Nova Kakhovka Dam: The flooding of Kherson
UPDATE 10 NOVEMBER 2022
The Russian Deputy Governor of Kherson has been killed in a peculiar accident with a truck.
It seems from the details of the posthumous award made that the Russian President wanted everyone to know that he personally had ordered this.
This is FSB playbook and it is a pretty humiliating way to be assassinated, suggesting he was a low-ranking FSB official. The question remains outstanding of what act of treachery he was guilty of to deserve his assassination. One possibility is that he was negotiating with Ukrainian forces (he was Ukrainian) behind Moscow's back. That would justify execution by truck.
Another possibility is that, for whatever reason (whether in coordination with the Ukrainian authorities or otherwise), he opposed the policy of Russian military and civilian evacuation of Kherson; and given his substantial social media presence popular with Russia-supporting south Ukrainians he was considered by Moscow as a potential liability.
The formal announcement of Russian military withdrawal from Kherson came just a few hours after his execution by truck. The images of the vehicle he was in when he died give the impression that his vehicle was set on fire.
One possible hypothesis - given that there was seemingly no actual collision with a truck - is that he had a bomb under his car.
UPDATE 5 NOVEMBER 2022
Reports have emerged that the Russian Armed Forces are now:
Forcibly evacuating remaining civilians from Kherson to the west of the Dniepr River (door to door removals of those who have not already participated in organised voluntarily evacuation schemes)
Removing works of art and other objects of historical or cultural value from museums and other places of cultural heritage (of which Kherson, a pretty and historical city, has several), including icons from churches
We are specifically told about the removal of Moldovan ancient manuscripts from the History Museum in Kherson.
Removing holy bones from crypts
Removing decent quality cars, with the consent of their owners but if not available then without
Removing functional agricultural and industrial vehicles
Checking basements for people or valuables
Disconnecting all mobile telephone masts, landlines and internet connections (presumably so no footage can get out)
Using conscripted soldiers (principally former prisoners, presumably conscripted in large part by PMC Wagner) in minimal numbers to keep a notional sense of order while the above procedures take place (all trained and experienced military personnel have already left) so that the city is now essentially left undefended by Russian forces
Turning off electricity, water and sewage to Kherson west of the Dniepr
Ordering the departure of all Russian troops (9 November 2022)
Boarding up buildings' fronts I'm a way consistent with protecting them from flood waters (see below)
Total lack of interest by Russian military forces in reinforcing their front lines on the west bank of the Dniepr (the Ukrainians are still some thirty-five kilometres away at closest); even evidence of their abandoning dug-in positions far northwest of Kherson
This photo suggests two us two things: (a) the Russians are anticipating a Kherson flood of up to two metres (the approximate height of the wooden barriers); (b) the Russians anticipate retaining Kherson as part of a final armistice (otherwise why go to all the bother of protecting buildings).
The Russian order to remove carpets from buildings is particularly indicative of an intention to minimise flood damage and then retake the city afterwards.
The Russian Armed Forces are moving everything and everyone they find on the west bank of the Dniepr River to the east bank of the river in Kherson. See e..g.:
The above article is not exhaustive but gives a good flavour of what is going on. And here is a map of Kherson, so one can imagine the mass movement across the bank of the Dniepr River from the area surrounded with a red line to the fertile delta lands east of the Dniepr River where there are a few small settlements but nothing much else.
Recall that Kherson is a low-lying, flat and humid city in the Dniepr delta - with a large, wide reservoir upstream. If you are looking to flood a city, Kherson is a pretty good bet.
It is our confirmed conviction that Russia is preparing to blow the Nova Kakhovka dam and flood the city, presumably hitting the West Bank much harder than the East Bank and laying waste to the greater part of the city - to be rebuilt later once the Ukrainians have abandoned it (and invading Ukrainian forces can be picked off much more easily by Russian artillery from the east bank if everything on the west bank is flooded).
One possibility we have countenanced is that the Russians anticipate that by blowing the dam, they will change the course of the Dniepr River at its mouth, to go further west. Then Russia will just occupy the new east bank as redrawn on consequence of a massive flood. Although we do not know how to assess this hypothesis in advance (we are not hydrologists), we think this possibility ought to be kept in mind by the international community.
If you're on the west bank of the Dniepr River in the Kherson region, it's probably a good idea to carry a brolly along with your flak jacket.
This is not going to be a good day out.
What is Russia's possible endgame after this Great Flood? We don't know. It is typically Russian; a massively disproportionate and extreme measure to bypass conventional warfare. However we have one idea. Look at the following map, which shows Kherson railway stations:
The point about Kherson is that it is a railhead. The trains to Nikolaev go from the station in the northwest. On any scenario Nikolaev will be in free Ukraine post-aemistixe, so the Russians probably don't care about that railway station so much. However the railway station in the south is for trains to Simferopol (Crimea); while the station in the centre is for trains to Donetsk. These are the two parts of (annexed) Russian territory that the Russians seek to link up. Hence they need both these railway stations for a satisfactory settlement in Kherson.
Kherson may end up a divided city after these floods serve as some sort of great military leveller; part of the city may be controlled by free Ukraine and part of it by Novorossiya (as we provisionally call the Russian-annexed Ukrainian territories). The historical and cultural heritage of Kherson put to one side (it is the most beautiful city on South Ukraine, representing the furthest east the Habsburgs reached), the city is strategically essential for both sides by virtue of its transport links; hence we tentatively predict the city's partition.
UPDATE 29 OCTOBER 2022
The Russians are making preparations to empty the Kakhovka Reservoir before blowing the dam, presumably so as to prevent a flood.
See here (Ukrinform is a Ukrainian government website so the language used is a little melodramatic but the point the article makes is nevertheless a good one):
Presumably having empties west Kherson of civilians, you blow the dam with just enough water to flood Kherson as the Ukrainian troops advance into the city. One might guess that someone on the Russian side has calculated that a good Dniepr flood will affect the west of the Dniepr in Kherson over the east, which is why all the civilians have been moved to the east bank.
Once western Kherson is thoroughly flooded, a Russian tactical neutron bomb might be used to finish off any remaining advancing Ukrainian armed forces. Or that might not be necessary.
It would seem that the Russians are serious about their defence of Kherson.
This is a dam in central Ukraine, on the Kakhovka reservoir, that someone is threatening to blow up but it is not clear which side is threatening to do this; or how (it would be no easy task to blow up such a solidly constructed, massive dam); or why.
Consider the following vaguely strange assertions from an article in a respected newspaper:
'Zelenskiy accuses Russia of plotting to blow up Ukrainian dam'
'[Ukrainian] President says destruction of Nova Kakhovka dam would mean large-scale disaster for towns and cities'
'In his nightly address on Thursday, Zelenskiy said he had told European leaders that “Russian terrorists” had mined the dam, which if blown would have repercussions that would affect Crimea as well as the surrounding region.'
'Ukrainian military intelligence said on Friday that Russia had conducted the main mining works back in April, but warned that the floodgates and supports of the dam were further primed in the past week. Two military vehicles full of explosives were placed on the road that crosses the dam, the agency added.'
'Zelenskiy warned amid concern in Kyiv that Russia would blame any breach of the dam on Ukraine.'
'[T]he Institute for the Study of War thinktank [came] to conclude that Moscow “is likely continuing to prepare for a false flag attack” by the retreating forces.'
Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russian forces, said on Tuesday he had information that Ukrainian forces were preparing a massive strike on the dam and warned of a disaster if it was breached.
“We have information on the possibility of the Kyiv regime using prohibited methods of war in the area of the city of Kherson, on the preparation by Kyiv of a massive missile strike on the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam,” Surovikin said.
Russian authorities said they were taking steps to reduce the volume of water behind the dam to minimise damage, the thinktank added, although they say they are doing so because they fear Ukrainian forces will blow up the dam.
The text above is from the article below.
Amidst this volley of assertions and counter-assertions about which side might be prepared to blow up the Nova Kakhovka dam and in what circumstances of attribution of responsibilities, it is hard to know where to begin but it might be a good start to consider what interests the two sides may have in the dam being blown up or not blown up.
Here is a map of sorts, take from the newspaper article referenced below. There are lots of problems with this map, as we shall come to see; but it is a place to start.
Here are some more informative maps:
This latter map shows Osokorovka, shown on The Guardian map, misleadingly suggesting there is transportation over the reservoir at that point by means of rail or road when there is not. (The line may just refer to an abstract regional boundary.) It also shows that Osokorovka is not close to the Nova Kakhovka dam by standards or proportions relevant to us. Indeed The Guardian map shows us nothing about the Nova Kakhovka dam whatsoever.
Before we begin an analysis of which side actually has an interest in destroyong this dam, let us consider some statistics and facts about this frankly very curious dam and the role it has played in the war so far.
The dam is 3,273 metres wide, making it one of the longest dams in the world, daming the Kakhovka reservoir to its northeast.
However the dam is not a tall one by the standards of international dams - only 30 metres. (Contrast the Three Gorges Dam in China, 181 metres high but only 2,335 metres in length.)
The assertion popularly stated in the international media that the dam holds 18 million cubic metres in the preceding reservoir is not at all obviously correct and it is not obvious that blowing the dam would cause excess flooding. The Three Gorges Dam, vastly bigger, holds only 27.2 million cubic metres.
The Nova Kakhovka dam is the last of a series of six dams on the Dniepr River that form the Dniepr Reservoir Cascade, an attempt to control water flow along the Dniepr River and to use it for the purposes of power generation and irrigation.
The principal purpose of the dam at Nova Kakhovka, which is the last dam in the Dniepr Reservoir Cascade and built between 1950 and 1956, is to support Kakhovka Hydro Electric Power Plant, a medium sized power station on the south bank of the Dniepr River adjacent to the dam.
It is an apparent ongoing Russian battlefield tactic to wear down Ukraine's energy infrastructure.
The secondary purpose of the dam is to serve as a bridge: road and rail transport operates across it.
The operation of the dam - if water is restricted - has the potential to cut off water supplies both to Kherson and to the Crimea canal, an arrangement south of Kherson to supply freshwater to Crimea for irrigation purposes.
Both Kherson and Crimea lying under Russian occupation, it would be an acute pressure point if Ukraine were able to restrict supplies of water to them by closing the Nova Kakhovka dam.
The dam is currently occupied by Russia on both sides but in a region of Zaporizhzhia oblast that is frankly of little strategic value to them. Nor is it useful to Russia that there be a transport link over the reservoir at this juncture (there are none others between Kherson and Zaporizhzhia), should the Russians execute a strategic withdrawal from this area.
Hence the Russians have every incentive to blow up the dam, which is pessumably why they have already mined it in preparation.
The reason Russians mined and are now planning to blow up the dam at Nova Kakhovka is to prevent the Ukrainians from keeping it closed and thereby starving Kherson and Crimea of water.
The Russians are planning on abandoning certain territorial gains in Zaporizhzhia province, particularly around the Kakhovka reservoir and including the hydroelectric facility at Nova Kakhovka and the six uranium reactors at Enerhodar - territory of little strategic value to them - and they are going to make sure that everything is blown up and useless before they hand it back to the Ukrainians.
This explains why the Russians are planning on blowing up the dam at Nova Kakhovka. It seems that they have already shut down all the facilities at Enerhodar. This is just a natural next step in their strategic withdrawal from a region they see little value in paying the cost of holding in the face of NATO-funded Ukrainian military hostility.