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Who blew up the dam in the Ukraine?

section of ISW map
Taken from ISW’s report on June 6, 2023. Click for original.

Since the news broke yesterday that someone had blown up the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River, there has been endless speculation by numerous pundits attempting to pin the blame. It seems that half say Russia, and half say the Ukraine.

Let me provide my readers the answer right up front: We as yet haven’t got the foggiest idea who did it.

Why am I so sure? Because in reviewing all the information I can glean from many different sources, it appears both sides had good reasons to do it, as well as good reasons to not want it to happen at all. Let’s list those reasons.

First, the Ukraine. According to two pro-Ukrainian war sites (here and here), both of whom post regular updates that I have found generally accurate but also decidedly biased in favor of the Ukrainian, breaking the dam appears to accomplish a number of positive things for the Ukraine.

1. The flooding downstream from the dam mostly covers the south bank of the Dnipro, the area controlled by Russia. It will therefore mostly damage or eliminate the Russians’ first line of defense. In fact, there is strong evidence that these Russian forces were unprepared for this flooding and had to flee in a haphazard manner. It seems unlikely the Russians would have bombed the dam without preparing their troops appropriately.

2. The flooding will cut the Russians off from the Kinburn Spit, a long peninsula at the very end of the south bank of the river that can be used to block access to Ukrainian ports.

3. The loss of the water from the dam’s reservoir will badly hamper farming in the north part of the Crimea.

4. The drop in the reservoir will make crossing the Dnipro upstream from the dam much easier for the Ukrainians. Since the Russians have focused their defenses in other areas, this path will now be a weak point that the Ukrainians can now drive through.

At the same time, the flooding accomplishes really only one thing for the Russians: It creates a much more difficult barrier for Ukrainian forces to cross the river at Kherson City. In the past two months there were some clear indications that this crossing was upcoming as part of the long anticipated but as yet not really started Ukrainian counteroffensive. In those two months the Ukrainians had grabbed possession of several islands in that waterway opposite Kherson. The flooding has now completely inundated those islands, destroying what had appeared to be a preparatory take-off point for the Ukrainian advance into the Crimea.

Moreover, the Russians, who controlled the dam itself, had also been steadily filling the reservoir behind it during the past three months, to the highest level it had reached in years. Breaking the dam now meant that the waters of the Dnipro would create the largest possible barrier to the Ukrainians.

Weighing these factors, it does appear at first glance that the Ukrainians did it. The timing of the dam’s destruction strongly suggests the Russians did it, but everything else says its destruction was to the advantage of the Ukrainians.

Not so fast. The part of the dam that was destroyed was where the power plant was located, which the Russians controlled. The charges/mines were apparently also installed inside that power plant. For the Ukrainians to have placed these charges there without the Russians knowing seems quite unlikely.

Then there is the long term damage itself. The Russians throughout its invasion has shown little interest in avoiding damage to civilian facilities. It has literally destroyed several Ukrainians cities in its effort to capture them. It has routinely used its missiles to bomb civilian locations far from the battlelines, instead of focusing those missile strikes on Ukrainian military forces. It is not unreasonable to assume that Russia destroyed the dam as part of this nonchalance.

The Ukrainians meanwhile would very much not want this basic infrastructure damaged. The loss of water from the reservoir for agriculture will be crushing for years. So will the damage downstream from the flooding. For the Ukraine to destroy the dam to repel the invaders would be as if it was cutting off its nose to spite its face.

Then of course, this is war, and during war nations will often take desperate and irrational actions. For example, the Russians have routinely and historically treated its own forces like fodder. It is not impossible that it bombed the dam and did not tell its own forces exposed to the flood waters, in order to provide it an argument for denying its actions. Similarly, the Ukraine might have still bombed the dam as part of its planned counteroffensive, despite the damage it did to itself.

