Ukraine Symposium – Destruction of the Kakhovka Dam: Disproportionate and Prohibited

by | Jun 29, 2023

Kakhovka Dam


On Tuesday, June 6, 2023, the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam was destroyed causing a major humanitarian and environmental disaster. This post analyses the question of whether this destruction complied with the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). In particular, assuming Russia is responsible for destroying the dam, this article will address the legality of the destruction under Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.


Commissioned in 1955, the Kakhovka dam, located in occupied Ukrainian territory along the front line in southern Ukraine, sits astride the Dnipro River to generate electricity and store fresh water, part of which was used to supply Crimea. Prior to its destruction, since February of this year, the water level in the dam had risen so that it was submerged at times. Although this could have damaged the structure and caused an accident, experts assert it is more likely that its partial destruction was the result of a deliberate act.

The Russian Federation and Ukraine have blamed each other for the partial destruction of the hydroelectric plant (see Security Council Press releases). Ukraine claimed that Russia had committed a deliberate war crime by blowing up the dam. The Kremlin blamed Ukraine, saying it was trying to distract attention from the launch of a major counter-offensive which, according to Moscow, has been ineffective.

According to information available to date, residents of the Nova Kakhovka region reported hearing a deafening explosion and that the sky had turned white in the early hours of the morning of June 6. Seismic analyses carried out by the Norwegian company Norsar, which relies on sensors located in Romania, have so far confirmed this information, while U.S. media report that spy satellites also detected an explosion at around the same time. Experts add that it would have been much more difficult to destroy the dam from the outside than to blow it up from the inside.

Although it has not been officially confirmed, it is most likely an act committed by Russia.

Application of the Fourth Geneva Convention

Russia has occupied the Ukrainian territory in which the dam is located (see map) for 15 months. Accordingly, Russian forces’ conduct is governed by, among other things, Section III of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of August 12, 1949 (GC IV). Specifically, if Russia in fact destroyed the dam, the legality of the act is governed by Article 53 of GC IV, which prohibits the destruction of property under certain circumstances during an occupation.

This situation differs from a Russian attack on a military objective (if a dam can be one, under particular conditions applicable to special protected objects, see Article 56 of Additional Protocol (AP I) I and Rule 42 of the ICRC Study on Customary IHL) located on Ukrainian controlled territory, to which the rule of proportionality relating to the protection of civilians in the conduct of hostilities (art. 51(5)(b)57(2)(a)(iii) and (b) of AP I) would apply. Here, the distinction between the rule of proportionality and the principle of proportionality is particularly relevant (see my previous post about the distinction).

Is the Destruction Proportionate?

According to Article 53, GC IV, an Occupying Power is prohibited from destroying property belonging to the occupied State, except in cases where “such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.” In other words, destruction such as that of the Kakhovka dam would not constitute a violation of IHL if it were shown to be absolutely necessary for military operations.

A previous post explained my view that when a rule contains such a relativization between a prohibited action and a justification for such an act, the provision is subject to the principle of proportionality. In the case of Article 53, GC IV, proportionality takes the form of a “balance of interests.” This is made up of the occupying power’s interest in obtaining a military advantage, on the one hand, and the humanitarian and environmental consequences of the destruction, on the other.

Based on an ex ante analysis, certainly, the destruction of the dam is likely to give a military advantage to Russia, particularly in its intention to halt the Ukrainian offensive. It has been argued that the motive for the destruction of the dam by Russian armed forces was an “instinctive defensive response to the threat of an amphibious attack in the Kherson oblast on the Dnipro.” Russia may have sought to mitigate the possibility of a surprise attack by Ukraine on the country’s central and defining river.

The destruction of the dam makes an assault in the Kherson region more difficult for Ukraine. What’s more, building a pontoon bridge across the widened Dnipro is virtually impossible. Also, it appears that Russia already counted the dam as an asset in its military strategy. Indeed, the Russian authorities allowed the water level in the Kakhovka reservoir, located behind the dam, to reach its highest level in 30 years.

As noted above, this military advantage had to be weighed against the humanitarian and environmental consequences of destroying the dam. The catastrophe caused by the destruction of the dam is one of the most significant incidents, both in human and environmental terms, to have occurred since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Even more so as the consequences of the tragedy will have an impact for months, if not years, to come.

