According to military officials and analysts, the destruction of the Kakhovka dam and power plant that caused flooding in southern Ukraine is likely to limit Kiev’s options in its incipient counter-offensive.
Moscow and Kiev exchanged blame on Tuesday for the collapse of the dam, which spans the Dnipro River and is located in the Russian-occupied province of Kherson.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed it was a “deliberate act of sabotage by the Ukrainian side to deprive Crimea of water” and was intended to distract from the “stuttering Ukrainian offensive”.
But Ukrhydroenergo, Ukraine’s state-owned hydropower company, said an explosion in the engine room destroyed the dam, while President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “Russian terrorists” were to blame.
“It is physically impossible to somehow blow it up from the outside – with shelling. It was mined. It was mined by the Russian occupiers and blown up by them,” he said. “Russia has detonated a bomb with massive environmental damage. This is the biggest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades.”
Neither claim could be immediately verified.
But some military analysts and Ukrainian officials say the timing of the dam’s destruction is suspicious because it largely benefits Russia by thwarting Kiev’s plans to attack south and reducing the likelihood of an eastward offensive. Moscow could focus on. Russian forces have made no significant progress on the battlefield this year after announcing an offensive in January.
“The goal is obvious: to create insurmountable obstacles for the advancing Ukrainian forces,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Zelenskyy.
Footage shared on social media showed water swallowing the destroyed dam and inundating towns and villages along the banks of the Dnipro River. Ukrainian authorities rushed to evacuate tens of thousands of residents in government-controlled areas affected by the flooding.
Ukraine is expected to launch an attack in the south to try to breach and break the “land bridge” connecting Russian territory to the occupied provinces of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, as well as the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. The connection is crucial for Russian military logistics and supplies. If Kiev reached the strategic city of Melitopol or all the way to the Sea of Azov, it would deal a huge blow to Russia’s southern occupation and the morale of its armed forces.
Russia’s likely involvement hinted at fears of the imminent Ukrainian counter-offensive, said Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
He said the construction of the dam – an earth-filled dam made of compacted soil – meant it could only be blown up from the inside and would have been largely undamaged by artillery strikes.
“They spent all of May trying to stop the attack with more rocket attacks. It didn’t work, so they decided to blow up a power station,” Luzin said.
But Russia’s holdings are likely to be more severely affected than Ukraine’s in the longer term, he added. “The water will drain in a few days and it will be the Russian positions on the left bank that will be flooded,” he said.
The dam burst came as Ukrainian forces stepped up attacks in recent days at multiple locations along the 1,000km front line in the south and east of the country, signaling that the long-awaited counter-offensive may be under way.
Ukraine’s defense ministry reported Tuesday that its forces had seized more territory near the Donbas town of Bakhmut, which was completely captured by Russian troops and Wagner mercenaries in May after 10 months of grueling fighting and the “epicenter” of the fights continue.
“Russia benefits from a smaller frontline because it’s easier to concentrate forces to prevent a breakthrough,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a US think tank. “So if a Ukrainian operation in Kherson is less likely now, maybe they can move more troops east.”
A Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said officials were assessing damage from the flood and would adjust their counter-offensive plans accordingly.
“If we had plans for a landing operation there, we certainly won’t be doing it any time soon,” they said. “Immediately after (the flood) the land will essentially be a swamp.”
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a military adviser and former Ukrainian defense minister, said it was likely that the Kiev generals “have alternative plans”. The flooding could be a setback, he said, but it won’t stop Ukraine’s counter-offensive.
“If we wanted to cross the river there, it’s not going to happen,” he added. “Basically, it denies us any opportunity to cross the river and move equipment in that area. Essentially that is why Russia most likely did it, especially now.”
The Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, a government unit, said it was possible Russian troops blew up the dam to flood downstream islands that had been recaptured by Ukrainian forces on Monday.
“Another probable reason is the desire to inflict maximum damage on Ukraine in circumstances where the occupiers have lost hope of maintaining their control over southern Ukraine,” it added.
The flooding, said a Western official, “will affect large parts of civilian infrastructure, which is difficult to regenerate in the middle of a war. If you advertise widely that you are about to launch a counteroffensive, you should not be surprised if opponents take countermeasures.”
But the flood also affects Russian troops. “The destruction of the dam floods the first Russian line of defense east of the Dnipro River in Kherson, although the threat of a Ukrainian river crossing has always been low,” said Michael Kofman, a military analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington DC. based think tank. “This disaster does not benefit anyone and will affect the Russian-occupied territory the most.”
The Russian military bloggers, who strongly support the war but have criticized the leadership of the army, largely supported the official version of events.
“It is our left bank that is more affected by the floods. It makes no sense why we would do this,” wrote Alexander Kots, a Russian war reporter for the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda.
But some couldn’t help but rejoice at the difficulties the dam collapse caused for Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the region.
“I won’t say who blew it up or judge it in any way,” said Egor Guzenko, a Russian volunteer fighter and blogger. “But from a tactical point of view, (Ukraine) can forget an offensive in Kherson.”
Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone in London