Serhii Plokhy on the Russo-Ukrainian War

Serhii Plokhy

Serhii Plokhy is a Professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University and the Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. He’s written many books including The Gates of Europe, Nuclear Folly, and Atoms to AshesHis most recent book is The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History.

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The fact that Ukraine can be a democracy… presents a threat to the authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Minsk of the sort that NATO would never actually present.

Serhii Plokhy

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:37
  • Ukrainian Political Identity – 2:39
  • Background on the War – 18:31
  • Causes of the War – 26:22
  • Nuclear Power in a War – 36:06

Podcast Transcript

Over the past year this podcast has focused a few episodes on Ukraine. We have heard from Lucan Way, Jessica Pisano, Olga Onuch, and Andriy Kulokov. But one person I have wanted to talk to for a long time is Serhii Plokhy. Serhii is a Professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University and the Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. He’s written many books on Ukrainian history. The most well-known is probably The Gates of Europe, but my personal favorite is The Origins of the Slavic Nations.  

His most recent book is The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History. I don’t want to say it’s the first detailed account of the war, but it’s the first one from a scholar I recognize and respect.  Our conversation covers the history that led to the war and the causes of the war itself. We also touch on the additional complication that nuclear power has given the war..

If you like this episode, please support the podcast as a monthly donor on Patreon or as a premium subscriber. You can now access a growing library of bonus episodes on pretty much any platform. This week’s bonus episode features Christian Welzel in a conversation about the legacy of Ronald Inglehart. It’s part of a series on the influential thinkers of democratic thought that is only available for premium supporters. Please click the link in the show notes to sign up. Like always you can leave questions or comments at But for now… This is my conversation with Serhii Plokhy…


Serhii Plokhy, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Serhii Plokhy

Well, it’s a pleasure to be on your show.


Well, I loved your book. I thought that the Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History is such a great first edition to discuss and to better understand what is happening over in Ukraine right now. I mean, we’re already seeing some of the first initial books about Zelensky and about reinterpreting Russia in a lot of ways. But I think this actually put the entire war into better context. Of course, there’s going to have to be a new addition one day in the future, because the war’s not over.

But I’d like to start with a quote from your book. You write “On Ukraine’s part it is first and foremost a war of independence, a desperate attempt on behalf of a new nation that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet collapse to defend its right to existence.” Obviously, Ukraine has been independent from the Soviet Union for over 30 years, so can you help us understand why we should think of this as a war of independence?

Serhii Plokhy

First of all, I can’t agree with you more that this is one of the first attempts to understand this war in historical or geopolitical context and the war is not over. Certainly, our thinking, our understanding, of what is happening in front of our eyes is just beginning. But at the same time as a historian I know, as probably any historian of the region knows, this war of Ukrainians for their independence didn’t start in February of 2022. It started in February of 2014 with the Russian military takeover of the building of the Crimean Parliament and the seat of the Crimean government at that time.

You can look back into the history of Ukraine during the Second World War and the resistance to the Soviet rule lasted in Western Ukraine all the way into the early 1950s. The red banner of the Soviet Union was over the Reichstag in May of 1945 and 3, 4, 5, 6 years after that, people were still fighting in the woods of Ukraine. The Declaration of Ukrainian independence that brought independence to the country in August and then December of 1991 was the fifth attempt to declare independence of the country in the 20th century. The story starts in 1918 and again with Ukrainian independence and Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

So, it’s a long story and it’s a story of not just Ukraine’s fight for independence. It’s also a story of disintegration of the Russian Empire. It started around the same time when the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire happened during World War I. Austria-Hungary was wiped out. It disappeared from the face of Europe and Earth in general. But this war is one of a number of wars of the Russian and Soviet succession. Before that, in 2008, we had the Russo-Georgian War. In the 1990s, the two Chechen wars.

So, as a historian, any way you look at that, either at attempts of Ukraine to gain independence or at what happens as the result of the fall of the Russian Empire or the fall of the Soviet Union, the arrows pointed in the same direction and it’s in the direction of the story that in many ways really starts with the American Revolution. That’s the revolt of people who want to be free from the Empire. I’m in Boston area. It’s the area of Plymouth and the Boston Tea Party. So, these parallels come to me most naturally.


So, you said that the attempts for Ukrainian independence began in 1914, but I’ve read from your many different books on Ukrainian history that Ukrainian identity, its political identity, began to develop much earlier than that. Can you help us understand when Ukrainian political identity really began to develop as something that was uniquely Ukrainian?

Serhii Plokhy

Well, you go to Kyiv and you see the most prized architectural jewels of the city like Saint Sophia Cathedral, like Kievan Caves, monastery. They come from medieval times. They come from the times of the Kievan Rus when Kyiv was the capital of a huge European empire that included partial inlands of today’s Belarus, part inlands of today’s Russia, and Ukrainians certainly trace their origins to that state. You look at the Ukrainian coat of arms. This is a trident symbol of the Kievan Princes of the medieval period. So, the origins are there, but what you see after that is a long period of non-state existence of the Ukrainians, of the people that settled the land.

The centers of power were somewhere else. For a short period of time in the 17th century, the Cossacks established their headquarters in Kyiv and created an at first independent and then autonomous state. But other than that, it’s mostly the land that was ruled by other empires from Russian to the Habsburg to the Ottoman Empire. So, Ukrainian identity of today really traces its origins to the period of the Cossack Wars. Ukraine, the name itself, the most proper translation would be ‘frontier.’ So, the traditional understanding of American history, the American Spirit, was created by the moving frontier. Again, think also about Ukraine. This is the country that was created by the moving frontier because Cossacks are the other product of that moving frontier, moving into the steps, and the Ukrainians today historically associate themselves with the Cossacks and their free spirit.

To be less romantic, because the Cossack mythology is a romantic mythology, what you still see in Ukraine is really this distrust of the government as a whole. We know also that from American history that’s how the US comes into existence and, for better or for worse, these traits of American political culture continue still today. For Ukrainians, every state in the last few decades was actually a foreign state. So, in that sense, what you see in Ukraine is this tradition for self-organization is a tradition where virtue is not serving the state. The virtue is to undermine the state. But what happened since the start of this war in 2014 is a very important development in Ukrainian history.

The civic society that was traditionally very strong, that revolved two revolutions, the Orange Revolution, the revolution of dignity since 2014, it discovered the state as a partner and state discovered society as a partner and now, they’re fighting together and we see that sort of coalition. It’s very difficult to crack for a country like Russia where society was always subordinated to the state. For Russians, it’s very difficult to imagine themselves existing outside of the state and not in the service of the state. So, that’s where the big difference exists not just in history, but also in the political culture that was produced by that history.


Do you think that kind of political culture is a big part of how. Ukraine and Russia have been shaped by ideas of democracy and autocracy? Obviously, autocracy in Russia, but something much closer to democracy in Ukraine.

Serhii Plokhy

Yes, absolutely. In one of the chapters of the book, it’s called “Democracy and Autocracy,” I am trying to explain to myself and to the readers a sort of a paradox that I certainly lived through. When you look at the end of the Cold War and you look at the images coming from the region from 1990 to 1991, and then later, one of the most prominent images is Boris Yeltsin, the leader of Russia, standing on the tank defending democracy in front of what in Moscow is known as White House. It’s a much bigger White House in Moscow than it is in Washington, DC, but that was the building of the Russian Parliament. A little bit more than two years later, the same Boris Yeltsin orders not Soviet, but Russian tanks to fire at the same building, at the same parliament, and then rewrites the Constitution.

From there, it’s all downhill in terms of democracy. The constitution of Boris Yeltsin created the foundations for this enormous power accumulated by Putin today. Ukraine around that time was not really a darling of anyone who was particularly interested in democracy. It was ruled by a relatively conservative elite. Many of them were former communists. But once the Ukrainian elite was trying to emulate what Yeltsin was doing in Moscow, it was getting one protest after another. I mentioned already two revolutions – the orange revolution of 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-2014. These are just bigger events. There would be mass demonstrations. The people would actually refuse to accept any sort of violation of their rights by the government, especially violence.