Not only are people without water, gas, and electricity, but it also halts the country’s sewage system from functioning. Figures of the precise losses vary by source and change over time. The Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine declared that more than 40,000 people could be in the path of the flooding on both Ukrainian- and Russian-controlled territory. At least 16,000 people have already lost their homes and been forced to flee, according to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In addition to the immediate humanitarian consequences, the water level in the Kakhovka reservoir has reached a dangerously low level. It is already too low to feed the four canal systems that supply the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts and Crimea, which are one of the world’s breadbaskets. Without these vital canals, these regions could become deserts as early as next year.

The lowering of the reservoir level also threatens the supply of drinking water to towns and villages along the lower reaches of the Dnipro. It has been stated that flooding could wash sewage into the drinking water, which, if not properly treated, could lead to a whole host of problems, the most frightening of which is cholera. A humanitarian catastrophe on the Russian-occupied left bank would undoubtedly increase the risk of an epidemic of cholera or other intestinal infections.

Finally, although currently uncertain, there is a particularly worrying potential long-term consequence. The level of the Kakhovka reservoir is now much lower than what is needed to reach the intake canal of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, located upstream of the dam. Normally, water is drawn from the reservoir into the spray basins used to cool the six reactor cores and the spent fuel stored at the plant. Drying up the reservoir is not an immediate threat, as the six Zaporizhzhia reactors were shut down after the plant was occupied by Russian forces and turned into a garrison and military depot. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Ukrainian officials from Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear power company, estimate that there is enough water for several years.

However, there is a longer-term risk that the dam surrounding the cooling pond could burst under the pressure of the water inside, in the absence of the countervailing force of the water from the Kakhovka reservoir. In addition to such a risk directly linked to the destruction of the dam, there is the real threat of deliberate sabotage by the plant’s Russian occupants.


Although the operation undertaken against the Kokhovka dam is better characterized under IHL as destruction rather than an attack, considerations of proportionality are required elements of its legality. Necessity, as enshrined in article 53 of GC IV, implies proportionality in the analysis of the legality of destruction operations in occupied territory. This analysis involves weighing up opposing interests: military advantage that could be gained vs. the humanitarian and environmental consequences of such destruction.

Russia’s fear of the possibility of a surprise attack by Kiev to reach strategic central points and the said river, as well as the intention to slow down or stop the Ukrainian offensive, is certainly a valid Russian military aim. But the particularly serious humanitarian and environmental consequences listed above that the destruction of the Kakhovka dam has had and will continue to have in the long term, are far too severe to justify the destruction of the dam as absolutely necessary for military operations. If so, any type of military operation would be justifiable.

Thus, the destruction of the dam does not meet the exception where a destruction in an occupied territory could be legal (if not disproportionate) and so constitutes a prohibited destruction within the meaning of Article 53 of GC IV.


Anaïs Maroonian is a Ph.D. candidate in international humanitarian law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Geneva.


Photo credit: Dmytro Zavtonov / ArmyInform


Symposium Intro: Ukraine-Russia Armed Conflict

by Sean WattsWinston WilliamsRonald Alcala

February 28, 2022

Russia’s “Special Military Operation” and the (Claimed) Right of Self-Defense

by Michael N. Schmitt

February 28, 2022

Legal Status of Ukraine’s Resistance Forces

by Ronald Alcala and Steve Szymanski

February 28, 2022

Cluster Munitions and the Ukraine War

by William H. Boothby

February 28, 2022

Neutrality in the War against Ukraine

by Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg

March 1, 2022

The Russia-Ukraine War and the European Convention on Human Rights

by Marko Milanovic

March 1, 2022

Deefake Technology in the Age of Information Warfare

by Hitoshi Nasu

March 1, 2022

Ukraine and the Defender’s Obligations

by Eric Jensen

March 2, 2022

Are Molotov Cocktails Lawful Weapons?

