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On the very first day (well, arguably) of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces took control of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and ghost city, as well as Pripyat.

I fail to see how is this so strategic for a first-day goal. Is it only their proximity to Kiev and the border to friendly Belarus? Is there nuclear material that can be reused by Russia? Is there anything else still useful in the cities?

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    Please don't use comments to answer the question.
    – JJJ
    Feb 24, 2022 at 20:04
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    @convert if it doesn't meet the quality standards for answers then please don't post it as a comment instead. Comments are for asking minor clarifications or suggesting improvements. Comments cannot be downvoted and we don't want lower quality answers in comments instead. If you can backup your assertion (that it's part of the Russian decision-making), then I think it could be an answer.
    – JJJ
    Feb 24, 2022 at 20:12

4 Answers 4

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This one's pretty simple. Look at where Chernobyl is relative to a map of Ukraine:

enter image description here

It is directly on the shortest possible route from areas friendly to Russia (that is, Belarus) and Kyiv. If you want to capture the Capital and Ukrainian leaders, the fastest route is through the Chernobyl area.

As to concerns about Radioactivity, it's not dangerous on a short or medium term scale anywhere outside of the actual reactor facility and waste storage areas. If the Russian troops set up camp and started farming, or foraging for food in the forests long-term, they might have some health consequences, but there's no concern for military operations.

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    Regarding your last paragraph, does that also mean the Ukrainian defense forces are less active in that area?
    – JJJ
    Feb 24, 2022 at 20:16
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    It makes some sense. As I wrote in the question, that seems like the simplest answer, but what about Pripyat? It is far out of the main highway
    – Rafael
    Feb 24, 2022 at 20:16
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    @JJJ No idea about that. Reports talked about a heated battle there, so it definitely wasn't abandoned, but I don't know how many troops. Any exposed radioactive dust or debris would have been washed away years ago, but it would accumulate in the soil and forests. The concern for radiation exposure (outside of going into the sarcophagus etc.) would be eating food grown there (ie plants that took up radioactive istopes, or animals that ate those plants, concentrating the radioactive isotopes). If the troops brought in their rations I wouldn't see any serious issues
    – divibisan
    Feb 24, 2022 at 20:22
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    @Rafael I would guess it's about defending their flank. If they moved through there but left Ukranian troops in Pripyat, then they could be attacked from the rear
    – divibisan
    Feb 24, 2022 at 20:24
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As early as January, the NYT was reporting that Ukraine was deploying additional troops to the region due to its strategic location:

[T]he shortest route from Russia to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, is from the north. And it passes through the isolated zone around the Chernobyl power plant, where the meltdown of a reactor in 1986 caused the worst nuclear disaster in history.

In one of the incongruities of war, that makes Chernobyl an area that Ukraine thinks it needs to defend, forcing its military to deploy security forces into the eerie and still radioactive forest, where they carry both weapons and equipment to detect radiation exposure.

In addition to sitting in the middle of the shortest route to Kyiv, it also holds a river crossing.

After reports of clashes at the site, this question was put to Dr Jack Watling, a research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute on BBC Radio 4’s PM program at around 17:39:-

Interviewer: In the last few minutes it’s been reported that the Chernobyl power plant, captured by Russian forces, I don’t understand - it’s not a working power plant is it? Or, what would be the point of getting the Chernobyl power plant - but it does seem something has been going on there this afternoon.

Watling: I mean it’s fairly standard practice that if you’re taking over a country you take over all the critical national infrastructure, and Chernobyl has both symbolic relevance but also you can start playing dirty tricks in terms of, you know, claiming that, I don’t know, the Ukrainians are conducting artillery against it and these kind of things. So you know, you want to seize areas that are symbolically valuable and areas that are valuable from a services point of view, and the Russians will try and do that.

