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Week in politics: Biden leads NATO in denouncing Russia's invasion of Ukraine


Ukraine, of course, was at the center of President Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks very much for being with us.

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

SIMON: And we must reflect, it wasn't too long ago when many doubted that President Biden could rally NATO together or have stiff economic sanctions on Russia leveled. Looks a little different on that score today, doesn't it?

ELVING: Yes, it looks quite different and in so many ways - heartening in some, chilling in others. It is heartening to see the courage of Ukraine and the sudden unity in Europe, but chilling to hear the word nuclear coming up so often. We're talking about nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants. As for the sanctions, the hope was they might deter Putin in the first place. But now that he has made this cataclysmic commitment, now the sanctions must be not only maintained, but expanded. And if expansion is not enough to alter this tragic set of facts at this point, at least they can begin to hold Russia accountable for these war crimes unfolding in front of our eyes.

SIMON: President Putin gave a speech just today maintaining that the invasion, or what he insists on calling a special operation in Kremlin-speak, was going according to plan. And he was more pointed about how Russia views these sanctions.

ELVING: Putin said the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and NATO and other countries are akin to a declaration of war. That's not quite the same as an actual declaration, but it is ominous talk directed primarily at the U.S., trying to get President Biden to back off. It tells us the sanctions are having an effect. Putin is feeling the pinch. But instead of getting the message, he seems intent on pressing his case, adopting a siege mentality, besieging cities in Ukraine and acting out a siege mentality in his own mind. He's been brutal with any dissent, banning social media, threatening people with 15 years in prison if they even call this war what it is. It's an invasion of a sovereign country intended to remove its independent government, even if that means the wanton and massive killing of civilians.

SIMON: He also threatened NATO about enforcing a no-fly zone, which NATO has said it doesn't want to do. We've heard something - we, of course, heard that President Zelenskyy wants that to happen. Does it - I mean, most simply, does it mean that the world will permit this vastly superior Russian Air Force to continue to slaughter Ukrainian towns and villages?

ELVING: Tragically, yes, it does. And even before this statement from Putin, the national security community in this country and elsewhere has been saying quite clearly a no-fly zone means confrontation with Russia's military. It means war with Russia, a nuclear superpower, with all that implies. And the counterweight in that terrible balance, Scott, is the independence of Ukraine and the lifeblood of its people.

SIMON: President Zelenskyy also, according to social media posts from several U.S. lawmakers with whom he spoke, said that he would like a ban on Russia - on buying Russian oil and gas and more defense aid, which I gather has been approved but slow to come.

ELVING: Yes. Nearly 300 legislators, as you say, took part in this call this morning. He said, if you can't give me a no-fly zone, then give us planes. That was well received by many in that meeting - not United States Air Force planes at this point, but many legislators were talking about planes from NATO countries that border Ukraine, aircraft that could contest the Russians' air superiority.

SIMON: Yeah. A moment of domestic news - the jobs report - payrolls rose by 678,000. Unemployment fell to 3.8% Those are very strong numbers, even given the rate of inflation.

ELVING: Fantastic numbers, biggest gain in seven months. Adding to last year's historic gains, it shows the economy recovering from the delta and omicron waves last year. At the same time, that inflation is very real. It's the flip side of the comeback from COVID - the renewal of demand for everything, including labor, everything being in short supply, even before the price spikes in energy and food that came with the war in Ukraine.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. 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.