June 7, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russian forces withdraw from defensive positions due to flooding from destroyed dam

Institute for the Study of War

The destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam is significantly changing the geography and topography of the Kherson frontline sector in southern Ukraine. Near-infrared (NIR) imagery captured at 0400 am ET on June 7 indicates that the flooding is heavily disrupting Russian prepared defensive positions on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River – especially affecting Russian first-line positions in Hola Prystan and Oleshky. Various sources reported that Oleshky, Hola Prystan, Kozacha Laheri, and Dnipryany are almost entirely flooded with water levels rising to the height of a one-story buildings in some areas. The Ukrainian headquarters established to remediate the consequences of the dam’s destruction reported that as of June 7 29 settlements are partially or fully flooded, 19 of which are located on the Ukrainian-controlled territory and 10 on Russian occupied territories. Russian sources published footage indicating that water had begun receding in Nova Kakhovka and had dropped by 30cm. Russian sources also claimed that water levels decreased by three to four meters in some areas from a high of 10 meters. Water levels in nearby Mykolaiv City reportedly increased by 70cm as of June 7. Flooding will likely worsen and further change the geography in Kherson Oblast over the next 72 hours.

The destruction of the KHPP dam is affecting Russian military positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. The flooding has destroyed many Russian first line field fortifications that the Russian military intended to use to defend against Ukrainian attacks. Rapid flooding has likely forced Russian personnel and military equipment in Russian main concentration points in Oleshky and Hola Prystan to withdraw. Russian forces had previously used these positions to shell Kherson City and other settlements on the west (right bank) of Kherson. Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces relocated their personnel and military equipment from five to 15 kilometers from the flood zone, which places Russian forces out of artillery range of some settlements on the west (right bank) of the Dnipro River they had been attacking. The flood also destroyed Russian minefields along the coast, with footage showing mines exploding in the flood water. Kherson Oblast Occupation Head Vladimir Saldo, however, claimed that the destruction of the KHPP is beneficial to the Russian defenses because it will complicate Ukrainian advances across the river. Saldo’s assessment of the situation ignores the loss of Russia’s first line of prepared fortifications. The amount of Russian heavy equipment lost in the first 24 hours of flooding is also unclear.

Ukrainian officials continued to accuse Russian forces of destroying the KHPP dam out of fear that Ukrainian forces would land on the east (left) bank Kherson Oblast. Representative of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Andriy Yusov stated that only Russian forces could have detonated the dam given its structural and engineering features and noted that Russians are “very happy that the islands, on which [Ukrainian forces] were allegedly based, were flooded.” Humenyuk states that Russian forces did not consider the consequences before destroying the dam and were too concerned over a Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Ukrainian General Staff similarly claimed that Russian forces detonated internal structures of the KHPP to damage the dam and thereby prevent the advance of Ukrainian forces. Russian milbloggers had expressed concern about claimed Ukrainian river crossings onto the east bank the day before the destruction of the KHPP dam and on numerous occasions in the past. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that there were active engagements between Ukrainian and Russian forces in the Dachi area on the east bank of the Dnipro River (11km southwest of Kherson City) and on the contested islands near Kherson City as of June 5. The milblogger claimed that the number of Ukrainian speedboats also increased in the Dnipro Delta as of June 5. Another milblogger speculated that Ukrainian forces were attempting to establish a bridgehead by seizing the KHPP dam. ISW offers no assessment of whether the Ukrainians were attempting to cross the river or for what purpose they might have sought to do so. The clear concern in the Russian military information space, however, shows that the fear of such a crossing and belief that it was either underway or imminent was present in the minds of Russians closely following the war shortly before the dam was destroyed.

Key Takeaways

  • The destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP) dam is significantly changing the geography and topography of the Kherson frontline sector in southern Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian officials continued to accuse Russian forces of destroying the KHPP dam out of fear that Ukrainian forces would land on the east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
  • The New York Times (NYT) reported that engineering and munitions experts believe that a deliberate explosion was the likely cause of KHPP dam’s collapse on June 6.
  • Russian forces and occupation authorities are responding to the flooding in Kherson Oblast with a great degree of disorganization and thereby exacerbating harm to the civilian population of occupied areas.
  • Select Wagner Group-affiliated Russian senior military officers continue to posture as effective commanders to appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin by capitalizing on high-profile military events.
  • The pro-Teplinsky interview is likely part of an information operation aimed at undermining the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • Wagner-affiliated commanders’ reactive public relations campaigns may not be sufficient to deflect from battlefield realities.
  • Russian and Ukrainian officials each accused the other state of damaging an ammonia pipeline that runs through Kharkiv Oblast and causing an ammonia leak.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks around Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian officials indicated that Ukrainian forces are conducting offensive operations in the Bakhmut direction as of June 7.
  • Russian forces continued limited ground attacks along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian sources continued to claim that Ukrainian forces conducted ground attacks on the administrative border between Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts on June 7.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly engaged in skirmishes in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian authorities continue to restrict international travel for those eligible for military service.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue to establish patronage programs between Russian regions and occupied territories in order to integrate occupied territories into Russia.
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