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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Major military operations are normally shrouded in secrecy.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yet Ukraine's planned offensive against Russia has been a source of public debate for months, which has created all sorts of expectations - some of them realistic, some not.

MARTIN: We're joined now by NPR's Greg Myre to tell us more about this. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me just start with something that Steve just mentioned. It might seem strange to signal when an attack is coming during an ongoing declared war. Why do we even know so much about Ukraine's planned offensive?

MYRE: Yeah, really, a couple reasons. I mean, this has really been the most documented war in history, so a lot of things have played out publicly that we wouldn't normally see. And Ukraine is making this big push for Western support, and it says it needs more weapons and more powerful weapons to carry out a big offensive. You know, and just recently, Michel, we heard Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy say the offensive wasn't quite ready because his country still needed some additional weapons that were on the way. Again, all this is pretty unusual stuff. And I would just finally note that some analysts say we're actually seeing the initial stages of the offensive in reference to the surprise and relatively small attacks that are taking place inside Russia.

MARTIN: So when the offensive does start in earnest, what is the goal and what would we expect to see?

MYRE: Well, the widespread thinking is that Ukraine will strike somewhere in the southeast part of the country. It will likely try to reverse what Russia did at the start of the war last year, which was create this land bridge connecting Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, which is the Donbas region, to Russian forces in the south in Crimea. The U.S. and NATO are sending Ukraine tanks, drones and artillery. This has given Ukraine more firepower than it's had at any earlier stage in the war. But the lengthy buildup has given Russia time to reinforce positions that could be vulnerable. I spoke about Ukraine's offensive with Michael Kofman, who's at the Center for Naval Analyses.

MICHAEL KOFMAN: It may require multiple offensives on multiple fronts, and it will likely be conducted over the period of several months rather than days or weeks.

MYRE: And so he does think this offensive will be much more challenging than the very successful one that Ukraine carried out last fall.

MARTIN: I do want to remind people of that, that Ukraine took back quite a bit of territory last fall. So what would success look like this time?

MYRE: Well, they're certainly going to need to recapture territory again. The question is how much to justify this big operation, which will almost certainly be the biggest carried out by Ukraine in the war, and to justify all this Western help. And I put this to Steven Piper (ph) a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

STEVEN PIFER: In the best case, what the Ukrainians do is they really liberate a lot of territory, perhaps even pushing the Russians back to the line on February 23 of last year, before this massive Russian invasion began. That would be a huge blow to Moscow.

MYRE: And he's right. It would be. But Pifer and others acknowledge that a more realistic scenario is that Ukraine makes some advances, but perhaps on a more limited scale.

MARTIN: So it sounds like this offensive carries some real risks for Ukraine. Could you just tell us, what might those be?

MYRE: If this offensive fails or even if it's only partially successful, some Western countries may rethink the support they're giving Ukraine, and that could mean scaling back military aid and calling for Ukraine to start looking for a negotiated settlement, even if that's very unpopular in Ukraine. Now, analysts I spoke with say this war continues to go very badly for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but they believe he's playing the long game. He still thinks he can deplete Ukraine's military, that the West will tire of supporting Ukraine, and that could give Putin a face-saving way out.

MARTIN: Thank you. That is NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thank you so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Scientists may be on the cusp of an advance that could revolutionize the way human beings reproduce.

INSKEEP: Researchers are working to create human eggs and sperm in the lab. They would carry anyone's genes. In other words, people would manufacture custom-designed people.

MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us now to tell us more. Rob, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Sure. Nice to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, so this - honestly, the ability to create custom-made human eggs and sperm in the lab - I mean, I'm sorry, it sounds like something out of science fiction. How would scientists do that?

STEIN: So it's called in vitro gametogenesis, or IVG. And researchers in Japan have already figured out how to do IVG in mice. And here's how it works. They take cells from the tails of mice and coax them, in their labs, to become what's known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells. These IPS cells can theoretically become any cell in the body. And in this case, the researchers figured out how to turn the IPS cells into mouse sperm and egg cells. They then used that sperm and eggs to make embryos and even implanted them in the wombs of female mice, which gave birth to healthy mouse pups. And now these scientists and many others around the world are trying to do the same thing in humans. In fact, scientists have gotten as far as making very primitive human eggs and sperm this way. They can't make embryos or babies yet this way, but they're intensively working on that.

MARTIN: Tell us more about the range of reasons why people would want to do this.

STEIN: You know, Michel, there are lots of reasons. The first one is to find new ways to help men and women who are infertile. So instead of adopting kids or working with sperm or egg donors to have kids, scientists could make infertile people their own sperm and eggs from, say, a blood cell and use those laboratory-made sperm and eggs to make embryos and babies that are genetically related to them. Here's how Andrea Braverman put it at a recent workshop about this research at the National Academy of Medicine.

ANDREA BRAVERMAN: This could be life-altering for individuals to build that family that they dream of through IVG.

STEIN: And same goes for women of any age, rendering the biological clock irrelevant. And they can also be used to help gay couples have babies that have genes of both partners instead of using someone else's sperm and eggs. And here's how Katherine Kraschel from Yale put it at the same workshop.

KATHERINE KRASCHEL: We, too, could point to our children and say, he has your eyes and my nose in a way that is something that I think many queer people covet.

STEIN: And since then, I've spoken to infertile couples and gay and lesbian couples around the U.S. who would jump at the chance to do IVG.

MARTIN: OK, but this, I think, also immediately raises some concerns. So let's talk about that.

STEIN: Yes, absolutely. If IVG ever does become possible, it raises lots of ethical, social and legal questions. You know, it could, for example, allow people of any age to have babies, raising questions about whether there should be age limits. It could allow people to steal the DNA of, say, celebrities from maybe a clipping of hair to make babies without their consent. And, you know, combined with new gene-editing techniques, IVG could move so-called designer babies even closer to reality. Here's Amrita Pande. She's a professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

AMRITA PANDE: The desire to genetically modify the future generation in a hunt for an assumed perfect race, perfect baby, perfect future generation is not science fiction. IVG, when used with gene-editing tools like CRISPR, should make us all worried.

STEIN: Now, I should say IVG is probably years away and may never happen. There are big technical hurdles, not the least of which is whether it would be safe. That said, many scientists say it could become a reality within five years or so, maybe even sooner.

MARTIN: That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, you've given us a lot to think about. Thank you so much.

STEIN: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The Treasury Department says Congress has until about next week to raise the federal debt limit or else put the United States at risk of defaulting on its existing debts.

MARTIN: If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, the fallout could be huge for many Americans. So what do we do?

INSKEEP: NPR's Arezou Rezvani has been looking into the preparations. Hi there.

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How widespread would the impact be of a default?

REZVANI: A very broad swath of Americans would feel the effects. If you're already retired, a debt default would take a big bite out of your Social Security checks. Borrowing money to buy a car or a home will suddenly cost you a lot more. I was at an open house recently, and real estate agents there were pretty nervous about how a debt default could send interest rates soaring at a time when the housing market is already struggling.

INSKEEP: Wait, wait, wait a minute. I understand the Social Security part because the government is paying these checks, and one of the first things that might happen if they run out of money is they might fail to pay the checks or delay paying the checks. But why the borrowing? If the federal government fails to pay its debts, why would that affect my home mortgage or somebody else's home mortgage?

REZVANI: Well, I mean, everything is connected. If the government defaults, it will grow harder to borrow money. The U.S. will have to pay higher interest rates on bonds, and then that tends to push up interest rates on all other kinds of borrowing, including yours and mine, for things like home mortgages.

INSKEEP: Which would explain why experts are warning of a widespread economic disaster if this came to pass. So how should people prepare?

REZVANI: The personal finance experts and economists I've talked to all echoed one another on this topic. Anna Helhoski at NerdWallet sums it up best.

ANNA HELHOSKI: We're advising people to prepare for a potential default as you would for an impending recession.

REZVANI: So Helhoski says this because a default could really tip the U.S. into a recession. If the U.S. defaults, it would set off a domino effect. Millions of Americans would suddenly lose their benefits. Interest rates would shoot up. These are all circumstances that make people way more cautious. They pull back on spending, so do businesses. People are laid off. These are all typically hallmarks of a recession.

INSKEEP: So what do you do?

REZVANI: Well, you want to return to the tried and true basics. Make sure you have at least three months' worth of your living expenses saved up and easily accessible, not tied up in some investment. Then you want to take a look at your debts. With high inflation, a lot of Americans have been leaning on their credit cards lately. So prioritize paying off those with the highest interest and generally remember that interest rates will be going up on everything.

INSKEEP: The last time the U.S. came close to a default, the stock market went all over the place and mostly down. What should people do if they have investments?

REZVANI: So there's a great deal of consensus among financial experts and economists on this one. I put this to Teresa Ghilarducci, labor economist and expert in retirement security. Here's her advice.

TERESA GHILARDUCCI: Really fight your worst instinct to act on the news. All the academic research shows that if you buy and hold, you will do so much better than if you try to follow market trends, whether that be responding to an economic crisis or a recession.

REZVANI: So the thing to remember here is that these investments, whether they're stocks or 401(k) accounts, they're all about the long game, even in this moment of economic uncertainty.

INSKEEP: Arezou, thanks so much.

REZVANI: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Arezou Rezvani. 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.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.