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Ukraine: Will the railroad decide the war?

Thomas Latschan
May 6, 2022

Russia is increasingly targeting rail infrastructure in its war on Ukraine. The Ukrainian railroad has become one of Kyiv's most important logistics tools — and a symbol of resistance.

Freight train wagons lined up alongside each other in a shunting yard
Russia first sought to take control of Ukraine's railroad and now wants to destroy itImage: Tetyana Dovgan/Ukrsalisnyzia

The Ukrzaliznytsia trains are still running. On Wednesday evening, a laconic statement from Ukraine's state railroad company merely reported that 20 of its long-distance trains were delayed by up to 12 hours. Over the past two weeks, the Russian army has intensified its attacks on the Ukrainian rail network all over the country. A rail bridge over the Dnipro river was severely damaged on Wednesday, while several train stations in the west and south of Ukraine were hit the previous night.

Many stations had already been attacked before this, including in the eastern city of Kramatorsk: At least 50 people died when it was bombed on April 8. In particular, provincial stations, electrical substations, and rail bridges are increasingly becoming the targets of Russian missiles.

Sections of a destroyed railway bridge collapsed into a river
Fixing destroyed bridges is particularly difficult for UkraineImage: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Rail network essential for survival

Russia has good reasons for changing its tactics. During the first two months of the war, the Ukrainian rail company has evolved into the country's most important logistics operation. The Ukrainian rail network stretches across some 22,000 kilometers (13,670 miles). Before the war, Ukrzaliznytsia was one of the biggest employers in the country, with more than 230,000 employees. And only ten years ago, Ukraine invested around €700 million ($740 million) to improve its rail infrastructure and rolling stock in time for the 2012 UEFA European soccer championship. As a result, the Ukrainian railroad is a pretty modern one.

The country also has an extensive network of highways. However, very few of these – mostly near big cities – have more than one lane each direction. Many of the national highways are actually in very poor condition, and are not really suitable for transporting heavy materials.

So it is that the railroad has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. It brings weapons, aid, and supplies to the east of the country. It evacuates millions of people fleeing. It is now also transporting families back to areas previously occupied by Russian troops. It has brought important visitors to Kyiv, such as the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and the leader of the German opposition, Friedrich Merz. Increasingly, the railroad is also playing a key role in transporting goods for export. Before the war, 50% of Ukraine's imports and exports passed through its sea port of Odesa. Since Russia began its blockade of the Black Sea coast, Ukraine has increasingly been trying to export goods like wheat, coal, steel, and chemical products to the West by rail.

Rail workers keep Ukraine running amid war

Surprisingly robust

In these first months of the war, the railroad system has proved surprisingly robust and adaptable. The network has many branches, and when stretches of track are bombed, it is often possible quickly to find alternative routes. "In some instances, we can repair damaged rail lines in just a few hours," Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, the CEO of the Ukrainian Railways Passenger Company, told the American news broadcaster NBC earlier this week.

His boss, Oleksandr Kamyshin, said on CNN that the company was now operating a "flat" management structure. Route managers, he said, could now make on-the-spot decisions without seeking permission from their superiors. Repairs could be carried out without bureaucracy in a fraction of the usual time. Pertsovskyi admitted that, although damaged or destroyed bridges could not be repaired so quickly, "the bottom line is that we can continue to operate the system, despite the intensification of the attacks."

Map showing the main rail lines in Ukraine in blue, with areas of Russian military presence as of May 3, 2022, in red

Still, the task of doing so gets harder every day. Railroad employees have to plan routes that skirt particularly dangerous areas. Timetables often have to be changed on the spur of the moment; they are announced via the railroad company's social media channels. And rocket attacks on rail facilities are increasing almost every day.

Rail network is vital – for both sides

The Ukrainian railroad system was fiercely contested right from the start. Russia tried to swiftly seize control of Ukrainian Railways logistical centers in major cities like Kharkiv and Kyiv, but it was thwarted by the strength of the Ukrainian resistance. At the same time, the Ukrainian army and some Belarusian railroad operators managed to destroy or sabotage rail links between Russia and Belarus – tracks that would have been key to the redeployment of large numbers of Russian troops.

Logistically, the Russian army has always been heavily dependent on the rail network. Russia is a vast territory encompassing a lot of difficult terrain – steppes, permafrost, areas of seasonal flooding. Its standing army of motorized ground troops has therefore always relied on its rail network to transport troops, food, and fuel. "If it cannot use railways, the army must instead rely on roads," wrote Emily Ferris, Russia expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), in a guest commentary for Foreign Policy magazine.

However, Ferris comments that Russia's forces do not have sufficient food and fuel supplies to sustain ground offensives that are aimed at capturing Ukrainian territory too far from the railhead. "In the north," she writes, "Russia never managed to control any of the rail hubs in Chernihiv or around Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, and the muddy conditions saw numerous military vehicles becoming stuck." Some of these vehicles were then simply abandoned.

Several burnt-out cars, cordoned off with red-and-white tape, in front of the red-and-white facade of a train station
The station in Kramatorsk was used for civilian evacuations when it was targeted in AprilImage: FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

New targets, new tactics

Now, though, Russia has redefined its war aims and is focussing on conquering territory in the east and southeast of the country. However, as Ferris points out, the Russian army does not have full control of the railroad's logistical hubs in Kharkiv and in southern Ukraine, some of which have also been almost completely destroyed in the fighting. This, she says, means that, so far, they have been unable to "commandeer local railway infrastructure to transport their infrastructure and soldiers farther into Ukraine and capture more territory."

Nevertheless, this does not bode well for the rail network in the rest of Ukraine. The change in Russia's war aims means its army no longer needs these railroad systems for any advance of its own. Because Russia has not succeeded in capturing the Ukrainian rail network, it now intends to destroy it, at least in part, primarily in order to cut off Western arms shipments to the front. How long Ukraine is able to maintain its rail infrastructure will therefore probably be a deciding factor in this war.

This article has been translated from German.

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