How Putin is using the threat of a new Chernobyl to punish Ukraine

After weeks of global calls for Russia to allow international inspectors into the occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the world welcomed news that French President Emanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to inspections and demilitarization of the plant.

But murky details and circumstances of the agreement should give observers pause. While the agreement appears to be a positive step away from a nuclear cliff, Putin may be looking to take advantage of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections to twist the narrative on Russia’s game of nuclear brinkmanship.

There are real questions as to whether the agency will be able to conduct the kind of monitoring needed for stability in this situation, in part because it draws its inspectors from the countries involved in its activities — its Russia inspection team is awash in former officials from the Russian state nuclear agency, including the IAEA’s top nuclear energy official, Mikhail Chudakov.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s reactor exploded on April 26, 1986.
Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Captured by Russian forces early in the invasion of Ukraine, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — Europe’s largest nuclear power facility — has been used by Russia as a nuclear shield to stockpile weapons and fire on Ukrainian forces. At the same time, Russia has worked to integrate the plant into the Russian energy grid, threatening Ukraine’s power supply as the country braces for a brutal winter.

If any agreement over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is going to have an impact, the IAEA’s inspection team should not include any observers who have previously worked for Rosatom or Ukraine’s Energoatom. The inspections must be carried out by experienced officials from third countries to ensure a fairer assessment of the nuclear plant, and officials should have full access to the plant, not just what Russia wants them to see.

Tensions have ratcheted up in recent weeks as Russian officials threatened to use a catastrophe at the plant to turn Ukraine into “scorched desert,” while simultaneously claiming that Ukraine planned a “false flag” provocation to blame Russia for a disaster at the plant. Ukrainian officials in turn claimed Russia had mined the plant, turning it into something of a nuclear suicide bomb.

Whether Putin has really agreed to an inspection of the plant by the IAEA remains unclear though, with a statement by the Kremlin paraphrasing the conversation saying that Putin “noted the importance of sending an IAEA mission” and that Russia was “ready to assist” the inspectors. According to the French president’s press service, Putin agreed to an inspection mission, pending discussions.

Even so, chances that Russia seeks to earnestly lower the risk of nuclear catastrophe are slim. The war in Ukraine has laid bare Moscow’s disregard for civilians and even its own soldiers — Russia’s initial invasion recklessly sent unprepared troops straight through Chernobyl, ripping up radioactive earth and getting many of them sick. Negotiations with Moscow are also fraught. In July, Russia and Ukraine agreed to deals with the UN and Turkey to allow desperately needed Ukrainian grain to safely ship through the Black Sea, only for Russian forces to bomb the port of Odesa the next day.

Putin’s promises hold little weight on their own. In one of the last calls between Macron and Putin back in February, the Russian leader assured his French counterpart that Russia had no plans to invade Ukraine — Macron laughed as he hung up and his adviser reportedly danced alongside him. Four days later, Putin’s forces rolled across Ukraine’s border.

Russian trenches and firing positions are set up in the highly radioactive Red Forest near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Russian trenches and firing positions are set up in the highly radioactive Red Forest near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Efrem Lukatsky/AP

It remains a distinct possibility that Putin may allow international monitors at Zaporizhzhia before violating the agreement, as has happened before.

Still, if Macron and Guterres have indeed successfully brokered an agreement to bring increased stability to the nuclear plant, it represents the second major diplomatic victory in the war after last month’s grain deal. But they need to ensure it’s a deal designed to truly stabilize the situation in Zaporizhzhia, not just give Russia good press.

A deal to demilitarize the power plant, however, would not end the Russian threat to Ukraine’s energy grid. Russian forces would still occupy the territory surrounding the plant even if Moscow and Kyiv agreed to a demilitarization deal and could continue plans to disconnect the plant from Ukraine’s grid.

Analysts warn that such a move would not only endanger Ukraine’s power supply but might also destabilize the plant itself. Cutting power to the plant could lead to the exact nuclear disaster that international negotiations are trying to prevent.

Vladimir Putin smiles during the opening ceremony of the International Military Technical Forum on August 15 in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin smiles during the opening ceremony of the International Military Technical Forum on Aug. 15 in Moscow.
Contributor/Getty Images

Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has unleashed a parade of calamities—from fueling a global food crisis, threatened nuclear devastation, and the killing of over ten thousand Ukrainian civilians and the kidnapping of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children, to be raised as Russians.

The best way to ensure stability at Zaporizhzhia is by Russian forces leaving the plant. The best way to ensure stability in Ukraine is to make sure Ukrainians have the weapons to keep them out.

Andrew D’Anieri and Doug Klain are assistant directors at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center in Washington, DC. Follow them on Twitter @Andrew_Danieri and @DougKlain.

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