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Dam destruction in Ukraine threatens floods

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Ukraine, millions of tons of water are pouring through what used to be a major dam and hydroelectric power station. Russia and Ukraine are trading accusations about who blew it up. People are evacuating ahead of the floodwaters. Two of our correspondents covering this story are NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv and Charles Maynes in Moscow. Good to have you both here.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Greg, you're in Ukraine. What exactly happened, and how are Ukrainian officials reacting?

MYRE: Well, the Ukrainians are angry. They're adamant that Russia did this. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is calling the Russians terrorists. Now, initially, the Ukrainians really feared mass casualties. Here's a woman, Oksana, who was in tears when we spoke to her by phone in the southern city of Kherson.

OKSANA: (Through interpreter) A family just wrote to me. They never left. And now they are - they write, if they don't survive, they're already saying goodbye to me.

MYRE: But I have to say that was early in the day on Tuesday. Ukrainian officials are now saying as of Tuesday evening, there's no confirmed deaths on the side of the river that they control, the west side. And just for context, this dam, the Kakhovka Dam, spans the big, wide Dnipro River that effectively is the frontline in southern Ukraine, with the Ukrainians on the west side and the Russians on the east side.

SHAPIRO: And, Charles, you're in Moscow. What has the response been from Russian authorities?

MAYNES: Well, we heard from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said in no uncertain terms just the opposite. Russia was not to blame. He said Kyiv had carried out a sabotage attack on the dam with the goal of starving Crimea. This is the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine back in 2014 that's located to the south of the dam. He said that it was preventing Crimea from access to fresh water. He said the Ukrainians also tried to distract from setbacks that they'd faced on the battlefield. And Peskov vowed Ukraine wouldn't succeed.

You know, and Russian authorities down the line really have seemed intent on projecting a similar sense of calm thus far. The Kremlin-backed governors of occupied Crimea and Kherson insisted there would be little immediate disruption to the civilian population even as a controlled evacuation was underway in affected areas on the east side of the river. And there were surreal scenes such as Nova Kakhovka. That's the Russian occupied town closest to the dam where the downtown was abandoned to the waters. A video circulating widely online showed two lone swans floating past the local house of culture, a literal swan lake.

SHAPIRO: And the timing here is interesting because, Greg, Ukraine has been talking about its spring offensive, which may have already begun. Is there any evidence flooding might impact the operation?

MYRE: Well, we don't have any evidence, Ari. But as purely a common sense observation, we know southern Ukraine is a place the Ukraine military wants to attack, is virtually certain to attack. And we know river crossings are always difficult military operations. And if lots of ground is flooded, that could make it even harder. Now, the Ukrainian military seemed to anticipate this. And they put out a statement today saying they have, quote, "all the necessary watercraft" to undertake such an operation. Now, the Ukrainian government and military are stressing daily that they're not going to talk about the offensive in detail. The military put out a video a couple days ago with a soldier putting his index finger to his lips, that international symbol for, shush. Be quiet. And just to drive home the point, the text said, plans love silence. There will be no announcement of the start.

SHAPIRO: And, Charles, on the Russian side, is there concern about that Ukrainian spring offensive?

MAYNES: You know, today we heard from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who addressed the issue directly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEI SHOIGU: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Shoigu says not only has the long-promised Ukrainian counteroffensive begun but that Russia had successfully thwarted it. Now, in recent days, Russia's Defense Ministry has said its forces rebuffed several large-scale Ukrainian offensives. They also claim to have inflicted heavy losses on the Ukrainian army. Some, of course, will question the ministry's credibility. It almost always seems to claim to have good news from the front. But today Shoigu shifted that narrative a bit. He announced that 71 Russian soldiers had died in the latest fighting, the first time he's addressed any Russian losses since well into last year. And Shoigu's acknowledgement, I think, is a window into what's shaping up to be a much more complicated picture militarily for Russia. We've seen near-daily drone attacks of late, including in Moscow last week. There's seemingly regular accidents involving railway lines and fires at oil and gas depots that many here suspect Ukraine has a hand in.

And we see this uptick in fighting inside Russia, you know, in the region of Belgorod in particular, where hundreds of residents here were evacuated this week amid shelling from Ukraine. And all of this suggests that despite, you know, Shoigu's statements about success against the Ukrainian counteroffensive, some Russians would be happy to say, look. That's great. See what you can do to better defend the homeland.

SHAPIRO: How do each of you think Russia and Ukraine would define success in this Ukrainian offensive? Greg, why don't you begin?

MYRE: Well, for President Zelenskyy on down, many Ukrainians have set a really ambitious goal, which is to drive all Russian troops from their territory. That's a huge challenge. For all of Russia's military shortcomings in this war - and there certainly have been many - it still has a very large army and holds about 17% of Ukrainian territory. So Ukraine does need to win back significant land, real estate, though most Western military analysts say it's unrealistic for Ukraine to win it all back in this offensive. They say what's also hugely important is for Ukraine to show it can do something it hasn't done before, which is wage a complicated offensive operation that makes use of all the military hardware and the training that the West has provided and then hopefully will continue to provide.

SHAPIRO: And Charles?

MAYNES: You know, I think it's important to note that neither Moscow or, for that matter, Kyiv appears to have any interest in freezing the conflict, in other words, some kind of negotiated cease-fire. Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to insist Russia is in this for the long haul and to win. And in that sense, the Kremlin's objective is quite clear - to thwart the Ukrainian counteroffensive now and hope that the West - and by that, I mean Western governments or the citizens who elect them - eventually tire providing military support to Kyiv if or when they see that Ukraine can't win.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow and Greg Myre in Kyiv. Thank you both.

MAYNES: Thank you.

MYRE: Sure thing, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.