The destruction of the dam in Nova Kakhovka

Image: Dmitry Makeyev


Propaganda says that Russia has detonated the Nova Kakhovva dam, but this is not at all rational for Russian purposes.

It is safe to say that the past week (June 5-11, 2023) has the makings of being considered one of the most significant of the entire Russo-Ukrainian War. On Monday, all eyes were on the Ukrainian armed forces and their long-awaited summer counter-offensive, which began with a series of battalion-level attacks across the entirety of the theater of operations. After these initial attacks on the Ugledar, Bakhmut and Soledar sectors began to collapse with heavy losses, it seemed that the talking point for the near future would be the prospects of breaching the Russian defenses heavily protected by Ukraine.

Instead, the entire Ukrainian offensive was overshadowed by the sudden and totally unexpected collapse of the New Kakhovka dam on the lower Dnieper.

Let's be clear about one thing: the destruction of this dam marks a qualitative change in the course of the war; a barrage represents a completely different target level. There is a widespread belief that dams are not legitimate military targets, as they fall into the category of “objects containing dangerous forces”, along with things like sea walls, dykes and nuclear power plants. However, attacks on dams have precedent and the legality of such attacks is a complicated and thorny topic – is not as simple as saying “attacking dams is a war crime” in all circumstances.

In any case, legal issues are not the main point here. Destruction of dams has the potential to affect civilians on a scale that is of a magnitude greater than anything that has ever happened. The reality of the war in Ukraine is that, because most of the fighting takes place in unpopulated areas (along with Russia's use of long-range precision weapons), civilian casualties have been miraculously low. Until May of this year, less than 9.000 civilian deaths recorded in Ukraine (including both Ukrainian and Russian controlled territories). This is a fortunately low number, compared (for example) with the war in Syria, where more than 30.000 civilians are killed annually, or in Iraq, where about 18.000 civilians died each year in the years following the US invasion in 2003.

A dam failure, however, greatly increases the threat to civilians. Tens of thousands of civilians are in the path of the floods and have to be evacuated – but, perhaps even more significantly, the destruction of the dam creates a major threat to agriculture. There are also increasing risks of escalation, and the last thing anyone wants is for dams to become a permanent menu item.

In this article, I intend to carry out a preliminary assessment of the destruction of the dam, its consequences and its potential causes. In particular, I intend to analyze the evidence and see whether Ukraine or Russia are the most likely culprits. The situation is changing these days and we are not likely to find Volodymyr Zelensky or Vladimir Putin's fingerprints on the detonator, but we can at least put some pieces of the puzzle in approximately the right position and get an idea of ​​what the scenario.

One thing I would like to mention first is that we don't need to assume that the dam was intentionally destroyed. For example, in a now famous article by the Washington Post, we learn that Ukraine experimented with hitting the dam with GMLRS rockets in an attempt to blow a hole and create a controlled flood. The sense one gets here is that Ukraine did not necessarily intend to destroy the dam completely, but rather to create a limited crack and, by extension, a limited flood.

We will keep these possibilities in mind and consider them a distinction without being a difference. It's entirely possible that one party or another tried to create a limited crack and accidentally caused the dam to fail much larger, but from our perspective, that's not particularly different from intentionally destroying everything.

With that little distinction in mind, let's start by sorting out what we know about this dam thing.

aquatic world

What is (or was) the Kakhovka dam and what is its relationship to the wider geography of the surrounding steppe?

To begin with, let's make a brief note about the Dnieper River. In its natural state, the Dnieper is a deeply difficult and turbulent river, characterized by a series of essentially unnavigable rapids. Indeed, the ferocious nature of the Dnieper is precisely why the city of Kiev is where it is. 1200 years ago, when enterprising merchants rowed down the Dnieper (trying to reach the Black Sea and thence to Constantinople), they discovered that certain parts of the river were impassable and that it was necessary to “transpose” their boats – meaning to drag them out. of the river and along the banks to overcome the rapids.

Transporting a boat across the middle Dnieper in 800 AD was dangerous. While disembarking and laboriously dragging the boat down the river, a group of traders was highly vulnerable to attacks from the various warlike tribes that inhabited the region at the time. It therefore became necessary to build a kind of outpost that could serve as a crossing point and make crossing the river at least reasonably safe. Thus, Kiev was initially built as a fortified wooden trading post to facilitate passage along the middle Dnieper.

This is perhaps interesting, but, as an aside, it illustrates the basic point that, for most of human history, the Dnieper was not a friendly or easily navigable river, similar to the Mississippi or the Rhine, and in the Soviet era it was finally undertaken a major effort to tame it, in the form of a series of hydroelectric dams. These dams slowed down the rapids, produced electricity, smoothed the course of the river and created huge reservoirs, of which the Kakhovka reservoir is the largest in volume.

