Total war is one in which "everything is a goal and everything can serve as a weapon, the human and the non-human." This description, written by Emmanuel Kreike, professor of history at Princeton University, fits perfectly with what happened this Tuesday in Ukraine with the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam. A civilian infrastructure in the hands of an army, the Russian one, which ends up causing a catastrophe that will not only have serious humanitarian and environmental consequences, but also military. Because if something will cause the flow of the Dnieper River to triple in its final 60 kilometers, in addition to leaving dozens of villages uninhabitable, it is to hinder the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The direct responsibilities for the dam collapse have yet to be clarified, but Russia is the biggest military beneficiary. Serhii Nayev, a lieutenant general of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said Tuesday in a meeting with the press that the General Staff had foreseen the possibility that Russian forces would dynamite the dam, so the plans for the counteroffensive are still underway. But Nayev also admitted that the priority is civilian assistance in the area: "The order now is to take measures to protect the civilian population." The water level is expected to rise up to five meters on Wednesday and begin to recede from Thursday, according to Ukrinform, the state news agency.
A local resident swims next to a house in a flooded area in Kherson on Wednesday. OLEXANDER KORNYAKOV (AFP)
Flooded streets in the city of Kherson, this Wednesday. Libkos (AP)
An elderly woman cries after being evacuated in the city of Kherson on Wednesday. Roman Hrytsyna (AP)
Aerial view of flooded streets in the city of Kherson on Wednesday. Libkos (AP)
A resident walks through the courtyard of his flooded home in the town of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region on Wednesday. ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO (REUTERS)
A flora slipper in a residential area in the town of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region on Wednesday. ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO (REUTERS)
A man uses a paddle board to move down a flooded street in Kherson. Roman Hrytsyna (AP)
The roof of a house on the Dnipro River, after the collapse of the dam. STRINGER (REUTERS)
A man evacuates a cow on Tuesday in Kherson. Global Images Ukraine (Global Images Ukraine via Getty)
Several people watch the Dnipro River as it passes through Kherson on Tuesday. STRINGER (REUTERS)
The House of Culture of Kherson flooded, this Tuesday. TASS (via REUTERS)
The Nova Kakhovka dam collapsed on Tuesday. TASS (via REUTERS)
Aerial view of a flooded Kherson street, after the collapse of the dam. Global Images Ukraine (Global Images Ukraine via Getty)
Two people try to cycle across a flooded street in Kherson on Tuesday. Associated Press/LaPresse
Satellite image of the Nova Kakhovka dam on Tuesday. AP
A woman holds her pets in her flooded home in Kherson.Evgeniy Maloletka (AP)
Images of the damage at the Nova Kakhovka dam, located in southeastern Ukraine, on Tuesday. Reuters
Water runs through the large gap in the Nova Kakhovka dam on Tuesday. AP
Destruction at the Nova Kakhovka dam, in an aerial image taken on Tuesday. AP
A man watches the water run sitting on a bench on the outskirts of Kherson, partially flooded after the dam burst. SERGIY DOLLAR (AFP)
Evacuation at a train station in Kherson province on Tuesday due to the collapse of the dam. Nina Lyashonok (AP)
An area of Kherson province partially flooded after damage to the Nova Kakhovka dam.SERGIY DOLLAR (AFP)
"In the current situation of civil relief, perhaps for weeks military operations will not be able to be carried out in the area," Jérôme Pellistrandi, a retired general in the French army, told EL PAÍS. Pellistrandi is less optimistic than Nayev, calling the dam's destruction a "brutal setback for Ukrainian military interests."
The Dnieper River is, as it passes through the provinces of Dnipropetrovsk and Kherson, the line separating the two armies. Since the beginning of spring, constant incursions by Ukrainian special and naval forces were taking place on the eastern bank, in the territory of the Russian-occupied province of Kherson. In some settlements near the delta and on islands of the river Ukrainian positions had been established. All these outposts had to leave a territory that had been flooded on Tuesday.
Three different special forces units had explained in May to EL PAÍS that they had been in the Russian-occupied zone for months to force the enemy to keep troops in the region and to identify defensive positions to be destroyed when an assault on the river began in the counteroffensive. "At least you could try an attack of confusion towards Crimea, but this will now be very difficult, it will require weeks to rethink this same option," says Pellistrandi.
