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News brief: life in Ukraine, ex-Chicago cop leaves prison early, winter storm,

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. So Rachel's in Kyiv. I'm in Washington, which means we're in two of the key locations for a story that has caught the attention of the world. Officials here are sending some soldiers over there. The U.S. is sending 3,000 extra troops to Eastern European nations. The destination countries are NATO allies of the United States near Ukraine, but to be clear, not Ukraine itself. It's all part of the U.S. response to Russian forces, who are massing near Ukraine. So with all that as a backdrop, Rachel, what's it like where you are?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Speaking of backdrops, I will mention there is a beautiful snowfall happening outside my window right now in Kyiv. But I got to say, there is an uncomfortable kind of juxtaposition in the city. Life is humming along. People are going to work, shopping, living their lives. But there's an undercurrent of anxiety because how do you go about your normal life when it's not normal? Russia is aligned along the border. There are these threats that might even come to Kyiv.

I talked with college students here. They go to the school Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. We met at this super-cute cafe. There were license plates from U.S. states on the wall. And they are doing things to try to distract from their anxiety. They've taken their news apps off their phones. I talked with Alina Simonova (ph). She's actually from Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, of course. Her mom called her the other day. And there was a different edge in her voice.

ALINA SIMONOVA: She recorded a voice message to me yesterday. And she said, if you plan to, like, move around Ukraine, she said, please, keep your international passport with you because no one really knows what is going to happen. And this is what scared me a lot yesterday because my mom never panicked, and she did yesterday.

MARTIN: So this sense of panic, but really just a holding pattern, hoping to get on the other side of whatever's coming.

INSKEEP: How did people respond to this latest news that the United States is sending 3,000 troops, again, not to Ukraine, but to the region?

MARTIN: Where have you been for the last eight years? I mean, that's really the response. Remember, Ukraine's been in this low-grade war with Russia since 2014, when they took over Crimea, took over two huge regions in the east - Donetsk and Luhansk. I talked to a woman named Oksana Syroyid. She's former deputy speaker of the Ukrainian parliament. And she told me the West right now is trying to make up for not helping Ukraine fend off Russian aggression for all of these years.

OKSANA SYROYID: The reason why Russian, Putin - they feel so comfortable gathering troops around the border because he was never punished.

MARTIN: For Crimea?

SYROYID: For anything. For Crimea. For Donbas. For Belarus. For Syria. For anything. And evil always returns.

INSKEEP: Evil always returns. You can hear the frustration there.

MARTIN: Yeah. She is frustrated, as are so many people here because they've seen this cycle play out again and again with Russian aggression. But it is not a sense of resignation that you hear. There is a real resolve among the people that we've talked to, Steve. And I have asked several people this very question. Does Ukraine's future lie closer to the U.S. and Europe or with Russia? And the answer, more often than not, is this, it lies with Ukraine. They are determined to defend their own sovereignty.

They've actually started these volunteer defense units where regular civilians, regular folks, are going out on weekends and training for possible conflict. In fact, the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, made a big deal of signing up for one of these defense units himself the other day. So this is how serious the situation feels here. But again, the people I've spoken with, they hope Putin has gotten most of what he wants from the West just by posing this threat - right? - and that ultimately, they won't have to fight Russia on a new front.

INSKEEP: OK. We're going to continue hearing Rachel's reports here on Up First and on MORNING EDITION. Thanks so much.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And we go on with other news because today, a former Chicago police officer will walk out of prison.

MARTIN: Jason Van Dyke served just over half of the sentence that he received for fatally shooting a teenager in 2014. That teenager's name was Laquan McDonald. A video of the shooting, released a year later, brought widespread protests. Now, the NAACP and others want the Justice Department to bring federal civil rights charges against Van Dyke.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cheryl Corley has followed this case and joins us. Cheryl, good morning.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess because some time has passed, you should remind us of this case.

CORLEY: Yeah, Steve. Well, it began in October of 2014. That's when a police dispatcher reported a Black teenager was breaking into cars, carrying a knife. Officer Jason Van Dyke arrived at the scene, almost immediately jumped out of his car, fired 16 shots at Laquan McDonald, killing him. And many of those shots hit McDonald after he was already on the ground. You know, the thing about this case is the political overtones. A dashcam video of the shooting wasn't released until a year later under court order. Critics charged that it was a cover-up to get through a mayoral election. And there was just huge fallout. The police superintendent at the time was fired. The county's top prosecutor was voted out of office. The mayor at the time, Rahm Emanuel, was sharply criticized for how he handled this case. And he decided not to seek a third term. And the police department must make mandated reforms under a consent decree.

INSKEEP: Now, Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to just under seven years in prison. As we said, he's serving a little more than half that at this point. He could have received a longer sentence, though. How did it come about that he got seven years for murder?

CORLEY: Well, a jury found Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. Prosecutors had asked for 18 to 20 years on the aggravated battery convictions. The judge, Vincent Gaughan, sentenced Van Dyke to 81 months. And activists here called that a slap on the wrist. Chicago-Kent College law professor Richard Kling says it was interesting.

RICHARD KLING: Here's the craziness of the situation. He was found guilty of second-degree murder. And what the judge ruled is second-degree murder sounds like a more serious charge than aggravated battery.

