WASHINGTON — About 92% of the armed forces Russia mustered for its invasion of Ukraine are now in the country as Russian troops overtake Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, a senior U.S. official said Friday. defense.
Along with most of the more than 170,000 troops and weapons Russian President Vladimir Putin had deployed inside the country, the official said Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure remained under attack, with the United States counting more than 500 missile attacks Russians since the start of the war last week. .
“We continue to believe that Mr. Putin does not believe that Ukraine has the right to exist as a sovereign state,” the official said. “Mr. Putin has made it clear that he wants to take away that sovereignty and…occupy and control Ukraine to replace his democratically elected government with a government appointed by him.
On Thursday evening, Russian forces began firing at a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, sparking a fire at the facility. Tens of thousands of people watched a live stream of the attack on YouTube overnight as Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged Russia to let firefighters through to douse the flames.
“The fire has already broken out[n] out,” he said on Twitter. “If it explodes, it will be 10 times bigger than Chernobyl! The Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, authorize the fire brigade, establish a safety zone!
The fires, which affected the plant’s buildings but not the nuclear reactors, have been extinguished, the US official said, but Russian forces took possession of the plant, which is one of the 10 largest in the world.
“We have no reason to doubt the Russian claims that they are now in possession of this nuclear power plant, and we see no radioactive leaks,” the official said. “There is no excuse for this invasion and recklessness… The Russians are conducting, including kinetic attacks and fighting in and around a nuclear power plant.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Facebook that it was “the first time in history” that a country had “fired on the reactors of an atomic power plant”.
Although no radioactive leaks were detected, the US official called the attack on the power plant “just underscoring the recklessness of this Russian invasion”.
“By design, nuclear power plants are not built to withstand armed conflict,” the official said. “And so, even if we don’t see a radioactive leak here and we believe the Russians have it under control, that doesn’t excuse the decision. [of] Use combat power to attempt to take control of a nuclear power plant.
The attack was Russia’s latest attempt to control key infrastructure and population centers during the week-long war. The United States continues to believe that Putin aims to overthrow the Ukrainian government and replace it with his own, the official said.
“If your goal is to supplant the Ukrainian government and replace it… presumably you would want to control the infrastructure and make sure you can meet your needs – and a nuclear plant would definitely be on that list,” the manager said.
Indeed, taking over a nuclear plant would allow Russia to exert some control over electricity for Ukraine’s civilian population, giving Putin more options, the official said.
“As you try to become an occupying power to be able to control the infrastructure, you could use it to preserve electric power in the future and to be able to provide goods and services to a population,” the official said. . “You can also use [the power plant] before reaching occupied status [by] leverage[ing] in this regard, punishing a population to make it harder for that population to resist you.
On Wednesday, Russia claimed control of a Ukrainian city for the first time – Kherson in southern Ukraine – the city’s mayor, Igor Kolykhayev, said Russian troops entered the city hall that day in a message on Facebook.
The United States does not dispute reports that Russia overtook Kherson on Friday, the defense official said, but the Ukrainians have not stopped fighting Russian troops in the city.
Kherson is “really the last major population center on the Dnieper River”, which crosses central Ukraine from the Black Sea in the south and stretches through Belarus and Russia in the north, making it “a key port, in this respect”. said the official.
“[Controlling Kherson] certainly allows the Russian military to have some control over at least that part of the river and the entrance to the Black Sea,” the official said.
The official said Russia could also have attacked Kherson to better enable its ongoing attack on nearby Mykolaiv, which is home to three shipyards and is considered one of the main shipbuilding centers in the Black Sea.
“One of the reasons why they want Mykolaiv [could be] because that puts them just northwest of Odessa,” the official said.
Odessa in southwestern Ukraine is the country’s third-most populous city and the largest in southern Ukraine, where the official said the Russians have the most advantage.
“They could move to Odessa from the northeast from Mykolaiv, but could also potentially reinforce [it with] whatever sea power they would like to apply against Odessa from the Black Sea,” the official said.
The move would reflect the strategy the United States believes Russia is using to try to take the city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine, where the Russians have not launched a direct amphibious assault despite its location. on the coast of the Sea of Azov.
“This [is similar to what] we sort of see around Mariupol, where they launched an amphibious assault southwest of Mariupol, moved up the coast, and are now on the outskirts of Mariupol using that naval infantry. But they are also coming from the north with ground forces from Donetsk,” the official said.
While Russia has advanced in the south, its troops continue to make “no appreciable movement” in northern and eastern Ukraine, the official said, and the 40-mile Russian convoy traffic jam continues to keep Russian troops about 15 miles from the capital. from Kyiv.
“Basically, they are where they were yesterday, [but] obviously the shelling and strikes continue to happen, there is no doubt about that,” the official said.
Fuel and food problems have contributed to traffic jams, as has Ukrainian resistance, the official said. For example, last week the Ukrainians blew up a bridge near Kiev to thwart the Russian advance towards the city.
“We certainly believe that the Ukrainians who blew up this bridge absolutely had the effect of stopping and reducing the movement of this convoy, but we also believe that they also hit the convoy in other places,” he said. said the manager.
Russian troops also remain about 10 km from downtown Chernihiv and Kharkiv in northern Ukraine, the official said.
Russia has still not taken control of Ukrainian airspace despite NATO rejecting Ukraine’s demands to impose a no-fly zone over the country, the official said.
“The Ukrainians still have at their disposal the vast majority of their air combat power, both fixed-wing and rotary-wing, as well as unmanned and surface-to-air systems,” the official said. “Of course they suffered losses in all of those categories – some of those losses are simply due to inoperability, some of them due to Russian actions – but we believe they have a strong majority of this air combat power.”