Ukraine live briefing: ‘Powerful’ blasts around nuclear plant; Pentagon chief warns of ‘dangers of disorder’

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on Saturday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press/AP)

“Powerful explosions” were reported around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in eastern Ukraine on Saturday and Sunday, ending a “period of relative calm” there and raising new concerns of possible accidents, the International Atomic Energy Agency said. Russian state news agency Tass, citing a Rosenergoatom official, reported that Ukrainian forces were firing at the nuclear plant. Ukrainian energy agency Energoatom blamed Russian forces for the shelling. The Washington Post could not independently verify these claims.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin framed the Western position on Ukraine as one of “moral clarity” in a fiery speech and painted a dark picture of what a world in which Russia triumphed would look like — stressing that nuclear proliferation could become a reality.

Speaking Saturday at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada, Austin said, “Putin’s war of choice shows the whole world the dangers of disorder.” He called out North Korea and Iran, accusing the nations of supporting Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

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

1. Key developments

  • IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi said those responsible for the strikes in Zaporizhzhia are “playing with fire.” Experts with the United Nations nuclear watchdog reported “what appeared to be renewed shelling” near and at the nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which is operated by Ukrainian workers but under the control of Russian forces. Site employees reported “damage to some buildings, systems and equipment” to the IAEA — though, as of Sunday morning, nothing that was “critical for nuclear safety and security,” the agency said in a statement.
  • Austin said Russia’s invasion “could drive a dangerous spiral of nuclear proliferation.” In Canada on Saturday, the U.S. defense secretary warned that other world leaders with nuclear ambitions “are watching” the war unfold in Ukraine and “could well conclude that getting nuclear weapons would give them a hunting license of their own.”
  • Several regions of Ukraine are facing prolonged power outages this weekend, President Volodymyr Zelensky said, adding that workers are attempting to restore energy. Ukraine’s energy minister said Sunday that energy supply in the country is “difficult” but “under control” and urged people not to panic. Zelensky has accused Russia of targeting energy infrastructure in an apparent attempt to compensate for its battlefield setbacks, including a retreat from the southern city of Kherson.
  • Zelensky said Sunday that the retreat of Russian forces from Kherson is a turning point for Ukraine, a day after the first train arrived in the city from Kyiv to jubilant crowds. The train’s arrival was part of a campaign by Ukrainian Railways to show the country and the world the railroad’s ability to quickly resume services cut off by nearly nine months of war. Russia ordered the retreat from Kherson city and its surroundings this month amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Iran will help Moscow build drones on Russian soil for the war against Ukraine, The Washington Post has reported. Moscow has deployed more than 400 Iranian-made drones since August, according to three Western officials interviewed by Post reporters.

2. Battleground updates

  • Both Ukraine and Russia are gearing up to continue their fight well into next year, Washington Post journalists report from Ukraine. Although Ukrainian forces have impressed the world with their offensive mettle, they are facing obstacles that threaten to slow their advance, including the need to penetrate multiple lines of Russian defense, muddy conditions and drained ammunition supplies and soldiers.
  • Russian forces left western Kherson “in relatively good order” compared with past major retreats, the British Defense Ministry said. As its troops left, they destroyed most of the equipment they had to leave behind so Ukrainian forces could not use it, and their “vehicle losses were likely in the tens rather than hundreds,” the ministry said.
  • Russia is reinforcing its troops in the occupied areas of Luhansk, Donetsk and eastern Zaporizhzhia with forces withdrawn from Kherson or recently mobilized by Moscow, according to Ukraine’s military and local officials. Analysts from the Institute for the Study of War think tank said Russia will probably continue to use these mobilized and redeployed troops to “reignite” offensive operations in Donetsk and maintain defensive positions in Luhansk.
  • Ukraine’s military said it is continuing to repel Russian attacks in the Donetsk region, amid a persistent barrage of strikes on civilian infrastructure and housing. Russian forces continued offensive operations Saturday around Bakhmut, in Donbas, despite reports of high losses on the front line. Ukraine’s military said about 500 wounded Russian servicemen arrived in regional hospitals.

3. Global impact

  • Britain’s prime minister made a surprise trip to Kyiv and announced a roughly $60 million aid package for Ukraine, including 125 antiaircraft guns, dozens of radars and anti-drone technology. Rishi Sunak said in a statement that the aid was “to counter deadly Iranian-supplied drones.”
  • New Zealand’s defense minister also visited Kyiv, marking the first time a government minister from the Pacific country has traveled to Ukraine since the start of the war. Peeni Henare met with his Ukrainian counterpart and discussed New Zealand’s role in a training mission in the United Kingdom for Ukrainian troops, according to a statement from his office on Sunday. Henare also traveled to Poland.
  • Russia’s war on Ukraine is “a direct challenge to sovereignty everywhere,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a keynote address to the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada. “Make no mistake: We will not be dragged into Putin’s war of choice, but we will stand by Ukraine as it fights to defend itself,” he said. “We will defend every inch of NATO territory.”
  • Russia is moving basketball player Brittney Griner to a penal colony. The WNBA star has been sent to a penal colony in Mordovia, more than 300 miles southeast of Moscow, after a court rejected an appeal of her 9½-year prison sentence on drug charges.

4. From our correspondents

Stealthy Kherson resistance fighters undermined Russian occupying forces: During more than eight months of Russian occupation, an underground resistance movement formed in Kherson, the lone regional capital that the Russian military was able to capture in the opening days of the war in February.

Help from inside occupied territories — at times beyond the reach of Ukraine’s missiles and artillery — has been key for Kyiv in pulling off some of its most brazen attacks, write Isabelle Khurshudyan and Kamila Hrabchuk.