Ukraine announced on Monday the start of a long-awaited counter-offensive to retake territory in the south seized by Russian forces since their invasion six months ago, a move reflecting Kyiv’s growing confidence as Western military aid flows in.
The news came as a team from the United Nations nuclear watchdog headed to Ukraine to inspect the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — captured by Russian forces in March but still run by Ukrainian staff — that has become a hotspot in the war.
“Today we started offensive actions in various directions, including in the Kherson region,” Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne said, citing Southern Command spokesperson Natalia Humeniuk.
Russia rapidly captured swathes of Ukraine’s south near the Black Sea coast, including Kherson, in the early phase of the war. It was stark contrast to its failed attempt to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Ukraine has been using sophisticated Western-supplied weapons to hit Russian ammunition dumps and wreak havoc with supply lines. Humeniuk told a briefing on Monday that Ukraine had struck more than 10 such ammunition dumps in the past week, adding they had “unquestionably weakened the enemy.”
She declined to give details of the counter-offensive, saying Russian forces in southern Ukraine remained “quite powerful.”
The governor of Ukraine’s Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula, Sergei Aksyonov, dismissed the announcement of a counter-offensive on Telegram as “another fake of Ukrainian propaganda.” Crimea is adjacent to the Kherson region.
A team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors is set to arrive in Kyiv on Monday and will reach the plant on the Dnipro river “in the coming days,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko wrote on Facebook.
The day has come, <a href=”https://twitter.com/iaeaorg?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@IAEAorg</a>’s Support and Assistance Mission to <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Zaporizhzhya?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Zaporizhzhya</a> (ISAMZ) is now on its way. We must protect the safety and security of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ukraine?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Ukraine</a>’s and Europe’s biggest nuclear facility. Proud to lead this mission which will be in <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/ZNPP?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#ZNPP</a> later this week. <a href=”https://t.co/tyVY7l4SrM”>pic.twitter.com/tyVY7l4SrM</a>
Earlier, the head of IAEA said he would lead the team to the Zaporizhzhia plant, without specifying the expected day of their arrival.
“We must protect the safety and security of Ukraine’s and Europe’s biggest nuclear facility,” Rafael Grossi, the IAEA’s director-general, said on Twitter.
The IAEA tweeted separately that the mission would assess physical damage, evaluate the conditions in which staff are working at the plant and “determine functionality of safety and security systems.” It would also “perform urgent safeguards activities,” a reference to keeping track of nuclear material.
A top Russian diplomat said Moscow welcomes the IAEA mission, and a Moscow-installed official in Russian-occupied Ukraine said authorities would ensure the safety of the UN nuclear inspectors, Russian news agencies reported.
Ukraine warns Russia using plant as military base
Ukraine’s nuclear energy agency, Energoatom, warned Monday of Russian attempts to cover up their military use of the plant.
“The occupiers, preparing for the arrival of the IAEA mission, increased pressure on the personnel … to prevent them from disclosing evidence of the occupiers’ crimes at the plant and its use as a military base,” Energoatom said, adding that four plant workers were wounded in Russian shelling of the city where they live.
Ukraine accused Russia of new rocket and artillery strikes at or near the plant, intensifying fears that the fighting could cause a massive radiation leak. So far, radiation levels at the facility, which has six reactors, have been reported to be normal.
Ukraine has alleged that Russia is essentially holding the plant hostage, storing weapons there and launching attacks from around it, while Moscow accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing on the facility.
World leaders have called on the Russians to demilitarize the plant. Satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies on Monday showed armoured personnel carriers on a road near the reactors, damage to a building’s roof also near the reactors, and brush fires burning nearby.
G7 welcomes watchdog visit
The United Nations and Ukraine have called for a withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the nuclear complex, Europe’s largest, to ensure it is not a target.
The two sides have for days exchanged accusations of courting disaster with their attacks.
Two of the plant’s reactors were cut off from the electrical grid last week due to shelling.
With fears mounting of a nuclear accident in a country still haunted by the 1986 Chornobyl disaster, Zaporizhzhia authorities are handing out iodine tablets and teaching residents how to use them in case of a radiation leak.
The Group of Seven major industrialized democracies welcomed the IAEA inspector mission and reiterated concerns about the plant’s safety under Russian control.
“We reaffirm that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and the electricity that it produces rightly belong to Ukraine,” the G7’s non-proliferation directors’ group said in a statement.
Liliia Vaulina, 22, among a growing number of refugees from Enerhodar arriving in the Ukraine-held city of Zaporizhzhia, some 50 kilometres upriver from the plant, said she hoped the IAEA mission would lead to a demilitarization of its area.
“I think that they will stop the bombing,” she told Reuters.
A senior advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian troops mounting a counter-offensive have broken through Russian defences in several sectors of the front line near the city of Kherson.
In a video interview on YouTube, Oleksiy Arestovych also said Ukrainian forces were shelling the ferries that Moscow is using to supply a pocket of Russian-occupied territory on the west bank of the Dnipro river in the Kherson region.
Russian-installed officials, citing Ukrainian rocket strikes, announced the evacuation of residents of Nova Kakhovka, east of Kherson, from their workplaces to bomb shelters on Monday. In another Kherson region city, Berislav, Russian news agencies reported that Ukrainian shelling had damaged a church, a school and other buildings.
But in a war rife with claims and counterclaims that are hard to verify independently, Aksyonov, the Moscow-appointed regional leader of Crimea, dismissed the Ukrainian assertion of an offensive in the Kherson region as false. He said Ukrainian forces have suffered heavy losses in the area.
Zelenskyy reacted to speculation about whether his forces had launched a major counteroffensive in southern Ukraine by asking in his nightly video address Monday, “Anyone want to know what our plans are? You won’t hear specifics from any truly responsible person. Because this is war.”
Attacks continue in Donetsk
Russian shelling killed two people and wounded 11 in Ukraine’s southern city of Mykolaiv on Monday, the city’s mayor said.
Strikes “hit residential homes and educational institutions,” Oleksandr Senkevych wrote on Telegram, adding that rescuers were working at the scenes of the strikes.
Russia denies targeting civilians.
In the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine, Russian forces shelled military and civilian infrastructure near Bakhmut, Shumy, Yakovlivka, Zaytsevo, and Kodema, Ukraine’s military said early on Monday.