Damning Evidence: Russia’s Culpability in Ukraine’s Biggest Ecological Disaster Since Chernobyl

While the US has been reluctant to assign blame for the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam and Hydroelectric Plant, all available data points to the obvious culprit: Moscow

Damning Evidence: Russia’s Culpability in Ukraine’s Biggest Ecological Disaster Since Chernobyl
Residents are evacuated after an explosion at the Kakhovka Dam unleashed floodwaters in Kherson, Ukraine. (Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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It has been nine days since the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam and hydroelectric facility caused the worst ecological disaster in Ukraine’s history since Chernobyl. Because Ukraine is a nation that has been at war for almost a year and a half, the flooding of more than 80 settlements in the Kherson region, resulting in the death of at least 10 people, with another 42 still missing, has already slipped from international headlines. The news is now dominated by former President Donald Trump’s arraignment in Miami on three dozen federal criminal counts and the start of Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive.

A host of European leaders quickly dismissed the possibility this was an accident, charging it was instead an act of terrorism or “ecocide,” as the Ukrainian government labeled it.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the dam’s collapse as “a new dimension in Russia’s war against Ukraine.” French President Emmanuel Macron called it an “attack.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said it was an “outrageous act.” The EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said in a statement, “The European Union condemns this attack in the strongest possible terms.”

Yet attribution has been slow in coming from the one nation whose intelligence community earned a great deal of respect and renewed credibility in anticipating the likelihood of Russia’s war in February 2022, almost down to the day: the United States.

“American intelligence analysts suspect that Russia was behind the dam’s destruction,” The New York Times reported on June 9, but “U.S. spy agencies still do not have any solid evidence about who was responsible.” That same day, John Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, told CNN: “We just don’t know what caused the breach of the dam.”

For Kyiv, the who, how and why of this disaster are not open questions. Andriy Yermak, the most important adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said on June 6: “At 2:50 a.m., Russian troops blew up the Kakhovka hydroelectric station and its dam. I do not understand how there can be any doubt about this. Both constructions are located in the temporary Russian-occupied territories. Neither shelling nor any other external influence was capable of destroying the structures. The explosion came from within.”

Zelenskyy himself called the destruction of the dam an “environmental bomb of mass destruction,” adding that the only guarantee against such further Russian “terrorist acts” was the liberation of the entire country from the occupying Russian forces.

The most compelling evidence in support of this to date is the growing consensus that what destroyed the dam was an explosion, not failure due to poor maintenance while being occupied by the Russians or the exceptionally high water levels in the Kakhovka Reservoir in the days leading up to the failure. The dam and hydroelectric power plant were captured on Feb. 24, 2022, in the early stages of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. They have been in Russian possession ever since.

One early hypothesis after the flood was that the dam simply collapsed on its own, due to the high level of the Kakhovka Reservoir putting abnormal strain on a structure already weakened by a number of artillery strikes over the past months. Yet that hypothesis has since waned, in light of recent information suggesting an explosion was the cause of the failure.

Experts interviewed by The New York Times supported the assessment that the dam was brought down by on-site intentional sabotage, rather than being struck from without or collapsing from high water pressure. They point to the characteristic strength of such structures and the limited explosive payload of artillery shells, as well as the amount of damage sustained to the structure. “Even a direct hit may not take out the dam,” Nick Glumac, engineering professor at the University of Illinois, told the paper. “This takes a significant amount of energy.”

The Times followed up this article with another, citing a “senior administration official,” who said that U.S. spy satellites equipped with infrared sensors “detected a heat signature consistent with a major explosion just before the dam collapsed.”

If anonymous U.S. government sources aren’t to your liking, then there is more attributable corroboration of their theory.

The Bukovina seismic array, operated by the Norwegian Seismic Array (NOSAR), detected what researchers at the organization called “clear signals” on Tuesday, June 6, at 2:54 a.m. local time. They concluded that the “recorded signals showed the characteristics of an explosive source,” and that their telemetry from the direction of the dam also recorded “weak signals from an earlier seismic event” at approximately 2:35 a.m.

This data confirms eyewitness reports from Ukrainians, posted in real time to local Telegram channels, as well as interviews subsequently given to Western journalists at The Economist and The Guardian. These eyewitnesses claimed there were big explosions coming from the direction of the dam, beginning at 2:21 a.m., followed by the sound of rushing water.

Note, too, that NOSAR’s timing for the main blast — 2:54 a.m. — is just four minutes later than the time cited by Zelenskyy’s adviser Yermak.

Video footage later published by a Telegram channel affiliated with the Wagner Group, Russia’s notorious mercenary outfit fighting in Ukraine, later seemed to confirm a two-stage collapse. The short clip, which did not have a time stamp, showed the main span of the dam breached, but the pumphouse containing the main machinery of the hydroelectric power plant was intact.

