In the early hours of June 6, the Kakhovka Dam burst. The most probable culprit is Russia, given its control over the dam throughout the occupation of right-bank Kherson Oblast.
The incident will have significant, tragic humanitarian effects. But as a matter of warfare, it illustrates how badly off-balance Russian forces are in the face of Ukraine’s counteroffensive already underway.
The Kakhovka Dam is the last of six large cascades along the Dnieper, all built during the Soviet era to regulate flooding, provide hydroelectric power, and enable merchant ships to navigate upriver. Each dam creates a large reservoir containing a massive amount of water. The Kakhovka Reservoir holds around 18.2 cubic kilometers. Russian forces held the reservoir from late February to November 2022, when the Ukrainian advance forced them withdraw across the Dnieper. Ukraine accused Russia of mining the dam during this period.
The dam could have burst from Russia mismanagement. Throughout 2022, poor Russian lock control meant the Kakhovka Reservoir reached a record low. Russia closed the reservoir’s locks in late 2022, meaning that, as of May, the reservoir had reached a record high. The pressure may simply have burst the dam. Nevertheless, this degree of damage points to Russian culpability, even if the full effects of the explosion and subsequent flooding are beyond Russia’s explicit initial intent.
Moreover, destruction of critical infrastructure is an explicit aspect of Russian escalation management theory and warfighting doctrine. Russia’s persistent bombardment of Ukraine’s power grid is meant to break the Ukrainian electrical system in half, for example, making sabotage of the hydroelectric plant well within standard Russian practice.
However, it is not simply that Russia destroyed the dam. Russia had reasonable motivation to destroy the dam back in fall 2022, during its retreat across the Dnieper, in order to disrupt Ukraine’s offensive. The relevant question is why Russia would destroy the dam now. For the dam’s destruction and subsequent flooding come days after the Russian defense ministry announced that Ukraine’s counteroffensive had begun.
Russia’s commander, Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, had allegedly directed the defense of a large sector against multiple Ukrainian brigades. The claim itself is farcical — it would be as if General Dwight Eisenhower had concerned himself with the movements of a few companies during the Battle of the Bulge. And the numbers claimed in the Russian report are, as usual, absurd.
Yet it is correct in one respect — Ukraine’s counteroffensive has indeed begun. Ukrainian units at company-to-battalion strength are probing Russian positions from Vasylivka in Zaporizhzhia Oblast near the Dnieper River to Bakhmut, the location of the war’s most intense urban combat to date. Ukraine executed a long-term shaping phase, during which it hit Russian logistics sites and oil storage facilities with long-range kamikaze drones and rocket artillery.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.