Zaporizhzhia NPP, or How Nuclear Blackmail Became Russia's New Export Item

Zaporizhzhia NPP, or How Nuclear Blackmail Became Russia’s New Export Item

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / zateev
10 July 2023
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On July 4th, Russian propagandists actively promoted the news that “on the night of July 5th, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will strike the Zaporizhzhia NPP”. This statement was made, among others, by Renat Karchaa, an advisor to the chairman of “Rosenergoatom”, to whose jurisdiction the Ukrainian power plant was transferred by the occupiers. According to him, the attack was supposed to take place “using precision weapons and kamikaze drones”. However, there was no terrorist act or provocation that night. Of course, this does not mean that Russia will not resort to such actions in the future and will cease to escalate the situation around the power plant. Therefore, the VoxCheck team has examined Russia’s manipulations regarding the Zaporizhzhia NPP.

This material was prepared as part of an informational and educational campaign on disinformation, which is implemented by the Charitable Organization Smart Angel with the financial support of the European Union. Its content is the sole responsibility of the author and in no way reflects the point of view of the European Union.

Justification

On the morning of July 5th, Russian propagandists realized that their “predictions” did not come true. They needed to justify themselves to their audience, so the Russians played the card of “external control” by spreading false news that during the night, Western leaders had contacted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi and persuaded him to “not do anything irreversible”, to which he, of course, agreed, and the attack on the power plant was canceled.

Shifting responsibility

However, Russia, through its propagandists, continues to claim that Ukraine plans to blow up the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and provides several “arguments”. All of these versions are somehow related to the current agenda, including the NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11-12, 2023, and the Ukrainian counteroffensive. However, they are unsubstantiated fakes that often contradict each other.

Top 5 versions of Russian propaganda: Ukraine is trying to blow up the Zaporizhzhia NPP in order to:

  1. Blame Russia. Supposedly, Ukraine is trying to accuse Russia of using weapons of mass destruction and declare Russia as a violator of international humanitarian law. This is a classic example of the propagandist method of projection: Russia accuses others of what it does or threatens to do itself in order to shift responsibility for its own crimes. Russia acted in the same way after it blew up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant.
  2. Cause harm to Russians. This explanation suggests that as a result of the accident, significant territories around the plant will be contaminated. Crimea will be cut off from the water supply from the Dnipro River. Russia will then have to deal with the consequences of a catastrophe for which it will be accused. This explanation is an example of the “Don Quixote” narrative, where Russia presents itself as a peacemaker trying to prevent a radioactive catastrophe. However, this did not prevent Russia from blowing up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant and constantly shelling Ukrainian territories.
  3. Mask a failed counteroffensive and divert attention from failures on the front. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense stated that the counteroffensive was proceeding according to Ukrainian command plans and requested to maintain information silence. In other words, there is no mention of any failure in the counter-offensive. On the contrary, Ukraine periodically reports on the territories liberated during the summer counteroffensive.
  4. Draw attention to itself. Against the backdrop of the allegedly unsuccessful Ukrainian counteroffensive, Ukraine seeks constant attention from the West and international media. Therefore, an explosion at the NPP will attract the attention of the global community to Ukraine. Ukraine simply wants to draw attention to itself. This is the same narrative that Russia spread after the blowing up of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant.
  5. Drag NATO into the war. Interestingly, as proof of these claims, the channel of propagandist Vladimir Solovyov provides a screenshot of a tweet from American blogger Benny Johnson, who believes that both sides are to blame in the Russian-Ukrainian war and also opposes military support for Ukraine.

Involving the international community

Russia took preemptive action and circulated a letter in the United Nations Security Council stating that it has no plans to sabotage the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. It also called on Secretary-General António Guterres to “urge Kyiv to refrain from provocations”. It used a similar tactic to the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant.

In turn, propagandists distort the statements of international organizations regarding the situation at the NPP to suit their own agenda. Allegedly the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believes that Russia is unlikely to provoke a radiation incident at the NPP. However, analysts doubt that such a provocation would have a significant impact, other than the provocation itself. The ISW notes that Russia may create conditions for a false attack to accuse the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is cautious in its statements, which plays into the Kremlin’s hands. Just like with the Institute’s statements, propagandists selectively choose the parts that benefit them and dismiss the rest. On July 5, the IAEA did report that no traces of explosives were found at the NPP. However, representatives of the organization do not have access to the roofs of Units 3 and 4, where explosives could potentially be placed. Therefore, they request additional access to conduct inspections.

Panic mongering

Ukraine is preparing for a possible accident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and disseminating guidelines among the population on what to do and how to act in such circumstances. Russian propaganda uses these messages as justification for claiming that the Ukrainian authorities have already decided to carry out a terrorist attack and are preparing their citizens for it.

Confusion in versions

Russian propaganda spreads various messages targeting different audiences, often contradicting each other. Some Telegram channels propagate the version that the sabotage of the Zaporizhzhia NPP will depend on Western intelligence services because Ukraine is allegedly under external control. At the same time, other channels claim that Western leaders are pressuring Volodymyr Zelenskyi not to provoke any incidents at the power plant. Certain channels promote an absurd version that Ukraine will sabotage the NPP, accuse Russia of it, and use it as a pretext for negotiations since “amid a failed counteroffensive, Ukraine is unable to liberate territories”. Lastly, for an even less discerning Russian audience, statements are disseminated claiming that “Ukraine will sabotage the NPP so that it simply doesn’t fall into anyone’s hands”.

Hot nuclear topic

Russian propaganda uses any mention of Ukrainian nuclear power plants as evidence to support their claims of Ukraine preparing a nuclear terrorist attack. For example, on July 1, Volodymyr Zelenskyi conducted an on-site meeting of the Supreme Commander’s Staff at the Rivne Nuclear Power Plant, where they discussed the safety of the plant and the northern border in general. Shortly after, the Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, visited the Rivne NPP, where they discussed “planning and forecasting possible scenarios for events at the Zaporizhzhia NPP.” Russian propaganda immediately spread the message that Ukrainians supposedly realized they couldn’t sabotage the Zaporizhzhia NPP, so they decided to sabotage the Rivne NPP instead. Additionally, when propagandists spread the narrative that Ukraine would sabotage the Zaporizhzhia NPP on the night of July 5, they reinforced it with the claim that “ammunition with radioactive waste brought from the South Ukrainian NPP would be dropped on the power plant”.

Conclusion

Since the occupation of the Zaporizhzhia NPP in March 2022, Russia has consistently used the plant as a lever of pressure on Ukraine and its allies, particularly as a means to hinder the Ukrainian counteroffensive or force concessions in negotiations. It is illusory to think that propaganda will stop using this strategy in the future, and new provocations at the power plant cannot be ruled out. Therefore, when it comes to the topic of nuclear power plants, it is important to rely only on information from reliable sources and never from propagandist channels. Additionally, it is important to prioritize not only information hygiene but also physical safety: remember the protocol for responding to a radiation emergency.

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