The world woke on Tuesday 6 June to reports of a new ‘Russian atrocity’. A massive dam in Nova Kakhovka, a Russian-controlled area in Southern Ukraine, was breached, unleashing a torrent of water from the Dnipro River, resulting in devastating flooding in the Kherson Oblast.
The news and social media are currently plastered with scenes of Biblical destruction, as entire buildings are swept away. Ukrainian and Russian-controlled Kherson authorities have declared states of emergency and launched evacuation operations, as tens of thousands of civilians on both sides were rendered homeless by the floods.
Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky immediately proclaimed this incident a “war crime” by “Russian terrorists”, tweeting that the: “destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant dam only confirms for the whole world that [Russia] must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land. Not a single meter should be left to them, because they use every meter for terror.”
He later likened the dam breach to “detonat[ing] an environmental bomb of mass destruction”, and stated that “for the sake of their own security, the world should now show that Russia will not get away with such terror.”
Chorus of condemnation from the west
Ukraine’s European allies raised a chorus of condemnation, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowing on Twitter that: “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.”
The hawks in Westminster vowed to “respond”, with UK Foreign Affairs Minister James Cleverly naming the damage to the dam “an abhorrent act… Intentionally attacking exclusively civilian infrastructure is a war crime”.
Demands were raised for an immediate escalation of Western arms shipments, with reactionary Liberal Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt tweeting that “support for Ukraine to free their lands must be increased!” Some, such as US Senator Richard Blumenthal, attributed a “nuclear” dimension to this latest “war crime”, owing to the danger posed to the nearby Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (which is in Russian hands), as it relies on water from the Dnipro to cool its reactors.
This is all despite the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quickly confirming “there was no immediate nuclear safety risk” at the Zaporizhzhia plant. Nevertheless, Kyiv was quick to stoke fears by warning that Russia’s next move might be to “blow up” the power plant itself, according to the Times.
The press dutifully repeated Ukraine’s accusations. ‘Mass evacuations in Ukraine as Russia “blows up dam”’, ran the Daily Mail; ‘Russia’s Dam Busting Near Ukraine Nuclear Plant Is Another Putin War Crime’, roared Bloomberg; ‘“Lunatic” Putin “turning nuke plant into improvised atomic bomb”’, screeched the Sun. Not only the gutter press, but also the ‘serious’ organs of the bourgeois reiterated the party line, with the Financial Times writing: ‘Russia has most to gain from Ukrainian dam breach’.
Despite the media cacophony, there isn’t a shred of hard evidence that Russia was behind the damage to the dam. The Kremlin has denied responsibility and pointed the finger at Ukraine, with spokesperson Dmitry Peskov calling it an act of “sabotage” aimed at causing a water crisis in Crimea.
In this war, where propaganda has played as great a role as tanks and artillery, both sides have unleashed a flood of wild accusations, assumptions and outright lies. We must resist being swept up and focus on the facts. In the response to the Nova Kakhovka dam breach, we observe a similar pattern to the bombing of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, the missile that landed on a Polish grain silo, and many other incidents besides.
It runs as follows: Ukraine immediately pins the blame on Russia, and demands more weapons and support, and even for direct NATO entry to the war. The western media circus roars into gear, uncritically condemning Russia for its newest act of barbarity. The Russians deny involvement and throw the blame back at Ukraine and/or its allies.
Then, as more information comes to light, or when jitters set in over the possibility of a direct clash involving NATO, notes of caution (usually led by US imperialism) emerge. On this occasion, it fell to spokesperson for the United States Department of State, Admiral John Kirby, to disappoint those salivating for World War Three.
“We’ve seen the reports that Russia was responsible for the explosion at the dam,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can to assess those reports, and we are working with the Ukrainians to gather more information, but we cannot say conclusively what happened” [our emphasis].
Overnight, the western press coverage changed. Headlines unanimously accusing Russia transformed into rather more equivocal reports that the dam had been “destroyed”, with “each side blaming the other.”
Even prior to this, there were hints of doubt. The first headline produced by German newspaper Bild, released shortly after news emerged of the dam bursting, read: “Russia destroys major dam in Ukraine”. Within an hour or two, it changed to “Major dam in Ukraine destroyed.”
