Mar 4, 2022 - Podcasts

Russia seizes Ukraine nuclear plant

Russian military shelling started a fire at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine overnight. The fire is out and the nuclear plant appears safe, but Russian forces are now in control of the facility. In an emotional early morning video, Ukrainian President Zelensky warned the world about Russian "nuclear terror."

Guests: Axios' Dave Lawler.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Friday, March 4th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. This morning: Ukraine’s President Zelensky accuses Russia of nuclear terror. More than a week in, what is Vladmir Putin’s end game Russia’s escalation is today’s One Big Thing.

Russian military shelling started a fire at Europe's largest nuclear power plant in Southern Ukraine overnight, that's according to Ukrainian officials. The fire was at a training building on the perimeter of the facility, and prompted late night calls between Ukrainian President Zelensky and Western world leaders, including Joe Biden. The fires out the nuclear plant appears safe, but Russian forces have now seized control of the facility. In an emotional early morning video, Zelensky warned the world about Russian nuclear terror.


NIALA: He's saying “ If there's an explosion, it's the end of everything. The end of Europe, this is the evacuation of Europe.” What's going on here? What do we know about the actual nuclear threat Axios world editor? Dave Lawler is with us. Dave. You've been working all hours of the night, and I really appreciate you joining us this morning to break this down.

NIALA: Thanks for being here.

DAVE LAWLER: Good morning.

NIALA: Let's start with the fire at the plant. Everything secure?

DAVE: As far as we know, as you mentioned, there were these dramatic images overnight of fighting happening right around this power plant. And then we got an image of a fire, which really did seem like an incredibly dangerous situation. And obviously is, but this was at a training facility. There's no indication that radiation levels have increased. So right now it does appear that things are secure.

NIALA: And then overnight, after it seemed the fire was out, Russia seized control of this facility. I should remind everybody that Russian forces have already also seized Chernobyl. How different is taking over this facility?

DAVE: Well, this facility was, uh, the largest power plant in Europe. It was actively running. It wasn't, you know, sort of the tomb of a nuclear facility as Chernobyl was. And so for one thing, this plant appears to be coming offline now. That's going to cut power potentially to a lot of people in Ukraine. But also, I'm not a nuclear power expert, but I've been reading, uh, people who are, and they say that this facility is better secured than Chernobyl, uh obviously the risk is still there if a nuclear reactor was to get hit. Uh, but that we shouldn't expect a Chernobyl-style explosion from this facility, based on the fighting that we saw last night.

NIALA: So what has the International Atomic Energy Agency said about the safety situation and what's going on?

DAVE: Yes. So they've said two things. Basically one, this is extremely dangerous and you shouldn't have a fire fight near a nuclear facility, but they've also said, you know, that they haven't detected any higher radiation. That this facility appears to be safely, uh, winding down. And so, basically the risk right now is not high, that we're going to see a nuclear disaster. Uh, but again, that they'd have emphasized just how dangerous this sort of operation by Russia is.

NIALA: And where does that leave Ukraine right now?

DAVE: So they're trying to use this incident to rally the world and say, this is the length that Russia is willing to go to. This is what we're up against. This is what the world is up against potentially. You know, these things can spread beyond our borders. This plant is in South Eastern Ukraine. This is an area where the Russian forces have actually made quite rapid progress compared to other parts of the country. So there are towns and cities being taken, uh, in this area. And so from a broader perspective, beyond the nuclear issue, you know, the Ukrainians are on the defensive, uh, there, and they're trying to tell people that, look, these are the tactics that Russia is employing in order to succeed against us militarily.

NIALA: Dave, I mentioned that Zelensky had some late night calls with President Biden, other Western world leaders. What are we hearing from Europe in the U.S. about reacting to this latest escalation?

DAVE: A lot of condemnation. Again, the, there have been statements that this is not how an, a responsible country acts, but also there have been messages to try to reassure people again, that, uh, we're not currently in the middle of some kind of nuclear disaster that the situation at present appears secure. Uh, but that, you know, these sort of risks should not be taken by Russia.

NIALA: Meanwhile, more than a million people have fled Ukraine in the past week. Dave, how does this change the already mounting humanitarian crisis that's been going on?

DAVE: Yeah, so it's been a really rapid exodus out of Ukraine. Um, we now have more cities coming under quite heavy attack, so we can expect anybody, or many people who have an opportunity to leave, to continue to try to leave. This humanitarian situation is just starting now. It's far from over. But the numbers are pretty stark, a million people now in neighboring countries.

NIALA:: Okay. We're going to take a quick break here and we're back in 15 seconds with more from Dave Lawler and what comes next in this war.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. World editor Dave Lawler is with me with the latest on Russia's attacks on Ukraine. Dave, let's turn to how this could end. Everyone probably forgot that there were peace talks yesterday that were held. Did that give us any clue about what negotiations might be looking like between Russia and Ukraine?

DAVE: Yeah, so we didn't move any closer to a deal to end the war. What we did get was an agreement between the sides to start organizing humanitarian corridors, to get people out of these cities that are being surrounded or being shelled by Russia. And now that's a preliminary agreement. We'll see how that plays out. Uh, but we didn't move any closer to a ceasefire or to some kind of final agreement between Ukraine and Russia.

NIALA: Do you have a sense of how you think this could end?

DAVE: Well, there are a couple of broad scenarios. One of these is that this is the end of Ukrainian sovereignty, that Russia succeeds militarily. They then have to face down probably a pretty severe, uh, insurgency. But another scenario is that this is the end of the Putin regime. And a lot of people in the West are saying we should ramp up sanctions to the point where Putin comes under so much pressure that he can't survive. But the question is, is there a third scenario? Where there can be some kind of diplomatic agreement where maybe we avoid, the months and years of fighting here, quite brutal fighting and, and get out the other side, with some kind of agreement between the Ukrainians and Russians. But right now it's pretty murky as to what that agreement would like.

NIALA: And is there-The big question, of course, Dave, is, is there a deal made the Vladimir Putin would be willing to go along with?

DAVE: So Vladimir Putin right now is not conducting himself like somebody who wants to make a deal. Uh, he's calling this Zelensky government Nazis. He's saying they need to fully demilitarize, which you can understand Ukraine would not be willing to do when they're currently being invaded by their neighbor. Uh, but there is a question of, is there a point at which Vladimir Putin will be willing to cut a deal? And then what are the contours of that deal going to look like? So he says Ukraine has to be neutral. That means they're not in NATO. Uh, we don't know exactly what he means by that, but maybe as the war drags on there's some compromise to be made there. Uh, but there's also going to have to be some discussion of what the map of Ukraine looks like after the war. You'll remember that Russia has annexed Crimea. Has now recognized these republics in the East. So there was a lot of difficulty getting to some kind of a solution there. But the big picture is right now Putin is not trying to make a deal. And so how do you get to a point either through the casualties on the battlefield or these, this economic hardship that Russia is going to be suffering, uh, where he, his calculus changes, uh, and maybe he is willing to sit down in a serious way.

NIALA: Axios’ is Dave Lawler, who's hosting the latest season of our other podcast, How it Happened, which this season gives some context to how this Ukraine invasion came about. It's called How It happened: Putin's Invasion, and the first episode is dropping tomorrow. Dave, thanks so much.

DAVE: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: And that’s it for this week. Axios Today is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. We’re produced by Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our sound engineers are Alex Sugiura and Ben O'Brien. Julia Redpath is our Executive Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is our Editor In Chief. Special thanks to Axios co-founder Mike Allen. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening - and stay safe this weekend.

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