‘Packing their bags’ Russia might be leaving the Zaporizhzhia NPP in hopes of ‘a deal’
Story by Andrey Pertsev, in collaboration with Margarita Lyutova and Dmitry Kuznetsov. Translation by Anna Razumnaya.
In a recent evening report, the Ukrainian General Staff announced that some Russian military units were leaving the annexed part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region. In some places, Russian troops were also preparing to evacuate members of local Russian-appointed occupying administrations. In conversation with sources close to the Kremlin and the Russian government, Meduza learned that Russia isn’t exactly planning a complete withdrawal from the region. Sources speculate, however, that Moscow might be ready to leave the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which has been controlled by the Russian military since the early phase of the invasion. The Kremlin now appears to be planning to transfer control over the NPP either to Kyiv or to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In the past, Moscow has denied any possibility of leaving the Zaporizhzhia NPP. On October 5, 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a special decree about transferring the power plant to Russia and setting up a state corporation to manage it.
The IAEA continues to advocate the creation of a safety zone around the NPP, engaging in talks with both Ukraine and Russia. On December 2, the IAEA Director Rafael Grossi said that a solution to ensure safety at the nuclear plant might be reached before the end of the year.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, has long made clear that Ukraine is determined to take control of the NPP. Given Russia’s repeated massive strikes on Ukrainian energy facilities, regaining the Zaporizhzhia power plant would make a tremendous difference to Ukraine.
On November 28, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, head of the Ukrainian energy company Ukrenergo, said that all of Ukraine’s larger thermal and hydroelectric power plants had been damaged, to various degrees, by the Russian missile and air strikes. Days earlier, Kudrytskyi had pointed out that, if the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant could be returned to Ukraine and brought to full operating capacity, Ukraine would be “very likely” to solve all of its current energy problems. (Before the war, the Zaporizhzhia NPP produced a quarter of Ukraine’s electricity.)
Meduza’s sources close to both the Kremlin and the Russian government suggest that, to Moscow, the NPP is a bargaining chip, which it hopes to exchange for guarantees of unhampered oil and gas transit across Ukraine. According to two insiders who spoke with Meduza, both the Kremlin and the cabinet are “ready to make a deal.” Extracting and selling oil and gas is “very important for the Russian budget,” our Kremlin source confessed. On the other hand, in his own correspondence with Meduza, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov rejected any possibility of bargaining over the NPP.
What matters to Russia is that the southern branch of the Druzhba oil pipeline crosses Ukraine, delivering Russian oil to Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia, and Poland. About a third of Russian oil exports to Europe go through this pipeline, whose Ukrainian segment belongs to UkrTransNafta, a Ukrainian state-owned company. Russia pays Ukraine for oil transit, and is also technically able to stop the transit altogether. Since mid-November, deliveries have been sporadically interrupted by missile strikes. Meanwhile, a European ban on shipping Russian oil is about to take effect on December 5, making Druzhba the main artery for transporting Russian oil into Europe.
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Russian gas is also continuing to flow into Europe, in spite of the war – its route, too, crosses Ukrainian territory. In May, Naftogaz, the Ukrainian state-owned pipeline operator, refused to continue transporting Russian gas across the occupied Luhansk region, telling Gazprom to redirect its gas deliveries to a different pipeline. Then Gazprom refused to comply, and instead cut its gas exports by a third, precisely the share that had traveled across the Luhansk region.
In early September, Naftogaz launched an international arbitration case against Gazprom, arguing that Gazprom wasn’t making full or timely payments for gas transit. Gazprom, in turn, retorted that it wouldn’t pay for services it didn’t receive, threatening Naftogaz with Russian sanctions that would cancel all of Russia’s obligations.
When Ukraine did not drop its case, Gazprom announced that it was ready to reduce gas transit across Ukraine even further, alleging that Kyiv was keeping some of the Russian gas en route to Moldova. The Ukrainian side denied this squarely. In the end, Gazprom did not reduce the transit volume, since (according to Gazprom itself) Moldova paid for the very same gas that had been supposedly “withheld” by Ukraine.
All the same, since last summer, Moscow has been reducing its gas exports to the EU. As a result, Russia’s share in total European gas imports dropped from 40 percent to just nine.
On November 27, Petro Kotin, director of the Ukrainian state energy company Energoatom, said that Russian troops at the Zaporizhzhia NPP seemed to be getting ready to leave: “I have the impression that they’re packing their bags and looting everything they can find,” he said.
Still, up until the present, it would have been hard to expect Russian specialists to leave the power plant anytime soon. On November 30, occupying authorities appointed a new NPP head, replacing the previous director, who had been accused of collaborating with Kyiv. Russian engineers are still building power lines to Crimea, presumably to disconnect the Zaporizhzhia plant from the Ukrainian energy grid. They are also trying to restore the disrupted energy supply to the NPP from a neighboring thermal power station.
Meanwhile, Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin also suggest that Russia may launch a new, large-scale offensive in Ukraine.