“What’s it like, radiation? Maybe they show it in the movies? Have you seen it? Is it white, or what? Some people say it has no color and no smell, and other people say that it’s black. Like earth. But if it’s colorless, then it’s like God. God is everywhere, but you can’t see Him.” Like so many others affected by the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the interviewee in Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, struggled to grasp how something too small to be perceived by our senses could have such an enormous effect on human affairs.
Thirty-three years on, the accident’s history has emerged as an improbable subject of Western fascination. The trend started with excellent written accounts by Serhii Plokhii, Adam Higginbotham and Kate Brown. The acclaimed HBO miniseries Chernobyl has turned the Soviet catastrophe into a cultural phenomenon and the entombed reactor into a tourist destination. These meticulous reconstructions of human folly and the Soviet system’s dysfunction document what happened and why.
Chernobyl’s diffuse geopolitical fallout is less well known. Chernobyl worked its effect not only on the air, soil, and human bodies but also through the social and political fabric of a society in the throes of inexorable changes. It helped to bring down the Soviet Union and constrained independent Ukraine’s nuclear options. It still reverberates today, on the front lines of the war in eastern Ukraine and in Moscow’s denials that it is involved in undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
From the Fallout to the Fall
Chernobyl profoundly shook newly ascended Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. By the time Chernobyl exploded in April 1986, Gorbachev had already determined to reinvigorate Soviet Union’s ailing economy, an effort that would require curbing the extravagant defense spending and, with it, the outsized and secretive Soviet military-industrial complex, whose power Gorbachev distrusted.
Chernobyl deepened Gorbachev’s distrust. At the Politburo’s emergency meeting to manage the accident, Yefim Slavsky, the Minister of Medium Machine Building, a cryptic name for ministry of all things nuclear, assured Gorbachev that nothing bad had occurred, nothing that ‘a little vodka’ wouldn’t take care of.
When the full scope of the disaster finally emerged, including the revelation of the faulty reactor design, it critically undermined Gorbachev’s confidence in the much-touted technological prowess of the Soviet Union and its ability to sustain an arms race with the United States. His commitment to arms control solidified, ultimately yielding landmark arms reduction treaties: the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 that eliminated an entire class of nuclear tipped missiles and Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START) of 1991 that slashed superpower nuclear arsenals by nearly half.
But these disarmament policies pitched Gorbachev against the conservatives in Soviet defense establishment, who would stage a coup in August 1991, the failure of which sparked the Soviet Union’s precipitous unraveling.
The shock of Chernobyl also spurred a strong popular anti-nuclear and anti-institutional sentiment across the Soviet Union. For many Soviet citizens, the causes leading to the disaster, as well as the government’s concealment of its full scope and mishandling of its aftermath encapsulated all that was wrong with the Soviet system and its disregard for human life and well-being.
As party bosses packed their own children onto buses and urgently evacuated them from Kyiv and other major cities south to Crimea, I was making my way to school in plein air on cool April mornings and marched in the May 1 Labor Day procession, tulips in hand, together with millions of other ‘children of the proletariat’ who were not warned of the danger.
In some Soviet constituent republics, popular wrath was mobilized by the nascent national movements advocating political independence from Moscow. Researcher Jane Dawson termed the phenomenon ‘eco-nationalism.’
Nowhere was ‘anti-nuclear’ so synonymous with ‘anti-Soviet’ as in Ukraine, the home of Chernobyl. The scholar Roman Solchanyk observed at the time that for Ukrainians, Chernobyl had “acquired a very special symbolism. In the aftermath of the nuclear catastrophe, Ukrainian writers and journalists began to talk in terms of a ‘linguistic Chernobyl’ or a ‘spiritual Chernobyl’ when discussing the consequences of the seventy-odd years of the Soviet experiment for the Ukrainian language and culture” and “served to mobilize large masses of people against the system.” Galvanized by Chernobyl, Ukraine’s steady pull away from Moscow became a major cause of the Soviet empire’s eventual demise.
“Chernobyl Mood” of Ukraine’s Denuclearization
As the Soviet Union’s second-largest republic after Russia, Ukraine played a key role in Soviet defense production and military planning, not least as a deployment site for 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with over 1,200 nuclear warheads, and 44 strategic bombers carrying over 600 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.
