The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shelling at nuclear plant raises alarm, as war intensifies in east Ukraine

Residents of the village of Komyshuvakha in the Zaporizhzhia region on Monday inspect a crater left by a Russian military strike. (Sergi Chalyi/Reuters)
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Russia and Ukraine traded blame Monday over shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that the bombing over the weekend had come “dangerously close” to hitting key safety and security systems.

Such back-and-forth over who is creating danger around the plant, which is Europe’s largest atomic energy station and is located in territory occupied by Russian military forces, has occurred regularly over the past four months. But the familiar recriminations come at a new stage in the war, with Russia reeling from a string of battlefield defeats, and an emboldened Ukraine eyeing the possibility of yet another offensive that could move south toward occupied Melitopol from the city of Zaporizhzhia.

Such a move would require the Ukrainians to punch through fortified Russian defenses but would also potentially cut off the Russian forces protecting the nuclear plant, which is located in Enerhodar, in the nook of a bend of the Dnieper River.

For months, sporadic bombing near the plant has stirred international fears of a radioactive disaster. The IAEA has sent inspection teams to check the plant and has called for creating a safety zone around it.

The agency’s director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, on Monday urged a halt to the bombing.

“Whoever is shelling at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, is taking huge risks and gambling with many people’s lives,” Grossi said in a statement. He renewed his call for the establishment of a security protection zone around the facility, saying that the international community “must do everything” in its power to prevent a potential nuclear catastrophe.

The IAEA said it was sending a team to inspect the damage from the latest shelling.

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Grossi’s warning came after Alexei Likhachev, the chief executive of Russia’s state-run atomic energy agency, Rosatom, said Monday that “the plant is at risk of a nuclear accident. We were in negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency all night.”

In violation of international law, Russia has claimed the annexation of the Zaporizhzhia region, including Enerhodar and the nuclear plant, even though it does not control the regional capital city, also called Zaporizhzhia. In recent days, Russian troops were forced to retreat and abandon Kherson, the only regional capital that they had managed to occupy since the start of the invasion in February — and which Russia had also claimed, illegally, to have annexed.

Speaking on the sidelines of an event in Sochi in Russia, Likhachev said that there had been “at least 30 strikes” by Ukraine over the weekend.

“The spent nuclear fuel storage facility, the special building and transport routes have been struck, and reserve diesel generators have been damaged,” Likhachev said.

For months, Ukrainian plant workers had kept the facility functioning while under the control of occupying troops, but since President Vladimir Putin claimed annexation in late September, Rosatom has asserted direct authority over it.

Ukraine has repeatedly cited the risk of a nuclear accident as a reason for international pressure to force Russia to withdraw. The shelling over the weekend broke several weeks of relative calm around the nuclear plant, as Russian and Ukrainian forces focused on battles elsewhere.

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Russia has accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the plant from the other side of the Dnieper River. In a statement Monday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called on the IAEA to demand that the Ukrainian authorities stop shelling the plant.

Ukraine has accused the Russians of shelling the area themselves, even though Russian troops are stationed there. Zaporizhzhia governor Oleksandr Starukh told Ukrainian media that Russia was carrying out “a systematic, targeted attack that jeopardizes nuclear security.”

As each side adjusts to the redrawn battlefield map, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the “fiercest battles” now underway were in the Donetsk region, in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky said Russia had launched 400 strikes at targets across the region Sunday.

“Little by little we are moving forward with battles,” Zelensky said. “We are holding the line, consistently and very calculatedly destroying the potential of the occupiers.”

In recent days, intensified fighting was reported near the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has been leading a long push to capture the city, even though military experts have said there is little strategic value to the fight.

Pro-Moscow Telegram channels reported Monday that heavy fighting was continuing in the suburbs of the city, while Zvezda, a TV network run by the Russian Defense Ministry, claimed that Russian troops had inflicted heavy casualties on Ukrainian forces.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces, meanwhile, claimed to have repelled Russian attacks.

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Shelling was also reported in southern and eastern Ukraine, with at least four civilians killed and eight injured in the Kherson, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions in the past 24 hours, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office.

The nearly nine-month-old war in Ukraine is showing no signs of abating as winter approaches and each side appears to be preparing for the fight to grind on.

Several regions across Ukraine are working to restore power lines after Russian bombardments targeting crucial infrastructure have left many cities without electricity and rolling blackouts.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has insisted the bombing of infrastructure is for military purposes, though experts say there is little evidence to support that position.

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On Monday, Peskov, responding to a reporter’s question, said Russia is not seeking to topple the government in Ukraine. The question to Peskov stemmed from comments by a Russian lawmaker, Konstantin Kosachev, who told a government-owned newspaper that the normalization of relations between Moscow and Kyiv could happen only “after a change of power in Ukraine.”

The question of regime change has been at the center of a back-and-forth among Russia, Ukraine and its allies over potential peace talks. The Washington Post has reported that the Biden administration had asked officials in Kyiv to drop their public refusal to engage in peace talks unless Putin was removed.

Previous requests from Zelensky to sit down with Putin were repeatedly rebuffed; a demand by either side for regime change as a precondition to talks would be a non-starter at this point. Polls show each president still enjoys relatively high levels of public support, though gauging public opinion is difficult in Russia, where criticism of the government or the war can lead to prosecution and imprisonment.

Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.