Russian troops have returned control of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl to the Ukrainians and left the heavily contaminated site early Friday. According to Ukrainian sources familiar with the matter, their retreat occurred approximately one month after taking it over.

However, heavy fighting continues in and around the capital of Kyiv and other fronts.

The Chernobyl reactor site. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty Images

Radioactive Russians

They didn’t leave empty-handed, however. Several Russian troops became quite ill as a result of their occupation. In addition, journalists on the ground have reported “ghost buses” of dead soldiers being transported from Belarus to Russia under cover of darkness.

Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-owned power company, says that the pullout occurred when Russian soldiers received large amounts of radiation after digging trenches in the exclusion zone around the long-closed plant. “Not surprisingly, the occupiers received significant doses of radiation and panicked at the first sign of illness. And it showed up very quickly.”, they went on to say.

The United Nations is sending representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on a mission to the radioactive waste facilities at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine. They made this call immediately after learning that Russian control of the dangerous site had ended.

Apparently, managing the highly toxic environment of the Chernobyl reactor site proved too much for the Russians to handle. As a result, the IAEA stated Thursday that Russia had formally “transferred control of the [plant] to Ukrainian personnel and moved two convoys of troops to Belarus.”

Russian soldiers seized control of Chernobyl shortly after their February 24 invasion. Yet, the plant’s Ukrainian staff were allowed to oversee day-to-day operations of the site and supervise the concrete-encased remains of the reactor that exploded on April 26, 1986, causing the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

Energoatom has stated in an online post that “According to the staff of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, there are now no outsiders on site.” Russian forces have also retreated from the nearby town of Slavutych, where workers at Chernobyl live, the company said.

Regrouping, Resupplying, and Redeploying

The withdrawal from Chernobyl took place at the same time the Kremlin seems to be using talks of de-escalation and ceasefires as cover for regrouping, resupplying, and redeploying their forces for a more violent offensive elsewhere in Ukraine This is particularly true in the eastern part of the nation.

Ukrainian President Zelensky has said that the recent Russian withdrawals were simply a military tactic designed to build up enemy forces for more aggressive attacks in the southeast.

“We know their intentions,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation. “We know that they are moving away from those areas where we hit them in order to focus on other, very important ones where it may be difficult for us.”

“There will be battles ahead,” he added.

Meanwhile in Mariupol

While the Russians were leaving Chernobyl, a convoy of 45 buses headed toward Mariupol in an ongoing attempt to evacuate the bombed-out port city during a short limited ceasefire. However, rather than allowing the buses access to the potential refugees, Russians blocked them, and only 631 people were allowed to escape the city in privately owned vehicles. This is according to sources in the Ukrainian government.

In addition, Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has informed the press that twelve Ukrainian buses were able to deliver 14 tons of food and medical supplies to Mariupol, but the aid was seized by hungry and undersupplied Russian troops instead of reaching Ukrainian citizens. 

Mariupol has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. From a prewar population of 430,000 people, an estimated 100,000 remain. The rest have managed to flee the city in the past few weeks with the help of numerous ongoing humanitarian efforts. The mayor’s office estimated four days ago that approximately 5,000 residents of Mariupol have died due to ongoing Russian attacks on the city.

Hope for the Future

Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, sits down with David Arakhamia of the Ukrainian delegation, in Istanbul, Turkey, on Tuesday. Image courtesy of Ukrainian Presidential Press Service Handout/EPA

A new round of talks has resumed today (albeit via video conferencing and not face to face), five weeks into the war that has left thousands dead and driven 4 million Ukrainians from their homeland.