The protracted deadlock in the trenches of the war in Ukraine is giving way to high-intensity battles, and this escalation instantly generates widespread international resonance, in which expectations of a Ukrainian victory are mixed with concerns about a Russian defeat.
Now, the initiative is clearly with the Ukrainian forces, which, from June 5, started a series of probing attacks along the 600-mile frontline, insisting on complete information silence about their scope and outcome (Novayagazeta.eu, June 8).
Russian official statements, which are no more trustworthy than the reporting of many “military-patriotic” bloggers, proclaim that the full-scale offensive by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization–trained Ukrainian brigades have been repelled, alleging losses of Leopard-2 tanks, which essentially means that significant reserves are being committed to strengthening Russia’s defenses (Izvestiya, June 9). Russian reinforcements are inevitably exposed to Ukraine’s high-precision artillery and missile strikes, and the balance of fluid battles may shift suddenly and perhaps even decisively.
The Kakhovka dam’s destruction
One shocking development amid this Ukrainian “pre-offensive” was the breach of the Kakhovka dam in the early hours of June 6, resulting in catastrophic flooding of the Kherson region (Forbes.ru, June 8).
Moscow immediately blamed Kyiv in triggering this disaster by artillery barrage; however, even in strictly military-strategic terms, this version does not hold water, as Ukrainian forces had fought persistently for control over several islands on the Dnipro River, seeking to turn them into bridgeheads for a possible secondary offensive (Topwar.ru, June 7). Russian troops have quickly fled from their defensive positions along the river to counter Ukrainian attacks in the directions of Tokmak and Melitopol (Republic.ru, June 7).
The possibility of a spontaneous collapse of the 66-year-old dam, which had not been receiving proper maintenance, cannot be ruled out, though evidence of Russian activity points to the contrary and its coinciding with the Ukrainian offensive is rather too convenient (Meduza, June 7). Seismic data from several sources points to an explosion in the main building of the hydropower station, which was controlled by Russian forces (Kommersant, June 9).
The evidence may not be entirely compelling, but it strongly suggests that Russian forces set the explosion seeking to disrupt Ukraine’s plans for breaking through at several key vulnerable points (Svoboda, June 9). The strategic gains might appear underwhelming compared with the colossal ecological damage to the territories that Moscow claims to be “constitutionally” part of the Russian Federation (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 6).
In the cost-benefit calculus of Russian high command, however, one more crime against humanity and the environment counts for much less than a demonstration of resolve (even if covered by denials) to go to extreme measures to avoid defeat (The Moscow Times, June 8). The Kremlin is likely aware of the historic precedent of August 18, 1941, when Soviet command ordered an explosion of the Dneproges dam seeking to hamper the German offensive and leaving the retreating troops in a hopeless situation (Current Time TV, June 9). Thousands perished in the catastrophic flooding, but Moscow accused Berlin of that crime and even sought to add that case to the proceeding of the 1945–1946 Nuremberg tribunals — yet failing to provide any proof (New Voice of Ukraine, June 6).
Opportunities in the disaster
The shockwave from the Kakhovka dam’s destruction was felt around the globe. And one newly re-elected leader, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, discovered an opportunity in this disaster, first contacting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and then Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the calls, Erdogan advocated for setting up an international commission to investigate the case (RBC, June 7).
While the idea received zero positive responses, the Turkish president has succeeded with upholding his profile as the key mediator between the irreconcilable parties (Izvestiya, June 8). His immediate goal is to ensure another prolongation of the “grain deal” on exporting Ukrainian corn and wheat by sea, neutralizing Moscow’s threats to cancel it after an explosion on the ammonia pipeline, which has remained idle since the start of the war but was a central subject in the complex bargaining led by Ankara (Gazeta.ru, June 7).
Turkish efforts at cultivating a dialogue have prompted several attention-seeking parties from the Global South to present initiatives for terminating the Ukraine war and preventing Russia’s defeat. Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto surprised participants at this year’s Shangri-La conference with the proposition to establish a demilitarized zone in the “disputed territories” — a notion duly rejected by Ukraine (Forbes.ru, June 3). South African President Cyril Ramaphosa promotes the African initiative, which broadly follows the amorphous pattern of the Chinese “peace plan” and thus has received an approving nod from Beijing (RBC, June 10).
In general terms, these vague proposals reflect worries in many quarters of the Global South about newly gained Western solidarity centered on the commitment to ensure Ukraine’s victory. As such, many developing countries are tilted in Russia’s favor.
Moscow, nevertheless, is unable to benefit from these quasi-goodwill (but in fact, quite biased) initiatives because any reduction of its maximalist goals would signify a fiasco of the grand endeavor of asserting Russian “greatness” on the global arena by subjugating Ukraine (The Insider, June 5). Public opinion in Russia may be ready to accept the cessation of fighting at the expense of some of the newly annexed territories, but the Kremlin is trapped in the mix of inflated ambitions, delusions about its military might and fears to show weakness by accepting any compromise (Re:Russia, June 8). Putin can claim that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is unsuccessful, but he cannot explain away the profound deterioration of Russia’s domestic security (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 9).
Offensive at a price
The success of the long-promised Ukrainian offensive is by no means guaranteed, and every square mile of liberated land may demand a painful price. What this determined effort can prove, nevertheless, is the fact that Russia keeps losing the war and has no capacity for turning the tide. Ukraine has already shown incredible resilience in defending its sovereignty, and now it is showing tenacious will in restoring its territorial integrity. Confused and demoralized Russia has neither of these resources, and its defensive lines can suddenly be breached just as the Kakhovka dam was.
The West, however, cannot count on such a breakthrough and needs to sustain the momentum of unity and determination to defeat, rather than deter, the Kremlin, which has made itself into a global menace. Ukraine depends on this momentum, and its success on the battlefield can and needs to be consolidated at the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius.