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News brief: Russia-Ukraine war, French presidential runoff, Biden takes on ghost guns

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia is shifting its military focus to eastern Ukraine.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The man leading that charge is General Aleksandr Dvornikov. It's the first time Russia has named an overall commander for its war with Ukraine. And Dvornikov's reputation begs the question - is Russia's war on Ukraine about to get even more brutal? After all, the general is known as the Butcher of Syria. It was under his leadership that civilians were targeted and killed.

FADEL: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now with some more reporting on this general and what it means for the fight. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Tom, this general has been in charge of the Russia battles in the south and east of Ukraine. That's been an area of some of the most brutal tactics, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. Mariupol is a southern city of some 400,000 that's been virtually destroyed under the general's watch. Also, the recent missile attack on a train station in the eastern Donbas region that led to at least 50 civilians dead and more than a hundred wounded - his responsibility as well. And that's not surprising behavior for the general, who, as we said, also led Russian forces in Syria, and they took part in some especially brutal targeting of civilians, hitting a number of hospitals, for example. So given his track record, look for this kind of horrific war aimed at civilians to continue as the fighting moves more to eastern Ukraine.

FADEL: So now that this general's in charge of the overall fight, should we expect the overall Russian war to change at all?

BOWMAN: Well, again, it's going to be focused more on the east. The Russian troops are now regrouping and resupplying and will, in the coming weeks, head into that Donbas area. What they're going to try to do, Leila, is box in the Ukrainian army there, prevent them from moving elsewhere, resupplying. And there's a sense that the Russian troops will try to grab more of this Donbas area for a better negotiating position when and if there are peace talks. And meanwhile, more weapons and armor are heading into Ukraine from NATO allies, so the expectation is a very tough and bloody fight that could determine how this war ends. But analysts say this could go on for many months or even longer. The Russians already, of course, have a foothold there with Russian separatists who have been fighting for some eight years now.

FADEL: Right. So up until this point, the Russians didn't have an overall commander in this war. Do we know why that is?

BOWMAN: You know, we don't. And defense analysts are puzzled why no overall commander was ever named. Instead, the Russians had a handful of separate military districts in Ukraine, never seemingly coordinating. There is talk that Russian President Vladimir Putin kept the war-planning to a small, tight-knit group. And clearly, there was little communication or planning.

FADEL: And of course, the Russians haven't performed well. What is the Kremlin expecting General Dvornikov to do?

BOWMAN: Well, they expect him, again, to be much more brutal in the days and weeks ahead, to somehow - you know, he can maybe make better use of command and control and so forth. But the problem is he can't create more units. Some of these combat units have lost up to 30% of their combat power. But look to him, as I said, to be more brutal with missiles. The Russians have a lot more missiles, as we saw in the attacks on Mariupol in the train station. Look for them to use a lot of these missiles, again, to target civilian areas.

FADEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: French President Emmanuel Macron is heading into a runoff election with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen.

MARTINEZ: The two candidates grabbed the most votes in the first round of voting Sunday. They beat out 10 other candidates. This is the second time Macron and Le Pen are going head-to-head. They faced each other for the presidential runoff five years ago. So what has changed?

FADEL: We go to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris to ask. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, guys.

FADEL: So what are the final scores this morning? And what kind of campaigns did they both run?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Macron has 27.5% to Le Pen's 23.5 - so a four-point spread. It's not a lot.

FADEL: Right.

BEARDSLEY: The other votes were split between the other 10 candidates. Macron basically didn't run a campaign. He announced he was running very late. Then he was occupied with the war in Ukraine. He even refused to debate ahead of the first round.

FADEL: Wow.

BEARDSLEY: Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, had a very long, solid campaign. She kept it about bread-and-butter economic issues, purchasing power, cost of living, which turned out to be the No. 1 concerns of the French. Here's her headquarters, where I was last night. Her excited supporters are chanting Marine presidente.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Marine presidente. Marine presidente. Marine presidente.

BEARDSLEY: So she's made her image more moderate this time around - no more fear-mongering talk about immigration and leaving the European Union. In fact, there was another candidate this time around to her right, former TV pundit Eric Zemmour, and that's what he was talking about. His whole shtick was about French identity and how immigration is ruining France and Islam is incompatible with French values. So that, too, made her look more mainstream.

FADEL: Now, Macron and Le Pen have run against each other before, but what's different this time?

