The collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine is one of the biggest disasters affecting a territory in Europe in the last decades. The dam is located in a Russian-controlled territory by the Dnipro river, one of the widest in Europe and near the major city of Kherson. Nova Kakhovka helped to provide electricity, irrigation and drinking water to southern Ukraine, including Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
Russian forces captured Kherson in March 2022, but the Ukrainian army retook the city in November 2022, as Russian troops retreated to the southern bank of the Dnipro river to defend the land bridge with Crimea. Russia still controls most of the territory downstream from the dam, while Ukraine controls five of the six dams along the Dnipro river, which runs from the country’s northern border with Belarus down to the Black Sea.
This basin is crucial for the region's big exports of wheat, barley, millet, rapeseed and sunflower crops. The catastrophe is posing a security threat in the area as the flooding is infested with military mines. Moreover, it has destroyed the crops in the farmland and entire villages, left tens of thousands of people without electricity power and clean water, and caused a big ecological damage with contaminated oil and industrial chemicals spreading with the water.
Moscow and Kyiv are accusing each other of destroying the dam. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian forces blew up the reservoir from inside, quoting a report by Ukrainian intelligence last year that claimed occupying troops had mined the dam. The wider timing of this collapse coincided also with Ukrainian forces gearing up in the area to launch the highly expected counter-offensive. Indeed, Zelensky insisted that "Russian terrorists” were responsible for the explosion of the dam when it had reached its maximum water capacity, and that this “confirms for the whole world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land".
On the other hand, the flooding is also impacting Russian forces. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: "We can state unequivocally that we are talking about deliberate sabotage by the Ukrainian side". Peskov did not provide any major evidence, except an old intelligence report that showed how the Ukrainian army was considering blowing the dam when retreating from the region in the early stages of the February invasion.
It is true that some areas worst hit by the disaster are under Russia’s control and have in the past served as staging grounds for Moscow’s military, and Russian soldiers were seen being swept up in floodwaters and fleeing the east bank of the Dnipro river. Additionally, the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam will heavily affect the supply of water into Crimea, a region that the Kremlin sees as of vital importance for their expansion plans in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, Germany, NATO, the EU and world organizations were quick to blame Russia for blowing up the dam, unlike the United States and United Kingdom, which say that they are still investigating the incident. The U.S. officials said that their satellites detected a major explosion, and growing evidence suggests that it would have been very difficult for Ukraine to penetrate this heavily controlled Russian area with these explosives without being unnoticed.
However, it is unclear how well the dam has been maintained under Russian occupation. The surrounding area has been one of the most heavily contested regions since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the dam has sustained some prior damage. Indeed, the uncertainty about who destroyed the dam is quite big, specially taking into account the latest reports made by well-established US newspapers that the Ukrainian secret service had a very detailed plan about how to blow the Nordstream pipelines in Europe.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that this dam has already been blown out three times by now; in 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Ukraine, Josef Stalin's secret police blew up the station to slow the Nazi advance. The estimated number of victims varies between 20,000 and 100,000 people, most of them Soviet civilians and soldiers, so it would not be the first time that something like this has occurred. Then, in 1943, as Soviet forces were pushing Nazi soldiers out of Ukraine, Nazi troops blew it up for a second time, and at the end of the war, the Soviets rebuilt the dam.