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News brief: fighter jet offer, Ukrainian soldiers' funerals, Jan. 6 trial verdict

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Vice President Kamala Harris starts a trip to Poland and Romania today, and she's going to have plenty to talk about with leaders there since the U.S. just turned down a Polish proposal to hand over fighter jets for the Ukrainian military.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is a little bit complicated. Nobody denies that they would like the old jets to reach Ukraine, whose pilots fly similar ones. The question is how to do that without making NATO nations an official party to the war. Poland said it would be happy to fly the jets to a U.S. air base in Germany. They'd be formally made over into American planes. And then the U.S. would somehow deliver them. But the Pentagon said last evening that will not work. We should note, this is all a bit unusual because, normally, when nations try to sneak weapons across borders with a bit of what's called plausible deniability, they would not issue a press release first.

MARTIN: Joining us to talk about all these things, NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, there.

MARTIN: So as Steve said, this is all kind of unusual. Let's start with exactly what the Polish government had proposed.

BOWMAN: Well, unusual and complicated, as you say. The Poles were saying, in essence, listen; we can send Russian-made MiG warplanes to a U.S. base in Germany, and then the U.S. can transfer them to Ukraine. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called that move, quote, "not a tenable one," saying that flying planes into contested airspace raises serious concerns for NATO and said it's not clear the rationale for this Polish move. Now, you may remember Poland recently suggested that it would send MiG aircraft into Ukraine and then proposed the U.S. would backfill these aircraft with American...

MARTIN: Right.

BOWMAN: ...F-16 warplanes, right? So this new proposal for the U.S. to transfer the planes from Germany was a surprise, caught everyone in Washington off guard. Secretary of State Antony Blinken just three days ago, Rachel, talked about Poland sending these planes directly into Ukraine. Now, the Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, by the way, went on to say the U.S., Poland and other NATO countries would continue to talk about sending aircraft to Ukraine. So it's not over yet.

MARTIN: Right. But I do have this question, Tom. Kirby, at the Pentagon, says it's not clear what Poland's rationale is. But isn't it the same rationale that the U.S. and NATO have? Nobody wants to be the one to say, hey, Ukraine, we are giving you these planes because then it - there's a fear that it provokes Putin.

BOWMAN: No, absolutely. It definitely provokes Putin. I guess what the Pentagon is saying, they'd come from a farther distance away, of course, from Germany into Ukraine, as opposed to just coming over the Polish border.

MARTIN: So I understand you talked with a Ukrainian defense official about what they really need right now. What'd they say?

BOWMAN: Right. I spoke with a defense official just hours before this snafu with Poland and the U.S. Now, he said his country is grateful the U.S. and NATO allies are sending thousands of shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles. But he said his country needs a lot more - warplanes like we just talked about, as well as more sophisticated air defense systems, as well as anti-ship missiles called Harpoons. He said his military is fighting hard, and they just want the tools. They're standing bravely, he said, against a more powerful Russia. And he said the slowness of the West to send weapons in earlier, Rachel, quote, "cost a lot of lives." And he offered this dire warning, too - don't think Russia will stop at Ukraine; it will go after the Baltics, Poland, all NATO allies.

MARTIN: All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks. We appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: So Ukraine is trying again to get civilians safely out of the war through humanitarian corridors. The country has established six routes this time. The country's deputy prime minister issued a video statement today urging Russian forces to stick to their cease-fire commitments.

INSKEEP: Now, it's believed this war has killed thousands of civilians and soldiers in less than two weeks. Truth, we should note, is elusive in war and never more so than with the exact numbers of dead. But for friends and family of some Ukrainians killed, the pain is direct and undeniable.

MARTIN: Our co-host Leila Fadel is reporting from Lviv in the western part of Ukraine, and she joins us this morning. Hi, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: I understand you were able to observe a funeral service at a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Tell us about it.

FADEL: Yeah. It's an ornate church in the center of the city, a place that has been the site of many funeral services for fallen Ukrainian fighters since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. In fact, in the back of the church, there were dozens of pictures of people killed over the last eight years, a sea of white paper cranes suspended from the ceiling above. And yesterday, two men from this city, a city that's been largely spared the violence of Russia's war, were brought home, both killed by Russian forces besieging Ukrainian cities.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about them, those two men who lost their lives?

FADEL: Yeah. One was named Ivan Koverznev, a 24-year-old lieutenant; the other Viktor Dudar, a 44-year-old journalist turned fighter. And they were both from Lviv, which has become a refuge for Ukrainians escaping Russian bombardment. They're fleeing because, as you mentioned, civilians have not been spared.

MARTIN: So you got a chance to talk with some of Viktor Dudar's friends and family. What did they tell you?

FADEL: Yeah. At Viktor's gravesite, they described a man that was curious and kind. He loved literature. He loved his country. And his journalism focused on military and politics. He volunteered to fight eight years ago when Russia took Crimea. He came home alive. But this time he didn't make it. His friends and family say he moved into a southern Ukrainian city with his unit. Russian forces were laying in wait. I spoke to his wife, Oksana, also a journalist, with their daughter, who is 21, and she's speaking here through an interpreter.

OKSANA: (Through interpreter) In order to support him, I - once I said, it's better to be widow of the hero than the wife of the person who is afraid.

MARTIN: Wow.

FADEL: She went on to say that she cried for the first two days. But as he was laid to rest in a military funeral, she was proud. Three more people were buried later that day, Rachel.

MARTIN: Do we have any idea at this point, Leila, how many Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the war?

FADEL: The short answer is no. When we reached out to the Ukrainian military here in Lviv, they said they are not releasing the numbers of dead. A U.S. defense analyst did say that an estimated 1,500 were killed in just the first five days of this war. So to put that in perspective, today's Day 14. So as you can imagine, Rachel, that number is now likely significantly higher. Viktor Dudar's friend Mykola Saveliev told us his son-in-law was with Viktor the day he was killed. His son-in-law survived, but he says dozens were killed with Viktor. He told us to expect many more funerals like this one. Mykola, who just eight days ago was a newspaper editor, says he believes they're suffering heavy losses. Here's him speaking.

MYKOLA SAVELIEV: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: He's saying automatic rifles are no match for Russian rockets, and he's asking for help - more weapons - even though he knows they have to and they are ready to physically fight the Russians on their own.

MARTIN: NPR's Leila Fadel in Lviv, Ukraine. Leila, thank you.

FADEL: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We have a verdict now in the first jury trial from last year's January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

INSKEEP: Guy Reffitt was a member of an anti-government militia from Texas and is now awaiting sentencing after a jury found him guilty on all five felony charges.

MARTIN: NPR's Tom Dreisbach has been covering the trial, and he joins us this morning. Hey, Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Tell us exactly what Reffitt was convicted of.

DREISBACH: Reffitt, like you mentioned, was a member of a militia that calls itself the Texas Three Percenters, and on the day of January 6, he brought his handgun to Capitol grounds. He was at the front of the mob climbing Capitol steps. Police then hit him with pepper spray, stopped him. So he never made it in the building, but rioters behind him did swarm the Capitol. Later, back home in Texas, he threatened his teenage kids, telling them not to turn him into the FBI, saying, quote, "traitors get shot." Ultimately, he was convicted on the gun charges, obstructing police officers, obstructing Congress' certification of the electoral vote and for threatening his children.

MARTIN: What kind of evidence did the jury hear from prosecutors?

DREISBACH: It was what prosecutors described as a mountain of evidence. We saw video from January 6 showing Reffitt on those stairs, messages from his phone. His son secretly recorded his dad bragging about what he had done on the 6. We even heard a recording of a Zoom meeting between Reffitt and members of his militia, again, talking about that day, again, talking about bringing a gun to the Capitol. Prosecutors then backed all of that up with testimony from police, a member of Reffitt's militia and the son who testified against his dad.

MARTIN: Wow. So the defense - what kind of arguments did the defense make?

DREISBACH: Overall, it was a pretty minimal defense. The opening statement was just three minutes. They did not call any witnesses. The attorney, Bill Welch, suggested that the videos we saw in court could be deepfakes, without really providing any evidence for that. He suggested that Guy Reffitt had a drinking problem and used Xanax, the medication, so maybe he was under the influence when he said those incriminating things. He did not really have much response to all the evidence that Guy Reffitt had a gun on Capitol grounds, even though they denied that he did. And at the end of the trial, I asked Reffitt's wife Nicole about Welch's performance. She said he did what he needed to do.

MARTIN: What other reaction did you hear from the family?

DREISBACH: Well, as I mentioned, the son testified against his father in this case. So this case has torn this family apart in many ways.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DREISBACH: Nicole Reffitt said yesterday was a hard day. She said she stands by her husband. She loves her son still. She was also asked if she had a message for the other January 6 defendants. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLE REFFITT: Don't take a plea. Do not take a plea. They want us to take a plea. They are making a point out of Guy to intimidate the other members of the 1/6ers (ph). And we will all fight together.

DREISBACH: And when she says 1/6ers, that's a reference to the hundreds of other January 6 defendants.

MARTIN: So this is far from done, right?

DREISBACH: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, there are hundreds of other cases to come.

DREISBACH: That's right. I mean, around 500 people have cases that are still unresolved. Many were watching this case very closely. Couple things might stick out to them - one, that mountain of evidence prosecutors introduced; the other is the fact that the jury took just about two hours to return a verdict. That is very quick. So this may give prosecutors some leverage to get other people to bargain with a plea agreement. Other defense attorneys, though, might have a more assertive strategy than we saw here in this case. So we'll just have to see how it plays out.

MARTIN: NPR's Tom Dreisbach, who is following it all. Thanks so much, Tom.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.