According to Ukrainian authorities, Russian troops may be preparing to leave the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, which Russia has occupied since the first months of the war this year.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the head of the Ukraine’s president’s office, said on Sunday he believes Russian troops will leave the power plant as Ukrainian troops continue to advance into occupied territories.
“Russian military personnel will leave the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as their line of defense gradually moves towards the borders of the Russian Federation,” Podolyak said in an interview with Freedom TV.
Russian news outlets have also hinted at a possible withdrawal from the plant, Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine’s state nuclear energy company Energoatom, said on Sunday.
“There are some signs that they could leave the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant,” Kotin said. “There have been many publications in the Russian press saying that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant could be abandoned and transferred to the control of the IAEA.”
A withdrawal from the plant could mean a significant loss to Russian troops, who have occupied the plant since March, while Ukrainian workers continue to work there under threat of violence. Russian President Vladimir Putin engineered a mock referendum this fall and illegally annexed Zaporizhzhia in an attempt to demonstrate that Russian forces had taken full control of the area. In reality, the Kremlin was not sure which part of Zaporizhia Russia actually controlled and which parts it did not.
Leaving the power plant behind would be a major blow to Putin’s invasion plan. Russia annexed other areas around the same time it annexed Zaporizhzhia, but lost some of them shortly after announcing they were under Russian control. The possible withdrawal would add to a list of staggering losses in recent weeks, including Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson and also defeats in the country’s northeast.
The Kremlin has denied plans to abandon the nuclear power plant.
“There is no need to look for signs where they are not and cannot be,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday, according to TASS.
Now, according to Interfax, Moscow is taking steps to deny access to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to Ukrainian power plant workers who have not yet signed contracts with Russian power company Rosatom.
The move may raise questions about safe plant operations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on a possible Russian withdrawal.
Ukraine has been accusing Russia for months of using the nuclear power plant as a way to terrorize civilians. Russia has reportedly kidnapped several officials working at the power plant – officials whose absence has jeopardized the security of operations at the plant, the largest in Europe. Other employees have said they have been subjected to kidnappings and violent interrogations. G7 leaders have condemned the “pressure exerted on facility personnel”.
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi met with Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev in Turkey earlier this month to discuss concerns over the nuclear power plant. Rossi stressed the importance of establishing a security zone around the area as Ukrainians and Russians accused each other of attacking the factory.
The reactors are currently shut down but still require power for cooling and other safety functions, according to the IAEA.
The battle for territory in Zaporizhia continued on Monday. Ukrainian troops damaged a bridge in the Zaporizhzhia region that Russian troops used to deliver military supplies, according to an update from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The Russians are also working to thwart Ukraine’s progress, said the spokesman of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Alexander Štupun.
“In the direction of Zaporizhzhia, the occupiers are defending themselves,” Štupun said Monday.