UN nuclear watchdog’s looming visit to nuclear plant raises Ukrainian hopes

Ukraine announced on Monday the start of a long-awaited counter-offensive to retake territory in the south seized by Russian forces since their invasion six months ago, a move reflecting Kyiv’s growing confidence as Western military aid flows in.

The news came as a team from the United Nations nuclear watchdog headed to Ukraine to inspect the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — captured by Russian forces in March but still run by Ukrainian staff — that has become a hotspot in the war.

“Today we started offensive actions in various directions, including in the Kherson region,” Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne said, citing Southern Command spokesperson Natalia Humeniuk.

Russia rapidly captured swathes of Ukraine’s south near the Black Sea coast, including Kherson, in the early phase of the war. It was stark contrast to its failed attempt to capture the capital, Kyiv.

Ukraine has been using sophisticated Western-supplied weapons to hit Russian ammunition dumps and wreak havoc with supply lines. Humeniuk told a briefing on Monday that Ukraine had struck more than 10 such ammunition dumps in the past week, adding they had “unquestionably weakened the enemy.”

A giant crater is shown on a city street with cars and a bus in the background.
Municipal service workers on Monday stand by a crater near the damaged headquarters of the Kharkiv administration building following an overnight missile strike. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images )

She declined to give details of the counter-offensive, saying Russian forces in southern Ukraine remained “quite powerful.”

The governor of Ukraine’s Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula, Sergei Aksyonov, dismissed the announcement of a counter-offensive on Telegram as “another fake of Ukrainian propaganda.” Crimea is adjacent to the Kherson region.

A team of IAEA inspectors he is leading will reach the plant on the Dnipro river near front lines in southern Ukraine this week, Grossi said, without specifying the day of their arrival.

Earlier, the head of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) said he would lead a team of inspectors this week to the Zaporizhzhia plant, which is on the Dnipro river in southern central Ukraine, without specifying the expected day of their arrival.

“We must protect the safety and security of Ukraine’s and Europe’s biggest nuclear facility,” Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a post on Twitter.

The IAEA tweeted separately that the mission would assess physical damage, evaluate the conditions in which staff are working at the plant and “determine functionality of safety and security systems.” It would also “perform urgent safeguards activities,” a reference to keeping track of nuclear material.

A top Russian diplomat said Moscow welcomes the IAEA mission, and a Moscow-installed official in Russian-occupied Ukraine said authorities would ensure the safety of the UN nuclear inspectors, Russian news agencies reported.

G7 welcomes watchdog visit

The United Nations and Ukraine have called for a withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the nuclear complex, Europe’s largest, to ensure it is not a target.

The two sides have for days exchanged accusations of courting disaster with their attacks.

Two of the plant’s reactors were cut off from the electrical grid last week due to shelling.

Several people unfurl a gigantic flag.
People hold a 430-metre-long Ukrainian flag on Sunday in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. The action was meant to symbolize Ukraine’s unity amid its war with Russia. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

With fears mounting of a nuclear accident in a country still haunted by the 1986 Chornobyl disaster, Zaporizhzhia authorities are handing out iodine tablets and teaching residents how to use them in case of a radiation leak.

The Group of Seven major industrialized democracies welcomed the IAEA inspector mission and reiterated concerns about the plant’s safety under Russian control.

“We reaffirm that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and the electricity that it produces rightly belong to Ukraine,” the G7’s non-proliferation directors’ group said in a statement.

Liliia Vaulina, 22, among a growing number of refugees from Enerhodar arriving in the Ukraine-held city of Zaporizhzhia, some 50 kilometres upriver from the plant, said she hoped the IAEA mission would lead to a demilitarization of its area.

“I think that they will stop the bombing,” she told Reuters.

Attacks continue in Donetsk

In the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine, Russian forces shelled military and civilian infrastructure near Bakhmut, Shumy, Yakovlivka, Zaytsevo, and Kodema, Ukraine’s military said early on Monday.

Russian strikes killed eight civilians in Donetsk province on Sunday, its governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

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The Russian state news agency cited authorities as saying they had downed a Ukrainian drone that planned to attack the nuclear-waste storage facility at the Zaporizhzhia plant.

Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom said it had no new information about attacks on the plant and Reuters could not verify the accounts.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called a “special military operation” to demilitarize its southern neighbour. Ukraine, which won independence when the Russian-dominated Soviet Union broke up in 1991, and its Western allies have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for a war of conquest.

Thousands of people have been killed since, millions displaced and cities blasted to ruins.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said on Monday Sweden would provide the equivalent of $61 million Cdn  in new military assistance to Ukraine, after hosting Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Kuleba urged Sweden to provide weapons such as howitzers and shells. “Every euro, every bullet, every shell matters,” he said.

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