Whoever blew up that dam, this summer will be tough in Ukraine
The world woke up last week to shocking images of the Kakhovka dam rupturing. The destruction of the dam on the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine sent torrents of water flooding everything in its path. Dozens of villages and towns, and thousands of people, have been affacted. This incident is just the latest tragic chapter in the horror story that is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The dam had been under the control of Russian forces for more than a year. Curiously, in the weeks leading up to the breach, Russia filled the Kakhova Reservoir to its highest levels in more than three decades. Unsurprisingly, this contributed to maximum devastation across the region.
Since its invasion, Russia has attacked at least two dams in Ukraine: the Oskil dam in July 2022 and the Kryvyi Rih dam last September. Each side accuses the other of being responsible the destruction of the Kakhova dam. US officials speaking off the record say that American intelligence suggesting that Russia was behind the dam’s rupture will soon be declassified. This would be an interesting development if it happened. When it comes to Ukraine, the US intelligence community has been accurate, even predicting that Russia would invade almost to the exact date. Turkiye has proposed an independent international commission to investigate the origins of the breach, but in the middle of a war zone that would be difficult.
Some have speculated that this incident is connected to Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive to take back territory seized by Russia since the war began in February last year. Militarily, both sides are affected by the flooding. The flood waters have wiped out Russia’s first line of defense along the southern stretches of the Dnipro, but the flooding also makes a Ukrainian river crossing almost impossible. Even so, the damaged dam, and the subsequent flooding, is unlikely to have an impact on Ukraine’s forthcoming military operations.
For weeks, many have speculated where the counteroffensive will take place, but a Ukrainian military crossing of the Dnipro would have been risky even under normal conditions, and therefore unlikely. Instead, it is likely that the main goal of Ukraine’s counteroffensive will be to drive a wedge between the Russian-controlled city of Mariupol and Crimea’s Isthmus of Perekop. This means an attack from the direction of Zaporizhzhia, with the main objective being Melitopol to the south. While this region is in southern Ukraine, it is considerable distance from the flooding.
Turkiye has proposed an independent international commission to investigate the origins of the breach, but in the middle of a war zone that would be difficult.
Melitopol is a medium-sized city, but its importance derives less from its size than from its location — near the coast of the Sea of Azov. Its liberation would cut Russia’s land bridge to Crimea in half and put Ukraine within striking distance of many military targets on the peninsula. Such a move could be the fastest, most direct way to cut off the Kremlin’s only land bridge from Russia to Crimea. The most northern point of the Molochnyi estuary, which flows up from the Sea of Azov, is only 15 km south of the center of Melitopol. Between the estuary and the city center run the main roads and rail networks used by Russia to reinforce its front lines in the south. If Ukraine takes the city, it would leave Russian forces without a land route from Russia for resupply or reinforcements.
In addition to the south, it is likely that Ukraine will take advantage of any situation presenting itself in the east of the country too — especially around the embattled city of Bakhmut. After ten months of fighting, and tens of thousands of dead and wounded, troops from Russia’s Wagner mercenary private army took control of Bakhmut’s city limits. But as soon as they did so, they withdrew from the city and turned over responsibility for defending it to Russia’s Chechen forces. In the past couple of weeks, Ukrainian troops have conducted a series of successful local counterattacks on the outskirts of the city, liberating in days territory that originally took the Russians weeks to capture. So, while Ukraine’s main effort will probably be in the south, keep an eye on the eastern part of the country too.
Paradoxically, one of Ukraine’s greatest challenges during the counteroffensive will not be coming from Russia, but rather from policymakers, politicians, and commentators in the West. Expectations are running high for what many hope Ukraine will achieve. There is a concern that future military assistance to Ukraine could be linked to its success or failure during the coming months. This is especially true as the debate regarding future US support for Ukraine begins to heat up in Congress.
One of Ukraine’s greatest challenges during the counteroffensive will not be coming from Russia, but rather from policymakers, politicians, and commentators in the West.
A reality check is greatly needed. What policymakers need to understand is that the next few months are going to be hard for Ukraine. Intertwined with battlefield success there will also be setbacks. It is almost certain that some of the recently provided Western equipment, such as the Leopard and Challenger tanks, will be damaged, destroyed or even captured by Russia. But these are not signs of defeat, this is merely the nature of warfare. Success or failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive will probably not be known for months. However, if Ukraine’s counteroffensive stalls, or even fails, it’s no excuse to end support. On the contrary, it would be a time to learn from mistakes, keep the weapons flowing and the training going, and prepare Ukraine for the war’s next phase.
This summer, Ukrainians will be fighting not only for their homeland, but also for the notion of national sovereignty and the validity of state borders. Allowing Russia to use military force to take another country’s territory is a dangerous precedent for the 21st century. The last country to attempt such an act was Iraq, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
The international community should agree that using military force to expand national borders is a concept best left in the past.
• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey