This article was written by Maria Juczewska (’19), former Associate Director of the Kosciuszko Chair of Polish Studies at IWP.
Early on Tuesday, June 6, a huge hydroelectric power plant dam in Nova Kakhovka, 20 miles east of Kherson, was breached. The dam held a strategically important vast water reservoir on the gigantic Dnipro River. It contained approximately 18 cubic km of water, an amount comparable to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The breach resulted in a catastrophic flood in the Kherson region. This willful massive damage to the natural environment in pursuit of the genocidal goals of Russian policy should fundamentally change the perception of Russia by the Western world.
Together with five other Soviet-era dams, the Kakhovka dam regulated the flow of the Dnipro. The destabilization of the complex dam system on the Dnipro River is sure to have long-lasting ecological and economic repercussions in the south of Ukraine and in the neighboring countries. It may also affect the supply of water 150 miles up the river from Kherson, where it is needed for the cooling systems of the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant. On top of all of this, the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant further limits the short power supply in war-torn Ukraine.
President Zelensky has long feared the destruction of the Kakhovka dam by the Russians in the face of the advancing Ukrainian counter-offensive. Already in October last year, he urged the international community to warn Russia against implementing this doomsday scenario. Alas — it has come true, irrespective of whether it was caused intentionally by one of the warring parties or by accident as a result of military strikes in the area.
One of the largest water reservoirs in the world has been used as a weapon of mass destruction against Ukrainian civilians in an effort to stave off the advance of the Ukrainian forces. The livelihood of thousands of people already damaged by war has now been completely ruined by a massive man-made ecological catastrophe. According to press reports, the inhabitants of the region take this deluge as yet another heinous act of the Russian military. Meanwhile, to the international community, the Kakhovka dam breach proves that short-term tactical gains are more important to the Russian authorities than the future of the entire region.
Since February 2022, we have been able to sense the genocidal intent of the Russian forces in Ukraine. The targeting of cities, missile strikes on housing districts, Bucha massacre with the persecution of civilians, executions, torture chambers, rape as a way of waging war, and massive theft and vandalism… Ruthless methods and utter contempt of the Russians towards the Ukrainians were becoming more and more evident.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive made legal investigations concerning alleged war crimes possible, with their chilling details coming to light. A few days ago, the results of an investigation conducted by one of the Mobile Justice Teams of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group (a multilateral initiative established by the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom) proved that the Russians “employed starvation tactics against civilians in Ukraine by targeting food lines, agricultural harvests and water infrastructure.”
So far, the Russian side has regularly denied using any such tactics, but the Kakhovka dam breach makes the genocidal strategy of the Russian authorities only too obvious. Ukraine is not under attack with clear rules of engagement and observance of international law — it is being terrorized into submission even at the price of the annihilation of the whole Ukrainian nation.
The methods Russia has employed in this war indicate it should be treated as a rogue state rather than a legitimate state. The damage Moscow is willing to inflict upon Ukraine in return for meager territorial gains is beyond any reasonable understanding. The good old Bolshevik model of an all-out civil war as a way to gain and secure power is now being applied in the international context. Predictably, this is turning the conflict in Ukraine into a total Russian-state-funded terrorist onslaught destined to ruthlessly crush Ukrainian civilians. In such conditions, the massive ecological catastrophe on the Dnipro River is only the first calamity to come in the region unless Russia is stopped.
Russia cannot be perceived as an equal party in this conflict, because its authorities have become unhinged. The state employing mass terror against civilians as the modus operandi for its armed forces cannot be considered a trustworthy partner in any peace negotiations. It cannot be trusted to keep any agreements either. The Kakhovka dam breach, its scale, and the enormity of its consequences, point to the vile and unpredictable nature of the Putinist regime. Its authorities, armed forces and enablers, belong where all the terrorists belong, not by the negotiating table.