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Ukraine accuses Russia of planning false flag attack at Chernobyl

U.S. officials have been warning for days about a possible Russian operation using chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.

WASHINGTON — The Ukrainian government claims it has intelligence indicating Russia may try to launch a false flag attack on the Chernobyl nuclear station, which they would blame on Ukrainian forces. 

The Ukrainian government did not offer any proof to back up these claims. 

The accusations were posted on social media because most of Ukraine's official government websites remain down after reported cyberattacks in the early days of the Russian invasion.  

"The creation of a technological catastrophe is planned at the controlled Russian forces of the CAEC, the responsibility for which the occupiers will try to translate to Ukraine," a translation of the Facebook post, written by the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, said.

Chernobyl has been non-operational since a 1986 meltdown at the plant became one of the most prolific nuclear disasters in history. Since then, it has been encased in a concrete shell and constantly monitored to prevent radiation leaks. 

Russian troops took control of the defunct nuclear reactor two weeks ago in the early days of fighting. 

On Wednesday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had disconnected Chernobyl from the power grid, potentially jeopardizing the cooling of nuclear material still at the site. 

Russia’s deputy energy minister said Thursday that electricity lines had since been repaired, but the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that claim couldn't be confirmed. 

The accusations by Ukraine come as U.S. officials warn that Russia could be planning a chemical or biological weapon attack, possibly with the intent of blaming the defending Ukrainians. 

A false flag operation is when one country perpetrates a crime but disguises it to appear as though another country conducted the operation. Russia reportedly used similar tactics as an early justification to invade, saying that Ukrainian forces were attacking pro-Russian separatists in the eastern parts of the country. 

Ukraine claimed in the Facebook post that Russia had been collecting the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers after battles between the countries, planning to plant them at the power plant to make it appear as though Ukrainians were the ones who attacked Chernobyl. 

Credit: AP
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows a close view of Chernobyl nuclear facilities, Ukraine, during the Russian invasion, Thursday, March 10, 2022. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki posted to Twitter Wednesday saying the Biden administration would be "on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them." 

She called such tactics "a clear pattern" by the Russian government. In 2018, Russia was widely accused by international watchdogs of using a chemical weapon to poison a former spy in the U.K.  

The U.S. Department of Defense did not respond to a message Friday asking if the U.S. had any information regarding the Ukrainian claims. 

The invasion of Ukraine has not been going smoothly for Russia, with stiff Ukrainian defenses, logistical issues and supply shortages complicating their invasion. A 40-mile convoy of Russian vehicles was stalled outside the capital city of Kyiv for weeks with little fuel while Ukrainian forces peppered it with attacks. 

Major international sanctions from the West, led by the U.S., have also caused problems domestically for Russia. The Ruble has fallen to being near worthless and many Western-based countries have pulled out of the country. The U.S. has also banned oil imports from Russia in an attempt to hurt one of its key exports. 

President Joe Biden also announced Friday that the U.S. and countries opposed to the invasion would be removing Russia's "most favored nation" status, meaning that previous trade agreements could be canceled and additional sanctions could be placed on the increasingly isolated country. 

Biden said during his Friday remarks that Russia would face more retaliation if they used chemical weapons in Ukraine. 

“Russia would pay a severe price if they used chemical weapons,” he said.

The president has repeatedly reiterated that he will not send U.S. troops to defend Ukraine or impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, saying that to do so would lead to World War III against Russia

I want to be clear: We will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full might of a united and galvanized NATO. ...

Posted by President Joe Biden on Friday, March 11, 2022

One clear concern Biden and other leaders have about directly confronting Russia is the nuclear threat posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Before and during the invasion, Putin has issued public statements about the country's nuclear arsenal seemingly aimed at dissuading the NATO strategic alliance — of which the U.S. is a member and Ukraine indicated it hoped to join — from interfering. 

Ukraine has four nuclear plants operating around the country, plus the out-of-operation Chernobyl site near the Belarus border. The 15 reactors at these sites supply about half of the country's electricity. 

On March 4, Russian troops seized the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the southeastern city of Enerhodar. As part of their nighttime assault on the plant, Russian troops launched a "projectile" that hit a training center and set part of the area on fire. 

Despite international alarm over the fire, the chief of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said it did not appear that any radiation was released, and firefighters were able to douse the blaze. 

A nuclear disaster during the Ukraine invasion, either accidental or by Russian design, would be uncharted territory in modern warfare and would represent a sharp escalation of international nuclear tensions. 

Credit: AP
FILE - A shelter construction covers the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 27, 2021.

Russian disinformation agents have begun spreading rumors that Ukraine was building nuclear weapons with the blessing of the U.S., a possible justification for Putin to invade. 

More recently, the Kremlin has been pushing the conspiracy theory that Ukraine was developing biological weapons near Kyiv. 

China's Foreign Ministry has helped fuel the fire this week, repeating the Russian claim several times and calling for an investigation.

“This Russian military operation has uncovered the secret of the U.S. labs in Ukraine, and this is not something that can be dealt with in a perfunctory manner,” ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Thursday.

The U.S. has been quick to refute Russia’s assertion, and the United Nations has said it has received no information that would back up the biological threat claim.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby called the Russian claim “a bunch of malarkey,” but in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, CIA Director William Burns also noted grave concern that Russia might be laying the groundwork for a chemical or biological attack of its own, which it would then blame on the U.S. or Ukraine in a false flag operation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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