Jun 7, 2023

The Ukraine counteroffensive (and the dam attack).

The Ukraine counteroffensive (and the dam attack).
Images of the Kakhovka Dam before it was destroyed. Photo: Дзюбак Володимир

Who destroyed the dam? And how is the counteroffensive going?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

The dam that was destroyed in Ukraine, plus an update on the counteroffensive. Also, reader feedback on yesterday's piece and some poll results.

Reader feedback.

Responses from yesterday's piece on Pride Month are in. Here are a few I wanted to highlight:

One reader said, "Representation is important, but I feel like I’m being constantly told 'You must support this' and 'You have to be proud for queer people.' That, combined with the antagonist queer voices I hear on Twitter and Reddit comparing people like me to Nazis, gives me the subconscious impression that they want to take my beliefs away from me... The more I hear you yelling at me and telling me I’m worse than actual murderers, the more I’m going to resist your ideas... I know that most queer people just want to be left alone and feel safe, and I support that. Everyone deserves that. I feel bad that I dislike Pride Month, I really do. In time I’m sure I’ll turn those feelings around."

Another reader said, "I appreciated as usual the incredibly thoughtful and balanced coverage here. I just want to highlight the antics of the so-called Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. I’m a fairly devout Catholic and this group openly mocks and desecrates that which is sacred and holy for us. Sexual dances with depictions of the Eucharist or Mary is wildly offensive, and I don’t know how they can hide behind the face of inclusivity by actively mocking another’s faith. What if they were performing acts with an image of Mohammed? Or something sacred to another faith?"

A few readers unsubscribed, including one who said, "I thought this would be a great site for political discourse. However lately your 'take' is so contrary to my beliefs that I am no longer interested. Your latest position on the gay pride issue went too far and was the straw that broke the camels back. I have been offended by much of the woke corporate approach to gay pride. Even though it has been around for some years, in 2023 this crap is being thrown in my face. I am personally offended by some of the ads and by the Dodgers’ position. My Christian faith is being mocked. AND YOU THINK THAT THIS IS OK SIMPLY BECAUSE THERE IS A “CHRISTIAN NIGHT” AT THE BALLPARK. Big deal... Not only will I be unsubscribing, but I will be telling my children and grandchildren to do so as well."

Lastly, someone wrote in and said, "Your take on Pride Month is so refreshing. Everywhere I look the LGBT community is being polarized and used as a political topic unnecessarily when in reality we're just people living our lives and a loud minority on both sides are blowing this issue way out of proportion. You hit the nail on the head."

As always: If you want to support our work, you can become a member or simply spread the word about Tangle to friends.

Quick hits.

  1. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) officially filed paperwork to run for president, and former Vice President Mike Pence released his campaign launch video. (The campaigns)
  2. The PGA Tour and LIV golf, a Saudi-backed tour, agreed to join forces on Tuesday. (The merge)
  3. Smoke from wildfires in Canada has spread across the Unites States, leaving over 100 million Americans facing air quality advisories. (The smoke)
  4. House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-KY) said Monday he will move ahead with efforts to hold FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt for refusing to hand over documents related to allegations of bribery around President Joe Biden. (The charges)
  5. Iran's local media claimed the country has built its first hypersonic ballistic missile. (The claims)

Today's topic.

The Ukraine war. Yesterday, as Ukraine's counteroffensive appeared to be underway, news broke that a major dam and hydroelectric power plant in southern Ukraine were severely damaged. The attack on the dam caused flooding near the front lines, with communities downstream of the dam — many currently under Russian control — having to evacuate while Russia continued shelling the region overhead.

The Kakhovka dam sits near the southern end of the Dnipro River, which currently separates Ukrainian and Russian forces on the front lines. 75 miles northeast of the dam is the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which uses water from the Kakhovka Reservoir to cool its nuclear reactors, though officials said there are currently no threats to the plant.

Following the news of the dam’s destruction, Ukraine blamed Russia and Russia blamed Ukraine. Both sides had previously accused each other of plotting to destroy the dam, which is currently controlled by Russian forces.

“This is just one Russian act of terrorism,” Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Telegram. “This is just one Russian war crime. Now Russia is guilty of brutal ecocide. Any comments are superfluous.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov blamed Ukraine. "Apparently, this sabotage is also connected with the fact that, having started large-scale offensive actions two days ago, now the Ukrainian armed forces are not achieving their goals — these offensive actions are faltering," he said.

