Dam Destroyed, Accusations Fly, Waters Rise, War Plans Could Change

The loss of the dam is a huge ecological and humanitarian disaster, but it also changes the very topography of the battlefield.

byHoward Altman|
Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the destruction of the Nova Karkhova dam.


Ukraine's Operational Command South (OCS) on Tuesday said that while the Russians intentionally blew up the Nova Khakovka dam which it has held since the early days of this all-out war, it won't change how Kyiv conducts its counteroffensive. How realistic this is, however, is unclear at this time.

"The main conclusion is that the detonation was intentional, but the enemy acted chaotically, allowing their own equipment to be flooded," OCS said Tuesday on its Telegram channel. "At the same time, the detonation of the dam did not affect Ukraine's ability to de-occupy its own territories."

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in blaming Ukraine, said that Kyiv blew up the dam to prevent Russian offensive actions in the region. The Kremlin-connected Rybar Telegram channel also said that Russian defensive positions would suffer as a result.

"If you pay attention to the map of potential flooding, then the left bank and the islands will suffer first of all. Kherson will get it, but not so much. Mine-explosive barriers, advanced positions and houses and farms located on the shore will suffer."

But aside from potential ecological devastation and disruption of thousands of lives, surging floodwaters from the breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam could still have far-reaching effects on the conduct of the war regardless of what either side says.

The Dnipro River, which has been the dividing line in Kherson Oblast between the two opposing armies since Russians evacuated Kherson City last fall, can also impact how Kyiv conducts its counteroffensive and how Moscow defends against it, analysts say.

"Flooding will affect both [Russian] defensive belt & potential [Ukrainian Armed Forces] river crossing, supply lines and upcoming offensive in Kherson," Mark Hertling, former Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army, noted Tuesday in a Twitter thread. He was commenting on a situation where each side blames the other for blowing up the dam.

The destruction of the dam could give Russians additional time to prepare its defenses while also depriving Ukraine of some options for its counteroffensive, Nico Lange, a former German Defense Ministry official, told The Wall Street Journal. Russia could now redeploy resources from the southwest to reinforce other sections of the front, Lange, now a fellow with the Munich Security Conference, a global security forum, told the newspaper.

Analyst Michael Kofman told The War Zone that the Russian military will bear the greater brunt of any problems associated with the breach.

"I don't think this significantly affects Ukraine's military prospects or substantially improves Russia's position," he said. "It makes a cross-river operation, which was risky and difficult proposition to begin with, far less likely, while at the same time damaging the initial line of defenses Russian forces built up after November."

Regardless of what caused the breach of the dam that held back 18 million cubic feet of water, this is a huge humanitarian and ecological disaster in addition to being a military challenge.

Ukrainian authorities say that about 80 towns and villages are in the path of potential flood waters and that about 16,000 people are in immediate danger. In addition, the Dnipro River provides cooling water for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency says there is no immediate threat to the plant.

The Dnipro river is a vital source of drinking water for Ukraine, including Crimea, and irrigation for Ukrainian farms. There are indications that oil from the damaged dam has already seeped into the water, adding pollution to the growing concerns that include how this will affect the region's wildlife.

But the most immediate threats are to the people living along the river.

“Right now I am in the center of Kherson,” Oleksiy Goncharenko a Ukrainian parliament member, said standing by the river Tuesday afternoon local time. “Water arrives very quickly, and the air smells of oil. We will feel the consequences of this disaster for decades to come. Russia is a terrorist state!”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russians blew up the dam shortly before 3 A.M. local time.

"This night at 2:50 a.m., Russian terrorists carried out an internal detonation of the structures of the Kakhovskaya HPP," Zelensky said on his Telegram channel. "About 80 settlements are in the flooding zone."

"It was ordered to carry out evacuation from risk areas and to provide drinking water to all cities and villages that were supplied with water from the Kakhovsky Reservoir," Zelensky said. "We do everything to save people. All services, military, Government, Office are involved."

Zelensky also told the Bucharest Nine summit that there was no way Ukraine could have done this because it is "physically impossible to blow it up somehow from the outside."

Andrii Yusov, spokesman for Ukraine's Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) said his agency has evidence the Russians blew up the dam.

"There could be various scenarios. But the preliminary conclusions are as follows: experts see no reason to think that the dam was ‘fatigued’. There are other factors as well," he said, according to the Ukrainian Suspline news agency. In response to a follow-up question asking whether there is evidence that the dam was blown up, Yusov said, "Yes. Explosives were used."

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov blamed Russia and called the dam's destruction a "war crime."

The Ukrainian Kherson Oblast government began alerting residents of this disaster at about 5 A.M. local time.

"I am informing you about the course of events in connection with the emergency situation at the Kakhovskaya HPP," Ukrainian Kherson Oblast Gov. Oleksandr Prokudin said on his Telegram channel Tuesday. "The military administration and all services, including the emergency services and the police, raised the alarm at 5 in the morning."

The population "is being evacuated," he said. "All elders and heads of communities have been informed and are gathering the population at designated collection points. Each community has a separate headquarters responsible for its territory."

As of 7:30 A.M. local time, "the following settlements were completely or partially flooded: Tyaginka, Lviv, Odradokamyanka of Beryslav district, Ivanivka, Mykilske Tokarivka, Ponyativka, Bilozerka, Ostriv microdistrict of the city of Kherson, Kherson district. We understand that other settlements will be flooded, ready for this."

"About 16,000 people are in the critical zone on the right bank of the Kherson Region," Prokudin said. "Currently, the evacuation of residents of these settlements by buses to Kherson, then to Mykolaiv and from there to Khmelnytskyi, Odesa, Kropyvnytskyi, Kyiv and others is organized."

At noon, "an evacuation train will depart from Kherson to Mykolaiv at the railway station," he added.

By 10:00 A.M. local time, “742 people have already been evacuated in the Kherson region,” Ihor Klymenko, Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, said on his Telegram channel.

“Water is coming,” he said. “The situation is complicated by the fact that some roads are washed away. This makes it impossible to travel to individual settlements. Evacuation teams are looking for other ways. About 80 settlements are in the zone of potential flooding. Most of them are temporarily occupied.”

Making matters worse are floating mines and oil polluting the water, Klymenko said.

"We urge citizens to be careful, because water picks up explosive substances that can detonate. In addition, due to the destruction of the engine room of the HPP, 150 tons of fuel oil got into the Dnipro. Groups with the necessary equipment have already set out to eliminate the possible consequences of an environmental disaster," he said.

Ukraine's Operational Command South (OCS) military command warned of a looming food disaster as a result of this incident.

"The undermining of the Kakhovskaya HPP by the Russians is a blow to global food security, which the enemy wants to undermine," OCS said on its Telegram channel Tuesday. "Because this disaster will affect the irrigation system in the South of Ukraine. Russians need world hunger."

The destruction of the dam "is the biggest man-made disaster in the world in recent decades, which kills the environment and will negatively affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the years to come," said OCS. "The insane goal of stopping the Defense Forces' advance and avoiding defeat and disgrace drives Kremlin criminals. They are willing to do anything to raise the stakes in this war."

The Russians, meanwhile, are blaming Ukraine.

“Tonight, the Kyiv regime committed another terrorist crime: the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station facilities were blown up, flooding a large area,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on the Russian Defense Ministry Telegram channel. “The purpose of these actions is reportedly as follows:

  • Having failed to succeed in the offensive operations, the enemy intends to redeploy the units and hardware from the Kherson direction to its offensive area in order to strengthen its potential, significantly weakening its position in the Kherson direction. The enemy has begun building defensive positions on the right bank of the Dnipro River, which indicates the intention to turn to defense there.
  • In order to prevent Russia's offensive actions in this section of the front, the Kyiv regime has carried out sabotage, essentially a terrorist act, which has resulted in the flooding of significant areas and will have serious and long-lasting environmental consequences.
  • In addition, the release of water from the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station, according to available data, has been significantly increased, leading to even greater flooding of areas."

“This fact proves that the large-scale diversion was planned in advance by the Kyiv regime,” Shoigu said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was an act of sabotage by Ukraine.

"The president receives reports through the Defense Ministry and other services on what is happening around the Kakhovka HPP," he said, according to the official Russian TASS news agency. Here we can already say unequivocally that this is deliberate sabotage by the Ukrainian side," the Kremlin spokesman told reporters.

"This sabotage has the potential to cause very serious consequences for tens of thousands of the region’s residents, environmental consequences and consequences of another nature that are yet to be established," Peskov added

The Kremlin spokesman also called it unmistakable that one of the goals of this act of sabotage was to deprive Crimea of water. "The water level in the reservoir is dropping, hence, the water supply to the [North Crimean] canal is drastically reduced," he added.

Russian authorities are also taking precautions.

“The Prosecutor General's Office of Russia instructed prosecutors to take control of the protection of the rights of residents of the Kherson region after the breakthrough of the Kakhovskaya hydroelectric power station,” according to the TASS Telegram channel.

“Now informing the population has been organized, temporary accommodation centers for citizens are being prepared in the nearest settlements. Mobile brigades of the regional prosecutor's office have been organized, ready to leave in order to check the places of accommodation of evacuated citizens, including in terms of providing food, medical care, providing household services and basic necessities, and providing information and psychological support.”

There were already visual indications of damage to the dam as of noon local time Monday, according to satellite imagery taken by Maxar Technologies.

"Maxar collected new satellite imagery of the Nova Khakovka dam on 5 June 2023 that reveals evidence that a section of the roadway and sluice gates have been recently damaged/destroyed," Maxar spokesman Stephen Wood said in a message to The War Zone. "Not sure if was the precursor to the collapse of the dam or if additional explosions occurred afterwards that ultimately caused it to fail."

Overview of Nova Khakovka dam on June 5. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies) 
Closer view of destroyed roadway and section of Nova Khakovka dam taken June 5. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies) 

While it is also possible that rising waters combined with poor maintenance of the facility by the Russians while they occupied the plant caused the breach, both sides said back in October that the other would blow up the dam.

We wrote at the time about how Zelensky warned that the Russians were plotting to blow up the dam.

A day after Zelensky raised concerns about the Russians blowing up the dam, Russia's Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General warning about Kyiv's alleged "plans to destroy" the dam. It was something Russian officials brought up again on Tuesday.

Models devised at the time showed how a dam breach would affect the region, which you can see below.

But even before there were threats to blow up the dam, Ukraine had attacked the roadway on top of it to interfere with Russian logistics.

The full extent of this disaster and what caused it will come into sharper focus in the coming days.

This is a developing story we will follow closely.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com