Good morning, here is your update.
Russia continued its “full-scale armed aggression”, while Ukrainian forces had repulsed seven attacks in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence released its latest intelligence report, claiming there has been “no significant change” to Russian forces’ dispositions in Ukraine over the past 24 hours, however Russia has gained more ground in the vicinity of Mariupol, an essential element in its bid to hold a land bridge to Crimea, military intelligence said. An earlier report said Russia is “effectively isolating Ukraine from international maritime trade”, in an update late on Sunday. It also said Russian naval forces were continuing to conduct sporadic missile strikes against targets across Ukraine. The U.N. human rights office said 1,119 civilians had been killed and 1,790 wounded since Russia began its attack on Ukraine.
Ukraine has asked the International Committee of the Red Cross not to open an office in Russia’s Rostov-on-Don, saying it would legitimise Moscow’s “humanitarian corridors” and the abduction and forced deportation of Ukrainians. The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday that agreement between the Russian and Ukrainian armies was needed before civilians could be evacuated properly from Ukraine.
It’s difficult to know what is happening here. Russia last month seized the radioactive waste facilities at Chernobyl next to the now-defunct power plant that in 1986 was the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Russian forces occupied the Chernobyl station in the first days of the invasion last month and for a time prevented staff maintaining facilities there from leaving or being spelled off by other workers.
The single shift of staff who happened to be on duty when it was taken was relieved only this week.
At the weekend, Russian forces had also temporarily taken control of Ukraine’s Slavutych, where workers at the defunct Chernobyl nuclear plant live, and three people were killed, Interfax Ukraine news agency quoted the local mayor as saying on Saturday.
The governor of Kyiv region, Oleksandr Pavlyuk, had earlier announced the capture in an online post. The town sits just outside a safety exclusion zone around Chernobyl – the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986 – where Ukrainian staff have continued to manage the site even after the territory was occupied by Russian forces soon after the start of the Feb. 24 invasion.
“Slavutych has been under occupation since today. We steadfastly defended our city … three deaths have been confirmed so far,” Interfax quoted mayor Yuri Fomichev as saying in a Facebook post. The report did not give details on the casualties.
Pavlyuk did not describe how the town had been taken, but said some residents had unfurled a large Ukrainian flag and shouted “Glory to Ukraine” in protest. He also said the Russians fired into the air to disperse the protest in the centre of the town and had thrown stun grenades into the crowd.
There was no immediate comment from Russia about Slavutych. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said the town had become a new hotspot of the war.
Then on Sunday, a senior Ukrainian official accused Russia on Sunday of “irresponsible” acts around the occupied Chornobyl power station that could send radiation across much of Europe, and urged the United Nations to dispatch a mission to assess the risks.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Russian forces were “militarising” the exclusion zone around the station, site of the world’s worst civil nuclear accident in 1986. Russian forces, she said, were transporting large amounts of old and badly maintained weapons, creating a risk of damaging the containment vessel constructed around the station’s wrecked fourth reactor.
And Russian forces were preventing firefighters from bringing under control large numbers of fires in the zone.
“In the context of nuclear safety, the irresponsible and unprofessional actions of Russian servicemen present a very serious threat not only to Ukraine but to hundreds of millions of Europeans,” Vereshchuk said on her Telegram account. “We therefore demand that the U.N. Security Council adopt immediate measures to demilitarise the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl station as well as dispatching a special mission to eliminate the risks of any repeat of the Chernobyl accident resulting from the actions of Russian occupying forces,” she said.
Vereshchuk said damage to the containment vessel, built with European financing, would “inevitably lead to the release in the atmosphere of a considerable amount of radioactive dust and contamination not only in Ukraine but also in other European countries”.
Russia, she said, was “ignoring these risks” by continuing to transport weapons in areas near the station.
Reuters could not immediately verify Vereshchuk’s claims on the ground. Russia has previously denied that its forces have put nuclear facilities inside Ukraine at risk.
Meanwhile, this morning . . .
Russian forces have left the Ukrainian town of Slavutych, home to workers at the defunct nuclear plant of Chernobyl, after completing their task of surveying it, the mayor said early on Monday, two days after the Kyiv regional governor said Russian forces had taken control of the town just outside the safety exclusion zone around Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, where Ukrainian staff still manage the plant.
“They completed the work they had set out to do,” Yuri Fomichev, the mayor of the northern town, said in an online video post. “They surveyed the town, today they finished doing it and left the town. There aren’t any in the town right now.”
Fomichev, seated in front of two small flags of the European Union and Ukraine, added that he was working, and not cooperating with the Russians. Last week, the regional governor, Oleksandr Pavlyuk, had said Russian forces kidnapped the mayor. Reuters could not immediately verify reports.
The IAEA hopes to deploy in Ukraine
The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that it was closely monitoring the situation and expressed concern about the ability of staff to rotate in and out of the atomic power station. The fire and explosion in 1986 in Chernobyl’s fourth reactor sent radiation wafting as far away as Britain and Spain. Thousands of deaths have been linked to the aftermath of the accident and the radiation it released. All its reactors have now been taken out of service.
The U.N. atomic watchdog hopes to deploy around 15 to 20 staff to Ukraine’s nuclear facilities if an agreement with Kyiv and Moscow is reached on ensuring safety there, a U.S. congressman said last Thursday after a meeting with the watchdog’s chief. Since Russia invaded Ukraine a month ago, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi has called on both countries to urgently agree a framework to ensure Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, including the radioactive waste facilities at Chernobyl and Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia, are safe and secure. Grossi has, however, so far failed to obtain that agreement. In a video statement on Wednesday he said it would include assistance such as “on-site presence of IAEA experts at different facilities”. He has declined to provide specifics of his agency’s plans.
