Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council
If there’s one takeaway from Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine more than six months in, it’s that old Kremlin habits persist, no matter how threatening to humanity’s existence.
We saw that just a few days into the invasion when Russian troops took over the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, site of the 1986 disaster, by installing their own officials, ransacking staff quarters and ordering soldiers to dig trenches in highly radioactive soil – nearly 36 years later it’s still one of the most nuclear-contaminated areas in the world.
You’d think that the enormity of the incident, which contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, would’ve encouraged Kremlin military planners to steer well clear of Chornobyl. The explosion and subsequent fire at Reactor Number Four released 50 million curies of radiation – the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs. As Harvard’s Serhii Plokhy put it: “If the other three reactors of the Chornobyl power plant had been damaged by the explosion of the first, then hardly any living and breathing organisms would have remained on the planet.”
Looking back at how the then-Soviet regime of Mikhail Gorbachev tried to coverup the Chornobyl accident and looking now at how Russian forces are treating the situation at the occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), Europe’s largest, it doesn’t seem as if any brain muscle memory from Chornobyl remains at the upper political and military structures in Moscow.
In fact, the exact same level of stupidity, carelessness and callousness seems to be alive and well.
As Ukrainian experts reminded a group of us a few weeks back at a Kyiv media briefing, nuclear power plants aren’t designed to be operated in a war zone. And when the staff at those plants are forced to operate at gunpoint – as was the case in Chornobyl in March and currently at the ZNPP – the room for error is narrowed considerably.
As of Monday, the ZNPP had been disconnected from Ukraine’s national power grid. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the cut-off has once again placed the plant “a step away from a radiation catastrophe.”
One of my biggest fears is that, with Russian losses on the battlefield in Ukraine mounting and with the Kremlin likely to grasp for an exit strategy from its so-called special military operation, it will use the ZNPP as a bargaining chip to gain more concessions. Another chilling scenario is that Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to avoid humiliation by creating a contamination event on the premise that it will require his forces to evacuate certain occupied areas. According to the typical Russian playbook, the incident will be labelled an accident to allow room for plausible deniability. (On Monday, Russian officials in occupied Kherson delayed a so-called referendum on security grounds).
On the bright side, investigators from the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have not only negotiated their way onto the site of the occupied ZNPP but also established a permanent monitoring presence. But with plant staff being forced to work at gunpoint, Russian artillery and machinery still on the premises and live fire in the area, a potential disaster is highly possible.
There is one way to put pressure on Moscow to either evacuate from the plant or at least agree to a demilitarized zone. That’s to threaten Rosatom, a Russian crown jewel state company responsible for atomic energy, with sanctions that would make it tough to do business in the dozens of countries where it operates.
So far, Western allies have shied away from sanctioning Rosatom, ostensibly on the basis that it provides nuclear fuel to dozens of countries, including the United States. Canada, which has mostly bungled its response to the Ukraine crisis, could play a leading role by sanctioning Rosatom and encouraging its allies to follow suit.
Despite a sanctions list targeting almost 3,000 individuals and entities in Russia and Belarus – from Gazprom and Russian-backed thugs in the occupied Donbas to the Night Wolves Motorcycle Club – Rosatom remains off Canada’s list. Rosatom has a number of projects worldwide where sanctions would prove painful.
More than three decades after Kremlin leaders allowed an avoidable accident to escalate into a global catastrophe, it is time for Western leaders to grow a spine to stand up to Russia. Before humanity is pushed to the brink with another nuclear catastrophe, they can send a clear message to Moscow by slapping sanctions on Rosatom and its top management.
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