The leader of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group credited with seizing the Ukraine city of Bakhmut dismissed as “wild fantasies” claims by the Russian Defense Ministry that its troops killed more than 1,500 Ukrainian troops and halted their advance.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a frequent critic of the Russian military and defense minister Sergei Shoigu, said Tuesday that if the ministry’s inflated numbers since the war began were true “we have already destroyed the entire planet five times over.”
The long-running feud appeared to reach new heights this week as Prigozhin announced the capture of a Russian commander. In a video posted on Prigozhin’s social media channels, Lt. Col. Roman Venevitin admits that while drunk he had ordered his troops to fire on a Wagner convoy. Prigozhin also accused Russian forces of putting down land mines to kill his men as they withdrew from Bakhmut.
The Russian turmoil comes as a “substantial increase” in fighting is taking place this week along much of the front, including areas that have been relatively quiet for several months, the British Defense Ministry says in its latest assessment of the war. The ministry notes that the feud between Prigozhin and the Russian military has reached an unprecedented level.
“With Russia short of reserve units, the degree to which Wagner remains responsive to (Russian military leadership) will be a key factor in the conflict over the coming weeks,” the assessment says.
◾The U.N. Twitter feed posted a note that Tuesday was Russian Language Day. Ukraine’s official Twitter feed countered with “Happy Russian Language Day, @UN!” with a fake photo of a flooded U.N. General Assembly hall.
◾Kyiv is keeping silent about the start of any counteroffensive, but fighting is raging in several sections of the front line, signaling that the long-expected campaign could be getting underway.
◾Moscow claims it successfully fended off a Ukrainian attempt to ram through Russia’s defenses, but some pro-Kremlin military bloggers say Kyiv’s troops made some quick gains.
Dam blasted; thousands flee flooding
A major dam collapsed early Tuesday in a part of southern Ukraine controlled by Russia, causing massive flooding, putting thousands of homes at risk and threatening drinking water supplies.
Each side blamed the other for the disaster, which comes as Russian forces struggle against what appears to be the start of a long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Ukraine of “deliberate sabotage” to deprive Crimea of water. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the dam was mined by the Russian occupiers, creating the “largest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades.”
Video footage released by Zelenskyy showed water crashing through wide gaps in the dam and roaring downriver toward the city of Kherson, home to almost 300,000 residents before the war. Emergency crews evacuated thousands of people from Ukrainian and Russian-controlled areas.
“The destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant dam only confirms for the whole world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land,” Zelenskyy said on Twitter. “Not a single meter should be left to them, because they use every meter for terror.”
The Russia-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, a city of 45,000, said his town was underwater, state media reported. West of the Dnipro River in Kherson province, a region held by Ukraine, Gov. Oleksandr Prokudin said more than 1,300 houses were flooded, the Kyiv Independent reported.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which requires water for its cooling system, is upstream from the dam − also in territory controlled by Russia. The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement there was “no immediate risk to the safety of the plant.”
The Kakhovka dam holds back about 4.8 billion gallons of water. At maximum capacity, Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam, holds about 9.3 trillion gallons.
Aid agency rushes team to flood-devastated Kherson
The international aid group CARE is sending a small team to Kherson city early Wednesday to assess the damage and needs, said Alex Hope, the organization’s country safety and security manager. He said CARE has already arranged the delivery of 1,500 adult diapers for elderly residents unable to evacuate and the group could be coordinating assistance in repairing shelters and drinking-water supplies.
“Things are relatively calm,” he told USA TODAY on Tuesday from the coastal Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv. “You’ve got to imagine, because of the flooding of the dam, you’ve got the river widening. And that makes crossing it even harder, and (artillery) targeting even harder.”
Hope said about half of Kherson city’s residents had left previously because of the ongoing fighting, including near-daily barrages from nearby Russian troops. He said the smaller number of people in the city before the dam break helped reduce the risk from the water − but not necessarily from the fighting. Mykolaiv is about 40 miles northwest of Kherson.
“You’re having to move quickly while at the same time constantly assessing the security situation,” Hope said. “We’re still monitoring the situation because the flooding could increase.”