by Sean Watts

March 2, 2022

Application of IHL by and to Proxies: The “Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk

by Marco Sassòli

March 3, 2022

Closing the Turkish Straits in Times of War

by Raul (Pete) Pedrozo

March 3, 2020

The Abuse of “Peacekeeping”

by Alexander Gilder

March 3, 2022

Prisoners of War in Occupied Territory

by Geoff Corn

March 3, 2022

Combatant Privileges and Protections

by Laurie R. Blank

March 4, 2022

Siege Law

by Sean Watts

March 4, 2022

Russia’s Illegal Invasion of Ukraine & the Role of International Law

by Michael Kelly

March 4, 2022

Russian Troops Out of Uniform and Prisoner of War Status

by Chris Koschnitzky and Michael N. Schmitt

March 4, 2022

On War

by Andrew Clapham

March 5, 2022

Providing Arms and Materiel to Ukraine: Neutrality, Co-belligerency, and the Use of Force

by Michael N. Schmitt

March 7, 2022

Keeping the Ukraine-Russia Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello Issues Separate

by Rob Mclaughlin

March 7, 2022

The Other Side of Civilian Protection: The 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention

by Jelena Pejic

March 7, 2022

Special Forces, Unprivileged Belligerency, and the War in the Shadows

by Ken Watkin

March 8, 2022

Accountability and Ukraine: Hurdles to Prosecuting War Crimes and Aggression

by Lauren Sanders

March 9, 2022

Remarks on the Law Relating to the Use of Force in the Ukraine Conflict

by Terry D. Gill

March 9, 2022

Consistency and Change in Russian Approaches to International Law

by Jeffrey Kahn

March 9, 2022

The Fog of War, Civilian Resistance, and the Soft Underbelly of Unprivileged Belligerency

by Gary Corn

March 10, 2022

Common Article 1 and the Conflict in Ukraine

by Marten Zwanenburg

March 10, 2022

Levée en Masse in Ukraine: Applications, Implications, and Open Questions

by David Wallace and Shane Reeves

March 11, 2022

The Attack at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant and Additional Protocol I

by Tom Dannenbaum

March 13, 2022

The Russia-Ukraine War and the Space Domain

by Timothy GoinesJeffrey BillerJeremy Grunert

March 14, 2022

Fact-finding in Ukraine: Can Anything Be Learned from Yemen?

by Charles Garraway

March 14, 2022

Status of Foreign Fighters in the Ukrainian Legion

by Petra Ditrichová and Veronika Bílková

March 15, 2022

Law Applicable to Persons Fleeing Armed Conflicts

by Julia Grignon

March 15, 2022

Ukraine’s Legal Counterattack

by Michael Kelly

March 17, 2022

The ICJ’s Provisional Measures Order: Unprecedented

by Ori Pomson

March 17, 2022

Displacement from Conflict: Old Realities, New Protections?

by Ruvi Ziegler

March 17, 2022

A No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine and International Law

by Michael N. Schmitt

March 18, 2022

Time for a New War Crimes Commission?

by Diane Marie Amann

March 18, 2022

Portending Genocide in Ukraine?

by Adam Oler

March 21, 2022

Are Mercenaries in Ukraine?

by Robert Lawless

March 21, 2022

Abducting Dissent: Kidnapping Public Officials in Occupied Ukraine

by Katharine Fortin

March 22, 2022

Are Thermobaric Weapons Unlawful?

by Matt Montazzoli

March 23, 2022

A Ukraine No-Fly Zone: Further Thoughts on the Law and Policy

by Terry D. Gill

March 23, 2022

The War at Sea: Is There a Naval Blockade in the Sea of Azov?

by Martin Fink

March 24, 2022

Deportation of Ukrainian Civilians to Russia: The Legal Framework

by Michael N. Schmitt

March 24, 2022

Weaponizing Food

by Michael N. Schmitt

March 28, 2022

Command Responsibility and the Ukraine Conflict

by Noëlle Quénivet

March 30, 2022

The Siren Song of Universal Jurisdiction: A Cautionary Note

bySteve Szymanski and Peter C. Combe

April 1, 2022

A War Crimes Primer on the Ukraine-Russia Conflict

by Sean Watts and Hitoshi Nasu

April 4, 2022

Russian Booby-traps and the Ukraine Conflict

by Michael N. Schmitt

April 5, 2022

The Ukraine Conflict, Smart Phones, and the LOAC of Takings

by Gary Corn

April 7, 2022

War Crimes against Children

by Véronique Aubert

April 8, 2022

Weaponizing Civilians: Human Shields in Ukraine

by Michael N. Schmitt

April 11, 2022

Unprecedented Environmental Risks

by Karen Hulme

April 12, 2022

Maritime Exclusion Zones in Armed Conflicts

by Raul (Pete) Pedrozo

April 12, 2022

Ukraine’s Levée en Masse and the Obligation to Ensure Respect for LOAC

by Jann K. Kleffner

April 14, 2022

Cultural Property Protection in the Ukraine Conflict

by Dick Jackson

April 14, 2022

Results of a First Enquiry into Violations of International Humanitarian Law in Ukraine

