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Kakhovka Dam on River Between Ukrainian and Russian-occupied Territory Breached, Causing Major Floods

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: June 6, 2023
The Kakhovka hydroelectric station, Nova Kakhovka, Kherson Oblast, Ukraine, photographed in June 2006. (Image: Липунов Дмитрий/via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The gigantic Kakhovka hydroelectric dam in southern Ukraine was breached during the early hours of June 6, causing water to flood downstream and compromise more of the structure.

Russian forces control the parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts (provinces) south of the Dnieper river, where the dam was located; the other side of the Dnieper, which bisects Ukraine into east and west, remains in Ukrainian hands.

Built in the 1950s during the Soviet era, the Kakhovka dam, in the town of Nova Kakhovka, was a significant piece of public infrastructure on the Dnieper. It produced a large reservoir upstream in the Zaporizhzhia oblast.

Ukrainian and Russian authorities blamed each other for the destruction of the dam, with the Ukrainian government decrying Russia’s “terrorism,” and the Kremlin claiming it was “sabotage” by Ukraine. NATO meanwhile condemned Moscow for the “outrageous act” and added it demonstrates “the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine.” It is not immediately clear which country was actually responsible.

Targeting dams is a war crime, per the Geneva Convention.

The dam’s destruction caused widespread flooding downstream, forcing the evacuation of residents from multiple villages in the region.

FILE PHOTO: IAEA expert mission visits Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
A Russian all-terrain armoured vehicle is parked outside the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant during the visit of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expert mission in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict outside Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, September 1, 2022. (Image: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo)

Because the reservoir upstream will shrink, concerns have been raised about the water supply to the massive Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, controlled by the Russian occupation authorities. Nuclear power stations require a stable supply of water to keep their reactors cool.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said there wasn’t any immediate risk to the ZNPP on account of the Kakhovka dam’s destruction, but added it was “vital” that a backup cooling pool and other alternative water sources next to the facility remain intact.

“Nothing must be done to potentially undermine its integrity,” Grossi, who has an upcoming visit to the plant scheduled, said, according to various outlets.

Ukraine has blamed Russia for damaging or threatening damage to the ZNPP, including shelling with artillery; Russia rejects these accusations as outrageous given that the power station is in Russian-held territory.

Who was responsible?

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam comes amidst reports of an imminent major Ukrainian counteroffensive, which in turn comes around two weeks after the fall of Bakhmut, a salient city in the eastern Donbass region.

Aside from the Kakhovka dam, another piece of Soviet mega-engineering destroyed in the Russo-Ukrainian war is the world’s largest aircraft, the An-225 transport plane that was initially captured by Russian paratroopers near Kiev, but then blown up in subsequent fighting for the city and its environs early on in the invasion last year.

At the time of reporting, no confirmation has been made as to how the dam was breached.

Observers have pointed to previous reporting by The Washington Post, in which Ukrainian officers said that they had prepared an operation to breach the Kakhovka dam using U.S.-supplied HIMARS rockets, and had carried out tests on the dam itself to this effect.

Last December an article in The Moscow Times, which is critical of the Russian government, cited experts as saying that for Russia to destroy the dam would be self-defeating, as it would offer little to no military advantage and do more damage to Russian-held territory (and army fortifications) than to the Ukrainian side.

Meanwhile, there is no indication that the Ukrainian military carried out an attack on the dam.

Weeb Union (WU), a YouTuber who covers updates in the Russo-Ukrainian war on a near-daily basis, in a Jun 6 video cited a Russian source as saying that the dam’s breach may have happened on its own.

This would have been a result of suffering indirect damage in previous fighting over the Dnieper and owing to the difficulty of carrying out the necessary maintenance to ensure the dam’s integrity. Meanwhile, WU did not see an advantage for either Russia or Ukraine in attacking the dam.