Why Was the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant
Blown Up?
June 12, 2023
  • Nikolay Mitrokhin

    Research Center for East-European Studies at the Bremen University (Germany). 
Nikolay Mitrokhin believes that the Kakhovka Dam was blown up by Russian forces to thwart the Ukrainian counteroffensive plan, yet the left bank of the Dnieper will likely still see new Ukrainian attacks.
The blowing-up of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant is the largest man-made disaster in Europe since at least 1986. As of this writing, four days after the incident, the debate continues about who could have done it and whether the dam could have collapsed itself. Reasons for the latter could have been extremely high water levels and damage done during the war, including Ukrainian strikes on the bridge at the top of the dam, as well as the implosion of several minor sections in November 2022 by the Russian side to prevent the Ukrainian military from breaking through the body of the dam.
Blown up Kakhovka HPP June 6, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
Western governments and international organizations are not yet prepared to endorse any version of the incident, though first Romanian and then Norwegian scientists of the Norwegian Research Foundation (NORSAR), having looked at seismographic data, suggest a series of explosions (at first less powerful, then much more powerful) in the area of the hydroelectric power plant (HPP) between 2:40 and 3:00 AM on June 6. At the same time, according to residents of Nova Kakhovka (fixed during a nighttime chat), first a series of explosions were heard, followed by a rush of water.

The Russian and Ukrainian military, constantly monitoring the dam from different banks of the Dnieper, have not provided their videos. However, it is quite clear – especially to Ukrainian specialists – that a series of shells hitting the upper edge of a dam that was designed to withstand a nuclear explosion, with millions of tons of concrete and reinforcement, could not cause such destruction.

Note that in the summer of 2022 it took the Ukrainian army at least several dozen hits with HIMARS missiles to render the Antonivskyi Bridge across the Dnieper in Kherson Region (the main road bridge connecting the right and left banks in this area) impassable. And only after this series of blows in one of the sections of the bridge did several holes form in the roadbed, which made movement impossible. During the ensuing Russian retreat, the Russian military simply covered these holes with iron sheets and brought equipment across the bridge. After that, they completely disabled the bridge, though to do that they had to expertly blow up several sections of the bridge around the support structures.
The level of destruction of the Kakhovka HPP clearly indicates that the explosion was carried out from the inside. That is how, retreating before the Nazi onslaught in 1941, Soviet troops blew up the Dnipro HPP.
Russian troops had control over the main body of the Kakhovka Dam, and it seems obvious that only they could have brought in and planted such a significant amount of explosives that was enough to bring down at least a third of the dam. Below I explain why the Russian military needed to do this.

Start of the counteroffensive and Russian war bloggers’ alarming reports

The long-awaited counteroffensive of the Ukrainian army began on June 1, with battles breaking out in the south of Russia’s Belgorod Region in the area of Shebekino and Novaya Tavolzhanka. At the time of this writing (June 10), Russian attempts to regain control of Novaya Tavolzhanka had failed, while two division-level commanders and at least several dozen soldiers had been killed. Conscripts were thrown in to fill the void in the area – despite repeated assurances that conscripts would not be used in the conflict. Particularly active fighting took place on June 5, when the Russian army lost about two companies, which had been surrounded. The Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) fighting there (see Nikolay Mitrokhin’s previous article in Russia.Post) as part of the Ukrainian army has already brought forward 12 captured Russians.

However, on June 4, the Ukrainian army launched an offensive across a wide front. In Zaporizhzhia Region, Ukrainian troops began to break through the defenses of the Russian army from the area west of Vuhledar to Orikhiv, with the epicenter located south of Velyka Novosilka and Orikhiv. In Bakhmut, the Ukrainian army entered the village of Berkhivka, northwest of Bakhmut, cutting off the grouping of the Russian army to the west of the city, and also entered Bakhmut from the southwest. In addition, it attacked in the central section of the front in the Donetsk region (Horlivka, Maryinka). Thus,
“It seems, in the Ukrainian operation plan Russian reserves were supposed to cover Belgorod and fight for Shebekino in the north, worry about Bakhmut in the center, and be drawn to Velyka Novosilka and Orikhiv in the south.
Update on the situation in Ukraine as of June 12, 2023 (UK Defence Intelligence). Source: Twitter
By the evening of June 5, the situation for the Russian army had become difficult. At that time, the maps of the Rybar Telegram channel, which is used by the GRU to quickly leak information necessary for coordinating the Russian military and their support groups, show clear control by the Ukrainian army over the islands in the Dnieper channel up to the outskirts of Oleshky, a large city on the left bank opposite Kherson, which has direct access to the highway to Crimea. Ukrainian landings on the islands began at latest in April, though their extent was previously unclear. The islands are quite wide, densely overgrown with vegetation and thoroughly covered with one-story buildings. There are numerous dachas, sheds for boats, shops – meaning that the army has somewhere to hide.

