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The US assesses Russia is now in possession of weapons-capable Iranian drones that they will likely deploy on the battlefield in Ukraine, Biden administration officials tell CNN. The Russians picked up the drones from an Iranian airfield earlier this month and transported them back to Russia in cargo planes in mid-August, the officials said.
Russian officials began training on the drones in Iran late last month, CNN previously reported, and the US now believes that Russia has officially purchased and transferred the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series drones — the Shahed-129 and Shahed-191 — back to Russia, likely for use in the war in Ukraine.
Both types of UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are capable of carrying precision guided munitions and can be used for surveillance. Russian operators are still training on the drones inside Iran, the officials said, and the US believes that Russia intends to import hundreds of them to use for air-to-surface attacks, electronic warfare and targeting inside Ukraine.
US intelligence officials believe, however, that when tested, many of the drones Russia has purchased from Iran have already experienced numerous failures, the officials said, so it is unclear how much of a game changer they will be for the Russians when deployed.
The Washington Post first reported that the drones had been transferred to Russia.
More background: The Biden administration began warning in July that Russia was looking to purchase the drones amid acute supply shortages stemming from the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions that have stymied new production efforts. Satellite imagery revealed that month showed that a Russian delegation had visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice since June to examine weapons-capable drones.
The news of the drone transfers comes as the Biden administration has expressed cautious optimism about a possible deal to revive the Iran nuclear deal. The deal’s detractors say that a new deal will result in sanctions relief for Iran — and in turn, a financial windfall that could enable Iran’s malign activities throughout the region and beyond.
Ukrainian forces launched an attack on Monday at the Russian-occupied town of Nova Kakhovka, knocking out its electricity and water supply, according to Russian state media RIA Novosti, who cited a Moscow-appointed local authority.
RIA quoted the head of civil-military administration in the town, Vladimir Leontyev, as saying the consequences of the strike "will probably be terrible."
"You can't leave now. There was a lot of shelling, something exploded. There were strikes in the city and near the hydroelectric plant. We can see the fire in both places," Leontyev added.
After the city was left without electricity and water supply, authorities managed to outfit the hospitals with generators. They will start delivering water in the morning, Leontyev added.
A team of inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog is on its way to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine, according to the spokesperson for the country's foreign ministry, Oleg Nikolenko. He said the team is expected to start work at the plant in the next few days.
Meanwhile, a source told CNN that the Ukrainian military has taken four villages back from Russian occupation in the south near the city of Kherson as the battle for that region continues.
Here are the top headlines to know:
- UN nuclear watchdog on its way: A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is on its way to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, IAEA Chief Rafael Mariano Grossi tweeted Monday. The mission will assess damage to the plant’s facilities, evaluate the working conditions of the staff and perform urgent safeguard activities. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the international community should demand Russia’s withdrawal from the plant so as to ensure nuclear security. The Kremlin allegedly welcomed the news of the visit, saying the IAEA mission will enter Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant from the Ukrainian side, but Russia will ensure its safety on the territory occupied by the Russian army.
- New satellite images of Zaporizhzhia: Four holes have appeared in the roof of a building at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant near at least three Russian armored personnel carriers, according to new satellite images from Maxar Technologies. Russia has repeatedly claimed that they do not have any “heavy weaponry” at the plant. The holes in the building are almost 500 feet away from one of the nuclear reactors. CNN reached out to Ukrainian authorities about whether they conducted a military strike at the plant, but have not yet received a response. CNN has also reached out to Energoatom, Ukraine's state nuclear power plant authority for comment and to inquire on what the building's purpose is.
- Nuclear tensions rise: US government scientists are monitoring radiation sensor data at Zaporizhzhia, according to a senior US defense official, and have seen “no indications of increased or abnormal radiation levels so far.” The official said the US is pressuring Russia “to vacate the power plant and allow the Ukrainians to be able to operate it in peace.”
- Fighting in the south: Ukraine has begun a counteroffensive against Russian forces in southern part of the country, the White House said on Monday. John Kirby, the communications coordinator for the National Security Council, said Russia continue to have "manpower problems." Meanwhile, Moscow acknowledged the counteroffensive, but said the Ukrainian troops “suffered heavy losses” and “failed miserably” in their “attempted” offensive.
- More confirmed deaths: Russian shelling has killed at least two people and injured 11 more in Ukraine’s southern port city of Mykolaiv near the Black Sea Coast on Monday, according to Vitalii Kim, head of the Mykolaiv region civil military administration. Residential buildings and educational institutions were hit, he said.
- A cold winter: Ukrainians are expected to face the coldest winter in decades, with the state gas company set to lower temperatures across the country’s centralized Soviet-era heating systems. Yurii Vitrenko, the head of state gas company Naftogaz, warned that if Ukraine faces a coal shortage, power will need to be generated using gas, adding that if the country has to import additional gas, it will need funding from international partners.
