Ukraine Wants NATO’s Help Against Russia’s WMDs


Ukrainian officials are preparing to ask the NATO alliance to do more to deter possible Russian chemical and nuclear attacks amid Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as the 30-nation alliance holds a summit meeting in Spain this week, according to a draft document provided to Foreign Policy

With Ukraine still lacking a clear path into NATO in the near term, officials in Kyiv are instead asking the alliance to extend cooperation with non-NATO states by deterring Russia against launching chemical or nuclear weapons attacks. Also on the menu are Ukrainian requests for protection against Russian cyberattacks and possible Kremlin targeting of critical nuclear infrastructure. Those fears have grown after Russian troops seized the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, on the banks of the Dnipro River in March. 

Ukrainian officials are worried that Russia’s seizure of nuclear power plants could give them a springboard for new attacks—which they dub “state nuclear terrorism”—or increase the risk of a meltdown. “The possible nuclear accident that could result either from reckless actions of occupying forces on the territory of the seized nuclear facilities or from hostilities taking place on their territory or in close proximity to them will have severe devastating repercussions for the entire continent,” the statement, provided by a Ukrainian military official, read. 

Ukrainian officials are preparing to ask the NATO alliance to do more to deter possible Russian chemical and nuclear attacks amid Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as the 30-nation alliance holds a summit meeting in Spain this week, according to a draft document provided to Foreign Policy

With Ukraine still lacking a clear path into NATO in the near term, officials in Kyiv are instead asking the alliance to extend cooperation with non-NATO states by deterring Russia against launching chemical or nuclear weapons attacks. Also on the menu are Ukrainian requests for protection against Russian cyberattacks and possible Kremlin targeting of critical nuclear infrastructure. Those fears have grown after Russian troops seized the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, on the banks of the Dnipro River in March. 

Ukrainian officials are worried that Russia’s seizure of nuclear power plants could give them a springboard for new attacks—which they dub “state nuclear terrorism”—or increase the risk of a meltdown. “The possible nuclear accident that could result either from reckless actions of occupying forces on the territory of the seized nuclear facilities or from hostilities taking place on their territory or in close proximity to them will have severe devastating repercussions for the entire continent,” the statement, provided by a Ukrainian military official, read. 

Ukrainian officials are also asking for the “establishment of effective measures of deterrence” should Russia resort to a chemical or nuclear weapons attack against Ukraine during the course of the war. And Ukraine wants those pledges written into NATO’s so-called Strategic Concept, a decennial document that is set to emerge from the Madrid summit. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has not left Ukraine since the start of the war in February, is set to make a virtual address at the NATO gathering. On Monday, the European Union agreed to supply Ukraine with $12 million worth of medical equipment and protective gear to deal with possible chemical, biological, and nuclear threats.

It was not immediately clear if the list of requests represented the war-torn country’s final list of petitions to NATO. But it comes as both Ukrainian and Western officials are increasingly uneasy about Russia’s seizure of nuclear power plants, such as Zaporizhzhya, which has been occupied by Russian forces since March, leading to international condemnation and concerns of a Chernobyl-like radiation fallout. Ukraine has 15 Russian-designed nuclear power plants on its soil.

In recent weeks, Russia has begun hunting spies inside the facility, shooting Ukrainian employees suspected of passing intelligence to the government in Kyiv. And Ukrainian officials worry that the foothold at Europe’s largest nuclear facility could give Russian troops another shot to make a run at Kyiv from a city straddling the banks of the Dnipro River. Zelensky has also urged the United States to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism after a wave of missile attacks hit civilian targets last week, including a missile strike on a shopping center in Kremenchuk, hundreds of miles west of the front lines in the Donbas, with hundreds of civilian shoppers inside.

European officials remain concerned that Russia’s track record of using chemical weapons to break out of entrenched urban combat in Syria shows that they could do the same in Ukraine. Further fears were raised about this over the weekend when Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to move nuclear-capable missiles into Belarus, a close Kremlin ally that borders Ukraine to the north—a pledge that a senior U.S. defense official said was “irresponsible” on Monday.

But with the Donbas war increasingly tilting toward an attritional battle of artillery with only incremental Russian advances, there is fear in Kyiv that the Kremlin sees the possibility of opening up a second front with the help of allied Belarus. “People are concerned about this—not only the missiles but also that Belarus can actually open another front,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to the Zelensky administration. “They have to change the strategic situation.” 

Raising alarms further, Russian military doctrine gives commanders the right to use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield, something that has crossed the minds of Western policymakers as a possible worst-case scenario in Ukraine.

“At some point, we have to add that into our possible scenarios,” said one European official, speaking on background on the condition of anonymity regarding the use of nuclear weapons. “Having seen what the Russians did in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria, I would add in [the] use of chemical weapons because they will need to clear people from some of these cities [where] they are dug in.” 

NATO is still discussing Western responses to a Russian chemical or nuclear attack and has not reached a decision, the European official added. But former top officials don’t believe that the United States and Western powers have a lot of options to stop a Russian attack outside of drawing red lines—unless U.S. President Joe Biden were to reverse course and authorize a strike that could target Russian troops launching an attack.

“Threats and red lines are about the only thing in the kit that we have unless you want to go to the left of the kill chain,” said James Foggo, a retired admiral who commanded the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet, responsible for Europe and Africa, and now leads the Center for Maritime Strategy think tank at the Navy League of the United States. “You can’t wave a magic wand and say, ‘We’re going to make you immune from chemical weapons or the potential use of chemical weapons.’”

Meanwhile, Kyiv has been offered a pathway into NATO through an April 2008 declaration by the alliance that also included Georgia, but Kyiv has yet to reach the second step in NATO membership. Ukraine shelved those plans after the election of Russia-friendly leader Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. But as the country has leaned further toward the West since Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014 and Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, officials have hoped to see the so-called Bucharest Summit Declaration that promises eventual membership in NATO included in the alliance’s strategic plan. 

Ukraine also will ask the alliance to come up with a comprehensive Black Sea strategy, including joint patrols of the region that link up the information-sharing capabilities of the Baltic countries, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine. The push comes as the United Nations has tried to broker a deal between Western powers and Russia to open up Ukraine’s sealed ports to break a four-month blockade of grain shipments out of the country—and Turkey has shut off access to the Black Sea to any nation without a coastline that borders it. Ukraine has also recently asked for a demined corridor out of the port city of Odesa to get out the grain. But the prospect of a NATO flotilla could also lay down a tripwire that could spark a wider war. Russian naval vessels could target international ships escorting grain shipments.

“It wouldn’t be that hard to hit them from far away, and that would create a real problem,” Foggo said. “There’s a slippery slope there to war.” 

But NATO member or not, Ukraine wants the alliance to get its act together more quickly to respond to Russian provocations. U.S. and European officials are moving Ukraine more rapidly onto Western-standard weapons, such as M777 howitzer artillery pieces and NATO-level multiple launch rocket systems. But Kyiv, in turn, wants Brussels to move more quickly with anemic decision-making within NATO, such as improving coordination, timing, and logistics and procurement procedures after last-minute Eastern flank deployments failed to change Putin’s calculus about the February invasion.

“Allies should do their utmost to prevent the Russian intention to impose ‘spheres of influence’ and to limit Moscow’s ability to establish strategic, energy, trade or political control over countries and regions,” the document provided to Foreign Policy stated. “NATO should be able, willing and ready to defend the principles of the democratic and rules-based world order, not only with words, but through deeds.”

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