Ukraine live briefing: IAEA chief says nuclear safety deal ‘evolving’ after Zaporizhzhia visit

A Russian military vehicle is parked outside the Zaporizhzhia power plant on Wednesday while the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency visits. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
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Proposals to protect Europe’s largest nuclear power plant are “evolving” amid increasing clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the area, the head of the United Nations’ atomic energy watchdog said during a visit to the site.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was set to assess safety and security at the plant. Fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian forces — who seized the facility last March — has prompted warnings from Grossi and other officials about the risk of a nuclear accident. Grossi had previously called for a protection zone around the plant, but the idea was opposed by Ukrainian leaders who are demanding the return of the facility and its surroundings. Russian forces have been accused of using the plant to launch attacks on Ukrainian forces across the nearby front line.

A possible solution to the potential nuclear crisis will focus on protecting the plant itself, “rather than on territorial aspects that pose certain problems,” Grossi told reporters during the visit. “But it is a work in progress, I would say. We are working with both governments.”

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

IAEA director visits Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

  • Grossi’s visit is part of an ongoing effort to protect the plant by securing a deal with Russia and Ukraine, but negotiations have not succeeded so far. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Associated Press in an interview published Wednesday that he was not optimistic that a deal would materialize soon.
  • “Even if a [protection] zone is established Russia will ignore it,” said Ivan Samoyduk, the Ukrainian deputy mayor of Enerhodar, the city where the plant is located. “The situation will only become less dangerous when the station is returned to the Ukrainian side.”
  • Samoyduk said he has been in touch with civilians and plant workers in Enerhodar who report widespread abuse and allegations of torture at the hands of Russian forces in the area. “They intimidate, they do everything to make it impossible to have any will, any independence,” he said, so Russia can maintain its hold on the plant and the surrounding area.

Other key developments

  • Zelensky said Ukrainian forces must hang on to the front-line city of Bakhmut. A loss there, he told the AP, would provide Russia’s leader with greater leverage to negotiate a peace deal that is unfavorable to Ukraine. “Our society will feel tired,” he said. “Our society will push me to have compromise with them.”
  • In the past 21 days, the Russians have not made any progress in Bakhmut “whatsoever,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a news briefing Wednesday.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said calls from some nations for a cease-fire in Ukraine could be a “very cynical trap” designed to allow Russia to consolidate the territory it has illegally seized and “use the time to rest and refit and then reattack.” While appeals for “the guns to be silent” can be tempting, Blinken said Tuesday, “we have to be very, very careful.” China called in February for a cease-fire, while Russia made a unilateral call for a 36-hour cease-fire the previous month during Orthodox Christmas.
  • A Russian man is facing seven years in jail for criticizing Russia’s bombing of Kyiv and Mariupol on social media. Mikhail Simonov, 62, has been accused of spreading “fake news” about the army, under draconian wartime censorship laws. According to a report by Sota Vision, a Russian news outlet, Simonov posted on the Russian social media website VKontakte last year that Russia was “killing children and women.” Simonov was allegedly denounced by a woman who saw his post on her feed and called a government hotline. The woman told the Moscow court that she was angered by the “solid lump of liberalism” she saw on her the feed, and that Simonov had “hurt” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Battleground updates

  • Russian forces occupy about 65 percent of the city of Bakhmut, according to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, citing geolocated footage. Russian-backed fighters continue to make gains within the front-line city that has been the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in recent months, the Washington-based think tank said. It added that Russian mercenaries fighting for the Wagner Group have probably seized an industrial complex in Bakhmut’s north.
  • “The battle for Bakhmut today has already practically destroyed the Ukrainian army and, unfortunately, it has also badly damaged the Wagner private military company,” Wagner Group head Yevgeniy Prigozhin said in an audio message posted to social media Monday. He vowed to keep fighting for the city, the battle over which has assumed a symbolic significance for both sides, analysts say.
  • Zelensky said the fighting in Ukraine could be over sooner “if the world is faster, if the world is more determined,” in an apparent appeal for accelerated support from the West. “Russian aggression can end much faster than is sometimes said,” he declared in his nightly address. In recent days, Kyiv has received tanks from Britain and Germany and armored vehicles from the United States.

Global impact

  • Sweden will summon Moscow’s ambassador after the Russian Embassy appeared to threaten its government with “retaliatory measures” for joining NATO. In a statement posted to its Telegram channel, the embassy said Finland and Sweden, once they officially join the security alliance, “will become a legitimate target for Russian retaliatory measures, including those of a military nature.” Sweden’s foreign minister, Tobias Billstrom, said his ministry would summon Russia’s ambassador “to make a clear statement against this blatant attempt at influence,” Agence France-Presse reported.
  • Leaders of several European countries pressed Big Tech companies to do more to combat geopolitical disinformation. The prime ministers of Moldova, Ukraine, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic wrote in an open letter that tech platforms should “resist being used” as tools of hostile forces seeking to “destabilize our countries, weaken our democracies, to derail Moldova’s and Ukraine’s accession to the European Union and to weaken our support to Ukraine amid Russia’s war of aggression.”
  • Zelensky said Ukraine was “ready” to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping for discussions about the war. “I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn’t have,” Zelensky told the AP. Xi recently visited Moscow on his first trip to Russia since the war began, and he agreed to expand China’s ties with Russia in a show of diplomatic support for Putin.

From our correspondents

He came to D.C. as a Brazilian student. The United States says he was a Russian spy. Findings from international investigations as well as an indictment from the Justice Department reveal how a spy from Kaliningrad masqueraded as a Brazilian graduate student to enter the United States and assess the U.S. response to Russia’s military buildup before the war in Ukraine, Greg Miller reports.

The real identity of Johns Hopkins graduate Victor Muller Ferreira was Sergey Cherkasov, according to Western officials. Cherkasov was an operative of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, who allegedly spent nearly a decade building the fictitious Ferreira persona before he was detained by Dutch authorities, apparently acting on information relayed by the FBI, and later arrested in Brazil.

The details of Cherkasov’s life provide extraordinary visibility into Russian efforts to embed “illegals” — spies who operate as lone agents with no discernible link to their home service — into Western countries as part of Moscow’s intelligence apparatus.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.