Away from the battlefield, the Kremlin continued to push a claim, repeatedly asserted without evidence, that Kiev was preparing to use a “dirty bomb,” a weapon that combines conventional explosives with radioactive material — a charge that has since been dismissed from the United States and other Western nations.
US officials said Moscow’s allegations raised a risk that Russia itself was planning to carry out a radiation attack, potentially as a pretext to justify further escalation of the war between its continuous territorial clashes.
In a statement on Tuesday, Ukraine’s nuclear power operator Energoatom issued a similar warning, citing the Russian military’s control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar. “Energoatom assumes that such actions of the occupants may indicate that they are preparing a terrorist act using nuclear materials and radioactive waste stored at the ZNPP site,” the statement said.
Renewed fears of some kind of radiation attack add to the ominous sense that Putin’s war in Ukraine has become even more deadly and dangerous as each side seeks to redraw the facts on the ground before winter.
Ukraine has been pushed hard for further territorial gains, while Russia this month began a relentless bombing campaign against Ukraine’s energy system, using missiles and attack drones in an apparent attempt to sink the country in the cold and darkness, and potentially make up for battlefield losses.
As Ukraine continued to make gains, pro-Kremlin military bloggers and analysts on Tuesday confirmed new clashes with Russian forces, including in Luhansk, Ukraine’s easternmost occupied region, where Russia has had its strongest hold stop
“The Ukrainian army resumed its counteroffensive in the direction of Luhansk,” the pro-Russian project WarGonzo said in its daily military update, adding that Ukrainian forces had taken control of a key road between the cities Luhansk of Svatove and Kreminna.
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“The Russian artillery is actively working on the left bank of the Zherebets River and is trying to stop the transfer of reinforcements to the enemy, but the situation is very difficult,” said WarGonzo.
In the Donetsk region, Wagner’s paramilitary force, controlled by St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin, appeared to have been pushed back from Bakhmut, where the mercenaries had spent weeks pummeling the city, but making small gains. Military experts said there was little strategic value in the capture of Bakhmut, but Prigozhin appears to have an opportunity to claim a political prize, while regular Russian military units are losing ground in other combat zones.
Ukrainian forces have recaptured a cement factory on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said on Monday. On Sunday, Prigozhin acknowledged the slow pace of Wagner’s effort, saying the mercenaries were gaining only “100-200 meters a day.”
“Our units are constantly encountering the fiercest enemy resistance, and I have noticed that the enemy is well prepared, motivated, and works with confidence and harmony,” Prigozhin said in a statement published by his company’s press service catering. “This won’t stop our fighters from moving forward, but I can’t comment on how long it will take.”
In the southern region of Kherson, one of the four Moscow has claimed to have annexed, Russian forces appeared poised to defend the city of Kherson, amid speculation they were retreating to the eastern side of the Dnieper River, ceding crucial ground .
The Ukrainian military said in its operational update on Tuesday that Russian troops were setting up “defensive positions” along the east bank of the Dnieper and leaving small passages for a potential withdrawal from the west bank.
Speculation on whether Moscow is preparing to abandon Kherson has been circulating for weeks after Ukrainian forces made steady advances in the southern direction.
“I do not know all the nuances and plans of the command, but do not exclude the surrender of Kherson as from a military point of view its defense at the moment could turn into a rout,” a popular Russian military blogger. who writes under the moniker Zapiski Veterana, wrote in a Telegram post. “But I think that if a decision was made in Moscow to fight until victory, then there is nothing tragic in the surrender of Kherson because this war is here for a long time.”
Moscow may not have a choice. “The Russian position in the upper Kherson oblast is, however, probably untenable,” said the Institute for the Study of War.
Kremlin-installed officials forced residents to evacuate from the west bank of the Dnieper while claiming without evidence that Kiev was preparing attacks on the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, as well as “dirty bomb” allegations.
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The United States, France and Britain accused Moscow of using the dirty bomb allegations as a pretext for escalation, and warned that Putin’s government would face additional punitive action from the West.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin called Washington’s distrust of Russia’s claims “an unacceptable and frivolous approach.”
After a two-week bombing campaign, in which Moscow systematically targeted energy infrastructure, Kiev is increasingly concerned about civilians suffering a bitter winter. Ukrainian officials have spent the past few weeks pressing European officials for more sophisticated weapons, particularly the advanced air defense systems needed to fend off Russian airstrikes.
The country also faces an urgent cash crunch, with officials raising questions about how Ukraine will secure funding to keep services running during the brutal weeks and months ahead. An early October projection by the World Bank suggested that Ukraine’s economy would contract by 35 percent this year.
On Tuesday, Germany and the European Union hosted a conference in Berlin on reconstruction, although the conversation seemed especially premature given the Russian attacks that produce new destruction every day.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine needs about $38 billion in emergency economic aid for next year alone. But while top officials regularly trumpet EU support for Ukraine, there are questions about short- and long-term follow-up.
Although the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced plans to help Ukraine until 2023, for example, EU officials acknowledge the delays in delivering to Kiev about 9 billion dollars in loans promised earlier this year.
US Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has pressed European counterparts in recent weeks to boost financial assistance to Kiev and indirectly questioned the decision to offer loans instead of grants.
“We call on our partners and allies to join us in quickly paying off their existing commitments to Ukraine and stepping up to do more,” Yellen said this month. In a video address to a European Council summit in Brussels last week, Zelensky called out European leaders for not providing much-needed economic assistance quickly enough.
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“Thank you for the funds that have already been allocated,” Zelensky said. “But a decision has yet to be made on the remaining $6 billion from this package — which is critically needed this year.”
“It is in your power,” he continued, “to reach an agreement in principle on the provision of this assistance to our state today already.”
With existing unmet needs, some wonder how seriously they will take the EU’s promises of an effort of Marshall Plan proportions. A Q&A released by Germany’s Group of Seven presidency ahead of Tuesday’s conference noted that the event will not include an “engagement segment.” Instead, the goal is to “underline that the international community is united and resolute in its support for Ukraine.”
In private conversations, some EU diplomats have raised questions about whether the bloc should allocate resources for the reconstruction of a country that is still very much at war, particularly given Europe’s energy and economic crisis.
While von der Leyen spoke in Berlin on Tuesday, the focus in Brussels was very much on efforts to find common ground among EU member states on emergency energy measures.