After meeting Grossi in Vienna on Thursday while leading a U.S. congressional delegation on a fact-finding mission on Ukraine, Representative Stephen Lynch elaborated on those plans and the negotiations.
“He wants to protect his people, so he wants a safety guarantee that he can put people on the ground there, maybe 15-20 people,” Lynch told Reuters in an interview at Vienna airport with fellow representatives Lori Trahan and Mark Green.
“We had an opportunity to sit with him and his staff to try to formulate a joint effort to get him in there and his staff in there so that they can make a first-hand assessment of how those employees (at Russian-held nuclear facilities) are being treated, how are the operators are being handled.”
The IAEA is also concerned about the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia.
A building at Zaporizhzhia separate from but close to the row of reactors caught fire after being hit by what Grossi said appeared to be a Russian military projectile earlier this month. Russia, which blamed the fire on Ukrainian saboteurs, controls the site, which like Chernobyl is operated by Ukrainian staff. read more
“Right now they’re operating under gunpoint,” Lynch said of staff at Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia.
Having originally suggested a trilateral meeting in Chernobyl, Grossi met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba separately in Turkey two weeks ago. There has been little obvious progress since. read more
“I think the resistance (to an agreement) is shared between the Russians and the Ukrainians,” Lynch said, adding that since there were still clashes near Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia, Russia could see an agreement as interfering with its invasion.
“If we were to somehow carve out an agreement where IAEA or the U.N. were to take control of those facilities, in the Ukrainian eyes that might legitimize the facts on the ground that Russian troops are now in control of those facilities within the territorial grounds of Ukraine, so there’s resistance there,” he said.
The next round of face to face talks between Ukraine and Russia will take place in Turkey on March 28-30, a Ukrainian negotiator said on social media. Ukraine is willing to discuss becoming neutral as part of a peace deal, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said as another top Ukrainian official accused Russia of aiming to carve the country in two. Russia is trying to split Ukraine in two to create a Moscow-controlled region after failing to take over the whole country, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence said. The Russian-backed eastern Ukrainian rebel region of Luhansk said it may hold a referendum on joining Russia, drawing a warning from Kyiv that any such vote would have no legal basis and trigger a strong international response.
However, Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted on the territorial integrity of his country after earlier suggesting he was ready for a compromise. He said in a video address to the Ukrainian people late on Sunday that in talks due to take place in Istanbul his government would prioritise the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine.
But in comments made to Russian journalists earlier in the day, Zelensky, speaking in Russian, adopted a different tone, saying Ukraine was willing to assume neutral status and compromise over the status of the eastern Donbas region as part of a peace deal.
He also claimed that 2,000 children from Mariupol had been taken by Russia, according to a press release published by the president’s office late on Sunday. “According to our data, more than 2,000 children were deported. Which means they were abducted. Because we do not know the exact locations of all these children. There were children with and without parents. It’s a catastrophe, it’s horrible.” Zelensky said the city remained blocked by the Russian military, describing the situation as a humanitarian catastrophe. “Food, medicine, and water can’t be delivered. The Russian troops are shelling humanitarian convoys and killing drivers.”
In the video call that the Kremlin pre-emptively warned Russian media not to report, Zelensky said any agreement must be guaranteed by third parties and put to a referendum.
In Russia, in response to Zelensky, Russia’s communications watchdog told Russian media on Sunday to refrain from reporting the interview he had done, and said it had started a probe into the outlets which had interviewed the Ukrainian leader.
In a short statement distributed by the watchdog on social media and posted on its website, it said a host of Russian outlets had done an interview with Zelensky.
“Roskomnadzor warns the Russian media about the necessity of refraining from publishing this interview,” it said. It did not give a reason for its warning. Russian prosecutors said a legal opinion would be made on the statements made in the interview and on the legality of publishing the interview. Zelensky spoke to several Russian publications.
US and the war
Top American officials said the United States was not calling for Putin to be ousted in Russia, ramping up efforts to clarify President Biden’s incautious statement that President Putin “cannot remain in power”. “The U.S. does not have a policy of regime change in Russia. Full stop.” said Julianne Smith, U.S. ambassador to NATO. Budgens words have been regarded as incautious because Russia may consider them “an existential threat” something it has said could result in a nuclear strike.
Macron called for restraint in both words and actions in dealing with the Ukraine conflict, after Biden described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “butcher” and said he should not remain in power.
“I wouldn’t use this type of wording because I continue to hold discussions with President Putin,” Macron said on France 3 TV channel.
Biden, speaking in Warsaw, had said that Putin “cannot remain in power”. A White House official later said Biden’s remarks did not represent a shift in Washington’s policy and were meant to prepare the world’s democracies for an extended conflict, not back regime change in Russia.
“We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine without escalation — that’s the objective,” Macron said on France 3 TV, noting the objective was to obtain a cease fire and the withdrawal of troops through diplomatic means.
“If this is what we want to do, we should not escalate things — neither with words nor actions,” he said.
The French president on Friday had said he was seeking to hold more talks with President Putin in the coming days regarding the situation in Ukraine as well as an initiative to help people leave the besieged city of Mariupol.
Fuel supplies for Europe: Germany seeks to lessen its exposure.
Germany’s decision to become more energy independent means it will have to accept higher energy costs, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said. Scholz told public broadcaster ARD it would not help to keep Germany’s nuclear power plants running longer, but he noted that the timing of the country’s plan to exit from coal was dependent on how quickly it made progress in expanding renewable energy.
That’s all for today, folks! More tomorrow.