Wednesday, 17 Apr 2024

Dam’s Destruction Reshapes Ukraine, but Not Arc of the War

The Ukrainian soldiers sped along a dirt road, their pickup truck bouncing over ruts, lest they become an easy target for Russian tanks across the Dnipro River.

Nearby, Russian howitzers fired with deafening booms, sending shells streaking over the ruins of the Kakhovka dam, the destruction of which this week unleashed a flood with far-reaching humanitarian and economic consequences. As Kyiv reckons with the devastation, the military must also fight in the flood zone, adjusting and adapting to the changing contours of the land to meet its broader strategic goals.

Fighting continued apace on Thursday in the area of the destroyed dam, across the expanse of floodwaters downriver and over the vanishing reservoir upstream.

“Soldiers will go back to fighting,” said a commander fighting near the dam, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Barakuda, for security reasons and in keeping with Ukrainian military rules. “They are already doing that.”

The two armies resumed artillery bombardments, even as mud flats were emerging Thursday along the shores of what had been a body of water as large as the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and is expected to mostly disappear.

The destruction of the dam is physically reshaping this front in the war, but not necessarily in ways that will impede Ukraine’s long-planned counteroffensive with its newly acquired arsenal of Western weaponry.

The main thrusts are expected in a different theater of the war, on the open plains of the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions to the east. The changes on this part of the front line formed by the Dnipro River benefit and harm both militaries.

Below the dam, soldiers who had faced one another in positions a mile or so apart across the river are now separated by miles of flood water. Upstream, the reservoir, broad enough to be difficult to see across in places, is disappearing into mud flats, potentially drawing the two sides closer together, though the area is a smelly, boggy wasteland now without clear military utility.

“This will have a certain impact as the landscape of the future battlefield has changed significantly and even the front line itself has changed,” Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern military command, told local news outlets. “But this is not a critical change.”

The military had weighed the possibility that Russia would blow up the dam, she added. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has warned of the same.

The flood will have little effect on Ukraine’s counteroffensive, as its military never intended to make fighting along the river a major part of the overall campaign, Mykhailo Samus, director of the Army, Conversion and Disarmament Center, a military research organization in Kyiv, said in a telephone interview.

Ukraine’s threats of a riverine assault were designed to force Russia to deploy troops away from the main area of attack, he said. “Before the flood we needed to cross the Dnipro and after the flood it is the same, just harder,” he said. “Auxiliary and diversionary maneuvers can still be conducted.”

The Institute for the Study of War said Wednesday that the flood had washed away Russian defensive positions on the eastern bank, potentially easing Ukrainian assaults. That report could not be independently verified.

To the south, where the mouth of the Dnipro opens to the Black Sea, a strategic sandbar held by the Russians may now become vulnerable if parts of it flood, Ukrainian officials said.

The Russians took full control of the sandbar, the Kinburn Spit, in June during one of their last notable advances in the south. They have held onto it long after their forces were driven out of the Kherson region west of the Dnipro River, allowing them to stop the flow of shipping in the delta and fire on costal communities in Ukrainian-held territory.

The flood could put those positions in jeopardy if parts of the spit are submerged, turning it into an island and cutting supply routes, said Ms. Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for the southern command. “This will certainly complicate the enemy’s logistics,” she said.

As before the flood, the skirmishes after the dam’s destruction have mostly taken the same shape: artillery attacks at a distance in a fight for control of islands in the Dnipro River delta.

“The river was the front line, so we never had direct contact” with Russian forces, said the commander, Barakuda.

On Wednesday, Russia fired 34 times into Ukrainian-held areas on the west bank, the office of the regional governor said. In one case, Russian forces, using incendiary munitions, targeted the village of Odradokamyanka, just south of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam.

Fighting in the area had been intense. Ukraine held Beryslav, the city on the western bank, and Russia controlled Kakhovka on the eastern bank. Ukrainian soldiers could not approach the dam on the western shore, Barakuda said, because that would put them within the sights of Russian snipers. Parts of Beryslav are also within range of tanks on the Russian-held shore.

Both sides, he said, had electronic jammers operating in the area of the dam to try to prevent attacks by drones. “When we flew in this area, we lost the video link and lost control,” he said.

Driving around the area on Thursday, Ukrainian soldiers in pickups had to repeatedly turn around after encountering flooded streets and search for alternate routes. Plumes of black smoke rose over nearby villages from artillery strikes. Small-arms fire could be heard as soldiers shot at Russian drones overhead.

The route to the river’s edge crosses an open field of yellow, purple and orange wildflowers that is exposed to tanks on the Russian-held bank. The soldiers raced over the field, then stopped at the ruin of an apartment block.

From a hole in an upper wall, the destroyed dam could be viewed a mile or so away, a smudge of debris on the water silhouetted against the sky. Before the explosion, Barakuda said, Russian soldiers could be seen from such Ukrainian positions as they rotated through guard duty on the dam.

The Ukrainians have blamed Russia for the destruction of the dam, which was under Russian control. Blowing it up, Barakuda said, would prevent Ukraine from storming the site and using it to move heavy equipment across the Dnipro River in an assault.

He thought the intensity of fighting in the area through the winter suggested Russian nervousness over such an attack.

He and other soldiers fighting in Beryslav said it was unlikely to be an entirely military maneuver on the part of the Russians. As they saw it, the destruction seemed intended primarily to inflict economic and humanitarian hardship on Ukraine in retaliation for the opening of the counteroffensive in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions.

“It was political,” said a soldier who asked to be identified by his nickname, Barret, who has been fighting in Beryslav since last fall. “It was a demonstrative explosion to show they can destroy infrastructure.”

Marc Santora and Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.

Andrew E. Kramer is the Times bureau chief in Kyiv. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on Russia’s covert projection of power. @AndrewKramerNYT

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