Over the past week, much evidence has come to light which puts beyond reasonable doubt the conclusion that Russian forces occupying the Kakhovka Dam were responsible for its destruction on June 6th, between roughly 2.20–2.54am local time.
Firstly, the dam was designed to withstand a nuclear attack – probably meaning a strike on the Dnipro River, creating a tsunami. As such, it is constructed of large and very thick steel-reinforced concrete piers (see above photo). Each of these are independent – capable of standing on their even if a nearby pier is damaged or destroyed – a point demonstrated by the fact that many of these piers are still standing, despite roughly fourteen having been partially destroyed, with more destruction between the Hydro Power Plant buildings (as well as damage to the buildings themselves). We are not simply talking about a number of sluice gates being destroyed.
The extent of the damage to these piers will only become apparent when the water drains, but the amount of explosive that would have been required to destroy them is well beyond anything that could reasonably have been delivered on target by Ukraine. The Antonovsky Bridge (also constructed of steel-reinforced concrete) survived many GMLRS attacks, and each 200lb high explosive (HE) warhead – perhaps with a time-delayed fuse – only created a neat little hole. Russians were at one point claiming that Ukraine had employed its Vilkha MLRS (with a maximum 550lb HE warhead) to attack the dam, but the biggest explosive ordnance possessed by Ukraine is the 2,000lb Mark 84 JDAM, and even with these, each pier would have to be hit multiple times in order to have any serious effect – let alone to destroy everything above the waterline (with no bits of steel and concrete still poking up, note!).
In the best case scenario, with GPS not being jammed, a modern JDAM can achieve a Circular Error Probable (CEP) of five metres. This means that, on average, 50% of bombs will hit within a circle of radius 5m (area: 78.5m2). The piers are roughly 2m wide, so if the very centre of the pier were targeted (rather than nearer the ends), a pier with an area of 10m2 (2×5m) inside the limits of that circle would encompass only ~12.7% of the CEP. Therefore, only ~6.4% of bombs would hit even a portion of the target. Taking a rather optimistic estimate of only three JDAMs needed per pier, it would take, on average, ~660 JDAMs to achieve the desired effect. This number would be reduced because a few of the off-target JDAMs would hit a neighbouring pier instead, but the overall attack would be much more difficult because the piers on the eastern (reservoir) end were underwater – greatly limiting the effect of any bombs on target (meaning, in reality, only the western end of the piers could be attacked).
Accuracy could be greatly improved if the JDAMs were fitted with a laser seeker. However, it’s highly questionable whether it would be feasible to laser-designate these targets for any length of time in such a contested environment very close to the line of control from, say, a drone – even assuming compatible laser designators have been fitted to suitable Ukrainian drones. And even with perfect accuracy, multiple JDAMs would still be required per pier.
For Ukraine, this would have taken a big air operation involving (conservatively) dozens of sorties over a period of days or weeks. On average, Ukraine carries out about 26 combat sorties per day (sometimes a few more), but these are spread across the entire line of contact, and involve all types of aircraft – only some of which can carry JDAMs. Such an operation would be very predictable, and therefore incredibly dangerous and risky. In fact, it would be a field day for Russian air defence, since even with the ~72km glide range of the JDAM-ER (which can only be achieved at altitude), this would put Ukrainian aviation within range of Russian Buk, S-300 and S-400 systems.
However, even if Ukraine could somehow have assembled enough air power to drop the massive amount of ordnance necessary within the known time-frame of about half-an-hour (an impossibility), and precisely co-ordinated everything so each target could be individually laser-designated without confusing the bombs (another impossibility), it would have been blatantly obvious to the RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. and the U.K. which are in constant rotation near Ukraine, and to other nations via satellite reconnaissance, seismographs and the like – besides many observers on the ground, on both sides.
So far we’ve been considering HE warheads, but what about other types of munitions? Even large armour-piercing artillery shells have been found to be ineffective against reinforced concrete – thus requiring a lot of ordnance. Consider the attack on Fort Douaumont in WWI, in which Germany bombarded the fort with huge 420mm armour-piercing shells without result. As a boy, I visited the site and was very surprised by the lack of damage.
