Ukraine Situation Report: Russia’s Military May Now Be Pulling Out From The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant (Updated)
Ukrainian officials have warned about the potential risks from Russia stockpiling ammunition at the Chernobyl site.
The Ukrainian military says that Russian forces are massing at the site of the now-defunct Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant despite some apparent withdrawals elsewhere in the northeastern part of the country. Whether this is part of a phased withdrawal or an effort to dig in there and establish a more robust base of operations, or both, is unclear. Meanwhile, Russia's artillery units have continued to bombard the northern city of Chernihiv despite a pledge yesterday to significantly scale back operations in that region, among others, according to local authorities.
UPDATE: The U.S. government now reportedly says Russian forces are now vacating the area around the facility. See below for more details.
Separately, Ukrainian and Russian representatives have both now said that there was, at best, limited progress made toward a negotiated settlement during talks between the two sides in Turkey yesterday. Officials in Ukraine appear increasingly willing to make some concessions, but territorial claims look set to be a major hurdle going forward. This comes as concerns are growing that the Russian government's objectives in Ukraine are shifting to a plan to at least bifurcate the country if not annex additional areas outright.
Before getting into the latest news below, The War Zone readers can first get themselves fully up to speed on what has been transpiring in Russia's war in Ukraine already through our previous rolling coverage here.
The War Zone's continuing rolling coverage of the conflict in Ukraine can be found here.
UPDATED: 6:25 PM EST—
The U.S. government has now reportedly assessed that at least some of the Russian forces assembling at and around the Chernobyl site are indeed withdrawing north into neighboring Belarus. This is something The War Zone had posited could be the case amid earlier reports that Russian units were massing there. Whether Russia's military intends to abandon the site entirely is unclear.
"Chernobyl is [an] area where they are beginning to reposition some of their troops – leaving, walking away from the Chernobyl facility and moving into Belarus," an anonymous American official told AFP. "We think that they are leaving, I can't tell you that they're all gone."
Separately, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said today that the U.S. military had assessed that less than 20 percent of the forces that Russia has arrayed around the Ukrainian capital Kyiv have been repositioned. He added that are no indications that they are returning to their home stations, suggesting that they could be redeployed elsewhere in the country.
Kirby said that Russian forces also appeared to be repositioning away from the cities of Chernihiv and Sumy to the east of Kyiv. However, there has not appeared to be any actual de-escalation on the part of Russia's military and artillery and missile strikes are continuing in the northeastern portion of the country.
The Russian private military company Wagner, which has strong ties to Russian intelligence agencies, now has around 1,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, according to Kirby.
Kirby said that Russian forces continue to move deeper into the southern port city of Mariupol, but have not yet fully captured it. There are indications that Ukrainian forces are "clawing back" territory elsewhere, he added. Pro-Russian YouTuber WarGonzo has released footage captured using a drone showing just how devastated Mariupol is after being besieged for weeks by Russia's military.
The video below reportedly offers a rare look at one of Ukraine's Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile systems in action and apparently successfully hitting a target.
The White House has released a readout of a call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier today. Among other things, it says that the U.S. government intends to provide its Ukrainian counterparts with $500 million in new direct budgetary aid, adding to hundreds of millions in existing military and other assistance.
POSTED: 1:55 PM EST—
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine noted the apparent buildup of Russian military units near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which was the site of what is still the world's worst-ever nuclear disaster in 1986 and was shut down for good in 2000, in a daily update on the situation in Ukraine that was posted on Facebook earlier today. Russian forces claimed to have captured the Chernobyl site on the first day of the invasion and have been operating within the broader Chernobyl Exclusion Zone since then.
Separately, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk called for Russian forces to leave the area, where they are also reportedly stockpiling ammunition, and for a special, independent United Nations mission to secure the site to prevent any new nuclear catastrophe. For weeks, concerns have regularly been raised about the well-being of Ukrainian personnel who continue to monitor the state of the Chernobyl site and other associated facilities, including a storage facility for spent fuel rods.
A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an independent international body that reports to the United Nations, arrived in Ukraine today as part of an effort to help safeguard nuclear power plants and other nuclear-related facilities in the country. Among them was Rafael Grossi, head of the IAEA and who had announced plans to provide "urgent technical assistance" to the Ukrainian government regarding its nuclear enterprise yesterday. Fighting earlier this month at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, sparked a fire and caused other damage.
"We can’t afford to lose any more time. This conflict is already causing unimaginable human suffering and destruction," Grossi had said in a statement yesterday after weeks of IAEA efforts to get both Ukrainian and Russian officials to agree to a common framework under which the body could operate in the country." The IAEA’s expertise and capabilities are needed to prevent it from also leading to a nuclear accident."
Separately, Vladyslav Atroshenko, the mayor of Chernihiv said that his city had come under a "colossal attack." This bombardment, which he also said was more intense than other recent shelling, came after Russian authorities had pledged to "drastically reduce" military operations in this region of Ukraine, as well as around the capital Kyiv, yesterday.
Yesterday, Russian authorities claimed that they were de-escalating, as well as withdrawing some forces, as a goodwill gesture in support of the negotiations in Turkey. However, as early as last week, Ukrainian and U.S. officials had said that Russia's military appeared to be pulling back in areas of northeastern Ukraine in the face of growing counterattacks and mounting losses, and as a part of a broader potential shift in the overall objectives of the "special military operation."