CORLEY: But under Illinois law, aggravated battery is a more serious charge than second-degree murder. You can get more time. You have to spend more time in prison. The judge opted to sentence him on the less serious charge. And because Van Dyke received day-to-day good time credit, he was able to serve just a little over three years and get out of prison earlier.

INSKEEP: So the question is whether this would be the end of prison time for him. What are the prospects of some kind of federal civil rights charge of the kind that activists are calling for?

CORLEY: Well, those activists - the NAACP, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH and others - point to the federal trial underway in Minneapolis, where the three officers in the George Floyd case, they are accused of violating Floyd's civil rights by not preventing his murder by former officer Derek Chauvin. They say the same thing should happen with Jason Van Dyke, that he violated the civil rights of Laquan McDonald. Getting those types of charges has been tough, though, for federal prosecutors. They have to prove an officer willfully broke the law and that their actions weren't the result of a mistake.

INSKEEP: So what does happen today, then?

CORLEY: Well, Jason Van Dyke rejoins his family. And for two years, he'll be on what's called mandatory supervised release. That's essentially Illinois' version of parole.

INSKEEP: Cheryl, thanks for the update.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

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INSKEEP: OK. A winter storm is sweeping across the nation's midsection, bringing a mix of rain and ice and snow that is bringing some areas to a halt.

MARTIN: Schools, government offices and businesses are shut down. Airlines canceled more than 4,600 flights.

INSKEEP: And NPR's John Burnett has been in the line of this storm in Austin, Texas. John, good morning.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How big is this thing?

BURNETT: Well, it's called Winter Storm Landon. Yes, they're naming blizzards now.

INSKEEP: OK.

BURNETT: And it's moving, like, a 2,000-mile-long side across the U.S., affecting some 90 million Americans. The National Weather Service has issued winter storm warnings from Augusta, Maine, all the way down here to my city of Austin. We've been getting rain since yesterday afternoon. And it's about to turn to ice any time now. There's something for everybody in this grim forecast. The South will get days of heavy rain. And that becomes ice and snow as the system moves through the Midwest to New England. It's supposed to peter out by late tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Now, what kind of effect is it likely to have on life as it moves through?

BURNETT: You know, a lot of places have just shut down. They've canceled courts and schools in Santa Fe, N.M. They've locked up St. Louis' famous Gateway Arch. Public offices are shut down in Wichita, Kan. And one of the big fears is losing power because this storm system is packing a lot of ice and heavy snow and winds of up to 35 miles an hour. That combination can easily bring down power lines. In the Choctaw Nation in southeastern Oklahoma, the director of community protection, Jeff Hansen, told me they've pre-positioned pallets of drinking water around the reservation.

JEFF HANSEN: Typically, water is the biggest issue during ice storms. A lot of the area is very remote. And so a lot of our residents have, well pumps. And when power goes out, you know, there is no water.

INSKEEP: John, the whole time you've been talking about power outages, I've been thinking about your state of Texas and members of my own family who live in Texas, who went days and days without power last winter. Are people a little nervous about this winter?

BURNETT: Big time. Last year, we had that bitter, subfreezing weather for a week. Power plants went offline. Millions of folks shivered in the dark. Nearly 250 people died, many of them from hypothermia. There were billions in property damage. And a lot of the blame fell on Governor Greg Abbott, who appoints the people responsible for the power grid. Our power generators just weren't prepared for temperatures that low. And this time around, the governor is assuring Texans the grid can handle the strain. Though, this storm is not expected to be as cold or last as long as the killer freeze of '21. But Abbott is running for reelection this year. And he can't afford more rolling blackouts. He held a press conference earlier this week to reassure folks. But he had to hedge his bets.

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GREG ABBOTT: It could be ice on power lines that would cause a power line to go down even though there may not be a problem with the Texas power grid itself.

INSKEEP: So who knows what'll happen? But why is this causing such concern farther north where people are a little more used to blizzards?

BURNETT: You know, the storm is just so huge and wet, Steve. They're expecting accumulations of as much as a foot of snow in Cleveland, Indianapolis. St. Louis could get six inches and a thick coating of ice. I talked to Bill Houston, general curator of the Saint Louis Zoo. And he told me some of the measures they've taken to protect the animals - heating the pond for the alligators, putting hay on top of the snow for the ostriches, keeping the elephants in their enclosures.

BILL HOUSTON: It's not like elephants have never been out in snow before. But the risk is that they'll slip on it and fall and injure themselves if there's icy conditions and things like that.

BURNETT: As he says, creatures in the zoo are vulnerable to the same perils that we are during Winter Storm Landon.

INSKEEP: John, thanks for the comprehensive update. And try to keep warm if you can.

BURNETT: You bet. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett in Austin, Texas. We're following another story this morning. The Pentagon says last night that U.S. Special Operations Forces carried out a counterterrorism mission in Syria. They targeted an unnamed al-Qaida militant, we're told. What we have at this point is not confirmed. It is the U.S. version of events. They say this mission was successful and that there were no U.S. casualties. We have some other information from the White Helmets, which is an emergency response group inside Syria. They told NPR that at least 13 people were killed in this mission, and that 10 of them were women and children. We'll continue pursuing the facts here and bring you more as we learn them. And you can follow our coverage at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.