U.S. eyes Russia in destruction of Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam

Preliminary U.S. intelligence suggests Russia blew a major piece of Ukrainian critical infrastructure.

The U.S. government “has intelligence that is leaning toward Russia as the culprit” behind the destruction of Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant in the early hours of June 6, according to a report by NBC News.

The dam across the Dnipro River, one of the country’s major waterways, was all but gone in video and satellite footage that has emerged over the last 18 hours. The Kakhovka Reservoir has been emptying into the river all day, causing catastrophic flooding downstream in the Ukrainian region of Kherson. Water from the reservoir is also used by the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to cool its reactors. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is at present no immediate nuclear safety risk at the plant.

Widespread flooding

A local resident makes her way through a flooded road after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed overnight
A local resident makes her way through a flooded road after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed overnight. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

Upward of 40,000 people are now in danger due to floodwaters, according to the Ukrainian government. As many as 70 towns along the Dnipro are at risk, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday.

Footage from Kherson showed rooftops floating down the river and other homes half submerged, and flood waters are expected to peak by Wednesday. Tragically, most of the animals at a zoo in the settlement of Nova Kakhovka, which is under Russian occupation, have drowned, according to the zoo’s management.

Even as rescue work continued, noise from Russian artillery could be heard nearby, a grim reminder that a mass ecological disaster is occurring amid the backdrop of war.

Timing of the dam incident

An aerial view of the damage at the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine
An aerial view of the damage at the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

Ukrainian analysts have linked the alleged Russian dam destruction to the much anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, which may already be in progress. “In the course of the Kharkiv counteroffensive operation, the Russians destroyed the dam over Oskil reservoir,” Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at National Institute for Strategic Studies, a government-funded think tank, told Yahoo News, referring to the Ukrainian military’s recapture of thousands of square miles of terrain in September. “So there is precedent here.”

“Although one reason might be to impede the Ukrainian offensive, the Russians also have established an historical pattern of destroying infrastructure in areas they do not control — such as Kyiv — and areas they must leave behind when retreating, signaling that, if they cannot control it, no one else will be allowed to possess it,” said Dr. Alex Crowther, a retired U.S. Army colonel and strategist. “In short, the Russians did this for spite.”

The Ukrainian government was itself quick to blame Russian occupiers for blowing up the dam, originally built by the Soviets in 1956. Oleksii Danilov, chairman of Ukraine’s National Security Council, attributed the sabotage to Russia’s 205th Motorized Rifle Brigade, suggesting Kyiv was in possession of specific intelligence confirming that claim. In October 2022, a Telegram channel, purportedly belonging to a member of the 205th, outlined plans to mine and undermine the structure, with instructions for local residents in the event of “dam failure.”

Eyewitnesses have also come forward, describing hearing loud bangs at the dam they say indicate the use of large explosives.

‘An outrageous act’

Local resident Tetiana holds her pets, Tsatsa and Chunya, as she stands inside her house that was flooded after the Kakhovka dam blew up overnight, in Kherson, Ukraine, Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Tetiana, a resident of Kherson, inside her damaged house after the Kakhovka dam was blown up overnight. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

Ukraine’s Western partners wasted little time placing blame on Russian forces.

“The destruction of the Kakhovka dam today puts thousands of civilians at risk and causes severe environmental damage,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted hours after the dam was destroyed. “This is an outrageous act, which demonstrates once again the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

Josep Borrell, the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, described the catastrophe as “a new dimension of Russian atrocities.” Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, commented: “The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam is an outrageous act of environmental destruction that imperils the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, as well as the natural environment.”

How will the West respond?

The House of Culture in Kherson, Ukraine
The House of Culture in Kherson is partially submerged after the nearby dam was attacked. (Alexey Konovalov/TASS/Handout via Reuters)

Previous large-scale Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure have almost always led to significant increases in weapon systems from Western allies.

Most recently, after Russia began its campaign of aerial bombardment of Ukrainian power stations and energy plants in October 2022, the U.S. and other Western nations responded by sending their most advanced air defense systems, such as the Patriot platform, to Kyiv.

The Russian response, meanwhile, started with an unequivocal denial that anything untoward had happened to the Kakhovka dam, then segued into accusations that Ukraine destroyed its own critical infrastructure. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, claimed without evidence that Kyiv was behind this act of apparent sabotage and that it would result in “very severe consequences” for local residents and the environment. Meanwhile, Russia’s Investigative Committee — tantamount to the FBI — said it had launched a criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, the Russia-appointed governor of Kherson Oblast, Vladimir Saldo, gave a surreal interview, filmed against the backdrop of Nova Kakhovka, visibly underwater. “Everything is fine in Nova Kakhovka,” he said. “People go about their daily business like any day.”