Damage to Russian-Held Hydroelectric Plant Floods South Ukraine Battlefield

Source: Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical reats Project, OpenstreetMap,Openinframap. Brady Africk, who analyzed satellite imagery from Copernicus Open Access Hub, provided fortifications data, which does not include all fortifications in Ukraine; some defenses predate Russia’s full-scale invasion.

KYIV, Ukraine – A critical dam in southern Ukraine was heavily damaged after a reported explosion early Tuesday, sending water gushing toward dozens of communities, including some occupied by Russia, and prompting officials to evacuate thousands of people at risk of catastrophic flooding.

Russia seized the dam, which is part of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, on the first day of its invasion in February 2022 because of its crucial role in supplying fresh water to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

It was not clear who was responsible for the damage, which occurred as Kyiv stepped up offensive operations on the eastern front as part of what is expected to be a major counterattack over the coming weeks. Ukraine and Russia quickly traded blame for the blast.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of blowing up the hydroelectric power plant from inside. .”The disaster at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant caused by Russian terrorists will not stop Ukraine and Ukrainians,” Zelensky said in his evening address, posted as a video to social media.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that the damage was “a deliberate sabotage by the Ukrainian side,” in part to deprive Crimea of water. “Apparently, this sabotage is related to the fact that the Ukrainian armed forces, having started the offensive two days ago, are not achieving their goals now,” Peskov said Tuesday during his daily conference call with reporters.

U.S. officials had not made a determination about who or what caused it, a White House spokesman said Tuesday.

“We are working with the Ukrainians to gather more information, but we cannot say conclusively what happened at this point,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House.

As floodwaters continued to rise, Ukrainian authorities said 40,000 people should be evacuated from the Kherson region. By Tuesday afternoon, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said, about 1,300 people had been evacuated.

The dueling accusations by Kyiv and Moscow set off intense speculation about which side might have more to gain by flooding the battlefield in the south, as well as deep consternation about the extent of environmental and economic damage.

The cause of the dam’s breach remained unclear.

On one occasion, as Ukrainian forces plotted a counteroffensive in the Kherson region, they conducted a test strike using an American-provided HIMARS rocket launcher to puncture three holes in one of the floodgates of the Kakhovka dam.

Maj. Gen. Andriy Kovalchuk, who led the Kherson offensive, told The Washington Post late last year that the goal was to see if the water level of the Dnieper River could be raised enough to stymie Russian crossings but not flood nearby villages. The test was a success, Kovalchuk said, but commanders decided to hold off on such an operation.

Tuesday’s dramatic events in the south came amid an escalation in Ukrainian combat activity, including a series of offensive operations on the eastern front, signaling that Kyiv’s forces may have launched the preliminary phases of their long-awaited counteroffensive.

Russia claimed Tuesday that it had repelled “a long-promised offensive” mounted by Ukrainian troops at a dozen points on the front line over the previous three days. Ukraine denied that assertion. “Attempts to attack were thwarted, the enemy was stopped,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Kyiv has previously dismissed Russian claims that its army has repelled Ukrainian attacks as disinformation aimed at undermining the assault. Leaders in Kyiv have cautioned repeatedly in recent days that no single action would mark the start of the counterattack, nor would it be announced.

It remained to be seen how the flooding would affect troop movements.

In an interview with The Post, Ihor Syrota, general director of Ukraine’s state hydroelectric company, Ukrhydroenergo, said the dam was “irreparable” and all of the water in the Kakhovka Reservoir could spill out within the next four days.

Syrota also warned of environmental damage. About 450 tons of oil had begun seeping from the station into the river, he said. “It is heading toward Kherson and the Black Sea,” he said. “This will be an ecological catastrophe.”

Ukrhydroenergo, in a statement on Telegram, said the hydroelectric plant was “completely destroyed” as a result of an explosion inside the engine room.

Aerial videos showed heavy structural damage to the dam, which appeared to be missing sections measuring hundreds of feet.

Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, said in a radio interview that the dam was not completely destroyed but sustained serious damage. She accused the Russians of targeting the dam to stop Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive.

Andrii Pidlisnyi, a captain in Ukraine’s armed forces now based in the south, accused the Russians of trying to destroy positions that Ukrainians could use as springboards for attack. By flooding the area, Russians could prevent Ukrainians from moving south by land along the Dnieper’s east bank in a bid to oust the Russians from parts of Kherson they control.

But Pidlisnyi argued that the Ukrainian-controlled west bank is higher in elevation than the east, and that Russia’s military positions “are simply flooded” and had to be evacuated. Russian units there, Pidlisnyi said, “were not aware of this whole situation. They’re just shocked.”

Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said he did not expect the dam breach to have a big impact on Ukraine’s offensive. The likelihood of a Ukrainian offensive operation across the river south of the dam was quite low, he said.

“The flood washes away Russian defenses there but makes a river crossing now exceedingly more difficult,” Kofman said.

In the Russian-occupied city of Nova Kakhovka, adjacent to the dam, water levels were several feet high in front of the city council building, according to video published by Ukraine’s public broadcaster, Suspilne. Swans could be seen on the water.

The Ukrainian former mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Volodymyr Kovalenko, said in an interview that a zoo, a recreation area and a sports complex were flooded within hours. While he was not in the Russian-occupied city, Kovalenko said, he spoke to residents through encrypted channels.

At the submerged zoo, home to 260 animals, only the ducks and swans could be saved, according to UAnimals, Ukraine’s largest animal charity, which said it spoke with the zoo’s management.

In the low-lying city, located on the east bank of the Dnieper, the water in some places had overflowed by about 1,600 feet from the normal shoreline. Kovalenko said he feared it would reach two-to-three-story homes and cottages in an old part of the city. “At any moment, the water may have reached these houses,” he said.

The dam sits at the end of the Dnieper River, in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region. Its reservoir stores roughly the same amount of water as the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Russian occupying forces pushed the Ukrainian workers out of the plant, created a military base at the site and, in October, cut it off from Ukraine’s electrical grid.

The fast-rising water levels threaten residents from northern Kherson, where the dam is located, down to the Black Sea.

The reservoir also supplies water, through canals, to occupied Crimea and to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, in Russian-controlled Enerhodar. Ukraine’s atomic-energy authorities said the plant so far has not been affected by the dam breach.

Ukrainian officials blamed Russia. “This is a heinous war crime,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko warned residents that the flood could wash up Russian mines.

Vladimir Leontyev, the Russian-installed mayor of occupied Nova Kakhovka, said water levels have risen by 16 feet, flooding several downstream settlements. Those in the immediate vicinity of the water were being moved to dry places, he said, but “large-scale” evacuations were not expected.

“The situation is under control,” Leontyev said. “The Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant was built in such a way as to be able to withstand a nuclear strike.” He said that the upper part of the plant was destroyed but that the dam was only partially damaged.

The Russian-installed authorities of the Kherson region later announced the evacuation of residents of three districts, urging them to pack personal belongings and documents, carry food and drinking water for three days, and turn off gas and water in their homes before leaving. Earlier, the head of the Russian occupation administration of the region, Vladimir Saldo, said there was no need for mass evacuation.

Even as the floodwaters rose, Russian forces continued bombing Kherson city, which is controlled by Ukraine, and the surrounding areas. Two police officers from Kherson were wounded by shrapnel during evacuation measures in the city, according to Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry.