A nuclear theatre of operations

(Art Direction: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli
Image: Recognize Productions via Pexels).

On 24 February 2022, at the very start of Russian offensive against Ukraine, after a two days battle, the Russian forces took over the Chernobyl power plant, where the historic nuclear accident occurred in 1986 (Mary Kekatos, “Seizure of Chernobyl plant by Russian troops sparks health concerns for people near the nuclear plant”, ABC News, 26 February, 2022 and Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl, 2019).

Then, on 4 March 2022, the Russian forces shot shells at an administrative building of the huge Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Zaporizhzhia is the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe and the ninth in the world. It produces 20% of the Ukraine’s electricity (“Ukraine: nuclear plant fire extinguished, Russia seizes site”, DW, 4-03-22).

These two conventional battles signal a singular state of things, because they intersect military situations with nuclear power plants landscapes. As it happens, these situations reveal the way nuclear power creates a caesura in the biophysical history of our planet.

So, these battles raise the question of their operational and strategic meaning. Why did the Russian troops seized a nuclear power plant? How and why controlling the production and the flows of electricity in Ukraine is an important war aim? And what does it reveal about the Russian strategy in Ukraine? Finally, and more generally, what do these battle reveal about the state of our changing planet, in a time when “novel entities” such as nuclear products are transgressing planetary boundaries ?

Nuclear power plants battles: what is it good for ?


On 24 February, the first day of the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Russian forces seized the Chernobyl exclusion zone. They also took the neighbouring ghost city of Pripyat. It appears that this operation was part of the opening of corridors by the Russian forces. Those corridors led the Russian forces towards Kiev.

This news came as a shock. Indeed, the Chernobyl exclusion zone corresponds to the area primarily affected by the 1986 historic nuclear accident. This area is still going through a fifty years long decommissioning progress. There, numerous sites still know important radio nucleides levels.

One hypothesis we can make is that settling temporarily in this region allowed the Russian forces, for a time, to dissuade any strike against them, because such strikes could mean the release of clouds of radiative dust. It could also trigger forest fires in the “Red Forest” around the decommissioned plant. That would generate radiative smoke (Michael Kodas, “Chernobyl is not the only nuclear threat Russia’s invasion has sparked in Ukraine”, Inside Climate News, February 26, 2022). However, since 1 April 2022, the Russian troops left Chernobyl and no forest fire was detected (“Unprotected Russian soldiers disturbed radioactive dust in Chernobyl’s Red Forest, workers say“, Reuters, March 29, 2022).

One week later, on 3 March 2022, Russian troops took control of the Zapporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The plant’s location is on the Dniepr, in the south-east of Ukraine. The Zapporizhzhia plant produces 20% of Ukraine electricity and is part of the Kherson oblast (“district”). Its location is part of one of the main axis for the Russian forces in the south east (“Russia troops take control of the Zapporizhzhyia nuclear plant in Ukraine”, Power Technology, 4 March 2022).

The administrative buildings were the main target of the shelling and assault. No structural damage occurred as far as the reactor part of the plant is concerned. The fire that started in the administrative building  was quickly extinguished. No nuclear material was released release (Charles S. Davis and Sinoad baker, “Ukraine says Russia seized its largest nuclear power plant, but radiation levels are stable”, Business Insider, March 4, 2022) .

In the meantime, on 3 March , the Russian Army seized Kherson, the district capital (“Russian troops seize key Ukrainian port city of Kherson”, The Quint, 3 March 2022).

Strange warfare in a strange place

While Zapporizhzhia is active, the Chernobyl area is still the dangerous site of a major civil nuclear accident.

For example, the forests, fields and soils around the Chernobyl plant are ecosystems that have integrated the 1986 massive release of radio nucleides in a very complex way. Hence the “exclusion zone” status (Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: a Chernobyl guide to the future, 2020).

According to the Ukraine Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency, the consequence of the assault was a spike in gamma ray emissions. However, there has been no clear description of this release since the assault (Agencies, “ Chernobyl radiation rise detected, as Russian military kicks up dust, says nuke agency”, Times of Israel, 25 February 2022).

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic observed a spike of 9,46 micro sieverts per hour on 25 February: this very low level of radiation remained well in the “safe operating level” (1000 micro sivierts equal 1 millisierts. One millisieverts is a safe level for population, Safety Standards, IAEA).

In addition to this confusing situation, the Russian troops stopped the transfer of the daily datas necessary for measuring radioactivity. Thus, this situation worried the International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA says it loses contact with Chernobyl Nuclear data system“, France 24, 9 March 2022).

The International body will send a mission to investigate the situation on the site after the departure of the Russian troops (“IAEA says it a preparing a mission to Chernobyl after the Russian pull-out”, Reuters, Mach 31, and (Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: a Chernobyl guide to the future, 2020, Mari Saito and Ju Min Park, “Seizure of Chernobyl nuclear plant sparks worries about radiation monitoring”, Reuters, March 4, 2022).

For its part, the seizure of the Zapporizhzhya has a strategic meaning, if we look at it within the context of the Russian strategic framework, as we shall now see.

Renewing the Russian operative strategy

The Russian angle

Starting in the 1920s, then during World War II and the Cold War the Russian defence ministry has developed strategic notions that integrate military means with other ones, such as economic ones, in what is called “operative strategy” frameworks (“Transformation in Russian and Soviet military History, Proceedings of the Twelfth military Symposium“, USAF Academy, 1986 and David Glantz, Soviet Military operational Art: in pursuit of deep battle – Military theory and practice, 2012 ). 

War is a competition not only between armies, but between the economic, industrial and political national systems behind these armies. The goal is to dramatically degrade the cohesion of the opposite system, in order to make it incapable to wage war.

In this perspective, the use of military forces is to fragment the enemy forces and territory (Stephen Covington, The culture of strategic thought behind Russia’s approaches to warfare, Belfer Center – Harvard University, 2016). Meanwhile, the Russian strategy uses other kinds of forces to disorganize the economic depth of the adversary. The goal is to degrade the enemy’s fighting means as well as its fighting will.

Indeed, the recent report “Russian military strategy: core tenets and operational concepts” reminds of the fluidity between defense and offense in an operative strategy perspective (Michael Kofman et al., Russian military strategy: core tenets and operational concepts, CNA, 2021).

It also highlights that:

“The theory of victory [of the Russian strategy] is premised on degrading the military-economic potential of opponents, focusing on critically important objects, to affect the ability and will of an adversary to sustain a fight, as opposed to ground offensives to seize territory or key terrain.

The calculus is that the center of gravity lies in degrading a state’s military and economic potential, not seizing territory”

War by other means

If we use that framework, the assaults on both nuclear power plants take on a strategic meaning. Putting the Zapporizhzhya plant under Russian control confers to the Russian military the power to “switch off” electricity distribution.

So, the Russian authorities have the “power” to deprive of electricity millions of homes, industries, and sanitary infrastructures. Thus, controlling the plant is tantamount to degrade the economic potential as well as the life conditions of millions of people, and thus the Ukrainian capability to wage war. In other terms, it fragments the Ukrainian economic and social life.

It also triggers a territorial fragmentation, between zones with or without electricity distribution.

However, if this whole situation emerges from strategic conditions, it also has a deeper meaning related to the new condition of our planet.

Battles of the “novel entity”

The Anthropocene and nuclear warfare

As we saw, the singular aspect of these battles is rooted in the association between warfare and the nuclear dimension of the contemporary world. This singular dimension is inherent to the development of the nuclear military and civil power since the implementation of the Manhattan project and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagazaki.

Indeed, as the geologist Jan Zalasiewic and his team established, there is micron thin and ubiquitous sliver of artificial nuclear material that covers emerged land. This layer results from the multiple nuclear essays that took place since the first test explosion in 1944 in New Mexico. (Sarah Griffiths, “Dawn of the Anthropocene era: new geological epoch began with testing of the atomic bomb, experts claim”, Mail On Line, 16 January 2015). It is a definitive signal of the emergence of a new geological era, the “Anthropocene era” (Waters, Zalasiewicz et al., “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”, Science, 08 January 2016).

Since 1945 the convergence of warfare and nuclear power plants has occurred several times. For example, in 1980, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Osirak, the nuclear power plant that the Saddam Hussein government was building (Or Rabinowitz and Giordana Pulcini, “The Israeli raid against the Iraq reactor – 40 years later: new insights from the archives”, Woodrow Wilson Centre, June 3, 2021). 

Indeed, “Anthropocene warfare” is a twofold warfare condition. On one hand, it is warfare waged since the emergence of the Anthropocene. On the other hand, and in the same dynamic, some ways of warfare induce a transgression of the “planetary boundaries” (Kate Brown, Chapter 8 – Very recent history and the nuclear Anthropocene, Cambridge University Press, 24 March 2022).

Nuclear power and the transgression of planetary boundaries

Those are defined by the report: “Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity”. This report, led by Johann Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center was a conceptual breakthrough ( Ecology and Society, 2009) and The Nine Planetary Boundaries, Stockholm Resiliency Centre.

The research team defined nine “planetary boundaries”, which must not be overstepped. Indeed, overstepping them would fundamentally alter the collective life conditions of humanity. If crossed, these thresholds would be nothing but “tipping points” towards deeply changed life conditions on Earth (“Avoid Tipping over, Human activity could give rise to planetary-scale ecological regime shifts”, Stockholm Resiliency Centre).

The nine boundaries are “climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading” (Ibid).

The report warned that three of these thresholds, i.e. climate change, the biodiversity crisis and the interferences with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, are already crossed (Hélène Lavoix, “Climate Change, Planetary Boundaries and Geopolitical Change”, The Red Team Analysis Society) .

Since then, research centers, especially the Stockholm Resiliency centre, have built upon these initial concepts. Among these boundaries, there is the injection in the injection of “novel entities”, i.e pollution by transformed or artificial products.

As it happens, industrial radio nucleides are typical of the “novel entity” family and their injection in the environment crosses planetary boundaries (The Nine Planetary Boundaries and Claire Asher, “Novel chemical entities: Are we sleepwalking through a planetary boundary ?“, Mongabay, 23 September 2021).

Hence, the Ukraine war integration of nuclear plants to a conventional battlefield is a new signal of the convergence of war with the “novel entity” constituted by nuclear power and materials on our rapidly changing planet. In other words, these battles are a new signal for the “anthropocene warfare” era that started with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in by the US Army in 1945.

As such, they are also a reminder of the risks induced by the ongoing process of overstepping one of the “planetary boundaries”.

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red Team Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

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