Russian troops who have occupied the non-functional Chernobyl nuclear power plant have now left and retreated after obtaining signs of illness. They were allegedly exposed to a significant amount of radiation.

The Russians had control over the nuclear power plant on February 24 as they were trying to establish the quickest route they could take from Belarus to Kyiv in order to capture the city. Earlier reports said that there were no changes in radiation levels following the capture. However, the threat remained that if explosives were to compromise the existing nuclear instruments in the powerplant, it would pose a significant risk to Ukraine and Europe.

It can be remembered that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded and spewed radioactive waste across Europe in April 1986. Since then, the reactor that had exploded has been covered by a protective shelter to prevent the radiation from leaking.

The Russian soldiers who were stationed in Chernobyl after they captured it allegedly dug trenches in the forest found in the exclusion zone, according to Ukraine’s state power company, Energoatom. After digging and staying in the area for too long, they have allegedly been exposed to “significant doses” of radiation. According to a report by Reuters, a worker at the plant said that the soldiers “had no idea they were in a radiation zone”; however, this was not independently verified.

The troops panicked when they saw the first signs of illness, which according to reports, “showed up very quickly.” After that scare, they decided to leave the plant and head to Belarus. Forces from the nearby town of Slavutych also retreated. The company also mentioned that the Russians had formally agreed to hand back the nuclear power plant to Ukraine and, with it, the responsibility of protecting and maintaining it. The document bearing the signed agreement between the Russian forces and a senior member of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant staff cannot be verified independently.

In a statement by nuclear expert Edwin Lyman to the Associated Press, it was unlikely that the troops or people, in general, would develop radiation-related illnesses as the contaminated materials would be buried or covered with new topsoil. He also said that it was possible that the soldiers might have been exposed to a certain radiation “hot spot” while digging trenches, which could be the source of the risk.

However, a number of analysts have said that the Russians were retreating to resupply in preparation for another offensive elsewhere. A report by France 24 quoted an unnamed US official saying that Chernobyl was one of the areas where the Russians wanted to reposition their troops.

“Chernobyl is (an) area where they are beginning to reposition some of their troops — leaving, walking away from the Chernobyl facility and moving into Belarus.”

This comes from the Russia-Ukraine peace talks held in Turkey, where the Russian delegation had promised to ease up their military activities in Northern Ukraine. However, just a day after this promise, they had shelled and bombed the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, to which the Ukrainian government called the Russians a bunch of liars.

Military experts have said that the Russian troops were not actually leaving but were just repositioning and resupplying following massive losses on the battlefield. British military intelligence reported that various Russian units were forced to return to Belarus to “reorganize and resupply.” According to them, this was a sign that Russia had strained logistics and could not supply its troops in forwarding areas in Ukraine.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg concurred with these reports and also said that the Russians were not actually retreating and easing military activities in Northern Ukraine but were actually “trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce” for a potential offensive in the Donbas region, where Ukrainian forces still hold several parts of the region.

“We have heard the recent statements that Russia will scale down military operations around Kyiv and in northern Ukraine. But Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions. So we can only judge Russia on its actions, not on its words,” Stoltenberg said in a statement.

“According to our intelligence, Russian units are not withdrawing but repositioning. Russia is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region. At the same time, Russia maintains pressure on Kyiv and other cities. So we can expect additional offensive actions, bringing even more suffering,” he added.

It was also reported by the British Ministry of Defense that several units from Georgia were being prepared to be sent into Ukraine as reinforcements. They said that “Between 1,200 and 2,000 of these Russian troops are being reorganized into 3x Battalion Tactical Groups.”