On April 26, 1986, during a power outage test, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, exploded. It was the worst nuclear accident in history. The explosion released large quantities of radioactive materials - 400 times more radiation than the bombing of Hiroshima - forming a radioactive cloud that spread over 160,000 square kilometers, covering Europe and North America. Since then, Chernobyl became a real ghost town, as the population had to be evacuated due to the high contamination that still persists today.
However, this inhospitable place, which is only visited by curious tourists under strict security measures, could become a key piece in the current tension between Russia and Ukraine. While the main focus is on the east due to the large deployment of Russian troops, Chernobyl represents the shortest direct route from the Belarusian border to Kiev.
Although it presents certain difficulties when it comes to planning an invasion, since it is a swampy and densely wooded area, Ukraine does not rule out that Vladimir Putin may decide to take this dangerous road to the capital. In that case, Chernobyl and its huge exclusion zone could become a theater of war.
The distance between this territory and the border with Belarus, Moscow's ally, is barely 17 kilometers.
In that extension there are certain red zones in which there is practically no movement due to their high contamination. One of them is located near the base, on the bank of the Prypiat River. Another undefendable zone from the ground is the impenetrable red forest, which is barely 500 meters from reactor 4 of the old nuclear power plant. Today it is one of the most contaminated areas in the world, with radiation 30 times higher than that caused by the exposure of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
The exclusion zone, meanwhile, covers about 2,600 square kilometers of forest, swamps, abandoned villages, the town of Prypiat and the Vladimir Illich Lenin nuclear power plant. There, Ukraine, the United States and its European partners installed the new metal dome covering the accident reactor in 2019, after a process that took almost two decades. It is the largest movable metal structure in the world, completely sealing the remains of the fourth reactor at the nuclear plant. The authorities expect it to secure the site for a century and then dismantle the protection installed at the end of the Soviet era.
This potential Russian threat means that Ukraine is forced to deploy thousands of military personnel to guard the area. "It doesn't matter if it's contaminated or if no one lives here. It is our territory, our country, and we must defend it," Lieutenant Colonel Yuri Shakhraichuk of the Ukrainian border guard service told The New York Times.
He acknowledged that the uniformed troops deployed in the region would not be enough to prevent a Russian invasion, but said they patrol the area to detect warning signs and pass them on to intelligence agencies: "We collect information about the situation along the border".
While guarding the area of the worst nuclear disaster in history, the soldiers wear devices on a lanyard around their necks that continuously monitor radiation exposure.
"There are very dangerous places to avoid," warned, meanwhile, Major Aleksei Vegera of the Chernobyl police force, a force that accompanies the border guards on patrols.
Before last autumn, the 1,100-kilometer border between Ukraine and Belarus was almost unguarded, especially in areas of high radiation. But the situation changed last November and the concern of the Ukrainian authorities grew even more in recent weeks in the face of the Russian troop buildup and military cooperation between Moscow and Minsk.
Volodimir Zelensky's government responded by deploying 7,500 additional guards to the border area. Shakhraichuk did not give details of how many were mobilized to Chernobyl, but fears are growing about a possible Russian incursion from Belarus.
Last week Alexander Lukashenko's regime announced the arrival of an unspecified number of Russian troops for "combat readiness" exercises. "The upcoming readiness and combat exercises are being held due to the aggravation of the politico-military situation in the world and the continued rise of tensions in Europe, especially on the western and southern borders of Belarus," the Belarusian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
These exercises are being carried out in two stages. The first, from February 9, includes the deployment of Russian and Belarusian troops to "threatened areas", the protection of state and military infrastructure, and the preservation of airspace.
And, from February 10 to 20, the actual maneuvers, called "Determination of the Union 2022?, in reference to the Russian-Belarusian alliance, will be held at several military bases in Belarus.
Although Moscow did not reveal how many soldiers will participate in the maneuvers, nor how much heavy weaponry it will transfer, the Russian Deputy Defense Minister, Alexander Fomin, advanced that the Kremlin plans to send 12 advanced Su-35 fighters and two batteries of S-400 anti-aircraft systems.
Lukashenko, who has been moving closer to Russia since the West rejected the fraudulent 2019 elections, further strained the situation by accusing Ukraine of amassing troops near Belarus, and in recent days issued a stern warning to Kiev and its allies by arguing that it is "impossible" to defeat the Minsk-Moscow alliance.
"Don't mess with us. It is impossible to defeat us. We are invincible because of our spirit and because of the territory stretching from Brest to Vladivostok. Many have tried and failed," the Belarusian dictator declared this week. He added: "We do not want territory of other countries. We have enough already. We want to keep it and make it a better place. Those are our goals. Yes. I repeat it once again in case someone has not understood: they will regret it for a long time. It is not a threat, but a simple warning."
Western powers, with the United States and the United Kingdom in the lead, fear that Russia, which has massed tens of thousands of troops on its borders with Ukraine, is planning a new assault on a country it invaded in 2014. The Kremlin, however, has denied such accusations.
As the anticipation and mobilization of troops on one side and the other grows, Craig Hooper, a Forbes columnist and expert on national security threat assessment, felt that the threat of a Russian invasion via Chernobyl "is real:" "Few observers note that an invasion of Ukraine could put nuclear reactors on the front line of military conflict."
More than 60 Russian fighters and fighter-bombers are currently taking part in missile-launching exercises in southern Russia, in the Crimean peninsula, annexed in 2014, and the Rostov and Krasnodar regions, close to Ukraine, the press office of the Russian Southern military district reported Tuesday.
Amid this context of growing tension, in recent days the United States and the United Kingdom sent tons of advanced weaponry to the Ukrainian Army in response to Russia's "increasingly threatening behavior."
Although US President Joe Biden reiterated that "there is no intention" to send US troops to Ukraine, the Pentagon warned that it put 8,500 troops on "high" alert in view of the increased tension between Moscow and Kiev.
The United States does not rule out preparing more troops, beyond the 8,500 announced on Monday, for a possible deployment in Eastern Europe if necessary, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Biden said he would consider direct sanctions against Vladimir Putin if Russia invades Ukraine.
While Kiev seeks to strengthen military cooperation with its allies and strengthen its defense capabilities, the government sees a very bleak scenario in case of a Russian invasion. Last December, Yulia Laputina, Minister of Veterans Affairs, warned that a Russian incursion would provoke a global conflict possibly detonating a Third World War.
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