Russia and Ukraine clash over nuclear facility

A fire at an ammunition depot inside Russia has forced the evacuation of two villages near the border with Ukraine, an official said on Friday, while two civilians were injured by Russian shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as the two sides traded accusations of fights near the facility in southern Ukraine.

The fire hit the ammunition storage building near the village of Timonovo in Russia’s Belgorod region on the northeastern border of Ukraine on Thursday evening.

About 1,100 people live in Timonovo and Soloti, about 25 kilometers from the border. No one was injured, Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said.

The blaze came days after another ammunition dump exploded on the Crimean Peninsula, a Russian-occupied territory on the Black Sea that was annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Last week, nine Russian warplanes were reportedly destroyed at an air base in Crimea, demonstrating both Russian vulnerability and Ukrainian ability to strike deep behind enemy lines.

Ukrainian authorities have ceased to publicly claim responsibility. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has hinted at Ukrainian attacks behind enemy lines after explosions in Crimea, which Russia has blamed on “sabotage”.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in televised remarks on Friday that statements by Ukrainian officials regarding strike facilities in Crimea marked “an escalation of the conflict openly encouraged by the United States and its allies in the ‘NATO’.

Ryabkov said Russian officials had warned the United States against such actions in phone calls with high-level members of the Biden administration, adding that the “deep and open involvement of the United States” in the war in Ukraine “effectively puts the United States on the verge of becoming a party to the conflict”.

Despite the latest incidents, a Western official said the war was at an “almost operational standstill”, with neither side in a position to launch major offensives.

“The whole tempo of the campaign has slowed, in part because both sides have become more aware that this is a marathon and not a sprint and that spend rates and ammunition conservation are important,” said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss intelligence matters publicly.

Later Friday, a Ukrainian official said two civilians were injured by Russian shelling of Ukrainian communities near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the latest in a long string of such bombing accusations over the past few years. weeks.

“A new enemy attack on the Nikopol district. Five shells fired by Russian cannon artillery flew into residential areas of Marhanets,” regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko said on Telegram.

Nikopol and Marhanets are towns under Ukrainian control which face the nuclear power plant on the other side of the Dnieper.

“According to initial information, two people were injured: an 18-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man. Both are in hospital,” Reznichenko added.

Kyiv and Moscow continued to blame each other for the bombing near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

A senior official in Ukraine’s presidential office told reporters that “the threat of a global environmental disaster” remains due to the “periodic shelling” of the plant by the Russian military.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the presidential office, said at the same briefing that Russian shelling had destroyed “more than 3,700 infrastructure objects” near the plant, including heating, electricity, gas installations. and water supply.

Zelenskyy also highlighted the situation around the Zaporizhzhia plant in his Friday evening speech.

“If Russia’s radiation blackmail continues, this summer could go down in the history of various European countries as one of the most tragic ever.” Because no instructions in any nuclear power plant in the world provide for a procedure in case a terrorist state turns a nuclear power plant into a target,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in their first phone conversation since May 28 that Ukrainian bombing around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant “raised the threat of a large-scale disaster that could lead to radioactive contamination of large territories”.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility in southern Ukraine is controlled by Russian forces shortly after the February 24 invasion began.

Ukraine has accused Russia of stockpiling troops and weapons at the plant and using its land to launch strikes against Ukrainian-held territory. Ukrainian officials and military analysts say Moscow forces cynically used the plant as a shield, knowing the Ukrainians would be reluctant to retaliate.

Russia denied the charges and, in turn, accused Ukrainian forces of repeatedly bombing the plant.

The French presidency said in a statement that Macron “highlighted his concerns” about the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant and expressed his support for the deployment of an International Atomic Energy Agency mission to the site “as soon as as possible”.

Putin accepted the deployment of the mission under the conditions discussed, according to the French press release.

The Kremlin said that “the Russian side reaffirmed its readiness to offer the necessary assistance to the agency’s experts.”

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Christi C. Elwood