Russia readies for southern offensive as alarm raised over shelling of nuclear plant

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Russia is strengthening its positions and numbers on Ukraine’s southern front to ready itself for a Ukrainian counteroffensive and is likely to be preparing the ground to attack, according to British and Ukrainian military authorities.

The assessment came as both sides traded blame for renewed shelling on Europe’s largest nuclear plant, with the UN nuclear watchdog raising grave concerns about the attack.

“Russian troops are almost certainly amassing in the south, either waiting for a Ukrainian counteroffensive or preparing to attack. Long convoys of Russian military trucks, tanks, artillery and other things continue to move from the Donbas to the south-west,” said the UK’s defence ministry, confirming early assertions by Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief.

According to a separate source with Ukraine’s military intelligence, Russian forces are creating fire damage along the frontlines in the occupied Kherson region to stop Ukrainian forces from pushing out of their positions, and adding more units to attack Mykolaiv and south Dnipropetrovsk region, as well as conducting aerial reconnaissance of the area with drones. In occupied Zaporizhzhia region, the Russians are actively attacking Ukrainian troops while bringing in new units to strengthen their numbers, according to the same source.

One of the major obstacles to Ukraine’s offensive in the south could be the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, Europe’s largest, which was shelled on Saturday. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said it was a crime and “an act of terror”, saying the shelling was carried out by Russian forces. In a phone call on Sunday with the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, about the plant, Zelenskiy called for sanctions on Russia’s nuclear industry and nuclear fuel in response.

But the head of Zaporizhzhia’s occupying authorities, Evgeniy Balitskyi, said that Ukrainian forces were to blame and had “decided to put the whole of Europe on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe” by shelling the plant.

It was not possible on Saturday to independently determine which side was responsible for the attack on the power station.

Ukraine says Russia has turned the plant into a military base, making it extremely hard to target the Russian troops and equipment inside. According to the New York Times, Russia has been using the plant as cover from which to fire on Ukrainian forces since mid-July.

The Washington-based thinktank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assessed on 3 August that Russian forces were likely to be using the power plant to “play on western fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine in an effort to degrade western will to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive”. The ISW further said that Russia was “effectively using the plant as a nuclear shield to prevent Ukrainian strikes on Russian forces and equipment”.

Ukraine’s nuclear power agency, Energoatom, said that containers of spent fuel had been hit in the latest shelling, damaging three radiation monitoring sensors and injuring one employee. Spent fuel is highly radioactive, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In a statement on Telegram, Energoatom said the damage meant it was currently impossible to detect increased radiation or leakage of radiation from the spent fuel containers.

The UN nuclear watchdog has called for an immediate end to all military action near the plant. Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the size of the plant “underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster that could threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond”.

The UK’s defence ministry predicts Russia’s war in Ukraine will soon enter a “new phase” as it believes the fighting will shift from Donbas to a 217-mile front stretching south-west from near Zaporizhzhia to Kherson.

At present, the brunt of Russia’s attacks is around what remains of Ukrainian-controlled eastern Donbas. Russian forces are still trying to achieve their aim of capturing the whole of Donbas. Russian forces now control Luhansk oblast, with the exception of a few small settlements, and about half of Donetsk oblast.

Russia is currently carrying out two offensives to capture the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka and continuing to shell dozens of towns and villages from all directions, according to a statement by Ukraine’s general staff.

Russian forces now appear to be occupying the southern part of Pisky, a village in Donetsk oblast near Avdivvka, as well as the small settlement of Travneve, 11 miles south of Bakhmut, according to the ISW, which reported that the Ukrainian army seemed to be holding the line elsewhere.

Ukraine’s general staff said on Sunday that Russia was deploying troops and air defence systems to Belarus. However, the same Ukrainian military intelligence source said no offensive formations had been detected in Belarus, though rocket attacks from its northern neighbour continued to be a threat.

Meanwhile, four more ships successfully left Ukraine’s ports, raising hopes that the deal brokered by Turkey and the UN to end Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s ports might hold. Russia’s decision to strike Odesa port hours after the deal was signed cast doubt on that.

The deal is valid for 120 days and can be renewed if both sides agree. The first ship to set sail from Ukraine’s ports since the invasion left on Monday.

Twenty million tons of grain have been stuck in Ukraine since February, pushing some import-dependent countries in the Middle East and north Africa toward famine.

Before the war, Ukraine exported some 6m to 8m tons of grain a month. Using its rivers and railways, Ukraine is managing to export about 2m tons a month and hopes the reopening of its ports will increase the total to 3m a month in four to six weeks’ time, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, told Bloomberg.