June 8, 2023 - 1:00pm

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam has sparked fevered speculation about the future of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russian invaders. Opinions differ over the degree to which the demolition of the dam favours Russia or Ukraine. Some argue it will throw Ukraine’s plans into chaos, while others point out that much of the impact of the flooding falls on Russian-held territory. 

Time will tell which interpretation turns out to be true. The same can’t necessarily be said, though, for questions about the motivations behind the demolition. Russia would certainly appear the most likely culprit: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pointed out that Russia has held the dam for more than a year and that it is “physically impossible to blow it up from the outside”. 

Case closed, then? Not on the international stage. Many statements of condemnation from Ukraine’s Western backers have been notably cautious about directly blaming Russia for carrying out an intentional attack on the dam. Moscow denies all responsibility: Vladimir Putin has called the dam break a “barbaric act” perpetrated by Ukraine, while a Russian envoy to the UN characterised claims that Russia was behind the attack as part of a Western disinformation campaign that “reeks of schizophrenia and not of a latent variety”. 

Each side blaming the other is a reminder of how, despite being the most documented war in history, some of the major events that have punctuated the fighting in Ukraine remain remarkably murky. The information war being waged online mirrors the fighting on the ground in its ferocity and utter lack of compromise.  

This at times leads into the realms of absurdity. Asked about claims that Ukraine destroyed the dam, the US deputy ambassador to the UN Robert Wood responded with exasperation: “Come on […] why would Ukraine do this to its own territory and people, flood its land, force tens of thousands of people to flee their homes – it doesn’t make sense.” 

Wood’s argument is perfectly logical. But many onlookers will remember having asked themselves similar questions about claims that Russia blew up its own Nord Stream pipelines last year — something much of the international community insisted it had done until it became public knowledge that a pro-Ukrainian group was actually the likely culprit. This week, it was reported that the Ukrainian military was planning an attack on the pipelines three months before they were sabotaged, although Zelenskyy used an interview published on Wednesday to again deny all knowledge.

Such errors in Western communications have undermined faith in the wider pro-Ukraine narrative among certain sceptical demographics. Ukraine’s own communications style, although powerful, at times hasn’t helped. In another potential turning point for the war last year, Zelenskyy insisted that a stray missile that killed two in Poland had been fired by Russia, long after the international community had accepted that it was actually launched by Ukraine. The knowledge that either Zelenskyy or his Western allies were not telling the truth about the incident understandably created unease. 

With both sides apparently playing fast and loose with the truth at times, the deluge of online information becomes a matter for creative interpretation from the likes of Tucker Carlson — who used his first monologue on Twitter to claim that Ukraine “probably blew up” Kakhovka dam and derided the notion that Putin “would shoot himself to death in order to annoy you”. Truth has become far harder to locate now that the waters have been muddied by a brutal information war. 

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz