The Russian Way of Waging War

Volodymyr Kravchenko

September 7, 2023

By Volodymyr Kravchenko, Professor, Department of History, Classic and Religion, University of Alberta, Edmonton

Destruction of Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka Dam is a Line Russia Will Cross Again and Again

As images of Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka dam in June 2023 prove, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz points out the Russian strategy of attacking civilian targets is in line with Russia’s way of waging war. The floods hit towns in the Dnipro, Mykolaiv and Kherson regions, where approximately 875,000 people live. This horrific episode is only one dimension of the Russian war against Ukraine: the deadly waters killed 52 people, with 31 people still reported missing.

Alexey Konovalov/TASS/Handout via REUTERS
Alexey Konovalov/TASS/Handout via REUTERS

Since the beginning of Ukraine’s invasion, Russia’s way of waging war has been marked by devastation: damaged and mined roads; fields covered with burned machines and decomposing bodies of Russian soldiers; ruins of residential, public and historic buildings like theaters, churches and restaurants, and the moon-like landscapes at the Ukrainian-Russian borderland.

In recent weeks Russia even took to bombing the port and ships in Odesa, where grain is held for global use. There is growing concern that Russia’s destruction and theft of Ukraine’s grain could lead to a global weaponization of food for many countries that rely on it.

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam is also not the only case of Russia destroying dams, although not of this magnitude. According to the respected Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, “Russia is also either building or destroying dams in occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia oblast, with its aim clearly to flood the territory and thus impede the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ anticipated counter-offensive.”

In a country that endured theChornobyl nuclear catastrophe of 1986, the targeting of a water reservoir essential to the lives of millions of people in the vast area of South Ukraine and the Crimea still comes as a shock.

In October 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned the world that Kakhovka Dam, which was already under Moscow’s control, had been mined by the occupants who were ready to destroy it. That is exactly what happened earlier this year on the eve of the Ukrainian counter-offensive operation. The dam’s destruction not only unleashed the flood that ravaged Ukraine and the country’s people, its agriculture and the environment, it also laid bare the dangerous nature of Putin’s regime and the deeper historical roots.

 Historical analogies can be risky, but the Kakhovka Dam has a historical precedent. On August 18, 1941, during the early stage of the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the retreating Red Army blew up the biggest hydroelectric dam in Europe – DniproHES as part of its scorched earth tactic. Stalin, in his speech on July 3, 1941, said, “All valuable property, including non-ferrous metals, grain and fuel that cannot be withdrawn must be destroyed without fail.”[1]

Wikimedia Commons

Soviet security forces arrived from Moscow with twenty tons of explosives to destroy DniproHES. The ensuing flooding caused terrible environmental damage that led to the deaths of thousands of civilians. As The New York Times declared at the time, “Dnieper Dam reported blown up by Russians” in order “to bar Nazis’ Path with Flood.” While Soviet authorities claimed that the deluge from the Dnipro reservoir was the result of Nazi sabotage, details of that operation, including the names of the perpetrators, are known today.  

The DniproHES was opened in 1932 — the year that saw the beginning of the Holodomor – the man-made Famine that killed millions of Ukrainian citizens. While Soviet authorities were exalting the DniproHES in propaganda as victory of humankind over nature, they denied the Famine they had caused and did their utmost to hide it from the world. But these events — the destruction of the DNiproHES and the Holodomor — are two sides of the same coin, demonstrating the horrific lack of humanity in the Russian/Soviet political culture inherited by Putin’s regime.

Communist rhetoric was used to disguise Russian traditional imperialism, but it could not deceive insightful contemporaries who recognised the typological proximity of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Russian thinker Georgy Fedotov wrote in 1945: “The USSR in the Stalin era is a typically fascist, i.e., totalitarian, national-communist power.… It is still possible to argue about which of the two ideas of the regime – national or communist – to a greater extent determine the foreign policy of the USSR. But both the national and the communist are equally aggressive: they equally oppose themselves to the rest of the world, like a hostile force that finds the condition of its security only in the enslavement of other peoples.”[2]

The Second World War, known from Soviet times as “the Great Patriotic War,” extended the life of the Soviet regime for two generations. The war against Ukraine not only extending the life of Putin’s criminal regime, it became a decisive moment in the evolution of Soviet Russia towards a national version of fascism stripped of Communist rhetoric. In attempt to imitate Stalin’s policy during the World War II with its shtrafbats (penal battalions), anti-Fascist rhetoric, and the tactic of scorched earth, the Kremlin only reveals its deep historical and cultural connections with the bizarre legacy of Muscovite Tsardom.

The vicious cycle of Russian history has been notable, not only for a mythological worldview, xenophobia and aggressive anti-modern attitude but also a total disregard for human life along with a culture of suffering and subjugation cultivated by the Russian Orthodox Church. It has already absolved all war criminals from their sins in advance and became a driving force in the war against Ukraine. There seem to be no red lines left for the aggressor to cross, no moral restraints, and no obligations to consider.

The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam indeed revealed a new dimension of the Russian war, and Russia has shown through and through that it will continue with its war crimes against Ukraine until they are stopped.

[1] Stalin, J. V., Radio Broadcast, July 3, 1941,,on%20June%2022%2C%20is%20continuing.

[2]  Fedotov, Georgy, Sobranie sochinenii v 12 tomakh, tom IX, Stat’I amerikanskogo perioda, Moscow: Martis, 2004, s.185.

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