Featured Security & defence Briefings

The Dam Busters

skynews dam flood kherson ukraine 6180531
Written by Adrian Hill

Russian and Ukrainian officials are signalling the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Institute for the Study of War ( ISW) in Washington DC offers no assessment of these signals at this time.

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The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on 5 June that Ukrainian forces conducted a “large-scale offensive” across five sectors of the frontline in south-western Donetsk Oblast on 4 June. The Russian MoD also claimed that Russian forces repelled all Ukrainian attacks and assigned Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov to oversee the south-western Donetsk frontline.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar confirmed on 5 June that Ukrainian forces are “transferring to offensive actions” in some unspecified areas of the front. Malyar added that Russian sources are actively spreading disinformation about the Ukrainian counter offensive to deflect attention from Russian losses in the Bakhmut region.

Mobile Phone Wars

These are early days and both sides will ration news or feed false information. The drone attack on Moscow’s posh suburbs is a good example – the culprit could be anyone from pro-Ukraine partisans to the Moscow model aircraft club.

There are thousands of milbloggers – military bloggers – in Russia and they form a major body of opinion that supports Putin’s war. They do not support how it has been fought so far. They are an ocean of information. ISW’s team includes Russian speakers who closely monitor the debate over social media. A flurry of critical milblogger traffic breaks out whenever there is raid across the border.

ISW assess that Putin plays down these flea bites because he wants to avoid exposing the limited options he has to retaliate against Ukraine. However, a week after the drone raid he retaliated with a gigantic act of sabotage. Or did he?

The Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant

Here is the ISW assessment on the evening of 7 June.

The destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam is significantly changing the geography and topography of the Kherson frontline sector in southern Ukraine. Near-infrared (NIR) imagery captured at 0400 am ET on 7 June indicates that the flooding is heavily disrupting Russian prepared defensive positions on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River – especially affecting Russian first-line positions in Hola Prystan and Oleshky. Various sources reported that Oleshky, Hola Prystan, Kozacha Laheri, and Dnipryany are almost entirely flooded with water levels rising to the height of a one-story building in some areas. The Ukrainian headquarters established to remediate the consequences of the dam’s destruction reported that as of 7 June, 29 settlements are partially or fully flooded, 19 of which are located on the Ukrainian-controlled territory and 10 on Russian occupied territories. Russian sources published video footage indicating that water had begun receding in Nova Kakhovka and had dropped by 30cm. Russian sources also claimed that water levels decreased by three to four meters in some areas from a high of 10 meters. Water levels in nearby Mykolaiv City reportedly increased by 70cm as of 7 June. Flooding will likely worsen and further change the geography in Kherson Oblast over the next 72 hours.

The destruction of the KHPP dam is affecting Russian military positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. The flooding has destroyed many Russian first line field fortifications that the Russian military intended to use to defend against Ukrainian attacks. Rapid flooding has likely forced Russian personnel and military equipment in Russian main concentration points in Oleshky and Hola Prystan to withdraw. Russian forces had previously used these positions to shell Kherson City and other settlements on the west (right bank) of Kherson. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces relocated their personnel and military equipment from five to fifteen kilometers from the flood zone, which places Russian forces out of artillery range of some settlements on the west (right bank) of the Dnipro River they had been attacking. The flood also destroyed Russian minefields along the coast, with footage showing mines exploding in the flood water. Kherson Oblast Occupation Head Vladimir Saldo, however, claimed that the destruction of the KHPP is beneficial to the Russian defenses because it will complicate Ukrainian advances across the river. Saldo’s assessment of the situation ignores the loss of Russia’s first line of prepared fortifications. The amount of Russian heavy equipment lost in the first 24 hours of flooding is also unclear.

Ukrainian officials continued to accuse Russian forces of destroying the KHPP dam out of fear that Ukrainian forces would land on the east (left) bank Kherson Oblast. Representative of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Andriy Yusov stated that only Russian forces could have detonated the dam given its structural and engineering features and noted that Russians are “very happy that the islands, on which [Ukrainian forces] were allegedly based, were flooded.” Humenyuk states that Russian forces did not consider the consequences before destroying the dam and were too concerned over a Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Ukrainian General Staff similarly claimed that Russian forces detonated internal structures of the KHPP to damage the dam and thereby prevent the advance of Ukrainian forces. Russian milbloggers had expressed concern about claimed Ukrainian river crossings onto the east bank the day before the destruction of the KHPP dam and on numerous occasions in the past. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that there were active engagements between Ukrainian and Russian forces in the Dachi area on the east bank of the Dnipro River (11km southwest of Kherson City) and on the contested islands near Kherson City as of 5 June. The milblogger claimed that the number of Ukrainian speedboats also increased in the Dnipro Delta as of 5 June. Another milblogger speculated that Ukrainian forces were attempting to establish a bridgehead by seizing the KHPP dam. ISW offers no assessment of whether the Ukrainians were attempting to cross the river or for what purpose they might have sought to do so. The clear concern in the Russian military information space, however, shows that the fear of such a crossing and belief that it was either underway or imminent was present in the minds of Russians closely following the war shortly before the dam was destroyed.

What Does an Old Para Engineer Make of All This?

During the Cold War when GSFG – Group Soviet Forces Germany – might have kicked down the Iron Curtain at any moment, often rail and road bridges in West Germany were built with ready-made demolition chambers. The sappers very quickly could place a charge and wire it up for firing from a safe distance. The Ukrainians may have built in such an option; they saved Kiev from capture with just such a flood. But the Russians would have allowed for this possibility when they grabbed Kherson and thoroughly searched the plant and dam. Perhaps the Ukrainians hid demolition charges so well, none were found. My hunch: unlikely.

Facing the possibility of a large scale Ukrainian counter offensive the Russians would have placed demolition charges to blow the dam and flood the countryside. My hunch: more likely.

Catherine Philp on the spot for The Times reports that the Russians took away boats from people on the east bank of the Dnipro several days before the flood. However, the eventual downside was significant. The lake provided a huge natural barrier and, moreover, the Ukrainians might not have wished to damage the countryside beyond the dam, perhaps even hoped to avoid making that choice. If that’s what happened, the Russian planners made one or two massive miscalculations about where the flood water would spread and how much damage would be done.

Alternatively the Ukrainians might have weighed up the amount of flood damage against the tactical advantages from destroying the Russian defences and damaging their forces below the dam. They might have decided to blow it, and carried out a successful sabotage operation. My hunch: not very likely although tempting.

Against this choice is the damage to this year’s harvest and the commercial advantage that gives Russia. Ukraine is Russia’s commercial rival for the world grain trade. No Ukraine grain and Putin could raise the price as he did with gas and oil. Whoever blew the dam, Russian defences on the east bank of the Dnipro are much weaker and in some places badly damaged. Much equipment has been lost, minefields washed away. Crimea’s water supply is significantly reduced. Was this another moment when the staff dared not say no to Putin?

The Fight Back

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun. ISW believe activity throughout Ukraine is consistent with a variety of indicators that Ukrainian counteroffensive operations are underway across the theatre. The counteroffensive won’t likely unfold as a single grand operation. It will likely consist of many undertakings at numerous locations of varying size and intensity over many weeks.

The initial counteroffensive operations may be the most difficult and slowest, as they involve penetrating prepared defensive positions. Initial setbacks are to be expected. This phase may also see the highest Ukrainian losses. Militaries have long identified the penetration phase of a mechanized offensive as the most dangerous and costly. The success or failure of this phase may not be apparent for some time.

Ukraine has conducted counteroffensive operations with differential outcomes in at least three sectors of the front as part of wider counteroffensive efforts that have been unfolding since Sunday, 4 June. Ukrainian officials signalled that Ukrainian forces have transitioned from defensive to offensive operations in the Bakhmut sector and are making small gains on the flanks of the city. Ukrainian forces have made tactical gains during limited counterattacks in western Donetsk Oblast near the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border since 4 June.  Additionally, Ukrainian forces conducted an attack in western Zaporizhia Oblast on the night of 7 to 8 June but appear not to have made gains as part of this attack.

Ukrainian forces conducted a limited but still significant attack in western Zaporizhia Oblast on the night of 7 to 8 June. Russian forces apparently defended against this attack in a doctrinally sound manner and had reportedly regained their initial positions as of 8 June. Russian sources began reporting late at night on 7 June that elements of Ukrainian brigades that have recently been equipped with Western kit launched an attack southwest of Orikhiv in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Several Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces attacked along the Mala Tokmachka-Polohy line with the aim of breaking through the Russian defensive line between Robotyne and Verbove (both about 15km southeast of Orikhiv).  Available geolocated combat video footage suggests that limited Ukrainian forces crossed the N08 Polohy-Voskresenka highway, but Russian sources indicate that Russian forces likely pushed Ukrainians back in the Orikhiv direction towards the frontline and regained the lost positions.

Ukrainian forces also reportedly lost Western-provided vehicles on 8 June. Losses are inevitable during any military undertaking. Ukrainian forces will suffer losses, including both Western and Soviet equipment, during any offensive operations. Western equipment is not impervious to damage any more than the equipment that the Ukrainians have been using and losing since February 2022. Loss of equipment — including Western equipment — early on in the counteroffensive is not an indicator of its future progress. One should not exaggerate the impact of initial losses of Western or any other equipment, particularly in penetration battles against prepared defensive positions.

The Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) responded to the Ukrainian attack with an uncharacteristic degree of coherency and praised Southern Military District elements for repelling the attack and regaining lost positions.  The Russian MoD also released a statement by 58th Combined Arms Army Commander Major General Ivan Popov, who credited elements of the 58th Combined Arms Army with effectively laying mines to impede Ukrainian advances. The overall Russian response to the attack, both among various milbloggers and the Russian MoD, was notably coherent and relatively consistent with the available visual evidence, which may suggest that Russian forces were not surprised and reacted in a controlled and militarily sound manner. Russian officers claimed that the Ukranian artillery preparation sounded the alarm. ISW has previously assessed how the Russian information space reacts with a high degree of chaos and incoherence when taken by surprise by battlefield developments that do not allow the propaganda machine to develop a clear line. By contrast, the Russian responses to this attack suggest that Russian forces defended in the way that they had prepared to, thus giving Russian sources a political ‘line to coalesce around.

Why It’s Important for Ukraine to Win.

The respected journal Foreign Affairs is the most recent to urge a negotiated solution. I can’t support this well-intentioned but dangerous mistake. Ukraine needs to end the war, yes, but In a position where Russia is no longer a threat to them, us and the Americans. the EU ruled by Germany and France, left to their own devices, would soon come to an arrangement with Putin through allowing phase one of his annexation of Ukraine. A free democratic Ukraine next door shows ordinary Russians how a proper democracy Is possible rather than the present transparent dictatorship.

I’m glad that Rishi and Joe Biden are talking the same language. Ukraine is fighting our battle, NATO’s battle. We’re learning many important lessons. One is the value of having pre-positioned equipment and a well-oiled and practised machine to supply more. Another is the amount of ammunition. And one that I keep banging on about is the small size of our forces and reserves.

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About the author

Adrian Hill