Expect 'False Flag' Attack at Zaporizhzhia Today—Both Russia, Ukraine Warn

Both Ukraine and Russia have warned of an imminent "false flag" attack at Zaporizhzhia, Europe's largest nuclear power plant.

The nuclear plant, originally built by the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, is located on the Dnipro River in southeastern Ukraine and has been under Russian control since March 1, just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion.

It was one of the first sites to be seized by Russian forces after the war began, and it is still operated by Ukrainian staff.

There have been widespread concerns about a potential nuclear catastrophe as the plant, which is located near the front line in the city of Enerhodar, has remained a target of shelling in recent weeks. Both Ukraine and Russia have accused each other's forces of shelling the plant.

 The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Energodar
Above, a Russian serviceman patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Energodar, Ukraine, on May 1, 2022. Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world. Both Russia and Ukraine have warned of a "false flag" attack at the plant on August 19, 2022. ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine's defense intelligence agency suggested Thursday that Moscow was plotting a "false flag" attack on the nuclear power plant.

"Ukrainian intelligence officers believe that the Russians are preparing a provocation at the ZNPP. Following their extensive shelling of the ZNPP, the invaders could "raise the stakes" and stage a real terrorist attack on Europe's largest nuclear facility," Ukraine's Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security under Ukraine's Ministry of Culture and Information Policy tweeted Thursday.

Another tweet in the same thread said that members of Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear corporation, had "urgently" left the territory of the nuclear power plant and that an "unexpected day off" at the facility had been announced.

"On 19 August, only operational personnel will be stationed at the ZNPP. No other employees will be allowed to enter," the post said.

"Ukrainian intelligence officers believe that the Russians are preparing a provocation at the ZNPP. Following their extensive shelling of the ZNPP, the invaders could 'raise the stakes' and stage a real terrorist attack on Europe's largest nuclear facility."

At the same time, Russia's defense ministry claimed that Ukraine is planning to carry out a "false flag attack" at Zaporizhzhia on Friday.

"On August 19, the Kyiv regime is preparing a false flag attack at the Zaporozhye NPP during a visit to Ukraine by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. As a result of this provocation, Russia will be accused of creating a man-made disaster at this power plant," Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the ministry, told reporters during a press briefing on Thursday.

Guterres is set to visit the Ukrainian port city of Odesa on Friday.

Konashenkov claimed that on Friday, Ukraine's armed forces intend to launch artillery strikes on the territory of the plant from the city of Nikopol.

"The blame for the consequences of the strikes will be laid on the Russian Armed Forces," Konashenkov said.

Newsweek has been unable to independently verify the claims and has reached out to the foreign ministries of Ukraine and Russia for comment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Moscow of carrying out "deliberate" attacks on the plant. Kyiv alleged that Russia is turning the plant into an army base and stashing ammunition and military equipment at the facility.

A video that circulated online, verified by CNN, showed what appears to be Russian military vehicles inside a turbine hall connected to a nuclear reactor at the plant.

On Thursday, Ivan Nechayev, deputy director of the Russian foreign ministry's Information and Press Department, dismissed appeals by Ukraine to demilitarize the area.

"Proposals regarding the demilitarized zone around Zaporizhzhia are unacceptable," he told reporters. "Their implementation will make the plant even more vulnerable."

"Weaponizing Winter"

John Erath, senior policy director for the Center for the U.S.-based nonprofit Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Newsweek that although the situation remains unclear, it is possible that Russia could be using a potential Ukrainian attack as a pretense to disconnect Zaporizhzhia from the Ukrainian grid.

"This would deprive Ukraine of up to 20 percent of its electricity. Winter is coming. Thousands of civilians could be in danger of starving or freezing. Unable to achieve its goals on the battlefield, Russia may be weaponizing winter," he said.

The possibility of an attack on the nuclear power plant and the escalation of developments in recent weeks is of "grave concern," Antony Froggatt, a senior fellow and deputy director at the U.K. think tank Chatham House, told Newsweek.

Froggatt noted that the people of Ukraine have tragically already experienced the consequences of a major event at a nuclear power plant and the subsequent spreading of radioactivity following the meltdown of Unit 4 at Chernobyl in 1986.

"Therefore, although Chernobyl was a very different design of reactor, the understanding of the consequences of a significant release of radiation is much greater in Ukraine than in other places, which significantly raises public concerns," he said.

Froggatt echoed Erath's concerns about the potential implications an attack on the plant could have on Ukraine's supply of electricity.

"Its loss will need to compensate for, leading to the burning of more, and expensive coal and gas, or supply will be insufficient. This is both a short and long-term concern," he added.

Update 8/19/22, 2 p.m. ET: This story was updated with comments from John Erath and Antony Froggatt.

Update 8/19/22, 8:57 a.m. ET: This story was updated to include a statement from Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for Russia's defense ministry.