In a way, this says it all: Just as the Ukrainians are finally launching their long-expected counteroffensive against the Russian invaders, the latter pre-empt the former with another war crime. They appear to have blown up a huge dam that blocks the Dnipro — the Ukrainians are certainly blaming the Russians, and it is hardly plausible that the Ukrainians did it. The floodwaters will deluge several villages and maybe a city. The attack will probably also put a hydroelectric power plant out of commission. It might even compromise the cooling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant just up the river.
Is this fair game? There are different ways to answer this question, none of them satisfying. You can start with the inner logic or illogic of warfare, the long history of such tactics, or international law. However you choose to look at these Russian detonators, they are hardly comparable to Britain’s Dambusters of 1943.
Those Dambusters — in what was called Operation Chastise, later heroized on the big screen — were fighting a world war against the Third Reich, which had started the conflict by invading much of the continent. So the British tried to take out dams on rivers in Germany’s prime industrial area, and factories that powered the Nazi war machine. More than 1,000 civilians were killed, and the strategic value of Chastise is still debated. However, morally and legally, the operation can be justified in the context of the war and Holocaust being waged at that time.
In places defined by rivers, like Ukraine and its Dnipro, the manipulation of floodwaters has always been popular as a tactic. In Mesopotamia (the land “between rivers”), Cyrus the Great took Babylon in one night by diverting the Euphrates. Seventeen centuries later, the Mongol conqueror Hulagu used the flood waters of the Tigris for victory there. More than seven centuries hence, in the 1980s, the Iranians bombed Iraqi dams. The most recent to target them was the Islamic State group.
The worst modern dam attack was launched by the defending side in its own country. In 1938, Chinese nationalists fighting Japanese invaders blew up the dikes holding back the Yellow River. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, either by drowning or losing drinking water and shelter. The breach slowed the Japanese advance, but did not stop it.
On it goes, with almost every major belligerent using the tactic at some point or another — the Americans bombed dams in North Korea and North Vietnam, for instance, and again in Syria in 2017. As a weapon, water is both obvious and frightening.
However, is it ethical, or even legal? As ever when lawyers are involved, that question leads to frustrating quagmires of fine print. The oldest answers come from so-called customary international law, which derives from established practices among states rather than the written words in treaties. It acknowledges that bombing dams may be fair game (as in the case of Operation Chastise, in my opinion) when the targets have military importance, as long as the consequences for civilians are “proportionate.”
The first international treaties dealing with attacks on dams were the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1977. They stipulate that “dams, dikes and nuclear electrical generating stations, shall not be made the object of attack, even where these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.”
Note the telling conflation of floodwater and nuclear radiation in the protocol. These two hell scenarios have much in common, in that a belligerent can take out a target with ambiguous military relevance — the dam on the Dnipro or the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — and kill, harm and terrorize vast numbers of civilians in the vicinity. In that sense, dams and nuclear stations make perfect targets for the least scrupulous.
That would be Russian President Vladimir Putin. Throughout his murderous assault on Ukraine, he has threatened to turn the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station into a second Chernobyl, or even to launch nuclear weapons. Reading him the finer points of the Geneva Conventions (to which Russia is a signatory) feels a bit like singing Kumbaya to Sauron. All the more reason why Ukraine must defeat him, and the West must help.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. He is a former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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