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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Western battle tanks could soon be on their way to Ukraine.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected to announce today that his country is preparing to send Leopard tanks. The decision comes as the U.S. makes plans to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Rob Schmitz is covering this story from Berlin. Rob, so what do we know about Germany's decision?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah, Chancellor Olaf Scholz hasn't announced this yet. He's expected to later today when he addresses Germany's parliament. His decision to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine was reported last night local time by the German newspaper Der Spiegel. And there's been a lot of reaction on all sides since the news broke.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, Germany's been under a lot of pressure, it seems like, to clear the way for these tanks to be sent to Ukraine. Why did it take as long as it did?

SCHMITZ: Well, first of all, Germany's own defense capabilities are slim due to decades of neglect and lack of funding. So I think there was a genuine concern on the part of Chancellor Scholz that if he sends Germany's most state-of-the-art tanks to Ukraine, Germany wouldn't be left with much to defend itself. I spoke to Sudha David-Wilp, head of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, about why it took so long for Germany to make this decision. And she gave three reasons for Germany's hesitation.

SUDHA DAVID-WILP: One is because there has not really been a clear majority in the German electorate for sending tanks. Two, he's had a lot of pressure within his own party about getting dragged into the war. And then I guess there is also a genuine fear about what this would trigger on the part of Russia.

SCHMITZ: And I think that's also the reason why Chancellor Scholz wanted the U.S. to send its Abrams tanks. He didn't want Germany to be alone in taking an action that the Kremlin could very well see as a major escalation.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So on Russia's reaction, because they've called these tank deliveries a blatant provocation, is there any fear now that this pulls Germany somehow into this war?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I think so. Ralf Stegner, a politician in Chancellor Scholz's Social Democrat Party here in Germany, voiced these concerns after the tank news broke. Here's what he said on German television.

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RALF STEGNER: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, A, he's saying here, what comes after battle tanks, fighter jets, warships, or will we talk about sending troops at some point? These are questions that have to be asked, he said. And he said Chancellor Scholz needs to address this. And I think he summed up the fears from many Germans about this, which is, where does this end? Are we being dragged into this war? It's worth pointing out here that the most recent poll shows that Germans are evenly split on whether to send tanks or not. So today's announcement will not be popular for half of the country. And partly that's because of Germany's unique history of being one of the world's biggest military aggressors and the fallout from that. So this is weighing heavily on people here.

MARTÍNEZ: I know other European countries have Leopard tanks. What does this all mean for them?

SCHMITZ: Well, it'll mean that they, too, can export these tanks to Ukraine if they want to. Poland has been asking to do this, as have other European countries. So over the following weeks, we'll likely see the first deliveries of what could be dozens of the world's most state-of-the-art tanks being handed over to Ukraine's military. And these tanks are seen by military experts as game changing weapons that will help Ukraine defend itself against what many predict will be a tough spring offensive that Russia's now preparing.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Berlin. Rob, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: The world's most valuable carmaker, Tesla, releases its latest earnings report today. And it comes at a turbulent time for the company and its CEO, Elon Musk.

FADEL: Tesla is likely to show a profit. But that may not be enough to win over disappointed investors. Its stock recently crashed. And Musk is on trial for securities fraud.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Camila Domonoske is here to talk about this. So why might this particular update on profits be a big deal even to people, maybe, that don't own Tesla stock?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Well, I mean, this is Tesla that we're talking about. It's an incredibly influential company. It reshaped the auto industry in its own image in many ways. So its relationship with investors has big implications for the fight against climate change, for the vehicles that are available for shoppers in the future. Analyst Dan Ives is calling this one of the most important earnings calls in Tesla history. And that's because it's coming at this really pivotal moment, with the stock price way down and competition way up.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So how are investors feeling, then, right now?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, not great. Tesla was a star on Wall Street. The stock seemed almost unreal. I mean, it was like magic how high it was. And, yeah, that's not the case anymore. The question now is, can the company win these investors back over? Tesla did have record sales last year. But those sales were also actually a disappointment because they didn't hit targets. So coming into this call, pretty good profits and revenues definitely aren't going to do the trick. Investors have gotten used to seeing super, rapid growth from Tesla. And the question now is if the company can keep that up or if it's going to slow down.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So is that why Tesla's stock has lost value?

DOMONOSKE: You know, it's part of it. But the stock went down 70% last year even though the company grew, right? The losses were ridiculous. You can argue that's because the price was ridiculously high to start with. But obviously, this is about more than just sales coming in a little under expectations. It also wasn't just the broader stock market decline. Factors included Elon Musk himself, his purchase of Twitter, investors worrying that he was distracted. And a big component was growing competition in the electric vehicle space. The entire industry is embracing battery-powered vehicles. You've got things like the Ford Mach-E, the Volkswagen ID.4, Kias, Hyundais, new models from Chevy. Tesla still dominates the space. But there are a lot more options out there now.

MARTÍNEZ: So how is Tesla responding to this crowded e-room?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Well, they're trying to make a lot of vehicles and sell them for less money, basically. Tesla just announced an expansion of its campus in Nevada, including a new truck plant and more battery production. And they've cut prices up to 20% for some models, which is dramatic. That was frustrating for some people who own Teslas already. But for people who are shopping for cars - Jessica Caldwell is with Edmunds. And she says it caught everyone's attention.

JESSICA CALDWELL: Someone may not want a Tesla product. But all of a sudden, you drop the price on something, people start to forget about all the other things that are going on and just focus on what that price is.

DOMONOSKE: Tesla's popular Model Y SUV is now cheaper than the average new vehicle, at least for buyers who qualify for federal tax credits. Whether Tesla can make money on these prices is going to be a big topic later today.

MARTÍNEZ: And on top of all this, Musk is being sued. And he's been testifying in court this week. What's the latest there?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. So we listened to him earlier this week. He tweeted about funding secured to take Tesla private, which was not true, it turned out. He says he didn't intend to deceive anyone and that you can't prove it affected Tesla's stock price.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks a lot.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: Global superpowers are paying lots of attention to the African continent lately.

FADEL: Yeah. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, just arrived in Ghana for a five-day tour. And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is in South Africa today. Yellen just missed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was there a day earlier. And China's new foreign minister wrapped up his five-nation African tour last week.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what could all this diplomatic activity mean? We're going to get into that with NPR West Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu. Emmanuel, President Biden has said his administration wants to step up its commitment to Africa. So does that explain all those visits from U.S. officials?

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Yes, it does. You know, U.S. policy in Africa was relatively disengaged for years, particularly under President Trump. So all of this is part of a major reset by U.S. officials. You know, the African leaders summit in D.C. last month was key. The summit was actually light on policy and focused more on bridge-building and reinvigorating those ties. And these visits are an extension of that. There are also plans for President Biden and Vice President Harris to visit this year. And, you know, when you talk to U.S. officials, they see Africa as a priority because of the cultural prominence of the continent in the U.S., because of art, music, Africa's rapid population growth and economic potential.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So the U.S., then, wants to ramp up their presence in Africa, clearly. So how much catching up does it have to do to China?

AKINWOTU: You know, Chinese trade in Africa is about four times that of the U.S. I'm in Lagos right now. And yesterday, the president opened a new billion-dollar seaport, largely funded by China, who own a majority stake. New trains, new roads, new airport terminals - you know, all of this is largely built with Chinese funding. The U.S. has largely been a vocal critic of a lot of these development loans across Africa because countries have racked up huge debts to China. But the kind of underlying question here is, what does the U.S. have to offer African countries that would be better off? That said, the U.S. is still a vital trading partner in Africa. And there's the ongoing U.S. trade agreement, called AGOA, which is really important. And the U.S. is important in a host of areas. But at the same time, it's also playing diplomatic catch-up and not just with China.

MARTÍNEZ: So how does Russia figure into all this?

AKINWOTU: Russia has long-established ties here going back to the Soviet Union and upped engagement during the Ukraine war. You know, many African countries have tried to resist pressure by the West to halt trade or ties with Russia because of their invasion of Ukraine. But African countries on the whole don't want to have to choose. And, in fact, South Africa are taking part in joint naval exercises with Russia and China off its east coast next month.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So how are all these visits being perceived on the continent?

AKINWOTU: I think, overall, there's a mixture of welcome, because the investment and benefits are important, but there's also caution. You know, many people resent the idea of Africa being this arena of competition between outside powers, you know, like, with African countries seeming like pawns on the chessboard. But there's also a question of, how does the continent not be an arena for great power competition when they're relying on outside help? But for the U.S., I think we'll have to see whether these trips and engagement leads to genuinely closer economic and political ties.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR West Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu from Lagos. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.