June 9, 2023



A Russian law passed days before the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine could be a “smoking gun” in proving Russia’s involvement in the incident, according to an expert.

On May 30, a week before the dam’s collapse, the Russian government approved a law aimed at “ensuring the safety of hydraulic structures” in the Ukrainian regions it proclaimed to have annexed in September 2022—the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.

The legislation states that until January 1, 2028, investigations into accidents at hydro-technical structures that occurred as a result of military operations, sabotage and terrorist activities are prohibited. The decree was signed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and came into effect on the day it was published.

The Soviet-era dam is part of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station in southern Ukraine on the Dnieper River. It was breached in the early hours of June 6, unleashing water on swaths of land as a long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive to take back the seized territories kicked off.

Russia maintains that it wasn’t behind its collapse and has accused Ukraine of blowing up the dam to distract attention from a “faltering” counteroffensive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russian forces of blowing up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station from inside the facility as part of a “terrorist attack.”

Mounting evidence increasingly points to Russian involvement in the attack, Newsweek has been told.

Samantha de Bendern, associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank’s Russia and Eurasia program, shared the Russian legislation on Twitter, writing: “Smoking gun for the #KakhovkaDam?”

The dam’s collapse has caused widespread devastation in Ukraine’s partially occupied Kherson region. Zelensky has described the situation as “an environmental bomb of mass destruction” that has left hundreds of thousands of people without normal access to drinking water.

Thousands have been ordered to evacuate from the partially occupied Kherson region amid rising water levels. Ukrainian animal welfare charity UAnimals coordinating rescue missions in the region told Newsweek it estimates that tens of thousands of animals will die due to flooding.

Oleg Ustenko, an economic adviser to Zelensky, told Newsweek the overall price tag of the dam’s destruction is “billions of dollars,” while Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of the city of Melitopol in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, told Newsweek the incident marked a “new stage of the war.”

Kremlin Playbook

Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow at the Chatham House think tank’s Russia and Eurasia program, said the May 30 legislation follows the Kremlin’s playbook, which seeks “to pretend that it operates according to some semblance of legality.” “Russia has a perverse fascination with performative legalization of its most horrific crimes…it repeatedly puts in place in advance laws that give preemptive excuses for its actions,” Giles told Newsweek. “Sometimes this can give an indication of what is to come,” said Giles, pointing to legislation on mass burials that was updated by Russia ahead of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and came into effect on February 1, 2022—weeks before the war began. “So the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, the passing a week beforehand of this bizarrely specific law covering precisely those circumstances, is indeed a clear indication of Russian intent,” Giles added.

Newsweek reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry via email for comment.

Anders Åslund, an economist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, said the May 30 decree “only concludes what we already knew.” “Russian propagandists advocated blowing up the dam.

Ukrainian officials announced last fall that the Russians had mined both the dam and the connected tunnels in October-November 2022,” Åslund, who has served as an economic adviser to the governments of both Russia and Ukraine, told Newsweek. “Several explosions were recorded, which show that they were underwater, while the Russians claimed that the Ukrainians had bombed it from the air, which seems close to impossible for technical reasons. The explosions occurred on the Russian side. The Russians followed up blowing up several smaller dams—recorded by the Ukrainians. And now you have this law,” he said, adding: “The evidence seems overwhelming that it was the Russians who did it.”


Isabel van Brugen is a Newsweek Reporter based in Kuala Lumpur. Her current focus is on the Russia-Ukraine war, and she has covered human rights issues in previous roles. Isabel joined Newsweek in 2021 and had previously worked with news outlets including the Daily Express, The Times, Harper’s BAZAAR, and Grazia. She has an MA in Newspaper Journalism at City, University of London, and a BA in Russian language at QMUL. Languages: English, Russian