Vulnerable Arteries: Severe Challenges to the Security of Ukraine’s Internal Waterways

The Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, located on the banks of the Dnieper River (Source: Super Engineering)

Executive Summary

Ukraine faces threats and challenges of sabotage and diversionary activities on the country’s main rivers and against critical riparian infrastructure. In December 2020, Kyiv adopted the Law “On Inland Water Transport,” which permits foreign vessels to access Ukraine’s internal waters, including its navigable rivers. The policy’s original intent was to help develop the Ukrainian transportation sector and the broader economy. However, the government underestimated how much significant and sensitive infrastructure, including power plants, strategic lines of communication, as well as industrial and agricultural sites, lies along the banks of Ukraine’s riverine network.  Furthermore, much of the country’s critical fresh-water resources come directly from its two largest rivers, the Dnieper and Bug.

Since February 24, 2022, Ukraine is suffering from an existential war of aggression by Russia. But with the Russian war machine seeing its momentum blocked and hostilities dragging on, Moscow is increasingly turning to tactics designed to terrorize the Ukrainian nation into submission. Heavy fighting and Russian military maneuvers around sensitive and dangerous sites like the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant or in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, both located on the vital Dnieper River or its tributaries, underscore this increasingly desperate strategy by Moscow. And if the advance of Russian combat forces can be entirely bogged down or even reversed, Moscow may choose to more systematically employ sabotage activities up and down Ukraine’s internal waterways to bring about maximum civilian deaths and ecological damage.

If the war ends with Russian forces withdrawing and Ukrainian sovereignty preserved intact, the pre-war plans to open up the country’s rivers for foreign vessels may end up being exploited by Russia to deploy and deliver sabotage teams onto government-controlled Ukrainian territory. Russia will be able to employ personnel or passenger vessels as cover. And any such vessels could store and carry substantial quantities of weapons, explosives, or poisonous materials deep into Ukrainian territory.



On December 3, 2020, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed the Law “On Inland Water Transport.” This legislation permits business activities in and access to Ukrainian rivers for foreign vessels (article 27), with the exception of ships and water craft flying the flag of a state aggressor or owned by a person or company from a state aggressor (article 45). Crucially, however, no restrictions exist for crew members who hold citizenship from a state-aggressor country.[1]

The Ukrainian parliament and government hoped that this law would jumpstart the reform of river transportation in Ukraine—by some measures, the cheapest and most environmentally friendly method of delivering goods—turning the Dnieper into a major international transport artery. Resuming the use of effective inland waterways was also one of the priority tasks set by the president and is part of Ukraine’s commitments in the framework of European integration aimed at eventual accession to the European Union.[2] The law includes the implementation of five main European directives and is designed to bring Ukraine in line with European legislation.[3]

The legislative draft underwent much controversy and long-term discussions before being adopted in the parliament. Ukrainian private businesses expressed some concerns over unfair conditions, mostly related to the fact that foreign vessels would be excluded from the payment of a value-added tax (VAT) for fuel used within Ukraine’s inland waters. In July 2020, the costs for one ton of fuel would have been $720 for Ukrainian vessels and $408 for foreign ships. But from the other side, some Ukrainian and European politicians outlined the importance of this law for Ukraine’s European integration process.[4] The pros and cons of the law’s economic and political outcomes were actively debated in Ukrainian media.

But it seems that its security consequences were not discussed at all, at least publicly. Thus, access to critical Ukrainian infrastructure by river routes certainly represents a new opportunity for Russia. Sabotage and diversions are well-known techniques for Russian special operations forces (SOF) and private military companies (PMC), as demonstrated in Crimea, Donbas, Syria and Libya. Over the past two decades, Moscow has tailored its SOF, a tool of Russian power politics (subordinated to the General Staff), to be fully commensurate with the realities of nonlinear (“hybrid”) warfare. Designed as a force capable of performing “reconnaissance, sabotage, subversion, counter-terrorism, counter-sabotage, counter-intelligence, guerrilla, anti-partisan and other actions,” the SOF can collaborate with locals. [5]

