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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