Complicating Ukraine’s Counteroffensive: The Dam Disaster

The Kakhovka dam was destroyed in the ongoing war, an act that ranks among the most heinous of Russian attacks. While it cannot be conclusively proven that Russia was responsible for this catastrophe, it is clear that they stood to gain far more than Ukraine. Unless evidence to the contrary arises, the destruction of the dam must be added to the list of potential war crimes charges against the Kremlin.

Breaking the dam to cause floods would be consistent with Russia’s strategy of achieving escalation dominance. This incident occurred just as Kyiv’s counteroffensive was gaining momentum, and Russia has targeted critical infrastructure to undermine Ukraine’s morale and fighting capability. The Kremlin has also employed a scorched-earth policy towards Ukrainian territory and used flooding as a weapon, firing on another nearby dam last fall to hinder opposing troops.

If the dam’s collapse was instead due to structural failure, Russia’s refusal to repair it after prior damage from fighting, compounded by recent high water levels, amounts to criminal negligence.

Kremlin propaganda blames Ukrainian “terrorists,” but the benefits of such an act for Kyiv are minimal. Crimean water supplies will be affected, but the peninsula managed without Kakhovka’s source for years following Russia’s annexation. The breach will flood Russian fortifications east of the Dnipro, but also make it more difficult for Ukraine to attack across the river.

The devastation from the dam’s destruction cannot be underestimated. Dozens of towns and villages will be destroyed, leaving thousands homeless and disrupting water and energy supplies to a wide area. The dam collapse destroyed a hydroelectric station and poses risks to other upstream plants, though the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant seems safe at present. The agricultural irrigation system will also be impacted. Ukraine has little incentive to cause such destruction, adding billions to their postwar rebuilding costs for such a small strategic gain.

The breach at Kakhovka is a setback to Ukraine’s counteroffensive plans and makes their central military aim of severing the land bridge between Russia and Crimea more complicated. Ukraine’s main southern thrust is unlikely to have crossed the Dnipro, but the dam’s destruction will impede their ability to stage attacks from that direction. Russia can concentrate troops in regions where Ukraine’s assault needs to be focused. This shortens the 900km front line significantly.

The Kakhovka incident is a warning to Ukraine’s allies. Kyiv feels the pressure to lock in gains this year before Western backing wanes and the US election cycle becomes uncertain. Ukrainian officials have been optimistic about their forces’ capabilities, but Russia’s ability to compensate for their military shortcomings and Putin’s willingness to go to great lengths must be noted. Although allies hope for a decisive shift soon, they must be prepared to show perseverence in their support in the long term.


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