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News brief: Putin-Xi meeting, railway labor deal, migrants sent to Martha's Vineyard

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are some relationships that are so important, so consequential, that even the suggestion that the two people are going to meet face to face is enough to get people talking.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That is the case with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. The leaders of Russia and China will gather along with other heads of state in the city of Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. Russia's war in Ukraine will, of course, be on their agenda.

MARTIN: We've got NPR Russia correspondent Charles Maynes with us from Moscow. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right, so set this up for us. The summit is about more than just security and trade, and it's not just about Xi and Putin, is it?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, the slogan going into the summit has been - the world is coming to Samarkand. And, you know, it's almost true. You've got the leaders of 15 countries that represent over 3 billion people, globally, gathering in this fabled Silk Road city. Security, as you might imagine, is very tight. You can now only get into the city by train, and you need a special QR code. Now, this is an annual event, but it's the first time participants have met in person since the pandemic. And for some, like Vladimir Putin, it's a rare venture outside of Russia, while for Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, this trip is the first time he's actually traveled anywhere outside his country since the pandemic began three years ago.

MARTIN: OK, so this is a big deal that Putin and Xi are even getting outside of their home countries. They must be highly motivated. What are they going to be talking about? And what are the consequences of this meeting?

MAYNES: Sure, yeah. The two leaders are expected to hold bilateral talks later today. The Kremlin says they'll focus heavily on Russia's ongoing military campaign in Ukraine. Now, ahead of the trip, Putin's foreign policy adviser praised what he called the special significance of the meeting. The last time these two leaders met, they pledged their friendship had, quote, "no limits." Russia likes to say that China has a well-balanced approach to Ukraine - meaning Beijing is not critical of the Kremlin's actions. It supports Moscow's wider argument, you know, that NATO expansion in Europe really provoked this whole Ukraine crisis. In fact, just last week, a top Chinese official was in Russia and offered vocal support for the military campaign.

But Xi, you know, he's made clear this isn't China's fight. You know, he hasn't provided weapons to Moscow, and he certainly hasn't been willing to risk Western sanctions, even as China's plucked up discounted oil and trade deals from Russia, which needs to pivot its economy towards Asia, particularly as Europe weans itself from Russian energy.

MARTIN: But all this is happening amidst the background of some Ukrainian wins in the war. So Putin's had a couple of setbacks. What impact might that have on these conversations?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Putin still hasn't publicly commented on the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive. His spokesman insists the military campaign will continue until Russia reaches its objectives. So they're projecting an image of normalcy, at least at home. Xi Jinping certainly is aware of what's going on, and he'll be weighing to what degree Russia could become a drain on China, either politically or economically. The hard truth here is that Russia needs China these days much more than the other way around. So Putin will probably be looking for signs that China's support won't waver, given Russia's recent setbacks.

MARTIN: All right. China and Russia, that's the main show. Any subplots, though, to look out for?

MAYNES: There are so many subplots.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MAYNES: There's Central Asia. Former Soviet republics, like Kazakhstan in particular, are increasingly nervous about Russian expansion. They're looking to China as a regional counterweight. And they'll be gauging the Putin-Xi exchange very carefully. There's also kind of a den-of-rivals aspect to all of this. The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan will be there, even as their countries are fighting over a disputed enclave. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan just started shooting at each other over a border dispute they have. Then there's India and Pakistan with their long rivalry. And it goes on. So in that sense, the hosts, the Uzbeks, you know, they'll have a joint statement signing at the end, but they'll certainly have to swing wide if they want to find issues everyone can agree on.

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The White House says negotiators for freight railroads and their workers have reached a tentative labor deal. This comes after days of a threatened strike that would have affected the nation's supply chain and passenger rail service. We've got NPR transportation correspondent David Schaper with the latest. Hey, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right, so it looks like the strike is not going to happen. What do we know?

SCHAPER: Well, we just got a statement from the White House. President Biden put out a statement that there is a tentative railway labor agreement that averts this potentially devastating strike. And he says the tentative deal will keep critical rail systems working and avoid a disruption to the economy. He calls it an important win for the economy and for the American people and a win for tens of thousands of rail workers who worked tirelessly through the pandemic and ensures that families and communities will get deliveries of all the products and all the things that we rely on that come by rail.

MARTIN: So what had been the sticking point here?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, the deal does provide significant pay raises for railroad employees, the union employees. But the big sticking point has always been more about working conditions and that striking a better work-life balance for particularly the railroad engineers and the conductors, the ones who are on the trains and often away from their homes for several days, sometimes weeks, at a time. They spend a lot of time on call and therefore cannot, you know, make any other plans because they could be called into work, especially with staffing shortages right now.

