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Ukraine said Russia blew up a giant dam and unleashed an environmental catastrophe, with floodwater sweeping across the south of the country as Kyiv’s forces intensify their counteroffensive to oust Moscow’s troops from occupied territory.

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(Bloomberg) — Ukraine said Russia blew up a giant dam and unleashed an environmental catastrophe, with floodwater sweeping across the south of the country as Kyiv’s forces intensify their counteroffensive to oust Moscow’s troops from occupied territory.

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The Kremlin denied responsibility and said Ukraine was behind the breach at the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant early Tuesday as the torrent of water threatened to force tens of thousands of people from their homes and renewed fears for the safety of Europe’s largest nuclear power station. Wheat prices jumped, while a separate explosion on an ammonia pipeline shut down in the war underscored the vulnerability of key infrastructure as the fighting enters a critical new phase.

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— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) June 6, 2023

“This is the largest man-made environmental disaster in Europe in decades,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an address to central and eastern European leaders at the B-9 summit in Slovakia. Russian forces controlled the hydro power plant for more than a year “and they blew it up,” he said.

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Since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the dam has been seen as a potential target for its strategic importance. It supplies the cooling reservoir for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and feeds into water reserves in the Crimea peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014. Zelenskiy warned in October that Russia had mined the dam and would destroy it to pre-empt an offensive aimed at reclaiming occupied southern and eastern regions of Ukraine.

Russia “categorically” denies any involvement in the destruction of the dam, which was sabotaged by the Ukrainian side, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to the Interfax news service.

The Kremlin’s claims “are nonsense,” Ukrainian security council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said. 

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It’s possible Ukraine’s counteroffensive has now begun amid a recent intensification of military operations, a senior NATO official said. While it’s too early to assess responsibility for the flooding, Russia may have had a motive to do it out of fear of where Ukraine’s forces would strike, the official said.

“The attack on the dam is, after all, one that we have long feared,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told RTL television in an interview to be aired later Tuesday. “This is an aggression of the Russian side to stop the Ukrainian offensive to defend their own country.”

Zelenskiy summoned his national security and defense council to discuss the damage as officials moved to evacuate people from dozens of towns and villages in southern Ukraine including the city of Kherson along the Dnipro river. Russian forces in Kherson region dug in on the opposite bank continued shelling flooded settlements as evacuation efforts were under way, Ukrainian Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said in televised comments.

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the destruction of the dam “once again exposes the brutality of Russia.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will take “significant” decisions to strengthen support for Kyiv at the alliance’s summit in Lithuania next month that “will bring Ukraine closer to NATO,” he told the B-9 meeting.

Fighting has spread along the front lines in recent days in the east and south of Ukraine. The flooding will force Russian troops near the Dnipro to retreat, which may reduce the intensity of shelling against territories Ukraine controls, Ukrainian southern military spokeswoman Nataliya Humenyuk said in televised remarks on the Radio Liberty website.

The situation at the nuclear plant that’s occupied by Russia is under control, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told a government meeting, according to a video on his Telegram channel.

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There’s “no immediate risk to the safety of the plant,” though it’s “vital” that the cooling pond remains intact, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said in a statement.

Ukraine separately reported Russian shelling damaged the ammonia pipeline in the Kharkiv region close to the border between the countries. Russia regards the pipeline, which was closed down after the war began, as a key issue in talks on maintaining grain shipments through the Black Sea corridor.

While crops aren’t directly at risk, wheat prices surged as much as 3% on Tuesday over supply concerns, extending their climb from a 30-month low last week. The dam’s destruction “looks like a big escalation with dire consequences and huge headline risk,” Andrey Sizov, managing director at agricultural consultant SovEcon, said in a tweet. 

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The possibility of Russia blowing up the Kakhovka plant was fully factored into Ukraine’s military planning, Serhii Naiev, commander of the United Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Ukrinform news website. 

More than 80 settlements and Kherson city lie within the flood zone which could affect hundreds of thousands of people, Ukrainian Deputy Infrastructure Minister Mustafa Nayyem said on Twitter. The hydro power station, that Russia has decoupled from Ukraine’s grid, provided electricity to more than 3 million people and is a “crucial part of the country’s energy infrastructure,” he said.

Residents of some settlements in the flood zone occupied by Russia are being moved though a large-scale evacuation isn’t planned, the Tass news service reported, citing the local authorities.

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The Kakhovka plant is completely ruined and over 450 tons of engine oil that were in its machinery are now in the floodwater, Ihor Syrota, director of Ukraine’s hydro power plants operator Ukrhydroenergo, said on television. 

Ukraine’s state emergency service warned people that mines and explosives set loose by the water were being washed through flooded areas, according to its Telegram channel.

There’s no risk of flooding in Crimea as a result of the damage to the dam, said Sergei Aksyonov, who heads the Russian administration in the Black Sea peninsula, Interfax reported. While reservoirs for drinking water are about 80% full, the flow into the canal delivering supplies to the region may decline and work is under way to minimize losses, he said. 

—With assistance from Daryna Krasnolutska, Natalia Drozdiak, Michael Nienaber and Thomas Hall.

(Updates with Zelenskiy comment in third paragraph, NATO in seventh, Scholz in eighth)

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