In a recent military analysis of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) we authored for London-based National Security News, we coined a phrase to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to militarize the facility, asserting it is the equivalent of the Kremlin’s creating a “Nuclear Force Z.” Our analysis was a warning. Now, it is a reality.
Moscow intentionally disconnected the ZNPP on Aug. 25 from Ukraine’s electrical power grid for the first time in its 38-year operating history. Prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, the ZNPP and its six VVER-1000 reactors – Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – accounted for 6,000 MWe, or more than half of Ukraine’s 13,835 MWe nuclear-generated electricity and 20 percent of the nation’s entire kilowatt production.
Putin’s weaponization of the ZNPP must not go unchecked by the Biden administration, nor by NATO. Eastern and central Europe now face a clear and present danger – the ZNPP is at risk of spinning out of control and devolving into a humanitarian and ecological disaster. Washington and Brussels must forcefully draw a non-negotiable “red line” with Putin and the Kremlin regarding the ZNPP and back it up with the full weight of NATO’s Article 5.
Putin’s reasoning for risk-taking at the ZNPP is likely multifaceted. Shutting down the power facility and its two remaining operational reactors could have been a necessary technological test run to see if Moscow can safely cut power to Ukraine without permanently cutting it to Russian-occupied areas. Presently, it is all or none. The Kremlin, therefore, despite controlling the facility since March, has no choice but to continue supplying electricity to Ukraine.
Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine’s energy agency Energoatom, immediately recognized this threat, warning that Moscow’s disconnection of the two reactors gave Putin an opening to “cut all lines which are connected to the Ukrainian system.” Initially, it appeared that Moscow did just that. Yevhen Balytskyi, the Quisling-governor of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Oblast, issued a statement late on Aug. 25 indicating that power was restored to “all cities and districts [of his] region” – but the International Atomic Energy Agency reported the Ukrainian side remained cut off.
Kyiv, however, subsequently confirmed a day later that electricity from the ZNPP was restored to Ukraine. The crisis to their power grid, at least for now, was averted. Nonetheless, the danger to the ZNPP and the potential for a radioactive meltdown remain. Russian artillery continues to indiscriminately shell “Ukrainian towns across the river” from the ZNPP.
The other half of Putin’s subterfuge and false-flag shelling at the ZNPP is a high-stakes game of nuclear brinkmanship. His regime is under siege by Western sanctions and Ukraine is mauling his military forces into a stalemate in the Donbas. In response to a reported Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south – and daring attacks by Kyiv deep into Crimea, including the strike on the Saky airbase – Moscow is weakening the defense of the two breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk to reinforce Kherson and Crimea.
By weaponizing the ZNPP, Putin is finally able to play the nuclear card that Moscow has hinted was on the table since the war began in February. Russian state-controlled media has fawned about using nuclear weapons to attack NATO, including fantasizing about “wiping out” the United Kingdom in a “nuclear tsunami.” While CIA Director William Burns says, to date, there is no “practical evidence” that Russia is readying the use of tactical nukes, he also warned in April that “none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.”
Metamorphosing the ZNPP into a hybrid form of a nuclear weapon splits the difference between Russia’s strategic and tactical nuclear capabilities on one side and the fantastical pipe dreams and outlandish proposals of its media pundits on the other. It also serves as a dare to Washington and NATO – or an invitation, if you will – for Brussels and Kyiv to risk turning the ZNPP into a modern-day nuclear equivalent of Stalingrad.
Unlike 80 years ago in Stalingrad, however, a Chernobyl-like radioactive meltdown at the ZNPP would exact a high price from both sides – and Moscow, currently, is in no position militarily or economically to play this game to its end. At a strategic level, Putin is now reduced to bluffing – and Biden and NATO must call him on it.
Biden must take the lead in turning the Gerasimov Doctrine on its head. Escalate in Ukraine to de-escalate Putin’s brazen ruse to turn the ZNPP into a deadly fusion of Force Z and radioactive matter and to use it to blackmail Washington, Brussels and Kyiv. Not only are the fuel rods at risk of melting down inside the ZNPP’s reactors, so too are the 5,500-plus spent fuel rod assemblies that are stored at the facility in dry storage or water-cooled “basins.”
Strongly worded demands from Washington are not enough to stop Putin and his machinations. Nor are similar demands, already rejected by Moscow, by the G7. We no longer can consider what’s happening at the ZNPP to be a diplomatic or economic crisis. It is a military crisis that goes to the heart of U.S. national security and that of its European and NATO allies.
Europe is headed into a dark winter – and Ukraine, darker yet. Biden must immediately convene an emergency meeting of NATO in Brussels and then, NATO démarche in hand, travel to Kyiv. Standing alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden as leader of the free world must lay down an explicit NATO red line at the ZNPP, marking the beginning of the end of Putin’s blackmail and his “Nuclear Force Z.”
Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
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This story was originally published August 29, 2022 1:30 PM.