Dnieper reservoirs and dams.

The creation of the Kakhovka Reservoir was also vitally linked to a series of canals that are fed by the reservoir. The most important of these canals is the Crimean Canal, which carries water from the Dnieper River to Crimea, but there are also a number of irrigation works that are vital for agriculture in the Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts.

Canals fed by the Kakhovka Reservoir System

This is, therefore, the basic structure of the region's hydrology. Therefore, we can enumerate the upstream and downstream effects of the dam failure. The upstream effects are related to the draining of the Kakhovka Reservoir, which, over time, will lead to insufficient flow in the channels, depriving both Crimea and the agricultural lands of the region of water. The downstream effects are those of the massive floods currently taking place.

The threat to the Kakhovka dam first entered the discourse last fall, when General Surovikin made the astonishing decision to withdraw Russian forces from the west bank of Kherson – a decision he said was motivated by fears that Ukraine destroy the dam and create a flood that trapped Russian troops on the far bank. That decision now seems certainly prescient, but thanks to this earlier discussion there was already a set of analyzes that predicted what the flood's path would be like.


  Before and after

According to the latest information at the time of this writing, the river has not yet reached its maximum level and the water level continues to rise, but has already turned into a vast and extremely disturbing flood. This is a serious humanitarian and ecological catastrophe with implications for the military situation in Ukraine. The question is: who did this?

incriminating evidence

Let's start by analyzing the most direct evidence that could implicate Russia or Ukraine. I would like to start by reviewing an allegedly damning video that has been circulating rapidly and purports to confirm that Russia blew up the dam.

O video in question allegedly shows a Russian soldier giving an interview in December in which he brags about the Russian army having mined the Kakhovka dam and planning to destroy it to create a cascading flood and drag Ukrainian troops downstream.

Without wanting to be rude, this is a distasteful trick and it's hard to believe people are falling for it. To begin with, it is an interview with a Ukrainian blogger and youtuber, whose username is “Edgar Myrotvorets” – interestingly, his name comes from the infamous Ukrainian death list. The “Russian soldier” he is interviewing is allegedly a gentleman named Yegor Guzenko. Yegor seems like an interesting person – he periodically appears on social media to confess to stereotypical Russian war crimes such as the kidnapping of civilians and the execution of ukrainian prisoners and, of course, the explosion of dams.

Essentially, we are asked to believe that there is a Russian soldier who gives interviews to the Ukrainian media, in which he confesses to all of Russia's nefarious activities, and who then does his duty without being arrested or punished. It should be pretty obvious that Yegor is, in reality, Yehor, and that he is not a Russian soldier, but a Ukrainian imposter – interestingly, Yegor also has a beard, despite the Russian Ministry of Defense have banned facial hair.

In any case, Yegor's explosive interview is the main direct evidence being used to demonstrate that Russia blew the dam.

By contrast, the evidence implicating Ukraine is quite simple: Ukrainians have openly spoken of experimenting with ways to breach the dam, and in the past have actively fired rockets and artillery shells at it. We refer to the famous article from WaPo and, in particular, for the key section: “Kovalchuk [Commander of the Southern Ukrainian Operational Command] considered the possibility of river flooding. According to him, the Ukrainians even carried out a test attack with a HIMARS launcher on one of the gates of the New Kakhovka dam, making three holes in the metal to see if the Dnieper water could rise enough to prevent Russian crossings, but without flooding neighboring villages. The test was a success, Kovalchuk said, but the measure remained a last resort. He held back.”

We even have footage of Ukraine attacking the dam (in particular the road that covers it) from last year – footage that was incorrectly shared this week as being the video of the attack that destroyed the dam on Monday.

There is also a variety of circumstantial evidence worth reviewing.

A popular issue raised by the Ukrainian infosphere is the fact that the Kakhovka dam is under Russian control – hence, they argue that only Russia could have placed explosives to create a crack (at this time, we do not know the precise technical method used to create it). the crack).

I think Russia's control of the dam makes its responsibility much less likely, for the following basic reasons. First, having control over the dam's gates meant that Russia had the power to manipulate downstream water levels at will. If they wanted to create floods, they could have simply opened all the floodgates. Now that the dam has broken, they have lost that control.

The situation is very similar to the destruction of the Nordstream pipeline (which now appears to be being attributed to Ukraine, quite predictably). Both the Nordstream and the Kakhovka Dam were instruments that Russia had the power to swing in one direction or the other. They were levers that Russia could activate, deactivate or reactivate. The destruction of these instruments effectively removes control from Russia and, in both cases, we are asked to believe that Russia has intentionally disabled its own levers.

Cui bono?

Ultimately, any analysis would be incomplete without asking a very basic question: who benefits from the destruction of the dam? This is where things get a little complicated, largely because there are so many concerns that intersect with each other. Let's list a few.

