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Russia attacks nuclear power plant, advances amid heavy fighting

Russia took control of Europe's largest nuclear power plant on the ninth day of its invasion of Ukraine and is accused of causing a dangerous fire to erupt, though there have been no reports of radioactive releases.

(CN) — Russian troops were accused of attacking and then seizing Europe's largest nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine early Friday morning as Moscow's brutal invasion slowly advanced amid heavy fighting and mounting chaos.  

Russian troops moved onto the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant during the night and were met with heavy fighting by Ukrainian forces. A fire likely caused by the fighting erupted on the site, sparking fears of a potential nuclear disaster and a new round of condemnation was hurled at the Kremlin, with the U.S. embassy in Ukraine calling it a war crime to attack a nuclear power plant. Russia blamed Ukrainian forces for the fire.  

By Friday afternoon, the site was under the control of Russia and Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, assured the world that the site was being run by the plant's regular staff and that there had been no release of radioactive material. The plant provides Ukraine with a large amount of its electricity. Only one of six reactors was active at the time of the fight and that one too was being shut down.   

“It is a war crime to attack a nuclear power plant. Putin’s shelling of Europe’s largest nuclear plant takes his reign of terror one step further,” the American embassy in Ukraine said.  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also used the threat of a nuclear disaster to try to get the Russian population to rise up against Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

“If there is an explosion, that's the end for everyone. The end for Europe, the evacuation of Europe,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. In another video message, he called on Russians to remember the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and pleaded for them to stop Putin's invasion.   

Russia accused Ukrainian forces of opening fire on them from a training building adjacent to the nuclear reactors and provoking Russia into attacking the plant.   

Elsewhere, heavy fighting was going on across eastern and southern Ukraine where Russian troops have taken the city of Kherson, encircled the port of Mariupol and are advancing on Odessa, Ukraine's most important Black Sea port.  

Battles continue to rage in the northeast in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, and Russian battalions have begun attacking the outskirts of Kyiv while a large convoy seeks to encircle the capital.  

The heaviest fighting was reportedly taking place in the eastern regions where hardened Ukrainian forces and militia groups have been fighting Russian and Ukrainian Russian troops in Donbas, a region claimed by pro-Russian separatists in 2014. A long-simmering war had been taking place there since 2014 and the inability to resolve that conflict led in part to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24.  

A large chunk of Ukraine’s forces is believed to be concentrated in the Donbas area and Russian forces are seeking to encircle them.   

Among these fighters are members of allegedly neo-Nazi militias, including the Azov Battalion and the Aidar Battalion, who are considered some of Ukraine’s most war-hardened fighters. They are now being hunted down by Russian troops upon the orders of Putin, who said the invasion was meant to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Both groups were accused of war crimes and atrocities after fighting broke out in 2014 and pro-Russian sources say the groups are using extreme violence, including against civilians and civilian infrastructure, as they fight the Russian invasion.   

Heavy fighting in Kharkiv and Mariupol is connected to the struggle over Donbas because Russian possession of these two cities – at the north and south of the Donbas region, respectively – is critical in Moscow’s war plans.       

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There is a growing body of evidence that events on the ground are becoming ever more horrific and chaotic as a flood of awful videos and reports make their way onto social media platforms and the internet. With so many people able to document the war with smartphones, many reports appeared authentic. But the physical war has spawned an online war too with wild accusations, propaganda, disinformation and lies spread by both sides.    

The online videos and reports depict acts of abuse against civilians, suspected Russian saboteurs getting shot in streets, residential buildings getting blown up by both sides, Ukrainian troops allegedly taking up positions in residential buildings, widespread looting, Ukrainian police and officials abusing people of color, bridges and other infrastructure getting blown up by Ukrainian forces for defensive goals, civilians getting killed after attacking Russian troops with Molotov cocktails.    

Gutted cars are seen following a night air raid in the village of Bushiv, Ukraine, about 25 miles west of Kyiv, on Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

On Thursday, media reported that the pro-Russian mayor of Kreminna, Vlodymyr Struk, was found shot dead in the street after he was kidnapped from his home. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry condoned the killing, accusing him of working with Russia.   

The war appears to not be going as well as the Kremlin had hoped but the Ukrainian army is very large with about 200,000 regular soldiers and some 800,000 reservists. It also has become much better armed in recent years with a flood of weapons from NATO. 

Russia massed upwards of 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders prior to the invasion and it has reportedly begun moving more troops from other parts of Russia to join the fight. The Russian army is considered a more professional force, better equipped, better trained and more combat ready.   

Although Russia may not be advancing as it hoped, it still retains the upper hand, as indicated by its ability to send in huge convoys of tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers and other hardware without fear of them being attacked by Ukrainian warplanes and drones. Russia has dominance over Ukraine’s airspace. The biggest such convoy is located outside Kyiv, where Russian forces are seeking to encircle the city and force Zelenskyy into surrender.   

The expectation is that Russia’s army will eventually manage to control Ukraine and give the Kremlin the opportunity to set up a new regime in Kyiv that will be given the difficult task to rebuild a war-torn country that was poor even before the war started. Any future pro-Russian government may face a stubborn armed insurgency, a deeply angry and traumatized population, a devastated economy, destroyed infrastructure, huge population losses as many Ukrainians may never return to a pro-Russian Ukraine and many other daunting challenges.   

If Russia takes control of the country, Ukraine may even become partitioned with Moscow tempted to carve out a new country east of the Dnieper River, a region known as Novorossiya, or “New Russia,” during the tsar empire.     

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, pleaded with NATO and the West to come to his country’s aid and fight.   

“Thank you for everything you have done, but this is war,” he said in a video message. “And in a war, everything needs to be done until the moment that we prevail, we together, for the sake of security in Europe, for the sake of prosperity in Europe.”   

A wrapped sculpture is seen on a city street in Lviv, Ukraine, on Friday, March 4, 2022. In order to preserve ancient sculptures in the city center and stained-glass windows in churches from bombs, they are packed in special cocoons to protect them. (AP Photo/Pavlo Palamarchuk)

He accused Russia of turning “Ukraine into Syria.” In Syria’s civil war, Russia is backing the brutal dictatorship of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and its forces have been accused of indiscriminate bombing of civilian centers.   

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“We should not allow them to create Syria in Europe,” Kuleba said. “We are ready to fight, we will continue fighting, but help us. If you don't, I'm afraid you will have to share responsibility for the lives and suffering of civilian Ukrainians who die because of ruthless Russian pilots who throw bombs on them.”   

The West's condemnation of Russia intensified further on Friday, the ninth day of the Russian invasion, but NATO remained committed to not entering the fray with the military alliance's chief saying NATO will not enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine's skies and not send troops.   

 “We understand the desperation but we also believe that if we did that we would end up with something that could lead to a fully-fledged war in Europe, involving much more countries,” said Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general.   

Ukraine’s drive to join NATO is a root cause of Russia’s invasion with Putin calling its inclusion into the military pact a “red line” last fall. In late January, NATO rejected Putin’s demands and said it would consider discussing withdrawing missiles close to Russian borders but not precluding Ukraine as a member.   

The invasion is rocking the world and upending the post-Cold War order and appears to be ushering in a new divided era where Russia grows ever closer to China and sets its sights on selling its oil, gas and goods in Asia, Africa and South America as the West vows to punish Russia for years to come, bring Putin to justice for war crimes and wean itself off of Russian energy.  

Friday saw more walls go up as the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Facebook were blocked in Russia. In Europe and elsewhere in the West, Russian media sites have been blocked too, including RT, a Russian state news channel, and other sites. But closing off unwanted information is extremely difficult and people in both the West and Russia can find ways around the online censorship through social media platforms and other techniques. 

Microsoft and Airbnb became the latest Western companies to say they are no longer doing business in Russia. They join Nike, Apple, H&M and Ikea in casting off Russia as a market. 

Ties between the West and Russia are also being cut in the area of cooperation in space. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space program Roscosmos, said Russia will halt the delivery of rocket engines to the U.S. “Let them fly into space on their brooms,” he told RIA Novosti, a Russia news outlet.  

Meanwhile, Russian companies and the country’s wealthiest businesspeople, the so-called oligarchs, are being targeted by Western sanctions after the United States and its European allies took the “nuclear option” to boot Russian banks and companies from the dollar-dominated international banking transaction system.  

The United Kingdom is talking the toughest about going after Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin who have until now found Britain a favorite place to invest in. Under pressure, Russian billionaire and politician Roman Abramovich announced he was selling the Chelsea soccer club, a top London club in the Premier League.     

The Ukraine invasion is causing global uncertainty and poses huge risks to a world barely beginning to recover from the ravages caused by the coronavirus pandemic.  

David Malpass, the president of the World Bank, told the BBC that the Ukraine war will be “a catastrophe” for a global economy already facing major inflation strains and that it will hurt global economic growth.  

Russia fulfills about 10% of global energy needs and it is also a major food and fertilizer provider, as is Ukraine, and there are growing concerns about a shortage in fertilizer and other basic needs.  

The United States, meanwhile, said it was planning to send Vice President Kamala Harris to Europe next week to build support for causing more economic pain to Russia by sanctioning its gas and oil exports. So far, exemptions have been made for Russia’s energy exports in the tidal wave of sanctions imposed on Russia but pressure is building to go further and stop importing Russian energy. Europe relies heavily on Russia gas, so taking such a step would be difficult.  

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

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