20 Jun Tracking State Reactions to the Destruction of the Kakhovka Dam
On the morning of June 6th, 2023, Ukraine accused Russia of destroying the Kakhovka Dam in the Dnieper River. A few hours later, during the afternoon on the same day, Russia blamed Ukraine for the destruction. Since then, I searched and collected statements by forty-nine other states addressing the destruction. This post analyses and systematises these forty-nine reactions in order to offer a clearer outlook of what the position of the international community is. As an extra tool for researchers, I am also attaching an infographic summarising my findings and a chart collecting all statements.
Before I present these findings, however, a few notes on methodology. As you will see in both the infographic and the chart, the data here collected is organised along two main indicators: “Attitude” and “Attribution”. Attitude notes the tone of the state’s statement with regards to the destruction. These can be “Negative”, meaning that the state considered the destruction to be (to put it simply) “a bad thing”; “Neutral”, meaning that the state expressed no approval or disapproval of the destruction; or “Positive”, meaning that the state considered the destruction to be “a good thing”. Negative statements include wordings such as condemnations, and expressions of appalment or shock. Neutral statements include mere expressions of concern, without actually qualifying the position further, or invocations for “both parties” to respect international law or punish those responsible. While there were no Positive statements, these would in theory include expressions welcoming the destruction or praising the author.
I have further divided the “Negative” indicator to into a smaller category labelled “Illegal”. This means that the state not only condemned the attack, but actually thought it breached international law or international humanitarian law. Within this indicator, I have included two more subcategories: those states that thought the destruction was illegal because it was a war crime, and those that thought so because it was an act of terrorism. All states that concluded the latter also concluded the former, so “Terrorism” should be seen as a subcategory of “War Crimes” for the purposes of the graph. To qualify for these subcategories, states had to make express claims. General references to international law and international humanitarian law were not enough. States had to call the destruction a crime (not necessarily a war crime, though) or an act of terrorism.
Attribution relates to whom the state considers to be responsible for the destruction. This is the more nuanced of the indicators, as many states were relatively cryptic in their statements, sometimes even making implied or tacit accusations, like not explicitly mentioning the author of the attack but expressing solidarity to the state or government of Ukraine (as opposed to “the Ukrainian people”) in the face of the attack. This means that there will be inevitably some nuance on how I interpreted these tacit statements and there is certainly room for disagreement. This is not meant as a final ruling on the matter and many will read several statements differently than me; which is, in all honesty, why I am providing access to all of them through the attached chart.
One common yet particularly obscure way of phrasing statements involved arguing that the destruction of the dam was “a consequence of Russia’s war of aggression”. This drafting was used by Bulgaria, Canada, France, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Switzerland, and the US. I have considered these statements as “Unattributed”, since the wording could, potentially (albeit, I grant, improbably) denote that even if Ukraine had been responsible for the destruction specifically, the only reason why it had been destroyed was because Russia launched a war of aggression in the first place. This seems therefore like a clever way for Western states to not rush their claim of attribution, while at the same time clearly criticising Russia. The only exceptions to this were Montenegro and North Macedonia. Montenegro issued a statement calling the destruction “a part of the ruthless war of aggression against innocent civilians in Ukraine” and committing to provide help “to friendly Ukraine, which bravely stands in the line of defence of our common values”. North Macedonia condemned the attack and ended with an emphatic “Russian aggression must stop!” In my opinion, Montenegro and North Macedonia are saying that the attack itself is a part of Russia’s strategy and not simply an unattributed consequence of its war – but of course, readers might disagree.
With these methodological precisions out of the way, what do these statements tell us about the relevance of the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam? One first key aspect is an international law argument. As Marco Milanovic stated over at EJIL Talk!, “IHL does not regard as attacks the sabotage of a party’s own dam”. Thus, if, as it seems most likely, it was Russia that destroyed the dam with a planned explosion in territory it controlled, it is legally questionable whether such action can be described as an “attack” (even if it does count as a war crime). And yet, several states have clearly stated that the destruction was an attack. This was the case with the statements from Albania, Belarus, Czechia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.
From a legal perspective, it is also worth noting that 27 states considered the destruction of a dam (i.e. civilian infrastructure containing dangerous forces) an illegal act, including both Russia and Ukraine. In fact, not a single state defended its legality. This strengthens the ICRC’s conclusion that under customary international law, works and installations containing dangerous forces “may not be made the object of attack” and that “particular care must be taken (…) in order to avoid the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population”.
Beyond these legal claims, it is perhaps most interesting to read this data in the context of the West’s continuing bafflement about why the Global South is not joining the West against Russia. When looked at from this perspective, only 13 countries outside of Europe and North America issued statements: Brazil, Chile, China, Georgia, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, Syria, Turkey, and UAE. Of these, Brazil, China, Turkey, and Iran issued Neutral statements.
