Posted by on September 22, 2022 7:42 pm
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Russia’s manipulative nuclear threats: Putin’s great gambit

The threat of Russia launching a nuclear attack against Ukraine is real and has been since the start of the war. Even without Russia launching a nuclear weapon, Russian military tactics in and around Ukraine’s nuclear power plants have caused havoc and are a massive threat to Ukraine and Europe. Russian forces aim to sabotage and weaponize Ukraine’s nuclear fleet. The stakes just got higher.

As world leaders gathered in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin went on Russian national TV, making stark accusations to the U.S. and its allies of “nuclear blackmail.”

He didn’t stop there but went on to state, “I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and some components are more modern than those of the NATO countries,” The reference is to Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

It has been seven months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and Russia is on the defensive.

Russia is increasing escalation with the mobilization of an additional 300,000 troops. Putin is responding to humiliation on the battlefield, with Ukraine gaining ground and growing criticism at home that he is losing the war, including protests against the military draft and prompting some to flee. Putin’s ego and his response to humiliation may mean all forms of attack are on his mind. He likes to keep people guessing and enjoys playing the intimidator; he wants to win, sometimes even at all costs.

Putin has made nuclear threats throughout the war, warning when his invasion began in February that Western intervention “will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.” Putin and his forces have not used nuclear weapons against Ukraine but have chosen to target and disrupt Ukraine’s nuclear power indiscriminately.

Putin is calling for stepped-up attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure, specifically electricity generation and transmission equipment. Targeting critical infrastructure civilians depend on, such as electricity, water, food and communication, is a breach of international law. Still, Putin has completely disregarded international norms in his fight against Ukraine. Russia’s occupation and its targeting of nuclear power plants, which are integral to keeping the lights on in Ukraine, is a blatant violation of international humanitarian law.

When the war began on Feb. 24, Chernobyl, a decommissioned plant, was targeted. Ukraine informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Russian forces had taken control of all Chernobyl nuclear power plant facilities. Control of the site was returned to Ukraine a month later.

On March 4, the six-unit Zaporizhzhia plant in southeastern Ukraine became the first operating civil nuclear power plant to come under armed attack. Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and the 10th largest in the world, provides a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity supply. Russian forces took control of the plant; at the time, the six reactors were not affected, but in the weeks and months that followed, the risk level increased to red. Russia’s military actions cut reliable external power supplies. That power is needed to prevent the reactors from overheating to the point of a meltdown that could cause a toxic and deadly breach that could spew radiation through Ukraine, Russia, and other nearby countries.

At one point, shelling severed the transmission lines that provide external power to the plant forcing it to be disconnected from the national electricity grid, which was later restored. The plant’s proximity to the Dnipro River means that any release of radiation would spread to the Black Sea.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said an accident at Zaporizhzhia plant could equal six Chernobyls.

Last week, a missile hit within 300 yards of the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant, which, if it had been a targeted hit, would have unleashed a “radiation disaster.” Petro Kotin of Energoatom called the strike “nuclear terrorism.”

Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors across four plants and, when fully operational, provides over half of the country’s electricity. Still, recent attacks leave the country vulnerable to blackouts, which cut off electricity and challenge communication and heating systems. Damages to power lines, important beyond civilian safety, are a deepening concern, especially with winter.

Putin has crossed the nuclear line with attacks against Ukraine’s nuclear power plants; the risks to Ukraine’s reactors are getting more dangerous with potentially catastrophic consequences. The challenge now is what escalation will look when he promises Russia will “use all means at its disposal if its territorial integrity is threatened.”

His hobby of choice is not chess; he prefers Judo. In Judo, the term “katame waza” refers to a method of controlling your opponent, so they are forced to submit due to threat.

He has been unsuccessful to date in Ukraine, but with nuclear power plants jeopardized and threats of using Russia’s nuclear weapons, he is telling the world to be on high alert.

Carolyn Kissane is the assistant dean of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Global Security, Conflict and Cyber at the Center for Global Affairs and a clinical professor at NYU School of Professional Studies, Center for Global Affairs. She is the director of the SPS NYU Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab. 

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