The events of 2013 start as student protests which have relatively little support from the society as a whole, but once the police is there and beats up the students immediately, hundreds of thousands of Kyivans actually show on the streets. So, the revolution that started by students as Eurorevolution for joining the European community becomes the Revolution of Dignity, because people in Ukraine would not accept what people in Russia essentially in mass except as a norm. So, one of the chapters discusses why this is the case and as a historian, the most natural place for me to look for that explanation is in history.

The relations between society and state is one of those issues, another one is that Ukraine, as I mentioned earlier, came into existence on the ruins of at least three empires. All these different parts of Ukraine had different historical traditions and trajectories. But in the end, they realized very early on that for the country to stay together, they had to talk to each other. They had to negotiate. None of these groups were strong enough to establish control over the state and the state institutions, which were weak in any case.

I keep going back to the parallels with American history. Think about the first colonies. None of them is strong and powerful enough to impose their will or their religion over others. Out of that comes a form of democratic government. Messy, maybe, not always effective, but in the long run more effective than the authoritarian challenges to that particular state or that particular culture.


One of the challenges that I noticed people have in referring to Ukraine as democratic or thinking of this as a war between democracy and autocracy is that many of the democratic indicators still rate Ukraine as very undemocratic. Still, it’s got a long way to be able to go to be able to progress to what we consider to be a liberal democracy. V-Dem calls it an electoral autocracy. Freedom House still calls it partly free. But what I’m hearing from you is that the big difference between Ukraine and Russia is its political culture. That Ukraine is always striving to discover democracy and to become democratic whereas Russians have so far identified with strong leaders and have been more comfortable with autocracy. So, is that a fair point to make?

Serhii Plokhy

Well it is and I would say that basically what you do in any sort of ranking is you try to rank the individual or city or country in a particular category among their peers. So, you don’t put together the city of Cambridge in the same category as New York and then try to try to draw particular conclusions from there. You should look at Ukraine really in its neighborhood which turned out to be a tough neighborhood. Ukraine is one of very few countries that actually emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union as an independent state where culturally and historically its closest counterparts were Russia and Belarus.

Until recently, Lukashenko in Belarus was known as the last dictator of Europe. But that was before the pandemic. Now the status of the last dictator is probably not appropriate anymore. There are a bunch of competitors running around competing for that position. So, you look at the neighbors, you look at the societies that are coming from that same sort of experience, the the Soviet experience and before that of Imperial rule. Ukraine, from that point of view stands out, especially given the fact that it is the second largest post-Soviet republic in terms of its population, in terms of economic output.

The fact that Ukraine can be a democracy and hopefully a successful democracy and an economically successful country presents a threat to the authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Minsk of the sort that NATO would never actually present, because it undermines the legitimacy of their regimes because they’re based on the argument that given our history, we really can’t function otherwise. Maybe you don’t like us, but if not for us, the alternative is chaos. Ukraine suggests that there can be other alternatives. From that point of view, this is the major challenge to the legitimacy of autocratic regimes in the region.


So, you’ve already mentioned that the Revolution of Dignity was an enormous turning point in Ukraine. Do you feel that the election of Volodymyr Zelensky was another turning point towards democracy?

Serhii Plokhy

The election of Zelensky was just the next step rather than a turning point.


Maybe I should have said inflection point rather than turning point.

Serhii Plokhy

Yeah, I know what you mean. But I basically want to distinguish two events and two developments. First, the election of Volodymyr Zelensky and then the emergence of Zelensky as the war leader of the country on the 24th of February of 2022. The election of Zelensky was a further step towards democracy, democratization, the fight against corruption, and so on and so forth. The movement started in 2013-2014, so this was the next step in that direction. But the war, the all-out war, really produced a completely different situation and demand for a different type of leader. Zelensky really rose to that challenge. So, when people compare him today with Churchill with an iPhone. I think there is only a slight exaggeration and the exaggeration is about the power of the iPhone, not about the power of Zelensky.