Intentionally destroying the dam has some advantages and some costs for both sides. Ukraine's long-awaited counteroffensive appears to be underway, with an uptick of attacks on Russian forces in the last week. The flooding from the dam could make it more difficult for Ukrainian forces to advance across the river or use the area as a staging ground to reclaim the land bridge to Crimea, which is one of Ukraine’s well known objectives. There is also evidence Russia was mining the dam with explosives last year. That, and Russia's history of attacking critical infrastructure during the war, has left many Western officials concluding Russia was behind the attack.

However, the upside for Russia is not entirely clear, either. Flood waters could damage Russia's fortifications along the river and may end up consuming its resources as well. Given that Russia controls much of the region, citizens in some of the most-impacted areas will be relying on the Russian government for help evacuating. Some 1,300 people have already been evacuated, and Ukrainian officials say about 40,000 people will have to flee. About 25,000 of those are people on the Russia-controlled side of the river.

Separately, The Washington Post published an exclusive report yesterday that the U.S. had gathered intelligence on a detailed Ukrainian plan to attack the Nord Stream pipeline. The CIA apparently learned of the plan last June, when it discovered details of the plan among the trove of documents leaked by Air National Guard member Jack Teixeira in a Discord chat room. Until now, Western officials had largely blamed the attack on Russia, but the new evidence lends credence to the idea that Ukraine has its own trend of attacking infrastructure during wartime.

It’s hard to overstate the size and scale of the resultant flooding. The dam is one of the largest in Europe, and its reservoir holds about 5 million gallons of water — about as much as Utah’s Great Salt Lake. On top of destroying homes and contaminating potable water sources used by communities in Crimea, the flooding poses other extreme ecological risks, like spilling oil, gasoline, and other chemicals into the Black Sea.

Today, we're going to look at some arguments from the right and left about the Ukrainian counteroffensive and the attack on the dam, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Some say Russia just committed another war crime.
  • Others emphasize that Russia stands to gain more from the attack, and has a history of attacking infrastructure.

In The Washington Post, David Ignatius said the dam attack brought "new trauma" to the battlefield amid an encouraging counteroffensive.

"Military campaigns are rarely all or nothing, but this one comes close. If Ukraine can drive back an already shaky Russian army, it stands a chance of forcing Moscow to bargain for an end of its failed invasion. But if Ukraine fails, it would be a bitter blow to the country’s weary population and could endanger continued support from some restless NATO members," Ignatius said. Administration officials had been "encouraged by better-than-expected progress" as Ukraine worked to attack Russian forces across several lanes in southeastern Ukraine.

However, "an apparent sabotage attack that burst the Kakhovka reservoir dam and sent a torrent down the Dnieper River toward occupied Crimea" has introduced new trauma to the battlefield. "Russia and Ukraine traded blame for the attack, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called 'an outrageous act.'" The loss means it will be harder for Ukraine to push south of the Dnieper, but also harder for Russian troops to maneuver and defend territories they hold.

In Bloomberg, Andreas Kluth said "Russia's dam busting is another war crime."

"Just as the Ukrainians are finally launching their long-expected counteroffensive against the Russian invaders, the latter preempt the former with another war crime," Kluth wrote. "It's hardly plausible that the Ukrainians did it," and the floodwaters will deluge several villages, a city, and put a power plant out of commission. "Especially in places defined by rivers, like Ukraine and its Dnipro, the manipulation of floodwaters has always been popular as a tactic."

Is this ethical or even legal? "As ever when lawyers are involved, that question leads to frustrating quagmires of fine print." Customary international law acknowledges bombing dams can be "fair game" when the targets "have military importance" and the consequences for civilians are "proportionate." But protocols in the Geneva Conventions prohibit such acts when dams are near nuclear electrical generating stations, as is the case here. "Throughout his murderous assault on Ukraine," Putin has "threatened to turn the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station into a second Chernobyl."

In Vox, Jen Kirby asked, "did Russia do it?"

"US and Western officials have also not made any definitive assessments yet, though most are leaning toward Russia as the likely suspect, especially given its history of targeting Ukrainian energy and civilian infrastructure intended to create humanitarian emergencies," Kirby wrote. "Of course, Western leaders have been wrong before in attributing attacks to Russia, as with the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline, which is why Western and NATO officials have not drawn firm conclusions." Russia has also controlled the dam since the early days of the war, so if it was an accident or unintentional, it happened on their watch.

"Ukraine has also been warning since last year that Russia had mined the dam, and previously claimed Moscow had plans to destroy it ahead of its retreat from Kherson last fall," she added. "And the dam explosion is happening against an uptick in Ukrainian attacks that have some Western officials believing Ukraine’s counteroffensive is underway." A disaster could "tie up Ukrainian resources" and make it more difficult for troops to advance.

What the right is saying.

