Ukraine and Russia trade blame for massive dam collapse
Russian and Ukrainian officials hurled blame at each other over the collapse Tuesday of a major dam in southern Ukraine — an incident that quickly triggered floods, threatened drinking water and added a vexing new dimension to the war amid signs that a long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive to Russia’s invasion is underway.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy charged that “Russian occupiers” controlling the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power station on the Dnieper River had deliberately destroyed both, unleashing the “largest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades.”
“It was mined by the Russian occupiers and they blew it up,” Mr. Zelenskyy tweeted, after the collapse sent water surging through towns and villages and into the city of Kherson about 20 miles downstream from the dam.
“Russia has detonated a bomb of mass environmental destruction,” the Ukrainian president said.
Moscow denied the allegation, with the Russian-installed head of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, accusing Ukrainian forces of striking the facilities with a missile attack. He claimed the strike had triggered a “large but, but not critical” amount of water to flow down the Dnipro river.
It was not possible to reconcile the conflicting claims. The dam is situated in one of the most territorially contested areas of the war and provides water to the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, as well as to the cooling systems of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported “no immediate risk to the safety of the plant.” While Zaporizhzhia has been shut down for months, it still needs water for its cooling system, although the IAEI said the plant has alternate sources.
In Kherson, a woman who gave her name only as Tetyana waded through thigh-deep water to reach her flooded house and rescue her dogs. They were standing on any dry surface they could find, but one pregnant dog was missing. “It’s a nightmare,” she kept repeating, according to The Associated Press.
Both Russian and Ukrainian authorities brought in trains and buses to move residents to safety. About 22,000 people live in locations at risk of flooding in Russian-controlled areas, while 16,000 live in the most critical zone in Ukrainian-held territory, according to official tallies. Neither side reported any deaths or injuries.
A satellite photo by Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press showed a nearly 2,000-foot section of the dam’s wall missing.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the situation a “monumental humanitarian, economic and ecological catastrophe” and “another devastating consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
The collapse, long feared by both sides, adds fresh complexity to Russia’s war, now in its 16th month.
Ukrainian forces have widely been seen during recent days to be moving ahead with a long-anticipated counteroffensive, focused on patches of territory along more than 621 miles of front line in Ukraine’s east and south.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu charged Tuesday that Ukraine had destroyed the Kakhovka dam to prevent potential Russian attacks in the Kherson region after what he alleged was a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Mr. Shoigu claimed Ukraine had lost 3,715 troops and 52 tanks since Sunday, and — in a rare acknowledgment of Russia’s own losses — said 71 Russian troops were killed and 210 wounded. Ukraine followed its standard practice of not commenting on its casualties.
For months, Ukrainian officials have spoken of plans to launch the counteroffensive to reclaim territory Russia has occupied since invading the country on Feb. 24, 2022, as well as the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014.
With the Kakhovka dam collapse as a backdrop, speculation rose Tuesday over how the Ukrainian counteroffensive may unfold.
Despite a surge in fighting and artillery movements during recent days, the front lines in occupied Ukraine have remained relatively static for months, a situation analysts say gave Russian commanders time to construct a vast array of trenches, minefields, and other obstacles intended to impede any attempts by Ukraine’s military to advance.
While Russian forces have generally underperformed in Ukraine, their combat engineers have proven one the stronger branches of the Russian military, according to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British security think-tank.
“Russian mine-laying is extensive and misses anti-tank and victim-initiated anti-personnel mines, the latter frequently being laid with multiple initiation mechanisms to complicate breaching,” RUSI said in a recent statement. “These defenses post a major tactical challenge to Ukrainian offensive operations.”
NATO officials say Moscow has spread thousands of “Dragons Teeth” — pyramid-shaped anti-tank obstacles made of reinforced concrete — across several miles in southern Ukraine.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said U.S. military personnel have been training Ukrainians on what they need to do when they find themselves facing a Russian obstacle belt.
“I’m confident at the mid-level and lower-level that the [Ukrainian] troops know what to do in order to be successful in breaching these kinds of obstacles,” Mr. Austin said. “I just hope that they’ll be able to put into play all those skills that they’ve learned.”
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe said Ukrainian forces could overcome the obstacles that Russian forces have constructed on the battlefield.
“The Russians have been building obstacle belts, but they have rarely attained what we in the West would consider ‘complex obstacles,’ given the length of the line they are defending, the resources they applied to attacking over the winter, and the time they had available,” Gen. Donahoe told The Washington Times.
“Complex obstacles” refers to a system of minefields, tank ditches, and barbed wire with each covered by artillery and tank fire, said Gen. Donahoe, a former commander of the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Moore, formerly known as Fort Benning, Georgia.
“These [obstacles] can often be developed in-depth to further canalize the attacker into areas where the defender can concentrate his fires to destroy the attacker,” he said, adding that Ukrainian troops will need to conduct reconnaissance missions to identify weak points that can be exploited.
They will need to coordinate the use of smoke to obscure the location where a breach will occur along with the artillery and direct-fire weapons to suppress the Russian defenders, according to Gen. Donahoe. Only then will Ukraine’s combat engineers be in a position to remove landmines, fill trenches, and create a breach for an armored assault, the former general said.
“This takes training and rehearsals at individual, crew, squad, platoon, company, and up to do this effectively,” he said. “With the influx of Western equipment…and the NATO training programs to use this equipment and fight effectively, the Ukrainians have an opportunity to prevail.”
His comments dovetailed with the recent statement from RUSI, which maintained that “if Ukraine can disrupt Russian defenses and impose a dynamic situation on them, Russian units are likely to rapidly lose their coordination.”
Other analysts have speculated that Ukraine could make dramatic advances.
“Ukraine’s counteroffensive could potentially be concluded by summer’s end, leaving the Crimean Bridge as the only remaining option for ground resupply of Russian forces in Crimea,” according to Richard D. Hooker Jr., a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.
“Campaign success, however, would bring Ukrainian long-range missiles within range of the bridge, which would also be vulnerable to drone attacks,” Mr. Hooker, a former special assistant to the U.S. president and National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, wrote in a recent analysis published by the think tank.
“Meanwhile, resupply of Russian forces in Crimea by air and sea would become precarious, as ports and airfields would now be vulnerable to drone, missile, and rocket artillery strikes,” he wrote. “In short, Crimea would be effectively isolated.”
Dam collapse fallout
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was receiving regular reports on the situation surrounding Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric plant.
The environmental and social consequences quickly became clear Tuesday as homes, streets and businesses flooded downstream and emergency crews began evacuations; officials monitored water for cooling systems at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant; and authorities expressed concern about drinking water supplies in both Ukrainian and Russian-controlled areas.
Mr. Saldo, the Russian-installed head of the Kherson region, said the collapse would “not prevent our military from defending the left bank.”
“However, fields along the coast have been washed away, and peaceful infrastructure has been disrupted.” he said on his Telegram social media account.
Mr. Zelenskyy told reporters his government had information about Russia mining the dam last year. Other Ukrainian officials alleged Russia blew up the dam to hinder Kyiv’s counteroffensive, even though observers note that crossing the broad Dnieper would be extremely challenging. Other sectors of the front line are more likely avenues of attack, analysts say.
Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the alleged Russian destruction of the dam is “a profoundly defensive measure” showing “the lack of confidence in Russia’s longer-term prospects” in the war.
Underscoring the global repercussions, wheat prices jumped 3% after the collapse. It’s unclear whether the surge in wheat prices was due to a real threat of flood waters destroying crops. Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
— This article is based in part on wire-service reports.