KYIV – In an interview with the New Statesman today (23 June) in the Rybalsky compound of Ukraine’s military intelligence services in Kyiv, Kyrylo Budanov warned that Russia has finished preparations for an attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the south-east of the country.
According to Budanov, who leads the Main Directorate military intelligence organisation, the cooling pond of the plant has been mined by Russian troops. Without cooling, the nuclear reactors could melt in a period of between ten hours and 14 days. He believes Russia would be able to raise the voltage in the power supply lines to the plant, bringing about a nuclear accident at the lower end of that time frame. As Budanov put it during the interview, “Technical means could be used to speed up the catastrophe.”
Ukrainian military intelligence has also been able to establish that Russian troops have moved vehicles charged with explosives to four of the six power units. It is not clear if the International Atomic Energy Agency was granted access to these units during its visit on 15 June.
On 22 June, Volodymyr Zelensky made an alarming public announcement suggesting an attack on Zaporizhzhia could happen at any moment. The intelligence came from Ukraine’s Main Directorate. The prospect of a provoked accident has been raised before but Budanov thinks this time is different. “The situation has never been as severe as now,” he said. Zelensky added that Ukraine’s interior ministry has been tasked with preparing the population with how to respond to a nuclear catastrophe.
I asked Ukraine’s spymaster if the decision to blow up the power plant has been taken. He is confident the plan is fully “drafted and approved”. The only element missing is the order to go ahead. “Then it can happen in a matter of minutes.”
Whether the order will come depends on how Russia sees the potential benefits from a nuclear disaster in southern Ukraine. Budanov told me there are two possibilities. The first would be to blow up the power plant if its forces get ousted from the left bank of the Dnieper river. Russia would then create a zone of destruction and exclusion as a way to prevent Ukraine from advancing. The strategy may also serve as a threat not to attack Russian positions.
The second possibility is that Russia would use a nuclear disaster as a “preventive measure”, in Budanov’s words. The goal in this case would be to stop Ukraine’s offensive before it starts and to freeze the line of contact as it exists. If Russia is convinced that it cannot stop a Ukrainian advance any other way, it would activate what Zelensky in his address called “a terrorist attack with radiation leakage”.
There is frustration in Ukrainian intelligence and government circles that the reaction from the global community to the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam on 6 June was so muted, and that it might invite further “scorched Earth tactics”.
[See also: Are sanctions on Russia working?]