As heavy fighting raged across much of Ukraine on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin upped his psychological war game.
Russian state media warned in an unsubstantiated report that Ukraine had been prepping a “plutonium-based dirty bomb nuclear weapon” at the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear plant now in Russian hands, according to Reuters.
War analysts immediately called the claim a “pretext,” counter-warning that Russia could indeed be setting up a “false flag” to pave the way to use its own nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate. Ukrainians indicated a so-called ceasefire in the besieged city of Mariupol was again violated by Russian attacks, and at least three more civilians were killed by the invaders in one incident near Kyiv alone.
Russian news agencies TASS, RIA and Interfax dispatched the report Sunday morning, claiming the “representative of a competent body” in Russia said Ukraine had been working on a “dirty bomb” inside the Chernobyl nuclear plant Russian troops are currently occupying. No real proof was supplied to back the claims, which are disputed by Ukraine officials who say they have never sought to produce nuclear weapons, and come as outside and independent media outlets have increasingly left the country or faced crackdowns. “I think its rhetoric and brinkmanship,” British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told SKY news on Sunday in response. “He’s got a track record as long as anyone’s arm of misinformation and propaganda.... This is a distraction from what the real issues are at hand—which is that it’s an illegal invasion and it is not going according to plan.”
Russian troops have so far occupied Chernobyl north of the capital Kyiv and Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant in southeastern Ukraine, which came under fire Friday, sparking fears that Putin’s unprovoked invasion could lead to nuclear catastrophe in Europe.
Reports from Ukraine sources say that staff inside the plant—shut down but manned since 2000—had not been allowed a shift change since Russia started its occupation on Feb. 24, causing concern that exhausted personnel might accidentally compromise the site’s already vulnerable condition. Chernobyl was the site of a 1986 nuclear meltdown, the worst nuclear accident in history.
In a call with U.S. Congress lawmakers, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian troops were now closing in on Yuzhnoukrainsk plant near Kyiv. They were about 20 miles from the plant—the second largest in Europe after Zaporizhzhya, prompting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield to warn that “imminent danger continues.”
Putin also lashed out that heavy sanctions which have crippled his country’s economy were a “akin to a declaration of war,” by the West on Saturday, adding, “thank God it has not come to that.”
Zelensky has scorned NATO for refusing to impose a no-fly zone on his country, another move that Putin has threatened would lead to a larger war.
As the body count rises, diplomats continue to build a case for war crimes charges against Putin, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken telling CNN he was concerned. “We’ve seen very credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians, which would constitute a war crime,” Blinken told State of the Union. “We’ve seen very credible reports about the use of certain weapons.”
Efforts to create a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to escape from heavily-bombarded Mariupol were largely unsuccessful on Saturday and again Sunday, with Ukraine claiming Russian troops continue to shell the area. Water and electricity have been shut off in the city of 430,000, where the dead are piling up in the streets with no one able to collect or bury them, according to CNN.
As the bombardment continues into the 11th day, more than 1.5 million displaced people have crossed into neighboring countries, in what United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi called “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.” An 11-year-old boy with a backpack crossed into Slovakia on his own. “He won over everyone with his smile, fearlessness, and determination worthy of a real hero,” the Slovak Interior ministry posted on its Facebook page.
The World Health Organization has also put out a call for help on Sunday to help evacuate Ukraine’s sick after citing “several attacks on health care [centers] in Ukraine, causing multiple deaths and injuries.” A WHO representative told the BBC on Sunday that at least six attacks on health care facilities have been reported, leading to the deaths of patients and health-care workers.
In Ukraine’s coastal city of Odessa, one million residents are bracing for what they believe is an imminent attack, perhaps by warships visible off the coast, according to a Washington Post report. People there are using sand from the popular beaches to fill sandbags and shore up glass structures and create road blocks. Zelensky on Sunday reiterated the warning in a Facebook post, telling residents to be prepared for an attack.
On Sunday, Russian troops continued to advance on the capital Kyiv by land and air as desperate residents tried to escape the city, reportedly killing three civilians on the outskirts. The total civilian death toll is now north of 360 people, according to the U.N.
“The enemy continues to shell all quarters in Bucha mercilessly: every day is the struggle for survival,” the city council said on Facebook Sunday, referring to the Kyiv suburb facing some of the heaviest fighting. “There is no electricity, heat, communication, internet. It is impossible to deliver humanitarian aid: the community is under siege. We need support to survive! Help us to save the community!”