by Marco Sassòli

April 14, 2022

Comprehensive Justice and Accountability in Ukraine

by Chris Jenks

April 15, 2022

Maritime Neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

by David Letts

April 18, 2022

Cyber Neutrality, Cyber Recruitment, and Cyber Assistance to Ukraine

by Nicholas Tsagourias

April 19, 2022

Defiance of Russia’s Demand to Surrender and Combatant Status

by Chris Koschnitzky and Steve Szymanski

April 22, 2022

The Montreux Convention and Turkey’s Impact on Black Sea Operations

by Adam Aliano and Russell Spivak

April 25, 2022

Lawful Use of Nuclear Weapons

by Jay Jackson and Kenneth “Daniel” Jones

April 26, 2022

Litigating Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

by Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne

April 27, 2022

Military Networks and Cyber Operations in the War in Ukraine

by Heather Harrison Dinniss

April 29, 2022

Building Momentum: Next Steps towards Justice for Ukraine

by Philippa Webb

May 2, 2022

Counternormativity and the International Order

by Dan E. Stigall

May 3, 2022

Destructive Counter-Mobility Operations and the Law of War

by Sean Watts and Winston Williams

May 5, 2022

Are We at War?

by Michael N. Schmitt

May 9, 2022

The Ukraine Conflict and the Future of Digital Cultural Property

by Ronald Alcala

May 13, 2022

Neutral State Access to Ukraine’s Food Exports

by James Kraska

May 18, 2022

Negotiating an End to the Fighting

by Michael N. Schmitt

May 24, 2022

Is the Law of Neutrality Dead?

by Raul (Pete) Pedrozo

May 31, 2022

Effects-based Enforcement of Targeting Law

by Geoff Corn and Sean Watts

June 2, 2022

U.S. Offensive Cyber Operations in Support of Ukraine

by Michael N. Schmitt

June 6, 2022

War Sanctions Steadily Degrade the Russian Maritime Sector

by James Kraska

June 7, 2022

The Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group & Ukrainian Prosecutions of Russian POWs – Part 1

by Chris Jenks

June 22, 2022

The Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group & Ukrainian Prosecutions of Russian POWs – Part 2

by Chris Jenks

June 24, 2022

The Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group & Ukrainian Prosecutions of Russian POWs – Part 3

by Chris Jenks

June 28, 2022

Putting “Overall Control” to the Test of the Third Geneva Convention

by Alessandra Spadaro

July 6, 2022

The Risk of Commercial Actors in Outer Space Drawing States into Armed Conflict

by Tara Brown

July 8, 2022

The Release of Prisoners of War

by Jeroen van den Boogaard

July 8, 2022

The Attack on the Vasily Bekh and Targeting Logistics Ships

by James Kraska

July 11, 2022

Lessons from Syria’s Ceasefires

by Marika Sosnowski

July 12, 2022

Documentation and Investigation Responses to Serious International Crimes

by Brianne McGonigle Leyh

July 13, 2022

Rebel Prosecutions of Foreign Fighters in Ukraine

by René Provost

July 15, 2022

Forced Civilian Labor in Occupied Territory

by Michael N. Schmitt

August 2, 2022

Forced Conscription in the Self-Declared Republics

by Marten Zwanenburg

August 8, 2022

Amnesty International’s Allegations of Ukrainian IHL Violations

by Michael N. Schmitt

August 8, 2022

Oil Tankers as “Environmental Time Bombs,” or Not

by Mark Jessup

August 12, 2022

The Escalating Military Use of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant

by Tom Dannenbaum

August 22, 2022

Protected Zones in International Humanitarian Law

by Michael N. Schmitt

August 24, 2022

Photos of the Dead

by William Casey Biggerstaff

August 19, 2022

Deception and the Law of Armed Conflict

by William Casey Biggerstaff

September 8, 2022

Data-Rich Battlefields and the Future of LOAC

by Shane ReevesRobert Lawless

September 12, 2022

Russian Crimes Against Children

by Oleksii KaminetskyiInna Zavorotko

September 14, 2022

Targeting Leadership

by Mehmet Çoban

September 16, 2022

Illegality of Russia’s Annexations in Ukraine

by Lauri Mälksoo

October 3, 2022

Russia’s Forcible Transfer of Children

by Alison Bisset

October 5, 2022

The Kerch Strait Bridge Attack, Retaliation, and International Law

by Marko MilanovicMichael N. Schmitt

October 12, 2022

Russian Preliminary Objections at the ICJ: The Case Must Go On?