It's not clear exactly how those issues were resolved, but those were the things that the unions were really going to bat for to change. And some of them also felt punished when they would have to take time off for doctor's appointments or if a family emergency came up. A couple of the railroads were using this kind of complicated point system in which you would be docked points whenever you had to take a day off. And it could be pretty devastating to some railway workers because they'd end up losing all of their points, and that could be grounds for firing at some point.

MARTIN: So a deal has been negotiated, but it is going to be logistically confusing for the next few days, isn't it? Because...

SCHAPER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Even Amtrak had canceled passenger routes because they run some commuter lines on freight railroads.

SCHAPER: Right, right. Most of Amtrak's network outside of the Northeast corridor almost entirely is on track owned by and maintained by and operated by the freight railroads. So if those freight railroad workers had gone on strike, Amtrak trains really could not run through much of the country. Now, because some of the routes are very long and take several days for Amtrak trains to get across the country, or at least from the midpoint in the country here in Chicago to the West Coast, you know, they had to start canceling those trains days ago. And so it's going to be really difficult for them to just automatically flip the switch and restore service right away.

So I expect that Amtrak riders will continue to see delays and cancelations for the next couple of days. The saving grace here is that, you know, the commuter trains that also run on freight railroad tracks will not be as affected because those are short trips, and they should be able to restore the service, even though some of them were planning to cancel trains as soon as tonight.

MARTIN: NPR's David Schaper. Thank you.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The residents of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., received 50 immigrants, mostly from Venezuela, who arrived at the local airport without any warning yesterday.

INSKEEP: A spokesman for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has claimed responsibility for flying them to the island, but some immigrants told NPR their flight originated in Texas and that they were misled about where they were going.

MARTIN: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. Good morning, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: What happened?

ROSE: Well, let me say first that many of the details are still unclear. There are contradictory accounts. But with confidence, here's what I can say. Around 3:15 p.m. yesterday, about 50 migrants arrived by plane in Martha's Vineyard. And a few hours later, a spokeswoman for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sent a statement to Fox News, which she later shared with NPR and other outlets, confirming that the migrants were transported by Florida under a state program that was funded by the Legislature earlier this year. And the statement reads in part, quote, "states like Massachusetts, New York and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration," unquote. The Florida statement refers to two planes, but local officials say there was only one.

MARTIN: And most of these migrants were originally from Venezuela, is that right?

ROSE: That's right. NPR was able to interview three of them last night, including Andres Duarte, 30 years old, from Venezuela, who says he had recently crossed the border into Texas and was staying at a shelter in San Antonio.

ANDRES DUARTE: (Through interpreter) Look; when you have no money and someone offers you help, well, it means a lot.

ROSE: The migrants we interviewed say a woman they identified as Perla approached them outside the shelter. They say this woman lured them into taking the plane and misled them about where it was going. The migrants told us she promised to send them to a place where they could get expedited work papers. She told them they were going to Boston. She arranged for some of them to stay at a hotel in San Antonio and provided them with food. And until hours before the flight, they say she was still trying to recruit more passengers.

MARTIN: Huh. But, Joel, these immigrants were in Texas. They're now on Martha's Vineyard. Where is Florida in this?

ROSE: Not clear. We know that one plane originated in San Antonio. It made a stop in Florida and then another stop in South Carolina before flying on to Martha's Vineyard. But apart from that layover, the migrants we interviewed had not spent time in Florida. In any case, those migrants are now staying at a church shelter on Martha's Vineyard while authorities figure out, you know, what's going to happen next.

MARTIN: And why Martha's Vineyard as a destination?

ROSE: Because of its reputation as a summer resort for the progressive elite. Governor DeSantis has been bringing up Martha's Vineyard at his press conferences for a while now and has talked about sending migrants there. In a way, DeSantis is employing a twist on the same strategy as Republican governors of Texas and also Arizona who have been transporting migrants from the border to Northern cities at taxpayer expense and using state employees.

Democrats and immigrant advocates say these governors are essentially using migrants as political pawns. But the governors respond that they are simply calling attention to a very real problem of border security. It is a fact that the Border Patrol has already set a record for apprehensions at the southern border this year, and it's on pace to record 2 million apprehensions in a fiscal year for the first time ever.

MARTIN: NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks for your reporting, Joel. We appreciate it.

ROSE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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