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Escalation of war near Ukraine nuke plant raises red flags

Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is in southern Ukraine, where missile strikes led to a brief loss of power and renewed the threat of disaster.

(CN) — Fears of a radiation leak hung over Europe on Friday as fighting threatened a massive nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine now in danger of losing its power supply.

The war in Ukraine has been raging for 184 days, with no end in sight for the fierce combat across front lines that extend for more than 500 miles. Eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region has seen the worst of the fighting, as has the area around Mykolaiv, a southern city under Ukrainian control that stands in the way of Russian advances on Odesa, a pivotal port and the country's third largest city.

Russia on Thursday claimed responsibility for a strike on a train station in Chaplyne that killed more than 200 Ukrainian soldiers on their way to the front lines. The strike happened a day earlier, Ukraine's Independence Day. Speaking to the United Nations Security Council, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of targeting civilians in the Chaplyne attack.

Ukraine then reported its own deadly strike Friday, stating that more than 200 Russian paratroopers were killed when rockets hit a hotel in Kadiivka, a town in the eastern region of Luhansk. Claims of strikes causing massive casualties are reported regularly by both sides; military experts believe both sides have lost tens of thousands of troops.

The war is at risk of escalating even further should fighting lead to a nuclear disaster at the Soviet-era Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, Europe's largest nuclear plant built along a massive reservoir of the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine. The plant's six reactors generate up to a third of Ukraine's electricity. It now supplies power to territories under the control of both Russian and Ukrainian armies.

Fighting over control of the plant has raged since early August, and Russia briefly took control of the facility in March. This month, the plant has come under attack as Ukrainian and Russian forces fight each other from across the Dnieper River in pivotal battles for control of Ukraine's Black Sea territories.

Moscow accuses Ukrainian forces of launching missiles at the plant, while Kyiv says Russian forces are using the facility as a military base and seeking to divert its power supply away from Ukrainian-held territories. Inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency may visit the site in the coming days.

“Almost every day there is a new incident at or near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. We can’t afford to lose any more time,” said Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “I’m determined to personally lead an IAEA mission to the plant in the next few days to help stabilize the nuclear safety and security situation there.”

On Thursday, forest fires caused by rockets and missile strikes reportedly forced the plant to rely on backup power supplies after it was disconnected from Ukraine's power grid. Easing immediate fears of a disaster, however, the plant was seemingly back on the grid by Friday. Thursday saw power go out across parts of Ukraine.

This composite of satellite images taken by Planet Labs PBC shows smoke rising from fires at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine on Aug. 24, 2022. A team from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to visit the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine soon but more shelling was reported in the area overnight on Aug. 26, 2022. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

Ukrainian military experts see the war as having entered a decisive new phase to prevent Russia from taking complete control of their country’s Black Sea territories.

“The total control of the Black Sea is one of the main strategic ideas of theirs and for us it would be a geopolitical disaster,” Andrii Zahorodniuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister, said during a government briefing this week.

Zahorodniuk said Russia wants to drag Ukraine into a “war of exhaustion” after it failed to achieve its goals at the start of the invasion when it tried to mount a blitzkrieg and capture Kyiv.

“If the quick war failed with quick counteroffensives — either from this side or that side — then we have the war of exhaustion. This is the long war for years, this is the war for resources, the war of attrition,” Zahorodniuk said.


He said Ukraine needs to avoid this outcome and instead strike hard at a weakened Russia and seize Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that the Kremlin annexed in 2014.

“If we lose Crimea now, there will be other regions at stake,” Zahorudniuk said. “If we don’t do that, the war will go on and on.”

He urged the West to provide the arms Kyiv needs “to destroy Russia's military power” and provide Ukraine with security guarantees, preferably NATO membership.

“Without the demilitarization of Crimea, it would be impossible to ensure the security of Ukraine and the security of Europe,” said Mykola Beleskov, a military expert at Ukraine’s National Institute of Strategic Studies.

Beleskov said Russia’s ability to sustain a long war is in doubt and that Western sanctions will curtail Moscow’s military might for the long term.

Until now, Russia has relied heavily on Western technology, such as microchips, and parts for many of its most modern weapons, he said. Russia has also been bankrolling its military spending with energy sales to European Union countries, but the EU has largely ceased to import Russian oil and it is vowing to cut off Russian natural gas flows.

“Russia will not be able to build up its army,” Beleskov said.

For now, he said Russia is resorting to a huge arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union. But he predicted Ukraine will gain the upper hand as more Western supplies of advanced, high-precision weapons arrive and as Russia depletes its stockpiles of guided missiles.

“Of course, we haven’t been able take back all the territories, but still we stabilized the front line, and this wouldn't have been possible without those high precision weapons,” Beleskov said.

Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Ukrainian assistant defense minister and military expert at the Kyiv-based think tank the Razumkov Center, said Ukraine has proven it can defeat Russia.

He called Germany’s recent statements about the need to arm its own military before sending more weapons to Ukraine “absurd.”

Germany, alarmed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is in the midst of a massive military buildup. The German government is spending 100 billion euros (about $99.6 billion) this year on its military and plans to increase its annual military budget by billions of dollars. But its arms shipments to Ukraine have stalled.

“Ukraine is now the place where Russia is fighting,” Melnyk said during the briefing. “I urge our European partners, if you have an anti-tank missile that could destroy an enemy tank, or an air defense system that could destroy enemy jets, give those to Ukrainians and we Ukrainians will do the job for you.”

Melnyk said the war has reached a “deadlock” but that Russia has “lost the initiative” while Ukraine “has not yet regained the initiative.”

“We find ourselves in a so-called deadlock right now and it’s not quite clear how the situation will evolve,” he said.

But he doubted Russia will be able to make significant gains and he pointed to opinion polls showing the vast majority of Ukrainians want the war to continue because they are confident of victory.

For now, though, it remains “wishful thinking” to see Ukraine recapturing all the territory seized by Russia, which includes Crimea and much of the eastern Donbas region.

But polls show Ukrainians aren't ready to negotiate with Russia and give up territory, he added.

“If we don’t want this war to be the legacy of our children and grandchildren, we should demilitarize the Russian threat,” he said. “I am not speaking about splitting up Russia, which is also possible. But Russia shouldn’t have its offensive potential.”

He dismissed fears Russia will resort to nuclear and chemical weapons to win.

“They are not ready for those radical steps.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Categories: Energy International Politics

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