Foes Agree on Nuclear Disaster Risk in Ukraine, but Little Else

As United Nations officials pleaded for inspection and demilitarization of the battle-scarred nuclear power plant caught in Russia’s war on Ukraine, countries traded harsh words at the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday but moved no closer to resolving the intensifying crisis, which has hung over the war for months.

At the Security Council meeting, the second in two weeks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the United States and its allies accused Russia, which controls the plant, of peddling lies about the situation there and blaming others for its own actions, while Russia leveled similar charges at them. The Council’s member nations emerged from the 80-minute meeting with no evident movement toward inspection or improved security.

Russian forces have held the sprawling Zaporizhzhia complex and Enerhodar, the town encompassing it, since early March, and the remaining residents live under a harrowing occupation, exhausted and fearful as many of them work to keep the plant operating safely.

Shelling and gunfire have repeatedly hit the plant, which has six reactors, spent fuel storage and other vulnerable spots, raising fears of a disastrous radiation release, especially if the vital cooling system were damaged.

Each side accuses the other of launching the strikes, and of planning and committing attacks on the nuclear plant, Europe’s largest, in order to blame them on the enemy. With the site inaccessible to outsiders, the truth is obscured, but Russia, in particular, has repeatedly blamed Ukraine for Moscow’s own, well-documented acts.

The Zaporizhzhia plant, outside the Russian-controlled city of Enerhodar, Ukraine, is Europe’s largest nuclear plant.Credit…Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

“Ukraine, neighboring states, the entire international community are living under threat of a nuclear catastrophe,” Richard M. Mills, the deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said at the Security Council meeting. He added that “Russia created this risk and only Russia can defuse it.”

The Russian ambassador, Vasily A. Nebenzya, said the Ukrainians, whom he described as agents of Western powers, had hit Zaporizhzhia using American-made howitzers and Polish-made drones, but he provided no evidence. Such attacks demonstrate “criminal acquiescence on the part of its Western patrons,” he said.

“Russia is not locating heavy weaponry at the station and is not using it for military purposes,” he said, a claim disputed by the Ukrainians and their allies. He said that Americans, Ukrainians and others were in a “parallel reality” in charging that Russian forces would strike a site they controlled.

Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, made a parallel point, calling it absurd to think his country would risk poisoning its own people and land with radiation.

Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War

  • Nuclear Plant Standoff Russian and Ukrainian militaries accused each other of preparing to stage an attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. The United Nations issued warnings about the risk of a nuclear disaster and called for a demilitarized zone around the plant.
  • A Brazen Bombing: A car bombing in a Moscow suburb that killed the daughter of a prominent Russian ultranationalist has injected new uncertainty into the war and rattled Russia’s elite.
  • On the Ground: Analysts say that a new Ukrainian strategy of attacking logistical targets in Russian-held territory is proving successful — symbolically as well as militarily.
  • Crimea: With the drumbeat of Ukrainian strikes inside the strategically and symbolically important Kremlin-held territory, the reality of war is becoming increasingly apparent to Russians.

The United Nations has repeatedly called for inspection by its nuclear regulator, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which all sides claim to support.

But it has also called for all military forces to withdraw from the plant and its vicinity, creating a demilitarized zone, and to return control to the plant’s Ukrainian operators. “Russia pretends not to hear this,” Mr. Kyslytsya said.

He said inspectors must have free rein to visit and talk with the plant’s workers, “to see the real situation and not a Russian theatrical show.” He said Russian troops have been training the workers on what to say and what to show any outsiders who visit.

Ukrainian emergency rescue personnel at a nuclear disaster drill in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on Wednesday.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Ukrainians working at the plant and living in Enerhodar have described living under a harsh occupation, with interrogations, abuse and even some reported killings, and a plant staff stretched thin and under duress.

Mr. Nebenzya asserted, “There is a healthy working atmosphere at the station, and no one is oppressing anyone.”

Ukraine contends that Russians are using the nuclear complex as a shield for firing on Ukrainians across the Dnipro River, knowing that their enemies are deeply reluctant to fire back and risk a nuclear calamity.

