The Flag of Ukraine (UP9/Wikimedia Commons).
August 24 marked six months since war first broke out between Russia and Ukraine. Since the beginning of the conflict, Ukraine has received support from several Western countries, Crimea has become a primary war zone, Ukraine and Russia have continued to point fingers at each other, and many have worried about developments at Zaporizhzhia, among the top five largest nuclear plants in the world. Still, tensions remain high and the situation shows few signs of cooling in the near future.
The Nuclear Power Plant Zaporizhzhia
One of the biggest concerns for Ukraine and the larger international community surrounds Ukraine’s two nuclear facilities. Despite requests at the beginning of the war to maintain a 19-mile safety buffer around the highly active Pivdennoukrainsk and Zaporizhzhia nuclear plants, war activity continues in the area. For example, earlier this week, missiles attacked Voznesensk, a town 30 km (20 miles) away from Pivdennoukrainsk. On Thursday, August 25, the Russian-operated Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant was disconnected from the country’s grid for the first time in history, leaving almost 54,000 people without power. While Russian officials blame Ukrainian airstrikes for the power outage, many suspect that Russia purposefully cut connection to Ukrainian areas.
However, more than the loss of electricity, Ukrainians fear the possibility of leaked radiation. Since the beginning of the conflict, Russia has carried out several shellings around the Zaporizhzhia plant. Although most of the action is still relatively far and the facility has the technology to resist some forces, it cannot withstand deliberate or accidental shelling. If a shell were to hit the plant’s spent fuel pool (a pool of still-radioactive used fuel) or if a fire were to reach the pool, it could release harmful radiation. A pool the size of Zaporizhzhia’s could have devastating effects even worse than Chernobyl, the plant that leaked in 1986, forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate the surrounding area. Scientists have estimated that if Zaporizhzhia were to leak, about 51 million people would be adversely affected by the radiation and three million would die. Radiation would be detected all across Europe and could affect everything from grain production in Ukraine to the fishing industry in the Black Sea.
As a result, many have called for an end to the Russian shellings. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing.” Even though the UN atomic watchdog reported that the situation is safe for now, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that “this could change at any moment.” Some believe that Russia wouldn’t risk it, but Hryhoriy Plachkov, former head of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, believes that Moscow is “blackmailing the whole world with the possibility of a nuclear disaster.”
To prevent a radiation leak, many want to demilitarize the zone or return the plant to UN peacekeepers. Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, said, “what we need is for Russia to just release the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and make some type of no-military zone around it.” So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to provide UN investigators with “the necessary assistance” to access the Zaporizhzhia nuclear site. Rafael Grossi, the head of IAEA, told the Security Council during a meeting on the crisis that he intends to “undertake urgent safeguards activities to verify that nuclear material is used only for peaceful purposes.”
Crimea: A Strategically Valuable Peninsula
Crimea, formerly known as the Tauric Peninsula, is a peninsula located in the Black Sea south of Ukraine that holds much strategic value because it connects Ukraine and Russia. In 2014, Russia informally annexed Crimea. Although this action was not recognized by most of the international community, many Russians still view Crimea as part of Russia. Further, since the beginning of the war, Crimea has proven to be a valuable location for Russian military bases, supply routes, and paths to the southern parts of Ukraine.
However, Ukraine vowed to reclaim Crimea and has seemingly begun a campaign against Russia in the region. Recently, the southern parts of Crimea were attacked, and while Kyiv did not take credit for the attacks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr hinted that these attacks could be part of their planned offense. Moscow governor Mikhail Razvozzhayev later reported that a drone struck a building near the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet located in Crimea. Ukraine once again did not claim responsibility for the attack.
These attacks have also taken a significant toll on Russian supply lines and morale. Not only has Ukraine shown that it can attack behind what Russia considers its red line, but they have also greatly damaged Russian logistics and communication infrastructure. As University of St. Andrews strategic studies professor Phillips O’Brien said, “to show that indeed Crimea is not safe and not under strong Russian control, that is a very powerful political statement. It reinforces the fact that Crimea is part of Ukraine.”
The Russian defense ministry has also accused Ukraine of poisoning Russian soldiers with Botulinum toxin type B in the Russian-controlled part of the Zaporizhzhia region. Although the Russian soldiers were poisoned in late July, the allegations have only been levied recently. Botulinum toxin type B is a neurotoxin that has medical uses but can also cause botulism when ingested and may have adverse effects on the body when combined with other food products. Russia is threatening to send “evidence of the chemical terrorist act carried out by the Kyiv regime” to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. However, the advisor of Ukraine’s interior mission suggested that the poisoned soldiers may have eaten expired canned meat, as Russian soldiers have complained of overdue rations since the beginning of the war.
Russian authorities have also launched an additional investigation into whether the Russian-appointed head of the Kherson Oblast region, Volodymyr Saldo, was also poisoned. On August 5, Saldo was hospitalized and placed in a medically induced coma. It is possible that he was moved to Moscow due to worsening conditions. Russian media has reported that doctors believe that the cause of his sickness is poisoning, although other reports suggest that he may have suffered from a stroke.
The Involvement of Other Countries
Since the beginning of the war, the U.S. has donated a total of $9.8 billion in military aid to Ukraine. The most recent package included many newer weapons, including ammunition for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), the strongest weapon given yet. This rocket system has a range of 47 miles and can hit a target within twenty feet. Ukraine has also received ammunition for the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missiles Systems (NASAMS), which can detect oncoming fire that is 75 miles away and engage a target that is 19 miles away. Ukraine has also expressed hopes for defensive weaponry, specifically the Iron Dome, developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries. The Iron Dome can intercept incoming missiles with a 97 percent success rate, but Israel has shown no signs of handing the technology over.
Still, Stacie Pettyjohn, the director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, believes that even the world’s latest defense innovations won’t change the tides of the war. “Right now, Ukraine has so many pieces of equipment from so many countries that keeping them all working and having spare parts for them will be a real challenge.”
A New Hope
Despite the striking toll the war has taken on the people of Ukraine, many still hold out hope for the future. Residents “continue to insist about the need to fight for their land, to fight for their homes,” said one such resident.
Morale was boosted even further as Ukraine celebrated Independence Day on August 24. Ukraine’s Independence Day commemorates Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the U.S.S.R in 1991. Even though Russia launched a missile attack that reportedly killed 22 people in a Ukrainian train station, a move Zelensky called “particularly cruel,” festivities prevailed. Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid his third visit to Kyiv since the outbreak of the war while thousands of Ukrainians posed in front of burned-out Russian tanks.
The war between Russia and Ukraine is likely to continue into the far future. Although the Ukrainian economy is improving, the possibility of a nuclear leak worse than Chernobyl still looms over the world. Skirmishes between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Crimea and the surrounding region are near constant. However, the Ukrainian morale has not yet crumbled, and what was projected to be a decisive victory for the Russians has turned into a surprisingly prolonged battle of attrition. However, only the future will tell who will come out on top.
Sources & Further Reading