Zaporiyia announces referendum on annexation to Russia

While all international concern is focused on Ukraine's Zaporiyia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, the Zaporiyia oblast is now preparing for a referendum on 11 September

AFP/RIA-NOVOSTI/POOL/ALEXEY DRUZHININ  -   File photo. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, Crimean Parliament Speaker Vladimir Konstantionov and Alexei Chaly, the new de facto mayor of Sevastopol, sign a treaty on Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula becoming part of Russia at the Kremlin in Moscow on 18 March 2014

The borders of the Ukrainian territories that Vladimir Putin aspires to "reunify" under his control continue to expand. Now it is the turn of the Zaporiyia region, located in the oblast of the same name and largely controlled by the Russian army. It neighbours the self-proclaimed pro-Russian republics of Lugansk and Donetsk. 

On Monday, the pro-Russian authorities in Zaporiyia, imposed by Moscow, announced that preparations were underway to hold a popular referendum on the oblast's accession to Russian territory. According to the RIA Novosti news agency, more than 700 delegates from the region met in the Russian-speaking city of Melitopol in the same region of Zaporiyia to discuss the referendum and, at the end of the meeting, issued a joint resolution sealed by the signature of pro-Russian leader Evgeny Balitsky.

Balitsky's statements about holding the plebiscite in the first half of September seem to support rumours that Moscow was preparing the ground for mass referendums in the Ukrainian territories under its control in the run-up to 11 September. This coincides with Russia's local election day.

PHOTO/ARCHIVE - President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation

If the Kremlin organises these consultations, Kiev warned, "it will close any possibility of negotiations with Ukraine", while the spokesman for the Russian presidency, Dmitry Peskov, has tried to distance himself from initiatives that he describes as "popular". "These plans belong to the people of these regions; they are not ours," Peskov said. 

"Playing with fire" at Europe's largest nuclear power plant

At the same time, the Zaporiyia nuclear power plant - in Russian hands almost since the beginning of the "special military operation" - the largest in Europe, has become one of the issues of greatest concern to the international community. "The actions they have taken at the facility are likely to undermine the safety and security of the plant's normal operations," the London authorities warned on their Twitter account.

Moscow is now using part of the nuclear plant as a military base and missile launcher, while Ukrainian troops launch attacks to retake the facility.

ZAPORIYIA NUCLEAR POWER PLANT VIA YOUTUBE/VIA REUTERS - File photo. Surveillance camera footage shows a flare landing at the Zaporiyia nuclear power plant during a shelling in Enerhodar, Zaporiyia oblast, Ukraine March 4, 2022, in this screenshot of a video obtained from social media

Ukraine, deeply dependent on nuclear power, has 15 reactors spread over four nuclear power plants: one at Royno in the north-east of the country; two in the south-east, at Khmelnitsky and Zaporiyia, and one called 'South Ukraine'. For this reason, after the conflict reached the Zaporiyia facilities last March, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) proposed negotiations to reach an agreement that would guarantee the safety of the nuclear power plants. 

The latter, with a total of six WWER-1000 reactors and a capacity of some 6000 megawatts, was recognised by the IAEA in 2000 as one of the three best plants in the world because it fully complies with the IAEA's requirements. 

Now, while IAEA experts do not have access to the facility, British intelligence doubts Moscow's intentions regarding the plant after more than five months of occupation. "Russian forces are probably using the wider area of the facility, in particular the adjacent town of Enerhodar, to rest their forces, making use of the plant's protected status to reduce the risk to their equipment and personnel from Ukrainian attacks," the British institution explained. 

At the facility, "all the principles of nuclear safety have been violated," warned IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi in an interview with the AP. "What is at stake is extremely serious, and extremely dangerous"

PHOTO/RONALD ZAK - The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi
G7 against the Kremlin

"The Russian Federation must immediately withdraw its troops from within Ukraine's internationally recognised borders and respect Ukraine's territory and sovereignty," read a communiqué issued by the foreign ministers of the G7 member states in Germany. 

"We demand that Russia immediately return full control of the Zaporiyia nuclear power plant, as well as all nuclear facilities within the internationally recognised borders of Ukraine, to their rightful sovereign owner, Ukraine, to ensure their safe operation," it added. 

"The war started in Crimea and must end with Crimea"

On Tuesday a series of explosions hovered over the Saki air base, controlled by Moscow troops and located in Novofedorivka, near Yevpatoria, in the west of the Crimean peninsula. So far, the authorities in the region have reported one death and more than 250 people displaced, but Kiev has not claimed involvement in the operation, avoiding confirming its responsibility and speculating on possible "negligence" and "breach of security regulations" as causes of the detonations. 

AFP/UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks at a map during a visit to a Ukrainian army position

Despite the distancing of the Ukrainian authorities, this event appears to signal the extension of the war, for the first time in eight years, to the peninsula that the Kremlin annexed in 2014. 

"The presence of Russian occupiers in Crimea is a threat to the whole of Europe and to global stability (...) There will be no stable and lasting peace in many countries on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea as long as Russia can use our peninsula as its military base," Zelensky said during one of his late-night speeches broadcast on official media. "This Russian war against Ukraine and against the whole of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea. With its liberation".