Who blew the dam?
As we have said a number of times, when it comes to any mystery in politics, the first question we must ask ourselves is: who benefits? In this instance, the matter is far from straightforward.
On the one hand, the dam breach coincides with the early stages of Ukraine’s long-promised counter-offensive. At first blush, it would appear that Russia benefits from turning the already difficult task of fording the Dnipro River in the south into a near impossibility for the Ukrainian army, at least for the time being, preventing an advance on the Zaporizhzhia front.
Moreover, Russia has held the dam for months, giving them ample opportunity to lay explosives within it, in preparation for sabotage and withdrawal. On top of that, the chaotic nature of the Ukrainian forces’ retreat from flooded areas suggests they were caught by surprise.
On the other hand, the Russian defensive lines were also disrupted by the bursting of the dam, and their own troops seemed to be beating a hasty retreat from the rising waters. Given that the Russians currently hold the Zaporizhzhia power plant, the prospect of a meltdown (however remote) is clearly not in their interests. Nor is losing control over the lever of the main power supply in the region, making claims of an imminent plan to bomb the plant farfetched. Much more significantly, the dammed river provides the bulk of freshwater to the Crimean peninsula, which is held by Russia, and whose defence is a major priority for the Kremlin.
We also note that, while it is still early days (and the fog of war obscures the facts on the ground) the Ukrainian counter-offensive is seemingly off to a disappointing start for Kyiv, with initial clashes yielding little to no gains and resulting in heavy losses. The humanitarian disaster caused by the burst dam arguably provides a convenient distraction from Ukraine’s losses in the battlefield (not to mention large quantities of NATO-provided arms and armour going up in smoke) and a means to keep its allies onside.
Moreover, a Washington Post article published in December last year, after the last big Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson and Kharkiv, quotes Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Andriy Kovalchuk, admitting Ukraine previously attacked the dam:
“Kovalchuk considered flooding the river. The Ukrainians, he said, even conducted a test strike with a HIMARS launcher on one of the floodgates at the Nova Kakhovka dam, making three holes in the metal to see if the Dnieper’s water could be raised enough to stymie Russian crossings but not flood nearby villages. The test was a success, Kovalchuk said, but the step remained a last resort. He held off.”
We notice that no hue and cry was raised at the time at the Ukrainians openly admitting to what now some describe as a potential “nuclear war crime”!
It is also possible that the dam simply succumbed to accumulated damage. The BBC cites satellite imagery showing that “its condition deteriorated over a number of days” (likely not helped by the aforementioned Ukrainian HIMAR attacks). The same images show a road across the dam appearing to be damaged from 2 June, likely from previous Ukrainian shelling.
If the dam gave way on its own, it must be said, the timing is rather convenient. However, the fact that both Russian and Ukrainian-held territory has been flooded, and that neither side has produced conclusive proof of the other’s involvement, possibly implies either an unexpected collapse, or even an operation by one side or the other gone awry.
Cynical imperialist games
Whoever was to blame, this is clearly a disaster of immense magnitude that has exacted even more acute misery on countless people caught in a horrific warzone. 94 percent of Kherson agricultural land has been left without irrigation, thousands of homes have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands are without drinking water, and the ecological damage to the surrounding area could take years to repair. This catastrophe is part of the inevitable barbarism arising from a proxy war between predatory imperialist powers.
The warmongers in the West, who are jumping on this catastrophe and others to demand more arms be poured into the battlefield, are condemning ordinary Ukrainians to languish in this nightmare in service of US imperialism’s cynical interests.This is not to mention the danger posed to the working class of the world implicit in allowing this conflict to escalate ever further.
The puppet masters in Washington, for their part, have no desire to see this war turn into a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, no matter what disasters befall the people of the region. They simply want to keep the show going long enough to grind Russia down. This is the reason behind Washington trying to call for calm before the situation gets out of hand. Again, we have seen this story play out a number of times.
In March, we reported on a pair of articles, carried simultaneously in Die Zeit and The New York Times, stating that an investigation by the German authorities had turned up evidence that Ukrainian operatives planted explosives on the Nord Stream pipelines. It is curious that, on the same day as news broke of the Nova Kakhovka dam bursting, a new story emerged in the Washington Post offering more details implicating Ukraine in the sabotage.