On Tuesday, Ukrainians accused Russian forces of shelling “ash pits” near the nuclear site that contain some low-level radioactive waste, to intentionally “raise clouds of radioactive dust.”

“Monitoring of background radiation, which is carried out near the nuclear plant, indicates an increase in the level of radiation,” Ukraine’s military intelligence office said in a statement. “The occupiers are trying to present these data as the results of mythical ‘strikes by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.’”

Ukraine reported that a strike on Monday damaged transformers at a non-nuclear power generator near the reactors, severing the link to the nuclear plant. The plant “has one operational power line connecting it to the grid out of a total of four such lines,” the I.A.E.A. reported. “A secure off-site power supply from the grid is essential for ensuring nuclear safety.”

The I.A.E.A. did not lay blame for the other lines being down, but Ukraine has accused Russia of trying to sever Zaporizhzhia from the Ukrainian grid, so that it supplies power only to Russian-controlled territory.

Russian vehicles driving by the Zaporizhzhia plant in May. Credit…Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA, via Shutterstock

Rosemary A. DiCarlo, U.N. under-secretary-general, told the Security Council unequivocally that both the plant and its electrical output belong to Ukraine, and that cutting off that supply “would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.”

No other nation on the Council supported Russia’s claims. Several ambassadors, while not overtly criticizing Russia, spoke in favor of withdrawing troops and returning control to Ukraine. A demilitarized zone is mere common sense, said the Mexican deputy representative, Juan Manuel Gómez-Robledo, “but common sense is very often the least common of all senses.”

But several other countries attacked Russia in scathing terms, accusing it of hypocrisy and unprovoked aggression.

“We reject the Russian Federation’s use of the Security Council as a platform for disinformation,” said Trine Heimerback, the Norwegian deputy representative.

“The issues at Zaporizhzhia arose solely from Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine,” said Cait Moran, the Irish deputy representative.

American and Ukrainian officials have issued warnings to expect stepped-up Russian attacks on civilian targets this week, particularly on Wednesday, exactly six months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, and 31 years after Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Big celebrations of Independence Day have been banned, and there is a heavy security presence in Ukraine’s cities.

Russia may be particularly eager to strike back, analysts say, in retaliation for the car bomb assassination near Moscow on Saturday of Daria Dugina, a pro-war ultranationalist who was a frequent commentator on state television, and for a spate of apparent Ukrainian blows deep into Russian-held territory, including Crimea.

On Monday, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the F.S.B., said Ukrainian intelligence had directed the killing of Ms. Dugina, 29, and identified a Ukrainian woman as the assassin. Ukraine has denied any involvement.

At the Security Council meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Nebenzya held up a screenshot from a website he claimed was celebrating the death of Daria Dugina.Credit…Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

The F.S.B. said that after carrying out the attack, the accused woman, traveling with her young daughter, had crossed the border into Estonia, which has been highly critical of Russia. Prominent Russian ultranationalists suggested that Estonia was sheltering an assassin and that the Kremlin should take forceful action against its much smaller neighbor, a NATO member, which would risk widening the conflict.

On Tuesday, Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu, said in an interview on Estonian television, “We regard this as one instance of provocation in a very long line of provocations by the Russian Federation, and we have nothing more to say about it at the moment.”

Hundreds of people, including lawmakers, writers and cultural leaders, attended a televised memorial service for Ms. Dugina on Tuesday in Moscow, marked by calls for vengeance and vows that Russia would crush Ukraine. Many of them, like her, are ultranationalists who have called for Russia to reassert itself as a great power in opposition to the West and liberalism, and to reclaim former territories of the U.S.S.R. and the Russian Empire, particularly Ukraine.

Ms. Dugina’s father, Aleksandr Dugin, is among the most influential of that group. President Vladimir V. Putin — who awarded Ms. Dugina Russia’s Order of Courage posthumously — has embraced their ideology, but many of them want him to be more aggressive, and to put Russia on a full-fledged war footing.

“Her death could only be justified by the highest achievement — by victory,” Mr. Dugin said at the memorial, bursting into tears. “She lived in the name of victory and died in its name, in the name of our Russian victory.”

Reporting was contributed by Farnaz Fassihi, Marc Santora and Ivan Nechepurenko.

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