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Ukraine is still assessing the damage caused when a dam was destroyed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an update on the war in Ukraine. Satellite images show a landscape transformed.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The images show the dam break earlier this week altered the shape of the Dnipro River. Entire waterfront neighborhoods that stood on dry land are now underwater. The dam itself is largely swept away. Ukraine blames its collapse on Russia. Russians who occupy that region of southern Ukraine deny it.

INSKEEP: All of this happened in a region where Ukrainians were widely expected to launch an offensive against Russian troops. So what's this mean for civilians and for the war? NPR's Greg Myre is in Kyiv.

Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does this flooded area relate to the battlefield?

MYRE: Well, the dam is on the Dnipro River, the main river that runs north-south through Ukraine. It is the front line in this area. The Ukrainians are on the west side. The Russians are on the east side. If you go a little further south of the dam - 50 miles - to the large city of Kherson, the Russians fire across the river every day. It's one of the hardest-hit urban areas in Ukraine. So it's very much part of the fighting now. And as you noted, it could be part of a Ukrainian effort to cross the river and drive out the Russians.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We don't know the Ukrainians will attack that way. And, in fact, all of the telegraphing in that direction would almost imply they might attack somewhere else. But does the flooding there make the potential military problem harder?

MYRE: Absolutely, if indeed that's the case. We know, generally speaking, the Ukrainians probably will want to attack somewhere in the south to try to cut the Russian forces in two. We know that river crossings are always difficult military operations. So if you flood the area, it could certainly make it more difficult. The Ukrainians have already addressed this, saying they have all the necessary watercraft for such an operation, and they're not talking in any detail about what they might do militarily. One quick historical note here, in World War II, the Soviets blew up a dam in this area, about 100 miles north on the same river, in an attempt to prevent a Nazi German offensive. So there is a precedent here.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We don't know the cause of this dam break, but we do know that dams have been deliberately broken for various reasons in past wars. Greg, I want to ask about the people in those satellite images from Maxar that we've been looking at. How many people got away?

MYRE: Well, Steve, the initial fear was this torrent of water could cause huge numbers of casualties, especially when it reached this this big city of Kherson further south. Now, the water was so powerful, we saw video of a house that was lifted off its foundation and swept down the river intact, just like it was a boat. In a town next to the dam, a zoo was flooded, and more or less 300 animals were killed. But Ukrainian officials, including the prime minister, say no human deaths have been reported on the western side of the river, which Ukraine controls. There are media reports on the Russian side that a few people are missing. And that's the side, as I noted, that Russia occupies.

INSKEEP: How do we find out who's responsible?

MYRE: So Ukraine and Russia continue to accuse each other, and it'll be hard to investigate because the dam is gone, and the river is the front line in the war, as we noted. Now, we should emphasize a couple of points. Russian troops seized the dam at the very beginning of the war in February last year and have been in control ever since. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is claiming that Russia blew up the dam from the inside. Now, there are the Ukrainian forces nearby on the western side of the river, but it's not clear how they could conduct a massive sabotage operation without being detected. This is a huge, or was, a huge dam. It can't be taken out with a single missile. Also, we should note Russia has attacked Ukrainian infrastructure, civilian targets throughout the war. Russia spent the entire winter firing missiles at Ukraine's electrical grid in every corner of the country.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks for your reporting there in Kyiv.

MYRE: Sure thing, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.