Since February 24, 2022, Ukraine faces an existential war of aggression by Russia. Regular battles, heavy shelling, Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of population centers, and targeted missile strikes of strategic sites are presently daily challenges for Ukrainian Armed Forces to defend against. But with the Russian war machine seeing its momentum blocked and hostilities dragging on, Moscow is increasingly turning to tactics designed to terrorize the Ukrainian nation into submission. Pitched battles and Russian military maneuvers around sensitive and dangerous sites like the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant or in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (both located on the vital Dnieper River or its tributaries)[6], underscore this increasingly desperate strategy by Moscow. And if the advance of Russian combat forces can be entirely bogged down or even reversed, Moscow may choose to more systematically employ sabotage activities up and down Ukraine’s internal waterways to bring about maximum civilian deaths and ecological damage.

If the war ends with Russian forces (at least mostly) withdrawing and Ukrainian sovereignty preserved intact, the pre-war plans to open up the country’s rivers for foreign vessels may end up being exploited by Russia to deploy and deliver sabotage teams onto government-controlled Ukrainian territory. Russia will be able to employ personnel or passenger vessels as cover. And any such vessels could store and carry substantial quantities of weapons, explosives, or poisonous materials deep into Ukrainian territory. Obviously, in peacetime, the Russians will ensure all necessary inspection documents and legends are in order, and they will be able to “legally” deliver their subversive personnel and cargo to Ukraine’s numerous riparian industrial objects, where sabotage operations could result in significant damage to the economy, ecology and populations living nearby or downstream. Such activities could be designed to pressure and destabilize the government in Kyiv as well as intimidate Ukraine’s Western partners into further concessions.

Russian Aggression in Ukraine

Since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Donbas in 2014, several sabotage and diversionary activities were recorded in different parts of Ukraine: an explosion of a natural gas pipeline (Poltava region), the destruction of railway bridges (Luhansk region), the disruption of military ammunition warehouses (eastern, northern and central Ukraine), and attempted as well as successful assassinations of Ukrainian military personnel and supporters (Kyiv, Odesa, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Mariupol).[7] The Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Security Service of Ukraine have detained hundreds of persons associated with intelligence or saboteur groups of Russia-backed separatists or the regular Russian military.[8] In some cases, Russian agents infiltrated areas far from the front line to collect information on Ukrainian combat units. On February 16, 2021, the Ukrainian Security Service detained in Odesa a man alleged to be the leader of an intelligence group of Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. This man traveled 900 kilometers from Luhansk to the Black Sea to carry out his intelligence mission.[9] So the level of Russia’s sabotage, intelligence and diversionary activities in Ukraine remained high all the way up until the massive re-invasion in February 2022. And the opportunity to use free river access may have already been exploited.

Major Man-Made Disasters and Sabotage in Ukraine

The most tragic anthropogenic calamity in Ukraine’s recent history happened during World War II. On August 18, 1941, the Dnipro hydroelectric plant (Dniproges), located on the Dnieper River in Zaporizhzhia, was destroyed, and its dam was blown up. In its retreat from invading Nazi Germany forces, the Soviet military disabled the Dniproges’ equipment in a simple and remarkable way: by switching off the lubricant distributor while the turbines were operating at full speed. Deprived of lubrication, the turbines heated up and literally devoured themselves, turning into a pile of unusable scrap metal. It was an uncomplicated but effective means of destruction—a turn of the handle by one person.

The operational goal was to flood the German troops who were still on the right bank of the Dnieper. However, no one was warned about the planned explosion on the dam itself, along which Soviet military transports and troops were moving. Also, Soviet military units located down from Zaporizhzhia in the Dnieper floodplains were not told of the plans either, even though the telephone connection on the left bank was functioning normally.[10] As result of the explosion, a 30-meter water wave from the broken dam washed over many villages around Zaporizhzhia and killed around 120,000 people, civilians and military.[11]

Also, worth mentioning is the well-known accident at the fourth power unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. This facility is located on the banks of the Pripyat River, a tributary to the Dnieper, the waters of which filled the power plant’s large (22 square kilometers) cooling reservoir. The cause of the accident was negligence during routine maintenance—not a deliberate act of sabotage.

It took about 30 years to take control of the accident-damaged nuclear reactor, covering it with a sarcophagus that cost about $2 billion to build. The 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant is still closed, and people are not allowed to stay there. But since 2014, various intelligence sources have indicated Russian SOF interest in potentially using riverways to covertly reach the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in order to sabotage it with explosive. In November 2016, the Security Service of Ukraine detained several people who were preparing to sabotage another nuclear facility, in Zaporizhzhia, the most powerful nuclear power plant in Europe.[12] In late February 2022, Russian military forces invading from the north marched through the Chernobyl exclusion zone to reach Kyiv, they shelled the area, and continue to occupy the radioactive site as of March 8, 2022.[13]

In the eight years prior to the outbreak of the 2022 Russian re-invasion, there were at least a dozen explosions at Ukrainian arms warehouses and arsenals—mainly in the northern and eastern regions of the country. Notably, several of them were near navigable Ukrainian rivers. In every case, the investigation into the incident pointed to deliberate sabotage, although the extent of the damage caused by the explosions made it nearly impossible to prove provenance. Some of these targets were located close to populated areas and industrial sites. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated during rescue operations. And about 210,000 tons of ammunition were destroyed in the explosions and fire. For a sense of scale, during this same time period, the Ukrainian military engaged on the front line used only 70,000 tons of ammunition.[14]

A particularly destructive incident of sabotage happened on October 9, 2018, in which Ukraine lost many shells and other artillery ammunitions, including 122-millimeter Grad rockets, because of a fire at an ammunition depot near Ichnya, in Chernihiv region. The ammunition’s detonation led to the fire and destruction of buildings and facilities in Ichnya. The electricity and natural gas supply were reportedly cut off in the affected area. The local railway service also was suspended. About 20,000 local residents had to be evacuated.[15]

The cause of the fire, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, was four explosions in different parts of the arsenal. “According to the data we have at the moment, there were two explosions at the same time, and then at the other end of the arsenal there were two more explosions. These explosions caused a fire,” said the deputy chief of the Ukrainian General Staff. He noted that the most likely cause was sabotage.[16] Interestingly, the explosion happened one day before the birthday of the Ukrainian chief of defense, General Viktor Muzhenko. One year earlier, on September 27, 2017, the day after then-president Petro Poroshenko’s birthday, a similar explosion badly damaged a military ammunition depot in his native Vinnitsa region. This coincidence in time and place is very much in line with the spirit of Russian special operations to enhance the psychological effect on enemy officials.

All these cases confirm the high vulnerability of Ukraine to sabotage and diversionary threats. And the open access to main river arteries can significantly simplify the deployment to such facilities and enable the delivery of special equipment and personnel to a target even during peace time.

Sabotage-Related Industrial Disasters Along International Rivers

Rivers are among the cheapest means of transporting goods and producing electricity. Today about 60,000 fresh-water reservoirs and 45,000 dams of all types exist in the world. But as a rule, the construction of hydraulic structures in densely populated areas has always caused certain challenges, the most important of which being to ensure the reliability of this construction and secure the safety of the nearby population. Over the past 80 years, there have been more than a thousand accidents involving large hydraulic structures (dams) globally. Several recent accidents at hydroelectric power plants are worth noting because, although they occurred due to technical problems during operation, similar disastrous effects can be deliberately instigated through military strikes or sabotage.

On August 17, 2009, a turbine of the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station, located near the city of Sayanogorsk, in Russia, failed catastrophically. Breakage of the turbo generator cover bolts flooded the whole operational building, killing 75 people. Power generation from the station ceased completely following the incident, leaving the nearby area without electricity for two days. Three of the plant’s ten turbines were completely destroyed, and five others were seriously damaged. During the accident, water immediately flooded the engine and turbine rooms, causing the transformer to explode. That resulted in an oil spill, releasing at least 40 tons of transformer oil, which spread over 80 kilometer down the Yenisei River.[17] Restoration work to resume full operations at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station took five years and cost Russia more than a $1.3 billion. The work was finally completed in 2017.[18]

The accident at Sayano-Shushenskaya was repeated less than a year later on July 21, 2010, at the Baksan hydroelectric power station (Kabardino-Balkaria, Russia), when a series of explosions damaged the facility’s operating room. But here, the cause was clearly sabotage. Nine unknown persons entered the hydroelectric plant, killing two guards. After setting up explosives, they escaped (though were later detained and jailed). The sappers who arrived at the scene managed to prevent another detonation by clearing one of the planted bombs.[19]

