Exhumed Grave Near Kherson Shows Brutality of Russia’s Occupation: Live Updates

Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

KYIV, Ukraine — Following a string of Ukrainian military successes in the south, the Kremlin sought on Monday to tamp down speculation that Russian forces would withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex, with President Vladimir V. Putin’s spokesman saying that Moscow has no plans to end its military occupation of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

“One should not look for signs where there are none and cannot be any,” said the spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov.

Mr. Peskov’s comments came after some pro-Russian military bloggers wrote posts suggesting that Moscow’s forces would withdraw from the area, and after Ukrainian officials said there were indications that Russia was taking steps to leave the facility.

Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhia plant soon after invading Ukraine in late February, stationing troops and military equipment there. A withdrawal from the plant would mark another setback for Russian forces in a region that Mr. Putin has sought to annex illegally.

On Sunday, Petro Kotin, the president of the Ukrainian state nuclear energy company, Energoatom, said that there were signs that Russian troops were “packing and stealing whatever they can find” at the Zaporizhzhia complex, although he emphasized that there was no evidence that the troops had actually begun to pull out.

Ukrainian forces in recent weeks have scored a series of victories in southern Ukraine, including retaking the key city of Kherson on Nov. 11. But military analysts said that there was no immediate indication that they were threatening Russia’s grip on the plant, which lies on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, about 100 miles northeast of Kherson.

Instead, the reports from Russian military bloggers — a hawkish and pro-invasion group — suggest concerns about Moscow’s ability to hold the plant and could be an attempt to “prepare the information space for an eventual Russian withdrawal” from Zaporizhzhia, the Institute for the Study of War, a research group that tracks the conflict, wrote in its daily analysis on Sunday.

The nuclear plant — which provided 20 percent of Ukraine’s electricity before the war — has careened from one crisis to another since Russian forces seized the facility on March 4. Shelled repeatedly, it has cycled down all of its reactors as a safety measure and has been disconnected from the Ukrainian power grid on multiple occasions, forcing it to use diesel generators to perform critical cooling functions. The Ukrainian staff members operating the plant, whose numbers have more than halved, have reported being detained and abused by Russian soldiers. Witnesses also have accused the Russian forces of laying mines in and around the plant.

After a team of inspectors from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, visited the plant in September, the head of the agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, called for the creation of a demilitarized safe zone around the facility to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

Ukraine has supported the proposal, as have representatives of the European Union and the United States. Russia has resisted the idea, with its Foreign Ministry saying recently that it would “make the power plant even more vulnerable.”

Mr. Grossi said that he had discussed his concerns with both Mr. Putin and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, telling CBS News’ “60 Minutes” last week: “Until we have this plant protected, the possibility of the nuclear catastrophe is there.”

On Nov. 20, the day that interview aired, the plant was rocked by more than 10 explosions. Energoatom said that Russian troops were responsible for the blasts and had targeted infrastructure necessary for electricity production for Ukraine. Russia has blamed Ukraine for shelling the plant.

Repeated waves of Russian missile assaults on Ukraine’s energy grid infrastructure have resulted in widespread and prolonged power outages in nearly every corner of the country. Millions now live with sweeping but controlled blackouts for long stretches of the day and night.

Last week, a wave of Russian missile strikes forced all four of the country’s nuclear power plants offline for the first time in Ukraine’s history. The plants have since been reconnected to outside power.

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