Why has Russia seized Chernobyl?

Aerial shot of Chernobyl nuclear reactors with straight canals around in spring
Aerial shot of Chernobyl nuclear reactors with straight canals around in spring (Image: Shutterstock)

The infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine was reportedly captured by Russian forces last week as part of Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour.

The Chernobyl disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine sent clouds of nuclear material across Europe in 1986 after a botched safety test in the fourth reactor of the plant saw the disaster unfold.

Full decommissioning of the nuclear site began in 2000, and since 2011 it has become a tourist attraction, with group tours available to tourists.

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The military seizure has left many wondering why Moscow would want the decommissioned Chernobyl facility, and indeed many experts have put forward different explanations.

One Russian security source told Reuters that Russia wanted to control the Chernobyl nuclear reactor to signal to NATO not to interfere militarily.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidential office, said the seizure of the site was “one of the most serious threats in Europe today”.

“It is impossible to say the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is safe after a totally pointless attack by the Russians,” he said.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, said Chernobyl was attacked because it was perceived as a weak spot in Ukraine’s defences.

Chernobyl nuclear plant (Image: Shutterstock)

“This zone is not protected because there is radiation, nobody lives there,” he said. 

“They now came through this particular unprotected part of our borders through the Russian territory.”

Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the capture of Chernobyl was about sending a message to the rest of the world. 

“It seems [Putin] is threatening any nation that might seek to support Ukraine,” Bishop said.

“The capture of Chernobyl makes no sense unless Putin is trying to warn the world Russia is a nuclear power.”

However, Alexey Muraviev, a national security and strategic expert at Curtin University, said the Russians targeted Chernobyl because it was a strategic asset near the border that they wanted to protect. 

“The Russians just want to ensure—and I know it sounds a bit uncomfortably strange when you’re talking about an invasion force—that nuclear safeguards are in place and they will not be responsible for any accidents,” he said.

But according to Professor John Blaxland from ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Chernobyl was likely taken because of its location on the way to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

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“If you’re coming down from the north, from Belarus, but mostly from just in the Russian corner, the border between Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, you’re passing through Chernobyl,” he said. 

“So that’s basically the pathway down and this is indicative of where they’re going. Kyiv is the target it would appear and that’s critical. 

“This is a stepping stone towards Kyiv.”

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