Nova Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station destroyed. What we know about the breach and interpretations from Ukraine, Russia, and OSINT researchers
Павел Васильев
Nova Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station destroyed. What we know about the breach and interpretations from Ukraine, Russia, and OSINT researchers
6 June 2023, 18:21

Near the Nova Kakhovka dam. Photo: Alexei Konovalov / TASS

The Nova Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station’s dam on the Dnipro river has been destroyed, leading to severe flooding in dozens of settlements in the Kherson region of Ukraine, evacuation has been announced. Both Russia and Ukraine are blaming each other for the destruction of the dam while open-source intelligence (OSINT) researchers suggest that the dam could have been destroyed due to past damages, as well as due to the failure by the occupying Russian authorities to release water in time.

The flood

The dam at the power station was destroyed in the early hours of June 6 in Nova Kakhovka, a city in southern Ukraine under Russian control since the start of full-scale invasion. This triggered an uncontrolled release of water from the Kakhovka Reservoir downstream into the Dnipro river. As a result, various settlements, including coastal areas of Kherson, are being flooded. Both Ukrainian and Russian authorities are evacuating residents, a task complicated by the erosion of roads due to the floodwaters.

The Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station, situated 60 km (about 37 miles) upstream from Kherson, was controlling the flow of the Dnipro river for power generation, irrigation, and water supply in the southern regions of Ukraine. It also allowed for navigation from Kherson to Zaporizhzhia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had noted that the dam at the power station held approximately 18 million cubic meters of water.

In Nova Kakhovka, now under the control of the Russian army, evacuation orders have been issued. Russia-appointed head of the partially annexed Kherson regional administration, Vladimir Saldo, initially claimed evacuation would not be necessary. The city’s mayor, Vladimir Leontyev, initially denied the dam’s destruction in the first place, stating, “This is nonsense! Everything is fine, everywhere is fine, I just discussed this over radio. Everything is fine throughout the city, everything is quiet and peaceful.”

According to Ukrainian authorities, there are about 16,000 people in the flood zone. In Kryvyi Rih, the water consumption is now limited for the population and industry, as the city receives 70% of its water from the Kakhovka Reservoir. Ukrhydroenergo, the state-owned management organisation, believes that the power station cannot be restored. The same is stated by Vladimir Leontyev; according to him, the station will have to be rebuilt from scratch.

Energoatom, Ukrainian nuclear power plants operator, claims that the rapid drop in the water level in the Kakhovka Reservoir creates an additional threat to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as water is needed for the cooling and safety systems of the station. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes that the experts who are at the nuclear power plant are closely monitoring the situation and, in their opinion, there is no immediate threat to the nuclear safety of the station yet. Later, the head of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, added that the water level for cooling the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is dropping, but this does not threaten the safety of the station, as there are alternative bodies of water nearby​.

Photo: Alexei Konovalov/TASS

The blame

Ukraine has accused the Russian army of sabotaging the Nova Kakhovka dam. In an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced a comprehensive plan to hold Russia “accountable for this act of terror.”

“By destroying the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, Russian terrorists only confirm to the world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land. We cannot afford to leave them an inch, because every inch they use for terror,” Zelenskyy wrote on his Telegram channel.

On the other hand, the occupation authorities of Nova Kakhovka insist that the power station was destroyed due to shelling by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Vladimir Saldo alleges that the dam was destroyed by a missile strike from the Ukrainian military, in what he sees as an attempt to undermine the region’s food security.

A few hours later, the press secretary of the Russian president, Dmitry Peskov, stated that “all responsibility for all consequences must be borne by the Kyiv regime.” “We can decisively reject these [accusations]. We officially state that this is clearly a deliberate act of sabotage by the Ukrainian side, which was planned and carried out on the orders from Kyiv, from the Kyiv regime,” said Peskov.

The Kremlin also insists that the destruction of the hydroelectric power station is related to the AFU’s supposed failure in the counteroffensive. Ukraine, on the other hand, believes that the Russians blew up the dam precisely to thwart the counteroffensive.

In the fall of 2022, Russian troops blew up a bridge across the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric power station while retreating from Kherson. Moreover, pro-Russian authorities constantly accused the AFU of shelling the dam and sluices from HIMARS and other MLRS. In response, Ukraine blamed the shelling on the Russian side. In October 2022, the Ukrainian president reported that “the units and dam of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station were mined by Russian terrorists.”

No attack?

Journalists Evan Hill of the Washington Post and Christopher Miller of the Financial Times pointed out that satellite images show part of the road over the dam and the lock gates were already damaged or destroyed between May 28 and June 5. “I’m the furthest thing from an engineer, but maybe it was mother nature that destroyed the dam, not Ukrainians or Russians (ignoring neglect)?” remarked Bellingcat researcher Aric Toler in a now-deleted tweet.

Ruslan Leviev, the founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, also believes that the dam may have been destroyed by water pressure. “The water level kept rising and rising, the fools from the occupation administration didn’t know how to operate the hydroelectric power station, they didn’t release the water, and so the dam couldn’t withstand it and collapsed,” wrote Leviev.

The Washington Post’s Evan Hill noted that shortly before the dam breach, the water level in the Kakhovka Reservoir had risen significantly — likely due to Russia leaving too few sluices open.

“Honestly, it absolutely doesn’t matter who blew it up. Personally, I’m convinced it was the Russians,” military reporter Sergei Auslender mused in conversation with Mediazona. “The thing is, if this war hadn’t happened, there would have been no breach, and the Kakhovka power plant would have stood for 100 years without any problems. I see this as exclusively beneficial for Russia. To create such a tension point and then try to negotiate. From a military perspective, there will be no consequences. As far as I understand, the South is the least promising direction for an [Ukrainian Armed Forces] offensive.”

“We can say with certainty that it wasn’t the [Ukrainian Armed Forces] who struck the dam,” military analyst Kirill Mikhailov explained. “To deliver a strike that could destroy the dam would have been very, very difficult. Ukraine has few long-range strike capabilities. On the other hand, considering the possible consequences, it is clearly not in Ukraine’s interest.”

At the same time, in his opinion, the dam breach could harm Russian military positions, meaning it wouldn’t be advantageous for Russia either. “It’s hard to say that any side would gain a significant long-term advantage from these events,” noted Mikhailov.

Editor: Maria Klimova

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