Radio Free Europe, meanwhile, cites an unnamed Russian security source, saying that “Russia wants to control the Chernobyl nuclear reactor to signal to NATO not to interfere militarily”. They also quote Deputy Interior Minister Anton Heraschenko acknowledging the devastation that could occur if the site is damaged:

If as a result of the occupiers' artillery strikes the nuclear waste storage facility is destroyed, the radioactive dust may cover the territories of Ukraine, Belarus and the EU countries

This suggests that the site may have strategic relevance as a forward base that Ukrainian troops dare not attack with artillery fire.

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Today's escalation of the conflict is largely about convincing people of the Russian view: that Ukraine should be controlled by Russia.

Controlling the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is one of the better thought-out parts of that. The idea will be to say that Russia is in control of this dangerous place, which would be a threat to much of Europe if it were damaged. This allows Russia to be portrayed as selflessly assuming responsibility, with the (false) subtext that the Ukrainian government was not being responsible. The only people this is likely to be effective on are the Russian population, and people who outsource their political thinking to Donald Trump, but the latter group are significant in American politics.

It was also an easy place to take and to hold, because the Ukrainians would not be fool enough to fight for it, given the potential consequences of using heavy weapons there. It also means that should the Russians start to do badly in the conflict, they have a threat to employ against Ukraine, which would have to live with the consequences of any breach of the containment.

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    I'm not sure I buy this. The first point (that people will think Russia is being selfless in taking over Chernobyl) is pretty absurd, and not really something Russia has even claimed (correct me if I'm wrong). And Putin definitely doesn't seem to be all there anymore, but do you really think he'd intentionally use a Dirty Bomb against Europe as a final F-you if they lost? That would be a direct, nuclear attack on NATO (among other countries). I buy that it's a secure site that Ukraine would be loathe to attack, but even now I can't see them deliberately destroying it
    – divibisan
    Feb 24, 2022 at 20:30
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    @divibisan: There are two sets of people who'll want to believe Russia is being selfless in that matter whose opinions matter to Putin: quite a lot of the Russian population, and people who allow Donald Trump to do their political thinking for them. As for the containment breach, how sure can the Ukrainians be that it wouldn't be done? Feb 24, 2022 at 21:57
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    I might have misread you. That makes more sense as internal-propaganda for a Russian audience.
    – divibisan
    Feb 24, 2022 at 23:05
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    an easy place to take - It's been open since 2011 but people ask "Isn't it still radioactive?" It's a good place to get your feet wet w/o a lot of collateral damage; nobody lives there.
    – Mazura
    Feb 25, 2022 at 4:40
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    @divibisan : You're right, Russia never claimed that it is being "selflessly" taking control over Ukraine. So far, they didn't even claim that they want to actually control Ukraine, their claim is that they only want to de-fang the Ukrainian military so it can't re-conquer the separatist regions. Whether that remains true or not is yet to be seen, but so far Russia didn't claim they have any intention to control any territory of Ukraine except for those Russian-majority areas which already separated 8 years ago.
    – vsz
    Feb 25, 2022 at 5:12
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Apart from its strategic significance, mentioned by others, Chernobyl has symbolic importance as a site that is known worldwide and keeps inspiring concerns and investment from abroad. Refusing western collaboration in securing the site or claiming the necessity of such a collaboration can be a useful bargaining pawn in future negotiations.

Strategic significance of the site is not surprizing - power plants are built to be both secure from an outside attack, but also being able to supply with electricity large regions - that is the plant is likely at the geographic point, from which many important population or industrial centers can be easily accessed (at least easily enough for constant surveillance of the high tension line).

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    Chernobyl is no longer an active power plant. Feb 25, 2022 at 16:13
  • @JohnDallman I never said that it is an active one. Feb 25, 2022 at 16:17
  • @JohnDallman what I meant by my last sentence is that the plant is likely at the geographic point, from which many important population or industrial centers can be easily accesses - at least easily enough for constant surveillance of the high tension line. Feb 25, 2022 at 18:14

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