Another interesting case is the international dispute over the construction of Ethiopia’s $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam, which would be Africa’s largest. The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been going on since 2011 and should be finished sometime in 2022. Egypt, in the past, has threatened to go to war over its “historic rights” to the Nile River. Ethiopia’s decision to construct the dam challenged a colonial-era agreement that gave Egypt and Sudan rights to Nile water, with Egypt taking 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters of the 84 billion cubic meters, with 10 billion lost to evaporation. Ethiopia’s intention to block the Nile and much of its waters provoked strong reactions in Egypt, especially from Islamist party leaders, who publicly supported Ethiopian insurgents in sabotaging the dam. They said that Cairo made a “strategic mistake” when it did not derail the dam’s construction.[20] Tensions among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam escalated in August 2020, after Ethiopia announced that it started filling the dam reservoir, contrary to Egypt’s mandate.[21] And amidst Russia’s sharp military escalation on Ukraine’s border, in February 2022, just days before Russian forces began their wide-scale attack on the country, the conflict over the Ethiopian dam heated up as well. Ethiopia announced, on February 20, that it would begin partial power generation for the first time, a move harshly condemned by both Egypt and Sudan.[22]

A different accident took place on February 7, 2021, in northern India, after a Himalayan glacier broke and swept away a small hydroelectric dam. Around 125 people were reported missing, with 32 confirmed dead. India suspected China may have remotely set off explosives in a glacial lake. But a Chinese expert refuted these suspicions, arguing that the main reason for the glacier’s break was Indian military construction. The dispute is still ongoing, with extensive discussions beyond these two countries.[23]

Generally, when an average-sized dam breaks, significant areas downstream become flooded within 15–30 minutes under a layer of water 0.5–10 meters deep. The affected territory can remain under water from several hours to several days. A breakthrough wave moving along the riverbed causes colossal damage to inhabited areas and the local economy.[24]

Thus, the most likely course of sabotage against objects located on or close to riverways include:

  • Destroying dams for the purpose of flooding and damaging large areas with significant casualties, destroying economic sites, agriculture and infrastructure facilities;
  • Deliberately damaging the turbine mechanism of generator and electrical equipment of a hydroelectric power plant in order to block energy supplies and bring significant economic and ecological damage;
  • Blowing up any strategically important riparian object resulting in significant political, military, economic or psychological injury; and
  • Harming the ecology or environment, particularly fresh-water resources and river ecosystems through, in the worst-case scenario, the release of chemical, radiological or nuclear materials into the atmosphere or water.

In all cases, the delivery of a group of saboteurs with equipment and explosives is possible on board a merchant vessel. It might assist potential sabotage activities against a significant number of economic objects located on the banks of Ukraine’s main waterways: the Dnieper and Bug rivers.

Possible Consequences of Sabotage on Power Plants and Dams

In total, about 32,000 rivers or streams flow into the Dnieper basin, including 89 rivers with a length of more than 100 kilometers. All major cities situated on Ukrainian rivers—Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, Kremenchug, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Cherkasy and Kyiv—have significant amounts of strategically vital industrial and infrastructure objects.

The largest river in Ukraine with the status of inland waters is the Dnieper. It provides fresh water not only to consumers within its basin but is also to large industrial centers in the south and southeast of Ukraine. More than 30 million people use the Dnieper’s waters. In Ukraine alone, the river supplies 50 large cities, about 10,000 industrial enterprises, 2,200 rural communities and 50 large irrigation systems.[25] Six big reservoirs (from 410 to 2,250 square kilometers in size) were built on the Dnieper to support the functioning of hydroelectric plants up and down the river: Kyiv, Kaniv, Kremenchug, Middle Dnipro, Dnipro and Kakhovka.

The most powerful and oldest hydroelectric power plant on the Dnieper River is Dniproges, built in 1932, and producing 1,569 megawatts of electricity yearly. Kyiv’s hydroelectric power plant is the first in the Dnieper’s cascade. Whereas the Kremenchug and Kakhovka hydroelectric plants have the biggest water reservoirs.[26] Besides that, both the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and the deactivated Chernobyl nuclear power plant are located near the Dnieper’s banks.[27] As a rule, all power plants and industrial sites located on navigable rivers are vulnerable to sabotage.

