Ukraine live briefing: Military activity on rise near nuclear plant, IAEA warns; Zelensky invites Xi

Updated March 30, 2023 at 3:53 p.m. EDT|Published March 30, 2023 at 2:24 a.m. EDT

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits a missile-damaged part of Zaporizhzhia on Monday. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The State Department has been in “direct touch with the Russian government” and is “actively working to secure consular access” to Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovichwho Russia detained and accused of espionage, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday.

Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, said Thursday in a statement that it had detained Gershkovicha U.S. citizen covering Russia and Ukraine, on charges of gathering confidential information about a Russian military enterprise. The newspaper vehemently denied the allegations against Gershkovich and demanded his immediate release.

In Ukraine, “military activity is increasing” in the region where the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is located, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said. The fighting is fueling fears of a possible nuclear accident at the plant, the largest in Europe.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Key developments

  • President Biden was briefed Thursday morning about Gershkovich’s detention and the State Department has been in touch with the Wall Street Journal and the journalist’s family, White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is absolutely completely unacceptable,” Kirby said.
  • Kirby urged U.S. citizens to heed previous warnings and avoid travel to Russia. Any Americans there should leave immediately out of concern for their safety, he added. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that Washington condemned the “Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices.”
  • Russian security agents detained Gershkovich in the city of Yekaterinburgin the central Ural Mountains, the FSB said. Without citing any evidence, the agency accused him of “acting on instructions from United States” and “collecting information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” The Wall Street Journal said it was “deeply concerned” for Gershkovich’s safety.
  • There has been a “significant increase in the number of troops” in Zaporizhzhia and “open talk about offensives and counteroffensives” involving Ukrainian and Russian forces, IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi said during a visit Wednesday to the nuclear plant. “Every measure and precaution should be taken so that the plant is not attacked and can be protected,” Grossi said. He added that efforts are underway to get Kyiv and Moscow to agree to principles such as not attacking the plant or using it as a base to launch attacks.
  • The situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant will “only become less dangerous” once the facility is returned to UkraineIvan Samoyduk, the deputy mayor of Enerhodar, the city where the nuclear facility is located, told The Washington Post. “Even if a [protection] zone is established, Russia will ignore it,” he said.
  • Turkey’s parliament is expected to ratify Finland’s NATO bid on Thursdaypaving the way for the Nordic country to join the alliance — but without its ally and fellow membership hopeful Sweden. Thursday’s vote is the last remaining hurdle in Finland’s quest to join the military organization.

Battleground updates

  • Britain’s Defense Ministry said reports that Russia intends to recruit an additional 400,000 troops for its war in Ukraine could mean more mandatory mobilization. While Russian authorities have presented this effort “as a drive for volunteer, professional personnel, rather than a new, mandatory mobilisation,” in practice, this distinction could become “blurred,” the ministry saidwith regional authorities meeting “their allocated recruitment targets by coercing men to join up.”
  • Zelensky said that if Russian forces capture the eastern city of Bakhmut, Vladimir Putin will sell the victory “to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran.” A defeat there would also greatly add to pressure on Ukraine to compromise with Russia, he told the AP. Ukraine’s armed forces said that Russia is partially succeeding but that Ukrainian troops continue to hold on.
  • The fierce battle for Bakhmut has caused extensive damage to the Ukrainian army and to the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary outfit’s head, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, said in an audio message posted to social media this week. He said Wagner would keep fighting for the city, which has assumed a symbolic significance for both sides, analysts say.

Global impact

  • Putin could visit Turkey in April to inaugurate a nuclear power plant built by RussiaTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, according to Reuters. Ankara does not recognize the International Criminal Court, which issued a warrant this month for the Russian leader over war crimes in Ukraine.
  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met in New Delhi with Nikolai Patrushev, a close ally of Putin and Russia’s security chief. The meeting involved discussions of “bilateral cooperation” and “international issues,” the Indian government said. New Delhi has refused to join Kyiv’s Western allies in condemning Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine, instead shoring up its oil and other trade with Russia while calling for peace.
  • Germany will provide $13 billion in new military aid to Ukraine, Reuters reported. Berlin has so far provided Kyiv with arms such as Leopard 2 tanks, missiles and ammunition.

Analysis from our correspondents

Russia’s covert operations have a major weakness: Hubris. The tale of Brazilian student Victor Muller Ferreira — or alleged Russian agent Sergey Cherkasov — is a remarkable modern story of spycraft, which also exposes the weaknesses of covert Russian operations, Adam Taylor writes.

Cherkasov allegedly spent a decade building a fictitious persona as Ferreira, but the ambitious, high-risk operation included a side of self-defeating hubris. Parts of the information he was reportedly sending back to Moscow on the U.S. reaction ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, the FBI later concluded, came from an online group discussion led by a former professor.

He appears to have been a small part of a far broader intelligence failure by Russia that greatly overestimated how easily the invasion of Ukraine would play out, setting itself up for even more serious failures on the battlefield.

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