BEARDSLEY: What's different is she has a lot better chance of winning. You know, general context - French voters have moved to the right, and she's enlarged her base this time around. Like I said, she's better prepared, more in-depth programs. She's detoxified her image and party. And even as she lost voters to Zemmour early on, she kept it steady. She kept on economic issues. And she surged in the last weeks of the campaigning. And add to that the fact, Leila, that there's a deep strain of resentment toward Macron in France amongst voters of all stripes but especially working-class voters. They say he's arrogant. He governs alone. He's been a president of the rich elites. He's tone deaf. And they don't want to see him get a second term.

FADEL: So let's zoom out here, Eleanor. What's at stake?

BEARDSLEY: Well, a lot. These are two vastly different candidates with two vastly different voting blocs and visions for the country. If France has a President Le Pen, it'll be a different country on the world stage. Basically, it means a populist president of a major European nation. France is one of five permanent U.N. Security Council members. It's a nuclear power. It's in NATO. France would no longer be a leader of the EU but would probably turn inward, cultivate new alliances. And Le Pen has talked about, you know, erecting border controls even with Germany. France would probably leave the central command of NATO, if not the alliance - would not be as close of an ally with the U.S. I spoke with Martin Quencez, who is head of the Paris office for The German Marshall Fund, and here's what he said to me about France's relationship with Russia.

MARTIN QUENCEZ: Despite the war, Marine Le Pen is still advocating for an alliance with Russia and still considers that it will be possible for her as president to consider Vladimir Putin as an ally.

BEARDSLEY: Now, she didn't talk about the war pretty much at all in her campaign, but in these last two weeks, Macron is going to make her talk about it. These are going to be an intense two weeks of campaigning. The two candidates will debate, and French voters are going to return to the polls on April 24 to choose between the two.

FADEL: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thank you for your reporting.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Gun deaths have hit record numbers in recent years, and today, President Biden is taking new steps to address the scourge of gun violence in America.

MARTINEZ: He's announcing a new nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That agency hasn't had a permanent leader for seven years. Biden will also announce a new rule to crack down on what are known as ghost guns - guns without serial numbers to track that are sometimes sold as kits and assembled at home.

FADEL: NPR's Kelsey Snell is following this and joins us now. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So this is actually Biden's second try at naming a leader for ATF. Who is the nominee?

SNELL: Yeah, that's right. This nominee is named Steve Dettelbach. He is a former U.S. attorney based in Cleveland. And, you know, the White House is saying that he has decades of experience as a prosecutor at the Justice Department, including going after gangs and domestic extremists, and he has done a data-driven approach to fighting community gun violence. Now, this has been an impossible post to fill in part because of polarized politics around guns across the country. You know, former President Trump couldn't get a nominee confirmed, either. And the first Biden nominee, David Chipman, got pulled after facing opposition from gun groups. So it's not really clear what Dettelbach's chances are, you know, considering Democrats themselves aren't unified on gun policy. But, you know, the White House is pitching him as a consensus nominee with a strong law enforcement background, and they're promising to work lawmakers and convince them to vote for him, but they haven't really had a great track record with doing that.

FADEL: So the president is also announcing some new regulations to crack down on these, quote, "ghost guns." What will he be doing?

SNELL: So this is a couple of steps that the White House says will help kind of regulate these ghost guns, which are made from kits that can be readily purchased and made into a working firearm. And they're basically saying that the sale of these kits must also include a background check, just like for people who would buy fully assembled guns. They say it would apply to what they called buy-build-shoot kits, where someone builds a gun from parts and kits sold for 3D printers. It would require the kit manufacturers to imprint a serial number on the frame or receiver of the weapon built by the kit. And if resellers were able to acquire a ghost gun, it would require them to put a serial number on the gun and not take any that don't already have the required markings. But this is not a ban on these kits or guns assembled outside of commercial manufacturing. That would take congressional action. It also does not increase the penalty for crimes committed with ghost guns.

FADEL: Gun violence really surged during the pandemic, as Biden was running for office. He promised to take it on. Where does his overall agenda on gun violence stand?

SNELL: You know, there's so far been little progress outside of previous executive actions. You know, political divisions that make it difficult for Congress to approve an ATF nominee are the same ones that make it nearly impossible for them to pass gun control legislation. This rule they're announcing today is actually something they've been working on for a year. Administration officials say they're working to combat gun violence through support for community policing and violence interrupters and other local-level efforts. But action like this, you know, is part of the strategy progressives in Congress have been demanding. They want executive action to make up for that lack of action in Congress. And Congress has basically been unable to do anything on major party priorities, from gun control to police reform or voting rights.

FADEL: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thank you, Kelsey.

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

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.