The protection of the hydroelectric and nuclear power plants on the Dnieper, thus, creates a serious challenge for Ukraine’s security. The first difficulty arises from the age and deficient condition of the equipment. The protective hydraulic structures, pumps and compressor stations on the Dnieper reservoirs, on average, have operated for more than 50 years, under heavy loads. Significant effort and funds are required to maintain this machinery in operable technical condition.

The second problem pertains to this network’s inherent susceptibility to sabotage. The physical protection of riverine energy infrastructure is regulated at the departmental levels of the state enterprise Ukrainian Hydraulic Energy (Ukrgidroenergo), with minimum coordination with other national security and defense structures. Moreover, the protection of particularly important facilities is primarily carried out by separate paramilitary guards in a reactive manner and in accordance with agreements concluded with the respective enterprises. Only the protection of nuclear power plants was ensured by the Ukrainian National Guard prior to the outbreak of the 2022 war.[28]

Since 2014, the Ukrainian authorities have identified a number of vulnerabilities in the system to protect Ukraine’s hydroelectric plants. Real or simulated setting up of explosive charges, aerial reconnaissance, penetration of divers and vessels within the restricted area, unauthorized stops and vehicles left in restricted areas, as well as other provocative acts to test the vulnerabilities in the security system were all recorded by Ukrgidroenergo guards over the years. Additional security measures were initiated and carried out at the Dniester cascade in Chernivtsi region and at the Dniproges, which is located close to the (pre–February 24, 2022) Donbas front line. Between 2016 and 2017, the paramilitary guards of Ukrgidroenergo detained and handed over to the police 132 trespassers of hydroelectric power plant exclusion zones.[29]

The State Emergency Service of Ukraine has conducted calculations and wargaming of possible consequences caused by natural or man-made disasters on rivers.  A few possible scenarios of catastrophic flooding caused by damage to Ukrainian dams is worth considering, particularly in light of the Russian military’s assaults on and/or occupation of key Ukrainian hydroelectric sites since February 24.

In the case of a breakthrough of the Kyiv hydroelectric power plant, the Ukrainian government estimated that the falling water would next overwhelm and destroy the Kaniy hydroelectric power plant, located 43 kilometers (26.7 miles) downstream on the Dnieper. The breakthrough flood would then enter the Kremenchug reservoir, raising the water level by 2.1 meters and possibly cause flooding in the areas of Chernihiv, Kyiv, Cherkasy and Kirovohrad. An entire, or even partial, destruction of the Kyiv dam would produce a wave with an initial speed of 50–70 kilometers per hour and height of around 10–12 meters. This wave would reach the Kaniv hydroelectric power plant in four hours and the Kremenchug hydroelectric power plant in 31 hours.

The destruction of the Kremenchug hydroelectric power station could have the most serious consequences. Overflow of this dam’s reservoir would destroy the Middle Dnieper, including the Dniproges dam. Parts of the territory of Kirovohrad, Poltava and Dnipropetrovsk could be flooded. The breakthrough flood would be delayed in the Kakhovka reservoir, but would cause flooding of part of the Dnipropetrovsk region and a number of other regions in southern Ukraine. In total, an area of ​​7,000 square kilometers (2,700 square miles), covering eight Ukrainian regions, would be under threat of potential catastrophic flooding. The flood zone could include up to 495 settlements; 19 cities, including Kyiv, Kremenchug, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, Nikopol and Kherson; and 353 Ukrainian industrial sites. As many as around 11.5 million people might need to be evacuated from flooded areas. Navigation on the Dnieper would likely be disrupted as the breakthrough wave would probably destroy all bridges and a large number of water transport facilities along the river.[30]

Acts of sabotage or artillery or aerial strikes could well have the consequences described here. To create a gigantic wave or severely damage dam structures, a significant amount of explosives is required. For example, 20 tons of explosives were used to breach Dniproges in August 1941.

