Russian troops began leaving the Chernobyl nuclear plant after soldiers got “significant doses” of radiation from digging trenches at the highly contaminated site, Ukraine’s state power company said yesterday as fighting raged on the outskirts of Kyiv and other fronts.
State nuclear power enterprise Energoatom gave no details on the condition of the troops or how many were affected. However, it said the Russians had dug in, in the forest inside the exclusion zone around the now-closed plant, the site in 1986 of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
The troops “panicked at the first sign of illness,” which “showed up very quickly,” and began preparing to leave, Energoatom said.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had not been able to confirm reports of troops receiving high doses.
Russian forces seized the Chernobyl site in the opening stages of the February 24 invasion, raising fears that they would cause damage or disruption that could spread radiation. The workforce at the site oversees the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the concrete-entombed ruins of the exploded reactor.
Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said it “seems unlikely” a large number of troops would develop severe radiation illness, but it was impossible to know for sure without more details.
He said contaminated material was probably buried or covered with new topsoil during the clean-up of Chernobyl, and some soldiers may have been exposed to a “hotspot” of radiation while digging.
The reported withdrawal came amid continued fighting and indications the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation as cover while regrouping and resupplying its forces and redeploying them for a stepped-up offensive in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine is seeing “a build-up of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbas, and we are preparing for that.”
Meanwhile, a convoy of buses headed to Mariupol in another bid to evacuate people from the besieged port city after the Russian military agreed to a limited cease-fire in the area. And a new round of talks aimed at stopping the fighting was scheduled for today.
The Red Cross said its teams were headed for Mariupol with medical supplies and other relief and hoped to take civilians out of the city.
At the same time yesterday, Russian forces shelled Kyiv suburbs, two days after the Kremlin announced it would significantly scale back operations near both the capital and the northern city of Chernihiv to increase trust between the two sides.
Britain’s Defence Ministry also reported “significant Russian shelling and missile strikes” around Chernihiv. The area’s governor, Viacheslav Chaus, said Russian troops were on the move but may not be withdrawing.
Russia’s military also reported conducting strikes on Ukrainian fuel supplies late on Wednesday, and Ukrainian officials said there were artillery barrages in and around the north-eastern city of Kharkiv over the past day.
Despite the fighting, Russia said it committed to a cease-fire along the route from Mariupol to the Ukraine-held city of Zaporizhzhia.
Talks between Ukraine and Russia were set to resume today by video, according to the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia.
But there seemed little faith that the two sides would resolve the conflict any time soon, particularly after the Russian attacks in zones where it offered to scale back.
Russian president Vladimir Putin said conditions weren’t yet “ripe” for a ceasefire and he wasn’t ready for a meeting with Mr Zelenskyy until negotiators do more work, Italian premier Mario Draghi said after a telephone conversation with the Russian leader.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said alliance intelligence indicates Russia is not scaling back its military operations in Ukraine but is instead trying to regroup, resupply its forces and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas.
In the past few days the Kremlin, in a seeming shift in its war aims, said that its “main goal” now is gaining control of the Donbas, which consists of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Mariupol.
The top rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, issued an order to set up a rival city government for Mariupol, according to Russian state news agencies, in a sign of Russian intent to hold and administer the city.
In the Kyiv suburbs, regional governor Oleksandr Pavliuk said on social media that Russian forces shelled Irpin and Makariv and that there were battles around Hostomel.
Mr Pavliuk said there were Ukrainian counter-attacks and some Russian withdrawals around the suburb of Brovary to the east.
Meanwhile, top British intelligence official said demoralised Russian soldiers in Ukraine are refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their equipment and had accidentally shot down their own aircraft.