Ukraine accuses Russia of blowing up a major dam
Ukraine has accused Russian forces of blowing up a vast dam in a Russian-controlled area on the front lines of the war, threatening hundreds of thousands of people across the region, as well as a nearby nuclear plant.
Water surged through the critical Kakhovka dam Tuesday, according to videos verified by NBC News and local officials, unleashing flooding across the war zone in southern Ukraine and sparking evacuations and warnings of an “ecological disaster.”
Fallout from the incident could have a dramatic impact on the battlefield and beyond, with one town just next to the dam already completely flooded, according to its mayor.
The dam breach comes after Kyiv’s forces appeared to launch a new series of attacks across the front lines in the south and the east, fueling speculation that their long-awaited counteroffensive may have begun.
Officials in Kyiv accused Moscow of a “terrorist attack” and raised international alarm, while Russian officials blamed Ukraine while playing down the gravity of the situation.
NBC News has not verified the claims of either side about the dam, which sits in the front-line Kherson region.
Throughout the war, both sides have accused each other of targeting the dam with attacks, while Kyiv has voiced fears that Moscow would destroy it to cause a flood.
Ukrainian officials warned that water would reach critical levels within hours and urged people on both sides of the Dnieper River to evacuate. Ukraine’s state emergency service said about 1,300 people had been evacuated by 3 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET.)
Around 80 settlements were in danger of flooding, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, ordering a mass evacuation from risk areas.
“Russia has detonated a bomb of mass environmental destruction,” he said in a statement, calling it “the largest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades.”
He blamed the Kremlin, which he called “the most dangerous terrorist in the world” and said needed to face “strict accountability.”
“It is physically impossible to blow it up somehow from the outside, by shelling,” he said, responding to Russian claims that Ukraine had done so. “It was mined by the Russian occupiers. And they blew it up.”
Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the destruction of the dam was a “carefully planned act of terrorism” and a “global ecological disaster.”
“The terrorists’ goal is obvious — to create obstacles for the offensive actions of the armed forces,” he said.
The Kremlin called it an act of “sabotage” by Ukraine, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov strongly denying allegations of Russian involvement.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed head of the Kherson region, said in a video posted on Telegram that “a missile attack” by Ukraine on the dam had led to “a large, but not critical amount of water flowing down the Dnipr River.” He accused Kyiv of sabotaging the dam to divert attention from its “terrible failures in the so-called ‘counteroffensive.'”
But he said the situation was manageable and a major evacuation was not required.
“It will not prevent our military from defending the left bank,” Saldo said, referring to the side of the river that Russia controls, while admitting that agricultural fields along the river bank had been washed away and civilian infrastructure disrupted.
Vladimir Leontiev, the Russian-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, said the town, which lies just across from the dam, was completely flooded hours after the incident, according to the state news agency Tass.
Earlier, Leontiev said the water level there had already reached more than 32 feet and about 300 houses located on the banks of the Dnieper were being evacuated.
Nuclear plant risks
Experts have speculated that destruction of the dam, which holds water equal to the Great Salt Lake in the United States, could have a catastrophic impact on local communities and the environment.
The Soviet-era dam, 30 yards tall and 2 miles long, was built in 1956 on the river as part of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant.
Water from the reservoir helps cool the nearby Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, and supplies drinking water to Russian-occupied Crimea.
Ukraine’s state energy company, Energoatom, said that the dam breach could have “negative consequences” for the nuclear plant, Europe’s largest, but that the situation was still under control.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was monitoring the situation and there was no immediate nuclear safety risk at the plant.
The overall damage likely to be caused by the breached dam “looks much worse” than a worst-case scientific model from last year because the water level of the reservoir was so high, a leading water expert said.
“It’s a massive disaster,” said Henrik Ölander-Hjalmarsson, CEO and founding partner of Dämningsverket AB, a Swedish hydrological modeling company, who wrote a “catastrophic dam break scenario” at the request of UNICEF last year.
Tuesday’s dramatic developments come a day after Russia said that Ukraine’s military had launched a significant attack in a bid to break through its defenses on the war’s southeastern front lines.
Reports of heavy fighting from officials in Moscow and the country’s cadre of influential military bloggers fueled speculation that it could be the beginning of the major counteroffensive that Kyiv has been preparing for months.
Ukraine denied claims that a major offensive had been thwarted, accusing Russia of lying to sow distrust and suggesting that the long-anticipated attack was yet to come.
It was not immediately clear whether either side benefits from the damage to the dam, but it could hinder Ukraine’s military efforts in the south as it deluges swaths of land.
The Kremlin made the opposite case, accusing Ukraine of blowing up the dam because its purported offensive was failing. Tuesday’s “sabotage is also connected with the fact that having started large-scale offensive operations two days ago, the Ukrainian armed forces are not achieving their goals,” Peskov said.
The Kherson region was one of four annexed by the Kremlin last year, but it is only partly controlled by Moscow’s forces after a previous Ukrainian offensive recaptured the regional capital of the same name.
It has long been speculated that Ukraine will renew its push to drive Russian troops from the area and look to threaten the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula farther south.