I think we can put aside the “is Vladimir Putin a rational actor” debate for good at this point. For the first time in history, a country ordered a military attack on a nuclear reactor, and in this case it’s the largest reactor complex in Europe. Russian forces seized the facility overnight, and no one’s sure what will come next. Apparently the facility is still operating, but with management at gunpoint:
Management at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Enerhodar is now working at gunpoint, the company that runs the station said.
Petro Kotin, the head of the state-owned nuclear power generator Energoatom, said on Telegram that Russian forces “entered the territory of the nuclear power plant, took control of the personnel and management of the nuclear power plant.”
Guns are the least of the issues. According to one Ukrainian journalist, Russians have begun placing mines around the facility, not exactly a great safety feature around nuclear fission:
Staff at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Enerhodar sent a message to Ukrainian media and government authorities warning that the Russian troops that took the plant are trying to lay down explosives in order to “blackmail the whole of Europe.”
“They will be trying to mine the nuclear power plant and blackmail the whole of Europe,” Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) employees wrote in the message early Friday morning as Russian troops attacked the plant, setting it on fire. Misha Gannytskyi, director general of the Ukrainian Independent Information Agency of News (UNIAN), provided Fox News this translation early Friday morning. …
Gannytskyi told Fox News Digital that Ukrainian officials fear that the Russians “can use this fact that they control the nuclear power plant to organize pressure on Ukraine, they can use that station like a big hostage.” The workers warned “that they are putting explosive materials near the buildings of the nuclear plant to provide pressure on the Ukrainian army, people.”
There is another reason to mine the facility, an explanation only slightly less insane. The attack on Zaporizhzhia might actually tempt NATO to make a targeted assault on it and seize it back to prevent the kind of nuclear blackmail that Gannytskyi describes, and perhaps to shut the facility down to prevent that kind of atrocity. Mining the facility sounds more like a defensive move to prevent a commando raid from taking control of it back from the Chechen Kadyrovtsy troops that apparently conducted the assault on the reactor.
That kind of commando operation probably would be outside of the Ukrainians’ capabilities, but certainly not outside NATO’s. Putin likely knows that he’s flirting with a Western intervention by attacking nuclear facilities that could poison half the continent — and for that matter, a good part of Russia and the Caucasus, depending on the prevailing winds. It’s a dog-in-the-manger strategy, a move that is at once strategic (Zaporizhzhia produces 25% of Ukraine’s power) and desperate. He would want to make sure that any consideration of a commando response includes the very real possibility that it would result in detonations that would almost certainly result in the catastrophe a raid would be designed to prevent.
One other point in favor of defensive use of mines: If Russia wanted to blow up the reactors, they could do so from a distance with more effective explosives. And they’d want to be at a loooong distance if opting for that tactic. That doesn’t make mines any less insane around nuclear reactors, of course.
Volodymyr Zelensky renewed his call for Western intervention after the insane attack on the nuclear power plant:
In a Facebook post early Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russian troops of committing a “terror attack” by intentionally firing at the power plant — potentially risking the lives of millions.
“Russian tanks, equipped with thermal imagery, are shooting at the atomic blocks. They know what they are shooting at. They’ve been preparing for this (attack),” Zelensky said in the post, adding “our guys are keeping the atomic power station secure.”
The very fact Russia is launching attacks in the vicinity of Ukrainian nuclear plants is extremely dangerous, said Zelensky, while referencing the Chernobyl tragedy and its victims.
“There are 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine. If one of them blows, that’s the end for everyone, that’s the end of Europe. All of Europe will have to evacuate,” he said.
“No country besides Russia has ever fired upon an atomic power plant’s reactors. The first time, the first time in history,” added Zelensky, urging European leaders to “wake up now” and stop Russian forces “before this becomes a nuclear disaster.”
Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors, and a surpassingly small military and militia force to defend the others still not in Russian hands. Now we know that Putin will attack nuclear reactors not just with small arms but with artillery and bombs. That kind of insanity even rattled Putin’s best buds in China, which cleared its throat in an ominous if nuanced rebuke to Putin:
The attack prompted the Chinese foreign ministry to say it was concerned about Ukraine’s nuclear safety and to urge “calm and restraint” by Russian forces, marking a departure from China’s overall avoidance to comment on Russia’s actions in Ukraine so far.
“China attaches great importance to nuclear safety and is gravely concerned about the safety and security situation of nuclear facilities in Ukraine,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a Friday press conference.
“We will continue to closely monitor the developments of the situation, and call on relevant parties to keep calm and exercise restraint, prevent further escalation of the situation and ensure the safety of relevant nuclear facilities.”
Beijing appears to be slowly realizing that they’ve tied themselves to a madman. If Putin succeeds in breaking all hell loose, as it seems he’s comfortable doing, China will not want to descend into that pit at Putin’s side. They’re not ready to break with Putin yet, but even Xi Jinping has to be looking at the oligarchs in Russia and wondering who would suit the job better.