KYIV, Ukraine — Shelling and an explosion in recent days near a critical dam that spans the Dnipro River north of Kherson city in Ukraine have heightened concerns about the risk of possible flooding, although given the ongoing fighting in the area, it has been impossible to know the full extent of damage to the structure.
On Saturday, Kremlin-aligned Russian news outlets published a video purporting to show a large explosion in the area of the Kakhivska Hydroelectric power plant, which is a part of the dam complex. It was unclear when the blast took place, but local residents said they had heard a large explosion on Friday afternoon.
Rybar, an influential pro-war Russian military blog, posted a video that had been published by the Russian outlet iz.ru. and claimed that Russian forces had set off the explosion. Other Russian news outlets blamed the Ukrainians.
The road over the dam, in the town of Nova Kakhovka, was the last major crossing left to Russian forces in the area. It is also a vital piece of infrastructure that holds back a body of water the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
For weeks, the Ukrainians and the Russians have each warned that the other side would try to damage the dam. Military analysts have said that it would not be in either side’s interest to destroy it, though, since doing so would have an impact on both armies, which are now on opposite banks of the Dnipro River.
Satellite images showed that the area around the dam had suffered damage from Thursday into Friday, when Russian forces retreated to the eastern side of the Dnipro, abandoning Kherson and the surrounding territory on the west bank.
An image taken by Maxar, the U.S. satellite imagery company, at 10:25 a.m. local time on Friday showed that three spans of the road and railroad at the northern end of the connecting bridge across the dam had been destroyed. Images from the previous day showed no damage.
It was not clear whether the dam could still be used for crossing the river or whether its structural integrity had suffered the kind of damage that could lead to widespread flooding. Nor could it be determined which side was responsible.
The Ukrainian military’s southern command said on Saturday that it was battling Russian forces on both sides of the dam.
Ukrainian strikes on small bridges over the dam’s spillway had already partly closed the route to vehicle traffic.
Even before the war, the dam’s importance was evident. Its reservoir is crucial to the operations of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, about 100 miles upriver, providing the water necessary for cooling functions.
As Russian positions grew more precarious recently, Moscow accused Ukraine of planning to destroy the dam — a claim that Ukraine and its Western allies dismissed as absurd.
Kyiv has said that it had no incentive to flood its own land and that the Russian accusations, made without evidence, were a sign that Moscow was preparing a “false flag” operation to blow up the dam itself, potentially flooding 80 towns, villages and cities, including Kherson.
“Russia is consciously laying the groundwork for a large-scale disaster in Ukraine’s south,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said during an address to the European Council last month.