Russia, US talk on Ukraine deconfliction line; NATO nixes no-fly zone

Russia, US talk on Ukraine deconfliction line; NATO nixes no-fly zone


The latest details about Russia’s attack on Ukraine:

Upwards of 90% of 190k Russian troops amassed at Ukraine border now deployed

The Defense Department has been able to get Russia on the phone in recent days, as part of a larger effort to create line of communication so both sides could talk through any events that might be misunderstood as aggressive toward one or the other.

Since before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, there had been concerns at DoD that Russian miscalculation would pull the U.S. into a fight.

“In our initial test of it, you know, they answered the phone so we know that they know who’s calling,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday, “At least in terms of the initiation, of the setting up of it, it worked and they did answer the line.”

Upwards of 90% of the 190,000 troops Russia amassed at the Ukrainian border pre-invasion are deployed in the war, the defense official said, though efforts to take the country’s capital and topple the government continue to be stalled.

The Russia advance on Kyiv remains roughly 17 miles outside the city center, the official said, as it has been most of the week.

“I think all of us have been tremendously impressed by how effectively the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been using the equipment that we’ve provided them,” another senior U.S. defense official said Friday. “And I think that you know, Kremlin watchers have also been surprised by this and how they have slowed the Russian advance and performed extremely well on the battlefield.”

Though efforts in the north are slowed, an official said Russian forces in the south continue to advance and succeed. The official couldn’t confirm whether the city of Kherson is under Russian control.

While Russians continuously bombed the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station into Friday, according to reports, the official couldn’t say whether Russia currently controls it.

“We are in no position to refute claims that they are in charge of the nuclear power plant, but we don’t know exactly right now what that control means and what it looks like,” the official said.

– Meghann Myers, Military Times

No NATO no-fly zone

9:30. am. EST March 4

NATO countries refused on Friday to police a no-fly zone over Ukraine, warning that such a move could provoke widespread war in Europe with nuclear power Russia, the organization’s top civilian official said.

Speaking after chairing a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his counterparts, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged the suffering of the Ukrainian people, as Russia ramps up its use of heavy firepower, shelling cities and other sites, forcing more than a million people out of the country.

“What is taking place now in Ukraine is horrific. It’s painful and we see human suffering, we see destruction at a scale we haven’t seen in Europe since the Second World War,” he said. But, he added: “We are not going to move into Ukraine, neither on the ground, nor in the Ukrainian airspace.”

Under a collective security guarantee binding NATO’s 30 member countries — Article 5 of its founding treaty — all allies must come to the defense of an ally if it finds itself under attack. Any shooting down of a NATO warplane by Russia could trigger that clause.

“The only way to implement a no-fly zone is to send NATO fighter planes into Ukrainian airspace, and then impose that no-fly zone by shooting down Russian planes,” Stoltenberg said. He said allies believe that “if we did that, we would end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has appealed for the West to enforce a no-fly zone over his country, most recently after a fire overnight at one of Ukraine’s nuclear plants, the largest in Europe.

But, Stoltenberg said, “we are not part of this conflict, and we have a responsibility to ensure that it does not escalate and spread beyond Ukraine, because that would be even more devastating and more dangerous.”

NATO members and officials are alarmed at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons should one of their number get involved in his war on Ukraine. NATO has no weapons itself, but the United States, Britain and France are nuclear powers, like Russia.

NATO has mobilized thousands of troops backed by aircraft, tanks and heavy equipment and deployed them to countries on its eastern flank near Ukraine and Russia, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, which are nervous about Putin’s intentions for their future.

At a second round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations Thursday, Putin warned Ukraine that it must quickly accept the Kremlin’s demand for its “demilitarization” and declare itself a neutral country, thereby renouncing any bid to join NATO.

NATO insists that its door remains open to any European country that wants to join and can fulfill the obligations of membership. Stoltenberg said that the world’s biggest security organization will also step up cooperation with already close allies Finland and Sweden.

Blinken also held talks in Brussels Friday with members of the Group of Seven major powers and European Union countries.

-Lorne Cook, The Associated Press

Russians take over plant

5:53 a.m. EST March 4

Ukrainian firefighters on Friday extinguished a blaze at Europe’s biggest nuclear plant that was ignited by a Russian attack and no radiation was released, U.N. and Ukrainian officials said, as Russian forces pressed their campaign to cripple the country despite global condemnation.

The head of the United Nations’ atomic agency said that a Russian “projectile” hit a training center at the Zaporizhzhia plant. Ukrainian officials have said Russian troops took control of the overall site, but the plant’s staff are continuing to ensure its operations. International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi sad that Russian forces were at the plant, but the Ukrainians were in control.

Ukraine’s state nuclear plant operator Enerhoatom said that three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two wounded in the attack. Grossi said two people were injured in the blaze that broke out.

Ukraine’s state nuclear regulator earlier said that no changes in radiation levels have been recorded so far after the plant came under attack. Grossi later said no radioactive material was released.

The attack caused worldwide concern — and evoked memories of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, at Ukraine’s Chernobyl.

The shelling of the plant came as the Russian military advanced on a strategic city on the Dnieper River near where the facility is located, and gained ground in their bid to cut the country off from the sea. That move would deal a severe blow to Ukraine’s economy and could worsen an already dire humanitarian situation.

With the invasion in its second week, another round of talks between Russia and Ukraine yielded a tentative agreement to set up safe corridors to evacuate citizens and deliver humanitarian aid to the country, overturned by a war that has sent more than 1 million fleeing over the border and countless others sheltering underground night after night. A handful cities are without heat and at least one is struggling to get food and water.

Initial reports conflicted over whether one or two fires broke out at the plant in the city of Enerhodar. Nuclear plant spokesman Andriy Tuz told Ukrainian television overnight that shells fell directly on the facility, and set fire to reactor No. 1, which is under renovation and not operating, and to an administrative training building.

On Friday morning, officials only referenced a blaze at the training building when they said that all fires at the plant were out — which Grossi also confirmed. The regional military administration reported unspecified damage to the compartment of reactor No. 1, but said it does not affect the safety of the power unit.

The nuclear regulator said staff are studying the site to check for other damage.

Grossi confirmed Friday that the building hit was a training center and “not part of the reactor.” He said he did not know what hit the plant but called a “projectile” from Russian forces.

He said that only one reactor at the plant is operating, at about 60% capacity.

The confusion itself underscored the dangers of active fighting near a nuclear power plant. It was the second time since the invasion began just over a week ago that concerns about a nuclear accident or a release of radiation materialized, following a battle at Chernobyl.

The regulator noted in a statement on Facebook the importance of maintaining the ability to cool nuclear fuel, saying the loss of such ability could lead to an accident even worse than 1986 Chernobyl disaster or the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns in Japan. It also noted that there is a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel at the site, though there was no sign that facility was hit by shelling.

Leading nuclear authorities were worried but not panicked. The assault led to phone calls between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders. The U.S. Department of Energy activated its nuclear incident response team as a precaution.

The Zaporizhzhia regional military administration said that measurements taken at 7 a.m. Friday (0500 GMT) showed radiation levels in the region “remain unchanged and do not endanger the lives and health of the population.” Nuclear officials from Sweden to China also said no radiation spikes have been reported.

“The fire at the (nuclear plant) has indeed been extinguished,” Enerhodar Mayor Dmytro Orlov announced on his Telegram channel Friday morning. His office told The Associated Press that the information came from firefighters who were allowed onto the site overnight.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council in “coming hours” to raise the issue of Russia’s attack on the plant, according to a statement from his office.

In an emotional speech in the middle of the night, Zelenskyy said he feared an explosion that would be “the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe.”

But most experts saw nothing to indicate an impending disaster.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said the fire had not affected essential equipment and that Ukraine’s nuclear regulator reported no change in radiation levels.

“The real threat to Ukrainian lives continues to be the violent invasion and bombing of their country,” the American Nuclear Society said in a statement.

Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, said Russian shelling stopped a few hours before dawn, and residents of the city of more than 50,000 who had stayed in shelters overnight could return home. The city awoke with no heat, however, because the shelling damaged the city’s heating supply, he said.

Loud shots and rocket fire were heard late Thursday around the plant. Later, a livestreamed security camera linked from the homepage of the plant showed what appeared to be armored vehicles rolling into the facility’s parking lot and shining spotlights on the building where the camera was mounted.

Then there were what appeared to be muzzle flashes from vehicles, followed by nearly simultaneous explosions in surrounding buildings. Smoke rose into the frame and drifted away.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have brought their superior firepower to bear over the past few days, launching hundreds of missiles and artillery attacks on cities and other sites around the country and making significant gains in the south.

The Russians announced the capture of the southern city of Kherson, a vital Black Sea port of 280,000, and local Ukrainian officials confirmed the takeover of the government headquarters there, making it the first major city to fall since the invasion began a week ago.

Troops, meanwhile, advanced on Zaporizhzhia, a strategic city near the plant of the same name. A Russian airstrike on Thursday destroyed the power plant in Okhtyrka, leaving the northeastern city without heat or electricity, the head of the region said on Telegram.

“We are trying to figure out how to get people out of the city urgently because in a day the apartment buildings will turn into a cold stone trap without water, light or electricity,” Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said.

Heavy fighting continued on the outskirts of another strategic port, Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. The battles have knocked out the city’s electricity, heat and water systems, as well as most phone service, officials said. Food deliveries to the city were also cut.

Associated Press video from the port city showed the assault lighting up the darkening sky above deserted streets and medical teams treating civilians, including a 16-year-old boy inside a clinic who could not be saved. The child was playing soccer when he was wounded in the shelling, according to his father, who cradled the boy’s head on the gurney and cried.

Ukraine’s defense minister said Friday that the flagship of its navy has been scuttled at the shipyard where it was undergoing repairs in order to keep it from being seized by Russian forces. Oleksii Reznikov said on Facebook that the commander of the frigate Hetman Sahaidachny decided to flood the ship.

“It is hard to imagine a more difficult decision for a courageous soldier and crew,” Reznikov said.

Overall, the outnumbered, outgunned Ukrainians have put up stiff resistance, staving off the swift victory that Russia appeared to have expected. But Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 gives it a logistical advantage now in the country’s south, with shorter supply lines that smoothed the offensive there, said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ukrainian leaders called on the people to defend their homeland by cutting down trees, erecting barricades in the cities and attacking enemy columns from the rear. In recent days, authorities have issued weapons to civilians and taught them how to make Molotov cocktails.

“Total resistance. … This is our Ukrainian trump card, and this is what we can do best in the world,” Oleksiy Arestovich, an aide to Zelenskyy, said in a video message, recalling guerrilla actions in Nazi-occupied Ukraine during World War II.

At the second round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations Thursday, Putin warned Ukraine that it must quickly accept the Kremlin’s demand for its “demilitarization” and declare itself neutral, renouncing its bid to join NATO.

The two sides said that they tentatively agreed to allow cease-fires in areas designated safe corridors, and that they would seek to work out the necessary details quickly. A Zelenskyy adviser also said a third round of talks will be held early next week.

The Pentagon set up a direct communication link to Russia’s Ministry of Defense earlier this week to avoid the possibility of a miscalculation sparking conflict between Moscow and Washington, according to a U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the link had not been announced.

Jim Heintz. Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov reported from Mariupol, Ukraine. Sergei Grits in Odesa, Ukraine; Francesca Ebel, Josef Federman and Andrew Drake in Kyiv; and other AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.



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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.