CNBW Deputy Editor David Oliver analyses Russia’s NBC training and preparation prior to the invasion of Ukraine.

Four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, US officials said that Russian President Putin could employ chemical or biological weapons against Ukrainian forces defending their country. By mid-May it was still feared that Russia would resort to using chemical weapons. Also, the training of its Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection (NBCP) units has increased in recent months.

This training included those taking part in exercise Union Courage 2022 in Belarus – during which Russian troops amassed on the Ukraine border prior to the invasion on 24 February.

NBC training build-up
In August 2021, Russian Army NBCP specialists tested Chinese troops and equipment at the Korla military training ground of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Land Forces training centre, as part of the annual international Safe Environment competition.

NBC specialists from five countries – Belarus, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Vietnam – participated in the competition, using Chinese-made equipment and devices.

Earlier this year Russian Army NBC protection units began preparations for the Safe Environment competition of the 2022 International Army Games. In January, the first qualifying stages of the competition took place with NBCP regiments from Russia’s four military districts.

NBCP troops had to demonstrate their skills by determining the level of air contamination, using Dosimeter IMD-2C meters designed to measure the exposure dose of gamma radiation and GSA-4 radiation dose measuring devices to determine toxic substances for chemical reconnaissance.

The competing crews wearing PPE had to evacuate RkHM-4 and RkHM-6 chemical reconnaissance vehicles to rescue soldiers from destroyed buildings, and provide first aid in case of suffocation from toxic substances, burns and other injuries.

In addition, they had to fire their AK-74M assault rifles at targets of up to a distance of 300 m, and overcome an assault course of more than ten obstacles.

The winners would represent their military units and formations at the army stage of the competition. More than 400 specialists from the NBCP regiments took part in the qualifying stage of the 2022 Safe Environment competition.

New recon vehicles
In addition to the increased training, the Russian NBCP regiments were set to receive 1,500 new vehicles. These included the RKhM-8, which is equipped with an automatic meteorological sensor and is capable of the rapid identification of biologically pathogenic agents.

It can also transport other chemically and radiologically contaminated samples to specialised laboratories. However, in the aftermath of Russia’s costly invasion of Ukraine, its military budget is likely to face serious reductions in the future.

Chernobyl seized
On the first day of the invasion, Russian troops seized control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP), the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned of the possibility of “another ecological disaster” at the site. He warned that if the occupiers’ artillery should strike and damage the nuclear waste storage facility, the radioactive dust could cover Ukraine, Belarus and several EU countries.

Ukraine’s NPPs
Ukraine has four nuclear power sites with a total of 15 reactors providing roughly half of its electricity.

The South-Ukraine electric power producing complex is the only one in Ukraine which uses basic nuclear and flexing generating pumped-hydrostorage facilities, and also water resources of the river Yuzhnyi Bug. It is located in the North of Nickolaev region near the Black Sea.

The Khmelnytskyi NPP is located in the central part of Western Ukraine, on the border of the Khmelnitsky, Rivne and Ternopil regions. The Rivne NPP is іn the West Polissya region in northern Ukraine close to the Belarus border, іn the vicinity of river Styr.

Chernobyl under threat
IAEA Director General Grossi has repeatedly stressed that any military or other action that could threaten the safety or security of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants must be avoided.

The Chernobyl NPP has been undergoing decommissioning since the accident and significant amounts of nuclear material remain in various facilities at the site in the form of spent fuel and other radioactive waste.

Ukraine told the IAEA on 8 March that it was becoming increasingly urgent and important for the safe management of the site to rotate some 210 technical personnel and guards who were working there since Russian forces took control almost two weeks earlier. The handling of nuclear material at the plant was put on hold for the time being.

Ukrainian teams were reported on 16 March to be working flat out at Russian gunpoint to the point of exhaustion to keep the Chernobyl facilities safe.

At the same time Ukraine told the IAEA that a new nuclear research facility producing radioisotopes for medical and industrial applications had been damaged by shelling in the city of Kharkiv. As the inventory of radioactive material is very low, the IAEA’s assessment confirmed that the damage reported to it would not have had any radiological consequence.

“Any accident caused as a result of the military conflict could have extremely serious consequences for people and the environment, in Ukraine and beyond.”

Europe’s largest NPP
On 1 March Russia informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that its troops had seized the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest in Europe, and that operations were continuing as normal.

Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov of the Russian defence ministry said in a statement: “Russian servicemen are fully guarding and controlling the area around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.”

He added: “Personnel continue to work on maintenance of facilities and control of the radioactive situation in the normal mode. The radioactive background is normal.”

On 14 March the IAEA said it was aware of reports that Russian forces had carried out munition explosions at the site of the Zaporizhzhya NPP, and was seeking information about the situation from Ukraine.

The regulator had previously informed the Agency about ongoing work to detect and dispose of unexploded munitions found at the damaged training centre and elsewhere at the NPP following events on 4 March, when Russian forces took control of the site.

Concern about Zaporizhzhya rose in March when fire broke out after Russian troops shelled nearby.

Enter WMD
Prior to these IAEA concerns about the security and safety of Ukraine’s NPPs, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the US of developing biological weapons in the Ukrainian region close to the border with Russia.

On 9 March she stated: “In the past several days, long-standing fears which we have expressed repeatedly for years regarding the development of military biological materials by the United States on the territory of Ukraine under the auspices of the relevant US special services have been confirmed.”

Also in March Russian state media said Ukraine was close to building a plutonium-based ‘dirty bomb’ at Chernobyl.

In response, Western officials said that of particular concern was the possibility of Russia using non-conventional weapons such as chemical weapons.

However, the term also covers tactical nuclear weapons, biological weapons and ‘dirty bombs’ – radiological dispersal devices. Such radiological dispersal events could also be from an attack on a NPP.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) describes a chemical weapon as a chemical used to cause intentional death or harm through its toxic properties.

Tracking radiation release
The US Air Force also deployed one of its two WC-135W ‘Constant Phoenix’ aircraft to RAF Mildenhall in England. The Constant Phoenix was fitted with an on-board atmospheric collection suite that allows the mission crew to detect radioactive clouds in real time.

The aircraft is equipped with external flow-through devices to collect particulates on filter paper and a compressor system for whole air samples collected in holding spheres.

The WC-135W played a major role in tracking radioactive debris from the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986. Currently the air-sampling mission supports the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibits any nation from above ground nuclear weapons testing. WC-135s are currently the only aircraft in the USAF inventory conducting air-sampling operations.

On 1 March Russia seized Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.