Western powers warned of a “dangerously high” safety risk at a Russian-held atomic power plant in southeastern Ukraine, as explosions rocked nearby cities ahead of planned “referendums” on joining Russia in parts of the area now occupied by Moscow’s military. Kyiv and the West have dismissed the supposed votes as a sham, but the Kremlin says it supports them in what appears to be a plan to incorporate them into Russia, mimicking the way Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Russian-appointed officials in occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk regions announced this week that voting would take place from Friday until Tuesday, but it is unclear whether any real preparations have been made, given the lack of lead-up time, the tense security situation and the upheaval of seven months of all-out war, during which tens of thousands of local residents have fled to Kyiv-controlled areas.
Russian missiles destroyed a television tower, electricity substation and a hotel and restaurant in Kyiv-held Zaporizhzhia city on Thursday morning, and explosions killed several people in the occupied cities of Donetsk and Melitopol.
Between Zaporizhzhia and Melitopol sits Enerhodar, site of Europe’s biggest atomic power station, which Russian troops seized in March soon after launching their all-out invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian technicians still running the plant shut down the last of its six nuclear reactors this month, amid frequent shelling that Kyiv and Moscow blame on each other’s troops.
“We emphasise that Russia’s seizure and militarisation of the [plant] is the root cause of the current threats in the field of nuclear safety and security. We recall that the … risks of a nuclear incident will remain dangerously high as long as Russia remains present on the site,” the European Union, Ukraine, United States, Germany, France and several other countries said in a joint statement.
“The Russian Federation must immediately withdraw its troops from within Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders and respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Should the Russian Federation conduct any sham referendums within occupied territories of Ukraine, we reiterate that these would have no legal and political effect, including on the status of the [power station],” they added.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Wednesday that emergency diesel generators kicked in to help power cooling systems after shelling damaged electricity cables at the plant.
IAEA director general Rafael Grossi said the incident showed that it was of “paramount importance” to establish a demilitarised zone around the plant to prevent “a severe nuclear accident”.
Russia has rejected such proposals, however, and insists its troops are protecting the facility from Ukrainian attack, even as Moscow threatens to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory — and areas it seems intent on annexing from Ukraine — come under threat.
Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and current deputy chairman of its security council, said that after the so-called referendums in occupied areas, “the protection of all the territories that have joined [Russia] will be significantly strengthened by Russia’s armed forces.”
He made clear that “all Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons and weapons based on new principles, can be used for such protection”.
In a speech to the United Nations general assembly, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that “after the strikes of Russian tanks and missiles on nuclear power plants and after threats to use nuclear weapons … we must finally recognise Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Separately, he welcomed the return in a prisoner swap of 205 Ukrainians and 10 foreigners captured by Russia, including dozens of soldiers who defended the besieged port of Mariupol, in exchange for 55 Russian soldiers and Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy pro-Moscow Ukrainian politician and personal friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
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