Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed that a team of independent inspectors can travel to the Moscow-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant via Ukraine.
According to French President Emmanuel Macron’s office on Friday, Putin “reconsidered the demand” that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) travel through Russia to the site, after the Russian leader himself warned fighting there could bring about a “catastrophe”.
It specified Putin dropped his demand that the IAEA team travel to the site via Russia, saying it could arrive via Ukraine.
Meanwhile, United Nations chief Antonio Guterres urged Moscow’s forces occupying the Zaporizhzhia plant in south Ukraine not to disconnect the facility from the grid and potentially cut supplies to millions of Ukrainians.
A flare-up in fighting around the Zaporizhzhia plant – with both sides blaming each other for attacks – has raised the spectre of a disaster worse than in Chernobyl.
The Kremlin said in a statement earlier that Putin and Macron agreed officials from the UN’s nuclear watchdog should carry out inspections “as soon as possible” to “assess the real situation on the ground”.
Putin also “stressed that the systematic shelling by the Ukrainian military of the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant creates the danger of a large-scale catastrophe”, the Kremlin added.
Hours after talking with Putin, Macron accused the Russian leader of launching a “brutal attack” on Ukraine in an imperialist violation of international law.
Macron, who tried unsuccessfully to prevent the invasion and long vaunted the importance of dialogue with Putin, has grown increasingly critical of the Russian president as the war goes on.
“Since Vladimir Putin launched his brutal attack on Ukraine, war has returned to European soil, a few hours away from us,” Macron said in a speech commemorating the 78th anniversary of the Allied landing in Nazi-occupied southern France during World War II.
Macron said Putin is seeking to impose his “imperialist will” on Europe, conjuring “phantoms of the spirit of revenge” in a “flagrant violation of the integrity of states”.
Warnings of nuclear disaster came just a day after Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Guterres, meeting in the east Ukrainian city of Lviv, sounded the alarm over the intensified fighting, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the UN to secure the site.
The Turkish leader said: “We are worried. We do not want another Chernobyl”, referring to the 1986 nuclear disaster, while Guterres cautioned any damage to the plant would be akin to “suicide”.
During his visit to the southern port of Odesa on Friday, the UN secretary-general said: “Obviously, the electricity from Zaporizhzhia is Ukrainian electricity. This principle must be fully respected. Naturally, its energy must be used by the Ukrainian people.”
His remarks came after Ukrainian energy operator Energoatom alleged Russian troops were planning to “shut off the reactors” at Zaporizhzhia, which is capable of supplying four million homes.
On Thursday, Moscow said Kyiv was preparing a “provocation” at the site that would see Russia “accused of creating a man-made disaster at the plant”.
Kyiv, however, insisted Moscow was planning the provocation, and said Russia’s occupying forces had ordered most staff to stay home on Friday and drawn down officials from Russia’s own state nuclear agency.
The UN chief was visiting Odesa as part of an appeal to make Ukrainian grain available to poor countries struggling with soaring food prices, after a landmark deal with Russia last month to allow its export.
Earlier, Guterres met Erdogan – who helped broker the grain deal signed in Istanbul – and Zelenskyy said the UN hoped to scale up work under the deal before the winter.
Global food security
The deal, the only significant agreement between Russia and Ukraine since Moscow invaded in February, has so far seen 25 ships carrying 600,000 metric tons of agricultural products depart from three designated ports, Kyiv said.
But during the call with Macron – their first in nearly three months – Putin told the French leader Russia was facing obstacles in the export of its food products and fertiliser.
“There are still obstacles to … Russian exports that do not contribute to the solution of problems related to ensuring global food security,” the Kremlin said.
Guterres is expected to head to Turkey after Odesa to visit the Joint Coordination Centre, the body tasked with overseeing the accord.
The agreement between Kyiv and Moscow to clear exit corridors from three Ukrainian ports, including Odesa, has brought some relief to concerns of global food shortages with the warring countries among the world’s leading producers.
The deal has held but brought little respite along the sprawling front lines in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have edged slowly forward after nearly six months of fighting.