The negotiations in Turkey ended without any significant progress toward a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, according to both Ukrainian and Russian officials. Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's top spokesperson, told reporters today that the Kremlin welcomed steps taken by the Ukrainian government to lay out its current negotiation position, but that "there is a lot of work to be done."
At the talks in Istanbul yesterday, Ukrainian representatives had put forward a plan that included a proposed framework for guaranteeing Ukraine's sovereignty and negotiating the final status of the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia has occupied since 2014.
Serious potential pitfalls have already begun to emerge. It's unclear what third-party countries may be willing to provide the security guarantees Ukraine says it wants, which would include a collective defense provision akin to NATO's Article 5. The United Kingdom has said it is not ready to provide such assurances. Germany has said that it could be part of such a framework, but without offering any specific comments on the possibility of providing direct military assistance.
Beyond that, Ukrainian officials say that this deal would have to be put to a public referendum in Ukraine, something that they say can only happen if Russian troops leave the country. On the Russian side, Peskov rebuffed the idea of negotiating over Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 and now considers to be part of its sovereign territory. Russia's top negotiator at the talks in Turkey also said that the Kremlin's demands that Ukraine formally give up Crimea, as well as recognize two breakaway parts of its eastern Donbas region as independent countries, remained unchanged. Ukrainian authorities have previously said that this is unacceptable to them.
Curiously, and seeming to contradict both Peskov's comments and the publicly stated position of the Ukrainian side, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed today that there had been progress made at the negotiations and that Ukraine's government had accepted that "the issues of Crimea and Donbas are settled for good." The Ukrainian government has since issued a new statement denying that this is the case.
There have been multiple reports today, citing an anonymous U.S. official, which claim that Russian President Putin may not have been, and still may not be, fully aware of the real state of the fighting in Ukraine. The individual said that the Russian leaders may be feeding him bad information at least in part over fears of what could happen if they provide an accurate picture of the situation.
Despite the negotiations and other developments, fighting in Ukraine remains ongoing. The U.K. Ministry of Defence says that the Russian withdrawals that have occurred in the north are most likely to be part of an effort to reorganize and resupply those units and underscore the serious logistical difficulties Russia's forces have been experiencing for weeks now.
The Russian Ministry of Defense says that it has been employing Iskander-K ground-launched cruise missiles against Ukrainian targets. There had been unconfirmed reports from the very beginning of the invasion that these weapons were being used, but this appears to be the first official confirmation.
Russian forces are also employing POM-3 anti-personnel mines, which are scattered using a multiple rocket launch system, in Ukraine. Criticism is already growing over the apparent indiscriminate dispersion of these mines.
The video below reportedly shows a Russian Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft rippling off unguided rockets at a target in Ukraine.
There continue to be unconfirmed reports of a "rail war" in Belarus, which is apparently being undertaken by rail workers and others in that country to hamper Russia's ability to use it as a staging ground for operations in Ukraine. Reported cyberattacks targeting rail infrastructure in Belarus to hamper Russian military movements had occurred even before the invasion of Ukraine kicked off in February.
The Norweigan government says that it has donated an additional 2,000 M72 shoulder-fired light anti-armor weapons, or LAWs, to Ukraine. These add to an already large amount of shoulder-fired launchers that multiple countries have transferred to Ukraine, as you can read more about here.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, head of U.S. European Command (EUCOM), separately told members of Congress at a hearing today that Ukrainian forces need more shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons, as well as ground-based air defenses. At that same hearing, Celeste Wallander, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, said that the U.S. government was continuing to work with NATO ally Slovakia about the potential transfer of its Soviet-era S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Ukraine.
Wolters also told lawmakers that two U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyers had been in the Black Sea in January, but that they had left that body of water before Russian forces began their invasion of Ukraine. Whether or not it would have been prudent for those ships to have remained in this highly constrained environment after the fighting started, which was full of potential threats and saw Russian missiles inadvertently hit a number of commercial ships, it would not have been legal for them to do so. The international Montreux Convention, which governs how and when warships can access and operate within the Black Sea, says that countries who do have a coastline along that body of water cannot keep naval vessels there for more than 21 days at a time.
Yesterday, the Pentagon had announced that a contingent from the U.S. Marine Corps, including approximately 200 personnel, 10 F/A-18 Legacy Hornet fighter jets, and an unspecified number of C-130 airlifters, would head to Lithuania after the conclusion of Exercise Cold Response in Norway. These forces would join other U.S. and NATO elements in reinforcing the alliance's eastern periphery in light of the conflict in Ukraine.
Reuters has reported that the flow of Russian natural gas to Western Europe through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, which runs between Russia and Germany via Belarus and Poland, has dropped to zero. Natural gas from Russia is still flowing into Western Europe via other pipelines
A large Ukrainian flag has been put over a Soviet-made T-34 tank that is part of a memorial in the German capital Berlin. There are unconfirmed reports that the Russian Embassy in that country protested this and asked that it be removed, but that officials in Berlin declined, saying that the T-34 was developed in Kharkiv, which is now in independent Ukraine.
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