The blowing of the dam at Ukraine’s Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant was, quite simply, an act of terror by a terrorist state. With his army failing and his air force stuck in its hangars, it would appear Vladimir Putin is prepared to do almost anything to cling on to the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and his throne in the Kremlin. This is another war crime to add to the growing list, a list that includes the unlawful deportation of children — something that has led the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant for his arrest.
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The Russian military motivation behind the blast is clear and not unexpected. The vast area to the west of the dam is a “tank highway” to Crimea, and Putin knows his demoralized forces are likely to collapse in the face of Challenger and Leopard tanks charging towards them. The flooding will likely block this axis for many weeks. The ecological and agricultural damage alone will be legion, and with no power coming out of the Kakhovka plant or the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Ukraine is going to be short on electricity for a while.
This type of terrorism is not new and is to be predicted from the tyrant. I had the honour to be one of the Peshmerga’s chemical weapons advisers in the fight with another terrorist state: ISIL. In 2017, as the Islamic State was falling in Iraq, it blew up the Al Mishraq sulphur mine south of Mosul. From a tactical perspective this had the same effect as blowing the dam at Kakhovka. The 400,000 tonnes of very toxic sulphur dioxide went across the route of the advancing Iraqi army’s direct approach to Mosul and delayed it for several days, allowing ISIL to dig deeper into the city. At one point the toxic cloud was heading to the Kurdistan capital, Erbil, with over one million people in mortal danger. Thankfully the “gods” intervened, and the poison dissipated in the higher atmosphere. When you have no limits or concern for civilian casualties like ISIL and Putin, sadly virtually nothing is off limits.
But the Ukrainians are canny. No doubt the Ukrainian high command will have strategized for such an eventuality and will have numerous lines and methods of attack planned. At the early stages it also looks as though the Russian plan may have backfired, with Russian troops defending this sector scrabbling for high ground and the water needed for Crimea disappearing into the Black Sea.
However, the long-term intended consequence may well be the weaponization of the Zaporizhzhia power plant. For months now there have been warnings that Putin would think nothing of triggering some kind of incident there if he felt it would give Russia a tactical advantage. Some have dismissed them. But if the West shrugs now, we take a major step closer to such an incident becoming a horrifying reality.
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With no power and no water at this huge nuclear power plant, the chance of the meltdown of reactors and spent nuclear fuel starts to become plausible. Putin has threatened the West with nuclear weapons since the beginning of this war, but even if this is a hollow threat, the power plant could still be used as an improvised nuclear weapon, with plausible deniability. It is uncertain what contamination would ensue or where it would go, but it would be a global humanitarian and environmental disaster.
The “Special Military Operation” is now in its death throes, with a rampant, confident, well-trained and equipped Ukraine army on the march. It is becoming clearer that the Russian military will hit a speed bump conventionally, and with a leader and army commanders with no morals or scruples we must brace ourselves for further unconventional violence. The attacking of schools and hospitals was a portent of the evil of Putin’s regime, and the blowing of the dam is another move of truly terrible intent.
Whatever it takes, we must ensure Ukraine prevails as quickly as possible, as there is still the spectre of escalation to chemical, biological and — terrifyingly — nuclear war.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a former commander of U.K. and NATO CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) forces.