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The largest nuclear power plant in Europe is now in Russian hands. Europe exhaled when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that the fire at the plant on Thursday night caused by Russian shelling was extinguished, that its six reactors were intact, and that there was no release of radioactive material from the plant.
But while the prospect of nuclear meltdown has receded for now, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear blackmail of Ukraine and the West continues.
The Zaporizhzhia plant, located in eastern Ukraine near the largely Russian-occupied Donbas, supplies 20 percent of Ukraine’s power, providing electricity to some four million Ukrainian homes.
One of four Soviet-built nuclear plants with 15 reactors in Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia was just one of the recipients of some 500 missiles Russian forces have fired at Ukrainian targets since Moscow’s invasion began. But the plant is no ordinary target.
Attacking a nuclear plant is an international war crime. And it will be added to the growing list of such crimes perpetrated by Russia’s president for which he may one day be held accountable when his aggression against Ukraine ends.
Had the fire spread and containment of the radioactive material failed, the spread of radioactivity throughout Europe could have made the 1986 accident at Chernobyl pale by comparison. “This is terrorism,” said Joseph Cirincione, the former head of the Ploughshares Fund, which focuses on nuclear nonproliferation and conflict resolution.
While the goal of Putin’s attack on the plant is unclear, Cirincione said that Russia may have seized the plant to cut off electricity to Ukrainians to force them to surrender, literally, “to freeze Ukraine.” If that is so, the attack on Zaporizhzhia may not be the only such assault on a nuclear facility.
Clearly the IAEA is concerned about another attack, though the agency seems uncertain about how to stop one. Rafael Mariano Grossi, the IAEA’s chief, announced today that he wanted to go to Chernobyl to try to hammer out nuclear rules of the road with Russia, but Moscow has yet to agree to such a meeting.
Even if Putin does not attack another nuclear plant, his decision to put his nuclear forces on higher alert – for the first time since the foundation of the Russian Federation in 1991 — and his continued threats to use his nuclear weapons should the U.S. and its NATO allies intervene to stop Russia’s destruction of Ukraine constitute another equally ominous prospect.
According to experts writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Russia has a stockpile of some 4,477 nuclear warheads assigned for use by long-range strategic launchers and tactical, or shorter-range forces.
Putin has warned anyone who intervenes that they would suffer “consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.” While many experts regard Putin’s threat as a bluff, it was a stark reminder that Russia – along with the U.S., France, Britain, and Pakistan, not to mention North Korea – have not ruled out using nuclear weapons first in a conflict. And some analysts warn that Putin’s threat to escalate in such a reckless way cannot easily be dismissed given his past conduct.
“Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he? Well, yes, he would,” said Fiona Hill, a former senior official at the U.S. National Security Council and specialist in Russian and European affairs.
In an interview with Politico, Hill, who has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations and has published a biography of Putin, cautioned that it would be dangerous for the U.S. to disregard Putin’s threat. “The thing about Putin is,” she said, “if he has an instrument, he wants to use it.”
“It’s not that we should be intimidated and scared,” she added. “We have to prepare for those contingencies and figure out what is it that we’re going to do to head them off.”