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Week in politics: Russia sends troops to Kazakhstan; jobs up; Jan. 6 anniversary


It has been a bloody week in Kazakhstan. That could have implications for U.S. foreign policy and human rights around the world. Protests that began over rising fuel prices descended into chaos. The authoritarian leader of Kazakhstan told security forces to fire without warning. What negotiations can there be with criminals and murderers? he said. They need to be destroyed, and this will be done. And at his invitation, Russia has sent in hundreds of troops. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

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

SIMON: Russia calls them peacekeeping troops. Secretary of State Blinken says the U.S. is concerned.

ELVING: We are concerned because what Russia calls peacekeeping actually means foreign intervention to assist a brutal dictator in suppressing his own people, the people of Kazakhstan - shoot-to-kill orders from their own president. This particular dictator is an ally of Moscow. And this is not just another domestic dispute in a faraway place. It's part of Putin's effort to reassemble a de facto version of the old Soviet Union from the heart of the Eurasian landmass there in Kazakhstan, all the way west back to Belarus and Ukraine. And there's the magic name. Of course, Russia is in the midst of a confrontation with NATO over Ukraine, as well. So all of this involves the greater global interests of the United States against the autocracy of Vladimir Putin.

SIMON: And yet Kazakhstan is not part of NATO. The government asked for Russia's help. So is it any business of the United States?

ELVING: We don't have a treaty with Kazakhstan or any real history of involvement in the region. But anything that affects the grand plan of Vladimir Putin is relevant to NATO and relevant to our interests as a member of NATO. It's another piece in the chess game. And it all falls in the lap of the Biden administration.

SIMON: Let's move on to domestic news. U.S. employers added nearly 200,000 jobs last month, which is a lot but only half as many as expected. What do you see when you look at these numbers?

ELVING: Two hundred thousand would be strong in normal times, which, of course, these are not. But we're coming back from a low-point deficit of 10 million jobs. And we've still got 3 1/2 million of that to go. Forecasters thought we'd make up more ground in December. We did not. And the real problem is that the effects of the omicron surge were just beginning to be felt last month. They're going to be worse this month. Those numbers are going to be disappointing, as well. On the other hand, if you look at just the unemployment rate, which made President Biden happy yesterday, that's calculated independently. And that is down below 4% again - quite low by historical standards, much lower than in the spring of 2020, when we were pushing 15% unemployment. So getting back under 4% looks pretty good.

SIMON: And, of course, Ron, this year the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn the 2020 election results. President Biden addressed the nation Thursday. What did you make of his speech?

ELVING: It was a memorable speech at a critical moment. The wording was tough, and Biden was strong in his delivery. He set the stage for what's coming in the House, the drama and the findings we may be seeing from the January 6 investigating committee, which will be going on through this year. They're looking at the role former President Trump played that day, January 6, a year ago, looking at it as part of his overall effort to overturn the results of the November election. Biden was reminding us that America has never seen a defeated president attempt to stay in power this way before. And Biden rightly called that out for what it was. And we should note that Republicans in Congress largely stayed away, not wanting to deal with it. They're betting voters won't be focused on January 6 when we get to Election Day in November this fall or in 2024.

SIMON: Two-thirds of Republicans believe vote fraud played a pivotal role in the election. How do you explain that?

ELVING: No doubt many actually believe it, and they don't accept that it's been disproven. They simply deny it without the evidence, as the former president himself does. And even apart from that, the Big Lie is now the party line. Trump still decides what's the party line. So if you voted for him and you still listen to him, why wouldn't you believe him when he keeps saying this over and over? And so one way or another, millions say they do.

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

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