Russia captured the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in the opening days of the war on March 3rd of this year when Russian troops fought it out with Ukrainian security forces at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant which supplies 25% of Ukraine’s electricity.
Ukraine’s security forces were routed and Russian troops took control of the facility. On March 12th, the Ukrainian technicians running the nuclear facility were informed that the power plant was now owned by Rosatom, the nuclear power company of the Russian Federation. The staff were informed that they would be remaining at the plant to run it for the new owners indefinitely.
Since that time the plant workers and their families have lived as virtual hostages.
Russian troops began to fortify the area around the plant and used it to station a battery of self-propelled guns, believing that the presence of 6 nuclear reactors nearby would shield them from counter-battery fire from Ukraine. Instead, Ukraine attacked the Russian forces with switchblade drones, able to target tanks, trucks, and other targets with small warheads unlikely to do any damage to the reactors.
Concerned about conditions at the plant, including its required maintenance and safety procedures being followed, the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency demanded access to the plant with a team of inspectors. The Russians welcomed the inspectors saying they would see Russian troops protecting the plant and accused Ukraine of shelling it. Ukraine was against the inspection because of fears it would legitimize Russia’s seizure and theft of the nuclear plant.
That is a problem, in violation of all kinds of international conventions and protocols, the Russians have stationed military assets inside the facility in close proximity to the reactor buildings, all but daring the Ukrainians to bomb them. And Ukraine could, those trucks and armored personnel carriers are legitimate military targets, its on the Russians not to locate them close to civilian homes and things like nuclear reactor plants, but instead they are using them as shields to protect these military targets from bombing.
So what is Russian doing with this purloined reactor? They are trying to blackmail Europe with it while preparing to cut off Ukraine from electric power coming into winter. By doing everything short of bombing it themselves(Which they may in fact be doing) the Russians are hoping to spook Europe into thinking another nuclear disaster on a Chernobyl-sized scale is imminent.
The big brains at Ukraine’s Hydro-Meteorological Research Institute and their National Academy of Sciences are already modeling how the radiation would spread in the event of an accident at the Zaporizhzhia plant. The radioactive cloud would pass over Poland, Hungary, Romania, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Moldova, Serbia, Czechia and Bulgaria.
The UK, in the person of Tobias Ellwood MP, has warned Russia that “ANY deliberate damage causing potential radiation leak to a Ukrainian nuclear reactor would be a breach of NATO’s Article 5.” Ellwood is Chair of the Defence Select Committee at the House of Commons of the UK Parliament, not just some blowhard politician. While this is not the same as an official statement issued by NATO or by the White House, it is par for the course for both NATO and the US to pretend it is not noticing provocations from Russia so as to not provoke them further. This is probably a mistake in dealing with a guy like Putin and a country like Russia, where unanswered provocations are received as an engraved invitation for further provocations.
It’s actually pretty unlikely that the Russians would intentionally destroy a nuclear reactor for a pretty simple reason, its really valuable and not easy to rebuild or replace. It’s worth billions of dollars and from a strategic standpoint, it’s worth more intact than destroyed.
Most wars, once you peal away all the ideological puffery and high-minded rhetoric about saving the world from tyranny are about controlling valuable resources. I remember back in the 1980s being asked if I was willing to go to war over oil, I used to reply, “Well, I dunno, you got any better reasons than the stuff powering the world’s economies?”
By holding this nuclear power plant, Russia is controlling 25% of Ukraine’s electric generating power as we approach winter. Ukraine is also in the top five world exporters of grain(food is a resource) and Ukraine is a major producer of both oil and natural gas. It holds 1% of the world’s proven reserves in natural gas, which is more than 39 trillion cubic feet. 80% of that is East of the Dnepro River, which is where Russia is desperately trying to maintain a foothold.
Ukraine also has about 400 million barrels of oil still in the ground.
In fact, for a very long time, most of the oil and natural gas coming from Russia was passing through pipelines located in Ukraine and flowing into Western Europe. This is wht Russia wanted to build NORD STREAM II so badly. It was an all Russian pipeline under the Baltic Sea direct from Russia to Germany, bypassing the Ukrainian pipelines and the transit fees they charged to move Russian oil and gas through them.
So forget all the noise coming from Russia about Ukrainian brotherhood and historical ties to Russia. For the Kremlin, this war is really about controlling valuable resources, like energy and food for political leverage in Europe and around the world. SOFREP’s Kaj Larsen wrote an excellent piece for us about that here.
Adding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in Europe would be icing on cake in terms of the energy holdings of the Russian Federation.