Early Tuesday morning, a significant portion of the Nova Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power station along the Dnieper River in Ukraine was destroyed. The reservoir it previously restrained held roughly 18 million cubic meters of water, most of which has now spilled over the remaining walls and flooded much of the area between what’s left of the dam and the city of Kherson, less than fifty miles away. As many as one hundred towns and villages downstream from the dam have either already flooded or are in danger of that fate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it “the largest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres echoed those thoughts, describing the dam’s breach as a “monumental humanitarian, economic and ecological catastrophe,” adding that it represented “another devastating consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
But while we cannot know the full extent of that devastation until the waters recede over the next five to seven days, the damage wrought by the flood could be felt for years to come.
Far-reaching consequences from the destroyed Nova Kakhovka dam
One of the greatest fears, initially, was that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant upriver from the dam could experience a meltdown since it relied heavily upon the now-depleted reservoir to cool its reactors. It would appear that, at least for a few months, they have sufficient supplies of water in reserve to operate safely, but officials have noted that bringing in water from the outside could be necessary eventually.
The more pressing fear is that the lands along the river will be unusable for quite some time. The reservoir was responsible for irrigating much of Ukraine’s most fertile farmland, and any land that survived the flood could be difficult to rely upon without the reservoir’s reserves.
Considering that, prior to the war, Ukraine provided roughly 16 percent of the world’s corn exports and supplied 40 percent of the grain used by the World Food Program to help feed some of the most impoverished and malnourished people on the planet, the loss of that arable land will be felt around the globe. The rise in wheat prices—up 3 percent in the hours following the dam’s collapse—offers another reminder that we will all feel that impact to some extent.
However, the reservoir was also the primary source of water for Crimea, the region that has been under Russian occupation since 2014.
Given that most experts have blamed Russia for the attack—though the cause is still uncertain as of this writing—many have wondered why the Kremlin would cripple the portion of Ukraine that is of greatest concern to most Russian citizens.
However, Russia is prepared to ensure that the region still gets its water. The difference is that now it will be forced to rely largely on water pumped across the Kerch bridge from the Russian mainland. Consequently, even if Ukraine manages to retake the area, it will be difficult to sever ties with Russia completely.
Did Russia destroy the Nova Kakhovka dam?
Ultimately, most have laid the blame for the dam’s collapse at the feet of the Kremlin.
Last year, Zelensky claimed that the Russians had placed mines on the dam and warned that “there may come a moment when an explosion occurs.” Considering that the invading armies have been in control of the dam and its power plant from the opening days of the war, they would have had ample opportunity to prepare it for sabotage in the event that such an extreme step was deemed helpful to their cause.
However, Ukraine had also carried out test strikes on the dam last year to see if it would be possible to raise the river’s waters enough “to stymie Russian crossings but not flood nearby villages.” The tactic was held as a “last resort,” though, and the circumstances of the war have changed enough in the time since that it would make little strategic sense for Ukraine to have attacked the dam. The rising waters and muddy landscape the floods will leave behind are likely to prove to be a great impediment to their attempts at a counteroffensive.
Russia is most likely to blame for the dam’s collapse, either through outright attack or negligence over the last year. The destruction of the dam was not the only attack on civilian infrastructure to make headlines yesterday, though.
The Ukranian plot to sabotage the Nord Stream pipeline
News also broke on Tuesday that the CIA learned last June of a Ukrainian plan to sabotage the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline that linked Russia to Germany. The Kremlin was initially held responsible by most Western powers, including the United States, but that belief shifted as the investigation pointed in other directions. And while Ukraine has denied any responsibility for the attack last September, the details in the leaked report align so closely with how the attack took place that it has become increasingly difficult to believe anyone else could have been behind it.
The intelligence report claims that Ukraine’s highest-ranking military officer, General Valery Zaluzhny, was given command of the attack so that President Zelensky would have plausible deniability in its aftermath. As such, his comments that the destruction of the pipelines was “a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression toward [the European Union]” look both manipulative and damning in retrospect.
The increasing odds that Ukraine was behind that attack do not change the likelihood that Russia was responsible for what took place at the Nova Kakhovka dam, but it does remind us of an important principle to keep in mind when evaluating both the war in Ukraine and complex situations in other realms of life.
A warning against dichotomous thinking
It is human nature to prefer a simple explanation—even when it’s wrong—to a more complex one. As a result, it can be easy to ignore inconvenient truths when they muddy the waters of how we would prefer to see a given situation.
With the war in Ukraine, it is simpler to see Ukrainians as valiant heroes, fighting in defense of their homeland and Russians as the evil invaders bent on destruction. To be sure, there is a good bit of validity to both characterizations.
However, neither side is without fault in this war, and it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of the gray areas in which the truth often resides just because the world seems simpler in black and white.
And that perspective is equally important in other areas of our lives as well.
Take politics, for example. Our country and our culture would be so much healthier if people were willing to see beyond the labels and put in the work to truly understand those who think differently. In the same way, how much healthier would our churches be if we did the same there? How about our families or workplace?
Ultimately, we will be far better witnesses to the One who is the truth (John 14:6) if we are willing to embrace a more nuanced and correct view of the world around us instead of clinging to the simple stereotypes that can so quickly lead us into error.
Where do you need to put in that work today?