Russia and Ukraine blamed each other following an explosion that destroyed a major dam on the Dnipro River on Tuesday, with world leaders warning of a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe as the war took a major turn.
Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated and Russian authorities in occupied southern Ukraine have declared a state of emergency after the explosion at the Kakhovka dam and adjacent hydroelectric plant, but many in the West have blamed Moscow.
“This is obviously, by all accounts, an aggression on the part of Russia to stop the Ukrainian offensive to defend its country,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told RTL broadcaster in the strongest comments by a world leader.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the explosion of the Kakhovka dam was “another devastating consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.
He called the explosion a “monumental humanitarian, economic and ecological catastrophe” in a statement, but avoided blaming Russia directly.
When an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was convened, the head of the presidential office in Kiev, Andriy Yermak, called for Russia to lose its seat on the body. Ukraine has also accused Russia of state terrorism before the highest court of the United Nations.
At the New York meeting, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya accused Moscow of detonating “a bomb of mass environmental destruction leading to the largest man-made bomb in Europe in decades”.
Kyslytsya spoke of an “ecological and technological act of terrorism”, adding that the explosion was “yet another example of Russia’s genocide against Ukrainians”.
Russian ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya, on the other hand, said the incident was a “deliberate sabotage undertaken by Kiev” and should be “classified as a war crime or an act of terrorism”. The dam had been used for an “unthinkable crime,” he said.
According to Moscow’s Foreign Ministry, the blast was a planned and targeted action by the Ukrainian military as part of its own counter-offensive.
Kiev had not only fired on the dam, but had also raised the water level to a critical level by opening a lock on the upper reaches of the Dnipro River in advance, the Russian ministry said. The rupture of the dam would damage agriculture and the ecosystem of the Kherson region and affect the water supply of the Crimea, according to Moscow’s indictment.
Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, gets its water from the Dnipro through a canal. While this was temporarily dried up after 2014, Russia also reopened the canal to Crimea for irrigation of the peninsula following the occupation of the Kakhovka dam.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has rejected Kremlin claims that Kiev destroyed the dam, likening the action to using a weapon of mass destruction.
“This is the largest man-made environmental disaster in Europe for decades,” he told a security conference in Bratislava via video link.
“Russia has controlled the Kakhovka dam with hydroelectric power station for more than a year and it is physically impossible to destroy it from the outside, by bombing,” he said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the dam’s destruction as “an outrageous act”.
About 17,000 residents of the Ukrainian-controlled bank of the Dnipro River alone needed to be rescued, Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor General Viktoria Lytvynova said on television.
In addition, some 25,000 people on the south bank of the river, occupied by Russia, are also at risk.
Little information is currently available about their fate and the wider situation, with water released from the reservoir behind the dam cascading down the river.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said the flood threatened as many as 80 cities. The dam is located about 30 kilometers east of the city of Kherson, which is held by Ukrainian forces.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said there is no immediate danger to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant.
“There is preparation for events like this at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, which will help staff deal with this new difficult situation. But, clearly, this is making an already very difficult nuclear safety situation even more difficult and unpredictable.” . IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said.
Grossi was expected to lead “another IAEA rotation next week in which he will assess the situation and discuss current and planned measures with plant management,” the agency said in a statement.
The Kakhovka dam explosion also caused at least 150 tons of machinery oil to spill into the Dnipro River, Ukrainian officials said, adding another 300 tons of oil was threatening the waterway.
The US government predicts “significant damage” to the Ukrainian people and the region following the destruction of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine.
“We know there are casualties, including likely many deaths, although these are early reports and we cannot quantify them at this time,” National Security Council communications director John Kirby said at the White House on Tuesday. “We can’t say definitively what happened at this point,” he added.
The US government also pointed out that Russia was in control of the hydroelectric plant during the explosion. “We’re doing our best to evaluate these reports,” Kirby said.
In addition to the loss of life, the destruction of the power plant could have a devastating impact on Ukraine’s energy security, he warned.