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A day before Russia invaded Ukraine, it sent four highly trained armed guards across the border on a special mission to deliver fuel to an aging nuclear power facility.

Reactors based on Soviet designs generate power across the former Cold War bloc, accounting for more than half of all electricity in Ukraine and around two-fifths in a swath of territory arcing from Finland to Bulgaria. So the fuel shipment was routine enough — until President Vladimir Putin ordered his army to war.

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