Ukraine Situation Report: Russia Beefed Up Defenses At Zaporizhzhia Nuke Plant

The fortifications were likely installed due to Russia’s concerns over an offensive that could run through the plant, the U.K. MoD says.

byHoward Altman|
Russia has been reinforcing the captured Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
U.K. MoD


Ahead of the looming Ukrainian counteroffensive that could very well drive through the occupied portions of Zaporizhzhia Oblast, the Russians have been reinforcing their military presence at Europe's largest nuclear power plant, according to British military intelligence.

While that assessment downplays concerns about a radioactive catastrophe at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant as a result of any fighting on the premises, combat there in March 2022 sparked global concerns that such an event could take place.

"Imagery shows that by March 2023, Russian forces had established sandbag fighting positions on the roofs of several buildings at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP)," the U.K.'s Defense Intelligence Directorate (DI) said Thursday in a tweet.

Russia captured the plant in March 2022, but "this is the first indication of the actual reactor buildings being integrated into tactical defense planning. Russia has likely constructed these because it is increasingly concerned about the prospects of a major Ukrainian offensive."

Russian positions on the roofs of several buildings of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant seen in March 2023. (U.K. Defense Ministry photo)

The move "highly likely increases the chances of damage to ZNPP safety systems if fighting takes place around ZNPP," the U.K. DI said. But it downplayed concerns that fighting there could spark a radioactive catastrophe.

"However, direct catastrophic damage to the reactors is unlikely under most plausible scenarios involving infantry weapons because the structures are very heavily reinforced."

Still, the world watched in horror as fighting broke out there as the Russians captured the plant last year.

Webcams from the site showed what looked like some sort of flares descending on the compound and one of the buildings being sprayed with heavy gunfire, the tracers clearly seen flying through the air. Though a fire broke out at a maintenance building on the compound, which you can see in the video below, there was no increase in radiation as a result of the fighting.

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But that did not calm Ukrainian nuclear officials.

“The worst-case scenario for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is a nuclear explosion,” Olena Pareniuk, a senior researcher for Ukraine’s Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants, told us a year ago. “In that case, all of Europe will be contaminated. We will have an exclusion zone, in Europe. In Turkey. Everywhere."

And while the U.K. DI suggested that the likelihood of serious damage to the nuclear reactors was low in the event of fighting involving "infantry weapons," Pareniuk told us last year, one of her fears was that those working units might be hit with a missile.

You can read more about her concerns in our deep dive here.

Aside from being the home of nuclear reactors, ZNPP also sits on strategic ground astride the Dnipro River, which Ukraine could target in its attempt to cut off Russian troops and ultimately liberate Crimea.

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plants sits along the Dnipro River and could be targeted in a Ukrainian offensive. (Google Earth image)

The Russian Rybar Telegram channel on Thursday suggested that the "idea of the offensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is to strike in one or two main directions” and is paying “special attention to the territories on the left bank of the [Dnipro] in his plans.”

“With the beginning of the attack, one can expect a simultaneous [crossing] of the [Dnipro] by a tactical landing not only from Kherson, but also from the line Dudchany - Zolotaya Balka - Maryanskoye - Pokrovskoye… In theory, this will make it possible to take control of the ZNPP and provide a springboard for the landing of a larger group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine for a breakthrough to the Crimea.”

The Russian command “is well aware of the impending Ukrainian operation,” Rybar wrote. “Therefore, the equipment of defensive positions at the Zaporizhzhia NPP and around its territory is a completely logical step.”

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is about 95 miles north of the Crimean peninsula border. (Google Earth image)

It is necessary “to strengthen not only the area of the nuclear power plant and Energodar, but also the coastal line from Bolshaya Lepetikha to Dneprorudny and Vasilyevka," Rybar wrote. "The Kakhovka reservoir is quite extensive, and attacks can occur in any of the sections.”

At the same time, “in order to fulfill its plan, it is vitally important for the Armed Forces to occupy a wide foothold on the entire left bank of the [Dnipro]. This is connected with the probing of the soil by the Ukrainian landing on the islands in the Kherson region.”

Though it tried to tamp down concerns about what could happen if fighting breaks out again at the ZNPP, the U.K. DI assessment comes a day after the 37th anniversary of the accident at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which is still seared into memories of those who lived through it and had to deal with the aftermath.

The thought of a battle at ZNPP is horrifying, Pareniuk told us last year.

“Nuclear power is not just a toy, and it's not something that you use for nuclear terrorism," she said. "So we shouldn't play with this because we were already trying to take care of the Chornobyl accident and also to take care of the Fukushima accident. We don't want people to cause another nuclear accident.”

Before we head into today’s latest updates from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

Ukraine has a good deal of what it needs for its upcoming offensive, U.S. European Command honcho Gen. Christopher Cavoli testified Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"So we went into a planning process with our Ukrainian colleagues last winter and we developed with them a number of courses of action, war-gamed it carefully and we came down to the key courses of action for an offensive," Cavoli testified. "We calculated the amount of equipment and the various types of things required, and we have fulfilled that. We have nearly gotten everything into Ukraine. And I'm confident they have what they need for the offensive that we have planned with them, and I can go into significant detail in a closed session."

Though Russian forces have taken heavy losses during its all-out invasion, it will still pose a threat for a while, Cavoli said.

"I think Russia is quite likely to remain the core security challenge in Europe for some years to come," Cavoli testified. "Their military has suffered significant losses in this conflict. But they've mainly been in the ground domain. The Air Force - the tactical Air Force - has lost about 80 fighters and fighter bombers. But they have more than 1,000 of them left. The long-range aviation has not been touched. The Navy has barely been touched - it lost a ship or two. The strategic nuclear forces to cyber to space have not been touched. So I think Russia will continue to be the core security challenge."