First, the floods disproportionately affect the Russian side of the river. This fact has already been amply proven. The eastern bank of the river is lower and therefore more affected by flooding. We knew this in an academic sense, and now satellite images confirm that it is indeed the eastern bank that has been experiencing most of the flooding.

This had the effect of destroying prepared Russian defenses, including minefields, and forcing them to withdraw from the flood zone, with many images of Russian soldiers waist-deep in water.

Second, upstream effects also disproportionately affect Russia. Remember that the implications of the dam failure are not just downstream flooding, but also reservoir drainage, which is particularly bad for Russia. First, in the long run, this endangers the flow of water through the Crimean Canal, which undermines a fundamental Russian war objective. One of Russia's main motivations for launching this war was precisely to ensure the security of the Crimean Canal, which Ukraine had dammed up to strangle the peninsula's water supply. Any analysis of the issue must recognize that if we believe that Russia blew the dam, we are essentially saying that it voluntarily destroyed one of its main war objectives.

But it's not just the Crimean Canal – there are also a variety of irrigation canal networks that support agriculture in the Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts on the east bank – oblasts that Russia annexed and which are firmly under Russian control.

The only way to interpret all this (and there are some people, like Peter Zeihan, trying to interpret it this way) as being in Russia's interest is to argue that Russia hopes to lose control of all this territory (including Crimea) and is promoting land devastated in anticipation of defeat. But to believe that, you have to believe that Russia is really losing the war and is on the verge of total defeat, and if you believe that, I have nothing to say to you except to direct you straight to this link.

Third, the effects this will have on a potential amphibious operation must be taken into account. In the short term, this obviously turns the lower Dnieper into a dangerous swamp, and as the water recedes it will leave a lot of dirt and mud, which will make crossing the river very difficult for several weeks. However, in the long run, crossing the river may indeed be easier – and this is where I want to make a critical point.

While Russia held control of the Kakhovka Dam, it had the power to create floods downstream at will. The ideal time to do so would be when Ukraine is attempting an amphibious assault from Kherson. If it created flooding during this assault, it would complicate the crossing and destroy Ukraine's beachheads. Obviously, Russia has now lost the ability to do that.

We already know that Russia understands how and why to manipulate water levels to its advantage. Earlier this year, they were in fact keeping Kakhovka Reservoir levels extremely low, most likely to minimize Ukraine's threat of breaching the dam (as Surovikin was apparently quite concerned). However, in recent weeks, they closed the floodgates and filled the reservoir to the top.

Why would they do this? It seems likely that Russia wanted to retain the water so that it could create a wave (not by destroying the dam, but by opening the floodgates) that would disrupt any Ukrainian attempt to cross the river. Again, the attractiveness of the dam for Russia is that it is a lever that could be raised or lowered as the situation required. However, the rupture of the dam took that instrument away from them.

This brings us to the consequential point, which is that the break has two major benefits for Ukraine. Not only is it destroying Russian defenses and disproportionately disrupting the Russian side of the river, Russia has now lost the ability to create a flood in due time later.

If I had to give my guess as to what happened to the dam, it would be this:

I believe that Russia was withholding water to maintain the power to create floods in the event of a Ukrainian amphibious attack across the lower Dnieper. Ukraine tried to nullify this instrument with a limited dam crack (as they rehearsed last December), but the dam failure went beyond what they intended due to: (i) the reservoir being at extremely high levels, putting excessive stress on the structure ; and (ii) past damage to the structure caused by Ukrainian bombing and rocket attacks. In fact, the images of the dam seem to suggest that it failed in stages, with a single gap leaking water before the collapse became widespread.

I find the idea that Russia destroyed the dam very hard to believe, for the following reasons (to recap): (a) The floods disproportionately affected the Russian side of the river and destroyed Russian positions. (b) The loss of the dam seriously undermines key Russian interests, including access to water in Crimea and agriculture in the steppe. (c) The dam, while intact, was an instrument that Russia was using to freely manipulate the water level. (d) Of the two belligerent parties, only Ukraine openly fired at the dam and spoke of breaching it.

Of course, we might find that there was an accidental failure of some sort, potentially due to to the tug of war being waged between Russia and Ukraine as they try to balance the flow of the river. But in a war situation, when an important infrastructure object is destroyed, it is more rational to assume intentional destruction, and in this situation, the costs to Russia's critical infrastructure and the loss of a valuable tool for controlling the river make it extremely difficult to believe. that Russia would blow up its own dam.

Ultimately, perhaps your judgment on the matter simply reflects your greater conviction about who is winning the war. Breaking a dam is, after all, an act of desperation – so perhaps the question to ask is: who do you think is most desperate? Who is against the wall – Russia or Ukraine?

Or will the beavers inherit the land?

*Big Serge is a journalist.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on Newsletter by the author.

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