The history of warfare has no precedent for what is happening right now in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Never before has a nuclear power plant been on the front line of a major war, and indeed a main object of the warring parties’ strategies.
How Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the world handle this moment of peril is becoming a test of how war will be waged in our time—and whether it can ever be limited.
There are reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has told his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, that the Kremlin would allow international monitors to visit the nuclear plant in question to guarantee its safety. If Putin means that, it would be encouraging. But he habitually lies about his intentions, as he did before his invasion of Ukraine half a year ago.
The plant, called ZNPP, is the largest in Europe. Before Putin’s attack, it supplied about one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity. The Russians took it in March and have held it since. But the employees—originally about 11,000, many of whom have fled—are still Ukrainian. These engineers are now hostages. They’re keeping the reactors safe and running, but at gunpoint.
Tactically, the Russians are using ZNPP as a shield. They’re sheltering troops, weapons and ammo near the reactors and the stored nuclear waste on the assumption that the Ukrainians won’t dare to obliterate them with artillery, lest the explosions cause a radioactive leak or even a meltdown.
By firing from the plant at the Ukrainian troops across the Dnipro River, the Russians are also tying down the defender’s army and thereby slowing the Ukrainian counterattack to retake the country’s south.
Strategically, the Russians are planning to disconnect ZNPP from the Ukrainian electricity grid and link it to their own. In effect, they’re hoping to steal a large part of Ukraine’s power supply. This involves destroying—detonating, basically—the transmission lines at the plant, which is unbelievably dangerous.
The Ukrainians have the opposite objectives. They want to liberate their compatriots inside the plant. They want to keep its electricity flowing to Ukraine rather than to enemy-occupied regions. And they want to clear the plant of Russian occupiers so they can move on to retake the rest of southern Ukraine.
Above all, though, the Ukrainians want to prevent a nuclear catastrophe reminiscent of that at Chernobyl in 1986, just up the Dnipro. And they share this objective with the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as countries in the West, East, South, North and middle—that is, with all of humanity. Presumably, that even includes people in the Kremlin.
The nature of the peril is what makes this situation unprecedented. A radioactive cloud in Zaporizhzhia would waft wherever the winds carry it. It could show up in western Europe, the Middle East, in Belarus, Russia, or somewhere else.
Because such a disaster would be impossible to contain geographically, it would also be hard to limit militarily, strategically and geopolitically. It would spread panic far and wide, and could draw other countries into the conflict.
To prevent these horror scenarios, Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA, has repeatedly pleaded for a timeout in Zaporizhzhia to let the agency send a team of monitors to assure ZNPP’s safety. After a conference call with Macron over the weekend, the leaders of the US, UK and Germany also called on Putin to allow such an inspection.
One problem is that even though the situation is new, human nature is timeless. The first casualty in war is always the truth, as the old maxim has it. We know that things are exploding around ZNPP. But we can’t confirm who’s doing the shooting.
The Russians naturally blame the Ukrainians for the shelling. That seems implausible. Yes, the Ukrainians would, if they could, liberate the plant with special forces. But they’d hardly destroy a big source of their own electricity at the risk of releasing radioactivity in their own country—in effect, mass suicide.
The Ukrainians in turn say that the Russians are deliberately provoking an escalation, and even preparing to stage “false flag operations.” Given the track record of Putin, a KGB man who spent most of his career manipulating reality with disinformation and lies, I find this more plausible.
This points to another timeless problem made acute by this crisis. It’s the eternal tension described by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian veteran of the Napoleonic wars who became a philosopher on war. Even when generals want to keep conflict limited, war itself seems to want to become absolute.
The Ukrainians obviously don’t want to cede ZNPP to the Russians, for that would be a major setback in their existential struggle to preserve their nation. Putin, however, can’t afford to retreat from the plant, which would make a Russian victory in Ukraine—however he defines it nowadays—elusive. And defeat would probably spell his demise.
Since his senseless attack in February, Putin’s personal incentives do not align with those of Russians or people anywhere, least of all Ukrainians. He cares only about whether and how he goes down, not about how many others he’ll pull down with him. That’s why, if things go badly for him, Putin may yet decide to escalate, by using chemical or even nuclear weapons.
In the standoff at Zaporizhzhia, Putin—no matter what he tells Macron—might willingly incur the risk of nuclear meltdown in a country he wants to subjugate. The whole world, from Paris to Ankara and Beijing, must now steer him away from the brink. Success is not assured.