Russia had 'means, motive and opportunity' to destroy Ukraine dam, drone photos suggest

This photo taken from drone footage, provided by the Ukrainian military and dated May 28, 2023, shows a car on the Kakhovka Dam that appears to be laden with explosives. Credit: AP

Russia had the means, motive and opportunity to bring down a Ukrainian dam that collapsed earlier this month while under Russian control, according to drone photos and information obtained by The Associated Press.

Two officials said Russian troops were stationed in a crucial area inside the Kakhovka Dam where the Ukrainians say the explosion that destroyed it was centered, AP reported.

Images taken from above and shared with the AP also appear to show an explosives-laden car atop the structure.

It’s not clear the car ever exploded and any such bomb would not have been powerful enough to bring down the dam, but according to AP, Ukrainian officials say the photos show the Russians’ intent to rig it, and that they had the access and control to do so.

The dam’s destruction led to deadly flooding, endangered crops in the world’s breadbasket, threatened drinking water supplies for thousands and unleashed an environmental catastrophe.

Ukrainian commanders say it also ruined some of their plans to take Russian positions in a counteroffensive that is now in its early stages.

Each side has accused the other of destroying the dam, but the various Russian allegations - that it was hit by a missile or taken down by explosives - fail to account for a blast so strong that it registered on seismic monitors in the region.

Russia has benefited from the timing of the massive flooding that followed the explosion -though areas it occupies also experienced a deluge and the consequences may have been more extensive than expected.

The Russian Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to AP's request for comment.

In the region around the dam, the Dnieper River forms the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces - with Russian ones in control of the dam itself.

This image provided by Maxar Technologies and dated June 16, 2023, shows an object on top of the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine. Credit: AP

Two Ukrainian commanders who had been in the area but at different locations told the AP that the rising waters quickly swamped their positions, as well as Russian ones.

It also destroyed equipment, forcing them to start all over again with their planning and leaving them facing a much larger distance to cover, all in mud.

“It’s a regular practice, to mine (places) before a retreat,” said Illia Zelinskyi, commander of Bugskiy Gard.

“In this context, their actions were to disrupt some of our supply chains as well as complicate a crossing of the Dnieper for us.”

In recent weeks, Ukraine’s armed forces have reported limited gains in the beginnings of a counteroffensive to take back territory seized by the Russians since their invasion in February 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin himself indirectly acknowledged the advantage to his forces last week, although he maintained Russia’s denials of responsibility: “This may sound weird, but nonetheless. Unfortunately, this disrupted their counteroffensive in that area.”

Speaking before a meeting of military correspondents, he explained his use of the word “unfortunately” with bravado: “It would have been better if they had attacked there,” he said. “Better for us, because it would have ended very badly for them, attacking there.”

In the days leading up to the dam's destruction on June 6, Ukrainian military drone videos showed dozens of Russian soldiers encamped on a bank of the Dnieper.

The soldiers appeared relaxed as they walked back and forth to the dam with no cover — suggesting their confidence in their control of the area and especially the dam, which was strategically crucial.

Photos from drone footage obtained by the AP and dated May 28 showed a car parked on the dam, its roof neatly cut open to reveal enormous barrels.

What appears to be a land mine is attached to the lid, and a cable running toward the Russian-held side of the river. It’s not clear any car bomb ever went off.

A satellite image from June 16 shows a fuzzy object on top of the dam that could be the vehicle - but the distance and resolution of how far away it was taken makes it impossible to know for sure.

A Ukrainian special forces communications official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve operational secrecy, told AP the drone photos are evidence the dam was rigged.

He said he believed the purpose of the car was to stop any Ukrainian advance on the dam and to potentially amplify the planned explosion originating in the machine room.

Even if the car exploded, it would not have been sufficient to bring down the dam.

drone footage, provided by the Ukrainian military shows a car on the Kakhovka Dam that appears to be laden with explosives. Credit: AP

Kakhovka is one of a series of Soviet-era dams along the Dnieper River that were built to withstand enormous force, amounting to thousands of pounds of explosives.

They were constructed in the wake of the infamous World War II “Dambusters” raids that destroyed German dams.

Taking out the Möhne dam in 1943, for instance, required five 4.5-ton, specially made “bouncing bombs,” according to the Imperial War Museum archives.

Ukraine is not believed to possess any single missile with that kind of power.

Sidharth Kaushal, a researcher with the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said the Ukrainians are not believed to have any missiles with a payload greater than about 500kg.

Nor does it seem credible that Ukrainian commandos could have sneaked in thousands of pounds of explosives to blow the dam, which was completely controlled inside and out by Russian soldiers for months.

As recently as the day before the structure’s collapse, Russians had set up a firing position inside the dam’s crucial machine room, where Ukrhydroenergo, the agency that runs the dam system, said the explosion originated.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said as early as October 2022 that the dam was mined.

Commander Zelinskyi, who is not related to the Ukrainian president, confirmed that the explosion seemed to come from the area where the machine room is located.

American official familiar, speaking anonymously, and Zelinskyi confirmed that Russian forces had been ensconced there for some time.

Thousands of homes have been wiped out in the floods. Credit: AP

The Institute for the Study of War, an American think tank that has monitored Russian actions in Ukraine since the war began, said that “the balance of evidence, reasoning, and rhetoric suggests that the Russians deliberately damaged the dam”.

The explosion detected at 2.54am, local time, registered on Norwegian seismic monitors at nearly magnitude 2.

By comparison, a catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port that killed scores of people and caused widespread destruction had registered at a 3.3 on the seismic scale and involved at least 500 tons of explosives.

Within a few minutes, water from the Kakhovka reservoir began cascading through the shattered dam, submerging the river’s sand bar islands and flooding much of southern Ukraine, including Russian-controlled territory.

Immediately after the dam’s collapse, some experts noted that the structure was in disrepair, which could have led to the breach.

But the area most obviously in disrepair, a section of roadbed near the edge where Russian forces had detonated explosives to block a Ukrainian offensive last fall, was still intact days after most of the rest of the dam collapsed.