A Russian military convoy travels towards the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, in southeastern Ukraine, on May 1. Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, stoking international fears of a catastrophe on the continent. Photo: AP
Peter Wynn Kirby
Peter Wynn Kirby

Putin’s ‘atrocity exhibition’ could turn Ukraine’s nuclear plants into deadly weapons

  • Russia’s cavalier conduct around Ukrainian nuclear facilities is in keeping with its disregard for the rules of war and basic decency
  • There are now fears the Kremlin could order the detonation of a nuclear reactor or spent-fuel stores while pinning the blame on Ukraine

Perhaps Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, would dismiss Russian President Vladimir Putin in the same way that he mocked French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte after his 1815 defeat at the Battle of Waterloo: “Why, he is only a pounder, after all”.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the Russian military as a blunt instrument – ponderous, reactive and plagued by antiquated command practices and pitiful logistics. Yet, as is by now clear, Russia’s relentless bombardment of Ukrainian military positions has gone hand in hand with an indiscriminate bludgeoning of non-strategic objectives.
This targeting of civilians – with missiles hitting residential buildings, shopping centres, healthcare facilities, including a maternity hospital, and at least one shelter for children, as well as occupying units raping, torturing and systematically killing, as in Bucha – reveals that Putin seeks not only to win. He seeks to demoralise. He seeks to bring the population to its knees and make Ukrainians bewail their foolhardy delusion of making a go of it alone.

Some observers regard this as a novel strategy, with Putin at last showing his true colours. In fact, this has been a long-standing element of Kremlin military doctrine under Putin, which could be characterised as the “atrocity exhibition”.

From the horrific 1999-2000 aerial bombardment of Grozny, in Chechnya, to the near-razing of Aleppo in Syria in 2016 and the devastation of Mariupol and general carnage in Ukraine this year, Putin and the Kremlin have repeatedly appeared willing, even eager, to demonstrate a patent disregard for the rules of war, not to mention the most rudimentary standards of decency.

In this way, Russia performs atrocity as statecraft. Nearly any opportunity to show that Putin is unmoved by civilised conventions is leveraged as a tool that Russia can use to convince its enemies and the world of its callous focus on objectives. Unlike fickle democracies, the Kremlin seems to say, Russia does not blow with the wind. Russia will prevail.


Ukraine nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, is on fire after Russian attack

Ukraine nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, is on fire after Russian attack
Russia’s cynical use of nuclear power station grounds to stage military operations, first in Chernobyl in February and now in Zaporizhzhia, constitutes a novel evolution of the atrocity exhibition.

From the beginning of the invasion in February, Russia displayed a blasé attitude towards operations within nuclear compounds and radiation risks. Putin’s first move was to seize Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster, across the border from Russia’s staging ground in Belarus.

Whatever the debatable tactical value of this move, the “ Battle for Chernobyl” undoubtedly proceeded at least in part because of the shock value of the target. An incursion into such forbidden terrain – where the blundering of soldiers caused a worrying increase in radiation, as well as the soldiers’ abuse of nuclear safety employees in the Chernobyl plant – certainly ticked all the boxes with regard to Kremlin military doctrine.

Russia’s actions at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station constitute a worrying escalation. On March 4, Russian troops shelled the facility and caused a fire within the nuclear compound, drawing widespread condemnation, which the Kremlin shrugged off. More recently, Russian forces have nestled military equipment between reactor buildings and stored ammunition near reactors.


Smoke billows near Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant after fresh round of shelling in Russia-Ukraine war

Smoke billows near Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant after fresh round of shelling in Russia-Ukraine war

This furnishes a nuclear shield that allows Russians to launch missiles at Ukrainians, who are discouraged from returning fire because of the risk of igniting nuclear material.

Of most concern is the spent-fuel rods, which are stored above ground without heavy containment. Also distressing is the disruption of standard safety procedures, as the Ukrainian nuclear staff have been harassed and detained at gunpoint for weeks.

Spare parts for the water-cooled reactors are scarce, and regular rocket launches close to containment structures have disrupted access to the reactors for routine maintenance. The International Atomic Energy Agency also does not have contact with the staff kept under duress. The continual threat of strikes has exacerbated an already deteriorating safety regime.

There are indications that Russia intends to direct Zaporizhzhia’s energy towards Crimea, which it has illegally occupied since 2014. After weeks of reckless conduct on the facility’s grounds, however, this scenario is likely to offer Russia a way of saying it has no interest in destroying the power station, even though launching self-propelled rockets is not a convincing way of demonstrating concern about nuclear safety or best practices.

Moving forward, Russia’s cavalier conduct around Ukrainian nuclear facilities raises the question: is Moscow capable of nuclear blackmail? Putin is already the major world leader most likely to threaten use of nuclear weapons to try to get his way. Arguably, the military doctrine of the atrocity exhibition is designed precisely to make enemies believe Russia is capable of doing anything, including the “unthinkable”.
A rocket fragment lies partially buried after shelling near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in southeastern Ukraine on August 7. The station is one of the biggest nuclear plants in the world. Photo: AP
Detonating a nuclear reactor in Ukraine brings enormous risks, not least radiation contaminating the very land Russia is trying to conquer. But such nuclear terror confers advantages over using tactical nuclear weapons.
First, all nuclear weapons leave a radiation signature, making it feasible to identify use of Russian weapons. Detonating a reactor or vulnerable spent-fuel stores on site offers Russia far more deniability. The Kremlin has spent most of 2022 refuting and obfuscating all manner of military setbacks and uncomfortable developments. Packaging a nuclear detonation as the work of Ukrainian forces would be consistent with such routine disinformation.

The infamous nuclear landscape of Chernobyl lies less than 100km north of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, forever a symbol of Moscow’s nuclear hubris. Putin’s continued atrocity exhibition could well usher in a similarly messy and ignoble debacle that will forever bear Russia’s fingerprints.

Peter Wynn Kirby is a nuclear specialist at the University of Oxford. He is also a high-end overseas visiting fellow at Shanghai University and author of “ Radiant Scars: Fallout, Trauma, Ghosts, and (Re)Worlding in Fukushima”