Ostriv beach, mid-May 2023. On the shore are several Czech hedgehogs placed by the Ukrainian Army. They are anti-tank defense obstacles made of metal bars intended to prevent a landing of Russian troops. Next to them stands the dam wall, which is mined for the same purpose. On the other side are swings, exercise bars and blue and white wooden benches. And an abandoned, flooded trench. Opposite, on the other side of the Dnieper River, the six nuclear reactors of the Energodar nuclear power plant (in the Zaporiyia province), the largest in Europe, have loomed menacingly, in Russian hands since March 4, 2022, days after the invasion of Ukraine began. Olga Muja is watching them: "If this explodes, only a shadow of us will remain."
A sign bluntly warns that bathing is forbidden, but last summer it was not much respected. Locals kept getting in the water and sunbathing, trying to keep life going. But it is hard to forget the war in this village. Distant explosions are heard every now and then. Ostriv is located between the Russian positions and Nikopol and Marganets in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, two cities constantly targeted by Putin's artillery. Ostriv is situated in the attack path toward both municipalities.
"Most people have left here," says Olga, who is 66. "We hear gunfire every day, Grad rockets, artillery, and we are very afraid. I don't understand what this war is about or why they want to kill us." She assures that she will not leave, that this is her home and that she wants to continue working her garden and taking care of her chickens and her 100 fruit trees. One of her six sons is fighting. He is now stationed on the dangerous Bajmut front. He calls her often:
"Hello, I'm fine, I'm alive.
Two of Olga's neighbors, Raisa Sitnichenko, 76, and Valentina Riabchenko, 73, explain that they receive humanitarian aid once a month, that they are given food and water, and that there have been very difficult times. Valentina sometimes goes to sleep with her son in Marganets when things get really bad. "These houses are old and we have no shelters," Raisa laments.
The nearest large town to Ostriv is Nikopol, also opposite the Energodar power plant. The road between the two is full of partridges and, above all, pheasants. As hunting has been banned for more than a year, because of the war, there are many more of them and they stroll quietly along the roads with their long tails and colorful feathers.
In Nikopol, explosions can be heard again and the six nuclear reactors of Energodar, on the other side of the Dnieper, can be seen again. Nikopol is a red zone, as defined by the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Red zone means that journalists cannot enter without express authorization and must be accompanied at all times by a military officer.
Under martial law, decreed in February 2022 with the beginning of the invasion, the Army has enormous powers, even overriding fundamental rights such as the right to information or freedom of movement. The authorization to access a red zone may come in a few days or may never come at all, depending on the priorities of the moment. The Bajmut front is a red zone, following the logic that there the lives of journalists are in extreme danger and the movement of troops is secret. A town like Nikopol is closed because of its proximity to Energodar. From undetermined locations along this stretch of the Dnieper, Ukrainian special forces have probed the Russian defenses at the power plant with lightning landings.
Raisa Stnelcova, 80, and Nadia Suslova, 72, walk past a four-story building in Nikopol that was shelled at 2 a.m. on August 11. They live next door. "It really scared us," Raisa recalls. "Now we are attacked every day, several times a day." They are very worried about the proximity of the nuclear power plant. "This could be the second Chernobyl," says Raisa. This northern Ukrainian city was the site of the biggest nuclear disaster in history in 1986.
The mayor of Energodar before the Russian occupation is confident that the Ukrainian army's counteroffensive will succeed in recapturing the power plant. His name is Dmitro Orlov, he is 37 years old, now lives in Zaporiyia and holds his office from a distance. He speaks from a center set up to provide humanitarian aid and support of all kinds to the inhabitants of Energodar who fled. "There used to be about 53,000 people living there and now there are about 15,000?, he explains. "Some went abroad, but most of them are in Ukraine waiting for the liberation of the city to return home.
There used to live there [in Energodar] about 53,000 people and now there are about 15,000 left?Dmitro Orlov, mayor Energodar.
VIDEO | The mayor of Energodar explains the risks of the nuclear power plant under Russian occupation.
The nuclear power plant produces almost no electricity. All six reactors are in minimum mode. Neither is the neighboring thermal power station. Before the invasion, Energodar generated half of Ukraine's nuclear-powered electricity. "We hope that the counteroffensive will be successful so that the power station can resume its activities, generate much-needed electricity and the city will return to normal life," says Orlov.
A mission of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been monitoring the plant's safety since September last year. The agency's director general, Rafael Grossi, warned this week that the plant had lost all external electricity for the seventh time during the conflict, forcing it to rely on emergency diesel generators. "The nuclear safety situation at the plant is extremely vulnerable," he wrote on Twitter. "We must reach an agreement to protect the power plant now. This situation cannot continue."
Oleksii Blinechuk worked at the plant until last summer. Then he left for Zaporiyia with his family. He says the Russians have hired inexperienced people. "These are people who have nothing to do with the energy sector and should not be there," he opines. He still keeps in touch with some of his colleagues who still work there.
VIDEO: An employee of the Energodar nuclear power plant tells what life was like under Russian rule.
The Zaporiyia front may be the most decisive of the war, as U.S. and U.K. intelligence services have publicly stressed. It is also underlined by Ukrainian military in the area and defense analysts. "Everyone is watching Bajmut, but what happens here is more important," Stepan, an officer in the Artey infantry battalion, told this newspaper last February.
Zaporiyia would allow Ukrainian troops to advance towards the coast of the Sea of Azov without having to face a landing on the Dnieper River, a complex feat, according to military theorists. The Ukrainian troops would advance liberating the province, especially a strategic municipality such as Energodar. The next stage, a fundamental victory, would be to reach the city of Melitopol, on the coast of the Sea of Azov. From Melitopol, the Kiev armies could cut off the supply to the invading forces along the coast, towards Kherson, the Black Sea and Crimea.
If the Ukrainian advance is from Zaporiyia, every urban center can be a stronghold for the Russian defenses and the fighting can end up destroying entire populations, as happened with the counter-offensives in the Kherson or Kharkov provinces. But if the Russians maintain their military positions in the nuclear power plant, the risk will not be that a village will be razed to the ground, but that of millions of people only its shadow will remain, as Olga warned. The question is whether the Kremlin would order its troops to withdraw in case of being surrounded or whether it would continue to play the atomic blackmail card.
Coordination and format: Guiomar del Ser and Brenda ValverdeArt direction and design: Fernando HernandezLayout and programming: Alejandro Gallardo
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