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Ukrainian Dam Disaster: Multiplying Mysteries, Mounting Mayhem
As Russia distorts what happened at the Kakhovka dam, the death toll and strategic implications remain unsettled.
AS THE UKRAINIAN COUNTEROFFENSIVE gets underway, the collapse of the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, the human and environmental toll of which is still unclear, continues to generate both harrowing images and heated polemics. While much of the reaction from the world has harshly condemned Russia, the anti-anti-Kremlin contingent—such as blogger and Quincy Institute fellow Kelley Vlahos and author Robert Wright—have deplored the rush to judgment, arguing that Russia’s guilt is far from established and that there are facts pointing to the Ukrainians as the perpetrators. The Russian propaganda machine, of course, has been tirelessly promoting the “Ukraine did it” narrative—but with some revealing lapses and stumbles among the way.
At this point, much of the “whodunit” discussion is conducted by armchair experts relying on extremely limited evidence and somehow almost invariably concluding that it matches their priors. What’s more, the evidence will remain limited unless the scene of the disaster—currently under Russian control—is made available to independent experts. Available evidence does suggest that if the dam was intentionally blown up, it was with explosives and not with missiles, since its structure was designed to withstand even the strongest external impact. (Russian experts have conceded as much—for instance, on the June 7 edition of the NTV talk show Meeting Place.) In that case, it seems vastly more probable that the explosives were planted inside than outside—a fact that points the finger at Russian soldiers rather than Ukrainian underwater drones or scuba divers. The Kakhovka power station was seized by Russian troops on the first day of the invasion: The Russians saw it as a strategically important object since they wanted to use it as a source of water supply for Crimea.
As for cui bono, the consensus is that militarily, neither side gains a clear advantage from the destruction of the dam, since the flooding helps both the Russian and the Ukrainian forces in some ways and hurts them in others. Here, one could certainly argue that if collapsing the dam confers some advantages but is also a colossally stupid thing to do from a purely self-interested standpoint—and also has devastating consequences for the local population and the land—we know which side would be more likely to make such a decision.
Some Russian commentary, such as a June 9 RIA Novosti piece elegantly titled “Bucha at Kakhovka” (the point, in case you’re confused, is that the Kakhovka dam destruction is a Ukrainian false flag operation just like the Bucha massacre supposedly was), makes much of a Washington Post piece late last year in which Ukrainian Major General Andriy Kovalchuk had supposedly admitted “using American HIMARS missiles to make breaches in the Kakhovka dam with the goal of flooding vast territories to the south” prior to Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson. But that’s not quite what the Post article said:
Kovalchuk considered flooding the river. The Ukrainians, he said, even conducted a test strike with a HIMARS launcher on one of the floodgates at the Nova Kakhovka dam, making three holes in the metal to see if the Dnieper’s water could be raised enough to stymie Russian crossings but not flood nearby villages.
The test was a success, Kovalchuk said, but the step remained a last resort. He held off.
This suggests, if anything, the opposite conclusion from RIA Novosti’s: Clearly, the Ukrainians were reluctant to inflict even limited damage on the dam and cause contained flooding at a time when such an operation would have benefited them far more by weakening the Russians’ position at still-occupied Kherson.
(The RIA Novosti article also falsely asserts that ever since it was seized by Russian forces, the Kakhovka power station has provided water only to Russian-held areas; in fact, the now-depleted reservoir has remained a critical source of fresh water and irrigation for southern Ukraine.)
One could also argue that apart from specific military benefits, such as slowing down a potential Ukrainian offensive or destroying Russian fortifications, the Russians gain simply by forcing Ukrainian authorities to divert a large part of their attention and energy from the counteroffensive to rescue and damage-control operations, on which the Russian occupying forces are expending minimal effort. None of this constitutes decisive proof of Russian guilt—but it’s circumstantial evidence worth weighing.
Could the dam have collapsed because of damage from past missile strikes, compounded by negligence? Michael Nacke, an expatriate Russian journalist, and Ruslan Leviev, founder of the open-source intelligence group Conflict Intelligence Team, have received a lot of blowback from the pro-Ukraine side for endorsing this scenario as a possible explanation. Yet Nacke and Leviev have repeatedly stressed that such a scenario hardly exonerates Russia.
