Ukraine’s minister of environmental protection looked exhausted one morning last month after a night of air raid sirens in Kyiv. But what was really keeping him up at night was a chilling vision of a hypothetical scenario of what could unfold if a major hydroelectric dam in southern Ukraine were to be destroyed in the war.
Now that fear has become a reality with an explosion at the Nova Kakhovka dam in Kherson early this week which sent a torrent of water gushing down into the Dnipro River.
The flooding the minister, Ruslan Strillets, warned me about has indeed forced tens of thousands to flee their homes; fertile agricultural land that Ukraine and many corners of the world rely on for wheat has been washed away; a precious national park is devastated by the flood waters; and, most distressing of all, the breach in the dam has imperiled a massive nuclear power plant which relies on the dam’s reservoir for cooling its reactors.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s ecosystems is now a focus of Ukrainian and international prosecutors weighing a case for what Strillets refers to as “ecocide,” using a legal term which describes the intentional destruction of the environment causing long-term damage that is excessive in relation to the concrete military advantage. Our Report for the World partner newsroom Ukrainska Pravda has been way ahead on this story, with our corps member Dmytro Simonov reporting on the vulnerability of the dam*, its importance for the local environment and the impact of other Russian attacks that have harmed the Ukrainian ecosystems. He led a team of reporters this week to publish this in a special report titled: “Everything You Need to Know About the Kahakovskya Disaster.”
The Ukrainian government asserts that Russia targeted the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric dam as a form of “environmental terrorism.” Residents nearby reported hearing a loud explosion before the dam collapsed. The breach unleashed a torrent of water that destroyed homes, swept up cars and unearthed landmines that are now floating explosives. The collapse of the dam has sent water levels at the upstream reservoir down to alarmingly low levels. Ukrainian officials say they believe the destruction was caused by a large explosive device that was inside the plant, which has been under Russian control and which lies in a Russian-occupied area. Russia has denied the allegation that they caused the collapse, but neither side is disagreeing that this is a major environmental catastrophe.
For now, Ukrainian officials say the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya, which is the largest in Europe with six reactors, has a secondary source of water that can also serve to cool the reactor and avoid any meltdown. Still, as the water level at the reservoir drops the plant is significantly more vulnerable to an event that could be catastrophic, experts say.
“None of us even want to think of what we could have here if the cooling of the reactors will stop,” Strillets said in our May 21 interview, a scenario of radioactive fallout that would be far greater than the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.
“Putin wants to destroy all of Ukraine, and destroy all Ukrainians,” he added.
To prove Russia’s intent to commit “environmental terrorism” is the work of Maksim Popov the head of the environmental division of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office. When I met Popov in Kyiv last month, just after interviewing Strillets, he was still jet lagged, having just returned from meetings in DC with the Attorney General Merrick Garland. We drank strong coffee in a local cafe just next to his office, and he outlined how the dam was vulnerable as a Russian target and he spelled out the extraordinary stakes for the country if indeed the dam was compromised.
Reuters reported this week that Ukraine’s prosecutor general had started “urgent investigations” into the destruction of the dam. Popov is part of a team of Ukrainian prosecutors assembling the legal groundwork for a prosecution of “ecocide” as a war crime under domestic laws. Kyiv defines ecocide as “mass destruction of flora and fauna, poisoning of air or water resources, and also any other actions that may cause an environmental disaster” in Article 441 of its criminal code.
As Popov shared, this notion of attacking the environment to control Ukraine is not new, and goes back to the Soviet era under Stalin when the brutal dictator confiscated vast agricultural land and triggered a famine that killed some 4 million Ukrainians. They call it the Holodomor, which means “death by hunger,” and it is enshrined in a national museum in Kyiv. It makes you wonder how history will record this moment in time when Russia once again is willing to carry out a vast campaign of atrocities on a civilian population in order to force its will over Ukraine.