Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on the West to impose new sanctions on Russia, saying inaction could backfire if heavy shelling leads to a “catastrophe” at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.
He used his nightly address to issue a stark warning to Europe that it would not be able to escape the consequences of a disaster at the continent’s largest nuclear site. Russian and Ukrainian officials have traded blame for shelling near the plant in southern Ukraine, which has led to fears of a calamity similar to that at Chernobyl in 1986.
Mr Zelenskyy also warned Russian troops that if they attack the site in the now Russian-controlled city of Enerhodar, or use it as a base to shoot from, they risk becoming a “special target”.
“Under the cover of the plant, the occupiers are shelling nearby cities and communities,” he said.
“Any radiation incident at the Zaporizhzhia NPP [nuclear power plant] can affect the countries of the European Union, Turkey, Georgia and countries from more distant regions. Everything depends solely on the direction and speed of the wind.
“If through Russia's actions a catastrophe occurs, the consequences could hit those who for the moment are silent. If now the world does not show strength and decisiveness to defend one nuclear power station, it will mean that the world has lost.”
Meanwhile, a huge explosion was heard in the early hours of Tuesday in the Dzhankoi district of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Footage posted on social media showed smoke rising above a building, which caught fire after the blast. Moscow said one of its munitions depots had been hit in an act of “sabotage”.
“As a result of an act of sabotage, a military storage facility near the village of Dzhankoi was damaged,” Russia's Ministry of Defence said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.
It added that power lines, a power plant, railway tracks as well as a number of residential buildings also suffered damage but that there were no serious injuries.
The incident occurred after several blasts shook a Russian airbase on the peninsula last week. Kyiv has not publicly claimed responsibility for the explosions but senior government sources told western media its troops were behind the operation.
During his address, Mr Zelenskyy urged foreign leaders to adopt “new tough sanctions against Russia” and not to be deterred by “nuclear blackmail” from Moscow.
“All Russian troops must be immediately withdrawn from the plant and neighbouring areas without any conditions,” he added.
Vladimir Rogov, a Russia-installed official in Enerhodar, claimed on Monday that about 25 heavy artillery strikes from US-made M777 howitzers had landed close to the nuclear plant and residential areas over a two-hour period.
Russia's Interfax news agency, quoting the press service of Enerhodar's Russian-appointed administration, said Ukrainian forces had opened fire, with explosions occurring near the power plant.
But the head of the administration of the Nikopol district, which lies across the Dnipro river from Enerhodar and remains under Ukrainian control, said it was Russian forces that had shelled the city to try to make it appear that Ukraine was attacking it.
“The Russians think they can force the world to comply with their conditions by shelling the Zaporizhzhia NPP,” Andriy Yermak, chief of the Ukrainian presidential staff, wrote on Twitter.
A UN spokesman said the global body has the logistics and security capacity to support a visit by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, but a Russian diplomat has imposed conditions.
Stephane Dujarric said that “in close contact with the IAEA, the UN Secretariat has assessed that it has in Ukraine the logistics and security capacity to be able to support any IAEA mission to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant from Kyiv”.
He said both Russia and Ukraine would have to agree to the mission.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu held a phone call with Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, to discuss conditions for the safe functioning of the plant, the ministry said.
But a senior diplomat in Moscow was quoted by a Russian news agency as saying that such a trip could not include passage through Kyiv.
“Imagine what it means to pass through Kyiv — it means they get to the nuclear plant through the front line,” Igor Vishnevetsky, deputy head of the foreign ministry’s nuclear proliferation and arms control department, told RIA.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, hit out at the US, accusing Washington of trying to drag out the conflict in Ukraine and of fuelling wars elsewhere.
He pointed to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan as a provocative move amid tension between the territory and Beijing.
Ms Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, which China claims as its own, was “not just a trip by a single irresponsible politician, but part of a purposeful, conscious US strategy to destabilise and sow chaos in the region and the world”, Mr Putin said.