What could the Ukraine dam disaster mean for Russia's war?

Blowing up the dam would make any Ukrainian attempt to cross the river with a significant force — an already difficult task — impossible, said Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst, and head of intelligence at Le Beck consultancy.

Crucially it reduces the area of the front line that the Kremlin’s military needs to defend, he added, after a winter push that left them stretched and depleted.

“By blowing up the dam, Russia would be removing one key offensive vector from the equation,” Horowitz said.

Ukrainian officials agreed, with presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak accusing Russia of blowing up the dam with an “obvious” goal: “to create obstacles for the offensive actions of the armed forces.”

The U.S. government has intelligence that is leaning toward Russia being behind the attack, according to two U.S. officials and one Western official.

Could it have been Ukraine?

Russia said Ukraine had destroyed the dam to distract attention from its “choking” counteroffensive, while Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said it may let Kyiv move its units from the Kherson front line to where they were more needed.

Some Russian pro-war military bloggers suggested that destroying the dam would benefit Ukraine because Russian-controlled areas would suffer the most, disrupting its mine barriers and front-line positions.

Analysts did agree that the entrenched defenses Russia had built up for months would be hit, but didn’t see a clear motive for Ukraine.

Search and rescue teams worked in boats to evacuate residents from a flooded part of Kherson on Wednesday.Muhammed Enes Yildirim / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Both sides stand to lose something, Horowitz said.

“This does wash away some of the defenses the Russian army built along the coast, and will certainly have an impact on many settlements in areas Russia controls,” he said, adding that for Kyiv, “this is an ecological disaster, coupled with the prospect of losing one of the major sources of energy in southern Ukraine.”

Indeed some analysts wondered if the act was deliberate at all or rather a result of reckless negligence by the Russian forces controlling it.

In the months prior to the breach, experts raised concerns about damage to the dam and warned that the reservoir behind it was too full from heavy rains and snow melt.

“In which case, it’s a disaster for everybody,” said Frank Ledwidge, a lecturer in military strategy at the University of Portsmouth in Britain and a former military intelligence officer.

What now for the war?

It’s too early to tell how the disaster could shape Ukraine’s counteroffensive, especially since Kyiv has kept its plans secret. 

But the fallout from the dam collapse could both hinder planned ground attacks and force Ukraine’s government to focus attention and resources on recovery efforts.

“One imagines they knew it was a possibility,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Wet and muddy conditions on the ground may have already delayed Ukraine’s counteroffensive, making it difficult for heavy equipment to traverse a lot of ground.

“Now just as it was beginning, this could leave huge areas swamped for a long time,” O’Brien said. “If that was their intention, it definitely makes it far more difficult.”