Finally, there is still the slim chance that no one destroyed the dam at all, that it failed on its own. From yesterday’s update from the Institute for the Study of War:

There is also the possibility, of course, that pre-existing structural damage to the dam eventually caused breakage and flooding, as some sources have additionally suggested, although reports of noises like explosions are not necessarily consistent with this notion.

All in all, it is at this time impossible to determine who actually destroyed the dam. Nor can we at this moment assess the consequences of that destruction to the war and to the Ukraine. The next few months will tell us much, as we shall see whether that Ukrainian counteroffensive finally takes off. Its success or failure, as well as the points in which the Ukraine attacks, will provide us strong clues as to who destroyed the dam. For example, if the Ukrainians charge south across the now empty reservoir, it will strongly suggest it destroyed the dam to facilitate that attack.

If the counteroffensive appears delayed or stalled, then that would suggest the Russians did it.

And then again, there have been indications that the Ukrainian counteroffensive was not targeting this area at all, but was instead focused to the east and north at other parts of the front lines. If so, than the dam’s destruction will make little difference to the war, in the near term. It will also suggest once again that the Russians did it, based on their routinely faulty intelligence and generally sloppy and foolish tactical and strategic actions since the beginning of this war.

Meanwhile, the declarations of news sources and politicians on this subject will tell us much about their biases. Those who immediately and with certainty claim either Russia or the Ukraine did it will only be telling us what they want, either in money or political advantage, and nothing about who actually did it.

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  • Major Kong

    The CIA blew the bridge up….

  • Gary

    Right or wrong, good or bad, but blowing up dams is a long-standing tactic in wars, and – whether people want to admit it or not – this is a war.

  • mkent

    Good summary. I would only add that an image purported to be a Maxar satellite image from 05 June — the day before the alleged explosion — shows the Dnieper overtopping an apparently damaged sluice gate, lending credence to the notion of an accident.

    Then again, intentionally raising the level of a reservoir held back by a damaged dam suggests Russian negligence, so around and around the discussion goes.

  • Jhon B

    I think it was William Holden and Alec Guinness

    (This one of for the old folks)

  • Jhon B: Heh. Wrong continent, wrong combatants, wrong river, and it isn’t a bridge. Other than that, of course it has to be Alex and Bill. :)

  • And isn’t a shame that we assume ( I think correctly) that most young people will have no idea to what you refer. Such a failure in education.

  • BtB’s Original Mark

    I’m sticking with the brilliant FP Realist John Mearsheimer

    – we are in a war where both sides – Ukraine and the West versus Russia – see the other as an existential threat. That makes a workable peace agreement beyond reach. The best possible outcome is a frozen conflict that is likely to have a variety of terrible consequences. The worst possible outcome is a nuclear war, which is unlikely but cannot be ruled out. Second, Russia is going to win the war, although it is not going to decisively defeat Ukraine. It will end up, however, conquering a large swath of Ukrainian territory and making it part of Russia, while at the same time turning Ukraine into a dysfunctional rump state.


  • John

    I’m not young and I have no idea who Alex and Bill are or why they blew up a bridge in Ukraine.

    Good summary, now do the Nordstream pipeline.

    Another thing to consider is damns in general are massive and resilient by necessity, and you would really want a large underwater formulated explosive at the optimum depth to do them in. Of course a large charge inside would also be effective. Not saying Ukraine could not have done it; but a typical bomb, ballistic missile, or rocket attack would not necessarily cause the damn to fail. There’s fairly impressive footage of a supposed HIMARS attack on the damn, with just minimal damage.

  • John: Think of a bridge on the Kwai river. A movie. David Lean. A great classic.

  • John

    Ahhhh yes, I seem to remember whistling a catchy tune.

    The video in this twitter post is said to be our unfortunate damn under attack by HIMARS as a test.

    Point #4 in the original post is most interesting, one I had not considered. Wish I had a bathymetric map of the river upstream to speculate on that option. I would think there’s too much muddy sediment for too wide of an area for a crossing, and you still have a river to deal with; but stranger things have happened. If the new river could be forded somewhere…holy moly.

  • wayne

    “Biden: No Nord Stream 2 pipeline if Russia invades”
    Associated Press (May 2022)

    “we will…I promise you, we will be able to do that…”

  • Andrew_W

    There’s been a lot of talk from the pro-Russian side about the cut in water supply to Crimea as a major disincentive for Russia to destroy the dam. But no mention that Crimea struggled through from 2014 to 2022 without that water supply.

  • Andrew_W: The more I read today about the consequences of the dam break, the more it appears that the Ukraine will benefit the most, at least in terms of the war.

    Nonetheless, that doesn’t convince me that the Russians didn’t do it. Their track record during this whole sad war has been one bad or stupid decision after another. Their strategies have been confused and haphazard, their tactics have been foolish and misguided, their command structure has been a mess (filled with petty politics and factional conflict).

    It would not surprise me if they bombed the dam also — without warning their own troops in the flood zone, and though that flood destroyed their own front line of defense on the south bank of the Dnipro.

  • GWB

    Jhon B
    June 7, 2023 at 1:34 pm

    I think it was William Holden and Alec Guinness

    Nah. It was Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw.
    (Still not a dam, but on the right continent. ;) )

    June 7, 2023 at 5:29 pm

    The video in this twitter post is said to be our unfortunate damn under attack by HIMARS as a test.

    I have seen speculation that damage is what led to this event. It broke enough of the bits that it eventually failed.
    If so, a fortuitous timing on said failure for either side.

    Well laid out post, Robert. I wonder how many outraged partisans you will have to moderate?

  • Ragnor

    Like the pipeline, we (led by the installed CCP puppet, biden) did it. Central bankers are playing both sides against the middle while making billions and setting up a world wide famine

  • Cotour

    This guy proposes that the Russians blew it up for strategic reasons because they had the access to load the turbine room with explosives:

    Rational and reasonable.

  • mkent

    ”The video in this twitter post is said to be our unfortunate damn[sic] under attack by HIMARS as a test.”

    Oh, brother. First of all, HIMARS is a launcher, not a munition. Second of all, there is NO WAY that a GMLRS — the only munition that Ukraine has that can be launched by a HIMARS — took out that dam.

    A GMLRS munition has only a 50 lb warhead. It would take *thousands of pounds* of explosives to cause the dam the level of damage we have seen — explosives placed all along the dam and inside the turbine room. Only Russia had access to that particular real estate.

  • john manguso

    Harrison Ford et al did blow up a dam so the resulting flood would take out the bridge preventing the German attack.

  • GWB

    john manguso
    June 8, 2023 at 7:12 am

    Harrison Ford et al did blow up a dam so the resulting flood would take out the bridge preventing the German attack.

    You’re right, of course. I was thinking Guns Of Navaronne when I was looking up Force 10 From Navaronne.

  • GWB

    June 8, 2023 at 7:10 am

    …there is NO WAY that a GMLRS — the only munition that Ukraine has that can be launched by a HIMARS — took out that dam.

    I don’t think there’s much of anyone saying they did take it out with a HIMARS-launched munition. But, one analysis I saw made the claim the rocket might have hit a vulnerable element of the dam’s structure, allowing for a failure at a later time.

    Also, you don’t have to take out the entire concrete structure to cause the dam to fail. An appropriately placed bit of boom can make sluice gates fail, or (as noted by others) blowing up the area with the generators might open a small hole – that rapidly becomes a big one. As they say, failures happen slowly, then all at once.

    BTW, I’m not claiming that IS what happened. I’m merely speculating possibilities, and where evidence might fit into those possibilities. Given our current leadership around the world, I am assuming nothing.

  • Cotour: This point was made in my essay.

  • Does it matter? It seems to me that what matters is “what now?”, not who did it and whether it was idiotic or tactical (or strategic) brilliance.

    We’re being influenced by news-cycle framing, not what really matters.

    This happens with political stuff all the time: The press starts a debate about some obscure process point rather than the issue at hand. Who cares if the Speaker is out-of-order when she is proposing censorship? But let’s talk about the process not the Speaker violating her oath of office.

  • Andrew Winter

    Very nice, really good analysis.

    My first reaction was to think of how much easier the reservoir above the damn would be for Ukraine to cross if the water level were dropped to zip.

    But all the other stuff is true too! I like this article a lot.

    Now here is a point that should put China on Notice.

    Twice now, The Kerch Bridge and this dam, have been hit hard by “something” or “someone” and to date no one has made a positive ID. This isn’t even stealth.

    China, in the Western Pac is facing Japan along with a host of others. Japan has the ability right now to pull off a “Pearl Harbor” stealth attack on the entire Chinese “blue water” navy, carriers and all. Then, sit back in their chairs, put their feet up on their desks and when challenged simply reply, “Prove It”

    Japan has only ONCE attempted preceded hostilities with a declaration of war. It went very very badly when that declaration came in 90 minutes LATE. I believe Japan is perfectly capable of saying to themselves, “why bother”, and just sink the whole Chinese Navy.

    China has ZERO experience at naval warfare. Japan wrote the book on modern naval warfare before World War Two. It took America over YEAR to catch up after Pearl Harbor, and longer to establish a clear advantage. Worse Japan wrote that book in the Waters of CHINA.

    Japan has not forgotten, and China isn’t the United States.

    Our inability to figure out the basic “whodunit” in the actual shooting war in Ukraine should scare the crap out of the Chinese. That it does not speaks more to Chinese arrogance than it does to Chinese mightiness.

  • GWB

    Andrew Winter
    June 8, 2023 at 9:51 am

    Dang, I thought you were going to mention that one BIG dam in China.

  • markedup2: I don’t agree. Knowing who blew up the dam is useful for understanding the tactics and strategies used by both sides in the war, both good and bad. This in turn helps us understand better the war’s trends.

    Also, my point was to illustrate how little we know, and to show bluntly that anyone who claimed one side or the other “had to have done it” was simply telling us their biases, not informing us about anything. Too much of modern journalism is focused on pushing a “narrative”, rather than reporting and analyzing the available facts.

    Though I want Russia ejected from the Ukraine, that desire is irrelevant in reviewing the state of the war.

  • Col Beausabre

    Ok, time for some perspective from an old career soldier. Blowing a dam is a defensive tactic. The Germans blew the Roer River dams in WW2 to delay / impede Allied attack on the southern end of the Western Front

    “German destruction of the dams could cause disastrous flooding throughout the Roer River Valley with catastrophic results for any operations in progress—bridges washed away, positions inundated, troop concentrations isolated. The Allied command concluded that an attack over the Roer would only be possible after they had seized control of the dams or had blown them up and let the floodwaters subside.

    Under normal conditions, the Roer averaged about 90 to 125 feet in width and was fordable at a number of points. While its current was fairly rapid at its upper reaches, it slowed near Aachen and even more along Ninth Army’s front near its confluence with the Meuse River at the Dutch town of Roermond.

    The Ninth Army’s engineers estimated that a combination of spring thaws and destruction of the Roer dams would convert the river into a lake as much as a mile-and-a-half wide. Even after the waters had subsided, the Roer valley would be soft and marshy, impassable to vehicles operating off the roads. The planners selected crossing sites at the narrowest points of the river, mostly at the locations of destroyed bridges.

    Captured documents indicated that the Germans recognized the destructive potential that the Roer River dams represented. It was clear that the Germans would fight stubbornly to retain control of the dams in an effort to deter Allied operations throughout the river valley.

