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Soldiers Massing Near Ukrainian Nuclear Plant, U.N. Official Warns

Amid signs of offensives and counteroffensives, concern is rekindling about what it will mean for the biggest nuclear plant in Europe.

Under a cloudy sky, an electric plant is seen in the distance.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant as seen from the city of Nikopol in 2022.Credit...Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times

Matthew Mpoke Bigg

March 29, 2023Updated 9:27 p.m. ET

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia and Ukraine are ramping up their military forces in southern Ukraine amid signs that the fighting may soon escalate, a United Nations official said on Wednesday after crossing a front line held by the Ukrainian military to inspect a nuclear power plant seized by Moscow.

“It is obvious that military activity is increasing in this whole region, so every possible measure and precaution should be taken so that the plant is not attacked and can be protected,” said the official, Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Just hours before Mr. Grossi spoke, a new round of explosions shook Melitopol, a Russian-occupied city in the same region as the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Some Ukrainian officials have said the city is a likely target in a counteroffensive mounted by Kyiv to reclaim land lost to Moscow after Russia invaded 13 months ago.

As concerns rose about a flare-up of combat around the plant, fighting raged on Wednesday to the northeast, in the city of Bakhmut. There appears to be little left of the city to save, and given its minimal strategic value and the heavy losses already sustained by Ukrainian forces, some analysts have questioned the wisdom of staying there.

But Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said this week that its military forces had no choice but to continue the fight for Bakhmut. A Ukrainian loss in the monthslong battle, he said, would strengthen the hand of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.


Bakhmut was once a city of 70,000. It is now mostly destroyed.Credit...Libkos/Associated Press

“If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push,” Mr. Zelensky said in an interview with The Associated Press.

  • Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant: The former director of the facility provided a harrowing account of abuse of Ukrainian workers and careless practices by the Russians who took control of the plant.
  • Refusing to Leave Home: In the battered town of Avdiivka, as in Bakhmut and other devastated places on the front lines in Ukraine, most residents left long ago, but there are holdouts.
  • Restoring a Giant Plane: Ukraine plans to rebuild the colossal Mriya cargo plane, a symbol of pride that was destroyed in the first days of the war. But critics say there are far more pressing needs.

Mr. Zelensky, who visited troops near Bakhmut last week, also said that withdrawing from the city would invite domestic and international calls for unacceptable territorial compromises from Kyiv to bring the war to an end, and might sap the morale of Ukrainians.

“Our society will feel tired,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Our society will push me to have compromise with them.”

Russian forces in Zaporizhzhia seized the nuclear plant — the largest in Europe — more than a year ago and have used artillery stationed there to launch attacks on nearby towns.

For months, Mr. Grossi, the U.N. nuclear official, has warned that shelling around the plant — some of which has hit critical equipment — was unprecedented in the history of civilian nuclear power and could lead to a catastrophic nuclear accident.

At a news conference during his visit to the plant on Wednesday, he voiced fresh concerns.

“There is open talk about offensives and counteroffensives,” Mr. Grossi said.


Russian soldiers guarding the entrance to the nuclear plant during a visit by representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Wednesday.Credit...Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Hoping to maintain an element of surprise, Ukraine’s military leaders have shrouded in secrecy the location of what is widely expected to be a spring counteroffensive. Apart from Melitopol, the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine is also viewed as a possible avenue of attack.

But Melitopol presents an especially inviting target. Recapturing it would build on the successes of Ukrainian forces late last year, when they retook Russian-occupied areas in two nearby regions: Kharkiv and Kherson.

If Ukraine’s forces can add Melitopol, it will move them much closer to reversing a major Russian military achievement last year, when Russia seized enough coastal territory to create a so-called land bridge that connects Russia to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula it illegally annexed in 2014.

The blasts in Melitopol reported on Wednesday occurred around 5:30 a.m., Vladimir Rogov, a pro-Russian occupation official, said on the Telegram messaging app. A train depot was damaged as well as parts of the power grid, he said, adding that there were no casualties.

The exiled Ukrainian mayor of the city, Ivan Fedorov, also said that several loud explosions had been heard across the city before dawn and that smoke was rising from near a train depot.


Ukrainian soldiers sent to monitor Russian positions in the Zaporizhzhia region in January.Credit...Nicole Tung for The New York Times

The Ukrainian government did not immediately comment, but for months Melitopol has been subject to attacks by partisans, as well as missile strikes launched from Ukrainian lines dozens of miles away. And a Ukrainian lawmaker, Mykyta Poturaev, said on Wednesday that attacks in Melitopol formed “part of a preparation operation” before a counteroffensive.

Such declarations could, however, be part of a disinformation campaign. Last year, Ukrainian officials telegraphed their intention to attack the southern city of Kherson only to launch a full-scale counteroffensive in the northeast, around Kharkiv. It was only months later that they drove the Russian forces out of Kherson.

With neither side showing signs of moving any closer to the negotiating table, some of Ukraine’s allies appeared resigned to a prolonged conflict.

In Germany, a parliamentary panel passed a spending bill on Wednesday that includes 8 billion euros — about $8.6 billion — in military aid to Ukraine to be spent over the next decade for weapons, munitions and supplies to help it defend itself against Russia.

Boris Pistorius, Germany’s defense minister, called the aid package “a very, very important step to show how serious we are about our long-term commitment to Ukraine in their fight against Putin.”

On Monday, the government delivered 18 Leopard 2 battle tanks that the Ukrainian government had long campaigned for.

Russia has also been working to shore up its alliances.

On Wednesday, a senior security adviser to Mr. Putin met with India’s prime minister in Delhi to discuss their nations’ “mutual interests,” officials said, as Moscow continued its campaign to build stronger alliances with trading partners outside the bloc of Western countries helping Ukraine resist Russia’s invasion.

The adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, “discussed matters of bilateral cooperation” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to a statement from Russia’s Security Council. Mr. Patrushev, the council’s secretary, was in India for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes India and China.

Neither side gave details of the talks, but they came at a time when Moscow is seeking to drive a wedge between the West and two countries in particular, India and China, which have remained neutral on its decision to seize territory in Ukraine.

Christopher F. Schuetze, Daniel Victor and Victoria Kim contributed reporting.

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