‘A Monkey with a Grenade’: Russia’s Attacks on Nuclear Reactors Cross a Dangerous Line
Firing on civilian nuclear facilities is an unacceptable disregard for the rules of war that endangers the entire world, not just Ukraine.
I am a Ukrainian national. I studied at Stanford University in 2019 and 2020 in the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program run by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
For several years now, I have been a leader of environmental and anti-corruption NGOs. Among other endeavors, my team and I developed the SaveEcoBot program, which is the most popular air quality monitoring service in Ukraine and has 1.5 million users in 15 countries.
I was with my wife and six-year-old daughter in Kyiv when Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began. I grabbed my family and brought them to a place I thought they would be safer. Then I immediately volunteered to join the Ukrainian Defense Force. I have already seen active fire, which has resulted in a dreadful number of casualties, both for Ukrainians and Russians. But this tragedy is not just a humanitarian emergency.
The Pentagon estimates that 600 Russian missiles have been fired at Ukrainian targets in the first 10 days of war alone. Additionally, the infamous abandoned Chernobyl nuclear plant has been seized by Russian forces and, most recently, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Enerhodar has been attacked and occupied by armed Russian soldiers. Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and Russian projectiles started a localized fire in an auxiliary building on the site on March 3, 2020.
Russian forces have also cut off the power supply to the Chernobyl reactor and containment site. This means that spent nuclear fuel is not being cooled at the site in accordance to internationally recognized standards. The head of the Chernobyl nuclear plant has said that the back-up generators have enough fuel to power the site for 48 hours. We can only guess what might happen after that. If this were not enough, there is still ongoing shelling at a nuclear research facility in Kharkiv. The current conditions there are unknown.
In Ukraine, we have a saying, “мавпа з гранатою,” which means, “Like a monkey with a grenade.” Russia is playing the monkey to all of Europe.
Despite these chaotic circumstances, the SaveEcoBot team, in coordination with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, has put a lot of effort into radiation monitoring and informing the public about changes in background radiation. We’ve been set back in this critical work by the damages done to our monitoring equipment by Russians, but Ukrainian technicians are restoring the systems as fast as they can.
The assaults on the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia power plants have already had implications for the environment. The radioactive dust raised by the wheels and trucks of the Russian combat vehicles in the Chernobyl zone has raised the background radiation levels to a hundredfold excess of the normal threshold. Just imagine what chaotic attacks, with Russians shooting, firing missiles, and bombing other parts of Ukrainian territory might lead to. In Ukraine, we have a saying, “мавпа з гранатою,” which means, “Like a monkey with a grenade.” Russia is playing the monkey to all of Europe.
Russia continues to assert that its forces are in Ukraine for reasons of safety and security. The takeover of Chernobyl disturbed large amounts of radioactive soil, propelling it into the air. The attack on Zaporizhzhia resulted in a fire on the site of an active nuclear plant. This is not what safety looks like. To pretend that these actions are anything but a dangerous disregard for life is an insult to all sane, rational people. We are all very lucky that none of Zaporizhzhia’s six reactors were hit by the tank shell that started that fire.
Russia, the U.S. and the UK committed 20 years ago to ensure Ukraine’s peaceful sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons program. This agreement was built on the idea that Ukraine without nuclear weapons would never have cause to be the target of any attack. This assurance was guaranteed by the signers of the memorandum.
But Russia’s violent attacks have proven that a nuclear threat still exists in Ukraine. It is not a threat of Ukraine’s making, but one engineered by Russia’s own reckless assault on our civilian nuclear facilities. The consequences of this diabolical action go well beyond a potential environmental catastrophe for Ukraine; our neighbors, including Russia itself, and even countries outside of Europe could all be affected by nuclear fallout carried on high-atmosphere winds across continent and over oceans.
This is not what safety looks like. To pretend that these actions are anything but a dangerous disregard for life is an insult to all sane, rational people.
One way to mitigate this threat and to realize security assurances to Ukraine is to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The hesitance of the EU and U.S. to implement a no-fly zone is understandable. But at the same time, it is critically important to develop options and generate models for other types of no-fly zones beyond the proposals being discussed today. Such alternative options could be the key to helping prevent a Ukrainian tragedy not only in terms of nuclear security, but also in averting a similar tragedy to what the world witnessed in Aleppo.
To do this, Ukraine needs more military support. We have gratefully received strong military support from our allies, but even this bounty is not enough to defend our country. Stinger missiles can shoot down small, low-flying aircraft from a fairly short distance, but are useless against ballistic missiles and high-altitude bombers. We need weapons that can shoot down planes at considerable distances and altitudes, systems to detect and shoot down cruise missiles, and planes to protect our airspace. Early Russian attacks targeted our airports to deplete our air defense capabilities and frustrate our ability to get planes in the air. But we still stand. But if we want to avert a second Chernobyl or another Aleppo, we need to strengthen our air defenses.
We learned in 1939 that making concessions to tyrants is no plan for peace. Putin is a bully. Like all bullies, he will take as much as he can get while treating all harm — including environmental harm — as merely incidental. Like all bullies, he will stop only when he meets strong resistance. Putin and the Russia propaganda machine frame all attempts to stymie Russian aggression as not only a provocation, but a provocation that could trigger a nuclear response. Such veiled threats of nuclear attacks are a form of prior restraint meant to constrain Ukraine’s allies from even suggesting that the Russian invasion is improper. But we must not accept this starkly irrational framework. Nuclear weapons are weapons of deterrence, not tools to chill diplomatic criticism.
Any compromised nuclear facility in Ukraine inherently becomes an international problem, not just a local one. Like Putin, radioactive fallout does not respect borders.
American analysts say that they expect the Russian attacks to become increasingly more brutal. Any increased risks to civilian and military targets commensurately increases risks to nuclear sites as well. And any compromised nuclear facility in Ukraine inherently becomes an international problem, not just a local one. Like Putin, radioactive fallout does not respect borders.
Just ten days ago, my life changed dramatically. I used to be a successful civil leader and entrepreneur with an innovative business. Now I sleep on the floor of an abandoned building with my gun in hand. My daughter knows exactly how the air raid siren sounds. But we are still Ukrainians. We are still Europeans. We still count on our allies. So to our allies, I say: close the Ukrainian sky. Provide us with enough weapons. We will do the rest.
Artem Romaniukov is an alumnus of the 2019 cohort of the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program run by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
He is the founder of SaveEcoBot, the first environmental bot in Ukraine designed to monitor information on the environment, industrial pollutants, their permits and the stages of the EIA (environmental impact assessment) procedure.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he has been serving in active duty for the Ukrainian Defence Forces.