UPDATE: Mark Sumner
Meanwhile … there are reports this morning that Ukraine has liberated the town of Berkhivka, just northwest of Bakhmut. This follows earlier reports that Ukrainian forces had reached the edge of the that town.
Ukrainian troops have also reportedly pushed back from Orikhovo-Vasylivka and pushed Russia back several kilometers along the M03 highway. Russian artillery near the village of Dubovo-Vasylivka is in danger of being encircled.
UPDATE: Mark Sumner
One issue with flooding in Ukraine that’s very different from flooding in many areas. Those attempting rescues, and those attempting to escape from flooded areas, are also in danger from mines, many of which have been laid on and near the riverbank.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, residents who live near the town of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region of Ukraine started sharing text messages about the unusual noises they were hearing. One reported “such explosions” and speculated it was a missile. Another replied, “How horrible. So loud.” The noise and shaking ground led some to run to the bathroom—a central room with no windows—the same way that people in the Midwest might react to a tornado warning.
Soon after, one of the residents reported that the ground was still shaking and that there was a strange noise, an “incomprehensible sound.”
“Why is the water so loud?” asked another.
Some wondered if it was safe to go back to bed. Others worried about losing electricity again. But most were baffled by the sound of thundering water. “I never heard anything like it.” Above them, the Kakhovka Dam was in the middle of collapsing, spilling 18 billion cubic meters of water toward their homes and everywhere along the banks of the Dnipro River.
Russia has been in control of the Kakhovka Dam for almost a year. In that time they have badly—and apparently intentionally—mismanaged water levels in the reservoir above the lake. Throughout most of the year they had two spillways open, which was too much over dry months last summer, leading to very low levels of water above the dam. But following the fall and winter rains, Russia failed to open the sluice gates, allowing water to accumulate, leading to flooding around the edges of the reservoir.
As The New York Times reported on May 17:
Water levels at a reservoir that supplies southern Ukraine with drinking water have reached a 30-year high, increasing the possibility of flooding in the area and signaling a lack of regulation. The sudden increase in levels at the Kakhovka reservoir appears in altimetry data — which uses satellites to measure height — published on Friday by Theia, a French earth data provider.
Images from earlier this week show that by June 1, water that had overtopped the dam was beginning to damage a road that ran over the spillway. That damage is even more visible in images from the following day. Images from June 3 show that the road was swept away. However, the edge of the spillway itself did not seem to have been damaged by June 4. Images from later that day show that the road was also out on the western end, meaning that even if Ukrainian forces had approached the area from the west (right) bank of the Dnipro, they would not have been able to access the area around the hydroelectric power station control center. Only Russia could address the problems at the dam.
The rate of water flow across that five-day period was clearly increasing, as was the damage to the dam structure. However, Russia did not act to open the sluice gates and release more water.
By daylight on June 6, it was clear that a large portion of Kakhovka Dam, including much of the control infrastructure, was gone and that a disaster was underway.
The cleanness of the breaks in the dam, the still-crumbling structure, and the signs that a collapse might have already been underway led many to conjecture that there had been no explosion, and that the dam had ruptured due to the record-high water levels and erosion caused by the water overtopping the spillway.
However, other footage seems to indicate that an explosion did occur—a conclusion supported by those text messages from locals and other reports of a loud explosion at just the time of the dam failure. Ukrainian officials are criticizing media for downplaying the damage and failing to definitively pin the explosion on Russia. There are reports of the explosion at the dam being heard 80 km away, which would not be the case in even the most catastrophic collapse.
Kakhovka Dam was deliberately destroyed by an explosion that targeted the power plant and control structures, as well as breaking the structural integrity of the dam. That explosion is what locals in the area reported at 1:20 in the morning. The incomprehensible noise that came after has only gotten worse as the breach in the dam has continued to widen and water has poured down into the lower Dnipro basin.
The deliberate destruction of a dam in order to flood civilian areas is a war crime—another to add to the thick stack of such crimes Russia has accumulated over the course of its illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. It’s hard to say if it’s worse than the destruction of Mariupol, or the mass graves at Bucha and Izyum, or the torture chambers found in basements across formerly Russian-occupied regions, or the deliberate bombing of hospitals and shelters. Such forms of evil are all so dark that it’s hard to distinguish a shade.
However, it seems that things can always be worse: On Tuesday there are reports that Russia is shelling Ukrainian rescue operations as Ukrainian police and military attempt to evacuate people, livestock, and wildlife from rapidly flooding areas below the shattered dam.
This is a massive humanitarian, ecological, and economic disaster, the impact of which will last for years. How it will affect structures upstream and downstream—including the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant where water from the reservoir was vital for cooling—is still to be seen. This is the early hours of a disaster still unfolding.
It also seems likely that the result of the dam failure will alter the flow along the canal that provides water to Crimea, though what that change will be isn’t yet clear. It seems likely that the canal infrastructure could also be damaged by the high levels of water now coming down the Dnipro. Bridges, roads, farms, buildings, homes … the damage is going to be absolutely enormous.
It seems obvious from the available evidence that Russia has committed a deliberate, massive, and blatant war crime. There were warnings that Russia was planning such an act as early as last October, and further warnings shortly after Russia was forced to flee from the city of Kherson. Now it seems that the destruction was timed to signs that Ukraine was in the opening stages of its counteroffensive. Whether this action will affect Ukraine’s plans for the coming weeks is still to be seen.