Relocations: ‘Truth is the first casualty of war’

Two power stations at Enerhodar, about 50 km from Zaporozhye in Ukraine, viewed from across the Kakhovka Reservoir on the river Dnieper. Photo taken from the “Nikopol” shore. The nearer power station is Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the biggest nuclear power station in Europe, consisting of two cooling towers (one largely obscured by the other) at the left and six VVER reactor buildings. Image via Wikimedia by Ralf1969 used under terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
September 15, 2022

When the IAEA reported what it found at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex, it was oddly silent about the source of the shelling

By Herbert Rothschild

All sides to an armed conflict lie. They lie about what their opponents do and they lie about what they do. This should be the working assumption of news media. State-run media can’t act on it; U.S. media can and should.

Herbert Rothschild

Most weeknights Deborah and I watch the PBS NewsHour. It seems informative and reliable. But each time it reported on Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex, I’d ask Deborah, “Why would the Russians shell a facility it controls in a territory it occupies?”

Finally, we were told. Nick Shifrin, who covers international and military affairs, was speaking with an official with the Ukrainian nuclear agency. When Shifrin asked him that question, the official said the Russians wanted to cut the transmission lines from the Ukrainian power grid running into the plant. This answer satisfied Shifrin and presumably NewsHour viewers.

Why? Why would the Russians, who are at the site where the lines come into the plant, use artillery to disconnect them? My guess is that they just threw some switches when the connection was severed on Aug. 25. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which sent a delegation to the plant on Sept. 1, all six of the reactors are now shut down for safety reasons.

When the IAEA reported its findings on Sept. 6, it was oddly silent about the source of the shelling. It’s unlikely that it couldn’t locate any of the spent ordinance, which would have settled the question. A more likely answer is that in the UN, of which it is an agency, Ukraine is regarded (rightly) as a victim of Russian aggression, so it wouldn’t be politic to suggest that Ukrainian actions threaten a transnational nuclear catastrophe. Better to remain silent and call for a secure zone around the plant, which it did. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s response to that call was to endorse it if Russian forces had to leave the territory. Ukraine, which occupies territory west of the Dnipro River, has been trying to dislodge them from the east side, where the plant is.

Ukraine also floated another explanation: Russian shelling of the plant is a “false flag” so Russia can blame the shelling on Ukraine. That has become a popular way to deflect blame from people responsible for a crime. You may remember that Alex Jones called the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School a false flag. More to the point, that is the way Ukraine explained an earlier artillery shelling of a Russian-run POW camp in Olenivka, in the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. In July, more than 50 Ukrainian prisoners died and many more were wounded in an explosion there.

Again, it’s reasonable to ask why the Russians would fire artillery at a POW camp they are running. Ukraine claimed it was to cover up evidence of torture. If there was torture, wouldn’t a surer way to silence the prisoners be to execute them? Then all of them would die and no Russian guards would be endangered. But we also need to ask why Ukraine would shell the camp. There is an answer, plausible but not certain.

The camp held many members of the Azov Regiment who had surrendered when Mariupol fell to Russian troops in May. The Azov Regiment, formerly the Azov Brigade before it was incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard, was founded in 2014 as a volunteer paramilitary militia. It was notorious for its openly neo-Nazi identity. There were allegations that its members engaged in torture and other war crimes during the fighting to subdue the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia had begun to release videos allegedly documenting confessions by the Azov Regiment prisoners of their crimes. Such evidence would bolster Russia’s shaky narrative that it is liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazi control.

Why try to get to the truth of these matters? After all, Russia is unquestionably the aggressor in this war. A narrow but immensely important answer is that if Ukraine has been responsible for shelling in the vicinity of the nuclear power complex at Zaporizhzhia, it has to stop and the U.S. can make it stop. A more encompassing answer is that lies always impede the resolution of conflicts. That’s true of this conflict and the Great Power games for which, in a wider dimension, the war in Ukraine is a proxy.

Currently, the Kyiv government is demanding only one resolution — withdrawal of Russian military presence from all of what it considers its territory. That includes the two breakaway republics and Crimea, which was Russian territory, not Ukrainian, from the reign of Catherine the Great until Khrushchev declared it part of Ukraine when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. U.S. leaders, I suspect, would like a prolonged conflict. It has pried the rest of Europe away from Russia, it drains Russia’s resources, and it enriches our weapons industry without risking American lives.

War, though, is atrocious. Civilians and combatants alike are killed, maimed, and forced to flee their homes. Human works are ruined. The environment is bespoiled. The world’s wealth is wasted. The sooner this war ends, the better, but ending it will be difficult. Lying makes it even harder to search for a resolution that will address the concerns of all parties.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Email him at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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