The recent destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam has unleashed an ecological disaster and driven tens of thousands of Ukrainians from their homes. It is an important action that indicates significant issues within the Russian military. For all their denials it is almost certain that the Russian’s blew up the dam. Any dam is hard to destroy because they are built out of millions of tonnes of reinforced concrete so it takes plenty of effort and know how to ‘knock over’ even a small dam. And; Nova Kakhovka is an enormous dam held and protected by the Russians. Destroying it would require 100s of tones of explosive, carefully sited and set to detonate in a planned sequence. It is clearly not a Ukrainian air or missile attack. Nor is it the work of saboteurs.
Clearly the Russians blew it up, but what does this tell us about the Russians and how will this action effect the war?
Blowing up the dam has damaged many civilians lives and the local environment; but it will have little impact on Ukrainian operations. It is highly unlikely that the Ukrainians ever planned to attack across the Dnipro River because it is so wide and deep. Making an opposed crossing of the Dnipro would be beyond the capabilities of most armies. The Americans or NATO would be the only militaries on earth able to force a crossing of a river this large. Therefore, it is safe to say that the Ukrainians were not planning to attack on this axis, so flooding the Dnipro delta is not going to stop the Ukrainian offensive.
Instead, this action speaks of military desperation. The Nova Kakhovka Dam is the last remaining bridge over the southern section of the Dnipro River. And; herein lies the military reason the dam has been blown up. The dam’s bridge becomes important if Russia withdraws. While it existed, the bridge could not be used by Ukraine because it was defended by Russian forces. However, if Russia withdraws and the dam falls into Ukrainian hands then it can be used to cross the river allowing any advance into southern Zaporizihia to be supported from the west.
Blowing the dam up indicates that the Russians are not confident that they can hold southern Zaporizihia and are getting ready to withdraw into Crimea. By blowing up the dam they also ‘punish’ the local population of eastern Kherson and southern Zaporizihia who rely on water from the dam to irrigate their fields. Further, the dam provides a reservoir for the Zaporizihia nuclear powerplant creating the possibility of a nuclear disaster. I think that this is unlikely to happen though because the reactors are already operating at a very low capacity and plans have been made to manage the plant. A risk is that Russia blows the plant up; spreading nuclear waste far and wide. However, this seems highly unlikely because it would trigger a significant international response; similar to using nuclear weapons. A response that would see an immediate and catastrophic escalation for instance; NATO sinking the Black Sea Fleet, imposing a ‘no-fly’ zone or even committing NATO airpower to the campaign in support of Ukraine. All situations that would immediately end Russia’s chance of success in this war.
A question is where the decision was made. Did a local commander give an instruction to blow up the dam on their own initiative? Or; was the decision made in the Kremlin? Retired United States general David Petraeus, speaking on Deutsch’s World today raised the possibility of simple Russian incompetence. He theorised that the act may not have been a well-thought through and deliberate action; but rather a dumb decision made in the heat of the moment by a relatively junior commander. Hanlon’s Razor, states that we should not assume maliciousness in an act that could be the product of incompetence. In this case the situation is hard to judge because Russia has demonstrated plenty of both.
The incompetence versus maliciousness debate is important because it provides insight into the strength of Russian command. If the decision to blow the dam up was not made at the highest levels and was instead made by a panicked junior commander; it tells us that Russia’s chain of command is weak. That junior commanders are not supported and do not feel safe; so we are likely to see more bad decisions in coming days and weeks. A situation that does not bode well for Russia’s ability to hold its defensive line.
In summary, blowing up the Nova Kakhovka dam is almost certain to be a Russian act. Although it has a terrible human and ecological impact its effect on the campaign is likely to be minimal. Instead, it is more likely to be an indication of Russian weakness and that they are planning to withdraw into Crimea, behind the defensive lines that they have spent months preparing. An admission that they are unlikely to hold the Crimean Land Corridor and, on their way out so are protecting their western flank by destroying the last large bridge over the Dnipro; and are making the Ukrainian’s suffer for having the temerity to defend their country.
And; as the Dnipro bursts its banks in the west, far away in the east we are seeing indications of a transition from small attacks by Ukraine designed to ‘close’ the gaps; towards larger probing attacks. There is movement afoot; and I believe that we will be surprised by Russia’s response. The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam is an example of an army ready to retreat. So, let’s keep watching and see how the campaign develops.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger