By John Erath
On June 6, the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River was breached, flooding large areas and worsening an already dire humanitarian situation for the people of Ukraine, and creating an ecological nightmare. At this point, what exactly caused the disaster is unclear; both sides in the conflict blame the other. The effects, however, are extreme and even raise the risk of a greater disaster by depriving the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant of water for cooling.
Despite official denials, it is likely Russian forces were to blame for the dam’s collapse for three reasons. First, flooding a front-line region benefits Russian forces seeking to block a potential Ukrainian advance more than those of Ukraine which now have to contend with inundated terrain as well as Russian resistance. Second, the dam’s rupture coincided with signals that Ukraine’s long-anticipated spring offensive was gathering steam. Finally, Russian forces have a long history of destroying infrastructure to deny enemies its use and in the present conflict have left areas regained by Ukrainian forces devastated.
If, as is almost certain, Russian forces did destroy the dam, the implications are troubling. Even the best-case scenario — that the step was taken to delay a local Ukrainian offensive — amounts to a war crime with hundreds or thousands of civilians dead or homeless. A more serious conclusion would be that Moscow is willing to inflict an ecological disaster on territory it claims in order to gain some sort of military advantage. This is a particularly troubling consideration given the location of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant near the scene of fighting: would Russia trigger a larger Chornobyl to deny Ukraine the use of Europe’s largest nuclear power facility?
Most seriously, the dam’s destruction had the effect of a weapon of mass destruction, killing indiscriminately and causing widespread harm to the environment. If this were indeed a deliberate act by Russian forces, it shows a willingness to use such means to achieve military goals, including, potentially, nuclear weapons. This should be a matter of serious concern globally, including for governments that avoid taking sides in the war. If the use of what amounts to a weapon of mass destruction goes unremarked, the bar to the use of a nuclear weapon is correspondingly lower and the perceived opportunity cost to such use diminished. There are undoubtedly those in the Kremlin already urging consideration of the use of nuclear weapons, and their voices will grow louder should Ukraine be perceived as succeeding on the battlefield. They need to be balanced by a clear, consistent message that nuclear weapons are unacceptable.
There is one positive aspect to this issue: Moscow still denies responsibility and seeks to place blame on its Ukrainian adversaries. This means that those in charge in the Kremlin understand the implications to WMD use and avoid international condemnation. It may be significant that unlike many other developments in the Ukraine War, the dam’s demise was not accompanied by threats of nuclear weapons use, indicating that the calculus in Moscow is still to use its nuclear capabilities as a means of blackmail rather than explosively.