  • Most people on the right are blaming Russia for the attack, though some acknowledge the possibility Ukraine was responsible.
  • Some argue that Russia had the motivation to slow Ukraine's counter-offensive and the mentality to do this.
  • Others suggest the evidence points to Ukraine.

In National Review, Noah Rothman said the destruction of the dam is an "atrocity," not a "disaster."

"The implosion of the edifice holding back the full force of the Dnipro River was no accident nor an act of God. It was most likely a deliberate, indiscriminate attack on Ukrainian civilians and on global ecology," Rothman said. "Perhaps the Ukrainians flooded their own land — displacing thousands of residents and cutting off a potential axis in the coming counteroffensive but also displacing the Russians from the positions into which they had dug on the Dnipro’s left bank." Maybe it was an accident. But this all rationalizes the likeliest explanation: "Russian sabotage."

Russian news outlets initially reported "nothing at all" had occurred at the dam, then "comically insisted all was well" after rising floodwaters and daylight showed the extent of the damage. Questions about why Russia would do this are built on a "false premise, one that presupposes Russia has any interest in preserving land it is attempting to seize or safeguarding the people it seeks to subjugate." Russia had the motive: "Russia’s beleaguered forces in Ukraine have bought themselves time and space to attrite Ukrainian attackers." Moreover, it "has the mentality," a "classic scorched-earth tactic from the country that popularized the term."

In The Dispatch, Nick Catoggio said there have been plenty of attacks during this war Ukraine was probably responsible for — but this was not likely one of them.

Ukraine has proved "more capable of spectacular operations" than anyone believed possible. "That drone fly-by of the Kremlin last month? That was them, as your humble correspondent surmised. Assassinations of Russian propagandists? Them. Last year’s explosion on the Kerch Strait Bridge? Them. The sinking of the Moskva? Them. Sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline? Them too, probably." But this morning’s breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam "doesn't smell like a Ukrainian operation, spectacular though it is. It has the hallmarks of the Russian way of war."

The mystery is "easier to solve" than the case of the Kremlin drone. "We have here a display of flabbergasting indifference to human life; deliberate targeting of civilians; crude blunt force instead of precision strikes; and defiant contempt for the laws of war," Catoggio wrote. "That’s as close to a Russian signature in battle as one can get... Numerous reports suggest there was an explosion at the dam. A big one." Further, the "timing is just too fortuitous to be coincidental." Ukraine's counteroffensive was finally underway, and now their troops will be diverted to conduct rescue operations, while Russia will have extra time to "adjust and redeploy units strategically."

On the first episode of his Twitter show, Tucker Carlson concluded that Ukraine was most likely the culprit.

"If this was intentional, it was not a military tactic. It was an act of terrorism," he said. The dam was "built by the Russian government, and it currently sits in Russian-controlled territory. The dam's reservoir supplies water to Crimea which has been, for the last 240 years, home of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Blowing up the dam may be bad for Ukraine, but it hurts Russia more. And for precisely that reason, the Ukrainian government has considered destroying it. In December, The Washington Post quoted a Ukrainian general saying his men had fired American-made rockets at the dam's floodgate as a test strike."

"So really, once the facts start coming, it becomes much less of a mystery what might have happened to the dam," Carlson said. "Any fair person would conclude that the Ukrainians probably blew it up. Just as you would assume they blew up Nord Stream… and in fact, they did do that. As we now know." But the American media has wasted no time "in accusing the Russians of sabotaging their own infrastructure."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. You can also leave a comment.

  • While I've been more open-minded than most pundits, I have been wrong about stories like this in the past.
  • Still, I think the overwhelming evidence points toward Russia.
  • Regardless of who did it, for now, there is a major disaster unfolding in front of us.

I should start by acknowledging my track record here is not great.

When the Nord Stream pipeline was attacked, I went down the rabbit hole. Credit to us: We explored every possibility, from Ukraine to Russia to the United States. I said clearly that I didn't know who was responsible, and I laid out the motivations for Ukraine to take such an action. But I also said, "The idea Ukraine had the time, resources or ability to pull this off without being detected seems absurd." Ultimately, I pointed the finger at who I thought were the "most likely culprits," Russia and the U.S. Well, it seems almost certain that I was wrong, and that Ukraine sabotaged the pipeline.

Last month, when a drone crashed into the Kremlin, I dismissed the idea that it was an assassination attempt or that Ukraine had been responsible. Though assigning blame was not the focus of my piece, I was skeptical that Ukraine could get so close to the Kremlin and criticized other Western media for taking Ukraine's talking points wholesale. Well, it turns out that Ukraine was behind the attempt.

So, you can take my word with a grain of salt when I say what I'm about to say: I think all signs here point to Russia. Maybe I just haven’t learned my lesson, but the attack on the dam seems much less ambiguous to me.

