Where does the destruction of the Kakhovka dam leave Putin’s war?

The destruction of the Kakhova dam unleashed a torrent of water on southern Ukraine on Tuesday, threatening to sweep away villages and halt Ukrainian hopes of crossing the Dnieper.

As authorities scramble to evacuate thousands of people, experts assess the environmental toll and both sides blame each other, a key question looms over the flooded fields of Kherson: who, if anyone, could benefit from this surprising turn of the war?

NBC News examines what the disaster could mean for the conflict.

What could there be for the Kremlin?

Ukraine immediately pointed the finger at Russia, whose forces controlled the dam and parts of the surrounding region.

The incident came less than 48 hours after Moscow claimed Kiev had launched its long-awaited counter-offensive, and Ukrainian officials and Western military analysts said the timing may not have been coincidental.

The Kherson region, annexed and partially occupied by Russia, has long been seen as a likely target for Kyiv, nearly seven months after liberating the region’s capital in an offensive blitz.

This pushed Russian troops into an awkward retreat across the Dnieper River which now intersects the front lines, while Moscow retained control of the Soviet-era dam. Ukraine previously warned that Russia may be planning to blow up the dam, while Moscow said the same about kyiv.

“Russia stands to gain the most,” said Christopher Tuck, a conflict and security expert at King’s College London. This “would only have made military sense for Ukraine as long as Russia was on the Western side, which is no longer the case now; and it never made political sense,” he added.

The increased intensity of Ukrainian attacks on the front lines this week may suggest that the counter-offensive has begun, but the extent of the battlefield will now be reduced. This, analysts say, benefits Russia.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the damaged Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Ukraine on Tuesday, June 6, blamed Russian forces for blowing up the large dam and the hydroelectric plant in a part of southern Ukraine they control, threatening massive flooding that could displace hundreds of thousands of people, and ordered residents downstream to evacuate.  Russian news agency Tass quoted an unspecified Russian government official as saying the dam had

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the damaged Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Ukraine on Tuesday, June 6, blamed Russian forces for blowing up the large dam and the hydroelectric plant in a part of southern Ukraine they control, threatening massive flooding that could displace hundreds of thousands of people, and ordered residents downstream to evacuate. Russian news agency Tass quoted an unspecified Russian government official as saying the dam had “collapsed” due to damage. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

Blowing up the dam would make any Ukrainian attempt to cross the river with a significant force impossible — an already difficult task — said Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst and head of intelligence at the consulting firm Le Beck.

Crucially, it reduces the area of ​​the frontline the Kremlin army has to defend, he added, after a winter surge that left them stretched and exhausted.

“By blowing the barrage, Russia would be removing a key offensive vector from the equation,” Horowitz said.

Ukrainian officials agreed, with presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak accusing Russia of blowing up the dam with an “obvious” purpose: “to create obstacles to the offensive actions of the armed forces”.

The US government has intelligence that points to Russia behind the attack, according to two US officials and a Western official.

Could it be Ukraine?

Russia said Ukraine had destroyed the dam to distract from its “suffocating” counter-offensive, while Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said he could let Kyiv move its units from the front line of Kherson where they were most needed.

Some pro-war Russian military bloggers have suggested that destroying the dam would benefit Ukraine because Russian-controlled areas would suffer the most, disrupting its anti-mine barriers and frontline positions.

Analysts agreed that the entrenched defenses Russia had been building for months would be hit, but saw no clear pattern for Ukraine.

Evacuations continue from flooded areas of Kherson after the dam burst (Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Evacuations continue from flooded areas of Kherson after the dam burst (Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Both sides stand to lose something, Horowitz said.

“It eliminates some of the defenses that the Russian army has built along the coast and will certainly impact many settlements in Russian-controlled areas,” he said, adding that for Kyiv, “it This is an ecological disaster, coupled with the prospect of losing one of the main sources of energy in southern Ukraine.

Indeed, some analysts have questioned whether the act was deliberate or rather the result of reckless negligence by the Russian forces controlling it.

In the months leading up to the breach, experts raised concerns about damage to the dam and warned that the reservoir behind it was overfilled due to heavy rains and melting snow.

“In this case, it’s a disaster for everyone,” said Frank Ledwidge, lecturer in military strategy at the University of Portsmouth in Britain and a former military intelligence officer.

And now for the war?

It’s too early to tell how the disaster might shape Ukraine’s counteroffensive, especially since kyiv has kept its plans secret.

But the fallout from the dam collapse could both hamper planned ground attacks and force the Ukrainian government to focus its attention and resources on recovery efforts.

“You imagine they knew it was a possibility,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Wet and muddy conditions on the ground may have already delayed Ukraine’s counter-offensive, making it difficult for heavy equipment to traverse a lot of ground.

“Now, just at the start, it could leave huge areas flooded for a long time,” O’Brien said. “If that was their intention, it certainly makes things much more difficult.”

Residents of southern Ukraine braced for a second day of flooding on Wednesday as authorities warned that a breach in the Dnieper dam would continue to release backlogged water from a giant reservoir.  (Roman Hrytsyna/AP)

Residents of southern Ukraine braced for a second day of flooding on Wednesday as authorities warned that a breach in the Dnieper dam would continue to release backlogged water from a giant reservoir. (Roman Hrytsyna/AP)

Evacuations continue in flooded areas of Kherson after the dam burst (Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Evacuations continue in flooded areas of Kherson after the dam burst (Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

But it seems highly unlikely that the breach of the dam will entirely prevent the counteroffensive from taking place, according to Tuck.

“Riverside assaults are problematic, so it would seem more likely that the main Ukrainian attacks would be along land axes rather than across the Dnieper,” Tuck said. “But the floods could disrupt future secondary Ukrainian attacks from that direction.”

It is also a sudden and significant distraction for the Ukrainian government, he said.

The sheer shock of the dam’s collapse and the scale of the fallout could point to another potential Russian motive: a bold warning to Ukraine that it might be willing to introduce other – previously unthinkable – twists to try to change the course of the war.

Ukrainian and international officials have been warning for months about the vulnerability of Russia’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.

Russia controls the southern areas of the Zaporizhzhia region and any Ukrainian advance in this area would put this factory in the center of the action.

“If Russia were to blow up the dam, the question is, would they do the same with the nuclear power plant that they control and which is also in a key area of ​​the front line?” Horowitz added.

This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com

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