As for the stated goal of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders of liberating the Crimean peninsula, occupied by Russia since 2014, Cavoli was circumspect.

"The question of retaking any specific piece of ground depends on a variety of things," he testified. "Crimea is pretty tough. Crimea has got a mountainous center. But of course, Crimea is pretty hard to keep resupplied if you're the adversary as well. So it really depends on the situation at the time." If "Crimea were empty of Russian soldiers it would be easy," said Cavoli. "If Crimea were defended at a certain level, it would be harder and it's hard to see where things go. What we do know is that any such question would be answered sequentially after the activities that the Ukrainians are planning to undertake in the next step in the next months. So it's hard to say from here."

Yesterday we told you about complaints by the head of the Wagner mercenary group that his troops aren't getting enough ammunition to fight in Bakhmut. Today, the BBC reported a similar complaint from Ukrainian troops.

A soldier named Volodymyr, with the 17th Tank Battalion, expressed frustration that he could not offer more artillery fire support to Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut.

"He says Ukraine has already burned through its own stocks of Grad ammunition, so is relying on rockets sourced from other countries," the BBC reported. "Volodymyr says supplies are coming from the Czech Republic, Romania and Pakistan." He complained that the rockets originating from Pakistan are "not of a good quality."

Despite any concerns about ammunition shortages, Ukrainian troops are still holding out there, as Ukrainian National Guards Lt. Col. Mykhailo Kryzhanivskyi explained in this video below.

After almost a year of fighting, the embattled Donetsk Oblast coal mining city has been nearly obliterated, which you can see in this video below.

At least one civilian was killed and nearly two dozen injured after a Russian cruise missile attack on residential areas of the city of Mykolaiv, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry (MoD) said Thursday, calling the attack "another war crime of the invaders."

The Russian MoD claims it was targeting Ukrainian military sites.

"Last night a concentrated strike by long-range, sea-based high-precision weapons has been launched against the enemy reserves' deployment points," the Russian MoD claimed. "The goal of the attack has been reached. All the assigned targets have been neutralized." 

Both sides continue to fight along the Dnipro River, where Ukrainian forces managed to push Russian forces back in the fall at the culmination of the Kherson counteroffensive.

A vivid example of that can be seen in the destruction of a Russian 2S1 Gvozdika 122mm self-propelled howitzer by Ukrainian artillery.

The Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS) donated by the U.S. has been spotted in use with Ukraine's newly stood-up 37th Marine Brigade, according to the Ukraine Weapons Tracker OSINT group. In this case the weapon, which you can read more about in our deep dive here, was mounted on a M1152A1 HMMWV.

The Russian SHOT news agency posted video Thursday it claims shows a drone of unknown origin flying near Moscow.

"A newly unknown drone of impressive size was spotted in the Moscow region - in the sky over Serpukhov," SHOT reported on its Telegram channel. "Eyewitnesses reported to the police. Now they are investigating where this UAV came from."

In a later message posted on its Telegram channel, SHOT reported that there are "reports of a drone that dropped something on a police station in Moscow” but that it did not "pose a threat" because "the security forces are conducting exercises."

While it is unclear whether the object in the video is even an uncrewed aircraft, there have been several instances of late where Ukrainian drones have been found close to Russia's capital. You can read more about that in our story here.

On Wednesday, video began to circulate of an explosion near an airport in St. Petersburg, Russia, raising lots of speculation that it could have been another Ukrainian attack.

Today, Russian investigators explained that "an unidentified device exploded near an abandoned building in Pavlovsk, on the territory of a thermal power plant," according to the Main Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of Russia for St. Petersburg Telegram channel.

The directorate "initiated a criminal case on the grounds of a crime under Part 1 of Art. 222.1. Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (illegal acquisition, transfer, sale, storage, transportation, transfer or carrying of explosives or explosive devices)."

The site of the incident "is being examined," and "all the circumstances of the incident are being established."

Air defenses are a critical need for Ukraine and it appears that it lost a 9A330 Transporter-Launcher and Radar (TLAR) component of a Tor air defense system. It was the first confirmed loss of this rare system, the Ukraine Weapons Tracker OSINT group reported.

Ukraine also appears to have lost a 5P85S launcher for an S-300PS air defense system in Kherson Oblast. A second launcher was hit, but the missile containers did not detonate, according to the Ukraine Weapons Tracker OSINT group.

Ukraine appears to have added yet another update to the Pulemyot Maxima PM1910 (also known as PM M1910) heavy machine gun — a design first introduced in 1910 and used by the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. 

In addition to previous updates that included a distinctly modern sight, as well as a stock, and a suppressor, it appears Ukraine is running the old weapon in an air-cooled, not water-cooled configuration.

Japan has donated more non-lethal aid to Ukraine. The equipment included crane trucks, metal detectors with sets of spare parts for them, protective equipment for pyrotechnicians and more, according to the Ukrainian Military Center.

In addition to governmental donations to Ukraine, a lot of weaponry has been acquired through private donations. Noted Ukrainian public figure Serhiy Prytula announced that his Prytula Foundation completed its effort to donate 101 armored personnel carriers to Ukrainian troops.

Because it is still the rainy season in Ukraine, both sides are not just battling each other, they are fighting the elements as well. You can see how Ukrainian troops are dealing with the ever-present mud in this video below.

A bedraggled Russian soldier was pulled into a trench after surrendering to Ukrainian troops.

And finally, it's no trench beaver, but Ukrainian troops appear to have adopted a new pet, letting this dog of war slip into their unit.

That's it for now. We will update this story when there's more news from Ukraine to report.

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