Based in Atlanta, CARE typically works with volunteers, in particular Ukrainian women, to distribute food and other supplies from the front lines to cities far from the fighting.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also said it’s providing humanitarian assistance, in the form of meals, drinking water, transportation and other necessities.
A top Ukrainian diplomat called Russia a “terrorist state” Tuesday in a hearing before the United Nations’ highest court and accused Russia of bankrolling a “campaign of intimidation and terror” by rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Anton Korynevych was addressing judges at the International Court of Justice in a case brought by Kyiv against Russia linked to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine wants the International Court of Justice to order Moscow to pay reparations for attacks in the regions, including for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 that was hit by Russia-backed rebels on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Russia will present its case Thursday.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry wrote on Telegram that the Kakhovka dam had been blown up by Russia. Russian officials countered that the dam was damaged by Ukrainian military strikes in the contested area. Ukraine has been warning for almost a year that Russia may try to destroy the dam.
“It is physically impossible to blow it up somehow from the outside, by shelling,” Zelenskyy said on Twitter. “It was mined by the Russian occupiers. And they blew it up.”
Experts have warned the dam, built in the 1950s, was in disrepair, and the occupying Russian forces might have neglected its maintenance.
The White House said it had yet to ascertain what led to the collapse. At a Cabinet meeting on Ukraine, President Joe Biden responded to a question a reporter shouted by saying, “We are not leaving. We are going to help Ukraine.”
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter the bloc will send Ukraine boats, water pumps and water-purification stations. She also made it clear whom she believes is to blame.
“Russia will have to pay for the war crimes committed in Ukraine,” von der Leyen said. “The destruction of the dam, an outrageous attack on civilian infrastructure, puts at risk thousands of people in the Kherson region.”
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The Kakhovka dam is one of six dams along the Dnipro River. It is crucial for drinking water and power supply for southeastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. The dam itself is about 100-feet tall and stretches for about 2 miles. It was built in 1956. Russian officials said about 22,000 people across 14 settlements could be impacted by flooding. Ukrainian officials said up to 80 settlements were at risk.
Ukraine’s nuclear operator, Energoatom, said in a Telegram statement that the blowing up of the dam “could have negative consequences for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” but at the moment the situation is “controllable.” A severe drop in the reservoir has the potential to deprive the nuclear plant of crucial cooling.
The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency wrote on Twitter that its experts were closely monitoring the situation and there was “no immediate nuclear safety risk” at the facility. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said he’ll lead a team visiting the plant next week.
The IAEA said in a separate statement that water in the reservoir was “at around 16.4 meters (53.8 feet) as of 8 a.m. local time. If it drops below 12.7 meters then it can no longer be pumped.” The IAEA said the reservoir was reducing at a rate of nearly 2 inches per hour.
The dam’s breach could also threaten crops in a country that’s normally among the world’s leading producers of corn, wheat, barley and sunflower oil.
Is Ukraine’s counteroffensive finally underway?
Ukraine and Russia are fighting an information war, as well as one on the battlefield. This makes it extremely difficult to know how much weight to give to military-related statements from either side. It was also not immediately clear whether or how the damage to the dam could impact Ukraine’s military plans.
Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed Monday that Ukrainian forces had begun a “large-scale offensive on five sectors of the front in the southern Donetsk area” and said its troops fended off at least one attack. Ukraine officials have said they won’t formally announce the start of the counteroffensive, but over the last few weeks they have acknowledged their forces were increasing preparation and some offensive operations.
At least two pro-Ukrainian militant groups appear to have mounted incursions into Russian territory in recent weeks. Ukraine’s leadership has distanced itself from those operations.
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Ukraine’s top military spy:Russia will be out of ‘military tools’ by spring
“Ukraine continues to be smart,” wrote Phillips P. O’Brien, a professor of strategic security studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in a recent blog that focuses on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“They are looking to cause a collapse in the Russian army first and foremost − and everything we are seeing in the shaping operations means they are giving themselves the best possible chance to do that.”
Contributing: The Associated Press