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Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is currently a Fellow of the Berlin Potsdam Research Group on the International Rule of Law, funded by the German Research Foundation.

Across this city, “Das ist nicht unsere Krieg” is spray-painted on the walls, including on the ones that line the river Spree. “This is not our war.”

The slogan became ubiquitous last year when a large segment of the German population opposed the provision of weapons to Ukraine. But if nothing else, changes on the walls suggest that opinion may be shifting – and if it is, Russia’s seemingly indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilians could be the reason.

Earlier this week, the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River collapsed; Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other, and NATO has accused the latter. The sudden emptying of the massive reservoir is creating a humanitarian, economic and ecological disaster. And if indeed Russian forces caused the breach, it would represent an escalation into scorched-earth tactics that have the potential for mass suffering.

Such tactics have been practiced for millennia, with retreating forces seeking to destroy everything – food, shelter, infrastructure – that could empower an advancing enemy. But today, such tactics are discredited in international treaties and military doctrine. There is even a specific prohibition against destroying dams in the First Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, because of the severe consequences for civilians.

The breach in the Kakhovka dam will deprive cities and farms of water for drinking, sanitation and irrigation. The reservoir supports one of the largest irrigation systems in Europe, supplying Ukraine and other European countries with vegetables and exporting wheat, corn, sunflower oil and soya beans to the world.

The Dnipro River watershed is also heavily industrialized, which means there are stockpiles and waste sites of fuel, toxic chemicals and heavy metals along, and now in, the river. Perversely, countless landmines were also laid in recent months along the river, as it served as a frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces. The rushing waters will now deposit the mines randomly downstream, endangering generations of civilians.

Even worse, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is located 200 km upstream from the Kakhovka dam. The river water used to cool its reactor cores and spent fuel is drawn from the reservoir, using pumps that will soon run dry due to the falling water level. Ukrainian engineers will soon have to draw water from a cooling pool that exists for such emergencies, but the cooling pool is a backup system, which itself lacks a backup and has limited capacity. The situation is made more precarious by the fact that the Ukrainian engineers are working in a Russian-occupied facility.

The Russian forces may have thus created another opportunity to cause mass destruction. If they take the opportunity, they could, as with the dam collapse, attempt to deflect blame by claiming that any “accident” at the nuclear facility was caused by an equipment failure or a Ukrainian artillery strike.

That possibility should terrify us all. The radiation from a nuclear meltdown can be carried vast distances on the wind. For a quarter-century after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, sheep from 10,000 farms in Wales, more than 3,000 km away, had to be tested before being sold.

Most terrifying of all, the risk of an escalation of the war beyond Ukraine’s borders has never been greater. As his forces face a reported counteroffensive, Russian President Vladimir Putin might be tempted to strike at Western targets. At first, he would likely refrain from physical attacks on the territory of NATO states, but we should prepare for a wave of cyberattacks, interference with subsea cables, and perhaps even missile strikes on satellites.

So the core NATO commitment – that an attack on one member state is an attack on all members – is more important than ever before. When NATO states support Ukraine, a non-NATO state, they demonstrate that they would also unquestionably defend any member of the alliance against a Russian attack.

And to that end, any shift in public opinion in Germany, the second-most influential NATO member after the United States, could strengthen the resolve of NATO governments at a critical time. A March poll showed that 47 per cent of Germans approve of support for the Ukrainian military – up 3 per cent since February. Only 31 per cent remain opposed. (The poll took place as Russia was launching waves of inaccurate and therefore indiscriminate Iranian-made drones against Ukrainian cities.)

Could it be that the worse that Mr. Putin behaves, the more Germans will support those who stand up to him? Perhaps, if the graffiti is any indication. Increasingly, in my wanderings across the city, I’m seeing the word “nicht” being painted over or crossed out.

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