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Ukraine blames Russia for blowing up a major southern dam

In a photo taken from video released by the Ukrainian Presidential Office, water surges through a break in the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia are both accusing each other of blowing up the dam, which also destroyed an attached hydroelectric power station.
Ukrainian Presidential Office via AP
In a photo taken from video released by the Ukrainian Presidential Office, water surges through a break in the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia are both accusing each other of blowing up the dam, which also destroyed an attached hydroelectric power station.

Updated June 6, 2023 at 7:33 AM ET

KYIV, Ukraine — A major dam near a nuclear power plant suddenly collapsed overnight in southern Ukraine, creating the likelihood of widespread flooding and posing an additional risk to an already troubled nuclear plant.

The latest development comes amid growing signs that Ukraine is about to — or already has — launched a long-awaited military offensive against the Russian forces.

Video on social media shows a big chunk missing from the Kakhovka dam, on the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine, allowing water to surge through the opening.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blamed "Russia terrorists" and called an emergency meeting of his security advisers.

The country's hydroelectric company, Ukrhydroenergo, said the dam was destroyed by an explosion in the engine room, which it said was controlled by Russia.

Russia, in turn, blamed Ukraine. Neither side has provided proof that the other side did it. The dam was damaged late last year in an explosion, and in recent weeks it was under stress from record-high waters. Satellite photos showed water flowing over the top of the dam in the past week.

The most immediate danger is major flooding in southern Ukraine, farther to the south of the dam, along the broad Dnipro River.

Dozens of places at risk, including a nuclear power plant

Ukrainian officials said some 80 cities, towns and villages are at risk along the river, which effectively serves as the front line in southern Ukraine.

Within hours of the dam's collapse, social media reports emerged of rapidly rising waters and the evacuation of civilians.

"Water is coming. The situation is aggravated by the fact that some roads are being washed away. Evacuation groups are looking for other ways," said Ukraine's Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko.

The land on the eastern side of the river — the side controlled by Russian troops — is lower than the land on the western side of the river.

The dam is also connected to a hydroelectric plant that was destroyed as well.

And Ukrainian officials warned of problems upriver as well.

The already troubled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear plant in Europe, is less than 100 miles to the north.

Russian troops seized the plant in the early days of the war last year, and the grounds of the facility and nearby areas have been repeatedly rocked by shelling.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, has warned repeatedly about the risk of a nuclear accident. The agency said in a statement it was "closely monitoring" the plant and did not see any immediate dangers.

The Kakhovka dam created a reservoir to its north, and that large pool of water cools the nuclear power plant.

With the dam collapsed, the reservoir will drain quickly, and the fear is the nuclear plant may not have enough water for cooling.

In this photo from May 18, Mykola Gurzhiy, 74, a fisherman, opens a door to his flooded house on an island in the Kakhovka Reservoir on Dnipro River. The dam that creates the reservoir collapsed on Tuesday, with both Ukraine and Russia blaming each other.
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP
/
AP
In this photo from May 18, Mykola Gurzhiy, 74, a fisherman, opens a door to his flooded house on an island in the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnipro River. The dam that creates the reservoir collapsed on Tuesday, with both Ukraine and Russia blaming each other.

However, Ukrainian nuclear officials agreed with the U.N. nuclear agency and said that the situation at the power plant was "under control."

Ukraine declines to say whether its offense has begun

Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia were also in disagreement over whether Ukraine had launched its long-touted offensive.

Russia claimed Monday it had rebuffed a large push by Ukrainian ground forces in the eastern Donbas region, which Russia described as the start of the offensive.

Ukraine responded by calling the Russian announcement "delusional," and declining to say whether the offensive was underway.

However, Ukraine has stepped up attacks in recent days, including moves around the eastern town of Bakhmut.

Russia recently captured the town after months of heavy fighting that claimed high casualties on both sides and reduced Bakhmut to rubble.

In his nightly address, Zelenskyy praised the Ukrainian soldiers fighting around Bakhmut. But he didn't say whether this was part of the larger offensive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.