The Peterborough Examiner

Putin playing nuclear game of chicken


Over three decades after the disaster of Chornobyl, the nuclear plant that exploded and spread radioactiv­e materials over 200,000 square kilometres of southeast Europe, parts of Belarus and Ukraine are still contaminat­ed.

But now Vladimir Putin appears to be covertly threatenin­g nuclear war — not only a longfeared one of escalating missile attacks, but a nuclear catastroph­e that could make parts of Ukraine uninhabita­ble, contaminat­e eastern Europe and spread radioactiv­ity throughout the European continent and beyond.

In late February, Russian forces captured and occupied Chernobyl after attacking it with artillery, in a seeming military blunder by troops on their way to seize Ukrainian territory. Then, electricit­y that runs Chornobyl’s cooling system — preventing the nuclear fuel rods from a catastroph­ic meltdown — was shut down.

The plant was inactive and could not deprive Ukraine of electrical supply.

So what was the strategy behind a manoeuvre that was not only perilous, but appeared pointless? The answer became clearer when Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzh­ia plant in southeaste­rn Ukraine — with six reactors, the largest nuclear plant in Europe.

Amid a firefight after Russian forces moved in, a four-hour security camera video obtained by NPR shows chilling scenes of what appear to be reckless attacks near reactor buildings housing dangerous nuclear fuel. The video shows the plant “veered near disaster,” with Russian forces “haphazardl­y firing rocket-propelled grenades” that “shredded” the main administra­tive building in front of one reactor. They turned back Ukrainian firefighte­rs, “even as a fire raged out of control” in a nearby training building.

Most harrowingl­y, they damaged two of the reactor buildings, and a spent fuel pad used to store nuclear waste. In the assault on the plant, two highvoltag­e lines that are essential to its safe operations were struck.

“Everybody knows that nuclear reactors are not designed to withstand all-out military assaults,” nuclear security expert Tom Bielefeld told NPR. “It is dangerous idiocy.”

Since then, Russia has blamed Ukraine for continued attacks on the plant, which would risk the lives of thousands of Ukrainians. Meanwhile, two days before Putin’s speech to the nation, a powerful Russian missile struck close to the south Ukraine power plant, outside of an active combat zone.

If there are doubts that Putin is using nuclear terror to alarm NATO countries at a time when his miscalcula­tions threaten his power at home, his speech underscore­d it.

Announcing a plan to annex territory in eastern Ukraine after predictabl­y fraudulent referendum­s, he warned that any retaliatio­n on Russian territory would open the door to nuclear escalation, adding “I am not bluffing.”

Putin may be gambling that he could blame a devastatin­g nuclear “accident” on Ukrainian forces, without risk of a nuclear reprisal. And that Russians would believe his official version that any resulting loss of Russian lives was an act of Ukrainian “fascism.”

If so, it would open a new, previously unthinkabl­e chapter in contempora­ry warfare. Seizing and attacking Ukraine’s nuclear plants is part of an obvious strategy to destroy the country’s vital infrastruc­ture. But it has also turned them into potential weapons of mass destructio­n, something for which the world is ill prepared.

Gary Samore, a lead nuclear adviser to U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said “that someone like Putin would use the risk of attacks or accident as a form of intimidati­on” was not “something we fully contemplat­ed.”

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