This ‘new’ information (unlike the previous release, which implied a rogue operation) suggests that the Ukrainian army was directly involved at the highest levels. “All those involved reported directly to Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the country’s highest-ranking military officer,” said the Post, “who was put in charge so that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, wouldn’t know about the operation.”
Moreover, the Post claims that it had sight of “detailed” documents from the recent Pentagon Leaks, proving the US knew about a proposed Ukrainian operation to sabotage Nord Stream in advance:
“The intelligence report was based on information obtained from an individual in Ukraine. The source’s information could not immediately be corroborated, but the CIA shared the report with Germany and other European countries last June, according to multiple officials familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence operations and diplomatic discussions.”
The Post says it “agreed to withhold the name of the European country as well as some aspects of the suspected plan at the request of government officials, who said exposing the information would threaten sources and operations.”
Why did it choose this moment to spill the beans? As with the NYT and DZ articles, it seems the imperialists are using the ‘serious’ bourgeois press to put pressure on Ukraine not to push its luck. The last few paragraphs of the Post article comment on Ukrainian operations in Russian territory, stating: “U.S. intelligence officials… have long been concerned about aggressive operations by Ukraine that could escalate the war into a direct conflict between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies.” It continues:
“Officials in Washington and Europe have admonished Ukraine for attacks outside its territory that they felt went too far. After a car bomb near Moscow in August killed Daria Dugina, in an attack that appeared intended for her father — a prominent Russian nationalist whose writing had helped to shape a Kremlin narrative about Ukraine — Western officials said they made clear to Zelensky that they held operatives in his government responsible. The attack was seen as provocative and risked a severe Russian response, officials said. Ukraine has persisted with strikes inside Russia, including drone strikes on an airfield and on targets in Moscow that U.S. officials have linked to Kyiv.”
In an explosive claim, the article states an “intelligence document leaked on Discord” reveals that “on the eve of the war’s first anniversary, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency agreed, ‘at Washington’s request,’ to postpone planned strikes on Moscow… That incident illustrated a broader tension that has existed throughout the war: Ukraine, eager to bring the fight to Russia’s home turf, is sometimes restrained by the United States” [our emphasis].
This is cast iron proof of a point we have raised again and again, and which was spelled out by the Pentagon Leaks: in this proxy war, it is not Ukraine, but the USA that calls the shots. As ever, we can take the bourgeois press as the voice of the State Department, speaking loudly and clearly to their “friends” in Kyiv. And what are they saying? Stop poking the bear! Stop trying to drag NATO into the fight, or we’ll wreck your Western support by pinning a terrorist attack against civilian infrastructure on you!
Whether Ukraine was behind the Nord Stream sabotage, or (as alleged by American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh) the US organised the operation, the fact that such a bombshell appeared in a serious American newspaper is close to an admission that the US government at least knew about this attack. Which, we remind readers, was clearly a ‘war crime’, and plunged millions of Europeans into fuel poverty.
When it comes to the Nova-Kakhovka dam, neither Washington nor Kyiv are above terrorist attacks on civilian infrastructure. Indeed, we saw this with the bombing on the Kerch Bridge last year. Obviously, there is no depth of brutality to which US imperialism will not sink, given the litany of murderous crimes to its name, which far outstrips that of any other world power.
But the brutal oligarch regime in Russia is also perfectly capable of carrying out an action like this for military advantage. As we have repeatedly stated, this is a reactionary war through and through, with not an ounce of progressive content in either camp. Communists around the world should regard the assertions of their respective rulers with the deepest of scepticism.
As this war drags on, we in the west increasingly see how our so-called ‘free press’ represents nothing but a propaganda wing of western imperialism. It is fully complicit in the bloodthirsty games of the world powers, tasked with shaping public opinion to suit their needs, and should never be taken at face value.
Far from the champions of the Ukrainian people, the imperialists and their prostitute press are the worst enemies of ordinary working people in Ukraine, and throughout the world. It is the duty of the Marxists to expose their lies and stinking double standards, and call for joint struggle by the working-class everywhere against the main enemy: the one at home.