THE RUSSIA CONNECTIONU.S. Former General: Russia Benefits from Dam Blast, Putin 'Likely' to Use Nuclear Weapons Rather Than Lose in Ukraine

By Vazha Tavberidze

Published 8 June 2023

“I’m not the first to warn [Putin’s] threats [to use nuclear weapons] are serious. Many people say that his threats are serious, but then they quickly say, “However, they are not likely. I’m one of the few people who has said that these threats are not only serious but they’re likely to happen. That makes a threat urgent — something which others are not saying. If these threats are recognized as urgent, then the governments will do something about it; if they’re not urgent, or if they’re not likely, then the governments have many other things on their plate that they want to take care of that are urgent”: Brigadier General (Ret.) Kevin Ryan.

Retired U.S. Brigadier General Kevin Ryan is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a regular commentator on the war in Ukraine and other global events.

He talked to RFE/RL’s Georgian Service about who and why either side would have destroyed the Nova Kakhovka dam, how it could affect a Ukrainian counteroffensive or other battlefield plans, and perceived Western failures in deterrence against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s possible use of a nuclear weapon.

He argues that Putin could resort to nuclear weapons rather than lose Russian forces’ land bridge in southern Ukraine, occupied provinces, or annexed Crimea.

RFE/RL: The Nova Kakhovka dam is no more, essentially. For some, there are still questions as to who might have done it, despite everything pointing to Russia. In whose interest would it be to blow it up?
Kevin Ryan: It’s in neither side’s interest to blow up the dam at this moment. I’ve heard three different kinds of reports. I’ve heard reports that say, “Russia has done this.” Those reports come mostly from Ukraine and from the West, they come from the U.S. government and from NATO. They may have evidence of that.

The Russians, of course, claim the Ukrainians have done this. There’s a third group of reports — they’re small but they’re important — and those were given both by the Russian news agency TASS and by a local Russian governor who said that “actually, there was an accident on the bridge prior to this [and] that accident has led to an unexpected and undesired,” let’s say, “break in the dam.”

At this moment, all three are possible.

It doesn’t really benefit Ukraine to have this happen. It doesn’t benefit Russia, either; although if Russia did break the dam and blow it up, what it reveals to me about Russia and Russian military leaders is that they have very little confidence in their defenses of the Kherson region — defenses which they’ve been building steadily since the summer and are extensive.

If I were them, I would not have flooded this area — yet — until I saw that, No. 1, the attacks were coming in this area and, No. 2, that my defenses were not going to be able to hold that attack.