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News brief: Putin-Ukraine tension, Wall Street meltdown, Burkino Faso coup

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's vital in a conflict to understand how the confrontation looks from the other side.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That's true in politics. It's true in diplomacy. And it is certainly true in brinksmanship, like Russia's threatened invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. is trying to deter Russia's president from acting. President Biden's latest move is to prepare extra U.S. troops to move to countries near Russia's borders. So how does all of this look to Vladimir Putin, the leader in the Kremlin?

MARTINEZ: We'll ask NPR's Charles Maynes. He's in Moscow. Charles, we have to work out Putin's thinking from the outside, so let's start with his government's own words. What are they saying?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Well, in a call with reporters Monday, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, accused Western governments and Western media of provoking hysteria, and he cited this deployment by NATO as the latest evidence. Let's listen in just a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMITRY PESKOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So Peskov here is saying that NATO is merely escalating tensions. He argues none of this crisis is happening because of what Russia's doing but rather because of actions by NATO and the U.S. And meanwhile, Russia's Defense Ministry has announced its own new military maneuvers as well.

MARTINEZ: All right, so the Russians have been moving forces, but they don't have an excuse to invade. The U.S. has said Russia may invent one with some kind of false flag operation, some act of violence. How do the Russians respond to being called out like that?

MAYNES: Well, they dismiss it, and they also say basically the same about Ukraine. They say that these recent Western arms shipments are emboldening Kyiv to seek a military solution to the war in east Ukraine, in the Donbas, where Ukraine is embroiled in this simmering war with, you know, Russian-backed separatists. Now, the head of one of these breakaway Ukrainian territories was on Russian TV yesterday insisting that Kyiv was set to launch a ground assault. It's important, however, to note that the government in Kyiv is saying absolutely the opposite. They say that while they've buffered their defenses, they're not going to attack or be provoked into conflict.

MARTINEZ: Putin has seemed to have framed this all along that he would not attack if he got something in return. So could the U.S. and NATO give something back?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the Kremlin is - you know, if we talk about what's happening on the diplomatic front, the Kremlin says it's waiting for the U.S. to deliver a formal response to these security proposals Russia issued last month. Now, these were a call for a ban on NATO membership to Ukraine, as well as a rollback of NATO from former communist countries in Eastern Europe, among other things. Now, Moscow says its next move hinge on the U.S. response. The State Department has promised to send counterproposals this week but is signaling any compromises should be met with Russian reciprocity - so apparently, won't see, you know, Washington just bending to ultimatums. I think whatever comes next, it seems there's some satisfaction in the Kremlin at having forced Russia into the center of the global conversation once again and largely on its own terms.

MARTINEZ: And Russia may not be a democracy at this point, but a leader still wants the support of his own people if he does wind up going to war, so does Vladimir Putin have that?

MAYNES: You know, there's a new poll out that shows Russians divided on whether war will break out, but they do appear to back the Kremlin view that this is a crisis of NATO's making. Of course, they don't want sanctions, but they see them as inevitable, a condition, really, of having, you know, seen wave after wave of sanctions imposed on Russia in recent years, all of which, you could argue, frees the Kremlin's hand to take any decision it sees fit.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Charles Maynes talking to us from Moscow. Charles, thanks a lot.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: Just a few months ago, stocks were setting new records, and the value of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin were at an all-time high.

INSKEEP: It's a bit harder to say where the market is going now because, at one point yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 1,000 points. Bitcoin lost about half its value. And then they bounced back. In fact, the Dow ended up up for the day. So what drove that brief sell-off? Fears of inflation, it seems, as well as fears about the Federal Reserve's ability to fight it.

MARTINEZ: Here to explain what's going on, we're joined now by NPR's David Gura. David, so are the good times over on Wall Street?

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Well, this is just an incredibly volatile moment. Monday was really remarkable. At one point, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by more than a thousand points, as you said; by the end of the day, up by more than a hundred points, almost a hundred points. It was an incredible turnaround, and it shows us how much uncertainty there is on Wall Street right now, and most of that centers on inflation, something that has been with us for a while. But investors are waking up to two new realities. One is inflation is higher than it's been in four decades, and two - and most importantly - the Federal Reserve says it plans to fight it more aggressively. What this means is the Fed is going to raise interest rates, but it has to achieve this very tricky balance. The central bank needs to raise them just enough to control inflation without bringing the whole economy to a halt. Now, the Fed starts a two-day meeting today, and Wall Street is waiting anxiously for an update.

MARTINEZ: So what would higher interest rates mean for markets?

GURA: In short, it's likely to be a wild ride. It's likely to continue. And that's pretty unsettling for markets. The Fed has had interest rates near zero for many years now, and as it moves away from that, it's really nervous. Low interest rates have been great for stocks. Markets have been on a tear even during the pandemic. Many Americans had cash to burn. They weren't traveling. They weren't going out. There were these stimulus payments. So they put some of that extra cash into the market, and they were just buying and selling stocks. First-time investors bought bitcoin, which surged along with other cryptocurrencies. An NFT, an intricate digital work of art by the artist Beeple, sold for $69.3 million at Christie's.

MARTINEZ: Wow.

GURA: But higher inflation has changed this landscape, and the drops that we've seen in recent days could portend more pain to come.

MARTINEZ: So, David, what's your sense of how all this is going to shake out?

GURA: There are two schools of thinking on this. One camp believes we're seeing bubbles burst, like we did in the early 2000. When there's a bubble, people make risky, speculative bets, and things get too expensive. The 2008 financial crisis was sparked in part by a boom in housing that led to all kinds of risky investments in subprime mortgages. Legendary fund manager Jeremy Grantham says this is the late stage of a bubble, and he writes in a new note, it will very probably end badly. But there are others who disagree. Amanda Agati is the chief investment officer at PNC Financial Services, and she says what we've been seeing here is noise in the short run.

AMANDA AGATI: It's definitely a little bit uncomfortable here, but it's definitely a part of a natural, healthy, functioning market environment.

GURA: And she says corrections or market resets happen. They can be painful. And there has been pain. I mean, bitcoin, for example, is now trading at half of what it was going for at its peak only a few months ago in November.

MARTINEZ: So what should we watch for?

GURA: Wall Street is paying attention to every whisper from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and his fellow policymakers. Powell is going to speak with reporters on Wednesday when that two-day meeting ends. Consensus is the Federal Reserve is going to raise rates four times this year, starting in March, but the central bank has said all along it's going to respond to changing economic conditions. So at this point, it's really anyone's guess. And again, Wall Street doesn't like that kind of uncertainty, which means we could see some more wild swings, the likes of which we saw on Monday.

MARTINEZ: NPR's David Gura. David, thanks a lot.

GURA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: Last night, the people of Burkina Faso saw what has become a familiar sight, really, these days on television in sub-Saharan Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

INSKEEP: A group of military men crowded into a TV studio and said, the military is taking charge of the country. The soldiers said they suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and national assembly, closed the borders and removed the democratically elected president.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Eyder Peralta is following the developments from his base in South Africa. Eyder, how did this happen?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, A. Yeah, look; over the weekend, there was a mutiny among some part of the military, and what we know from witnesses is that these soldiers surrounded the home of President Roch Kabore, and for the next two days, these soldiers traded gunfire with other security forces near the president's home. The government kept saying, this is not a coup, that the military was still under civilian control, but when the sun went down last night, these coup leaders came on TV, and they said they had taken power. On the statement that they read on TV, the coup leaders said that they had taken power without bloodshed and that some political leaders were under arrest. But we really don't know the whereabouts or the condition of President Roch Kabore, and all we know is that right before these soldiers came on TV, he sent out a tweet on his official account. He asked the military to lay down their arms, and he wrote, quote, "we must safeguard our democratic achievements."

MARTINEZ: Have you been able to get any sense of how people in Burkina Faso are reacting to the news?

PERALTA: Yeah, they're on the streets. They're celebrating. And, you know, it's worth noting, as you did in the intro, that President Roch Kabore was democratically elected in 2015. He represented a change in Burkina Faso. He was the first nonmilitary guy to hold power in decades. But over the last couple of years, the violence in Burkina Faso has escalated. It is being led by Islamist insurgents who have moved deeper into the country and have continually attacked the military and civilians. And the people of Burkina Faso got tired of the insecurity, and that's what they've been saying on the streets.

MARTINEZ: There have been a number of coups in the region in recent months - Mali, Guinea, Chad. What's going on over there?

PERALTA: Yeah. Look; I spoke to Ryan Cummings, who is a security analyst at Signal Risk, and he had been warning that Burkina Faso was ripe for a coup. And I asked him if coups were contagious, and he says, yeah, that they sort of are and that part of the reason, however, is that regional bodies and the U.N., for example, have reacted tepidly to past coups. So he says that that sends a message. Let's listen.

RYAN CUMMINGS: I think that the message it sends to a lot of these militaries, you know, in the presence of weak central government structures is that seizing power, you know, amid a context where you know there will be popular support for such an unconstitutional power grab is quite a low-risk but high-reward undertaking.

PERALTA: So basically, he's saying that the international community has no incentive to come in because the people want these coups. As he says, they're low risk, high rewards. And we should note that, once again, the international community is weighing sanctions.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta talking to us from South Africa. Eyder, thanks a lot.

PERALTA: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.