The spectre of nuclear catastrophe has long haunted Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. In September, as the Russian President moved to annex occupied territory in the east of the country, he reminded world leaders that Moscow’s arsenal includes “various weapons of destruction,” and would “use all the means available” to hold its ground. “I am not bluffing.”
Now, two months on, with Russian forces having pulled out of Kherson – the only regional capital they’d conquered since the invasion – it appears Putin was bluffing. Since then, the rhetoric around the risk of atomic war has more or less died down, with reports that China is pressuring the Kremlin to de-escalate.
On Monday, state propaganda TV host Olga Skabeeva said that, if Ukrainian soldiers moved to capture a single village inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders, Moscow would have to launch nuclear missiles at Kyiv “without hesitation.” But hers is a more isolated voice than ever before, with senior regime figures seemingly hesitant about the prospect of global armageddon.
However, the rapid and ongoing collapse of Putin’s demoralised and depleted troops still carries a risk of disaster. In a statement issued yesterday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that shelling at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, Europe’s largest, had come close to causing a serious crisis. The UN nuclear watchdog’s chief, Rafael Grossi, said those responsible for the clashes were taking “huge risks and gambling with many people’s lives,” even if there were no immediate nuclear safety concerns.
The intervention comes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi told NATO members that Moscow could be planning to sabotage atomic energy plants in an effort to undermine his country’s energy grid, sow panic and raise the cost of the war for his citizens still further. “We all need guaranteed protection from Russian sabotage at nuclear facilities,” he added, emphasising the fact that a radioactive leak could affect the whole continent.
Those fears were only heightened when the director of Rosatom, Moscow’s nuclear energy regulator, said an accident at the Zaporizhzhia power station could be on the cards. “The plant is at risk of a nuclear accident,” Alexey Likhachev told reporters. “We were in negotiations with the IAEA all night.” In the hours that followed, Russian Telegram channels reported that a deal had been done to hand the facility back to Ukrainian forces, but no such move has yet been announced.
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Ultimately, Russia’s decision to put Ukrainian civilian infrastructure on the front line is what has raised risks of a disaster where before there had been none, and given the tide of the war has clearly swung in favour of Kyiv, it’s only a matter of time before Moscow loses control of the site. The only question now is whether Putin’s inner circle are willing to face up to that reality and act to avoid an incident that would likely cost the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of their own citizens as well.
The retreat from Kherson, where an estimated 40,000 Russian troops were close to being totally surrounded, shows that the Kremlin can accept the reality on the ground when it suits its interests. And in a part of the world where the Chernobyl disaster is ingrained in living memory, it is hard to imagine many would want to risk repeating it.
In a briefing on Tuesday morning, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, again played down the prospect of a nuclear exchange. “The current crisis and the Cuban missile crisis are different,” he insisted, referencing the moment the US and the Soviet Union came closest to all-out atomic war. “But both then and now are about a clash between us and the collective West.”
The only difference this time, it seems, is that paranoia and mutual distrust could bring about a world-shattering disaster by accident, rather than by the push of a button.