Disregard for human lives, animal lives, and nature is a feature of Moscow’s policies, not a bug.
The catastrophic collapse of the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine earlier this month was likely the result of two possible scenarios: Russia’s occupying forces neglected the dam to the point of collapse, or those same Russian forces simply blew it up. Either way, the damage has been immense, including irreversible damage to the region’s ecosystem, as well as displacing thousands of people and threatening the global food supply for millions more.
Russia, unsurprisingly, has denied any involvement. Arguments that blame secret sabotage by Ukraine use the fact that the collapse has resulted in drowned Russian soldiers and serious water supply issues for Russian-occupied Crimea. “Why would the Russians do this to themselves?” they’ve asked. Yet as we have seen over and over again, both Soviet and Russian governments are absolutely capable of “doing this to themselves” — and have.
Disregard for human lives, animal lives, and nature is a feature of Moscow’s policies, not a bug. A salient example is the dam blown up in Ukraine by Joseph Stalin’s secret police in 1941, ostensibly to stop Nazi forces from capturing the city of Zaporizhzhya as they invaded the Soviet Union. The explosion was said to have been rushed as the NKVD feared Stalin’s wrath: Murderous dictators inspire paranoia, and paranoia leads to mental exhaustion and poor decisions. The disaster claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives, although some historians say the number could be as high as 100,000. Eventually, Zaporizhzhya was occupied by Nazi forces anyway. Thousands more were killed. As was generally the case, Stalin’s barbaric policies were both nihilistic and futile.
Given this history, the idea that Moscow would be at all concerned about the horrific damage of the Kakhovka Dam disaster is laughable. Alongside human lives, Moscow sees animals and nature as equally dispensable in its pursuit of power. Climate change is already drastically affecting Russia, which is warming at a rate 2.5 times faster than the global average. Moscow, meanwhile, has a long, dark history of persecuting environmental activists. The situation has only gotten worse with the genocidal invasion of Ukraine.
Terrorizing the victims of its invasion — and the Western countries it loathes — is Moscow’s biggest strategic goal at this point, after its plans for a three-day war against Ukraine failed spectacularly last year. In Russian-occupied territories, aid to the surviving victims of the dam disaster has predictably been made impossible by the occupiers, because the suffering is the point: Today, the war is a campaign of seething revenge, and everything and everyone living downstream from Kakhovka is as good of a target as any.
Even if Russian forces didn’t blow up the Kakhovka Dam, as is widely suspected, the dam was still in Russian hands, occupied quickly following its mass-scale invasion in February 2022. It was Moscow’s responsibility to prevent a natural disaster, and they did not.
All of this is a part of a cycle of violence, not unique to Russian society, but unique to Russia in its aftermath. Let’s go back to Stalin’s murderous reign: In countries like modern Ukraine, the violence is acknowledged for what it was — reprehensible. By contrast, Putin’s Russia has sought to rehabilitate Stalin for years. How can a society that does not, in some fashion, reckon with a dark past be expected to build a viable future?
Vladimir Putin’s revanchism took years to coalesce into a genocidal war of aggression, but his fantasy of revenge against the West, and all who stood with it, has been apparent — and disregarded — for years. Madeleine Albright called it “delusional.” Germany’s Angela Merkel said that Putin was living “in another world.” Yet everyone failed to stop him, including, most crucially, Russian citizens themselves. The Russian majority, overwhelmed with state propaganda and lingering resentment that followed the USSR’s collapse, supported Putin’s decision to steal a chunk of Ukraine.
From 2010 to 2017, I worked in Moscow and watched modern Russia’s march toward fascism from inside the country — perpetual trips abroad, which allowed me to breathe free, notwithstanding. On the day that Russia launched its mass scale invasion, I was horrified, but not surprised: I had already seen the bloodthirst up close. During my last few years in Moscow, I had watched as former friends grew distant, or even afraid of associating with me. I saw conscientious people persecuted and imperialist thugs elevated. In this light, the horror of the Kakhovka Dam disaster is astronomical, but not all that shocking. Not if you know the Kremlin.
Even as it continues to lose the war, Russia remains a ticking time bomb for the world. Accepting this grim fact is important. The nihilism of Kakhovka will be reflected in Russia’s other policies toward humanity and the environment, because disasters like this do not exist in a vacuum.
The fate of the Zaporizhhya nuclear plant, currently occupied by Russia, is one to watch in this regard. We mustn’t forget that the people in charge of Moscow are the ideological heirs of the people who mishandled and covered up the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the 1980s. Yet there are other issues that loom on the horizon, even after Russia is beaten back, as I believe it will be. Russia’s treatment of the Arctic is especially notable in this context. There, Russia has demonstrated both contempt for nature and for its own citizens on a breathtaking scale, and the results will be disastrous.
While ecocide is the world’s collective problem, Russia happens to be an especially belligerent actor — and the collapse of the Kakhovka Dam is just one small piece of what’s to come. Strengthening support for decent environmental policies back home is one of the ways that Western nations can respond to Russian ecocide; another is critical support for nations such as Ukraine, which today bears the brunt of both Russian aggression and disregard for the environment. Still, we can always do more.
Actively planning for post-Putinism is another important step to take now, and not later. The current regime in Moscow is not committed to legal norms, and expecting it to reverse course is mostly a waste of time and energy. What comes next, however, may be a window of opportunity. If the recent armed insurrection attempt in Russia is any indication, the Putinist system is growing less stable, and the time to plan is now.
As the planet continues to deal with man-made natural disasters, long term strategizing is important. We must be proactive, not reactive — the planet depends on it.