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Russians Seize Nuclear Plant

Russia and Ukraine agreed on the need for “humanitarian corridors” as shelling continues.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Destruction in Irpin, Ukraine
Destruction in Irpin, Ukraine
A man rides his bike past destroyed buildings in Irpin, Ukraine, on March 3. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Welcome to Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the latest on Russia’s war in Ukraine, the mystery of Ukraine’s troop movements, and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s White House visit.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Russian Forces Take Key Nuclear Plant 

Welcome to Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the latest on Russia’s war in Ukraine, the mystery of Ukraine’s troop movements, and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s White House visit.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Russian Forces Take Key Nuclear Plant 

The war in Ukraine came close to catastrophe early this morning as Russian forces shelled the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, sparking a fire in one building on the plant complex and igniting fears of a nuclear meltdown.

Ukraine’s nuclear authorities said their staff could not access the plant without Russian permission and cautioned that obstructing their ability to cool down power units could lead to “significant radioactive releases,” according to the Financial Times, adding that a storage area for spent nuclear fuel could be vulnerable to shelling. If the plant’s power supply and backup generators are cut off, the result could be catastrophic—a point Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made to various world leaders, recalling the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, in calls early this morning.

In the end, the fire was extinguished shortly after 6 a.m. local time, but not before frantic calls from various capitals for fighting to cease to allow firefighters to attend the blaze. The facility has now became a prize for Russian forces in Ukraine’s south, putting them in control of a plant that normally produces roughly one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.

Cities under attack. Thursday saw more scenes of destruction as Ukraine’s cities continue to come under air and artillery assault, with the city of Chernihiv, about a two-hour drive from the capital, Kyiv, becoming a scene of devastation. Ukrainian authorities say at least 33 people were killed in airstrikes that struck an apartment building in the city.

Kyiv has yet to witness the same level of destruction, but it “continues to be Russia’s aspiration” to take the city, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

Negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian representatives made some progress on Thursday—not toward peace, but both sides agreed on the need for “humanitarian corridors” to allow civilians to flee the fighting.

Defense officials from the United States and Russia will also have a chance to talk to prevent “miscalculation, military incidents and escalation” after the two countries established a new hotline, the Pentagon announced.

French President Emmanuel Macron picked up the phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, finding the Russian leader in no mood to halt Russia’s invasion. Macron warned after the call that “the worst is yet to come,” with Putin appearing intent on capturing the entirety of Ukraine.

Where are the blue arrows? Standing in the way of that possibility is the Ukrainian military, although how well those forces are faring against the invaders is something of an official mystery. Conflict maps tend to show a red tide slowly washing over Ukraine, but a blue counterweight, although implied, is never spelled out.

One factor that is hardest to track is the level of popular resistance. Stefanie Glinski, reporting for Foreign Policy from Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, spoke to truck drivers and welders who have taken up arms in a bid to beat back the invasion.

General updates about the war have tended to come from U.S. officials, who are unlikely to give away information that might help Russia’s advance, or from Ukrainian (or more rarely, Russian) officials, who have an incentive to distort the figures.

What’s left is an incomplete picture, cobbled together from satellite imagery, social media posts, and limited on-the-ground reporting.

“Most of the Ukrainian units that were most mobile and most capable were on the line of contact in Donbass,” Jack Watling, research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, told Foreign Policy on Thursday. “Those units are within days of running out of ammunition and have been under very sustained heavy attack. So I think most of the Ukrainian military’s combat power will either be garrisoning in cities or will be fixed and destroyed fairly soon.”

Watling doesn’t rule out limited tactical actions, such as anti-tank ambushes, but a full-scale counteroffensive is unlikely, not least, Watling said, “because in forming up they would probably create a target for which the Russians would justify the risk of putting in significant air and aviation assets.”

As Morning Brief noted on Tuesday, this is a war which Russia has the resources to win, given enough time. But as strategy shifts to reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble, it’s clear it won’t be the kind of “victory” Putin was expecting.


What We’re Following

Finland’s president comes to Washington. U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Finnish President Sauli Niinisto—a leader who knows Putin well—at the White House today. The meeting comes as Finland flirts with the idea of NATO membership, with one poll taken this week showing 53 percent of Finns support joining the military alliance. In a poll taken in January before Russia’s invasion, just 28 percent of Finns surveyed said they wished to join the alliance.

EU and NATO ministers meet. European Union foreign ministers gather today for an extraordinary meeting in Brussels to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with more sanctions likely. Joining them will be Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. An extraordinary meeting of NATO foreign ministers takes place beforehand, with nonmembers Sweden and Finland also in attendance.

John R. Deni argues in Foreign Policy that beefing up the defense of NATO’s weakest link—the Suwalki Corridor on the Polish-Lithuanian border—ought to be high on the alliance’s agenda.

France’s presidential race. Today marks the deadline for French presidential hopefuls to submit the 500 signatures from elected officials backing their candidacy. French President Emmanuel Macron officially announced his campaign for reelection on Thursday, in what is likely to be a field with heavy right-wing representation. The latest polling indicated Macron would receive the most votes in the first round on April 10 and would handily defeat his most likely rival, Marine Le Pen, in the second round. Although Le Pen has taken a more critical stance toward Russia in recent days, she is currently facing scrutiny over her party’s past reliance on a Russian bank for funding and a recent campaign leaflet featuring a photo of her alongside Putin.


Keep an Eye On

Iran’s nuclear issues. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi, who has expressed alarm this week over fighting in Ukraine near nuclear facilities, travels to Tehran on Saturday in a trip aimed at resolving outstanding issues regarding uranium traces found at undeclared nuclear sites. Iran has demanded that the watchdog’s investigation be closed as all sides move closer to a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, while the organization has maintained its independence, saying political matters would not factor into its thinking.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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