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The Kakhovka dam attack is just the beginning

As Kyiv launches its counter-offensive, both sides are escalating.

By Katie Stallard

In October 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russian forces preparing to retreat from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson had mined the Kakhovka dam, which holds back a huge reservoir on the Dnieper river, upstream of the city. If the Russians blew up the dam, the Ukrainian president said, it would be “exactly the same as the use of weapons of mass destruction”. In the early hours of 6 June 2023, we found out what he meant.

Just before 3am an explosion tore through the engine room at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, which is under Russian control, and breached the dam. “The damage is huge, and the station can’t be repaired,” said Ihor Syrota, the head of Ukraine’s hydroelectric company. “The lower part of it has already been washed away.” Video footage showed water cascading over the ruins of the dam and surging downstream, where rescue workers on both sides of the front line rushed to evacuate those living in the flood zone.

The flooding could also create an enormous ecological disaster. According to Ukraine’s national security and defence council more than 150 tonnes of machine oil has already leaked into the Dnieper, which irrigates farmland across a swathe of southern Ukraine. Then there is the threat to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – which relies on the reservoir to cool its reactors. The International Atomic Energy Agency said there was no immediate risk to the safety of the plant but warned of long-term concerns if the water levels in the reservoir continue to fall. The incident also threatens to cut off an important source of water to Russian-occupied Crimea.

The destruction of the dam redraws the battle lines in southern Ukraine. Flooding the region south of the dam will make it all but impossible to cross that portion of the river into occupied territory. This will buy time for Russia to strengthen its defensive lines further east so it can protect its “land bridge” to Crimea.

“The purpose is obvious: to create insurmountable obstacles on the way of the advancing [Ukrainian army],” wrote Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelensky’s top advisers, on Twitter. Russia has denied responsibility for the attack, with Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov blaming it on “sabotage” by the Ukrainian military. Yet there is precedent for retreating forces to blow up this particular dam. In 1941, Soviet troops destroyed it to slow the advance of German forces during the Second World War. The Nazis later returned the favour – blowing up the repaired dam to cover their own retreat in 1943.

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[See also: Are sanctions on Russia working?]

What is clear is that the war is escalating. On 4 June, Russia’s ministry of defence claimed that the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which has been expected for months, had finally begun with a “large-scale” assault in five sectors in the eastern region of Donetsk. The attack was said to have been repelled, with Russia’s chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov supposedly directing the retaliation from a nearby forward command post. (Moscow provided no evidence to support either claim.) But the following morning, there were reports of further intense fighting on multiple fronts in the region. As Semyon Pegov, a Russian military blogger who goes by the name War Gonzo, summarised, “There is a tough fight going on.”

As Kyiv, galvanised by new supplies of Western military hardware, prepares to launch the main thrust of its counteroffensive to take back Russian-held territory in Ukraine, new fronts in Russia itself have opened up. Since early May, when two drones exploded above the Kremlin in Moscow, there have been a series of attacks inside Russia, though Zelensky denies that his country is responsible. These include an assault on Moscow by at least eight drones in the early hours of 30 May and another suspected drone attack three days later on the city of Kursk in western Russia.

Then there are the cross-border raids in the Belgorod region just inside Russia, where the pro-Ukraine Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion have staged two incursions in as many weeks. Kyiv maintains that it is not directing these attacks, but Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, said Russia should get used to them. “I’m sure this is just the beginning, and there will be more to follow.” The Belgorod region has also been hit by regular shelling and drone strikes in recent months, causing power cuts and disrupting the water supply; two people are said to have been killed in the Russian town of Shebekino on 3 June. Vyacheslav Gladkov, the region’s governor, has lamented that they are now living in a “de facto state of war”.

This, surely, is the point. No one in Ukraine has the luxury of being able to ignore this war, but for the majority of people in Russia over the past 15 months, the conflict has not felt like a matter of life or death. For Putin, this has meant there has been minimal political cost, feeding his confidence that if he just draws the war out for long enough then he can win by outlasting Ukraine. The aim of Kyiv’s counteroffensive must be to shatter this certainty, by convincing the Russian president that time is not on his side.

But that brings its own new dangers. If Putin did order the destruction of the Kakhovka dam then it signals a desperate man who is prepared to destroy much more of Ukraine before he will countenance defeat.

[See also: Brain surgery in a warzone]

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine