A dam in Ukraine was built to withstand practically any external attack imaginable. According to the facts, Russia blew it up from within.
Wild floods cascaded over the jagged ruins of a large Kakhovka Dam in a Ukrainian conflict zone moments after it failed. The underlying issue, though, was most likely hidden deep beneath the surface of the rushing waves.
There was an Achilles’ heel deep within the Kakhovka Dam. Because the Kakhovka Dam was constructed during the Soviet era, Moscow had every page of the engineering plans and knew exactly where it was.
The Kakhovka Dam foundation was a massive concrete block. It has a short hallway that leads to the dam’s machine room. According to the evidence, an explosive charge detonated on this route, destroying the dam.
On June 6, seismic sensors in Ukraine and Romania discovered the telltale signals of huge explosions at 2:35 a.m. and 2:54 a.m. Witnesses in the vicinity reported hearing big explosions between 2:15 a.m. and 3 a.m. Infrared heat signals obtained by American intelligence satellites immediately before the dam collapsed also indicated an explosion.
Videos show that once the first portion of the Kakhovka Dam was breached, the force of the rushing water tore a larger and larger gash into the dam.
This week, as the water levels decreased further, they dipped below the top of the concrete foundation. The collapsed piece was not visible above the water line, indicating structural damage to the base, according to engineers.
Several explanations are theoretically plausible in the chaotic aftermath, with one side blaming the other for the collapse. The data, however, plainly indicates that the dam was crippled by an explosion caused by the party that controls it: Russia.
Even in a war where entire cities have been destroyed, the demolition of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam in southern Ukraine stands out.
Flooding from one of the world’s largest reservoirs, which was critical for irrigating farmland dubbed Europe’s breadbasket, evacuated thousands of people. The calamity jeopardizes global food supplies for millions of people and could endanger sensitive ecosystems for decades.
Fighting had left visible scars on the Kakhovka Dam in the months leading up to the breakdown. Ukrainian strikes had destroyed one section of the dam’s highway while retreating Russian troops had later blown up another. Satellite pictures from last month showed water rushing uncontrollably over some of the gates.
This has led to speculation that the Kakhovka Dam was just a victim of accumulated deterioration, which Russia has used to deny responsibility.
Nevertheless, many lines of evidence evaluated by The New York Times, ranging from original engineering drawings to interviews with dam failure experts, indicate a different explanation: the dam’s collapse was not an accident. It was extremely unlikely that its underlying concrete foundation would break catastrophically on its own.
According to two American engineers, an explosives expert, and a Ukrainian engineer with extensive experience with the dam’s operations, the most likely cause of the collapse was an explosive charge placed in the maintenance passageway, or gallery, that runs through the concrete heart of the structure.
“If your goal is to destroy the Kakhovka Dam itself, a massive explosion would be required,” said Michael W. West, a former principal with the engineering company Wiss, Janney, Elstner and a geotechnical engineer and expert in dam safety and failure analysis. “The gallery is an excellent location for the explosive charge.”
Experts warned that only a thorough inspection of the Kakhovka Dam once the water has drained from the reservoir will reveal the precise sequence of events that led to its disintegration. Water flowing through the gates may have caused a dam failure if the dam was badly engineered or the concrete was subpar, but engineers said it was improbable.
According to Ihor Strelets, an engineer who served as the deputy head of water resources for the Dnipro River from 2005 to 2018, the dam’s base was intended to survive nearly any form of external attack as a Cold War building project. Mr. Strelets stated that he, too, concluded that an explosion within the gallery demolished part of the concrete structure, which was subsequently pulled away by the power of the water.
“I don’t want my theory to be accurate,” stated Mr. Strelets. A major explosion in the gallery could result in the dam’s entire destruction. “But that’s the only explanation,” he pointed out.
Water in the Morning
Residents living near the Kakhovka Dam in both Russian and Ukrainian territories reported hearing booms and unusual rumblings in the early morning hours of June 6.
They were used to the noises of combat. The two forces had been exchanging artillery volleys across the Dnipro River for months. But this time seemed different — and it wasn’t long before it became evident why.
The flow of water was practically immediate for people nearest to the dam, which was erected in the 1950s by the Soviet authorities. The floodwaters took longer to make their way downriver, but when they did, they came rapidly and did not subside for more than a week.
“We live on the fourth floor, so it didn’t reach our apartment, but the first floor was completely flooded,” said Vasyl, 64, of the Russian-occupied east bank town of Hola Prystan, approximately 60 miles from the dam.
Neighbors and family members have taken sanctuary in his apartment. “My sister’s house is entirely destroyed,” Vasyl explained. “It’s simply the walls currently, no furnishings or equipment inside.”
Most of the town’s younger residents escaped the Soviet occupation long ago, he claimed, leaving largely old people behind, including many with impairments. “Several drowned because they couldn’t leave their houses or climb to the roofs,” he explained. The death toll from the flooding is yet unknown, but officials believe it is sure to climb as the waters recede.
A Prime Prey
The sluice gates and cranes, as well as the strip of roadway above the water line, appeared to be an ideal target for an attack aiming at destroying the Kakhovka dam.
According to models of the structure seen by The Times and extensive explanations by Mr. Strelets, who has spent months at the Kakhovka dam and around the reservoir, the majority of the dam’s huge mass was hidden beneath the surface of the water.
