Ukraine: Private Meeting and Open Briefing*
Tomorrow afternoon (25 January), the Security Council will convene for two meetings on Ukraine. The first is a private meeting that will be held at 3 pm EST under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item.* Initiated by France, the Council president this month, the meeting will focus on general nuclear issues, including the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and other nuclear sites in Ukraine. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi is the anticipated briefer. Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.
The second meeting, scheduled to take place after the private meeting under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item, was requested by Russia to discuss an incident that occurred this morning (24 January) involving the downing of a Russian military plane. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is the anticipated briefer. Ukraine is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.
Tomorrow’s meeting will be the second private meeting on Ukraine convened by the Council since the start of the war. (The first one, held on 27 October 2022, focused on Russian allegations that Ukraine was developing and planning to detonate a “dirty bomb” on its own territory, with the aim of accusing Russia of launching an attack with a tactical nuclear weapon.) It appears that the private meeting format was chosen for tomorrow to allow for a more candid discussion regarding the challenges facing nuclear safety and security in Ukraine. Like consultations, the private meeting format is closed to the public, but unlike them, it is considered a formal meeting of the Security Council and allows persons other than Council members and Secretariat officials to participate. A single copy of the meeting record is kept by the Secretary-General and can be viewed only by those who attended the meeting or other member states authorised by the Council. The Council’s rules of procedure also require that a communiqué be issued following a private meeting, unlike consultations, for which no written record is created. Tomorrow’s private meeting will mark Grossi’s sixth briefing to the Council on this file; his most recent such briefing was on 30 May 2023.
The ZNPP, Europe’s largest nuclear power station, supplied 30 percent of Ukraine’s electricity prior to Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Russian forces have had control over the ZNPP since March 2022. On 1 September 2022, the IAEA established a Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia (ISAMZ) to assess the physical damage to the ZNPP’s facilities, determine whether the main and back-up safety and security systems were functional, and evaluate the staff’s working conditions, in addition to performing urgent safeguards activities on the site. Since its establishment, the ISAMZ has conducted 15 expert missions.
At the 30 May 2023 Security Council briefing, Grossi presented five concrete principles needed to prevent a nuclear accident in Ukraine, which he asked both parties to the conflict to observe. These principles are: avoiding the use of the plant as a launch site for attacks or as a target; ensuring that the plant is not used for storing heavy weapons or as a base for military personnel; safeguarding off-site power sources; protecting all crucial structures, systems, and components from attacks or sabotage; and refraining from any actions that would compromise these principles.
The nuclear safety and security situation at the ZNPP continues to be very fragile and dangerous. While five of the plant’s six nuclear reactors have been in cold shutdown since September 2022, a significant amount of radioactive material remains at the ZNPP. Moreover, the plant has lost external power eight times since the start of the war due to shelling in the area, prompting its emergency diesel generators to activate in order to facilitate the uninterrupted cooling of the plant’s reactors and spent fuel pools. (The most recent incident occurred on 2 December 2023.) The ZNPP currently relies on two of its four external power lines for operation.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Grossi is expected to provide an overview of the safety and security of the ZNPP and other nuclear sites in Ukraine. He is likely to highlight the impact of ongoing hostilities on the seven pillars for nuclear safety and security, which include physical integrity and reliable external power. Grossi may stress that the situation at the ZNPP remains perilous. A 19 January IAEA update notes that “the plant’s vulnerable power status remains one of the main dangers for nuclear safety and security at the site”. The update also revealed that mines, which were removed from the ZNPP’s perimeter in November 2023, were “back in place”, a move considered inconsistent with IAEA safety standards.
Additionally, it appears that ZNPP personnel will not be implementing a comprehensive maintenance plan in 2024, based on information provided to the IAEA ISAMZ team. The importance of a “well-established maintenance plan and its timely implementation” is stressed in the update. Grossi may also note that while the ISAMZ team continues to conduct “walkdowns” at the nuclear site, it has occasionally been denied access to certain reactor halls. In this regard, Grossi is likely to call for unrestricted access for the IAEA team at tomorrow’s meeting.
Council members are likely to present a common position on the importance of the safety and security of the ZNPP and other nuclear sites in Ukraine and express their support for the IAEA’s efforts in this regard. However, they will voice diverging opinions about which side is responsible for instigating attacks around the site.
Russia is likely to accuse Ukraine of compromising the safety of the ZNPP and its personnel. In a 29 December 2023 interview, Russian Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov accused Ukraine of launching 20 “kamikaze” drones per day towards the plant. Kyiv, for its part, denies these claims and has previously accused Russia of deploying heavy weaponry at the site and using it as a staging ground to launch attacks against Ukraine.
Several Council members are expected to condemn the seizure of Ukrainian nuclear facilities by Russian forces and call on Moscow to hand back control of the ZNPP to Ukraine. These members are likely to urge Russia to abide by the IAEA’s seven pillars and Grossi’s five principles for ensuring nuclear safety and security.
Russia requested the open briefing to discuss the downing of a Russian military aircraft earlier today (24 January). In a press statement released this morning, Moscow alleged that the aircraft, an Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane, was shot down over Russia’s Belgorod region by Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles. According to the statement, the plane was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs), along with six Russian crew members and three Russian soldiers, all of whom were killed in the crash. The Russian Ministry of Defense reported that the aircraft was on route to a prisoner exchange that was scheduled to occur at the Kolotilovka checkpoint, located on the Russia-Ukraine border. Moscow has condemned the incident, labelling it a “terrorist act” and asserting that it was a “deliberate and conscious action” by Ukraine.
The intelligence agency of Ukraine’s Defence Ministry acknowledged in a Telegram post that a prisoner exchange was scheduled for today. It said that Ukraine had met all the required conditions for the exchange. However, the agency highlighted that Ukraine lacked “reliable and comprehensive information” about the identities of those on board the downed plane. Additionally, the post said that Russia had not communicated with Ukraine regarding the need to secure safe airspace over the Belgorod region. The post also suggested that the incident might be a strategic and deliberate act by Russia “with the aim of destabilizing the situation in Ukraine and weakening international support”.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to reiterate their established positions on the conflict in Ukraine. Russia is expected to accuse Ukraine of intentionally sabotaging the POW exchange. It is also likely to allege that Ukraine employed Western-supplied weapons to down the Russian military aircraft. Kyiv is likely to reject these accusations, denying any involvement in the aircraft’s downing.
Several members are expected to express concern over the incident, underscoring the potential negative effect it may have on future POW exchanges. Ukraine and Russia have engaged in multiple prisoner exchanges since the beginning of the war. The most significant exchange occurred earlier this month, which was facilitated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and involved the release of 478 prisoners.
Some members may emphasise the importance of conducting an impartial investigation into the incident’s circumstances. A relevant precedent in this regard is a fact-finding mission established by Secretary-General António Guterres in August 2022 to investigate the circumstances surrounding an explosion on 29 July 2022 at a Russian-controlled detention facility near Olenivka in the Donetsk region. The explosion killed over 50 Ukrainian POWs, leading to mutual recriminations between Russia and Ukraine. Russia alleged that Ukraine launched a missile attack on the facility, while Ukraine claimed that the soldiers were killed by a blast instigated by Russia. In response to requests from both Kyiv and Moscow, Guterres announced the establishment of a fact-finding mission on 3 August 2022 to investigate the Olenivka explosion. However, on 5 January 2023, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric confirmed the disbanding of the mission, citing “the absence of conditions required for the deployment of the mission to the site” as the main reason.
Several members are expected to condemn Russia for its intensified air attacks in recent weeks. According to a 15 January Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) protection of civilians in armed conflict update, December 2023 witnessed a 26.5 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to November 2023, mainly due to intensified Russian missile and loitering munitions attacks. The update noted that 84 percent of civilian casualties and 92 percent of damage to education and health facilities occurred in government-controlled territory as opposed to Russian-held areas.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Russia is also expected to voice objections to the French presidency’s management of its request for a Security Council meeting concerning today’s incident. Russia had requested an urgent meeting to be convened at 3 pm EST today. However, due to the continuation of the pre-scheduled quarterly open debate on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question” set to resume at the same time, France arranged for the briefing to take place tomorrow, following the private meeting on Ukraine. This scheduling falls within the 48-hour practice observed by Security Council members for convening a requested meeting.
Post-script (25 January, 3:30 pm): An earlier version of this story indicated that the private meeting will take place under the “Maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine” agenda item. Following the story’s publication, the agenda item of the private meeting was changed to “Threats to international peace and security”. The story was amended to reflect this change.