So, you already mentioned that the war really began in 2014. Can we kind of just wind the clock back to before Russia got involved in the Donbass, before Russia seized Crimea? How much of a difference was there between public sentiment in the Donbass and Crimea and the rest of Ukraine?

Serhii Plokhy

At the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University where my colleagues and I work on a number of projects, one of those projects is called MAPA Digital Atlas of Ukraine. Given the original differences in Ukraine, among many other things, we were trying to look at the polling data and how it changes over time and what has happening geographically. So, what we noticed was that generally if the events of the Crimea and Donbas would happen on their own from within, as opposed to something that was provoked or brought by the Russian aggression, the time for that to happen was 1999. That was the moment when there was the maximum number of respondents who were saying that they actually would prefer Ukraine and Russia to either unite or basically be independent countries, but basically with open borders.

But since 1999, the support for that option was falling and support for the consolidation of the Ukrainian state was growing. The last polling data that was conducted under these circumstances was in early February of 2014.The takeover started late in February. At that time, close to 40% of the Ukrainian people in the Crimea were in favor of no borders, so-called porous borders between Russia and Ukraine. That’s not a good signal for the unity of the country, for the strength of the identity and so on and so forth.

In Crimea, those numbers were high. I don’t remember now the rest of Ukraine, but Crimea was really an outlier there. It’s certainly not the same to say that the majority of the Ukrainians were for separating from Ukraine or joining Russia or something like that. We really don’t know what the attitudes were because in the hastily called referendum the next month, no independent observers were allowed. So, the arguments that this percent or that percent supported the Crimea separating from Ukraine and joining Russia, we just don’t have data for that. The latest data that we have comes from February, a few weeks before the start of those events, and the numbers of those in the Crimea who actually wanted no borders between Ukraine and Russia was 40%. That’s the only data that we had.


Something that surprised me in your book was how you discussed the interest in Russia to be able to take back Crimea that dated back long before 2014. Can you talk a little bit about that history in terms of the post-Soviet context?

Serhii Plokhy

Yes. What you have is that Crimea was and is the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Ukrainians didn’t constitute the majority. The majority was not even the Crimean Tatars. The majority was the Russians. This is a classic case of settler colonialism and the really early militarization of the Crimean Peninsula, because it became the base of the Russian Navy in the mid 19th century. After Russia’s loss in the Crimean War, it became a sort of holy place of the Russian empire, mourning the heroes of the defense of Sevastopol and so on and so forth. So, from that point of view, Crimea already took a very important symbolic meaning in the Russian historical mythology and it was translated into the Soviet mythology as well.

Then you look in practical terms at the peninsula. All peninsulas depend on a mainland. So, if you look at the number of tourists who were going to the Crimea, most of them were coming from Ukraine. But symbolically for Russians as far away as Siberia, Crimea was a symbol of military glory and sacrifice and strategically for the Russian government, it was important. So, Crimea was part of the Russian Federation before 1954 and then transferred from the Russian Federation to Ukraine. The reason why it ended up to as part of the Russian Federation was that the majority of the population was Russian. That’s how the territories of the Union Republics were formed, but it was transferred for geographic and economic reasons. As I said, peninsulas depend on a mainland. The mainland happened to be Ukraine.

So, when the Crimea was lagging behind in terms of the post-World War II reconstruction, it was difficult logistically for it to provide any supplies such as food or construction materials. Plus, Stalin deported more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars who knew how to work on the land. He deported them to Kazakhstan accusing them of collaborating with Nazi Germany. So, Crimea was in economic trouble and Nikita Khrushchev, who at that time was the rising star in the Soviet leadership, proposed transferring Crimea to Ukraine. In that sense, he scored a point in his competition for power in Moscow because he was solving one of the big problems for Moscow.

Indeed, a lot of good things happened after Crimea was attached to Ukraine. One of them was the water from the North Crimean Canal became the foundation for the development of Crimean agriculture. So, there were ethnic, political, geopolitical, economic, and other reasons of why the Crimea was transferred, but also why then Russia believed that Crimea belongs to Russia. The goal in 2014 was not to take over the Crimea. The goal was to stop Ukraine’s drift toward the West. Because Ukraine was just about to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which would not allow Ukraine then to join the Eurasian Union.

But once that attempt to stop Ukraine’s drift ended in failure in the Revolution of Dignity, then the consolation prize was, ‘Okay, we’ll take over the Crimea’ which has historically a huge importance for Russia, which has a Russian ethnic majority, where we can move the troops, and we can mobilize a fair number of supporters. So, the annexation of the territory came as a result of the failure of the Plan A, which was just to take over the entire Ukraine. The same thing happened in 2022. Plan A was to takeover Kyiv. Zelensky put Ukraine into the Russian camp. Once it failed, the annexation scenario was reenacted again now with regards to the areas north of the Crimea in Southern Ukraine and that’s where the main battlefield is today.


So, to dig in deeper into the full scale-invasion of Ukraine by Russia, do you feel that the invasion of Ukraine was an inevitability or a choice that Putin made?

Serhii Plokhy

Well, looking back at the origins of this war, you certainly see a lot of factors that lead to it and can explain the overall decision that was made at that time. But was it inevitable? No. It was a decision made by Putin. My understanding is that it was a decision that was made by him with very little consultation, which allows one to define this war as Putin’s war. But it is also a Russian war. There is no way around that. From what we know, from what we have gathered, the majority of the population is still supporting the war. The number of those who support it drops, especially when the mass mobilization started.

But overall, this is a society that is really very sick with the imperial sort of disease. Putin and his group certainly use this disease. It doesn’t want to heal it. It basically uses it to achieve a long longevity as a regime and achieve geopolitical goals. The story of Russian revolutions is a very interesting one. You look at the revolutions of the 20th Century. The revolution of 1905 comes in the middle of the Russo-Japanese War when the war was not going Russia’s way. You look at the revolution of 1917, the revolution happens in the middle of World War I, as the result of the Russian defeats on the front. You look at Gorbachev’s reforms and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. What precedes it is a very unsuccessful war in Afghanistan.

So, the Russian Empire and then the Soviet State were built on war. You don’t end up in possession of one sixth of the entire Earth by being a peacenik. You do that by having a huge military and fighting a lot of wars. But it’s a double-edged sword. Some major transformations from the 20th century took place as the result of wars that were not going Russia’s away and we don’t know yet how this war will end, but there is a lot of reporting on the growing crisis within Russia itself, political crisis in particular.


Yeah, and we’ve known about those crises for a long time now, at least since the beginning of this full-scale invasion. In the book you write, “The war buried Russia’s hopes of becoming a new global center in the multi-polar world envisioned by Russian politicians and diplomats since the 1990s. It exposed weaknesses not only in Russia’s clearly overrated and overpromoted army, but also in its economic potential.” So, do you feel like Russia is still considered a great power in the world?

Serhii Plokhy

This is an excellent question. It looks like we are in uncharted waters in terms of defining what great power status is. Historically, great power status combined at least two factors, the economic power and then the military power. That was certainly the story of the Cold War. Two superpowers, the United States, the strength of the army after the Second World War is, of course, that of a superpower. It wasn’t that before World War II. The chunk of the world’s economic pie, I don’t remember now, but maybe approaching 40% or something like that. So huge. Then you look also at the Soviet Union, economically it is not as great, but still in the fifties and sixties, a major power with a huge army.

If you look at Russia today, of course, there are different ways of measuring economic potential, but it’s not even within the ten most powerful economies of the world. But nothing really happened since the end of Cold War in terms of the nuclear arsenal. If you are judged by nuclear power, Russia is a superpower. It’s a giant. If you are judged by the economic potential, it’s not exactly a dwarf, but it’s certainly below average and that creates a disbalance between the economic power and military power that I don’t know whether we experienced in recent history.

So, Russia remains a nuclear superpower while becoming a second-rate state, certainly economically, but also in terms of its political standing. We have a leader for whom there is an arrest warrant issued by international organizations. It’s not something that really helps political standing of any country, Russia or otherwise. You have an army that was proud to be called the second most powerful army in the world and in Ukraine, they’re saying now only half-jokingly that it turned out to be the second most powerful army in Ukraine, which is sort of true. So, the war started in 2014 with the idea of really turning Russia into one of the poles in the international arena. The model was a multipolar world in which Russia imagined itself on par with not just the United States, but with Europe and with China, Europe to the west, China to the east.

To achieve that goal they knew in Russia that they needed to mobilize resources of not just Russia, but of the post-Soviet space and any project of doing that would be incomplete without the second largest Soviet Republic being part of that project. This is one of the reasons why we have this bloody war in Ukraine today because the war started in 2014 over stopping Ukraine’s drift toward Europe. If Ukraine would sign, and eventually it did sign an association agreement with European Union, it would not be able to join the Eurasian Union that Putin was busy creating. So, that’s the war. A war about the expansion, or at least about maintaining, of control over the post-Soviet space as the Russian sphere of influence.

So, I maybe disappoint some. It’s not about NATO and it’s not about threat to Russia posed by the United States, but about Russia’s attempt to hold onto the imperial space and in that sense rise to the level of one of the poles in the modern world. We see now that certainly the result is horrible for Ukraine, but it also pretty devastating for Russia and its ambitions.


But I still feel like it’s more than just having the Eurasian Economic Union on the table. I mean, it feels like Russia has always wanted to have the option to eventually reunify with Ukraine, to eventually invade Ukraine. To the extent that NATO has mattered, it feels like it’s less about the danger from the military alliance than the fact that if Ukraine and Georgia became part of that military alliance, it would mean that Russia no longer had the option on the table to eventually unify with those countries once again into a larger empire. I mean, am I overstating that?

Serhii Plokhy

Well, you may be right, because actually whenever we think something is impossible, suddenly Putin comes along and tries to accomplish it. So, it can be the case indeed, but generally what I see in historical perspective is in 1991, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia decided that old-fashioned empire didn’t represent a good economic model for the metropole. So, in that sense, they’ve just followed in the steps of the French and British who at the end of the day, decided that economically they’re better off without other dependencies, because now in the second half of the 20th century, empire cost more than it was bringing into the coffers. It was the decision of Yeltsin to let the Soviet Union go, but it was replaced with the idea of the Commonwealth of Independent States where it would be a much cheaper way of really mobilizing resources and keeping control over that territory.

That’s basically what Putin was trying to do with the Eurasian Union. Take resources and then leave local governments to think about how to pay for the hospitals, how to support the pensioners, and so on and so forth, so that it wouldn’t be Moscow’s headache. So, a classic post-colonial type of policy. Again, nothing particularly Russian, nothing particularly new. But once this attempt fails, what you see first is the annexation of the Crimea and now legal annexation of the territories in Ukraine that Putin doesn’t even control, which is completely mind blowing. So, basically that would support what you suggested. Still, I don’t think that was the plan. But that’s a consolation prize with a plan B or plan C that’s sort of saving face in the conditions of the war or conflict where you can’t achieve your ultimate goal.


So, we’ve been obviously talking about your work in studying Ukrainian history and recent events in Ukraine, but your two previous books that you’ve written have actually been about nuclear weapons and nuclear technology just in general. The most recent before your current book was Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters and before that it was Nuclear Folly, which was about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I found that your work on nuclear technology and the dangers of nuclear technology really intersected with what’s going on in Ukraine, especially within the past few days because Russia has recently evacuated some towns near the Zaporizhzhia power plant. So, I’d like to get your thoughts on how the war has actually confirmed some of your fears about nuclear power.

Serhii Plokhy

Well indeed I find myself in a situation that has happened before maybe a couple of times where I think that I write history, but I find that I write about the future or at least some version or some form of the future. With the Cuban Missile Crisis, the idea was that we kind of turned the page on the situation where there can be nuclear brinkmanship. It was history. There was a warning as well on my part. I was saying that we are in uncharted waters now with many more nuclear states, but I couldn’t imagine that we were so close to the actual challenge of a situation that would be compared again and again to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In Atoms and Ashes, I look at the six largest nuclear disasters. One of them is Three Mile Island, and then of course Chernobyl and Fukushima, but some earlier ones as well. The argument there is that we as societies, as expert communities, certainly learn from all of those disasters. There is a learning curve and we tried to deal with the causes that produced each of those disasters. All of them are unique to a degree, which actually is a good thing. It says that we are capable of learning from our own mistakes, if not the mistakes of others. But that was also a worrisome sign that the nature of the technologists always come up with a new way of making nuclear power dangerous.

The moment the book was published a new threat emerged that no one could actually foresee and that is war came to the nuclear sites. The first day of the war, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was taken over by Russians. A few days later, the Zaporizhian nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. We are now waiting or expecting a major Ukrainian counter offensive starting exactly in the area where the Zaporizhian nuclear power plant is. It turned out the world was completely unprepared to deal with these two crises. The IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency had no protocols for what to do in the conditions of a war. The plus or minus 200 members of the Ukrainian National Guard at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant laid down their weapons, didn’t fight the National Guard.

The Ukrainian National Guard at the Zaporizhian nuclear power plant tried to fight back, so there was a battle at the nuclear power plant. The Russians used missiles and hit a number of buildings. One of the buildings caught fire. Did they do the right thing? Were the people at Chernobyl saving the world and their country or were they traitors to their country? The government opened an investigation. We don’t know the answer. We don’t have protocols. None of the 440 reactors that exist today in the world actually were designed to deal with the conditions of the war. We don’t know what the behavior should be. We are unprepared institutionally to deal with those issues.

The international energy agencies are associated with the United Nations where Russia is on the Security Council. The job security of the Secretary General of the organization depends on the Russian vote. The paycheck of many people under him depends on the Russian contribution to the coffers of the organization. No wonder for close to two weeks after the Chernobyl takeover they would not even spell the word ‘Russia.’ I thought that maybe in the computers or something like that, there was some misfunction. They couldn’t spell the name. They were making statements, expressing their concern and calling on both sides to exercise caution. Only in September of 2022, did they issue a clear demand that Russia has to leave the nuclear site and the same sort of things we have now.

The Russians started their evacuation of the population from the city of Enerhodar which is terrible on a number of levels. One of them is if people, or most of the people, who live in Enerhodar are gone who will be there watching the six overheated reactors? They are all shut down, but they need electricity. They need a water supply not to turn into a Fukushima type of situation. All the Fukushima reactors were shut down, but then there was no electricity because of the tsunami. Now there can be no electricity because of the war happening in the region. So, that’s certainly a major concern.

It’s not about blaming this individual here or there or this organization here or there, but we are completely unprepared for this situation. We don’t know what to do. Last summer I published a piece by invitation in The Economist and ended with this phrase that, “Until we figure out how to protect existing reactors, I don’t think we are in a position to build any new ones.” Because it is a threat, and I really hope that the next few weeks don’t bring any bad nuclear news Ukraine from Ukraine.


Well, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s such a great book. Let me mention it one more time. It’s The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History. It’s definitely something that for anyone who’s focused on what’s happening in Ukraine right now is an absolute must read to be able to understand the events and to put them into historical context. So, thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you so much for writing the book.

Serhii Plokhy

Thank you for having me, Justin. It was a pleasure.

Key Links

The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History by Serhii Plokhy

Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters by Serhii Plokhy

Learn more about the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute

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