A blast emanating from within the structure would certainly implicate the Russians, at the time sole custodians of the dam, unless we allow for the remote, Fleming-esque possibility that a third party — say, Ukrainian saboteurs — managed to smuggle themselves into a well-guarded facility, lay explosives devices, then smuggle themselves out, all undetected.

Oleksii Danilov, the chair of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, claimed the same day the dam was breached that Russia’s 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade was the culprit, as that brigade had apparently undermined the structure earlier. A post on a Telegram channel, seemingly linked to the 205th and dated Oct. 20, appears to substantiate Danilov’s accusation. The post details Russian plans to blow up the structure, after Russian forces had retreated to the left bank of the Dnipro in the face of the determined Ukrainian pressure as part of Kyiv’s counteroffensive in the area at that time.

Furthermore, in what may only be an incredible coincidence, the Russian government amended Russian law, explicitly prohibiting the investigation of dam failures, a mere week before the Kakhovka Dam was destroyed. Decree No. 873 states: “Until January 1, 2028, the technical investigation of accidents at hazardous production facilities and accidents at hydraulic structures, which occurred as a result of military actions, sabotage and terrorist acts, shall not be carried out.”

Ukrainian intelligence has also compiled evidence — albeit unverified — of Russians or pro-Russian collaborators pointing the finger at Moscow’s forces.

On June 9, Ukraine’s Security Service, the SBU, released an intercept purportedly of two Russian service members chatting about the dam failure. “Our sabotage group was there,” one tells the other. “They wanted to scare people with the dam. It didn’t go according to plan, but more than they planned.”

Another intercept, this time released by Ukraine’s military intelligence service, HUR, allegedly has a pro-Russian Crimean blogger stating that Russian soldiers he had been communicating with confirmed they’d abandoned their positions in the islands along the Dnipro by 3 a.m. on June 6. This suggests at least some Russian forces in the area had advanced warning of the dam break because their side was the one responsible for blowing it up. Other Russian soldiers were not so lucky; the bodies of drowned Russian service members have been washing up on the banks of the Dnipro in the days since the breach, and other Russian soldiers posted images of themselves wading through chest-high floodwater in the immediate aftermath.

If we accept that the dam was breached by an explosion, then it becomes almost impossible to argue that anyone other than the Russians was to blame.

The facility was built in 1956 by the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War, the year of the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Canal crisis. Like many contemporary Soviet pieces of infrastructure, it was designed to withstand extreme punishment from Western arsenals.
Although it is not strictly true that artillery fire would have been incapable of destroying the dam, the type of sustained bombardment required would have been both impossible to disguise and would have taken a significant amount of time and military effort.

Being in physical possession of the facility, however, the Russians would have had as much time as needed to systematically undermine the dam, placing their charges in the precise locations needed to bring down some or all of the structure.

Even one of the Kremlin’s own military experts, Alexei Leonkov, seemed to agree that the only way to bring down the dam would have been through planted explosives. In an unguarded moment on the Russian state television show “Mesto vstrechi” (“Place of Meeting”) on the channel NTV, Leonkov admitted that, “It’s not so easy to blow up a dam. Not with a projectile. It takes a large amount of explosives.” Leonkov went on to explain that explosive charges would have to be placed in precise locations beneath the waterline, enabling the hydrodynamic effect of the underwater detonation to amplify the explosive force of the charges. Previous artillery strikes to the dam “did not cause any damage to the structure,” Leonkov continued. When the hosts of the segment realized Leonkov had inadvertently pointed to Russian culpability in the collapse, as the scenario he described could only have been carried out by the power currently in control of the structure, they jumped in, reminding him that Russian forces had controlled the dam before it had collapsed.

Another reinforced concrete structure, the Antonovsky Road Bridge in Kherson, was hit numerous times by Ukrainian artillery between July 19, when Ukraine began efforts to neutralize Russia’s then-key logistics route for its forces occupying the right bank of the Dnipro, and Nov. 11, when the bridge was immolated by Russian forces pulling back to the other side of the river.

Some analysts have maintained that Russia gained no strategic benefit from destroying the Kakhovka Dam, as the consequent flooding wiped away at least some of their own forces and military hardware and rendered any defensive maneuvering in Russian-held Kherson far more difficult, if not impossible. A large-scale Ukrainian crossing of the Dnipro, this line of thinking goes, was never in the offing and so flooding the banks of the river was unnecessary.

Yet this argument does not withstand much scrutiny, in light of what has happened in the last week.

The dam was breached at the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the main thrust of which now clearly shows to be in the south, just east of Kherson, pushing down from Zaporizhzhia toward the Sea of Azov. The aim appears to be to sever Russia’s land bridge from its own sovereign territory to illegally occupied Crimea.

The Kremlin has long suspected this would be the target of Ukrainian efforts, which is why its army has constructed an extensive array of defensive emplacements, including minefields, trenches and dragon’s teeth — concrete barriers against armor — to fortify its hold on the area.