On the same evening of June 5, Rybar quoted Two Majors, a Telegram channel associated with it, which expressed concern about a possible operation of the Ukrainian army in the area of the Kakhovka HPP:

“A stronger blow... should be expected to the east – from Beryslav at the reservoir dam. It was for this that the enemy trained on the Inhulets River transferring equipment, building pontoon crossings and concentrated forces south of the settlement of Davydiv Brid... The capture of the dam or the construction of a crossing on a straight section of the Dnieper... will allow [the Ukrainian army] to create a bridgehead on our coast. Much more menacing than the one that could be organized by [Ukrainian] personnel in light boats near Kherson. In any case, the plans of the enemy are known, and the command and soldiers on the ground have been preparing for an enemy operation.”

The dam referred to in the above post remained the only dry route for Ukraine to transfer its troops across the Dnieper for a counteroffensive in the southern part of the front, which stretches 300 kilometers along the river. If they had managed to capture it, they could have quickly deployed pontoons located, according to previously published Russian data, in the Kryvyi Rih area, or used Western bridge-building equipment to restore connection along the upper edge of the dam.

Control over the dam would ensure control over the spillway, thus allowing for pontoon crossings, if they could be brought to the islands and simply across the Dnieper in narrow places.

In the following hour and a half, Two Majors wrote or reposted three more reports about Ukrainian landings in the Kherson region. Then both channels took a break for the night, and in the morning they informed their readers about the disaster.

How does this fit in with the plans of the Russian military?

We do not know whether the Russian military had planned to do what happened or had intended only to wash away the landing forces of the Ukrainian army from the islands and flood the coast. It is possible that the full-scale disaster was not planned but was partly a case of the perpetrators’ doing too much and overcalculating the volume of explosives, and partly the result of the reaction of the “body of the dam “ to the explosion, which was not possible to calculate.

For the Russian military along the downstream coastline, what happened was clearly unexpected. They had to retreat knee-deep and even waist-deep in water. According to some reports, some soldiers died because they did not receive orders from lower-level commanders to evacuate from forward positions. On the morning of June 10, the Ukrainian media published a photo with the bodies of two drowned Russian soldiers washed ashore in Mykolaiv Region.

“From the point of view of planning military operations, blowing up the dam looked logical, and the Ukrainian plan for a pontoon crossing across the Dnieper to the islands for a subsequent breakthrough is now all but forgotten.”
The landing forces of the Ukrainian army, of course, can now go by boat much deeper into the Russian rear over the flooded territories than before, including over minefields. On the other hand, what can a landing force do in the face of regular troops with heavy equipment? Only HIMARS missiles and long-range artillery can cover it in the steppe from the right bank, but this is so-so support versus tanks and heavy mortars.

A Ukrainian army without armored vehicles loses its key advantage – mobility – in a deep breakthrough. For the transfer of equipment and field artillery, pontoon crossings are needed, and they will not be enough for the entire flooded left and partially right bank (i.e., 10-12 kilometers of spill). And even when the water subsides (in about 10-12 days), on the left bank for another month and a half there will be not land, but a swamp.

Even a reduction in the size of the Kakhovka Reservoir does not promise the Ukrainian army advantages in terms of a possible attack across it toward the southwestern flank (say, to Enerhodar and lower). The bottom of the reservoir, if exposed, will be a thick layer of silt across which no tanks can pass for several years.

Blowing up the dam provided the Russian army with a surer position on the left (southern) flank, meaning they can now concentrate on repelling the Ukrainian offensive in the Zaporizhzhia direction. Thus far, in a week of fighting in at least six sections of the front, the Ukrainian army at best has captured the fields that served as a separation zone between the armies and wedged into the first (of four) enemy defensive line. In the process, a lot of armored vehicles were lost, and presumably soldiers as well.

Thus, the Ukrainian counteroffensive plan has been thwarted. The only thing that the Ukrainian army can do in this situation is to try to find a section in the Russian defense on the Zaporizhzhia or Donetsk front that can be “pushed through” to propel a full-scale offensive and then repel Russian armored reserves thrown in to plug it. Both of these tasks look very difficult.

Still, the scale of the flood is such that the Ukrainian army can still use the break of the dam at the Kakhovka HPP to attack the left bank. And the Russian army understands this: this is precisely why
“The army is restricting private traffic on motor boats in the flooded areas as much as possible and placing machine guns on second floors and roofs.
The city of Kherson flooded due to the destroyed Kakhovka HPP June 7, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
According to the latest data, evacuation from the disaster area deeper into the territory controlled by Moscow is possible only with Russian passports (no more than 15-20% of the population has them) so as to avoid the penetration of Ukrainian sabotage groups.

Oleshky and Hola Prystan, large and almost completely flooded settlements in which there are multi-story buildings, could become footholds for the Ukrainian army on the left bank if a contingent of 300 to 1,000 people with a supply of anti-tank weapons and drones could be transferred there on small river vessels, with their flanks covered in the island zone and near the coast with infantry and artillery.

When the water starts to fall and the current weakens, it will be possible to deliver some heavy weapons there on pontoons. This would be a complex and bloody operation, which, if successful, could create serious problems for the Russian command. Especially if the offensive on the Zaporizhzhia front proves effective. In addition, now is a favorable moment for Ukrainian troops to occupy the Kinburn Peninsula at the very bottom of the left bank of the Dnieper. It has been almost cut off by flooding from the mainland and thus the main Russian grouping.
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