KYIV, Ukraine – General Serhiy Kryvonos stands guard at Kyiv Sikorsky International Airport, moving between glass windows shattered by rockets and his men wedged behind a mounting pile of sandbags.
“We’re ready for anything,” Kryvonos, the former Deputy Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) Army, tells Paradox, his tone measured and his imposing posture upright.
Except perhaps for nuclear weapons.
“Yes, I do think that Putin could use them,” he says without a moment of hesitation. “And you cannot prepare for that. One cannot change their fate.”
In either an act of political agony or humiliation that his military has failed to capture Kyiv at the breakneck speed he anticipated, Vladimir Putin might play the nuclear chess piece. Ukrainians worry it’s not a bluffing tactic either: Days into the war, Putin put his deterrent arms on alert.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned last week that the Kremlin could withdraw from the newfangled Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, initially signed in 2010 and extended last year in an agreement between Biden and Putin to limit the strategic offensive capabilities.
“The only thing that has prevented Putin from pushing that button, or at least moving closer to it, is the U.S. policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD),” one high-ranking Pentagon source, who is not authorized to speak on-record to the media, explains.
Some Ukrainian military experts, however, worry that the full force of a nuclear arsenal is less of a concern than the damage even a partial deployment could do.
Andrii Malakhov, a retired Ukrainian Special Forces soldier turned frontline Commander and volunteer, underscores that the intelligence his team has gleaned from captured Russians is that the “special military operation” would last a maximum of 15 days.
“But Putin will finish this war by then. He has no way and could go nuclear if he thinks there is no other way,” Malakhov tells Paradox. “Nuclear weapons have different degrees of strength. They could drop a small bomb to show off power, destroy a town or a district, and then force negotiations from there.”
Yet, for many Ukrainians, the talk of nuclear weapons is one of bitterness and frustration.
“Please remind Americans that they are co-signers of the Budapest Memorandum,” Kryvonos stresses. “Europe and the West must clearly understand that if they do not support us, they will be the next target. You cannot persuade the Russian bear, you can only kill him.”
Thirty years ago, while finding its feet in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Ukraine was considered the third-largest nuclear power on the planet. Under pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom in 1994, Ukraine gave up its depository as part of the “Budapest Memorandum” Non-Proliferation Treaty, in exchange for Russia conceding not to violate its neighbor’s sovereignty and security.
Svitlana Zalischuk, a Ukrainian government foreign policy advisor, is now one of many who indignantly worry that such a move was a mistake. She believes that the Russian invasion, now stretching into its twelfth day, would not have occurred if her country had not surrendered its nuclear stockpile three decades ago.
Russia’s nuclear weapons hitting Kyiv is not the only nuclear woe Ukrainians face. Late last week, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced that the critical Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Facility in the nation’s southeast, the largest in all of Europe, was under fire from all sides. First responders could not reach the inferno because of the heavy fighting.
“If this blows up, it will be ten times larger than Chernobyl,” he tweeted.
Russian army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Fire has already broke out. If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl! Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) March 4, 2022
Chernobyl, the enclave in Ukraine’s north now in Russian occupiers’ hands, endured a nuclear reactor meltdown in 1986 that cost the lives of thousands in subsequent years and spread irreparable damage across Eastern Europe. In the case of Zaporizhzhia, which hosts six reactors, the plant remains in Russian hands – prompting “grave concern” from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that communications systems have been impacted.
While a substantial concrete hull protects the reactors, experts worry that cooling systems could be compromised or exposed fuel rods could be hit, resulting in a lethal meltdown. In addition, critical nuclear and chemical facilities are scattered across much of the landlocked country, and Russians are likely to attempt many more territorial takeovers.
Russia could plausibly capture nuclear facilities in a quest to procure atomic materials for itself, limit Ukraine’s ability to develop one of its own nuclear weapons, ratcheting up the health risks for Ukrainian fighters and civilians alike, or steadily ravage Ukraine’s power grid, propelling hapless people into a state of submission. This week, however, leading energy sources in Kyiv confirmed that much of the power grid was disconnected from reliance on Belarus and re-connected to the European supply line to reduce any ramifications should a war erupt.
A day later, that is precisely what happened.
Aside from any intentional sabotage by Russian adversaries, Ukrainians also express concern that erroneous shelling and violent attempts to seize control of crucial infrastructure could result in a strike with chilling ramifications. That has already happened multiple times in the eastern pocket of the country, which has been at war with pro-Russian separatists since the early Spring of 2014. In strokes of sheer luck, reactors were not hit.
“If it happens, it happens. There is no way to prepare for a nuclear strike, a nuclear war, or a nuclear world war. Because older generations have lived through these fears before, they are probably better prepared than the younger generation,” recalls one high-ranking Kyiv official closely connected to the Office of the President. “I remember when growing up we had some special classes to prepare us for a nuclear strike, telling us what to do.”
The official reluctantly acknowledges that there is limited government-held equipment, some gas masks and suits left over from the USSR era, but that it has “most definitely not been replenished at mass scale.”
“On the other hand, we are probably better prepared for a natural nuclear disaster. We have lived through Chernobyl, so people have an idea what to do with taking iodine, what to do with the clothes, how to watch the wind direction and things,” the insider continues. “There are some contingencies in place for those things, but not for a nuclear strike.”
For now, the Biden Administration and its NATO allies have not conveyed alarm or announced changes to the nuclear posture.
“I don’t think Putin will use his strategic forces, and it is unlikely he will use tactical nukes in a ‘escalate to deescalate’ scenario,” noted John Wood, a leading analyst in Russian defense and nuclear strategy. “However, if he is on the brink of having to withdraw, the likelihood of their use will increase as a bargaining chip.”
Ukrainians – wedged inside a war they never wanted to be waged – advocate a more distressing view of what could happen in the days, weeks, months or even years ahead.
As Russian forces continue to aggress toward Kyiv, decimating surrounding cities from the skies on their way, Ukrainians – many of whom could not have expected Putin to go through with a full-scale assault – are determined to stay strong and never give up an inch of their land even at a cost to their lives.
“People are concerned about these nuclear things, but I am not,” says Yuriy Temirbulatov, 55, a construction worker turned volunteer soldier stationed outside the Presidential buildings. “It may be that it happens, so what? Bombs are killing us anyway.”
And as Oleksander Klymenko, a 45-year-old artist turned medic driver, weaves me through the ghostly streets of the once-bustling capital in the moments before dawn and the imposition of a wartime curfew, his memories float back to those sinister days of nuclear destruction in the throes of the Cold War.
“I haven’t seen my city this quiet since Chernobyl happened. But instead of seeing people pour water and doing whatever they could to keep the radioactive dust away, I see tanks and armored personnel carriers,” Klymenko remarks, turning to me sharply. “But it is better to die from nuclear weapons than live on our knees.”
Follow Hollie McKay on Twitter
Follow Paradox Politics on Twitter and Instagram. And make sure to subscribe to Paradox’s newsletter for more frontlines reporting.