We’re edging towards worst-case scenarios.

Last night, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed Zaporizhzhia will now be a state zone, meaning it can claim the entire region as part of its own. Russian lawmakers expedited the process of formalizing the annexation of different regions to officially wage “war” on Ukraine after months of saying their attacks were a simple “special military mission” to carve out Nazis living in Ukraine.

“The only way to save the inhabitants living in the territory of the four subjects is joining the Russian Federation,” Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, told parliamentarians. “This day was awaited for a long time, 30 years.”

And with this, Russia is pushing to isolate Zaporizhzhia even further by gaining control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).

“The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant is now on the territory of the Russian Federation and, accordingly, should be operated under the supervision of our relevant agencies,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin was quoted as saying by the Russia media outlet RIA.

Putin then signed an official decree designating the entirety of Zaporizhzhia as “federal property” of Russia. It is now one of the four regions Putin included in their official annexation referendum.

And just hours after this was announced, the Russian military attacked civilian residential areas in Zaporizhzhia, violating international humanitarian law and the laws and customs of war. In addition, Russians open-fired on Ukrainian positions that were carrying out remote mining operations and air reconnaissance.

The residential areas were greatly affected as the current death toll reached 23 (as of writing).

Protecting Zaporizhzhia, Legal Woes

Since March, many have called out ally nations to start barricading Zaporizhzhia. As a nuclear power complex that has a deep, dark tragedy behind it (Chernobyl), it is not hard to imagine history repeating itself. The Geneva Convention clearly identifies in Article 56 of Additional Protocol I that nuclear power plants, along with dams as “installations containing dangerous forces” and that these “shall not be made the object of attack” if “such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among civilian population.” Any violation of this prohibition will be considered a war crime. Additionally, any “civilian object” that is used as leverage is forbidden in Article 52.

“Parties to the conflict shall endeavor to avoid locating any military objectives in the vicinity of the works or installations,” as noted in Article 56.

If we follow the Articles to the letter, we can officially say that Russia is now a criminal state or a terrorist state for violating the Geneva Convention. However, as noted by Foreign Policy, it could be challenging to definitively protect Additional Protocol I in paper. Even though Ukraine has ratified it, Russia withdrew its ratification in 2019, according to Reuters. The United States has yet to ratify the additional protocol as well.

In Putin’s letter, he noted that the reason Russia is pulling out the ratified Protocol I is because the Convention “has effectively failed to carry out its functions since 1991.”

“In the current international environment, the risks of the commission’s power abuse by the states, which are acting in bad faith, are increasing significantly,” says the document cited by the website that documents laws proposed and passed by the Russian parliament. No further details were added to the removal of Protocol I, even though Russia is still a signatory to the Geneva Conventions.

As for the US, the Department of Defense Law of War Manual (Updated 2016) listed nine categories for objecting the Additional Protocol I, including that of which it is not adhering to “customary international law.”

“The military perceives that in international conflicts, many situations may arise where it is important to attack and destroy parts of an electric power grid, such as a nuclear or hydroelectric generating station,” the manual noted. Additionally, Protocol I states that the nuclear plant would cease to operate “if it provides electric power in regular, significant and direct support of military operations,” which, for Pentagon, would mean reactors made by the US for military use could also be legitimate targets for attack.

“In view of the near universal acceptance of the 1977 Additional Protocol I, the United States would be in a much stronger position to complain about Russia’s violations, including at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, if it itself accepted the obligation to adhere to the Additional Protocol, or at least modified the Defense Department’s War Manual to conform with it,” FP wrote.

“More broadly, US adherence is critical to making the prohibition against targeting and militarizing civilian nuclear power plants a firm part of international humanitarian law. Prohibitions against war crimes are notoriously difficult to enforce, but they have in instances been enforced. The deterrent effect depends on it.”

So, in the wake of an obviously civilian targeted attack, Russia could still, unfortunately, find a loophole in the Geneva Convention.