In this regard, the role of Ukraine’s special services in conducting proactive control over such sites, including in cooperation with local civilian partners, is crucial. The practical interaction of all components of the security and defense sector of Ukraine was never wholly worked out to deal with full-scale disasters such as this.

Danger of Ecological and Chemical Sabotage

Another vulnerability of Ukraine’s internal waterways is the possibility of ecological and chemical sabotage. Riverine cargo vessels are capable of carrying hundreds or thousands of tons of liquid and bulk supplies in their holds. The intentional unloading of harmful chemicals into a river would cause extensive toxic effects on the regional ecology and wildlife. Given the fact that rivers are the main source of drinking water for most of the Ukrainian population, this challenge is dangerous and could cause significant harm to both people and the ecosystem.

Small-size ecological accidents happened now and again in Ukraine prior to the total war Russia launched in late February 2022, and they required considerable management efforts. In June 2019, a truck carrying one ton of chemical insecticides overturned into the small Ros River (Vinnitsa region). The accident was reported to the Bila Tserkva district state administration and police. During three days of rescue operations, the water supply to nearby cities and villages with a combined population of about 150,000 stopped.[31] This relatively small accident was fortunately quickly localized.

The chemical industry is one of the principal sectors of the Ukrainian economy and includes over 1,600 enterprises. In 2019, Ukraine’s chemical industry output reached $2.8 billion.[32] Many of these enterprises are located in cities on or close to the Dnieper and other Ukrainian rivers, such as Rivno, Cherkasy, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, Kyiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odesa. Many of the products or chemical additives they manufacture are highly flammable and explosive. Of particular note are fertilizers like ammonium nitrate, the accidental detonation of which has repeatedly led to tragedies. In Ukraine, 1.8 million tons of ammonium nitrate are produced annually, most of which is used by the domestic agricultural sector.

An illustrative example is the disaster that occurred at the Port of Beirut in Lebanon. On August 4, 2020, a huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital, shattering glass and causing extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure within a three-kilometer radius. The blast occurred because of the accidental ignition of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored in the Beirut Port area for years under wholly inadequate conditions. Two hundred people were killed, and 6,000 suffered injuries. Three hundred thousand people were displaced due to damaged and destroyed homes across the metropolitan area. The impact of this unprecedented explosion, which registered as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake, was felt as far away as Cyprus. One primary concern immediately following the disaster was the potentially toxic plume released by the explosion and subsequent fires. Chemical protection teams and environmental experts were immediately deployed to assess the situation.[33] This tragedy had large international resonance and became a lesson for many countries, including Ukraine.

In addition to its own production facilities, Ukraine imports ammonium nitrate from abroad. The statistics of storage and transshipment of imported ammonium nitrate in Ukraine is striking: 100,000–150,000 tons imported from Georgia Bulgaria, Turkey and Romania is stored and transshipped monthly via Ukrainian maritime and river ports in the Mykolaiv, Kherson and Odesa regions. Since this fertilizer is actively used on Ukrainian farms, supply volumes traditionally increase on the eve of and during sowing campaigns. According to various estimates, there are more than 600 such warehouses with ammonium nitrate in the country.

Immediately after the tragedy in Beirut, President Zelenskyy tasked the Cabinet of Ministers with figuring out whether such a situation could repeat itself in Kherson or Mykolaiv, where tens of thousands of tons of explosive substances flow through sea and river routes every month. He called on the government to study how these products are transported across Ukraine; who controls the respective manufacturers and traders; how the transshipment and transportation is carried out; and what is the level of risk of explosions or sabotage at Ukrainian warehouses that store such volatile substances.

