Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said his forces will target Russian soldiers who shoot at or from Europe’s largest nuclear power station, amid warnings that the Kremlin may falsely claim Kyiv has directly struck the critical site.
Zelenskiy said anyone giving orders for attacks on the site or nearby towns and cities should face trial by an international court, as concern about the safety of the nuclear site remained high.
“Every Russian soldier who either shoots at the plant, or shoots using the plant as cover, must understand that he becomes a special target for our intelligence agents, for our special services, for our army,” Zelenskiy said in a video address on Saturday night.
He called for new sanctions against Russia that would “necessarily block the Russian nuclear industry”, and he argued that “absolutely all officials of the terrorist state, as well as those who help them in this blackmail operation with the nuclear power plant, must be tried by an international court.”
Russian troops captured the station – the biggest nuclear plant in Europe, responsible for up to 20% of Ukraine’s energy needs – early in the war. Two of its six reactors are currently operating and Ukraine has said Russia is trying to reconnect the power plant to occupied Crimea and shut off electricity supply to towns held by Kyiv.
Footage has shown Russian forces present on the nuclear site. Ukrainian-controlled Nikopol and other towns across the Dnieper River have come under intense bombardment in the last month from the Russian-held side, from the plant and the nearby settlement of Vodiane.
Local officials have warned that Russia is trying to prepare a “false flag” operation relating to the nuclear site. Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, the city where the Zaporizhzhia reactor site is located, said people had told him that Russians had positioned a self-propelled artillery gun with a Ukrainian flag in the city.
Locals still in the city crowded the roads on the way out of Enerhodar on Saturday, according to social media videos, reflecting concern that the conflict between the two sides could escalate further.
The Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak accused Russia of targeting the part of the nuclear power plant where the energy that powers the south of Ukraine is generated. “The goal is to disconnect us from the [plant] and blame the Ukrainian army for this,” Podolyak said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is seeking to inspect the plant, has warned of a possible nuclear disaster unless fighting stops. Nuclear experts fear fighting might damage the plant’s spent fuel pools or the reactors, although the concrete walls of key areas are designed to withstand substantial impacts.
On Sunday, 42 countries including the US, Japan and the UK, plus the European Union, called on Russia to immediately withdraw military forces from the plant and the entire country to safeguard the site.
“The presence of Russian military forces at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant prevents the operator and the Ukrainian authorities from fulfilling their nuclear and radiation safety obligations,” they said in a statement.
Ukraine has continued to strike at strategic bridges over the weekend supplying Russian troops holding the city of Kherson, the only major site held by the invaders on the west bank of the Dnieper, including the Antonovsky road bridge and crossing at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant upstream.
The Institute for the Study of War said Kyiv’s goal was to “disrupt Russian ground lines of communication” by preventing resupply by road or rail into Kherson. If the road and rail bridges at Antonovsky plus Kakhovka could be rendered unusable to traffic, then, the thinktank added, “Russian forces on the west bank of the [Dnieper] will likely lose the ability to defend themselves against even limited Ukrainian counterattacks”.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said on Sunday that over the past week Russia’s priority “has likely been to reorientate units to reinforce southern Ukraine” to counter Kyiv’s attack plans.
The MoD said Russia also appeared to be intensifying attacks on the eastern Donbas front, in what is likely to be an attempt to ensure Ukraine is not able to concentrate forces in the south against Kherson.
Militias from the separatist, self-proclaimed republic in Donetsk , which is recognised by Russia, have attempted to attack north of Donetsk city in areas that have been on the frontline since the first outbreak of fighting in 2014. “Particularly heavy fighting has focused on the village of Pisky, near the site of Donetsk airport,” the MoD said, with the aim of securing the M04 highway, the main approach to Donetsk from the west.
Two more ships carrying grain left Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Saturday, Turkey’s defence ministry said, bringing to 16 the number of vessels to have departed under a UN-brokered deal aimed partly at easing a global food crisis.
Ukraine and Russia are major grain exporters. The blockage of Ukrainian ports has trapped tens of millions of tonnes of grain in the country, raising fears of severe food shortages in parts of the world.
Reuters contributed to this report