by Ori Pomson

October 13, 2022

The Complicity of Iran in Russia’s Aggression and War Crimes in Ukraine

by Marko Milanovic

October 19, 2022

Attacking Power Infrastructure under International Humanitarian Law

by Michael N. Schmitt

October 20, 2022

Dirty Bombs and International Humanitarian Law

by Michael N. Schmitt

October 26, 2022

Doxing Enemy Soldiers and the Law of War

by Eric Talbot JensenSean Watts

October 31, 2022

Are Civilians Reporting With Cell Phones Directly Participating in Hostilities?

by Michael N. SchmittWilliam Casey Biggerstaff

November 2, 2022

Using Cellphones to Gather and Transmit Military Information, A Postscript

by Michael N. Schmitt

November 4, 2022

State Responsibility for Non-State Actors’ Conduct

by Jennifer Maddocks

November 4, 2022

Reparations for War: What Options for Ukraine?

by Luke Moffett

November 15, 2022

Further Thoughts on Russia’s Campaign against Ukraine’s Power Infrastructure

by Michael N. Schmitt

November 25, 2022

Russia’s Allegations of U.S. Biological Warfare in Ukraine – Part I

by Robert Lawless

December 2, 2022

Russia’s Allegations of U.S. Biological Warfare in Ukraine – Part II

by Robert Lawless

December 9, 2022

The THeMIS Bounty Part I: Seizure of Enemy Property

by Christopher Malis and Hitoshi Nasu

December 12, 2022

Classification of the Conflict(s)

by Michael N. Schmitt

December 14, 2022

The THeMIS Bounty Part II: Stealing Enemy Technology

by Christopher Malis, Hitoshi Nasu

December 16, 2022

The “I Want to Live” Project and Technologically-Enabled Surrender

by David WallaceShane Reeves

January 13, 2023

UN Peacekeepers and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant

by Alexander Gilder

January 20, 2023

What’s in a Name? Getting it Right for the Naval “Drone” Attack on Sevastopol

by Caroline Tuckett

January 23, 2023

Ukraine’s “Suicide Drone Boats” and International Law

by Charles M. Layne

January 25, 2023

The Impact of Sanctions on Humanitarian Aid

by Alexandra Francis

January 27, 2023

A Wagner Group Fighter in Norway

by Camilla Cooper

February 1, 2023

The Legal and Practical Challenges of Surrendering to Drones

by William Casey Biggerstaff,Caitlin Chiaramonte

February 8, 2023

Field-Modified Weapons under the Law of War

by Ronald Alcala

February 13, 2023

The Wagner Group: Status and Accountability

by Winston WilliamsJennifer Maddocks

February 23, 2023

The Law of Crowdsourced War: Democratized Supply Chains – Part I

by Gary Corn

March 1, 2023

Reprisals in International Law

by Michael N. Schmitt

March 6, 2023

The Law of Belligerent Occupation

by David A. Wallace 

March 8, 2023

Seizure of Russian State Assets: State Immunity and Countermeasures

by Daniel Franchini

March 8, 2023

The Law of Crowdsourced War: Democratized Supply Chains – Part II

by Gary Corn

March 15, 2023

“Damn the Torpedoes!”: Naval Mines in the Black Sea

by Ben RothchildMark Jessup

March 15, 2023

Landmines and the War In Ukraine

by Dario PronestiJeroen van den Boogaard

March 20, 2023

Russia’s “Re-Education” Camps: Grave Violations Against Children in Armed Conflict

by Alison Bisset

March 20, 2023

A Path Forward for Food Security in Armed Conflict


March 22, 2023

The Legality of Depleted Uranium Shells and Their Transfer to Ukraine

by Stuart Casey-Maslen

March 24, 2023

Accountability for Cyber War Crimes

by Lindsay Freeman

April 14, 2023