Or else what? We’ll get to that in a moment, but the stakes could not possibly get higher than this standoff in the Russia-Ukraine war for the rest of Europe. Both sides claim the other either has attacked or will attack Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear reactor complex on the continent, in the next few days as a provocation for an even larger conflict.
It seems clear that the Russians are using Zaporizhzhia for nuclear blackmail. Russian troops took control of the area early in the invasion and at least for a short time used it as an artillery launching area to protect those assets from return fire. Over the last week, they have clearly tried to use it as a chit to gain relief from their deteriorating position in Ukraine, and last night ordered staff to remain at home rather than come to work.
That prompted Volodymyr Zelensky to demand that Russia withdraw from the nuclear power plant, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to back him up:
BREAKING OVERNIGHT: Ukrainian Pres. Zelenskyy is demanding Russia withdraw troops from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant — as both sides blame each other for shelling the area. https://t.co/mvqvfB5a3i pic.twitter.com/W705v1AZgs
— CBS Mornings (@CBSMornings) August 19, 2022
Following a visit to Ukraine on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Zelenskyy had asked him to ensure that Russia remove weapons stored at the plant as an “important step for world peace.”
“Zelenskyy asked this of us especially: that Russia remove all mines and similar (weapons) there and for the issue to rapidly cease to be frightening. Because it is a threat,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan, whose country has maintained close relations with both Ukraine and Russia, said he would discuss the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that “Russia must do its part in this regard.”
The Turkish president made the comments to a group of Turkish journalists on his return from a visit with Zelenskyy and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in Ukraine late on Thursday. His comments were reported by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency and other media on Friday.
Russia claims that its troops are necessary to prevent a “Chernobyl scenario” from occurring, which is laughable in at least three ways. First off, Russia already used Zaporizhzhia as a shield against its artillery and infantry in the early days of the war. Also, lest anyone forget, Russia also captured the actual Chernobyl, sending troops marching through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone without apparently warning them about the risks. They occupied the nuclear plant and likely would have created another “Chernobyl scenario” if it hadn’t been for the incredibly brave Ukrainian staff who refused to leave while Russia occupied Chernobyl.
And which country created the original “Chernobyl scenario,” anyway?
If Russia refuses to pull back from Zaporizhzhia, what is the “else” that Zelensky can deploy? We may already be seeing it. Ukraine appears to be expanding the war to supply lines and support bases as part of a strategy to cut off its incompetent infantry and mechanized units and force a devastating retreat, including in the Zaporizhzhia region:
This is what Ukraine’s offensive to retake occupied territory in the south of the country looks like: not a dramatic ground assault, but a series of artillery strikes designed to cut Russian supply lines and isolate Russian troops in the region.
Using U.S.-supplied long-range Himars rocket systems, Ukrainian forces have disabled several bridges across the Dnipro River and the smaller Inhulets River in recent weeks. The Ukrainians have also taken out a series of ammunition depots, including one this week in Crimea, the peninsula in southern Ukraine that Moscow seized in 2014 and has used as a staging ground for its assault on the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
As a result of these strikes, Russian troops west of the rivers are now being resupplied by ferries and pontoon bridges, military analysts say, and keeping them supplied is already a challenge. Ammunition depots are being moved further away, out of artillery range, meaning supply trucks now run longer routes than they were designed for.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military’s Southern Command, said the Russians pulled their command centers back to the east side of the Dnipro River several days ago.
By starving the Russians of supplies, she said, the Ukrainians hope they can force an army with far more troops and greater firepower to retreat.
Reuters notes that the Ukrainian efforts now extend far beyond the front, and even into Russia itself:
Explosions erupted overnight near military bases deep within Russian-held areas of Ukraine and in Russia itself, an apparent display of Kyiv’s growing ability to wreak havoc on Moscow’s logistics far from front lines.
Ukraine also issued a new warning about a frontline nuclear power station where it said it believed Moscow was planning a “large-scale provocation” as a justification to decouple the plant from the Ukrainian power grid and connect it to Russia’s. …
Inside Russia, two villages were evacuated after explosions at an ammunition dump in Belgorod province, near the Ukrainian border but more than 100 km (60 miles) from territory controlled by Ukrainian forces.
Kyiv has cultivated an atmosphere of ambiguity around such explosions by withholding official comment on incidents in Crimea or inside Russia, while hinting that it was behind them, using long-range weapons or sabotage.
If Ukraine can carry the war into Russia, it threatens the political position of Vladimir Putin and his ruling clique. It puts lie to the idea that Ukrainians are either trapped by a narrow ruling clique of its own or that their morale is low enough for them to be defeated shortly. Russia’s ability to provide the logistics for its broad offensive is already seriously eroded. Much more of this could produce a sudden collapse of the kind seen in Germany in World War I. That’s not a great scenario for anyone; that collapse produced such a political shock in Germany that it gave birth to political instability and eventually produced the Nazi Party.
That kind of shock could be manageable. A disaster at Zaporizhzhia would be nearly impossible to manage even without a war raging around it. Hopefully Erdogan can convince Putin to withdraw in favor of international monitors and neutral security forces.