Yet in July 1990, acting on its anti-nuclear anti-Soviet stance, Ukraine’s first multi-party parliament passed a Declaration of Sovereignty, announcing that Ukraine intended to become a neutral and non-nuclear state. In May 2013, when I was researching my PhD dissertation on Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament after the Soviet collapse, the leader of the pro-independence party Rukh Ivan Drach, who inserted the non-nuclear clause in the Declaration, told me his reason for doing so: “It was the Chernobyl mood.”
Even if Ukrainians could convince Moscow to withdraw nuclear forces from their territory, they had no time to do so: in just over a year after the Declaration, the Soviet Union was only a phantom of history. With no central authorities left, the fate of Soviet nuclear arms became a matter of concern and contention.
In Kyiv, the nuclear moods shifted, too. Ukrainian leaders now faced the tasks of state building and providing for their country’s security, not knowing whether the new Russia would become a partner or a threat. The attitude toward the Soviet nuclear weapons stranded on Ukraine’s territory became more nuanced. The rush to disarm dissipated. As relations with Russia soured, a new narrative took hold: As a successor state of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, on par with Russia, was the rightful inheritor of its nuclear arsenal.
Indeed, Ukraine was the rightful successor to its part of the Soviet Union’s conventional forces. Why not nuclear forces? Even though Ukraine lacked some key elements of a fully-fledged nuclear weapons program, it inherited enough of scientific and technological capability from the Soviet Union to close the gaps within three to five years. Belarus and Kazakhstan, who also inherited shards of Soviet strategic arsenal were less vocal but watched Ukraine’s nuclear gambit with interest.
Had the former Soviet republics kept their nuclear inheritance, the world would have seen history’s single largest wave of nuclear proliferation. Fortunately, it was averted, in no small part due to prompt action of the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations that combined coercive diplomacy with technical assistance for denuclearization, and promises of aid and strategic partnership in order to induce former Soviet republics to renounce nuclear weapons.
In Ukraine, these American policies fell on political soil tilled by the Chernobyl experience. The Chernobyl-inspired nuclear renunciation of 1990 bound Ukraine’s leaders, who thought it was necessary to carrying out proclaimed commitments in order to establish Ukraine as a reliable member of the international community.
Even among those Ukrainian politicians who advocated for a delay in denuclearization until relations with Russia stabilized and Ukraine could provide for its security by other means, few conceived of using nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Ukraine’s President Leonid Kravchuk, a high-ranking communist party apparatchik in Kyiv during the Chernobyl debacle, was staunchly anti-nuclear. In one interview, Kravchuk betrayed his unease even with a conventionally armed missile: “It is enough to launch one of these missiles into a nuclear power plant – and… catastrophe!… All of us could be obliterated without nuclear arms. Because there are nuclear power stations. Chernobyl. I think all nuclear weapons must be destroyed.”
In Ukraine, they were. In Russia, they were not. The country emerged as the sole nuclear successor of the Soviet Union, while Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear weapons states.
In order to address Ukraine’s security concerns, the United States, Britain, and Russia signed in 1994 the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances to Ukraine, pledging to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense…”
In 2014, Russia launched an intelligence and military operation against Ukraine that resulted in the annexation of Crimea and a war in the Donbas region that so far has claimed 13,000 lives. Casualties include 298 passengers of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, downed by a Russian surface-to-air missile. Moscow’s strategy has been to deny its involvement.
And so the nuclear story that started with Chernobyl continues, replete with ironies. In 1986, the exigencies of the Kremlin-run political system precipitated the world’s worst nuclear accident, in Ukraine, that ultimately helped unravel the very system that spawned it. The system’s collapse left Ukraine in possession of the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. Scarred by the trauma of Chernobyl, Ukraine disarmed. Twenty years on, Russia invaded.
Whether Russia would have engaged in such actions had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons is unanswerable. It also remains to be seen whether Moscow’s strategy of deception will backfire, like it did in the wake of Chernobyl. As the geopolitical legacy of Chernobyl continues to play out over 30 years later, its lessons, measured in roentgens, human lives, and political upheavals, should not be lost.