Mr. Strelets described the bulk as a circular tower of practically solid concrete 20 meters high and up to 40 meters thick at the bottom. That massive barrier, built in parts, ran between earthen embankments on either side of the channel and accomplished much of the work of holding back the reservoir’s waters.
The sluice gates, which rested atop the barrier, opened and closed to alter the water level. The visual evidence gathered by The Times indicates clear damage to the highway and a few of the sluice gates on one side of the canal in the months leading up to the dam burst.
Despite that damage and a whitewater cascade tumbling from the vicinity of those gates, engineers said the foundering of an entire section of the dam was more likely to be related to seismic sensors and an infrared signal picked up by a satellite, according to US officials, indicating the heat of an explosion.
The seismic waves were detected by two sensors, one in Romania and one in Ukraine, at 2:35 a.m. and 2:54 a.m. Ukraine time, according to Ben Dando, a seismologist at Norsar, a Norwegian institution specializing in seismology and seismic monitoring. Dr. Dando stated that the signals were consistent with an explosion and not, for example, the dam’s collapse on its own.
He said that the network could pinpoint the time of an explosion to within a few seconds, but the location of the explosions was less clear. Norsar, for example, may determine that the 2:54 a.m. signal originated inside a zone 20 to 30 kilometers across that contained the dam.
The infrared signal did not have an exact timestamp, but a senior US military officer said it was picked up soon before the Kakhovka Dam collapsed.
According to a senior American military official, the US has ruled out an exterior attack on the Kakhovka Dam, such as a missile, bomb, or other projectiles, and now believes the explosion was caused by one or more charges planted inside it, most likely by Russian operatives.
Gregory B. Baecher, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland and a member of the National Academy of Engineers, also stated that the size of the break suggested that the underlying concrete barrier had collapsed, implying that charges were placed deep within the structure.
“That would explain a lot if they put bombs in the exhibition,” Professor Baecher stated. He claimed that a major explosion there would “tear up the entire concrete structure.”
According to Nick Glumac, an engineering professor, and explosives expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the amount of the required charge may vary greatly depending on how the explosives were set and the particular purpose.
“It’s important to remember that you don’t have to pulverize the dam piece; just shatter it enough for the water pressure to take it away,” Professor Glumac explained.
Yet, Professor Glumac stated that “it’s hard for me to understand how anything other than an internal explosion in the passageway could account for the damage” based on Kakhovka Dam plans and the most recent photos of the destroyed foundation. “That’s a big amount of concrete to move,” he continued.
Utilizing the gallery may offer an additional benefit for anyone looking to disguise their footprints. According to Mr. Strelets, the gallery had only two entrances, one within the machine room and one on the other side of the Kakhovka Dam in a building.
Dr. West, a former Army combat engineer officer, remarked that this would allow the Kakhovka Dam to be rigged out of sight of spy satellites, drones, or on-the-ground witnesses. The initial rupture in the Kakhovka Dam occurred not far from the machine room, according to early morning drone footage.
Professor Baecher speculated that water flow from the damaged gates could have weakened the concrete building where it rested on the riverbank. However, he stated that a review of the drawings revealed that the design had used typical methods to protect against that risk. One of these is a concrete “apron” that runs from the dam’s downstream side to the riverbed.
“It appears to be a well-engineered contemporary Kakhovka Dam,” he remarked.
The dam’s operator, for its part, told The Times on June 16 that “Russian forces caused an internal explosion, resulting in the dam’s destruction.” According to the firm, the explosion “caused an uncontrolled release of water from the reservoir and a devastating increase in water level downstream.”
Damned in the Crosshairs
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the dam’s devastation has been captured from above and on the ground.
In November 2022, Russian troops were fleeing across the Dnipro River when they blew up the roadway above the structure’s northern end. The massive nocturnal explosion was captured on surveillance video. The intensity of the blast demolished the roadway, but the Kakhovka Dam foundation and the walls of the gates at that area of the dam remained untouched, according to satellite photographs. They still stand today.
The Times received extremely high-resolution satellite footage that showed damage to another portion of the highway in the days and weeks leading up to the dam’s collapse. Part of the road that runs alongside the dam fell on June 1 or early on June 2. HIMARS rocket strikes from Ukraine in August 2022 damaged that section of the road but did not hit the dam.
On April 23, a tiny section of a wall connected to the power plant collapsed, potentially indicating erosion near the Kakhovka Dam.
Furthermore, the cranes that control the dam’s release of water had not been shifted since mid-November, enabling water to flow unchecked out of the same gates for several months. Because of this lack of regulation, the reservoir’s water level fell to its lowest point in decades in February before rising to a 30-year high in May, just weeks before the Kakhovka Dam was destroyed.
Experts believe that the earlier damage, as well as the strain created by the high water level and the cranes’ static posture, are unlikely to have caused the dam’s concrete foundation to collapse unless the concrete was of poor quality and already prone to deterioration. The high flows would also be inadequate to undermine the Kakhovka Dam foundation unless the concrete apron — the downstream cover poured over the river bottom — had defects or the soil was far softer than accounted for in the design.
A video that surfaced this week, after water levels had been reduced, shows the devastating failure. It demonstrates that the top of the concrete foundation was demolished, not simply the gates.
Mr. Strelets, the engineer, referred to the gallery as the Kakhovka Dam Achilles’ heel. He expressed his hope that no charge had been placed there because the damage would be irreversible.
“I’ve walked along this Kakhovka Dam a lot,” he remarked. “I was pleased with it. It is my country’s property. I never believed that somebody would try to destroy it.”
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