This is where so-called ‘bunker buster’ bombs come along. These are gravity bombs that are dropped from altitude, reaching supersonic speeds on descent, with hard penetrator tips and smart fuses that can detonate the bomb when certain conditions are met (e.g., loss of rotational energy, time, etc.). This enables them to explode within a reinforced or buried structure – which gave Saddam Hussein such a nasty surprise during Operation Desert Storm.
But we don’t need to imagine Ukraine has been secretly developing bunker buster munitions, or been given some on the quiet by the U.S. or perfidious Albion. In fact, given bunker busters would have to be dropped from altitude and suicidally close to the target (~10 nautical miles), Ukraine has something much better: Storm Shadow. These are standoff weapons that can be air-launched from inside safe Ukrainian airspace. They’re equipped with BROACH warheads that can defeat hard targets, including those protected by reinforced concrete, with a shaped-charge penetrator followed by a variable-fuse 990lb warhead that detonates inside the target.
Given Storm Shadow’s reputedly first-rate guidance and targetting capabilities – and the apparent inability of Russia to shoot them down – I’m going to be generous and stipulate arguendo that pinpoint accuracy could be achieved with a horizontal head-on attack against the piers from the western (non-reservoir) side. This couldn’t be done from the reservoir side because those piers were under water – meaning the optical/IIR target recognition system wouldn’t work, and GPS guidance wouldn’t be nearly good enough.
This kind of attack would be limited to one Storm Shadow per pier, because absent a detailed bomb damage assessment in daylight, followed by programming in new target recognition parameters, the damage to the piers would almost certainly prevent a second Storm Shadow positively identifying and choosing to attack the target (rather than heading to its ‘safe’ crash site). It would also be very likely that the impact of a single Storm Shadow (and the resulting debris and floodwater pouring through) would so confuse the next Storm Shadow attacking a neighbouring pier that it would fail to recognise the target. So this is all highly implausible.
But even assuming all 14 missiles could achieve a perfect hit against each of the piers, given that the piers are at least 10m in length, it’s also highly questionable whether a single Storm Shadow – which could theoretically explode ~3.7m inside the target – would be able to completely destroy any given pier above the waterline. Then try that 14 times. And if it didn’t work perfectly, there’d be a lot of evidence left to point to Ukraine.
But there are other reasons why this didn’t happen. Even assuming Ukraine has modified enough Su-24s to carry Storm Shadow (they’d need seven, with two missiles per plane), nevertheless launching that number of Su-24s all at once would have been noticed – not just by the U.K. and U.S., but also by Russian ground-based radar as well as AWACS, and by other nations. The missiles themselves might also have been detected – even if Russian air defence isn’t sophisticated enough to shoot them down. Humans on the ground would have heard (and possibly seen) them coming in at perhaps as low as 30m above ground, and at roughly two-minute intervals. Of course, none of this was reported or claimed, either by civilians in the area or by Russia – who claimed it was rocket artillery.
This also doesn’t match the seismograph readings, which show a big explosion at 2.54am local time, with U.S. infra-red satellite imagery seeming to suggest the same. However, the picture is rather unclear, and it seems likely there were actually two explosions, each one taking out roughly half of the 14 piers.
As for the claims made by some incautious commentators, who initially suggested that tubed artillery could have done this: an M107 155mm shell contains 15lbs of HE, and is not very accurate, so it would be like trying to cut down a tree with a blunt nail file. No, the dam could only have been blown in the way we saw using explosives pre-positioned inside the structure. It was therefore fortunate for the Russians that the USSR built their dams with this in mind, providing sites for the placement of explosive charges in the event of a need to flood the downstream area for defensive purposes – as in this instance.
