Even though Russian troops seized the city of Enerhodar months ago in the opening weeks of their invasion of Ukraine, the city is back in international news for all the wrong reasons. Rather than because of a Ukrainian counterattack or other changes on the battlefield, Enerhodar has reentered the headlines over concerns that Russia may be misusing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest of its kind in Europe.
Seizure of Enerhodar in March
Invading Russian troops first reached the environs of Enerhodar just days after Russia’s February 24 invasion kicked off, with the Russian Defense Ministry first claiming it had seized the town on February 28. However, Ukrainian forces still retained control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and the city’s locals organized large protests against the arrival of Russian troops, which were reportedly violently dispersed. On March 3, Russian troops began their assault after shelling the nuclear plant, and fired at Ukrainian troops defending the facility, setting off metaphorical alarm bells in Kyiv and across Europe. In what will likely go down in history as one of the most surreal elements of the invasion for external observers, the Russian assault on the plant was livestreamed via the plant’s security camera system.
Russian Occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
After the seizure of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and as the frontlines moved away from Enerhodar, troubles surrounding the plant did not end. Days after the fall of the plant and town, Russia’s occupation authorities made their intentions to hand control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant to the Russian state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom. With its workers effectively held hostage, Rosatom officials quickly arrived to attempt to take control, but reportedly faced difficulties in doing so. According to Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, Russian troops occupying the plant have forced workers of the plant into the facility’s basements, raising questions about who is available to manage and run the plant. Orlov also claimed in June that Russian occupation troops had abducted Borys Yormolenko, a pro-Ukrainian member of the city’s administration, in connection with his views.
Russian Misuse of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
On July 21, Ukraine accused Russia of storing heavy weapons and war materiel in the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. In response, the spokeswoman of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova has claimed that Ukraine had attacked the plant with drones previously on July 18 and 20. Ukraine’s state energy company Energoatom warned on July 21 that the consequences of a large fire related to Russia’s equipment at the plant could cause a nuclear disaster on the scale of the Chornobyl disaster of 1986. Local Russian occupation authorities have claimed that Ukrainian loitering-munition drones were used to strike the plant, which Dmytro Orlov asserted caused Russian casualties.
Possible fatalities around the plant could indicate that Russia’s gamble to place military equipment in the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in violation of international norms may not deliver the safety it thought it would. Comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia’s objectives in Ukraine will now extend beyond Donbas (which is somewhat corroborated by the White House’s assessment that Russia intends to annex territory it controls between Donbas and Crimea) indicates that the war is far from over, and that Russia intends to hold onto the land it has seized, including Enerhodar.
If this is borne out, and Russia continues to use the facility as a shield for its equipment and materiel, the risk of damage and nuclear disaster can only rise.
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.