Western leaders accuse Russia of war crime over dam destruction

Damage to Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka dam, which unleashed massive flooding in the Kherson region, could be a potential war crime, EU and Ukrainian leaders said Tuesday.

“The destruction of the Kakhovka dam today put thousands of civilians at risk and causes severe environmental damage,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference from the Bucharest Nine (B9) summit in Slovakia. “This is an outrageous act, which demonstrates — once again — the brutality of Russia’s war against Ukraine.”

He added that the damage to the dam demonstrated that the war Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed on Ukraine “is totally unacceptable and a blatant violation of international law.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he saw the attack as a “new dimension” of Russia’s war. While he avoided explicitly saying the Kremlin’s forces had destroyed the dam, he said the attack “fits the way Putin is waging this war,” in comments made at an event in Berlin.

Scholz said Russia had experienced “many setbacks” over the course of the war and had “always drawn the conclusion from this to proceed with even greater aggression against Ukraine.”

The dam’s destruction “joins many, many of the crimes we have seen in Ukraine that have emanated from Russian soldiers,” Scholz continued.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock doubled down on that position, saying Russia was using the dam, which is located in the vicinity of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as a “weapon of war,” putting many lives at risk. “There is only one responsible for this environmental disaster: Russia’s criminal war of aggression on Ukraine,” Baerbock said.

In a joint statement, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the bloc’s Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said Russia was “continuing its reckless nuclear gamble” with a “desperate act.”

“It represents a new dimension of Russian atrocities and may constitute a violation of international law, notably international humanitarian law,” the statement reads.

U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly called the dam attack “an abhorrent act,” adding: “Intentionally attacking exclusively civilian infrastructure is a war crime.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said Russia had bombed the Soviet-era dam, which bridges Ukraine’s Dnipro River in a part of the Kherson region occupied by Russian troops, holding back as much as 18 cubic kilometers of water, flooding surrounding villages. The dam also supplies water to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. The dam serves as one of three major crossings along the Dnieper.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the damage to the dam was “probably Europe’s largest technological disaster in decades,” adding it could constitute a “heinous war crime.”

Russia claimed Ukraine was responsible for the attack — which Kyiv denies.

Experts indicate Moscow has much more to gain from the destruction of the dam, as it seeks to slow Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive.

“Russia has been controlling the dam … for more than a year,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at the B9 summit. “It is physically impossible to blow it up somehow from the outside … It was mined by the Russian occupiers. And they blew it up.”

Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.

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