Why? Well, let’s start with the fact Russia had already lined the dam with explosives. I can't really think of any evidence more incriminating than that. Indeed, Zelensky warned in October that Russia had mined the dam, and said that destroying it would amount to using weapons of mass destruction. The dam has been entirely under Russian control since. I'm no demolitions expert, but those who are say the images look a lot like an internal explosion — not one caused by rocket fire. You can judge for yourself:

Second, this time U.S. intelligence officials appear determined to absolve Ukraine. Unlike the Nord Stream and Kremlin drone attacks, after which U.S. intelligence officials initially equivocated then ultimately pointed the finger at Ukraine (or at least had intel leaked that Ukraine was behind them), the response this time has been different: Two U.S. officials told NBC News they are working to declassify evidence Russia was behind the attack, which they claim to have in their possession.

Finally, to explain the significant collateral damage to Russia here, it's also possible this was just pure malpractice. It seems unlikely that the dam was destroyed by unusually high levels of water, but some have posited that Russia intended a kind of controlled demolition that would do minimal damage — just enough to flood out some Ukrainian advances, but not enough for a full scale disaster — and simply screwed up. As Nick Catoggio put it (under "What the right is saying"), could the Russians really have been so stupid? "We might answer that question with a question: Could they really have been so stupid as to still be using cell phones on the front lines months after it became clear that the Ukrainians were using the signals to pinpoint their positions?"

To me, the evidence pointing to Ukraine — like its motive to embarrass Putin by destroying Crimea, the fact it has entertained attacking the dam in the past, or the resulting displacement of Russian troops — doesn’t come close to the evidence pointing the other way. Russia appears to be losing this war, had mined the bridge after Ukraine advanced on the river last year, and the dam was destroyed at the exact moment Ukraine's counteroffensive started growing in momentum.

Of course, I've been wrong before. But I feel more confident about this "whodunnit" than any of the ones in recent memory. Regardless of who was behind it, though, one thing is clear: This damage is going to be unbelievable. It is truly an ecological disaster, a humanitarian crisis, and has the potential to spiral further if the nearby nuclear power plant’s operations are impacted. The war has just entered a new, even dicier phase, and all I can do is hope Ukraine can manage its humanitarian efforts alongside a successful counteroffensive. Every day, this war ending — which seems likely only on the heels of Putin losing — feels more and more imperative.

Your questions, answered.

We are skipping today's reader question to give space to our main story, reader feedback, and Blindspot Report.

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Blindspot report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

The right missed a story about how just 1 in 5 teachers feel carrying a gun to class would make schools safer, while more than half disagree.

The left missed a story about a group of suspected Chinese spies posing as tourists who tried to infiltrate an Alaskan military base.


Don't forget to check out our latest video:


  • 80%. The proportion of Crimea's water that comes from the reservoir behind the Kakhovka Dam.
  • 16,000. The number of people who have already lost their homes to flooding, according to the United Nations.
  • 150 metric tons. The estimated amount of oil that has already spilled into the Dnipro River.
  • $53.8 million. The estimated cost of the environmental damage that has already been done.
  • 25,000 acres. The amount of agricultural land that is expected to flood on the west side of the river controlled by Ukraine.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the Peter Navarro indictment.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the advertisement in our free newsletter for Upward News.
  • It's fine: In yesterday's multi-select poll, 57% of Tangle readers said that they didn't think any companies went too far in their efforts towards LGBTQ+ inclusion. However, 7% of respondents said that Walmart went too far, while 7% said Petsmart, 9% said Kohl's, 25% said the LA Dodgers, 26% said Target, and 30% said Bud Light. When reading this data, remember that this poll allowed readers to select multiple options when answering.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The Pudding's amazing interactive article on rule-breaking rhythms.
  • Take the poll. Who do you think was responsible for destroying the Kakhovka dam? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

A Brooklyn neighborhood is repairing its relationship with its local police, by helping to police itself. The initiative, "Brownsville In Violence Out," is the brainchild of Inspector Terrell Anderson, who took over as commander of the precinct that polices Brownsville, the neighborhood where he grew up. Several times a year, neighborhood residents — shadowed by plain-clothes police — volunteer to respond to 911 calls, in an attempt to take some of the load off its police and reduce low-level arrests resulting from people causing disturbances. And it seems to be working. According to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, crime has been decreasing in Brownsville. In the first half of 2023, homicides fell 50 percent, shootings fell 25 percent, and the rate of car theft fell while it rose in other neighborhoods. “We call them and, poof, they come right away,” 66 year-old Brownsville resident Minerva Vitale said. “You think they ain’t ready for this? Yes, they are." The New York Times has the story.

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