KHERSON, Ukraine — An attack on a major Russian-held dam in southern Ukraine on Tuesday unleashed a torrent of water that flooded two dozen villages and forced the evacuation of 17,000 people, sparking fears of a humanitarian disaster.
Washington warned there would be “likely many deaths” as Moscow and Kyiv traded blame for ripping a gaping hole in the Kakhovka dam, which is located on the frontline and provides cooling water for Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
Ukraine accused Russian forces of blowing up the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power station, which sits on the Dnipro River in an area Moscow has controlled for more than a year. Russian officials blamed Ukrainian bombardment in the contested area, where the river separates the two sides.
It was not possible to reconcile the conflicting claims. But according to MSNBC, US intelligence is “leaning” toward Russia being likely responsible for the attack. The network cited two intelligence officials who said Washington was working to declassify some of the information that points to Russia.
The New York Times reported that a deliberate, internal explosion most likely caused the dam to collapse, according to experts.
The United States “cannot say conclusively what happened at this point,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters earlier.
EU chief Charles Michel appeared to point to Russia, calling the attack a “war crime,” while NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the dam breach was “outrageous”.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the country’s military and intelligence agencies were probing whether Russia blew up the dam, but that it was “too soon” to say definitively.
Israel expressed its concerns about the harm to civilians but stopped short of blaming Russia for the disputed incident.
“Israel is shocked by the extensive damage to the Kakhova dam,” tweeted Lior Haiat, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. “Thousands of innocent civilians are at peril because of this terrible destruction. Such deliberate targeting of critical infrastructure and people must be strongly condemned by the entire international community,” he added. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ukrainian people in this difficult hour.”
Kyiv said the destruction of the dam was an attempt by Moscow to hamper its long-awaited offensive, which Ukraine’s leader stressed would not be affected.
Russian and Ukrainian officials used terms like “ecological disaster” and “terrorist act” to describe the torrent of water gushing through the broken dam and beginning to empty an upstream reservoir that is one of the world’s largest.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it “the largest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it “another devastating consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
Zelensky further accused Russia of detonating an “environmental bomb of mass destruction,” saying authorities expected up to 80 settlements to be flooded and urging the world to “react.”
“This crime carries enormous threats and will have dire consequences for people’s lives and the environment,” Zelensky said.
But the explosion “did not affect Ukraine’s ability to de-occupy its own territories”, he added.
Last October, Zelensky accused Russia of planting mines at the dam, warning that its destruction would spur a new wave of refugees into Europe.
The Soviet-era dam, built in the 1950s, sits on the Dnipro River, which provides cooling water for the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant some 150 kilometers (90 miles) away.
Moscow and Kyiv offered conflicting assessments of the safety of the facility.
The Russian-installed director of the plant, Yuri Chernichuk, said water levels in the cooling pond had not changed and “at the moment, there is no security threat to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.”
‘Everything is going to die’
As homes, streets and businesses flooded, authorities expressed concerns about drinking water supplies and emergency crews evacuated thousands of people from Ukrainian and Russian-controlled areas.
In the downstream city of Kherson, angry residents cursed as they tried to preserve their pets and belongings. A woman who gave her name only as Tetyana waded through thigh-deep water to reach her flooded house and rescue her dogs. They were standing on any dry surface they could find but one pregnant dog was missing. “It’s a nightmare,” she kept repeating, declining to give her full name.
“Everything is going to die here,” added Sergiy as water from the dam poured into the city, which was the scene of heavy fighting in 2022.
Both Russian and Ukrainian authorities brought in trains and buses to move residents to safety. About 25,000 people in Russian-controlled areas and 17,000 in Ukrainian-held territory should be evacuated, Ukraine’s deputy chief prosecutor Viktoriia Lytvynova said on Ukrainian television. Neither side reported any deaths or injuries.
Vladimir Leontyev, the Moscow-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka where the dam is located, said the city was underwater and hundreds of people had been evacuated.
A satellite photo Tuesday morning by Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press showed more than 600 meters (over 1,900 feet) missing from the wall of the dam.
The dam break, which both sides long feared, added a stunning new dimension to Russia’s war, now in its 16th month. Ukrainian forces were widely seen to be moving forward with a long-anticipated counteroffensive in patches along more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of front line in the east and south.
It was not immediately clear why either side might destroy the dam, and its collapse might have resulted from gradual degradation. Both Russian-controlled and Ukrainian-held lands were at risk.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu charged that Ukraine destroyed the dam to prevent Russian attacks in the Kherson region after what he alleged was a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive. He claimed Ukraine had lost 3,715 troops and 52 tanks since Sunday, and — in a rare acknowledgment of Russia’s own losses — said 71 Russian troops were killed and 210 wounded. Ukraine followed its standard practice of not commenting on its casualties.
Zelensky told reporters his government knew last year that Russia had mined the dam, so “there may come a moment when an explosion occurs.” Other Ukrainian officials alleged Russia blew up the dam to hinder Kyiv’s counteroffensive, even though observers note that crossing the broad Dnipro would be extremely challenging. Other sectors of the front line are more likely avenues of attack, analysts say.
A history of attacking infrastructure
Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, called the alleged Russian destruction of the dam “a profoundly defensive measure” showing “the lack of confidence in Russia’s longer-term prospects” in the war.
Experts have previously said the dam was in disrepair, which could also have led to the breach. David Helms, a retired American scientist who has monitored the reservoir, said in an email it wasn’t clear if the damage was deliberate or simple neglect by occupying Russian forces.
But Helms also noted a Russian history of attacking dams.
Underscoring the global repercussions, wheat prices jumped 3% after the collapse. It’s unclear whether the surge was due to a real threat of floodwaters destroying crops. Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
Authorities, experts and residents have been concerned for months about water flowing through — and over — the Kakhovka dam. After heavy rains and snowmelt last month, water levels rose beyond normal, flooding nearby villages. Satellite images showed water washing over damaged sluice gates.
Zelensky alleged Russian forces set off a blast inside the dam structure at 2:50 a.m. (2350 GMT Monday, 7:50 p.m. EDT Monday).
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it “a deliberate act of sabotage by the Ukrainian side” aimed at cutting water to Crimea.
Both sides warned of a looming environmental disaster from polluted waters partly caused by oil leaking from the dam’s machinery and farmland deprived of irrigation.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry urged residents of 10 villages on the Dnipro’s western bank and parts of the city of Kherson to gather essential documents and pets, turn off appliances, and leave.
UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that at least 40 settlements in the Kherson region were already flooded.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s biggest, relies in large part on water from the dam’s now-emptying reservoir. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency reported “no immediate risk to the safety of the plant,” whose six reactors have been shut down for months but still need water for cooling. It said the rate of the drop in the dam’s reservoir level increased from 5 centimeters (2 inches) to 9 centimeters (3.5 inches) an hour and could be depleted in a couple of days. The plant has alternate water sources that can last for months, according to the IAEA.
Ukrainian authorities have previously warned that the dam’s failure could unleash a volume of water estimated as nearly equivalent to that of the Great Salt Lake in the US state of Utah.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelensky, warned “thousands of animals and ecosystems will be destroyed.”
The incident also drew international condemnation, including from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who said the “outrageous act … demonstrates once again the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”
Ukraine controls five of the six dams along the Dnipro, which runs from its northern border with Belarus down to the Black Sea and is crucial for the country’s drinking water and power supply and that of Russian-occupied Crimea.
Ukraine and Russia have previously accused each other of attacking the dam.