Russian forces may be preparing to leave the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which Russia has occupied since the early months of the war this year, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said Sunday he believes Russian troops will be leaving the power plant as Ukrainian forces continue to make advances in occupied territories.
"Russian servicemen will leave the Zaporizhzhia NPP, as their line of defense is gradually moving towards the borders of the Russian Federation," Podolyak said in an interview with Freedom TV.
Russian news outlets have also been hinting at a possible withdrawal from the plant, Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine's state nuclear energy company Energoatom, said Sunday.
"There are some signs showing that they might be going to leave the Zaporizhzhia NPP," Kotin said. "There have been a lot of publications in the Russian press saying that the Zaporizhzhia NPP could be left and handed over to the IAEA's control."
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A withdrawal from the nuclear power plant could mark a significant loss for Russian forces, which have been occupying the plant since March while Ukrainian employees continue to work there under threat of violence. Russian President Vladimir Putin worked up a sham referendum and illegally annexed Zaporizhzhia this fall, attempting to show that Russian forces had gained complete control of the territory. In reality, the Kremlin had been unsure of what portion of Zaporizhzhia Russia actually controlled and which parts it didn't.
Leaving the power plant behind would be a major blow to Putin's invasion scheme. Russia annexed other territories around the same time it annexed Zaporizhzhia, but lost some of them soon after announcing they were under Russian control. The potential withdrawal would add to a list of staggering losses in recent weeks, including Russia's retreat from Kherson and defeats in the northeast of the country as well.
The Kremlin has denied that it has plans to leave the power plant.
"There is no need to look for some signs where they are not and cannot be," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Monday, according to TASS.
Now, Moscow is making moves to bar Ukrainian power plant workers who haven't yet signed contracts with Russian energy company Rosatom from entering the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, though, according to Interfax.
The move could raise questions about safe operations at the plant.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) did not immediately return a request for comment on a potential Russian withdrawal.
Ukraine has been accusing Russia of using the nuclear power plant as a way to terrorize civilians for months now. Russia reportedly kidnapped multiple officials working at the power plant-officials whose absence has threatened the safety of operations at the plant, which is the largest in Europe. Other workers have said they have been subjected to abductions and violent interrogations. G7 leaders have condemned the "pressure exerted on the personnel of the facility."
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The IAEA's Director General, Rafael Grossi, met with Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev in Turkey earlier this month to discuss concerns around the nuclear power plant. Rossi stressed the importance of establishing a security protection zone surrounding the area, as Ukrainians and Russians accused each other of targeting the plant.
The reactors are currently shut down but still need power for cooling and other safety functions, according to the IAEA.
Struggles over territory in Zaporizhzhia continued Monday. Ukrainian forces damaged a bridge in the Zaporizhzhia region that Russian forces used to deliver military supplies, according to an update from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The Russians, too, are working to thwart Ukraine's progress, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine spokesperson, Alexander Štupun, said.
"In the Zaporizhzhia direction, the occupiers are defending themselves," Štupun said Monday.
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