U.N. warns of "constant threat" at Russian-occupied nuclear plant in Ukraine as Putin weaponizes energy in multiple ways

Kyiv — The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA, warned Tuesday that the world was “playing with fire” and called for all military forces to withdraw immediately from the sprawling, Russian-occupied nuclear power plant on the front line of the war in Ukraine. The agency called the ongoing occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — the largest in all of Europe — and the fighting around it “a constant threat to nuclear safety and security,” and said a demilitarized zone should be established in and around the vast compound.

But as CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports, the military occupation of the nuclear plant is just one way Vladimir Putin’s regime has targeted the energy supplies of both Ukraine and its international partners since he ordered his forces to invade the neighboring country in February.

UN inspectors call for security zone around Ukrainian nuclear plant 01:23

Late last week, Russia announced an indefinite cut-off of its main natural gas pipeline to Europe. The closure of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline has exacerbated the global energy crisis driven largely by the war, but nowhere is the lack of Russian gas being felt more acutely than in Ukraine itself.

The town of Irpin, just outside the capital city of Kyiv, was one of the places that Russian forces hit the hardest early in the war. Much of it is still in ruins, and thousands of homes are uninhabitable, or barely habitable. But when Patta visited this week she found many people still living there — because they have nowhere else to go.

Now winter is coming — an ominous, icy threat.  

“I’m terrified,” Irpin resident Larissa Dobrova told Patta. She remembers the bone-chilling cold of February, when Russia first launched its war on Ukrainian civilians, aiming its missiles directly at her neighborhood.

Ukraine’s recaptured town of Irpin lies desolate and destroyed 00:48

Memories of those awful weeks come to her in fragments — trapped inside her home as Russian forces seized Irpin, shivering in a hallway in her building to escape the shelling as temperatures plummeted.

“It was the kind of freezing that blinds you,” she told Patta. “You can’t even think… even my flowers were frozen.”

In towns like Irpin across the country, volunteers have been busy helping to repair shattered buildings so people who have nowhere else to live can at least come home for the winter.

But many, including Dobrova, still have no gas — no heating, and no way to cook. Patta asked her how she intended to get through the winter.

Larissa Dobrova stands in her apartment in Irpin, Ukraine, which has no gas for heating or cooking amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of her country, in September 2022, with the cold months of the winter approaching fast. CBS News

“I don’t know,” she said, gulping back sobs. “I don’t know.”

It’s a fear shared in some measure by much of Europe. 

The energy crisis could lead to rolling blackouts, shuttered factories and a deep recession across the continent as Russia has cut off Nord Stream 1. The pipeline supplied around 40% of the EU’s gas before the war. The Kremlin claims it had no choice but to turn off the tap, saying the sanctions imposed over the war have made it impossible to get machinery for the pipeline repaired.

Russia to slash natural gas exports to Europe as Ukrainian grain exports get ready to resume 06:10

But as global prices soar, European leaders have accused Putin of waging warfare by way of energy blackmail. Ukraine is worried the Russian tactic will succeed, dividing its Western allies in their support for the Ukrainians’ resistance to the invasion.  

Patta asked Dobrova if she believed Russia was using its natural gas resources as a weapon.

“It seems so,” she said. “I hope Western leaders are wise enough to make the right decision, because we are hostages of this war.”

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