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Who destroyed the Kakhovka dam? Meduza examines the likelihoods that Russia blew up the dam, that Ukraine blew up the dam, and that the dam spontaneously collapsed
The authorities of Ukraine and the Kremlin have accused each other of blowing up the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, causing massive flooding on the lower Dnipro river. The dam was destroyed on June 6, however, no evidence has yet emerged that the destruction was intentional. Anonymous sources first said the U.S. authorities planned to declassify documents proving Russian military involvement in the catastrophe, but later official channels said that they had no hard evidence. From existing video footage, experts have been unable to definitively establish the perpetrator in the dam’s destruction. These conditions allow only for speculation about three possible scenarios: one side in the Russia-Ukraine war intentionally destroyed the dam, or the dam somehow spontaneously failed. Right now, the only analytical tool available is determining who benefits more from flooding on the lower Dnipro. Keep in mind, though, that the presence of a motive doesn’t prove guilt. Meduza examines three scenarios.
What happened at the dam before it was destroyed?
On November 11, 2022, Russian forces left the Dnipro’s western bank when it became too difficult to supply large groupings across the river. The Armed Forces of Ukraine had received a HIMARS rocket launcher system that summer, and the bridges over the Dnipro in the Kherson region had become one of its main targets. The attacks damaged the bridges so severely that it became essentially impossible to use them for transport. Roads and railways that passed by the Kakhovka reservoir were also damaged by a series of rocket strikes, though they remained largely intact. However, they weren’t sufficient to keep troops supplied in the vast territory spanning from the Black Sea and Dnipro estuary to the outskirts of Kryvyi Rih in Ukaine’s Dnipropetrovsk region.
When they retreated, Russian troops blew up overpasses over the dam. The dam itself took some damage at that time — satellite imagery clearly showed water spilling over the dam gates at the site of the explosion.
Since the Russian withdrawal, the front line from the southern border of Zaporizhzhia in the north to the Kinburn Spit in the south has run directly alongside the Dnipro and its mouth. Russia’s Armed Forces were no longer making attempts to cross to the Dnipro’s western bank, while the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) were preparing to cross to the eastern bank. Around the hydroelectric station, Russia and Ukraine battled for control of positions, with both sides shelling each other across the Dnipro. Suicide drones and anti-tank missiles struck the dam directly. Russia’s Armed Forces used the dam’s industrial buildings on the eastern bank as advance observation posts. Russia controlled the buildings of the hydropower plant, but no one was in control of the dam itself — the shelling made that impossible.
The dam collapsed in the early hours of June 6. First the floodgates that were damaged when Russia attacked the overpasses over the dam broke open, and then a part further south, which had been damaged by HIMARS rockets and which lies adjacent to the power plant, failed.
Analysis of each possible version of the catastrophe
Ukraine’s version: Russia blew up the dam to thwart a Ukrainian offensive
Arguments in favor of this version:
- After the Russian military retreated from the Dnipro’s eastern bank in November 2022, the AFU carried out several local operations to liberate islands in the Dnipro near Kherson. Despite heavy losses (Russian sources posted videos of strikes on Ukrainian soldiers on the islands several times a week), the AFU succeeded in ousting Russian forces from most of the islands. Ukrainian special forces tried to gain footholds in the swampy areas directly across the river on the eastern bank. These efforts were costly, which testified to the AFU’s intention to cross the river at the beginning of the heavily predicted counteroffensive. Given how difficult it is to supply troops across the river, such an operation could hardly constitute the offensive’s main objective, but it (or even the threat of it) could tie down a large number of Russian troops.
- The floods clearly complicate a landing operation on the eastern bank. The flood created a new shoreline, one not reconnoitered by the AFU. The already intermittently swampy area on the eastern bank has also turned into one continuous swamp.
- The AFU lost their positions on the Dnipro islands, which it took them several months to recapture and which could have been a rear base for a future landing operation. Their positions were flooded when the islands themselves were submerged.
- Theoretically, this catastrophe could allow Russia’s Armed Forces to use part of the troops currently defending the front line along the Dnipro in other directions. However, when the water recedes and the situation in flooded areas becomes clearer, the threat of the AFU crossing the river will rise again.
- The floodwaters washed away most of the Russian positions directly on the Dnipro. The flooding also destroyed dangerous minefields in the area where Ukrainian troops would, presumably, have landed. Russian-controlled areas that were previously powerfully fortified are now entirely under water.
- Video footage, reportedly from one of the Dnipro islands, shows Russian soldiers trying to retreat through waist-deep water. The Ukrainian military says that they have seen firsthand, via drone-mounted cameras, that the floods swept away entire Russian units. It’s likely that those Russian troops knew nothing about preparations to blow up the dam.
The Russian version: The AFU blew up the dam either to free up troops on the Dnipro islands, or to facilitate a landing on the eastern bank
Arguments for this version:
- The western bank of the Dnipro is higher than the eastern bank, which the Russian military controls. Russia’s positions and minefields there suffered the worst damage from the flooding. On the western bank, the flooding was confined to the part of Kherson directly on the shoreline and a few settlements. A significant portion of that area’s population had been evacuated previously because of Russian shelling. Ukraine’s military infrastructure on the western bank survived unharmed.
- The entire defense system that the Russian Armed Forces built on the eastern bank over the course of several months appears to have been destroyed. This theoretically could give the AFU the opportunity to quickly cross the river by boat — the near future will tell whether or not that argument is correct.
- The Kakhovka reservoir’s span, which previously presented an insurmountable barrier for large Ukrainian forces, will inevitably shrink. Russia’s Armed Forces will now have to consider the threat that Ukraine will cross the river not only below the dam but above it. Warding off that threat will require Russia to transfer significant new forces to the bank of the Dnipro.
- As former U.S. combat engineer Charles Rei writes, the flood has made bridging the Dnipro technologically impossible. Bridges are an absolute necessity for Ukraine to any large groupings on the eastern bank. It’s impossible to predict what condition the riverbanks will be in following the flood — this makes it impossible to plan a landing operation.
- The flooding has complicated a landing for even a small force in boats, for the same reasons. Landing forces will now have no cover, and the construction of earthen fortifications will be difficult. It will also be impossible to supply groups on the eastern bank along the bottom of the diminished and newly shallow reservoir because most equipment will be unable to cross the newly exposed terrain. Interestingly, Vladimir Saldo, whom Moscow installed as the “acting governor of the Kherson region,” spoke about the same issue, saying that the catastrophe has developed in Russia’s favor.
- The Russian defense along the Dnipro relied mainly on artillery, which is positioned mainly outside of the flood zone, as well as on aviation. It was Russian artillery and aviation that held off the AFU’s advance on the Dnipro islands and that destroyed bridgeheads in summer vacation villages and swamps on the eastern bank. Nothing prevents Russia from continuing to use artillery and aviation. The lack of cover on the eastern bank following the flood could make artillery and air strikes even more effective.
- The AFU had no need to create an obstacle to a Russian offensive across the Dnipro. There were no signs that Russia was preparing such an attack. Even before the dam was destroyed, there was simply no point in Russia conducting such an operation in the coming months. Russia couldn’t count on capturing Kherson or creating and supplying a bridgehead on the western bank of the Dnipro, much less on attacking Odesa, whose capture would be the only way to justify such an ambitious operation.
- Finally, the Ukrainian military admitted that they were considering blowing up the dam with missile strikes last fall, during the unsuccessful advance on Kherson. At that point, the AFU was taking heavy losses, and an intentional flood, which would have cut off Russian troops on the western bank from supply lines, seemed the only path to victory. But even in that situation, which was much more difficult for the AFU than recent conditions, and when the idea of blowing up the dam promised more significant benefits, the AFU backed off because it would have produced too much collateral damage.
The neutral version: The dam collapsed by itself
Arguments for this version:
- The dam has been operating in an unsafe state since the events of last fall. At the very least, the overpasses above it were repeatedly destroyed. All autumn, Russian military engineers worked to restore the routes over the dam, though it's unlikely that their main goal was to ensure the dam’s long-term safety. Then the Russians blew up the overpasses when they retreated, which damaged the dam.
- Satellite photos seem to show that the dam’s condition was deteriorating over the last few months. Russian troops controlled the hydropower plant facilities, but were clearly not using them for their intended purpose. Maintenance of the hydraulic structures was basically impossible due to ongoing battles around the plant. Both sides have said that the water level in the Kakhovka reservoir was rising throughout the spring, which created the threat that the dam would fail.
- There are no videos showing the dam exploding. This is despite the fact that both sides had surveillance cameras around the hydropower plant, including thermal imaging cameras. The cameras were constantly being destroyed, but new ones were always installed. It’s also true, though, that both sides have long accused the other of planning to blow up the dam.
- The fact that the dam was destroyed on the very day that the first phase of Ukraine’s counteroffensive began seems an extremely strange coincidence. It’s also true, though, that each side has long accused the other of planning to blow up the dam.
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