While a major Ukrainian crossing of the Dnipro was unlikely, it wasn’t completely out of the question, as Ukrainian raiding parties have staged frequent riverine operations in Russian-held territory on the left bank of the Dnipro in the months since Russia’s withdrawal from the right bank.

A more concerted crossing once the main Russian force was tied down fending off Ukraine’s offensive elsewhere in the south was certainly something Russian commanders in the area would have taken seriously. Now, with the low-lying areas on the left bank completely flooded, this contingency is removed.

Still, the question arises: Did Russia intend to blow up the whole dam or only part of it, in order to hinder Ukrainian offensive operations? Might a team of Russian sappers have simply screwed up their mission, as that SBU intercept suggests, by laying too many or too-powerful explosives?

It certainly wouldn’t be the first instance of Russian military incompetence in this war and, as others have pointed out, such extensive flooding of this nature will have dire long-term consequences for Crimea’s already limited water supply.

“I think the Russians did it with a view to interfering with the Ukrainian offensive, but it went further than they intended,” said Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College London. “So it causes long-term problems for Crimea and may even make it harder to hold on to Kherson.”

“Russia benefits from the frontline being smaller because it is easier to concentrate forces to prevent a breakthrough,” Rob Lee, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told the Financial Times on June 6. “So if a Ukrainian operation in Kherson is less likely now, they might be able to move more forces east.”

Lee is backed up in this respect by Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar, who stated on June 11 that elements of the 49th Combined Arms Army and other Russian troops, including elite naval infantry and VDV airborne forces previously stationed in a defensive posture on the left bank, had already been redeployed to other areas along the front line.

The rescue and relief effort has also tied up Ukrainian military resources such as drones, which have been dropping potable water to stranded residents swept up in the floodwaters rather than raining grenades and mortar shells on Russian trenches. In contrast, the occupying forces have made little to no effort to aid Ukrainian civilians trapped by high water in Kherson; instead, Russia has been targeting rescue workers with heavy artillery since the Ukrainian rescue operations on the right bank got underway. In one highly circulated video, Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman had to run for cover from incoming fire while in the midst of helping in the rescue effort.

When they’re not going off script, as Leonkov did, Russian propagandists have tried to divert attention from Moscow’s culpability by pointing to a Washington Post article from Dec. 29. In it, Maj. Gen. Andriy Kovalchuk of the Ukrainian armed forces described using U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to target the floodgates of the dam (but not the main structure itself) to raise the level of the Dnipro high enough to impair Russian logistics, while not entirely flooding the outlying areas. This plan, Kovalchuk stressed to the Post, was a “last ditch option,” and one evidently obviated by Russia’s future wholesale withdrawal from half of Kherson.

Domestically, Russia’s most outspoken warmongers have devolved into a characteristic state of deflection, projection and contradiction, which boils down to the following: “We didn’t do it, but they deserved it, and we should do it again.”

Julia Davis, a columnist for the Daily Beast and the creator of the Russian Media Monitor, which translates and highlights Russian television broadcasts, told New Lines: “On Russian state TV, I’m observing a dichotomy between rejoicing that the dam explosion is good for the Russian military and attempting to pin the blame on Ukraine — even when their own experts explain that their version of events does not match up with what it would take to blow up the Kakhovka Dam. They’ve been calling for Ukraine’s bridges and dams to be destroyed since the beginning of this war and their denials aren’t matching up with their own chosen course of action.”

Still another theme has been to downplay, rather than emphasize, the devastation unleashed by this atrocity, supposedly of Ukrainian orchestration. One unmissable example was that of Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed governor of Kherson Oblast, who recorded a surreal statement on camera, standing in front of the Nova Kakhovka Palace of Culture, which at this point was half submerged in water. “Everything is fine in Nova Kakhovka,” Saldo declared, dressed in full military uniform and standing in front of a large window clearly showing the streets of the town underwater. “People go about their daily business like any day.”

Another example: The Kazkova Dibrova Zoo in Nova Kakhovka was totally flooded when the dam burst, causing the death of hundreds of animals, according to the zoo’s administrators. Yet the Russian state news agency TASS initially claimed that no zoo existed, despite its location being easily found on Google Maps. “No animals were killed, because our city has no zoo,” TASS quoted an anonymous Nova Kakhovka official.

As the Yale professor and historian Timothy Snyder pointed out, if Russia’s sole aim is to portray Ukrainians as so cynical and barbarous as to drown their own animals, then this stratagem of erasing a zoo’s existence does the opposite. Denying carnage is what the perpetrator of a war crime does; a victim calls attention to it.

On June 11, the Ukrainian government claimed the Russian occupiers did what Russians on television have been calling for them to do: They blew up another dam, a much smaller one on the Mokri Yaly River in the village of Klyuchove, in western Donetsk. Satellite imagery showed significant flooding in the area. The dam was similarly held exclusively by the Russian military, although the Ukrainians have been steadily advancing in that direction for days.

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