Russia establishes fighting positions on Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactors

Satellite imagery shows sandbags on top of 'several buildings' at the power plant, according to UK intelligence

Images shows Russian forces have set up sandbag fighting positions on the roofs of reactor buildings at Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence
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Russian troops have established “sandbag fighting positions” on buildings housing reactors at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Britain's Ministry of Defence has warned.

It said satellite imagery shows sandbags on top of “several buildings” at the nuclear power plant — Europe's largest and one of the 10 biggest in the world — where Russian forces have been in control since the early days of the war.

But this is the first indication reactor buildings have been included in defence planning ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, said the MoD in its daily intelligence briefing on Twitter.

It said: “Imagery shows that by March 2023, Russian forces had established sandbag fighting positions on the roofs of several of the six reactor buildings at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).

“Russia has controlled ZNPP since March 2022. However, this is the first indication of the actual reactor buildings being integrated in tactical defence planning.

“Russia has likely constructed these positions because it is increasingly concerned about the prospects of a major Ukrainian offensive.

“The move highly likely increases the chances of damage to ZNPP safety systems if fighting takes place around ZNPP.

“However, direct catastrophic damage to the reactors is unlikely under most plausible scenarios involving infantry weapons because the structures are very heavily reinforced.”

Other satellite images collected by Reuters show thousands of defensive positions inside both Russia and along Ukrainian front lines, most heavily defended in the southern Zaporizhzhia region and the gateway to the Crimean Peninsula.

Anti-tank ditches near Ukraine's occupied south-eastern town of Polohy stretch for 30km. These are supplemented by rows of concrete “dragon's teeth” barricades. Further back are defensive trenches where Russia's troops will be positioned.

The defences visible in satellite imagery taken by Capella Space are part of a vast network of Russian fortifications sweeping down from western Russia through eastern Ukraine and on to Crimea, built in readiness for a major Ukrainian attack.

Six military experts said the defences, mostly built after Ukraine's rapid autumn advances, could make it harder for Ukraine this time and that progress would hinge on its ability to carry out complex, combined operations effectively.

“It's not the numbers for the Ukrainians. It's can they do this kind of warfare, combined arms operations?” said Neil Melvin, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi). “The Russians have shown they can't do it and they've gone back to their old Soviet method of attrition.”

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused the Kremlin's forces of using the nuclear plant as a base for firing on neighbouring Ukrainian-held territory.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian officials reported that heavy Russian artillery fire hit cities on the western bank of the Dnieper River just across from the plant.

Ukraine’s atomic energy provider Energoatom earlier this month accused Moscow of turning the plant into “a military base, mining the perimeter”.

The plant has six reactors, all of which have been shut down over the past year.

“We must do everything to give no chance to the terrorist state to use nuclear power facilities to blackmail Ukraine and the entire world,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a Telegram post this week.

Meanwhile, the head of Russia's private Wagner militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said Ukraine was preparing for an “inevitable” counteroffensive and sending well-prepared units to the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, for many months the focal point of fighting.

Ukrainian and Russian units have been battling for months over the eastern city, much of which lies in ruins.

In an audio message posted on his Telegram channel, Mr Prigozhin also said his troops were still not receiving much-needed shipments of ammunition from Russia's defence ministry and were suffering five times as many casualties as a result.

The Wagner chief said his troops would use any means possible to continue their attempts to take full control of the ruined city, destroy Ukraine's army and halt Kyiv's offensive.

In the video message he said: “Today, well-trained enemy units are already being thrown into Bakhmut … A counteroffensive by the Ukrainians is inevitable.”

Bakhmut, which had a population of about 70,000 before the war, was Russia's main target in a winter offensive that yielded scant gains, despite infantry ground combat of an intensity unseen in Europe since the Second World War.

Russian troops have tried for about nine months to push their way into the largely destroyed city in a conflict now extending into its 15th month, and they have secured some central districts.

Ukraine's military has vowed to defend the city, although Mr Zelenskyy suggested this month it might pull out if in danger of encirclement.

Military analyst Denys Popovych told Ukraine's NV Radio that there was no immediate prospect of turning things around in Bakhmut.

“If Bakhmut falls, Russia will have resources to send elsewhere,” he said.

“Bakhmut offers an opportunity to destroy Russian troops and prevent them from being engaged elsewhere.”

Ukraine's military has made no comment on a new counter-offensive to build on advances undertaken last year to recapture Russian-occupied areas in the north-east and south.

In Washington, the top US general in Europe said Ukraine's military would get the weaponry it needed in time.

Gen Christopher Cavoli, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, noted that more than 98 per cent of the combat vehicles promised to Kyiv had already been delivered.

Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said allies and partners have provided Ukraine with 1,550 armoured vehicles and 230 tanks to form units and help it retake territory from Russian forces.

"In total we have trained and equipped more than nine new Ukrainian armoured brigades. This will put Ukraine in a strong position to continue to retake occupied territory," he told a news conference on Thursday.

Updated: April 27, 2023, 9:57 AM