The Ukraine dam disaster demands accountability

Frida Ghitis

In the dead of night on Tuesday, shortly before 3 am, residents near Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant heard a loud blast followed by the roaring sounds of rushing water. The dam, which held back a section of the Dnipro River, had collapsed and the broken reservoir started disgorging torrents of water.
Millions of gallons of water cascaded downstream from the breach, inundating residential settlements and agricultural areas, threatening lives and livelihoods. Ukraine launched a desperate effort to evacuate those at risk of perishing as experts tried to assess the long and short term dangers from the flooding. Meanwhile, Kyiv and Moscow engaged in an intense round of finger pointing over responsibility for the unfolding environmental disaster.
Those responsible for the calamity should be held accountable. The dam’s collapse is not just devastating for those who reside in the immediate environs – it is a nationwide disaster for Ukraine that could reverberate across the globe. The huge reservoir the dam contained – some 150 miles long and about 100 feet tall – provided drinking water for millions of Ukrainians and irrigated millions of acres of agricultural land in a country that supplies 10% of the world’s wheat. Grain prices for the entire world rose on news of the calamity. The dam’s thick walls restrained the waters of the Dnipro River which – perhaps not coincidentally – marks a dividing line between Russian-occupied and Ukraine-held territories.
The idea of blowing up a dam as a military stratagem is not new. This week’s calamity felt like a reprise of the 1941 decision by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to destroy a hydroelectric dam that spanned a different segment of the Dnipro River. Stalin’s goal in the midst of World War II was to prevent Nazi armies from sweeping across Ukraine, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. The destruction of a key section of the dam did succeed in temporarily blocking the German invaders. But it also inundated Ukrainian villages, killing thousands of civilians. Both Ukrainian and Russians say the dam collapsed in an explosion – but carried out by whom? Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it an act of “sabotage” by Kyiv. Ukraine is adamant, however, that Moscow is the culprit: As long ago as last October, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russia was mining the dam and said the world should warn the Kremlin that blowing it up would be tantamount to “the use of weapons of mass destruction.” On Tuesday, Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak said he “does not understand” how anyone could doubt Moscow’s culpability. Russia, after all, had control of the facility and had the most to gain from its destruction. The disaster creates tactical complications for Ukraine’s counteroffensive and forces it to divert scarce resources.
The European Union seems to have come to a similar conclusion. It condemned the incident as “a new dimension of Russian atrocities.” EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen wrote, “Russia will have to pay for the war crimes committed in Ukraine.” Blowing up a dam is a war crime, as it violates the Geneva Conventions and its protocols. There is another possibility – that the dam collapsed from structural failure. Satellite images showed damage to the bridge atop the dam last week. But even if the dam fell on its own, Russia bears responsibility, because it controlled it and was responsible for maintaining it. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, the disaster is “another devastating consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” The full scope of the disaster will only become known after the waters recede. South of the facility, we will see villages destroyed and agricultural lands potentially ruined by sediment and flood. For those living in the 80 or so settlements downstream and in the path of the rising waters, the disaster adds to 15 months of unremitting suffering and growing anger because of the war. Images that circulated online and on television showed distraught, elderly and infirm people, some clutching their pets, staggering to safety while thousands fled submerged towns with whatever belongings they could salvage. Worryingly, water from the reservoir is used to cool the reactors from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, also occupied by Russia’s military. Five of the six reactors had already been shut down. For now, the plant’s cooling pond has enough water, but experts are watching closely. The dam collapsed as Ukraine stepped up operations in anticipation of a much-awaited counter-offensive. The dam itself, under Russian control since March 2022, acted as one of the bridges across the Dnipro, which Ukrainian forces might have planned to cross in their push to regain territory.
What should happen now? First, since Russia insists it is not at fault, it should agree to a technical investigation to determine the cause. Russia has veto power at the UN Security Council, but the United Nations General Assembly, even the frequently hapless UN Human Rights Council, can go into special session. They should condemn the incident and demand a probe. If Russia blocks it, it will amount to an admission of guilt. For concrete consequences, we should look to NATO. In July, the alliance will hold a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. The location is symbolically powerful. Lithuania is one of the Baltic nations that Moscow invaded and annexed during World War II and, like other Russian neighbors, it has been warning about the Kremlin’s expansionist intentions. At the summit, Western leaders should formally commit to maintaining their support for Ukraine even if the counter-offensive falters. Some have suggested that if Kyiv fails to make significant gains, Western support would weaken. We have seen the magnitude of the damage already caused by Russia’s aggression. It has abducted Ukrainian children; bombed Ukrainian infrastructure; tried to use winter’s cold and darkness as a weapon of war. The broken walls of the Nova Kakhovka dam, and its destructive rushing waters, should strengthen the resolve of Ukraine’s backers.