    The Germans had two options for flooding the Roer. First, they could destroy the Schwammenauel and Urfttalsperre dams, creating a flash flood throughout the valley. An engineering study by the Americans indicated that the short but high-level flood would last about eight hours, inundating the valley to 15 feet above the usual level. The engineers determined that operations should not commence until at least five days after the flood was unleashed.

    The second option the Germans might employ was to destroy the outlet valves while keeping the dams intact. This would cause the velocity of the river to rise while also raising the river’s level by four or five feet. Also, some parts of the river would widen by as much as 1,200 feet. The engineers estimated that it would take at least 12 days for the river to return to normal in this case.”

    Another example is the Hwachong Resrvoir Dam in Korea

    “At midnight 8 April 1951, North Korean and Chinese forces released excess water from the dam’s spillway which disabled five floating bridges of the United Nations Command downstream.. The dam was previously assessed as a problem and key facility in the area due to its hydroelectric power and ability to cause floods and droughts downstream areas. Capturing or disabling it became key.”

    Ultimately it was taken out by torpedoes “On 1 May, Air Group 19 assaulted the dam with eight Skyraiders that were equipped with Mk 13 torpedoes and escorted by twelve Corsairs. Seven of eight torpedoes struck the dam and six exploded. The attack alleviated the dam as a flood threat, destroying one sluice gate and damaging several others.. This raid constitutes the last time globally that an aerial torpedo was used against a surface target, and was the only time torpedoes were used in the Korean War.

    Conclusion – The Russians are currently undergoing the beginnings of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. As the defenders, they would wish to cause flooding. They destroyed the dam.

  • pzatchok

    I could see all the points in this.

    Especially the previous damage claim.
    If the Russians noticed it they could have used it as a selfish excuse to not want to control it. They would have to fix it.
    So they could very well have decided to not defend it at all and let the Ukrainians destroy it or even do it themselves. Its part of a hydroelectric system so why not defend it?

  • Col Beausabre: While everything you say makes sense, it still doesn’t guarantee that the Russians did it. And if they did, their action right now appears to reinforce several conclusions:

    1) Their command structure is garbage, as they didn’t warn or prepare any of their people downstream of the dam that they were about to be flooded out.

    2) Since right now it appears that the Ukraine will benefit most from the dam breakage, it suggests the Russians didn’t think through the consequences of their action very carefully.

    3) Finally, if they did it their action suggests a military weakness that is striking. They claim to want to conquer the Ukraine, yet they are so afraid to stand up to a Ukrainian counter-offensive that they destroy one of that country’s most important items of infrastructure?

    Once again, it is unclear who did this. Moreover, its ultimate consequences might not provide the perpetrator the benefits it wanted.

  • Joe

    It seems both sides had motive for this damage. Noting a connection to space, the Russian military did blow up a satellite in the flight path of the ISS. It apparently didn’t matter to them that lives were in jeopardy by their actions. They did it anyway.

    We’ll probably never know who caused this mess. The one thing we can be sure of is that the winner of this tussle will have to contend with rebuilding it.

  • Andrew_W

    Anders Puck Nielsen, a Danish military analyst, sums up his thoughts here, conclusions I think few reasonable people could raise sound objections to:

  • Andrew_W: His entire analysis is excellent, except for one point. Every piece of evidence he cites repeats what I noted, that the dam’s destruction helps the Ukraine, not Russia. Yet he continues to assume Russia must have done it.

    I wonder why. It remains possible still to my mind that the Ukrainians engineered this somehow, for their own purposes. It is also possible Russia did it, because it has consistently shown its military strategies in this war to be incoherent and mindless. We just don’t know.

    The data increasingly is suggesting, however, that this event is going to help the Ukraine.

  • Cotour

    Q: Might the Russians assume that they will in the long term lose the Crimea?

    And if you are destined to lose it you must destroy it.

  • Andrew_W

    Most knowledgable commentators agree that the there was a massive internal explosion that destroyed a section on the dam that has been under russian control for over a year, even Col Douglas MacGregor doesn’t dispute that, though to shift the blame off of Russia he’s suggesting that it was a catastrophic turbine failure that caused the explosion and distruction of the dam (a fanciful idea in my opinion).
    We’ll probably never know for sure by I doubt any Russians were caught in the explosion.

  • Icepilot

    Who caused the dam bust is uncertain, but current events are not – Exactly as I predicted, Ukraine is moving from the front south of Zaporizhzhia to Melitopol & the Sea of Azov (50 miles). That leaves all of Kherson & western Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, plus all of Crimea, supported solely by the damaged bridge Russia built to Crimea.

  • Icepilot: I agree. I have always expected a push by the Ukraine to the south toward Melitopol in order to cut the Russian invasion force in half. The elimination of the reservoir actually makes this push even more likely, from multiple new fronts.

  • John

    It’s a dam shame how much reporting and posting there is how one side or the other side is certainly responsible.

  • pzatchok

    Removing the reservoir might not be a good idea if you want to invade that way.

    It could leave behind huge mudflats, unstable terrain or terrain that can not easily be traveled over. The water could have been easier to cross. Though you would be in the open while doing it.

  • wayne

    -have not been going down the rabbit hole on this one for obvious reasons, that is, both sides are playing this to the hilt.
    An interesting take I did hear, which fits no one’s narrative:
    “turbine-failure, leading to catastrophic events.”
    File that under: “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

  • Jeff Wright

    I fear there needs to be an East Ukraine and a West Ukraine.

  • pzatchok

    A turbine failure is quite possible.

    But exactly how bad would that failure have to be to cause the dam to flood and or crack? First off its not just one huge turbine but a bunch of them. And as a normal procedure at least one is turned off for maintenance all the time. They just rotate through them. Which means each turbine can have its water turned off. So even if the turbine totally failed they would have just turned off the water to it.

    Since Russia was in charge of the dam at the time are they saying that Russia was not manning the dam at the time of the damage and even after it happened they just ignored it?
    I can see that happening since they proved they didn’t know what to do with the nuclear plant they took over. They could not even find technicians in Russia to man it. And they built it. So yes I can see the Russians not finding anyone to man a dam and hydroelectric plant they originally built. They more than likely left it to a bunch of untrained conscripts and hoped for the best.

    But you would think that at least a few of them (the conscripts) would have taken a little interest and found out about the plant and at least how to turn it off the right way. Maybe even check the last payroll records and try to find the Ukrainians who were last running it and ask them to come back just for safety. Simple visual inspections of the dam would help to find any cracks or structural problems.
    Even the UN would send people to inspect and help at that point.

    No this was either Russian intentional incompetence or Ukrainian attacks.
    And why would the Ukraine attack it if they were already keeping the Russians back in that area? No its more probable that Russia would destroy the dam to cause the Ukraine economic harm and civilian casualties. They fight like that or they would just surround and starve out any sizable town inside their controlled area instead of shelling it into dust.

  • Jerry Greenwood

    From satellite imagery I’ve seen (see my post link above) it looks like the dam was overtopping on June 2nd. This collapse may well have been from scouring at the down stream base of the dam.

  • pzatchok

    Purposeful lack of maintenance and management.

    Nice work Russia. keep blaming the Ukraine.

  • wayne

    I have no clue what really happened.

    Referencing catastrophic turbine failures…
    If you have 10 minutes, tell me what you think of this accident:

    A Brief History:
    The Sayano Shushenskaya Dam Disaster (2009)

  • pzatchok

    Sounds like typical Soviet style construction.
    The turbine was never installed correctly and during its 29 out of thirty year estimated life it was never maintained correctly.
    Mounting bolts that never had nuts attached to them was even mentioned.

    And still even with the catastrophic self destruction the dam stayed together.

    Supposedly the Ukrainian dam was visibly over topping and yet no one opened the sluice gates?

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