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UKRAINE UPDATE: 4 DECEMBER 2023

Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant cut off; Zelensky orders frontline fortifications; Russia boosts size of military

Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant cut off; Zelensky orders frontline fortifications; Russia boosts size of military
A picture taken during a visit to Enerhodar organised by the Russian Defence ministry shows a general view of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar, southeastern Ukraine, 15 June 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergei Ilnitsky)

The threat of a nuclear accident persists amid Russia’s invasion, now into its 22nd month, the Ukrainian energy ministry said after a blackout at the Kremlin-occupied Zaporizhzhia facility.

The nuclear worries are running parallel to stepped-up Russian offensive efforts in Ukraine’s east, including the unconfirmed capture of Mariinka in eastern Donetsk – and as President Volodymyr Zelensky calls for extensive fortification in key battleground areas and along Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which was captured by Kremlin forces days after Russia’s full-scale invasion, was completely cut off from electricity overnight, the Ukrainian energy ministry said Saturday. 

The power network that connects Zaporizhzhia to Ukraine’s power grid was damaged, and the facility used diesel generators to keep working until repairs were made. It was the eighth blackout that the nuclear power plant has faced since the start of the war. 

The United Nations’ nuclear safety watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed the temporary outage in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

It was the eighth such power outage during the conflict. 

Such issues amplify the risks of a nuclear accident, as Russian troops that occupy the plant in southeastern Ukraine aren’t using its equipment properly, the ministry said in an emailed statement.   

The IAEA has warned repeatedly of the risks surrounding the atomic plant, Europe’s largest, located in an active war zone. 

In a statement on Wednesday, the agency cautioned not just about Zaporizhzhia but also the Khmelnytskyi nuclear power plant in western Ukraine, where an IAEA monitoring team “reported hearing several explosions in close proximity.” 

“All of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities remain vulnerable, either directly if hit by a missile or indirectly if their off-site power supplies are disrupted,” said IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi. 

Zelensky orders more frontline fortifications

Some Russian military bloggers claimed Friday that Kremlin forces had captured Mariinka in eastern Donetsk. That town and nearby Avdiivka have seen fighting for months, but greatly increased Russian attacks over recent weeks. 

Zelensky and top commanders discussed the “course of defence operations” in Avdiivka and Mariinka earlier in the week. 

Zelensky notes the need for more frontline fortifications as soon as possible – a prudent and appropriate operational choice. 

Ukraine’s leader this week ordered an extensive network of fortifications built to hold back Russian forces, as the nation’s summer and autumn counteroffensive yielded limited gains.  

“In all major sectors, we need to boost and accelerate the construction of structures,” Zelensky said in his nightly video message on Thursday, after spending the day visiting command posts. 

“We need to dig in.” 

As well as the east and northeast, fortifications should be built in the Kyiv region and in areas that border Russia and Belarus, Zelensky said.  

Zelensky and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi “signalled intent to increase Ukrainian defences and fortifications around the Ukrainian theatre, but notably did not include Zaporizhzhia oblast in discussions of ongoing and future defensive measures,” said analysts at the Institute for the Study of War in the US. 

Ukraine’s military leader also spoke in recent days with General Charles Brown, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss Russian offensive operations, Zaluzhnyi posted on Telegram. 

Russia to increase size of military, but says no mobilisation

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree expanding the country’s armed services amid his ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The total number of armed forces will increase to 2.2 million people, of which 1.3 million will be servicemen, according to a decree published on the Kremlin’s website late Friday. 

That will increase the number of servicemen by 170,000 people, the Defence Ministry said in a statement on Telegram. 

The ministry also said that the move was due to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the “expansion” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, but it doesn’t plan a mobilisation.  

Read more: Putin calls up more troops, resumes nuclear threat over Ukraine

Putin ordered an increase in the size of the armed forces to 2.04 million people in August 2022, just less than a month before Russia declared a “partial mobilisation.” That was the country’s first since the Nazi invasion in World War 2, according to historians.

Last year, Putin approved a plan to increase the number of servicemen to 1.5 million people, a process the Kremlin expects to last through 2026. 

Putin seizes rights to St. Petersburg airport from foreign investors

President Vladimir Putin ordered the transfer of rights to managing Russia’s second-busiest airport from foreign shareholders that include Germany’s Fraport AG and the Qatari wealth fund by shifting their stakes into a new domestic entity.

Shareholdings in the Cyprus-registered concession that runs St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport will be consolidated in a new Russian company under a decree published late Thursday. 

Existing investors, which also include a consortium with Abu Dhabi sovereign fund Mubadala Investment Co., will retain their stakes but won’t be able to vote because those rights will be held only by Russian shareholders in the new company.

The transfer of the shareholdings in the airport of Putin’s home city follows earlier Kremlin retaliation against “unfriendly countries” for measures taken to punish Russia for its war in Ukraine. 

It’s taking place as Putin asserts Russian “sovereignty” against the US and its allies ahead of a likely declaration he’ll run for a fifth presidential term in March elections.

German airport operator Fraport, the Qatar Investment Authority, and Russia’s VTB Bank each hold about 25% of Pulkovo’s concession. The remainder is controlled by a consortium of investors including Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, RDIF, Mubadala and Baring Vostok, according to the Interfax news service.

Putin told the government to create a new management body for the operator of Pulkovo, which is Russia’s busiest airport after Domodedovo in Moscow and served 17.5 million passengers through October this year. St. Petersburg also has a military airport, Levashovo.

While Germany is viewed as “unfriendly” by the Kremlin, Qatar and Abu Dhabi are not. 

Putin’s decree potentially left open the door for the Middle East investors to regain their voting rights by saying stakeholders could restore them “upon their application, subject to the conclusion of corporate agreements with other participants in the company and upon the assumption of obligations to comply with Russian legislation.” 

The order on Pulkovo relied on laws signed long before Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and was based on a “threat to the national interests and economic security of the Russian Federation resulting from the violation of obligations by certain foreign legal entities.” 

That differed from earlier Kremlin takeovers of the local operations of international holdings, which were based on legislation Putin signed in April that allowed Russia to impose temporary state control over the assets of companies or individuals from “unfriendly states.”

It seized Russian plants owned by Danone SA and Carlsberg A/S in July and installed allies of Putin to run them. Russia also took control of utilities owned by Finland’s Fortum Oyj and Germany’s Uniper SE. 

Fraport is evaluating the consequences of the Kremlin’s decision, a spokesman said. The company has already written down the value of the holding to zero following the attack on Ukraine, and there’s been no interaction with Russia or any transfer of money in either direction since then, he said. 

QIA and Mubadala declined to comment. 

Pulkovo airport welcomed Putin’s order, saying it would “restore corporate governance mechanisms,” RIA Novosti reported, citing the company’s statement. DM

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