Early on June 6, when news broke that a massive dam had been sabotaged in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukrainian leaders accused the Kremlin of this reactionary act against civilian infrastructure. Zelenskyy and his government were soon joined by leaders of the European Union and NATO. “We can naturally assume that this is an aggression perpetrated by the Russian side in order to stop Ukraine’s offensive to liberate its own territory,” declared German chancellor Olaf Scholz. He added that such an attack “gives a new dimension” to the conflict. But as time went on, there emerged little evidence that the Russian army had bombed the Nova Kakhovka dam in the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine’s Kherson region. Some Western officials preferred to take a cautious stance. For example, John Kirby, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, stated that the U.S. government “cannot say conclusively” who was responsible for the Kakhovka dam failure. The New York Times, citing several experts, urged against making hasty accusations, noting that the dam’s collapse could have been caused unintentionally. But this hypothesis remains unlikely.
It’s more than clear that if the imperialist rulers and the Western mainstream press had the slightest shred of evidence of Russian involvement in this sabotage, they’d already be putting in place stronger sanctions and a whole reinforced anti-Russian propaganda machine. Throughout the war, however, several comparable events have deserved greater caution before making accusations: the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines in September, leading some to accuse Russia of self-sabotage before speculation about U.S. and even Ukrainian involvement came to light; the “Russian” missile that fell in Poland in November 2022, for which Zelenskyy immediately accused the Kremlin, even after irrefutable proof emerged that it was a missile launched by Ukrainian air defense; the October attack on the Kerch Strait bridge in Crimea, for which no one has claimed responsibility until now (even though everything points to the Ukrainian army).
But the sabotage of the Kakhovka dam differs somewhat from these other examples: it is a reactionary act and a war crime, the consequences of which are affecting tens of thousands of people in the region who will lose their homes, fields, and animals; it is an ecological disaster; and finally, it could endanger the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (the largest in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world). This is why the mutual recriminations take on crucial importance: the culprit could lose both allies and public support around the world.
So what are the Ukrainian arguments that Russia was behind the attack? According to Kiev, the timing of the dam sabotage favors Russia, since it occurred just as the Ukrainian army was launching its much-heralded “counteroffensive.” Flooding the entire region south of Kherson would make Ukrainian operations more difficult. For the Kremlin, it would also be a way of “avenging” itself for the latest attacks on its soil and demonstrating that it is prepared to go to any lengths should it find itself in trouble. In addition, Kiev claims that this is not the first time the Russian army has attacked civilian energy infrastructures since the start of the war.
Indeed, while no hypothesis can be ruled out at this stage, there are reasons to doubt the all-too-certain assertions made by the Ukrainian government. With this in mind, Russian military specialist Michael Kofman wrote a short Twitter thread expressing skepticism about the military benefits that Russia would derive from sabotage. Among other things, Kofman writes that “a Ukrainian cross-river operation in southern Kherson, below the dam, was always a risky and therefore low-probability prospect. There is no evidence that such an operation was under way, or would have necessarily been a part of the UA offensive plans.”
Other economic and political reasons have also been mentioned. Not only is the dam in Russian-controlled territory, but it was also used to supply water to a significant part of Crimea. In other words, while the floods will affect Ukrainian farmers and residents, it will also affect the population of Crimea and its agricultural sector.
That’s why some Western analysts are even raising the possibility that it was Ukrainian forces themselves who blew up the dam. For example, Stephen Bryen of the Yorktown Institute and the Center for Security Policy writes,
Motive can be imputed to the Ukrainians: Blow up the dam in order to lower the water level upstream and allow them to cross the river there with greater ease in their offensive operations. … This is consistent with reports that setbacks in the Ukrainian counteroffensive was forcing Ukraine to transfer forces from the Kherson region to the east. … The dam break also threatened Russians’ defensive works in the areas that they hold near the river below the dam, territory that Ukraine has been trying to take back.
In other words, there appear to be just as many reasons to suspect that Ukraine is behind the sabotage as there are to suspect Russia.
As is always the case in war, it’s impossible to believe either of the disputing parties, as information about what’s happening on the ground also becomes a weapon to bolster one side or the other. Above all, we mustn’t forget that the destruction of the dam is a war crime that affects the civilian population first and foremost, especially the most disadvantaged. In recent weeks, we have witnessed a redoubling of attacks on civilians both in Ukraine and in Russian territory. Both sides are pursuing reactionary policies, and their war is taking on the same character. The imperialist powers are fully involved, warmongering to pursue their own interests, and because of this, it is quite possible that there will be more attacks of this kind. What is certain is that, regardless of who is responsible for destroying the dam, its destruction is a profoundly reactionary act.
First published in French on June 7 on Révolution Permanente.
Translation by Ida Bréilte