Is the Breaking of the Kakhovka Dam a Big Setback for the Ukrainian Offensive?

Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, was very clear about what he thought caused the Kakhovka dam to break on June 6.

The German leader said, “Given all the facts, we have to assume that it was a Russian attack to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive that was trying to free Ukrainian territory.”

The Ukrainian government has made the same claims, which Russia has said are not true. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defense Minister, blamed the incident on the Ukrainian military. He said that the Ukrainian military broke the dam to stop the Russian army from attacking along this part of the front lines.

Impossible to Cross the River?

No matter which side is to blame, the dam break, which has caused tens of thousands of people to leave flooded areas, will also affect military action.

One big idea about the expected counteroffensive was that Ukrainian troops would try to cross the Dnipro River where it narrows in the Kherson area before moving quickly south east toward Crimea. By doing this, Ukraine could cut the lines Russian troops in Zaporizhzhia and Donbas use to get supplies from the peninsula.

Now, however, the Kakhovka dam has released millions of cubic meters of water into the nearby Dnipro River near Kherson, flooding everything in its path. “If we wanted to cross the river there, it’s not going to happen,” a Ukrainian officer who wished to remain unnamed told the Financial Times.

According to Jeff Hawn, a Russian military expert and consultant for Newlines Institute, a US geopolitical research institute, crossing the river close to Kherson is still theoretically feasible. It’s challenging but not impossible to traverse; however, only small infantry parties should attempt it. Ignore the armored vehicles, he said.

There are other issues besides rising water levels. It will be very difficult and risky to operate in this kind of environment since there will be a lot of debris and destroyed infrastructure, said Hawn.

Such impediments defeat the aim of crossing the Dnipro River in the Kherson region, which might force Ukraine to reconsider its counteroffensive and benefit Russia, which could utilize the extra time to “reconfigure its defense,” as the Wall Street Journal put it.

Options for a Counteroffensive

But many experts think that Ukraine never really thought about a counterattack based on crossing the Dnipro River.

“I don’t think there’s any chance that Ukraine wanted to cross the river in this area. As far as we can tell, they are gathering most of their troops in the Vuhledar and Donetsk areas,” said Sim Tack from Force research, a company that specializes in military research.

So, Tack thinks it is “absolutely false” that the dam break has caused Ukraine to change its war plans.

Huseyn Aliyev, a lecturer in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow, said that the Kherson region has “never had the right infrastructure and is very swampy.” “It would have been very hard to move anything bigger than Humvees.”

That doesn’t mean that the dam breaking and floods won’t affect military operations. “It does cut down on the number of places where the Ukrainians can start a counterattack. “One of the things on the list was taken off because of the dam break,” Aliyev said.

Russian defense troops that were stationed near Kherson can now be moved to other places that are more likely to be attacked, starting with the city of Donetsk in the east.

Hawn said, “Right now, Donetsk seems to be the best choice.” He added, “The Ukrainian military could try to get around the Dnipro there and head down to Mariupol, which has always been important as a symbol in Ukraine.”

‘Worst Effects’ to be Felt by Russia

The dam break gives Russia another advantage: it might take the attention off of the Ukrainian government. Ukraine may be tempted to put off military operations until the situation around Kherson is under control so that it doesn’t have to lead a counteroffensive while also putting together emergency aid and dealing with a humanitarian crisis.

But pressure from other countries might make it hard to do so. Hawn said, “There is a political aspect to this.” “Kyiv has to show that the West’s help with logistics hasn’t been lost. So, the most important thing right now is to start a counteroffensive.”

One thing is working in Ukraine’s favor, according to Tack: “I don’t think they’ll have to pull soldiers away from the front to help with the flooding. They have enough people to handle this kind of situation.”

Another thing is that the rains have hurt more than just Ukraine. “The worst effects will be felt by the Russian army,” Aliyev said. “Their first line of defense was right on the banks of the river, and they had to move it as soon as possible.” If they had to leave quickly because of an emergency, they might have left tools and weapons behind.

Aliyev said that because of the flooding, “quite a few roads leading to Crimea are flooded, which will have an effect on logistics.” “Russian troops in the south of Ukraine use Crimea as an important logistics hub.”

Russia may also lose out in the long run because of the effects. “Part of the irrigation system has been destroyed in Crimea because of the flooding,” said Tack. “This could have a big impact if it means that Crimea runs out of fresh water, since war uses a lot of water.”

In short, if Russia is to blame for the breach of the Kakhovka, the risk may not have paid off.

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