Poor maintenance that allowed water levels in the dam to rise to a critical point may well have been deliberate—which would explain the timing of the collapse just as the Ukrainian counteroffensive was beginning. (Nacke has recently shifted toward a “deliberate explosion” scenario due to seismic data indicating explosions just before the collapse.) But even if the dam’s collapse were entirely accidental, the responsibility for the disaster would still be Russia’s. Negligence of such Chernobyl-like magnitude is still criminal—all the more so when it compounds an illegal occupation and operations that turn critical infrastructure into targets in a war zone.
Several analysts have also pointed to a little-noticed but curious detail. On May 31, a week before the dam’s collapse, the Russian government issued a decree that not only temporarily relaxes various safety and inspection requirements for the operation of hazardous industrial sites and hydroelectric dams in the four Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia (including the Kherson region, where the Kakhovka dam is located) but suspends for the next five years “the technical investigation of disasters” at such sites “resulting from military operations, sabotage or terrorist acts.”
Remarkable coincidence? Maybe. One could argue that Russia would hardly leave such a clue if it were planning to blow up the dam and that if the Russian authorities didn’t want to investigate their own crime, they could have easily conducted a sham investigation. But even in in the best-case scenario, this document amounts to the Russian government giving itself, its military, and its occupation administrators carte blanche for negligence in occupied areas.
HERE IS HOW the Russian side has acted since the collapse of the dam:
According to numerous eyewitness accounts and video evidence, Russian forces have continued to shell the now-flooded city of Kherson, which been under Russian fire since Ukraine liberated it in November. Moreover, Russian forces have deliberately used artillery fire and explosive-carrying drones to disrupt and hamper volunteer rescue efforts. A report on Sunday said that three people were killed and ten wounded in an artillery attack on three boats evacuating elderly people.
Both Ukrainian sources and independent Russian sources, such as the Meduza news site, Michael Nacke’s YouTube channel, and TV-Rain, have reported that Russian occupation authorities and the Russian military have impeded rescue efforts on occupied territory, barring Ukrainian volunteers from entering villages and refusing to evacuate residents without Russian passports, which were offered to all the locals last fall when Russia formally annexed the region. It took nearly 90 hours for Vladimir Putin to issue an order to start disaster relief operations in the area.
Russian TV channels have downplayed the disaster, even referring to the flooding as a pavodok (“flash flood”) and focused on positive stories about Russian rescue efforts. They have also claimed that Ukrainian troops have been disrupting rescue efforts with shelling and smoke bombs (with no evidence except for some visuals of smoke rising in the distance).
On a talk show on Russia’s Channel One (it’s always the talk shows where the derangement blooms), a retired officer and military expert, Evgeny Buzhinsky, suggested that, since dams are blowing up anyway, it would be good to consider blowing up the Kyiv dam and flooding that highly populous city. Even one of the hosts had to ask what that would achieve. “Just to show them we can!” exclaimed Buzhinsky, in whose bizarro universe Russia is striking only at military targets while Ukraine brazenly kills Russian civilians without retaliation.
The June 7 discussion on NTV’s Mesto vstrechi (“Meeting Place”), which preserves at least some appearance of debate, was far more raucous and intriguing. This is, incidentally, the same program—even with some of the same guests—that erupted into a row last April when panelist Alexei Naumov observed that Russian war casualties almost certainly exceeded Ukrainian ones. Now, he was back causing more dissension (within the limits of politically acceptable commentary in Russia). But the show went off-script even before he got involved. First, Andrei Fedorov, a former deputy foreign minister, criticized the Russian-appointed “governor” of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, for asserting that the Kakhovka dam collapse would help the Russian troops and thus implying that the Russians had a motive to blow it up.
After the two hosts tried to squash this argument (“It’s obvious who benefits!”), political analyst Viktor Olevich went off on another alarming tangent: If the dam was deliberately blown up, why call it a crime? After all, he pointed out, the Soviets blew up the Istra Dam near Moscow in November 1941 to flood the path of advancing German troops and didn’t admit it until decades later: “Was that a crime? No, it wasn’t a crime at all! It was to the advantage of the Red Army in the defense of Moscow at a critical moment.” (He could have mentioned that several months earlier, an NKVD team dynamited the Dnieper Hydroelectric Power Station dam near Zaporizhzhia on Stalin’s orders—but that might have been too close to home, especially since the resulting floods killed at least 20,000 civilians in nearby villages and did little if anything to stop the German onslaught.)
