Huge explosions breach the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine war THE EXPLOSIONS in the early morning were so strong that windows trembled a full 80km away. By daybreak on June 6th the impact was clear: blasts had punched a large hole in the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine, and there had also been severe damage to the hydro-electric station that it powers. The bridge alongside the dam was gone; and the fierce waters of the Dnieper were racing downstream. The consequences may turn out to be catastrophic. Several towns and villages in both Russian-occupied and Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Kherson area are now at acute risk of flooding. The governor of the province, Oleksandr Prokudin, said that the water level in those areas would become critical by midday local time. The power stations operators have confirmed that the now-submerged hydro-electric station is probably damaged beyond repair. Given its expected ramifications, the deliberate destruction of the Kakhovka dam may be deemed by lawyers to be a war crime. The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, said on Twitter that the dams rupture clearly qualifies as one. Pro-Russian voices are already claiming, improbably, that this was a Ukrainian operationsupposedly to wash away Russian-held positions on the eastern bank of the Dnieper river. Puppet officials loyal to the Kremlin reported that the dam had been hit by Ukrainian Olkha multiple-launch rockets. Ukraine has long asserted, far more plausibly, that Russian forces had mined the dam and were preparing a man-made disaster. Also, the bridge alongside the dam offered a route for a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive action. Western military sources say they believe the Russians were almost certainly responsible. A breach of this size would require the pre-positioning of explosives, and the Russians have been in control of the dam since the early days of the war. Built in 1956, the 3.2km-wide Kakhovka hydro-electric station is one of Ukraines largest energy facilities, providing electricity for more than 3m people. It has been of strategic value for the Russians since the first days of the war, as its reservoir is a critical source of water for Crimea. But in the run-up to the incident, Russian military bloggers had hinted that the military value of destroying the dam could be greater, as a way to make any Ukrainian operation to cross the Dnieper and push east much more difficult. The blowing up of the dam, if indeed it was by Russia, would also signal desperation on the Russian part, suggesting that it has no capability or intent of moving its troops in the opposite direction to retake Kherson. Water-level reports show that the dam may have been kept unusually full just before the incident. Fears were also raised about the possible consequences for the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant upstream, which draws on water from the Kakhovka reservoir to cool its reactors. A statement released by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has monitors at the plant, said there was no immediate safety risk. A spokesman for Ukraines atomic agency said the situation was under control, with the plant in cold shutdown mode. There is still enough water, he said. Eyewitnesses say that much of Nova Kakhovka, the Russian-occupied settlement immediately downstream from the dam, has already been flooded. Mass evacuations carried out by the Russians in the lead-up to Ukraines long-awaited counter-offensive meant that few civilians were living there at the time of the incident. It is unclear how many civilians remain in the most vulnerable sections further downstream. Mr Prokudin, the provincial governor, said that approximately 16,000 people were immediately at risk in Ukrainian-controlled areas on the western bank. Emergency evacuation has begun in the nearest towns and villages. Mobile networks are down across much of the region. The dams destruction will reshape the military geography of southern Ukraine at a crucial time, the onset of Ukraines counter-offensive. Russian forces on the Dniepers eastern bank will have to abandon some of the positions which they took up in November, after withdrawing from Kherson city. Ukraine, which had been conducting small-scale raids over the river in recent weeks, possibly to tie down Russian forces in the area, will find it much harder to threaten a full-scale push over the now-flooded area. Such an operation was always unlikely, says John Foreman, who served as Britains defence attache in Kyiv and Moscow, because of Ukraines lack of amphibious craft and expertise. Wet-gap crossings are among the most demanding of all military operations. But if Russia did destroy the dam, he says, it might have hoped to protect its western flank by complicating Ukraines offensive moves. We know the Russians have form for this sort of thing, he argues, pointing to Stalins destruction of the Dnieper dam at Zaporizhia in 1941. But back then Russia was not the aggressor.