Besides observations and the laws of physics being on Ukraine’s side, we have other evidence pointing to Russia. Zelenskyy claimed back on October 20th that Russia had mined the dam, but he also called for international observers to be sent to the dam (hardly suggesting evil intent). The next day, there was some chatter in the Telegram channel of some members of the 205th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade (believed to have been occupying the dam) discussing the fact that the dam had been mined, and also seeming to suggest they would be ordered to blow the dam in the event of an “uncontrolled advance of the enemy”. In December, there were boasts that the dam was mined and would be blown up on New Year’s Day in order to wash Ukrainian forces away – the idea being uncontroversial, having been proposed at one point on Russian state TV and recommended by military expert Roman Svitan, as well as by the more extreme Vladlen Tatarsky (further details on Russian ‘chatter’ before and after June 6th can be found here).
When the dam was blown, it was at first denied by various Russians. RIA Novosti reported that “everywhere is quiet and peaceful” in the city, with Nova Kakhovka’s gauleiter, at 6am, calling reports of the breach “nonsense”. Not long after he claimed “a series of numerous strikes” had “destroyed the latches” – in line with Russia’s emerging narrative of rocket artillery strikes. But of course it wasn’t merely the sluice gates that were destroyed. Ukraine’s SBU released a signals intercept a few days later, supposedly between Russian soldiers discussing how their side blew the dam, and in which they said the scale of the destruction and flooding was unintentional – a not implausible statement, in my opinion. (Nonetheless, members of the 205th SMRB seem to have been given medals for their actions.)
Indeed, the scale of the flooding does seem to have taken Russia by surprise, with some units having to relocate; although it seems there were orders issued on June 4th to move some military equipment away from the area they thought would be flooded. However, I think it very unlikely that clear warnings were given, since the resultant signals traffic could have made it all the more obvious. (The situation is reminiscent of Stalin’s destruction of the Dnipro Dam in 1941, which killed tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers.)
However, Russia did show some high-level skirt before their war crime. As reported by The Insider, a week before the dam was blown, a decree was issued by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin forbidding the investigation of any accidents at “hydraulic structures”, whether as a result of military action or terrorist attacks, until 2028. This is of course very convenient, since Russia has also been blowing up other dams in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, notably between Tokmak and Berdyansk – directly in the path of Ukraine’s counter-offensive.
Besides having the means and opportunity to destroy the Kakhovka Dam, Russia had fairly obvious motives – to cause chaos, create a humanitarian crisis for Ukraine, and most importantly to prevent Ukrainian forces attempting a river crossing, or holding positions on the islands downstream. This has enabled Russia to move forces from Kherson Oblast to other parts of the theatre in order to try to counter Ukraine’s advances – at least for a few weeks, until the flooded areas dry out again.
As for Ukraine possibly having a motive, given their adherence to the Geneva Conventions and the likely consequences (given the inevitability of being discovered), that seems most unlikely. At least, while they seem to have been willing to destroy one or more sluice gates in order to hamper the retreat of Russian forces from Kherson last year by increasing the flow rate of the water, that would have been legitimate under the laws of war – and of a different order of magnitude to what we’ve seen here. But in fact, it seems they only did minimal damage to the sluice gates.
Leaving aside military considerations, it would be completely mad for Ukraine to deliberately kill its own civilians by blowing the dam – citizens that they are in the process of liberating. Not only that, but (unless a cofferdam can be installed) this will destroy almost all agriculture in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts (not to mention parts of Dnipropetrovsk and as far east as Azov). Without irrigation from the Kakhovka Reservoir, those areas will revert to being an agricultural desert (having a global impact). And then there’s the effect on the flora and fauna of Ukraine.
The loss of agricultural irrigation both in these regions and in Crimea (which was, in any case, without irrigation between 2014–22) is of little significance to Russia – they have almost no regard for the lives of their troops, and none for Ukrainian civilians. This is simply part of their scorched earth policy, and any claim to the contrary is without foundation.
Stop Press: The New York Times has now weighed in, reaching much the same conclusion but with expert analysis of precisely where inside the dam Russia would have placed the explosives.