for the economic strategy to work, no question, but to stop the bombs and missiles in real time would require real air power, which inevitably would mean aerial combat with Russia. Now, that means the world's two leading nuclear superpowers, the United States and Russia, going toe to toe every day, with all that implies.

Now, there was talk this week of having NATO countries, such as Poland, give some of their planes to Ukraine with the understanding that we would then give Poland some American aircraft. But Poland's made it clear they did not want that role. They already have a great deal at risk in this crisis and 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees in their country already, with more coming every day.

FOLKENFLIK: So we should note Congress just passed a nearly $14 billion aid package for Ukraine. That was in a $1.5 trillion bill that initially included pandemic spending. That additional pandemic aid was ultimately stripped out of the bill. What happened there?

ELVING: On the big 1.5 trillion, that's what's called an omnibus appropriation, meaning a catchall for anything and everything. That got done largely because of that Ukraine aid that you mentioned. Hooking it up with billions in aid gave it a locomotive.

On the COVID spending, they will try to bring that back as a free-standing issue. But in this week's action, the source of funds for that new spending got a lot of pushback from governors and others. And there are some Republicans who are saying they're just done with spending big money on pandemic programs. It seems some of their constituents now regard spending more on COVID as a kind of government overreach.

FOLKENFLIK: Even though much of the economic news seems to be pretty good, there are some, you know, countervailing elements that really, I think, are being felt hard in a lot of households. Think about inflation. Think about gas prices going up. That's got to have ripple effects in Washington, too.

ELVING: Yes, inflation continues to run hot - not quite like the 1970s yet but heading in that direction. Nothing drives inflation quite like energy costs, which, in turn, inflate prices for food and other basics. Sooner or later, higher prices are blamed on the ruling party, especially if one party has the White House and at least nominal control in Congress. That's the scenario for a wave election that largely repopulates the Congress.

FOLKENFLIK: OK, Ron, in the next 30 seconds, tick off a few things that we should be looking for that are in motion for the coming weeks.

ELVING: We may get a sense of how the Democrats want to proceed on that new COVID spending. We may learn more about what's going on inside the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. And speaking of televised hearings that we will see from that committee later on this spring, in the month of March on the 21, we begin the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Ketanji Brown Jackson for the Supreme Court - must-see TV.

FOLKENFLIK: Must-see TV. That's NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving - must-listen radio. Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.