Russia and Ukraine face confrontation over Europe’s largest nuclear power plant

A showdown for control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant looms over the war in Ukraine as occupying Russian forces hope to avoid another high-profile defeat.

“I think the Ukrainians [are] hitting UK command posts and positions in that direction,” a senior European official told the Washington Examiner. “And they are accurate. They want it back. »

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has enormous value as an energy asset in a war marked by the Russian bombardment of Ukrainian energy infrastructure. The district’s strategic importance has only increased since September, when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree declaring the factory to be “federal property” of the Russian government. Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson further south has raised the specter of fighting to cut the “land bridge” linking Russian forces in annexed Crimea with troop-occupied Donbass and Russia proper.

“They might try to challenge Russia in Zaporizhzhia Oblast,” a second senior European official speculated in a conversation with the Washington Examiner during a recent discussion of Ukrainian military options after the Russian withdrawal from Kherson. “They could cut the Russians into two parts, so you have Donbass on one side with Mariupol. On the other hand you have part of Zaporizhzhia, part of Kherson Oblast and Crimea.

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Russian and Ukrainian officials throughout the conflict have accused each other of bombing near the plant or taking other actions to compromise the security of the facility. A rash of strikes in recent days represented the latest “near call”, according to the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

“A Russian milblogger claimed the bombing came from Russian-controlled territory south of the plant, but most Russian sources blamed Ukraine,” the Institute for the Study of War noted Sunday.

A team of monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which described the plant as “the largest nuclear power plant in Europe”, certified that “key equipment remained intact and that there were no had no immediate nuclear safety or security concerns,” while Russia’s top nuclear agency called for a “safety zone” to be created around the plant.

“It will depend a lot on the activities of [IAEA Director General] Rafael Grossi, and a lot will depend on the outcome of his talks with Kyiv,” Rosatom CEO Alexey Likhachev said Monday, according to state media. “A safe zone will only be possible if it is approved by Washington. I do not think that a great distance between Washington and Zaporizhzhia can be an argument for the United States to hold back any decision on the security zone.

Some pro-Russian observers suspect that “the Kremlin will transfer control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to the IAEA and then to Kyiv” alongside a crackdown on internal critics of Putin.

“The process of making more and more new ‘hard decisions’ (in fact, without [sarcastic] in quotes), started in the Security Council, was launched,” said a widely read analyst on social media, according to the WarTranslated project. “Before the New Year, the country awaits the most unexpected political upheavals which, at best, will lead to an epiphany.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for the creation of a “demilitarized zone” around the plant in September, but that proposal would have required the withdrawal of Russian troops. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of “using the plant as a military base to fire on the Ukrainians, knowing that they cannot and will not retaliate”, and Russian intelligence agency officials nuclear energy were keen to ban the nuclear power plant from the IAEA. inspectors to access certain areas of the plant.

“Access will be granted but strictly within their mandate,” said Renat Karchaa, adviser to Rosenergoatom. Cup, a Russian state media, on Sunday. “The IAEA is an organization that deals with nuclear security issues. Naturally, we will give them access to the corresponding facilities. But [if] they want to inspect the installation [in an area] that has nothing to do with nuclear security, they will be denied access – not because we want to hide anything, but because they have to work within their mandate.

Ukraine’s Deputy Energy Minister Yaroslav Demchenkov echoed Blinken’s accusation on Monday, saying the plant “has been turned into a military camp.” Demchenkov, adding that Russia’s military deployment “regularly puts Europe on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on the scale of the Fukushima accident”, argued that Western powers should seek “the denuclearization of Russia by denying Russia the intellectual property and technology that its nuclear industry will need.

“It would be naïve to believe that a state that easily bombs and seizes nuclear power plants can have peaceful nuclear technologies,” Demchenkov told the European Central Energy Conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Monday. “Therefore, today we must think not only about abandoning Russian gas and oil, but also about denuclearizing Russia, banning Russian nuclear technologies, business in this field and access Russian scientists in nuclear research.

The management of Ukraine’s energy agency accused Russia of planning to “steal” the power plant as it was, disconnecting it from the Ukrainian power grid and integrating it into the Russian energy system. Ukrainian officials, for their part, see the rehabilitation of the power plant as “an essential condition for achieving victory” in the war and their long-term ambition to “replace Russia as the main supplier of energy to the rest of Europe”.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of a long-term energy crisis,” Demchenkov said. “Ukraine, with its nuclear capabilities, its renewable potential, including hydrogen and biogas, can replace Russia as a continental energy supplier. Energy will be a source of development, not fuel for wars.

Although the presence of the nuclear power plant makes fighting in Zaporizhzhia Oblast more anxious, some observers suspect it would be an easier target for Ukrainian forces than the Donbass territories that Russia first seized. times in 2014 and has grown stronger over the years of fighting.

“To break those lines, it will be much much more difficult,” said the second senior European official.

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The first official was less optimistic about the state of the Russian defenses and more uncertain about the location of the next Ukrainian target.

“RU fortified the ZNPP area,” the first official wrote. “So, I’m not sure Donbass is more fortified. Hundreds of UK soldiers inside the ZNPP. Ukrainians would like to surprise everyone by guessing what the next direction is.