The battle of Chernobyl: Russia and Ukraine are fighting to control the exclusion zone
On April 26, 1986, the world held its breath. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered an accident, ultimately tragic. Thirty-six years later, the name of the small town lying at the foot of the energy complex is back in the news for a different reason: Russia and Ukraine are fighting one of the first battles of the war declared today in their surroundings.
What's happening. The president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has announced it on his Twitter account: "The Russian occupation forces are trying to take over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Our soldiers are giving their lives so that the 1986 tragedy does not repeat itself. I have reported on it to the Swedish prime minister. It's a declaration of war against all of Europe." The news has been confirmed "officially" by AFP and other agencies.
In the late afternoon, various journalists on the ground confirmed that Russian forces had taken over the complex, on which fire had been exchanged for hours. For the first time since 1991, Chernobyl is back in Russian hands, not Ukrainians.
The reason. Chernobyl is located a few kilometers from Belarus, a close Russian ally actively involved in the invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, the plant was built next to the extensive riverbed of the Dnieper, 80 kilometers north of Kyiv, a critical strategic point for all the warring parties. The Russian army has been agglutinating forces on the southern border of Belarus for months. It was to be expected that the first fighting would reach Chernobyl should the invasion take shape.
Risks? Both the words of Zelensky and his aides must be quarantined. Ukraine is facing war, and any propaganda effort is small. You have an incentive to exaggerate risks. Despite everything, there are reasons for concern, according to an adviser to the Ministry of the Interior: "The National Guard, which is in charge of guaranteeing the safety of radioactive discharge deposits, is fighting with all its forces (...) the dust nuclear power can spread throughout the territory of Ukraine, Belarus and Europe".
Is it so? Any mention of "Chernobyl" in a war context attracts media attention. But the war does not have to be a recipe for catastrophe. Both the European Union and Ukraine have spent years and billions working on the new sarcophagus for reactor 4, the protagonist of the accident. It is the most delicate point of the complex and the best protected. And as Axios points out, both sides are aware of the dangers of bombing it or fighting in its surroundings.
Life in the vicinity of Chernobyl is relatively possible. Radiation levels are high, but there are tourist accommodations, a (peculiar) growing fauna, and 7,000 inhabitants within and around the Exclusion Zone. The idea of "nuclear dust" contaminating Europe is... At the very least exaggerated.
It was seen coming. The possibility of "defending" Chernobyl had already been discussed by Ukraine days ago. This New York Times report compiles voices from the Ukrainian armed forces. They were all aware of the risks on the ground for those who fight within the Exclusion Zone, although some directly advocated abandoning the field to their fate. "It's a landfill (...) No crop will grow there," says a worker close to the plant.
Essays. In practice, Ukraine discounted fighting around Chernobyl. Earlier this month, he carried out military exercises inside the Exclusion Zone, inviting the press to observe them from the ground. The army carried out tests with ammunition and explosives precisely because it is an uninhabited area, which contrasts with the apparent alarm transmitted by the Ukrainian government today.
Be that as it may, something is real from trial to practice. Chernobyl is also at war.