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Vladimir Putin's troops have left Chernobyl after an erratic, 'illogical' occupation of the nuclear disaster site

By Europe correspondent Nick Dole and Lincoln Rothall in Chernobyl
The ABC visited the Chernobyl meltdown site — signs of Russia's mistakes were everywhere.

Julia Bezdizha still can't fathom why Russian soldiers set up camp in one of the most contaminated places on earth.

Perhaps their commanders didn't understand the risks. Or worse, they knew the dangers but simply didn't care.

"It was a completely stupid order," she says.

As a tour guide, Julia used to bring tourists into the Chernobyl exclusion zone, showing them around the site of the 1986 disaster that became one of the world's worst nuclear incidents.

Julia Bezdiha is an experienced guide who used to safely take tourists to the Chernobyl site.  (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Now, she's returned to show the ABC the mess Russian soldiers left when they occupied the area after invading Ukraine on February 24.

As we trek through the area, her first warning is about landmines, which are still being found.

"Don't walk on the grass," she says.

Moments later, a huge boom in the distance interrupts the otherwise eerie silence. Message received.

A destroyed Russian tank sits abandoned in a forest near Chernobyl.  (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Her next warning is about radiation. We're told to cover our bodies with clothing, not to eat or drink anything and, whatever you do, don't put any objects on the ground.

That warning makes the actions of Russian soldiers even harder to comprehend, since most of the danger lies in the soil.

The signs of Russian soldiers' incompetence

Ukrainian officials say when Russian troops rolled into Chernobyl from nearby Belarus, they drove their tanks through the highly contaminated Red Forest, kicking up dust along the way.

Then, they chose a patch of land just outside the forest to build a camp.

A maze of trenches has been carved deep in the soil, alongside temporary shelters.

Drone footage filmed by Ukrainian forces shows vacant pits and trenches dug around Chernobyl's exclusion zone.  (Reuters: Armed Forces of Ukraine)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has visited the site and measured the radiation in the trenches.

While it was four times higher than on surrounding roads, the IAEA said it was still within the safe range.

Even so, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told reporters last month that digging up the soil was still risky, especially without protective equipment.

Trenches dug in the Red Forest, which is part of Chernobyl's exclusion zone, were found after Russia pulled out.  (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

"Quite clearly, it's not a place to have a picnic or excavate," he said.

Julia says by building trenches at Chernobyl, these soldiers were risking their lives.

"These occupying soldiers could have received a high dose of radiation, which will lead to health problems for the rest of the life," she says.

Sandbags erected at a defensive position on top of one of the reactors at Chernobyl. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

"Their life span will depend on how long they have spent in these trenches," she said.

Inside the one place the Russians left alone

One of the most famous sites in the exclusion zone was also one of the least-disturbed during Russia's occupation of the Chernobyl area.

Old dodgem cars at an abandoned amusement park in Pripyat, near Chernobyl.   (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

The abandoned city of Pripyat, which was originally built to house the nuclear power plant's employees and their families, offered very little comfort to the invading soldiers.

The vine-covered apartments and decaying hotels are not livable. The Russian troops only entered them to disable the mobile phone towers perched on top.

The old fairground, with its dodgem cars and rusty Ferris wheel, appears to have been left untouched.

A ferris wheel at an abandoned amusement park in Pripyat, near Chernobyl. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

The town of Chernobyl itself was not so lucky.

Residents say Russian troops seemed determined to damage and steal as much as possible.

"They looted everything," says Oleksander Skirta, an engineer who was on duty at the time.

"Their behaviour was illogical," said nuclear engineer Oleksander Skirta of Russian troops during their one-month occupation of Chernobyl.  (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall )

"They smashed all the doors and windows, trying to get into apartments.

They ran over cars with their tanks, smashed computers and whitegoods, stole the wheels from cars and even cut out the chrome badges from the steering wheels.

The wreckage of two cars that locals say were destroyed by Russian troops near Chernobyl. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

What they couldn't take, they would break.

"It's like they were doing it for fun," Oleksander says.

Oleksander, like many other Chernobyl residents, lives in the town for 15 days a month while maintaining facilities in the wider exclusion zone.

A makeshift sign at an abandoned Russian checkpoint near Chernobyl's Red Forest.  (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

He then leaves to give his body a break from radiation.

He said the soldiers' erratic, "illogical" behaviour made him fear for the safety of the old nuclear reactor.

"We were very worried about what could happen," he says.

"Electricity and the mobile phone connections were shut down. We didn't know what was going on."

Soldiers could pay a high price

Russian commanders understood the need to keep the nuclear facility running.

A truck vandalised by Russian soldiers at Chernobyl. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

They brought in experts from their own atomic energy agency, but also forced Ukrainian technicians to work gruelling shifts so they could monitor operations at the site.

In March, when power to the facility was interrupted, Ukraine's government warned the spent nuclear fuel could overheat and trigger a major disaster.

The IAEA said there was no immediate risk and the power was ultimately restored.

However Ukrainian officials say some of the soldiers patrolling the facility handled highly radioactive materials and some even stole contaminated objects.

Sandbags at an abandoned Russian checkpoint near Chernobyl's Red Forest.  (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

"We can't understand the behaviour of some of the Russian soldiers," Julia said.

"They've taken this back to Belarus and from there, to their homes."

Russian troops blew up the bridges as they withdrew across the border in early April, to stop any potential pursuit by the Ukrainian army.

But whatever radiation they were exposed to at Chernobyl could still catch up with them.

What Russian soldiers couldn't take, they broke during their occupation.  (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
Life in Kharkiv’s underground shelters in the eyes of Aussie doctor
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Dive Deeper:
The Loop: The ABC enters the Chernobyl meltdown zone, Eurovision heats up, and the US surpasses 1 million COVID-19 deaths
Get up to speed on today's headlines with The Loop.
Live updates | Ukraine reports more airstrikes on Azovstal
Ukraine’s military says Russian forces are continuing airstrikes on the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol and pressing their advance on towns…
Besieged fighters at Azovstal works in plea for help to evacuate wounded comrades to safety
It is a scene reminiscent of the horrors of World War I trench warfare – unshaven soldiers in filthy uniforms,…
Trial by fire: Ukraine war becomes gruelling artillery duel
As troops in mazes of trenches pound each other with shells, the terror of war draws closer to the city…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
School still smoulders a week after being hit in razed Ukraine village
Bilogorivka (Ukraine) (AFP) - The charred basement at the bottom of a heap of rubble that was once a two-storey…
Russia vows response as Finland seeks Nato membership without delay
Finland has said it would apply to join NATO "without delay", with Sweden expected to follow suit, suggesting Russia's invasion…
Get all your news in one place