Ukraine's troops long planned their move on Russian forces. Then came the flood
KHERSON, Ukraine — The soldiers had staked out the islands for months, working in shifts, often crossing the river at night to build a bridgehead for Ukraine's long-awaited counteroffensive.
"Then our command office said the enemy had blown up the Kakhovka dam," said Andriy, a tactician in a territorial defense unit in this southern Ukrainian region.
Millions of tons of water rushed down Ukraine's largest river, the Dnipro, flooding towns and settlements in its wake. The catastrophic flooding also upended months of careful maneuvers by Ukrainian forces in the region.
Over several weeks, NPR spoke with Andriy and several other soldiers working in reconnaissance and special forces here. They declined to give their last names for security reasons but said they were helping to lay the groundwork for a counteroffensive. But instead of facing off against Russian soldiers, they found themselves fighting floodwaters.
A pre-dawn call
Andriy got the call about the dam explosion at 2:58 a.m. on June 6, not long after he had helped embed fellow soldiers from his territorial defense unit onto the islands of the Dnipro River.
A 40-something with a Viking-style warrior haircut, Andriy recalled bolting out of bed to help evacuate civilians and soldiers. In a series of voice messages to NPR sent earlier this month, he alternated between calmly describing the unfolding disaster and raging against "Russia's war of ecocide and genocide to destroy the Ukrainian people."
"The Russians showed that they can blow up a hydroelectric plant," he said in an exhausted voice. "Who says tomorrow they won't blow up a nuclear power plant?"
Russia denies it blew up the dam and instead claims the Ukrainians did it. Ukraine's security services say they intercepted communicationspointing to a group of Russian saboteurs who intended to damage the dam but instead accidentally blew it up. Andriy said he doesn't believe it was an accident.
"They knew that, as a consequence, it would flood the islands and the occupied bank, where our troops are already, without thinking about their own personnel there, and of course, without thinking about civilians," he said.
Months of counteroffensive groundwork
Andriy and his unit had spent months doing reconnaissance work on the islands of the Dnipro, which divides the two armies. Russian forces currently occupy land in the Kherson region that begins east of the river and stretches south toward the peninsula of Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.
Before last November, Russian forces also occupied the regional capital, the city of Kherson. After Ukrainian forces liberated it, Russian soldiers responded by shelling the city and surrounding villages nearly every day. Russian snipers also shot at anyone near the riverbank. Kherson's regional military administration says Russian attacks have killed more than 260 people in the area since last November.
Serhiy, a former park ranger who is in Andriy's unit, said in an interview last month that residents were killed everywhere — waiting for a train, going to the doctor, grocery shopping with their kids.
"We won't be safe here until we push out the Russians," he said.
The river islands, Serhiy said, were the best place to observe Russian troops.
"This is the closest we can get to the enemy to see their movements with our own eyes," he said.
The stakeouts on the river islands came with enormous risk. Serhiy said he and the other soldiers faced constant shelling and attack drones constantly flying over their heads. Russian soldiers in tanks stood ready to strike with artillery or mortars "at the slightest movement."
Andriy said he knew that an offensive across a heavily guarded river would be challenging. Military experts also saw difficulties in moving troops into soft terrain with floodplains and irrigation canals.
But he said his unit had made progress — destroying Russian equipment and enemy sabotage groups, fortifying positions along both sides of the Dnipro. He cited Ukrainian media reports and government statements saying Russian forces had begun evacuating residents from the occupied side and forcing them to apply for Russian passports.
He saw this as a sign that the Russians knew they were losing.
The river guerrillas
Andriy and his territorial defense unit were not alone on the river islands and banks. A group from Ukraine's special forces had also spent months sabotaging Russian camps and attacking Russian-installed politicians on the occupied side.
"We would also give the coordinates of Russian weapons stockpiles to our artillery units," says Alex, one of those special forces fighters. "And then we would do a little piff-poff," he added, simulating the sound of shooting. "On the Russians. You know what I mean."
Alex is a sniper with graying hair and a rapid-fire sense of humor. He and his wife Svitlana dreamed of returning to their 17-acre farm in the occupied town of Oleshky across the river.
"Now the Russians are on my land," he said when we met in Kherson last month. "They are living in my home. They are drinking my water."
He and Svitlana lived with another special forces fighter and his wife in Kherson. Shelling had pockmarked the iron gate around their house. Inside, the garden was blooming. After two explosions boomed, Svitlana started to joke about needing to wear her custom-made body armor to water the flowers.
"We better go in the house," Alex said, with a nervous smile. "You never know what could land on you out here."
As Alex and the other fighter, Michel, made a schnitzel lunch for their wives, they explained that they met last summer, before the city of Kherson was liberated, after spending months ambushing Russians on the river islands and in the marshlands in the occupied area.
After months of guerrilla-style warfare, Alex was convinced that a large-scale counteroffensive here was imminent.
"Don't expect some scene out of World War II, like millions of soldiers swimming across the Dnipro River," Alex said. "Everything will happen like it's supposed to."
The flood — and its aftermath
Alex said he didn't expect the Russians to blow up the dam. But when they did, he knew that the floodwaters would drown his occupied town, Oleshky, and the farm where he and his wife used to host their famous barbecues before the war.
He immediately texted friends in Oleshky, sending them the coordinates of high-rise buildings on higher ground, where they could shelter with Ukrainian partisans.
In the first few days, he said, it was nearly impossible to cross the Dnipro River. He knew of at least two territorial defense soldiers who died trying.
"They were very experienced," he said, "but in a split second their boat capsized."
Andriy, the territorial defense soldier, said that Russian forces also shot at anyone trying to evacuate.
"We could not use helicopters to help them," he said, "We also could not use emergency rescue workers, because they could be killed by Russian terrorists. We had to rely on each other."
He said some soldiers died trying to evacuate civilians by boat but declined to give more details.
Within a couple of days, Oleshky was flooded, including Alex's home. His mother-in-law as well and the couple's beloved dogs survived by sheltering on top of a roof. A group of volunteers rescued them amid constant shelling from Russian forces.
Alex said he can't say much more than that, repeating the Ukrainian military's slogan for the counteroffensive: "Plans like silence." He says the Russians are still hunting anyone trying to rescue stranded Ukrainians.
"They are firing at them," he said. "And there are victims."
He said the fighters in his unit made it out alive and saw the bodies of many dead Russian soldiers floating by. Those who survived were clinging to trees.
"Our unit even took a prisoner," he said, referring to a Russian captive. "He was taken down from a tree."
Most of Oleshky remains flooded. Alex remains hopeful that Ukraine can reclaim it and the rest of Kherson once the floodwaters recede.
Andriy, the territorial defense soldier, also said that this disaster is not going to slow down Ukraine's quest to push Russian forces out of their land.
But he says he lies awake thinking about post-flooding problems, like dislodged landmines and the loss of so much farmland.
"The situation looks really difficult," he said. "And we will be dealing with this long after liberation."
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