Vladimir Putin uses nuclear terror to alarm NATO countries as his miscalculations threaten his power at home

“No matter who tries to get in our way or let alone create threats to our country and our people, they must know that Russia will react immediately, and the consequences will be such as you never have. seen throughout your history.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, February 23, 2022.

More than three decades after the Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear power plant that exploded and spread radioactive material over 200,000 square kilometers of southeastern Europe, parts of Belarus and Ukraine are still contaminated.

In 1986, the Chernobyl explosion spread 400 times more radioactivity than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

But now Vladimir Putin appears to be secretly threatening another nuclear war – not just a dreaded escalation of missile attacks, but a nuclear catastrophe that could render 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 an apparent military error by troops en route to seize Ukrainian territory. Then the electricity that powers Chernobyl’s cooling system – preventing nuclear fuel rods from catastrophic meltdown – was cut off.

The plant was inactive and could not deprive Ukraine of electricity supply. So what was the strategy of a maneuver that was not only perilous, but which seemed useless? The answer became clearer when Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhia power plant in southeastern Ukraine – with six reactors, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

Amid a firefight after Russian forces arrived, 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 factory “veered to the brink of disaster”, with Russian forces “randomly firing rocket-propelled grenades” which “shredded” the main administrative building in front of a reactor. They turned back the Ukrainian firefighters, “even as a fire raged out of control” in a nearby training building.

More heartbreakingly, they damaged two of the reactor buildings and a spent fuel platform used to store nuclear waste. During the assault on the factory, two high voltage lines essential to the safety of its operation were hit.

“Everyone knows that nuclear reactors are not designed to withstand all-out military attack,” nuclear security expert Tom Bielefeld told NPR. “That’s dangerous nonsense.”

Since then, Russia has accused Ukraine of continuing to attack the plant, which would risk the lives of thousands of Ukrainians. Meanwhile, two days before Putin’s address to the nation, a powerful Russian missile hit near Ukraine’s southern power plant, outside an active combat zone.

If there is any doubt that Putin is using nuclear terror to alarm NATO nations at a time when his miscalculations threaten his power at home, his speech underlined it.

Announcing a plan to annex territories in eastern Ukraine after predictably fraudulent referendums, he warned that any retaliation on Russian territory would open the door to nuclear escalation, adding: “I don’t bluff.”

Putin may be betting that he could blame a devastating nuclear “accident” on Ukrainian forces, without the risk of nuclear retaliation. And that the 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, hitherto unthinkable chapter in contemporary warfare. Seizing and attacking Ukrainian nuclear power 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 the world is ill-prepared for.

Gary Samore, a top nuclear adviser to US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said “that someone like Putin would use the risk of attacks or accidents as a form of intimidation” was not “something we fully envisioned”.

Olivia Ward is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Star. She won a National Newspaper Award for her reporting on the war in Chechnya.

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