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Week in politics: Embassy staff in Ukraine evacuate; inflation hits 40-year high

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As we speak, President Biden is speaking with President Vladimir Putin on the phone in another attempt to avoid an invasion of Ukraine. The president requested the call after U.S. intelligence officials determined Russia might strike within days. This is what national security adviser Jake Sullivan explained yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: The way that he has built up his forces and put them in place, along with the other indicators that we have collected through intelligence, makes it clear to us that there is a very distinct possibility that Russia will choose to act militarily, and there is reason to believe that that could happen on a reasonably swift timeframe.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: Do administration officials sound more certain than ever that Russia will invade Ukraine?

ELVING: They do. There had been speculation Putin might wait until after the Olympics, in part out of respect for China. But the Olympics have another week to run, and apparently the surveillance visuals and intercepted communications are pointing to something more imminent. Now, we know the Russians already have their top commanders very close to the border, taking part in what have been called training exercises in Belarus. They have all their pieces in place, and the ground conditions will not be as favorable if they wait too long. So all that adds up to a heightened alert.

SIMON: At the same time, the president and his advisers have reiterated that they don't have any information that President Putin has made up his mind. So that does leave some room, doesn't it?

ELVING: It does, and that is the hope. It's an obviously good idea to give Putin room to back off. You don't want to block whatever offramp might still be available to him or to make the worst case fait accompli before it happens. It's also important not to foreclose options for other countries in the NATO alliance. You want to keep the band together in the effort to deter the Russians. That has been the North Star for this whole diplomatic effort.

SIMON: Russia has always insisted it has no intention to invade, and that - it says the U.S. is calling up the dogs of war with strong words and now 6,000 troops being sent into Poland. Any concern to the administration that actions like that could provoke Russia?

ELVING: Always concern, but look; that's a few thousand troops going to Poland - of course, not to Ukraine. Poland is a NATO country - full member, an ally. Ukraine is none of those. So we are highlighting that difference of commitment with this latest troop movement. Meanwhile, Ukraine has its own reasons for being cautious and non-provocative. They have stepped up training of civilian fighters, to be sure, but still they are attempting as much of a show of calm as possible.

SIMON: Back home, inflation rose 7.5% in January compared to 12 months earlier. First and last - food, gas and clothing are harder for people to afford every day. But what are the political consequences?

ELVING: The political consequences are both immediate and long-term. For starters, it makes it highly unlikely that the Senate will take up any significant new spending. That would include the bigger-ticket items included in the Build Back Better Plan that was blocked last year. Longer term, these numbers are foreboding for incumbents everywhere, especially Democrats in November. Consumers are hurting. Consumer sentiment is measured by the University of Michigan. It's down to 61.7 on their scale. That's the lowest since the Great Recession a decade ago. And while current inflation is nowhere near as bad as it was in the '70s and '80s, let's remember those bouts upended incumbent presidents in 1976 and 1980 along with many members of Congress.

SIMON: Finally, Canadian police have almost cleared protesters from the Ambassador Bridge that links Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. This was another headache for the White House, wasn't it?

ELVING: Yes, because it's worsened the supply chain issue and shuttered some factories on both sides of the border. This thing started about a month ago, when truckers lost their special exemption from the vaccine mandate for border crossers - began with a siege around the Canadian capital, then spread to the big bridges that carry so much of the two countries' trade. And so we're watching for action at the other bridges today and also at the other supporting protests here in the U.S. and elsewhere.

SIMON: 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.