This French general emphasizes that if before it was necessary to devise an assault in points of the river with a width of between 500 meters and one kilometer, now it will have two to three kilometers. "For the Russians it is a huge tactical advantage, for their artillery it would be very easy to hit the transfer of armor on pontoons." Pellistrandi adds another benefit for the Russian side, and that is that they will be able to allocate troops now stationed in the south to the eastern front, where the Ukrainian Army is attacking with force.
Residents inside a boat during evacuation efforts in the city of Kherson on Wednesday. ALEKSEY FILIPPOV (AFP)
Ukrainian troops are advancing on Bakhmut and the Zaporizhia front in the early stages of the counteroffensive. In Bakhmut, the city of Donetsk devastated and that Russia conquered last May, a Ukrainian infantry officer consulted by this newspaper, in addition to other soldiers interviewed by Ukrainian media, say that what had been lost throughout the spring has been recovered in three days. "A month ago I told my family that we were lost, that they were going to crush us; now we are the ones who are going to crush them," says an infantry battalion commander in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS. On the Zaporizhia front the advances have also been confirmed by the enemy. This axis is the most strategic of the war because it would allow the Ukrainian Armed Forces to advance into the occupied territories east of the Dnieper without having to try a river assault.
The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam will make a landing on the Dnieper even more titanic. Charles Rei, a retired U.S. military officer and prominent commentator on the Russian invasion on social media, now considers an attempted Ukrainian amphibious assault impossible: "Crossing the river through the reservoir and downstream was already extremely difficult; Now it's technically impossible." The dam road, moreover, no longer exists.
Mark Hertling, a retired U.S. lieutenant general, agreed with Rei on Tuesday that the situation hurts both sides, but more so the Ukrainian because, although the Russian defensive lines at the foot of the river have been flooded, the options of establishing a supply chain in an attempt to assault across the river are seriously affected.
Pellistrandi stressed that the most dramatic thing is the ecological catastrophe. Tons of polluting materials in the dam's reservoir will reach the Dnieper plains, in addition to the change in the ecosystem. The effects for the agricultural sector will also be dramatic, according to the Ukrainian Government. Another Frenchman, François Heisbourg, a leading analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said on LCI that the world was facing "an act that can be considered as the first ecocide in a modern war."
Kreike, one of the academic references in the study of the use of nature as a weapon of war, recalls in his book Scorched earth that ecocide is not recognized as an international crime. An ecocide is the destruction of an ecosystem to the detriment of life. Kreike analyzes in his work cases of express destruction of ecosystems for military purposes and for the destruction of social collectives and their territory. This, the Princeton professor defines as "ambienticide". The historical examples he gives in Scorched earth would coincide with what Russia would have done if it were confirmed to have detonated the Nova Kakhovka dam. The first example Kreike uses in the book is from the sixteenth century, the revolts in the Netherlands against Philip II. The local nobility that rose up against the emperor destroyed dikes that flooded extensive territories, cities, causing mass migrations, but which allowed the assaults of their warships.
There are three theses about what may have happened in Nova Kakhovka. Kiev defends tooth and nail that it was Russia that destroyed the dam with detonations. Although the White House has said that it cannot yet draw conclusions in this regard, sources in the US government told NBC that they had information that the responsibility for the catastrophe was Russian. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and senior representatives of the European Union have publicly expressed their conviction that Russian troops are responsible.
The Kremlin's version is that Ukrainian saboteurs blew up the dam. One consequence of this is that the Crimean peninsula, unilaterally annexed by Russia in 2014, will no longer receive water through the canal from the Dnieper River. The third version, which was somehow supported by the Russian authorities in occupied Nova Kakhovka, is that the dam collapsed because it was in poor condition. The infrastructure had suffered multiple explosions in the past year, both from Ukrainian artillery and Russian troops when they withdrew from the West Bank last November. Multiple testimonies from both sides collected in the media and on Telegram channels showed units of the two armies stationed in the river that were surprised by the rising water and fleeing at the last minute.
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