Despite the hosts’ attempts to reroute the conversation to Ukraine’s supposedly blatant guilt, Olevich persisted, finally generating an instant meme: “My point is, if it benefits Russia, how is that a bad thing?” Of course, “it’s not a crime” would also presumably cover the Ukrainians—in fact far more so, since they’re fighting a defensive war. But we’re in the alternate universe in which Russia is not the aggressor and “it’s okay when we do it” makes sense.
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Olevich also added that “not one person was killed”—not a smart thing to say so soon after a massive disaster, since the first nine casualties were reported the next day and the true death toll won’t be known for some time.
Naumov’s contribution to this circus was to note, twice, that “the dam is under our control”—ostensibly to make the point that Russia has every chance to collect and present the evidence. As if Russia could ever get a fair hearing, scoffed host Andrei Norkin: “We collected our evidence on the Malaysian Boeing [i.e. the shootdown of Flight MH17]. . . a War and Peace’s worth of evidence, and what did they do with that evidence?” (“They” found it to be partly fake, that’s what.) By the time the show went to a break, Naumov had been accused of sounding like Ukrainian U.N. ambassador Sergiy Kislitsa, and Norkin had testily suggested wrapping up because “this is some sort of crazy gibberish.”
OBVIOUSLY, WE DON’T YET KNOW the full facts of what happened to the Kakhovka dam. Not all the rhetoric on the pro-Ukraine side is beyond criticism. Video blogger Denis Kazanskiy wrongly suggested, omitting some context, that the panelists on the June 7 NTV show had admitted Russia’s role in blowing up the dam. Hudson Institute pundit Andrei Piontkovsky transparently accused Russian expatriate journalists and opposition activists who argued that the dam’s collapse may have been due to Russian negligence of carrying water, as it were, for the Kremlin. But such lapses pale next to the cynicism, absurdity, and mendacity of the official Russian “news.” Here’s one small but egregious example, in case you’re ever tempted to believe the Russian official version of anything.
On June 7, the Russian newspaper Moskovskiy komsomolets ran a sarcastic debunking of reports that as many as 300 animals had drowned at the Kazkova Dibrava (“Fairy-Tale Forest”) park and zoo in Nova Kakhovka. In fact, the site asserted, they had nearly all been evacuated to the Taigan animal park in Crimea late last year to save them from Ukrainian shelling and other perils (as confirmed by a December video made by Taigan’s owner), and Ukrainian social media at the time had even “raised a howl” about the occupiers “stealing animals.” Now, Moskovskiy komsomolets sneered, the Ukrainian media, “well-trained in psychological conditioning,” were pushing the story of the drowned animals because “the woes of children or critters” never fail to pack an emotional punch. And for good measure, Moskovskiy komsomolets speculated that the two monkeys mentioned in the reports might not have existed in the first place.
After I found the December video in question, I briefly wondered if the Russian media might have gotten in right on this occasion: Could some Ukrainians have tried to dramatize the tragedy further? Such things are hardly unknown in the midst of very real wartime calamities. That was before I noticed that the video referred to a zoo in Kakhovka, not Nova Kakhovka, and did a quick search to confirm that these were two different towns. Then I found a new Taigan park video in which a female staffer regretfully explained the misunderstanding: The animals had been removed from the Kakhovka zoo (which, as it happens, was not endangered by the flood since it was on higher ground), while the ones from Nova Kakhovka had not been evacuated. And she also made a passing reference to the monkeys.
ON SUNDAY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY said that the International Criminal Court had already launched its investigation into the Kakhovka Dam. It’s hard to say how long the investigation will take or how productive it will be, especially if the dam remains in Russian hands.
But one thing is already clear, even if we don’t know yet what degree of war crime Russia has committed. The Kakhovka dam would be intact today, and the devastation we’re seeing in the Kherson region would not exist, if Russia had not invaded Ukraine. It started with a criminal war.