In recent weeks, Russian forces have stepped up attacks on railway networks across Ukraine. The railway bridge over the Dnipro River was badly damaged after the May 4 air raid. Ukrzaliznytsia – Ukraine’s state railway company was forced to announce a week earlier that 20 of its trains were delayed by up to 12 hours due to the effects of the fighting.
Several other train stations, substations and railway bridges across Ukraine have also been attacked, including a rocket attack on Kramatorsk train station in the east of the city on April 8 that killed at least 50 people.
According to DW, Russia has good reasons to change its tactics. Ukraine currently has a modern rail network with a total length of up to 22,000 km. Railways play an important role in Ukrainians’ travel and transportation, especially when many of the country’s national roads are still in very bad condition and not really suitable for material transportation.
This is also one of the reasons why the railway system has become one of the “symbols of resistance” in Ukraine. Not only do they deliver arms and supplies to the front lines, but they also help ensure the safe evacuation of millions of Ukrainians from war zones.
Now these trains are also a means of bringing Ukrainian families back to the place they just captured from the Russian army and bringing important guests to the capital Kyiv, from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to European Commission Chair Ursula from the Leyen.
In addition, the railway plays an increasingly important role in the transportation of export packages from Ukraine. Before the war, up to 50% of Ukrainian exports and imports passed through the port of Odessa. But since the Black Sea was blocked by Russian troops, Ukraine has been increasingly exporting goods such as wheat, coal, steel and chemical products to the West by rail.
In the early months of the conflict with Russia, Ukraine’s railway system proved surprisingly resilient and adaptable. Thanks to the dense network, trains in Ukraine can still quickly find alternative routes after a bombing of this line. “In some cases, we can repair damaged railway lines in just a few hours,” Ukraine Railway Transport Company CEO Oleksandr Pertsovskyi told NBC.
Oleksandr Kamyshin, Pertsovskyi’s manager, told CNN that his company operates a “flat” management structure – rail managers can now make decisions on the spot without having to do so and get their superiors’ permission, resulting in repairs that could be carried out quickly . While he concedes that damaged or destroyed bridges may not be repaired any time soon, “the bottom line is that we can continue to operate the system despite the conflicts,” Pertsovskyi said.
However, rail travel is becoming more dangerous with the increasing frequency of attacks on rail facilities in Ukraine.
Important for both sides
Ukraine’s rail network has been a hotly contested target since the outbreak of hostilities with Russia. The Russians tried to quickly gain control of the logistical hubs of the Ukrainian railway system in major cities such as Kharkiv or Kyiv, but failed because of Ukrainian military resistance.
On the other hand, Ukrainian forces and some railway operators in Belarus are also said to have attempted to destroy or damage railway lines connecting Russia and Belarus – routes believed to be “key” for the movement of large numbers of Russian troops.
Due to its vast territory with much difficult terrain and weather, Russia’s permanent mechanized forces have always had to rely on the railway network to transport troops, food, and fuel. “If rail could not be used, the Russian army could only rely on land,” wrote Emily Ferris, Russia expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), in Foreign Policy magazine.
Ferris also said the Russian army did not have enough food and fuel to endure ground attacks to control areas far from railway lines in Ukraine. “Russia has never controlled a railway hub in the north at Chernihiv or around the capital Kyiv. In addition, the rainy and muddy weather conditions mean that many of its motor vehicles have caught and left Russia behind,” the RUSI expert wrote.
New goals, new tactics
Russia now had to refocus its military campaign and focus only on control of the eastern and south-eastern areas of Ukraine.
But, as Ms Ferris pointed out, Russia has so far been unable to use local rail infrastructure to transport troops due to its inability to fully control the railroad’s logistical hubs in Kharkiv and southern Ukraine, and to transport equipment deep within invade Ukrainian territory in order to expand the area of control”.
However, this does not mean that the railway network in the rest of Ukraine will be safe. The change in Russian campaign objectives means that the Russian military no longer pushes to control the rail system as a springboard for its attacks. Now Russia will seek to destroy and disrupt rail infrastructure in Ukraine in order to cut off routes of Western arms shipments into the country.
How long Ukraine can maintain its rail infrastructure is therefore likely to be a factor determining the outcome of this conflict.