The issue of nuclear terror continues to weigh on the minds of Ukrainians every day. President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly stated in various interviews that the Russian authorities are intent on blowing up the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plan (ZNPP), which has been under enemy occupation since March 2022.
Recently, with respect to my question of whether the Russians could really commit such a terrorist act, Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko answered: "50/50." According to him, one can expect anything from Russia, especially after the explosion of the Kakhovka Dam.
Nuclear blackmail often sounds from the mouths of the leaders of Russia and Belarus. On June 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again remarked that "the use of nuclear weapons is possible if there is a threat to Russia’s existence." Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko spoke exactly the same words, only about Belarus, three days earlier.
Many experts consider these to be "empty" threats, as though Russia wants to scare Western nations to dissuade them from supplying Ukraine with weapons.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently responded on the matter: "Western allies will not refuse to support Ukraine in the war against the Russian Federation, despite the Kremlin's threat to use nuclear weapons."
It remains unclear whether Russia’s rhetoric is really just incitement, or whether it will one day unleash nuclear terror. I have therefore collected the opinions of ordinary Ukrainians on the matter, to see whether the threat has seeped into people’s consciousness.
It should be noted that this was not a statistically robust or nationally representative poll since it was conducted across my social networks. However, it provides an indicator of general attitudes.
Fifty people share a similar position to me. Whilst there are mixed views on the question of whether Russia is likely to use nuclear weapons, almost everyone is convinced that Russia would not retreat from the Zaporizhzhia region without attempting to enact a disaster.
A colleague of mine, Nazar, from the Mykolaiv region, is cautiously optimistic:
"We have already heard a lot of rumors about nuclear weapons in the past year and a half. However, I think that even if Putin were to give such an order, there would be a whole chain involved in moving that forward. And I believe that, at some stage, someone will refuse to follow through on the command. Also, if they were to use nuclear weapons, there would be a response from [Ukraine] and our allies."
According to 21-year-old Roman: "Russia, in my opinion, threatens [us] for several reasons, in particular, to show strength in front of its people. The Great War has been going on for almost a year and a half and Russia has not secured any major victories, so Putin and his regime are trying to somehow justify themselves to the people."
Roman does not rule out the potential for Russia to strike Ukraine with nuclear weapons. However, he is of the view that this would be Russia's last move in the on-going war.
Almost all the speakers I interviewed broadly share Roman’s opinion. Most have also partially prepared themselves by buying iodine tablets and other means of protection.
"I have thrown the tablets in a far corner, because I still hope that nothing will happen… I was very afraid earlier. Now, it seems to me that [an attack] is inevitable, so I have adjusted myself to the fact that it is not so scary, because we have already experienced it once with Chornobyl. Moreover, the ZNPP reactors are now in a cooled state, and this gives me hope that, even if the Russians were to blow it up, it would not have such global consequences," says 26-year-old volunteer Stas from Chernihiv.
Someone jokingly wrote that he has stocked up on buckwheat in case it suddenly becomes impossible to leave the house. Expressing light humor even in the most difficult of situations has become almost ritualistic for Ukrainians.
My friend Karina was prepared for a possible nuclear attack last year, when Russia first started making statements on the topic. At that time, she bought everything she needed and studied the protocol of actions should nuclear weapons be used.
Regarding the ZNPP, I was interested to hear the opinions of those living close to the plant. I asked an employee of the State Emergency Service from Nikopol about the situation in the city and the reactions of residents.
"Many people have moved away from the ZNPP," said Artem. "This is not only because of its possible detonation, but also because of constant shelling. Of course, people are afraid, but what can be done in this situation? Honestly, I don't want to think about the worst. We're staying here anyway."
Another participant in my poll, Anton, has parents currently under occupation in Enerhodar – the city where the ZNPP is located. According to him, all residents are 100 percent sure that the power plant is mined. They say that an explosion will be inevitable, with the threat having become more real since the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) began an offensive in the direction of Zaporizhzhia. It seems the pressure from Russia is now acutely felt in the air among the population.
"The station will not be blown up while [the Russians] themselves are at the ZNPP. To threaten – yes; to render it unusable – yes; to mine it and blow it up when they leave – maybe," Anton added.
It remains very difficult for Ukrainians to leave occupied territory, so it turns out that the population of Enerhodar and other nearby cities remain hostages of terror. The same could in fact be argued for everyone on the territory of Ukraine right now.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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