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Is the Kakhovka dam breach a hard blow to the Ukrainian counteroffensive?

The destruction on Tuesday of the Kakhovka dam, near the town of Kherson, has been seen by some as strategic blow to Ukrainian counteroffensive plans that have been in the works for months. But crossing the Dnipro River is not the only way Ukraine can regain territories occupied by Russia. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was direct in his assessment of the motives behind the Kakhovka dam breach on Tuesday, June 6. “Considering all the elements, we have to naturally assume that it was a Russian attack to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive aiming to liberate Ukrainian territory,” the German leader said. 

Ukrainian authorities have made the same claims, which have been denied by Russia. In turn, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu blamed the incident on the Ukrainian military who, he said, breached the dam to “prevent offensives by the Russian army along this part of the frontlines”. 

Impossible to cross the river? 

Whichever side is responsible, the dam breach – which has forced tens of thousands of people to flee flooded areas – will also have an impact on military activity.  

One major theory for the anticipated counteroffensive was that Ukrainian troops would try to cross the Dnipro River where it narrows in the Kherson region before making a fast advance south east towards Crimea. In doing so, Ukraine could cut Russian supply lines running from the peninsula to troops stationed in the Zaporizhzhia and Donbas regions. 

>> Read more: A small step across the Dnipro River, a giant leap for Ukraine’s counteroffensive?

Now though, millions of cubic metres of water have poured from the Kakhovka dam into the adjacent Dnipro River near Kherson, flooding all in its path. “If we wanted to cross the river there, it’s not going to happen,” a Ukrainian officer who wanted to remain anonymous told the Financial Times. 

The Nova Kakhovka dam is located in Russian-held territory along the Dnipro river.
The Nova Kakhovka dam is located in Russian-held territory along the Dnipro river. © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

Crossing the river near Kherson is still technically possible according to Jeff Hawn, a Russian military specialist and consultant for Newlines Institute, a US geopolitical research centre. “It’s difficult but not impossible to cross – but only for small groups of infantry. Forget about the armoured vehicles,” he said. 

Increased water levels are not the only problem. “There will be destroyed infrastructure, and a lot of debris; operating in this kind of environment is extremely difficult and dangerous,” Hawn added. 

Such obstacles negate the purpose of crossing the Dnipro River in the Kherson region, meaning a possible rethink of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and an advantage for Russia who could use of the time gained to “reconfigure its defence”, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Options for a counteroffensive 

However, multiple experts believe that Ukraine never seriously envisaged a counteroffensive based on crossing the Dnipro River.  

“I see no chance that Ukraine had any plans to cross the river in this region. As far as we can see, they are amassing most of their troops in the regions of Vuhledar and Donetsk,” said Sim Tack from Force Analysis, a company specialising in military analysis. 

As such, Tack believes it is “absolutely untrue” that the dam breach has changed Ukraine’s military plans.  

The Kherson region has “always lacked the proper infrastructure and is quite swampy”, added Huseyn Aliyev, Lecturer in Central and East European Studies at University of Glasgow. “Moving anything larger than Humvees would always have been a huge challenge.” 

That does not mean that the dam breach and consequent flooding will have no impact on military activity. “It does decrease the number of points from which the Ukrainians can launch the counteroffensive. [The dam breach] removed one of the points of the list,” Aliyev said. 

Russian defence troops positioned near Kherson can now be reassigned to other areas considered at higher risk of attack – starting with the eastern city of Donetsk.  

“Donetsk seems to be the main option now,” Hawn said, “The Ukrainian military could try to get around the Dnipro there and head down to Mariupol which has always had high symbolic value [in Ukraine].” 

‘Worst effects’ to be felt by Russia 

The dam breach also gives Russia another advantage: it might distract Ukrainian authorities. Instead of leading a counter offensive at the same time as organising emergency aid and managing a humanitarian crisis, Ukraine may be tempted to delay military operations until the situation around Kherson is under control. 

>> Read more: In pictures: Thousands flee flooding after Russian-held Kakhovka dam bursts

However, international pressure might make it difficult to do so. “There is a political dimension at play here,” Hawn said. “Kyiv has to show the logistical support from the West has not been wasted. So, a counteroffensive is the top priority for the moment.” 

One factor is in Ukraine’s favour, Tack said: “I don’t think they will need to divert military personal from the front to help with the flooding – they have enough other people to take care of this kind of situation.” 

Another is that Ukraine is not the only military affected by the floods. “The worst effects will be felt by the Russian army,” said Aliyev. “Their first line of defence was right on the river banks and had to be redeployed as quickly as possible.” An emergency evacuation means they may have left equipment and weaponry behind.  

In the aftermath of the flooding, “quite a lot roads leading to Crimea are flooded, so there is going to be an impact on logistics”, Aliyev added. “Crimea is an important logistics hub for Russian troops in the south of Ukraine.” 

The long-term impact may also put Russia at a disadvantage. In Crimea, “the irrigation system has been partially destroyed due to the flooding, which could have a significant effect if it means that Crimea is out of fresh water because war is a very water-intensive endeavour”, Tack said.  

In short, if Russia is responsible for the breach of the Kakhovka, the gamble may well backfire. 

This article was adapted from the original in French


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