Ukraine live briefing: Warnings of imminent attack on Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant; U.S. sends more aid

A building at Kharkiv's National Technical University was heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike.
A building at Kharkiv's National Technical University was heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike. (Vitalii Hnidyi/Reuters)

Both Russia and Ukraine are warning of a possible attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, currently under Russian control, in southeastern Ukraine. Families are beginning to flee the area in anticipation of a nuclear catastrophe, while plant employees were ordered to stay home Friday. Russia could be preparing to disconnect the plant from Ukraine’s electricity grid.

Video circulated among pro-Ukrainian social media channels on Aug. 18 shows several military vehicles inside a turbine room at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. (Video: Storyful)

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Zaporizhzhia plant

  • Ukraine has warned that Russia could be planning a “large-scale terrorist attack” on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to put the blame on Kyiv, while Russia said Ukraine and the United States are planning to trigger an accident at the plant, claiming there is a threat of the core overheating. Russia said Friday that the presence of its troops at the site was a “guarantee” that there will be no reprise of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and it rejected U.N. calls for a demilitarized zone around the plant.
  • Russian forces ordered the plant’s staff not to show up for work amid the heightened tensions, and to limit personnel at the complex to only those who operate the plant’s power units, according to Ukraine’s state-run energy firm, Energoatom. It added that it has “information” that Russian forces are planning to switch off the plant’s power blocks and disconnect them from the Ukrainian grid, depriving the country of a major source of electricity.
  • Calling Russia’s alleged activity at Zaporizhzhia “blackmail with radiation,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Friday that this summer may become “one of the most tragic of all time” in European history. He added that Ukrainian diplomats and representatives from the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency are working out the details of a mission to the plant.
  • Any false-flag operations at the plant would be out of the “Russian playbook — accuse others of what you have done or what you intend to do,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said when asked about the warnings. He said the United States is “watching very closely.”
  • “We must tell it as it is. Any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said after a meeting with the leaders of Turkey and Ukraine. Russia’s Foreign Ministry rejected any proposal to demilitarize the area around the plant, claiming that it would make the facility “more vulnerable.” Guterres was traveling to the port city of Odessa on Friday to monitor efforts to ship grain.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant. According to Russian state news agencies, Macron raised concerns over nuclear safety and security risks at the plant and expressed his support for sending a mission of IAEA experts to the site as quickly as possible, under conditions approved by Ukraine and the United Nations. In Vienna, Russian IAEA representative Mikhail Ulyanov said in a news conference that arranging such a visit could “take time” and suggested that it might be possible during “the first days of September.”

Battlefield updates

  • In Kharkiv, at least 17 people were killed and 42 wounded in two separate Russian attacks on the northeastern city, the regional governor said on Telegram. Five rockets hit the city early Friday, killing at least one person, he added. An escalation of fighting prompted Human Rights Watch to denounce Russian attacks on the area this week. The group said it has documented attacks on health-care facilities and densely populated areas.
  • “Kharkiv has suffered because it remains within range of most types of Russian artillery,” with rocket launchers and other inaccurate weapons wreaking “devastation across large parts of the city,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update Friday. It added that “Ukraine’s second city has been one of the most consistently shelled since start of the invasion,” although the front line has “moved little since May.”
  • There have been unconfirmed reports of strikes at a Russian air base in occupied Crimea. Ukraine appears to have been stepping up attacks in the area in recent weeks. Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014.
  • A trove of sensitive materials reveals Russia’s intelligence failures as the Kremlin prepared for the invasion of Ukraine, a months-long investigation by The Washington Post has found. The documents offer a rare insight into a clandestine and sprawling agency, Russia’s Federal Security Service, which helped plan the war and sought to burrow into all levels of Ukrainian society.
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said Aug. 18 that “any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide” and called for a demilitarized zone around the site. (Video: Reuters)

Global impact

  • The Pentagon announced Friday that it would send Ukraine $775 million in anti-armor missiles, drones and other military hardware. The package includes more howitzers and ammunition to support ongoing artillery battles in the east, plus new types of small arms and blast-resistant vehicles to aid an anticipated counteroffensive in occupied areas to the south.
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he discussed ways to end the war during a meeting with Guterres and Zelensky, building on a recent positive atmosphere since the grain impasse was resolved. The last round of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine took place in Istanbul in March but yielded little.
  • A Russian gas pipeline will shut down for three days starting Aug. 31 for a “servicing and preventive maintenance period,” the state-owned company Gazprom announced Friday, raising concerns about Russia attempting to cut off gas and gain political leverage as winter months approach. The suspension will include the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which connects Germany to Russia.
  • The leaders of China and Russia are due to attend the Group of 20 summit in Bali in November, Indonesia said Friday. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have declared a “no limits” partnership as spiraling global tensions from the war seemingly have pushed the countries closer. “Russia has no moral right to sit at the G-20 while its aggression in Ukraine persists,” a spokesperson for Britain’s Foreign Ministry said Friday, Reuters reported.
  • NATO member Estonia says it has withstood a major cyberattack launched by Russian-aligned hackers who attempted to take down the websites of government offices, banks and health-care providers in the Baltic nation. Jeremy Fleming, director of Britain’s signals intelligence service, wrote in an article for the Economist that Russia’s cyber plans in Ukraine have “fallen short” and that Putin has “comprehensively lost the information war in Ukraine and in the West.”

From our correspondents

Neither snow, nor sleet, nor war: Ukraine’s mail carriers carry on: First came the boom. Then the air raid siren. “Turn off the machines! Turn off the machines!” yelled a mail sorter. Moments before, workers at the regional headquarters of Ukraine’s national postal service, Ukrposhta, in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv had been absorbed in their early-morning shift.

Now, they scrambled to safety as the sound of the explosions grew louder. “It’s coming closer and closer!” yelled an employee, huddled in an entranceway with a group of colleagues. Forty-five minutes later, the all-clear was given. Slightly behind schedule — time they would make up in short order — the sorting facility’s roughly 45 employees returned to work.

Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine’s postal service and privately owned courier companies have continued to make deliveries and carry out financial services, such as transferring money and paying pensions, even during the height of the fighting. Their job is not high-profile, but it is crucial to the functioning of Ukrainian society during wartime.

Loveday Morris and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.