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Fallout after Kakhovka dam breach

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Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS/Taken on , June 5, 2023 – A satellite image shows a close-up view of Nova Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power facility, Ukraine. The breach in the dam on the Dnieper River in war-ravaged Ukraine this week is a catastrophe of colossal proportions, a veritable ecological and human disaster that may outlive the war itself, the writer says.

By MK Bhadrakumar

The breach in the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper River in war-ravaged Ukraine this week is a catastrophe of colossal proportions, a veritable ecological and human disaster that may outlive the war itself. However, the striking thing about the White House reaction to the event from John Kirby, co-ordinator for strategic communications at the US National Security Council, is that he tactfully avoided endorsing Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky’s finger pointing at the Russians.

Kirby said: “We’ve seen the reports that Russia was responsible. We’re doing the best we can to assess those reports. And we are working with the Ukrainians to gather information. But we cannot say conclusively what happened at this point.”

Kirby wouldn’t be drawn onto a turf that fools only enter. And, interestingly, his remark has been similar to UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s “It’s too early to say definitively”. Sunak said the UK defence intelligence would “thoroughly investigate” to establish who was responsible. Of course, it is conceivable that Britain will find a way to somehow blame Russia. But for the present, it has nothing concrete in hand to vilify Moscow.

Indeed, what complicates matters is that by the classical Latin canon cui bono (for whose benefit?) about identifying crime suspects, both Ukraine and Russia can be deemed as “winners” or “losers” alike. This needs explaining. Take Ukraine first. It is a winner as Russia apparently shot itself in the foot by destroying the dam since the topography of the place is such that it is the lower eastern side of the Dnieper in the Kherson region, which the Russians held, that is more affected by the flood.

Second, the flood has washed away the mines and much of the fortifications the Russians had painstakingly prepared to prevent a Ukrainian offensive. The Ukrainian forces would now have an open path when the flood abates.

Third, it is a huge propaganda stunt for Kyiv to drumbeat, with able help from Western media, that Russians committed a war crime. Zelensky wrote on Facebook: “Russian terrorists. The destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant dam only confirms for the whole world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land.” This psychological victory also coincides with the launch of Kyiv’s expected “spring offensive”.

Besides, Kyiv is a big-time winner if the destruction of the Kakhovka dam affects the cooling system of the reactor(s) in the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (which would make it a first-rate European crisis) and/or imperil water supply for the Crimea (which could alienate Russian public opinion). The Kakhovka dam was a hydro-electric plant, and there could be a power shortage in the Russian-held areas.

But the biggest win for Kyiv will be that there is nothing stopping its future amphibious assaults in the strategic Kherson region once the water levels out, since Russia has already used the trump card of engineering floods from the Kakhovka dam to wash away the Ukrainian landing forces on the eastern bank of the Dnieper.

On the other hand, when it comes to Russia, the big question is: Why would it want to destroy the dam when it always had the easier option to create huge floods to drown the Ukrainian deployments by simply lifting the floodgates at any point? Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu offered an explanation that, after having suffered heavy losses in the first few days of the Ukrainian offensive in the Donetsk direction, Kyiv has an urgent need to “redeploy the units and hardware from the Kherson direction to its offensive area” in the north and resorted to the terrorist act to flood the region “to prevent Russia’s offensive actions”.

It is a logical explanation, but there is also a contradiction insofar as by thinning out the deployment on the Kherson front, especially the positions inside the marshy islands in the Dnieper River near Kherson where force multipliers like drone repeaters and relays were deployed, Ukrainian forces have placed themselves at a disadvantage, which the Russian side can always take advantage of once the flood subsides.

Picture: Alexey Konovalov/TASS/Handout via REUTERS – Floodwaters reach the centre of Nova Kakhovka after the nearby dam was breached in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in the Kherson Region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, June 6, 2023.

Clearly, Russia is the winner if it decides to cross the Dnieper in Kherson Oblast and attack the Odessa region, now that there is no dam for the Ukrainian side to flood the region and impede the Russian operation. Second, it is a net gain that the floods have submerged all the ammunition depots the Ukrainians had been building up in Kherson for an offensive in the southern region. Third, the floods prevent amphibious assaults by Ukraine, which enables the Russian military to take its eyes off the Kherson front and concentrate instead on the northern front, where the main thrust of the Ukrainian offensive seems to be developing. Meanwhile, according to Russian media reports citing expert opinion: ¡ Mass evacuation of Novaya Kakhovka town will not be necessary, as the bulk of the population had left the city during the regrouping of troops from the Kherson direction. ¡ The water level is expected to drop to normal within 72 hours. ¡ The water level in the North Crimean Canal is not affected in any way, thanks to additional reservoirs that had been built during the 2014- 2022 period when Kyiv had imposed a “water blockade” on Crimea. A Russian military expert, Colonel Vitaly Kiselyov, said on Russian TV: “Our guys, our experts, foresaw the risk that not only the Kakhovka reservoir but also the Kyiv one and some others may be prone to blasts and sabotage. As regards changes to our defensive fortifications, yes, to some extent, they will have to be moved. But this is not critical. It is also not critical that the enemy may try to attack in this area.” Incredible as it may seem, in a meticulous, insightful “post-mortem” of the Kakhovka dam breach, the blogger Simplicius the Thinker offers a novel “natural theory, which is that the dam collapsed on its own”. Here is a dam that took so much battering from Ukrainian and Russian militaries over the past year and was in serious disrepair, with satellite photos in the days leading up to the breach showing that it was already leaking massively at the centre. Perhaps, the dam, which had seen glorious days in the Soviet era, couldn’t take it anymore. The breach actually “looks like a clean break”. The unkindest cut of all is that Kyiv, which controls other dams upriver – such as a hydro plant in the cities of Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro – also began playing with their water levels and filling up the Kakhovka reservoir, putting immense pressure on the 67-year-old dam. That is to say, “the dam collapsed on its own rather than direct fire or explosives sabotage, but it was still pushed into collapsing by direct action from the Kyiv regime.”

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.

This is an edited version of the article that was first published in Peoples Dispatch.