However, the quantity of ammonium nitrate warehoused inside Ukraine may never have been accurately calculated. Just days after the tragic explosion in Bierut, in the largest port of Ukraine, Pivdenny (Odesa region),[34] local residents discovered more than 10,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that was stored in the open air without any observance of safety or security rules. This triggered protests by the area population.[35] Also in August 2020, the media reported that local residents identified 3,200 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port of Mykolaiv. Apparently, it was unloaded from an arrested ship in 2018; but the port’s authorities falsely claimed that all ammonium nitrate had been shipped out of Mykolaiv in 2019.[36]

These facts illustrate the vulnerability and high level of potential danger for inhabitants living near or downstream from critical chemical-sector infrastructure in the riparian areas of Ukraine. The Russian war of aggression naturally places these objects under threat from shelling, bombings and air strikes; but if the Russian invasion can be reversed or if the Russian military believes it cannot win the conflict on the battlefield, then such a situation may sharply raise the risk of acts of sabotage directed against Ukraine’s chemical industry. Large loads of fertilizer loaded onto riverine merchant vessels or stored in port areas can easily be turned into a tool of widescale destruction. Explosions may be set up ashore or on the water, during a vessel’s voyage. The initial detonation does not require a particularly significant amount of explosives to, for example, blow up a dam. Committing such an act of sabotage may not even necessitate special military training and could be carried out by a single person who works in a port or an industrial facility or is a riverboat crew member. In short, the challenge of preventing such diversionary activities on Ukrainian rivers will call for a well-resourced and coordinated response by multiple elements of the country’s military, security and civil defense services.


The possibility of military strikes on or acts of sabotage against critical economic infrastructure along Ukraine’s internal waterways is severe. Particularly if the Kremlin’s war of aggression, launched on February 24, 2022, continues to drag on or fails to go Russia’s way, Russia may turn back to sabotage as an asymmetric and cost-effective tactical tool with strategic impact, in order to undermine Ukraine in its political, military, economic and social spheres. The aforementioned series of tragic accidents in Ukraine and around the world over the past eight years confirm how destructive such acts of sabotage could be.

The Law “On Inland Water Transport,” when it was passed in December 2020, did not provide for any systematic security measures to prevent and respond to possible acts of sabotage along Ukrainian riverways, making riparian industrial and critical infrastructure sites—as well as nearby or downstream populations—potentially even more vulnerable. Although the legislation only opens up navigable Ukrainian rivers to foreign vessels not registered to foreign aggressor states (first and foremost, Russia), it leaves a loophole that permits vessels crewed by individuals holding Russian citizenship. Once the active war situation dies down enough to allow for it, Ukraine should immediately conduct a comprehensive review of internal security systems for their ability to prevent, monitor, identify and respond to acts of sabotage and manmade and natural disasters on Ukrainian rivers. The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine will need to lead this process and prepare relevant and clear recommendations to be approved and immediately released by the head of state.

Based on this assessment, Ukraine should implement regulatory means and work out the practical cooperation among all structures of its security and defense sector to minimize the risks and respond rapidly to acts of sabotage on riverways. As importantly, the Ukrainian state should generate additional military and law enforcement capabilities to secure major navigable rivers as well as improve collected intelligence to prevent such acts of sabotage, which may again become more appealing to Russia should its mass invasion falter or be reversed. It is expedient to develop and widened contacts with Ukraine’s main strategic partners in order to exchange relevant intelligence as well as coordinate combined measures to combat this potential state-sponsored sabotage against Ukrainian internal waterways.

The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine has to plan and allocate funds in the short term for the renovation and repair of hydraulic river structures that that were damaged in the war or that were already in worn-out conditions. The poor shape of Ukraine’s network of hydraulic structures invites acts of sabotage and can seriously worsen the consequences of such irregular warfare attacks. Following the war, Ukraine should actively consider applying for foreign loans and EU grants to modernize its riverine infrastructure. Finally, it will be critical to inspect all Ukrainian industrial and agricultural storage sites for their safety conditions and to accurately catalog where (and whether properly) large amounts of explosive and combustible cargo is stored along rivers, in sea ports, and in watershed areas. Post-war remedial actions will likely be immediately necessary to minimize risks of further loss of life or ecological disasters.



[1] Ukrainian Rada, “About Inland Water Transport, December 3, 2020,

[2] On February 28, 2022, in the midst of Russia’s large-scale re-invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv formally submitted its request to join the European Union as a full member. The EU is expected to discuss Ukraine’s application, in light of the Russian war of aggression, during a summit scheduled for March 10.

[3] Ukrainian Government, “Law ‘On Inland Water Transport’ Has Been Adopted, Aays Vladyslav Kryklii,” December 3, 2020,

[4], “Закон №1054-ІХ «Про внутрішній водний транспорт»: кінець українського судноплавства чи перехід на міжнародні стандарти?, [Law 541054-IX “On Inland Water Transport”: The End of Ukrainian Shipping or the Transition to International Standards?],” December 31, 2020,

[5] Sergey Sukhankin, “Unleashing the PMCs and Irregulars in Ukraine: Crimea and Donbas,” September 3, 2019,

[6] “Russian forces are firing at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Enerhodar,” Kyiv Independent, March 4, 2022,; “Russian military control of Ukraine nuclear plants cause for grave concern, nuclear energy agency warns,” United Nations, March 6, 2022,

[7] ArmyInform, “Російські диверсії та теракти на території України (2014-2018) [Russian Sabotage and Terrorist Attacks on the Territory of Ukraine (2014-2018)],” August 12 , 2019,

[8] Roger McDermott, “Russian Spetsnaz Personnel Detained in Ukraine,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 12, no. 94 (May 2015),

[9] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Ukraine Detains Man Accused Of Leading Sabotage Group For Russia-Backed Separatists,” February 16, 2021,


[11] UA Info, “В 1941 г. убегающая Красная Армия взорвала плотину ДнепроГЭСа, убив 100 000 украинцев [In 1941, the Fleeing Red Army Blew up the Dnieper Hydroelectric Power Station Dam, Killing 100,000 Ukrainians].”

[12] Depo, “На Запорізькій АЕС викрили держзраду: готували диверсії для зупинки ‘атомки’ [At the Zaporozhye NPP Exposed Treason: Prepared Diversions for a Stop of ‘Atomichttps],” November 23, 2016,

[13] “Russian forces seize Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” BBC News, February 25, 2022,

[14] Radio Svoboda, “Explosions at Military Depots: How Are They Being Investigated and What Conclusions Have Been Drawn,” May 13, 2019,

[15] Unian, “Ukraine Loses Heavy Artillery Ammunition in Recent Ammo Depot Explosion in Chernihiv Region,” October 9, 2018,

[16] Tatiana Popova, “Explosions in Ichnia: The First Versions and Possible Consequences,” Radio Svoboda, October 9, 2018,

[17] Kommersant, “Три года спустя воду [Three Years Later Water],” August 17, 2021,

[18], “RusHydro Fully Restored the Sayano-Shushenskaya HPP After Accident,” November 21, 2017,

[19], “Terrorist Attack at the Baksan Hydroelectric Power Station: Four Explosions Thundered,” July 21, 2010,

[20] Hamza Hendawi, “Egyptian Politicians: Sabotage Ethiopia’s New Dam,” June 3, 2013,

[21] John Mukum Mbaku, “The Controversy of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam,” August 5, 2020,

[22] Mohamed Saied, “With world attention on Ukraine, Nile dam conflict escalates,” Al-Monitor, March 2, 2022,

[23] Xu Yelu, “Chinese Expert Refutes China Suspicions in India Glacier Break,” February 13, 2021,

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[25] Suchasnyy stan , problemy ta perspektivy rozvitku gidroenergetiki Ukrainy. Analitychna dopovid. NISD, 2014.

[26] Ira Samosvat, “Six of the Most Powerful Hydroelectric Power Plants in Ukraine,”, April 12, 2020,

[27] The decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant is located on the Pripyat River, near where the Pripyat flows into the Dnieper.

[28] Ukrainian Rada, “About the National Guard of Ukraine,”

[29] Liga 360, “ПОЯСНЮВАЛЬНА ЗАПИСКА,” July 10, 2017,

[30] State Emergency Service of Ukraine,Басейни/Дніпро1.pdf

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[32] “Environmental Accident: A Ton of Chemicals Hit Russia,” BBC News, June 9, 2019,

[33] IFRC Technological & Biological Hazard Preparedness, Case Study: Chemical Explosion Beirut Port: Technological and Biological (CBRN) Hazards, 2020,

[34] Pivdenny Port, located in the city of Yuzhny, 33 kilometers northeast of Odesa, handled 62 million tons of cargo in 2020.

[35] Andrey Miselyuk, “Why Ammonium Nitrate in the Port Yuzhny Is the Tip of the Iceberg,”, August 12, 2020,