On Tuesday, Ukrainians all woke up in shock at the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam. However, the fact that Russia could target southern Ukraine’s ecosystem should not be a surprise. It has been well reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly warned that Russia had mined the dam. Ukrainian experts raised alarms that an attack on the dam could be akin to “an atomic bomb explosion.”
While the U.S. government assesses intelligence that already leans towards Russia hand being behind the attack, Ukrainian journalist Maksym Eristavi explained on Twitter that this latest incident should be understood as yet another horrific atrocity in a long history of Russian colonial violence.
This All it takes is a brief review of Russian state television to understand what drives Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. Just days before the destruction of the dam, a prominent Russian propagandist called for the destruction of “every living thing” in one of Ukraine’s eastern regions in order to “punish and deter” Ukrainians for resisting Russian occupation. This state news rhetoric is rooted in a colonial understanding of Russia’s own national and imperial history. There is a cruel, perverse irony in a now-viral tweet from the United Nations celebrating Russian language day, which very intentionally coincides with the birthday of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. As Russian literature’s most celebrated poet, Pushkin infamously derided Ukrainians as bandits and traitors in his poem Poltava. One of Ukraine’s most prominent philosophers, Volodymyr Yermolenko, has argued that a direct line can be drawn from Pushkin’s rhetoric to contemporary neo-imperial Russian narratives.
Ukrainian security forces carry an elderly resident to a boat during an evacuation from a flooded area in Kherson on June 7 caused by the explosion of the Kakhovka dam.
OLEKSANDR GIMANOV/AFP via Getty Images
These narratives manifest in the genocide taking place against the Ukrainian people. According to Russian opposition media, Russian soldiers prevented Ukrainians from leaving the flooded areas near the Nova Khakhovka dam, telling civilians that “you’re all going to die right here.” This report follows a well-documented pattern of targeting Ukrainian civilians for destruction.
Yet this is not Russia’s first attempt to destroy Ukrainian national identity. In the 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin forcibly starved millions of Ukrainians in a genocide known in Ukraine as the Holodomor. During that same decade, the Soviet police carried out a campaign to erase Ukraine’s cultural leaders. As Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko has argued, Western countries made a grave mistake in attributing these atrocities to Communism alone. The problem was not simply the poisoned ideology of Marxism-Leninism. The problem was Russian colonial chauvinism, barely hidden beneath the guise of slogans such as “friendship of peoples.”
Crucially, Ukraine stands on the front lines of not only the fight to preserve Western-style democracy, but it also stands as the most viable opposition to Russian colonialism as such. Russia has never confronted its colonial past, and its colonial chauvinism has continued to drive atrocities in Ukraine, along Russia’s periphery, and in the colonized territories and republics within Russia.
Of course, this paints a bitter reality. Atrocities like the ones in Bucha, Irpin, Izium—and now the cities and villages near Nova Kakhovka—will continue until the root of the problem is addressed. The only way to end a colonial war is to win it. And the only way for Ukraine to emerge victorious from Russia’s full-scale invasion is for the United States and its NATO partners to engage fully with Ukraine to ensure a Ukrainian victory. After today’s devastation and more than a year of terror attacks amid Russia’s genocidal campaign, NATO countries must re-evaluate their plans to simply “bring Ukraine closer to NATO” at the coming NATO Summit in Vilnius next month. Instead, NATO must prioritize Ukraine’s accession and, in the meantime, ensure that Ukraine is provided all the tools necessary to defeat Russian colonial violence. As Estonia’s Prime Minister said just days before Nova Kakhovka, “NATO is a threat to Russian colonialism, not to Russian security.”
Let’s ensure Ukraine enjoys all the benefits of that threat.
Christopher Atwood is a specialist on Eastern Europe. He works at Razom for Ukraine and serves as the head of the Advisory Board at the Souspilnist Foundation. Follow him @tca1_