Few places conjure more foreboding than Chernobyl, the site of the deadly 1986 nuclear disaster. So alarm bells rang in the West when Russian forces seized the decommissioned power plant in the early hours of their invasion of Ukraine on Thursday.
Why would Russia make a radioactive wasteland one of its very first targets in Ukraine?
While the full answer may be known only to top officials in Moscow, the site happens to lie along one of the most direct paths to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
“The location is important because of where it sits,” retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, said in an interview. "If Russian forces were attacking Kyiv from the north, Chernobyl is right there on the way, almost in the way."
Chernobyl is less than 10 miles from Ukraine's border with Belarus, a Russian ally where Moscow has been massing troops in preparation for its attack. From there, it's a relatively straight shot of about 80 miles south to Kyiv.
The route from Belarus to Kyiv through Chernobyl might be particularly appealing to Russian military planners because it would allow them to cross the Dnieper River in Belarus, avoiding a potentially hazardous crossing of the major river, which bisects Ukraine, behind enemy lines.
"They want it because they want to take control of the whole effing country," said Evelyn Farkas, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia in the Obama administration. "They want to surround the capital."
A large "exclusion zone" surrounds the damaged reactor at Chernobyl and the abandoned nearby city of Pripyat, where workers have spent years painstakingly dismantling the former power plant and cleaning up radioactive debris.
After the 1986 explosion, a radioactive cloud drifted across much of Europe. The radioactivity of the area around the plant has decreased in the decades since the disaster, and studies have found thriving wild animal populations in the exclusion zone, despite contamination in the soil, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Recent fighting in the area this week could stir up contaminated soil and other debris, raising concerns about the possibility of harmful environmental impacts that could spread far beyond the grounds.
Farkas said that even if Russian President Vladimir Putin has no interest in the decommissioned plant itself, Moscow would want to secure the facility, especially with the potential for a protracted fight with Ukrainian insurgents if Russia proceeds to occupy the country.
"They certainly don’t want loose nuclear material floating around," she said. "They understand the danger there."
The Soviet Union built the Chernobyl plant when it controlled Ukraine, and many view the 1986 disaster there as a contributing factor to fall of the former superpower a few years later.
The disaster has been a subject of historical revisionism in the decades since then as Putin and his allies try to recast the Soviet Union in a more positive light. After the popularity of a 2019 HBO miniseries about Chernobyl, which portrayed the disaster as a product of Soviet mismanagement, a Kremlin-backed TV network ran its own series blaming the CIA.
Undamaged reactors at the plant continued producing power for Ukraine until 2000, when the plant was shut down for good.
“It’s a useless piece of real estate,” said a congressional aide who has been briefed by U.S. officials. “But if you want to take Kyiv fast, you go through Chernobyl.”