Kyiv blames ‘terrorism’ after rocket hits near second nuclear power plant

KYIV, Ukraine — Pro-Russian officials from the two self-proclaimed separatist “republics” in eastern Ukraine pleaded on Monday for urgent votes calling on Moscow to immediately annex the territories, a sign of apparent panic that the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine failed.

The appeals from authorities in the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics came as Ukrainian forces continued to expand their gains in recent days, having already pushed Russian troops back from most of the northeastern Kharkiv region. .

Journalists’ access to the front is restricted. But there were reports that Ukrainian troops had pushed into the town of Lysychansk in the Lugansk region, and also fighting around the town of Sloviansk in the Donetsk region – indications that Russia was in danger of losing territory which it previously controlled in the east. Donbas region.

In a statement posted on the website of the “public chamber” of the Lugansk People’s Republic, deputy speaker of the chamber Lina Vokalova called for a public referendum to approve annexation and said the vote ” would fulfill our dream of returning home – to the Russian Federation.”

A similar message came from pro-Kremlin puppet authorities in Donetsk.

“It is time to erase the non-existent border between our countries, as it has been in our hearts for a long time, and to hold a referendum on the question of the integration of the DPR into Russia,” said the chairman of the public chamber of Donetsk, Aleksander Kofman.

Before launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin had formally recognized the independence of the two regions.

Russian officials have also discussed holding referendums in Ukrainian territories they seized during the war, but many of those plans have been thrown into limbo by Kyiv’s recent military gains.

In Moscow, some pro-war propagandists who have been pushing Russia to retaliate harder in Ukraine have applauded calls for annexation.

“Today a referendum, tomorrow – recognition as part of the Russian Federation,” wrote Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the RT television channel. “The day after tomorrow – the strikes on the territory of Russia become a full-fledged war between Ukraine and NATO with Russia, untying Russia’s hands in all respects.”

Ukrainian officials on Monday accused Russia of “nuclear terrorism” after a rocket reportedly hit reactors at Ukraine’s second-largest nuclear power plant a few hundred meters away, disabling three high-voltage power lines and a hydroelectric unit.

Energoatom, Ukraine’s national nuclear energy company, said a “powerful explosion” occurred about 300 meters from the reactors of the nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, near the city of Yuzhnoukrainsk, just after midnight Monday, sending shock waves that damaged buildings and shattered more than 100 windows.

Details of the rocket attack, which Energoatom reported on its Telegram channel, could not be independently verified. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released a short video of what appeared to be CCTV footage of the strike, along with photos of the damage.

“Russia puts the whole world in danger,” Zelensky wrote in his Telegram post. “We have to stop him before it’s too late.”

Russia did not immediately comment on the allegation.

Fears that Russia’s war in Ukraine could cause a nuclear disaster have so far centered on the country’s largest nuclear power plant, in Zaporizhzhia, where all six reactors have now been shut down. Repeated bombings and fires had disconnected the Zaporizhzhia power plant from the national power grid, requiring emergency measures to prevent essential cooling procedures from being disrupted.

Before the war, Ukraine had four operating nuclear power plants, which accounted for almost half of the country’s electricity production.

A team of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors visited the Zaporizhzhia plant this month, and the agency’s director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, called for the creation of a “zone protection and nuclear safety” around the installation, which is located in territory occupied by Russian forces.

On Saturday, Grossi reported that the Zaporizhzhia plant had been reconnected to the national power grid but three of the four power lines were still down. “The overall situation of the factory in the middle of a war zone remains precarious,” he said.

The southern Ukraine nuclear power plant is away from frontline fighting, about 250 miles west of the Zaporizhzhia plant, and therefore faces slightly less risk. The rocket strike appeared to be part of a barrage of attacks on civilian infrastructure that Russia unleashed after its disorderly retreat from the Kharkiv region.

What you need to know about the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia

Top Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday pushed back against new allegations of war crimes by Russian troops that emerged in recent days in Izyum and other liberated Ukrainian towns in Kharkiv. Ukrainian officials have documented evidence of potential atrocities, including murders, sexual assaults and torture.

“It’s the same scenario as in Bucha,” Peskov said on his daily conference call, referring to the Kyiv suburb where atrocities were uncovered in April after Russian forces were pushed back. “It’s a lie,” Peskov continued, adding that Russia would “stand for the truth in this whole story.”

The grisly discovery in Izyum of a burial site of 445 unmarked graves and a mass grave containing the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers has sparked renewed calls for Russian troops, military commanders and officials to be prosecuted for crimes of war.

Russia’s chaotic withdrawal from Kharkiv has revealed deep weaknesses in its armed forces, with analysts and experts saying it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Russia to retake the liberated territories without large-scale military mobilization and a national draft.

Recruitment was already a challenge for Moscow, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Monday, and Ukraine’s offensive in the east has made new Russian soldiers combat-resistant, prompting rejections. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules established by the Pentagon.

‘Look, these are our boys’: Ukrainian troops drive Russian tanks to new frontline

Putin has come under increasing pressure over the war, including a stunning public rebuke delivered last week by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan. At the same summit, Putin acknowledged Chinese President Xi Jinping’s questions and concerns about the war.

At home, Putin is being pressured by right-wing hawks who demand he hit back harder at Ukraine and declare a national project, and from the left by war critics, who seem increasingly willing to brave the risk of arrest and prosecution for speaking out.

In a surprising development, Alla Pugacheva, 73, a Russian pop icon who rose to fame during the Soviet era and was particularly popular with older people, publicly voiced her opposition to the war on Sunday.

In a post on Instagram, where she has 3.4 million followers, Pugacheva claimed that Russians are dying unnecessarily for “illusory purposes”.

Alex Horton in Washington and Robyn Dixon, Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.