Ukraine dam attack will exacerbate Russia false flag concerns over Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

FILE – A Russian serviceman guards in an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in territory under Russian military control, southeastern Ukraine, on May 1, 2022. The Zaporizhzhia plant is in southern Ukraine, near the town of Enerhodar on the banks of the Dnieper River. It is one of the 10 biggest nuclear plants in the world. Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, stoking international fears of a catastrophe on the continent. This photo was taken during a trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. (AP Photo, File) AP

Ukraine dam attack will exacerbate Russia false flag concerns over Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

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The explosion at and grave damage to Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka dam was likely caused by Russian sabotage. As I noted earlier, for months now, there has been Russian activity of concern in relation to possible “false flag” attacks on Ukrainian and Russian critical infrastructure. In such a plot, Russia would stage an attack or provocation and then seek to shift blame for the incident on to Ukraine. And if evidence is released that shows Russia attacked the dam, it will further raise concerns as to possible future incidents at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility.

Occupied by Russian forces, that facility sits north of the dam. Indeed, one concern posed by the dam’s explosion is that it may reduce the water available to cool the plant’s nuclear reactor. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned only last week that Ukraine was plotting a radioactively laden explosives attack at the plant. In contrast to Putin’s claims, I have heard from multiple Western intelligence sources over a period of months that it is Russian, rather than Ukrainian, false flag plotting that has centered on Zaporizhzhia. (I have not heard that Russia has taken any direct actions to launch a false flag attack at the plant.)


Still, two broader points of concern stand out here.

First, it is clear that Russia is embracing a greater risk tolerance in its conduct of the war in Ukraine. Whether the looming deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus, escalating missile strikes that are deliberately targeting Ukrainian civilians, or, as appears likely, the destruction of the Nova Kakhova dam, recent Russian activity is not indicative of a desire for compromise. On the contrary, as the war has progressed along a negative trajectory for Russia, Putin’s inner circle has only become more hawkish. It has done so even as Ukrainian forces move to impose devastating losses on Russia’s position.

Second, the Russian security elite has an enduring cultural affection for false flag attacks. This elite, which centers on Putin and Russian national security council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, also retains a high tolerance for escalation with the West where they believe that the West is divided or intimidated.

That matters. Although he is deserving of significant praise for his unifying of the West on Ukraine, President Joe Biden has sometimes played to Russia’s sense that he is intimidated. He has done so by quietly tolerating Russian excesses. This was most notable in Biden’s overt retreat following the Russian downing of a U.S. drone in international airspace in March. In stark contrast with the United Kingdom, the White House has also repeatedly and publicly insisted (doing so again on Tuesday) that it opposes Ukrainian military action inside Russian territory. The problem with this stance is that even if it seems sensible in relation to the specific issue in question, it plays perfectly to the Russian security elite’s belief that they can advantageously escalate further.

Put simply, it’s time to keep an even closer eye on the Zaporizhzhia plant.


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