One thing that is sure to complicate this debate about the Global South’s position even further is that it took a long time for Russia’s traditional allies to speak out; and when they did, the reaction was underwhelming. Belarus, Iran, and Syria, in fact, waited 48 hours and only issued statements on June 8th. While Syria and Belarus sided fully with Russia, Iran decided to stay neutral. Interestingly as well, Belarus’ statement is particularly timid: “You can probably know who destroyed the Kakhovka HPP”, said Belarus’ President Lukashenko, “[i]t is clear that Ukraine had to disguise its three day counteroffensive (…) that is why they are talking about Kakhovka”. While this is clearly implying that Ukraine is responsible for the destruction, it is certainly very far from a clear-cut condemnation. Is it possible, therefore, that it took two days for Russia to convince its closest ally to come out in favour of the attack and this was the best it could get out of them?
Belarus is not the only suspicious case, particularly if we consider which states did not issue statements. In fact, Bolivia, Cuba and South Africa, all had clear opportunities to address the destruction but decided not to. In Bolivia, the Minister of Foreign Affairs gave a long speech about the war before the country’s Senate during an impeachment hearing; in South Africa, President Ramaphosa held an extended press conference where he announced the start of a peace mission to Russia and Ukraine; and the Cuban Prime Minister met with the Russian Vice-President. And yet, none of these three countries with strong strategic and/or historic ties to the Kremlin even mentioned the dam (and therefore refused to follow Russia’s narrative). Perhaps most surprisingly, the traditionally vocal Venezuelan regime remained absolutely silent, perhaps seeking to avoid complicating its recent rapprochement with the US. Hungary and Serbia, two other states friendly to Russia, also remained silent.
While we can speculate about why Russia had a hard time nudging its allies, it is also undeniable that the attack was perceived by the Global South as mostly a European affair: not a single African state issued a statement and neither did India, South Korea, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Mexico, or Argentina. In fact, if we single out those states that made the most condemnatory statements (e.g. those that called the attack an act of terrorism or a war crime and attributed it to either Russia or Ukraine), then the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam was clearly an Eastern European affair: Albania, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine issued such statements condemning Russia, with Syria and Russia itself being the only outliers, issuing similar statements, but in condemnation of Ukraine. Instead, NATO’s most powerful members remained relatively moderate: while Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and even the US, all condemned the destruction, their statements fell short of attribution. The only non-Eastern European NATO members to blame Russia were Italy, Norway, and Portugal. Three NATO members, in fact, Belgium, Denmark and Turkey, issued Neutral statements, not even condemning the destruction of the dam.
In other words, as a general rule, the further away from Eastern Europe, the less drastically states reacted. This is particularly interesting, considering one of the most popular excuses for Russia’s war of aggression: that the West encroached upon its “sphere of influence”. With the exception of Hungary, Belarus and the non-NATO Balkans (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia), all Eastern European states condemned Russia for the attack, including, relevantly, former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states. This seems to confirm, therefore, that the old East-West axis is not the one defining 21st century international relations: in Europe, the “old East” is now clearly aligned with the West, even in those countries not yet incorporated into NATO. After all, it was not Georgia, Hungary, Moldova, or Serbia that (I believe) Russia took two days to convince to come out in its defence; it was Syria.
Similarly, the emerging powers competing with the West, but trying to find a non-aligned middle-ground to inhabit, not with the West but also not with Russia, are all outside the East-West axis, but rather on a North-South one: Brazil, China, Iran, which issued Neutral statements, and South Africa, which launched a peace mission.
The world painted by the reaction to the Kakhovka Dam, therefore, looks very different to the Cold War’s, despite the insistence by some that this East-West split still explains the world – that the “real cause of the war” is the US’ desire to “turn Ukraine into a pro-Western liberal democracy”. Looking at the reaction from states like Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, and considering the outrage by the vast majority of former-Soviet and former-Warsaw-Pact NATO states, these parts of the world are already clearly “pro-Western” and fairly liberal. To find the kind of ideological and geopolitical competition these views seek, one needs to look away from Russia (now rather perceived as a rogue actor) and instead either travel to the South (Brazil, South Africa) or further to the East (China).
This is not to say, however, that the axis is changing from East-West to North-South. As the deafening silence from the Global South shows, most Southern states don’t see this as a conflict that requires their constant participation and taking of position. This is especially the case when Russia controls access to fertilisers and feedstocks at a time of high food inflation. Thus, instead of seeing the world with Cold War goggles we should start to look at it in terms of how so-called “emerging powers” (most notably Brazil, China and South Africa) are taking advantage of the war to try to carve what Brazilian scholar, Oliver Stuenkel, calls a “post-Western order” – a “parallel order” that will “initially complement, and later possibly challenge, today’s international institutions”. As he points out, “[t]hese structures do not emerge because China and others have fundamentally new ideas about how to address global challenges or because they seek to change global rules and norms; rather, they create them to better project their power, just as Western actors have done before them.”
I hope this post and its accompanying materials are of use for researchers. I will continue to track major events in the War in Ukraine going forward. For now, you can find the infographic and chart ready for download below.
To download the Chart, click here.
To download the Infographic, click here.