The humanitarian disaster of the burst dam may only amount to a setback for Ukraine's military.
Even before the dam break, the Dnipro River was a formidable obstacle for Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine might have chosen to avoid a risky river crossing anyway for their counter-offensive.
The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam on Tuesday unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe on an already battered population, necessitating a massive rescue effort amid dire scenes that resemble a hurricane's wake. But in military terms, it may amount to little more than a minor setback for Ukraine.
The reason: Ukraine's military seems to be choosing to attack elsewhere.
"The flooding of the lower Dnipro will not likely have any impact on the areas that have seen active fighting recently," noted the Institute for the Study of War think tank in a Tuesday assessment.
Even before the dam break, the Dnipro River was a formidable obstacle for Ukrainian forces, who would have to rapidly cross it in boats, on a surviving crossing or pontoon bridges, or leap-frog it in helicopters, all while likely taking fire. The breach of the dam has extended the lower river's delta, flooding towns and rendering more areas impassable for the masses of armored vehicles and artillery needed to shatter Russia's fortifications.
Crossing the lower river as it flows southwest into the Black Sea was likely foreseen as a big risk, another influential expert on the Russian military noted Wednesday.
"A Ukrainian cross-river operation in southern Kherson, below the dam, was always a risky and therefore low-probability prospect," Michael Kofman, the director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, said on Twitter.
—Michael Kofman (@KofmanMichael) June 7, 2023
Ukraine accused Russian forces last October of mining the Russian-controlled dam. While the cause of the dam's destruction is still being investigated, Western intelligence is leaning toward Russia. The damaged dam's destruction occurred at what appears at critical moment in the war: only days after Russian officials claimed to be confronting the Ukrainian counter-offensive they've been bracing for.
Experts have seen signs of Russia waging so-called hydraulic warfare previously in the war. In the aftermath of the Dnipro flood, a Ukrainian general said that they had taken "insidious actions" by Russia into account in their operational planning.
Instead of crossing the Dnipro, another option for Ukraine is to attack east of the river entirely. An effective assault there, in the Zaporizhia region, would avoid a dangerous riverine operation and still offers Ukraine the chance to cleave the Russian forces in the southern Kherson region from the occupied lands in Ukraine's east — a hammer blow to the so-called land-bridge that links Russian-held Crimea through a belt of southern Ukraine to Russia.
"If the Ukrainian plan is to break through [Russian Federation] lines in Zaporizhia and advance to the ground lines of communication from Crimea, or sever the 'land bridge' (and I won't speculate as to what it might be), the resultant flooding is unlikely to impede such an operation," Kofman said.
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