The US believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree to increase the size of Russia's armed forces from 1.9 to 2.04 million is “unlikely to succeed, as Russia has historically not met personnel end strength targets,” according to a senior US defense official.
The official added, “any additional personnel Russia is able to muster by the end of the year may not in fact increase overall Russian … combat power” due to the measures Russia has taken to increase recruitment, such as “eliminating the upper age limit for new recruits, and also by recruiting prisoners.”
“Many of these new recruits have been observed as older, unfit and ill-trained,” the official, said, who reiterated that before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia “may have already been 150,000 personnel short of their million personnel goal.”
US government scientists are monitoring radiation sensor data at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, according to a senior US defense official, and have seen “no indications of increased or abnormal radiation levels so far.”
The official said the US is pressuring Russia “to vacate the power plant and allow the Ukrainians to be able to operate it in peace.”
“We’re very intent in ensuring that the IAEA can send its team into the plant and ensure the safety of those plant operations,” the official added.
IAEA mission to the plant: Principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said the US State Department “(hopes) that Russian lives up to its word and allows a full inspection of the facilities."
A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), led by its chief Rafael Grossi, is en route to the Russian-occupied power plant in southeastern Ukraine. Officials have warned of the risk of a catastrophic nuclear incident amid shelling near the facility. US and Ukrainian officials have called for a demilitarized zone around the plant.
Separately, a senior US military official said that “airstrikes and artillery bombardment that have gone on around the nuclear power plant,” and that the US knows “with great confidence that the Russians are firing from the area around the nuclear power plant,” as well as “using the nuclear power plant to store a bunch of their equipment.”
However, this official also said “there’s probably a likelihood” the Ukrainians have also fired in the vicinity of the plant.
“In a number of cases, it’s returning fire of the Russians who are firing from those locations,” said the official.
The United States has seen "an uptick in kinetic activity over the past few days” in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, according to a senior US military official, including “artillery and rockets.”
However, the official would not say this was a new “counteroffensive” or not as the US has seen Ukrainian forces “making some offensive moves in and around the Kherson pocket” over the last few weeks.
Earlier Monday: CNN reported that Ukrainian forces have begun "shaping" operations in southern Ukraine to prepare the battlefield for a significant Ukrainian counteroffensive, two senior US officials briefed on the intelligence told CNN.
Four holes have appeared in the roof of a building at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant near at least three Russian armored personnel carriers, according to new satellite images from Maxar Technologies.
The Russian-appointed leader for the Zaporizhzhia region, Vladimir Rogov, claimed that the holes were the result of a Ukrainian military strike on the complex. Rogov published photos showing one of the holes on his Telegram channel.
CNN has geolocated and confirmed the authenticity of the photos, but not the claims that the holes were the result of a Ukrainian military strike.
The Ukrainian government has repeatedly denied that they have conducted military strikes at or near the plant in recent weeks.
In the satellite images, at least three Russian armored personnel carriers are seen sitting underneath a large structure with pipes, which feed from the building into all six of the nuclear reactors.
More context: Russia has repeatedly claimed that they do not have any "heavy weaponry" at the nuclear power plant. The holes in the building are almost 500 feet away from one of the nuclear reactors at the plant.
CNN reached out to Ukrainian authorities about whether they conducted a military strike at the plant, but have not yet received a response. CNN has also reached out to Energoatom, Ukraine's state nuclear power plant authority for comment and to inquire on what the building's purpose is.
The satellite image also shows a fire burning just north of the plant.
Ukrainians are expected to face the coldest winter in decades, with the state gas company set to lower temperatures across the country’s centralized Soviet-era heating systems.
Indoor temperatures will be set at between 17 to 18 degrees Celsius (62.6 to 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit), Yurii Vitrenko, the head of state gas company Naftogaz, said on Monday.
That's around four degrees lower than normal for a country where temperatures can fall beyond the winter average of negative 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).
“If the winter is cold, there will not be enough gas for centralized heating without additional imports. Hence, there will not be enough power to supply heating to the population,” Vitrenko told CNN.
Vitrenko warned that if Ukraine faces a coal shortage, power will need to be generated using gas, adding that if the country has to import additional gas, it will need funding from international partners.
“Without the [western] financial support, we will lack gas and it will mean we’ll have really high risks for the power system [going] down,” Vitrenko said.
In a scenario, where there is not enough gas or coal, Ukraine could face power blackouts.
“We have a single energy system, so in case there is not enough coal, then gas will be needed but it won't be enough of it either. Then, accordingly, the energy system will not have enough electricity and we will have to resort to rolling blackouts across Ukraine,” Vitrenko said.