Thousands of Ukrainians faced evacuation from their homes near the Dnipro river after the huge Nova Kakhovka dam was destroyed, in what Kyiv and top European officials described as another potential war crime committed by Russia’s invasion force.
Ukraine said Russia aimed to hamper its planned counteroffensive in the area, but the Kremlin accused Ukraine’s military of blowing up the dam, while atomic energy experts played down fears of an immediate threat to the nearby Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – Europe’s biggest – where the reactors are cooled by water from the Dnipro.
“Russia has been controlling the dam and the entire Kakhovka [hydroelectric power plant] for more than a year. It is physically impossible to blow it up somehow from the outside, by shelling. It was mined by the Russian occupiers. And they blew it up,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said after the disaster in the early hours of Tuesday.
“Russia has detonated a bomb of mass environmental destruction. This is the largest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades ... And that is why Russia’s defeat – a defeat that we’ll ensure anyway – will be the most significant contribution to the security of our region, our Europe and the entire world.”
Mr Zelenskiy said up to 70 settlements would be inundated and that a large area of southeast Ukraine would face problems with water supply. He insisted that the floodwaters would not stop Ukraine’s long-awaited counter-attack, however.
Ukrainian deputy prosecutor general Viktoriya Lytvynova told national television that about 17,000 people would have to be evacuated from the Kyiv-controlled western bank of the Dnipro, and about 25,000 from Russian-held territory on the eastern side of the river.
Ariane Bauer, regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the disaster “leaves tens of thousands in a dire humanitarian situation”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Ukraine’s military had blown up the dam to distract from its own problems on the battlefield and disrupt water supply to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Russia occupied in 2014.
“We can state unequivocally that we are talking about deliberate sabotage by the Ukrainian side,” Mr Peskov said.
Several of Kyiv’s western allies blamed Russia for the disaster, however, and pledged to help Ukraine with equipment to cope with the floodwaters.
“Russia will have to pay for the war crimes committed in Ukraine. The destruction of the dam, an outrageous attack on civilian infrastructure, puts at risk thousands of people in the Kherson region,” tweeted European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz said the Kremlin had now clearly decided “to act with even greater aggression against Ukraine,” and noted that Berlin was constantly monitoring the situation at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, about 140km to the northeast of the blown dam.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Ukraine’s nuclear power operator said the Dnipro reservoir and cooling ponds at the site contained enough water for its cooling needs.
“Our current assessment is that there is no immediate risk to the safety of the plant,” the IAEA said.