Ukraine’s Railroads — Next Stop, Liberation

Photo: Five T-72s and four BMP-1s spotted being moved out of storage and loaded on a train in Czech Republic. Credit: MilitaryLand.net via Twitter.
Photo: Five T-72s and four BMP-1s spotted being moved out of storage and loaded on a train in Czech Republic. Credit: MilitaryLand.net via Twitter.

Safeguarding and expanding the capacity of Ukrainian rail lines is of paramount importance in bolstering resistance to Russian aggression.

NATO officers marvel at the sheer ineptitude of Russia’s military.

Their failure results from “vast overestimation of Russian military capabilities, considerable underestimation of Ukrainian capabilities, lack of unity of command and abysmal campaign design,” said Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, in an April 5 interview.

Too few troops were deployed and once the invasion met sustained Ukrainian resistance, the road-based logistics system failed as it came under attack. Russia assumed it would capture a working railroad system; instead, the network in Western Ukraine remains functional and in government hands.

What does this tell us?

Given that there is continuing opposition to the implementation of a NATO-led no-fly zone due to escalatory risks, the best alliance strategy to aid Ukraine is to look at what’s working and do more of it. Ukrainian forces have displayed exceptional resilience and have demonstrated skilled use of guerilla tactics against Russian forces. It, therefore, makes sense to enhance such operations, which can be reasonably assumed to improve the success rate of Ukrainian forces. Such a strategy might be expected to ultimately place the country in a far stronger position ahead of potential diplomatic negotiations. The rail system will be key in providing Ukraine’s forces with what they need.

Once the NATO alliance successfully invests in the protection of the rail system and helps its development to transport aid and weapons, the Ukrainians will be in a better position. It will also provide badly needed cash to the government by allowing grain and other exports through Polish infrastructure on the Baltic Sea, given that Ukraine’s southern ports are either besieged, like Mariupol, or blockaded, like Odesa.

The main railroads of Central and Eastern Europe are of particular importance to the continuation of Ukraine’s fight. Tactical blockage (through bridge demolitions, for example) and re-routing strategies could maximize Ukraine's capacity to obtain resources, while also denying Russia’s railroad-dependent military the channels to obtain new materials. Given the active involvement of NATO frontline states Poland and Romania in the conflict, the protection and improvement of railroads crossing through these two countries will also be needed. (As anyone who has ever driven on Central and East European roads knows, most are wholly inadequate for heavy military traffic.) 

Currently, humanitarian bases in the Lviv and Lutsk areas of Northwestern Ukraine contribute to the arrival and redistribution of humanitarian aid and weapons. According to Britain’s Defence Intelligence service, Russian forces have displayed minimal aggression in the area and in the regions surrounding Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk through which supplies pass. Now that Russia’s war aims are more clearly focused on the country’s east, following its forced withdrawal from the fringes of Kyiv, NATO should find it somewhat easier to maintain critically needed supplies by helping Ukrainian logisticians and rail staff and in the aforementioned western cities. It is clear these routes are being used (images have emerged of Czech T-72 tanks on flatbed cars which are heading to Ukraine via Slovakia. The Times reported as many as 90 are being sent as a “gift.”)

As NATO agreed on further aid to Ukraine on April 7 (Slovakia said it was sending S-300 surface-to-air missile systems the following day), the need to protect and enhance the resilience and capacity of the Ukrainian rail system will only grow. This need will be especially acute given the anticipated Russian offensive in Eastern Ukraine — the military’s ability to move heavy equipment and supplies will be critical, all the more so given the country’s under-developed road system. The March 24 decision by US and European officials to form a joint task force to support the Ukrainian rail company, Ukrzaliznytsia, and its 22,000km (13,700 miles) network, is a promising first step.

It’s one of the mysteries of Russia’s poorly managed military campaign that it has not devoted more effort to interdicting the Ukrainian rail system. While there have been some attacks in the west of the country, the network continues to operate and deliver badly needed supplies. That does not mean that the network has been safe; there have been numerous attacks, especially in the east — on April 8 a Russian missile carrying cluster munitions struck a crowd at Kramatorsk station, killing at least 50 people and wounding almost 100. Russia first claimed the attack, then blamed it on Ukrainian forces. Another attack on a station on April 6 resulted in an unknown number of casualties, and it may be that other Russian assaults have gone unreported.

Ukrainian forces, on the other hand, sensibly destroyed bridges around Kyiv to stall, contain, and help prevent further Russian pushes; aided by an apparently widespread campaign of sabotage by Belarusian rail employees, who reportedly shut down much of the network to hinder Russian movements. By further denying infrastructural access to Russians heading towards Kyiv, Ukrainians achieved a near-complete denial of Russian logistics resupply, forcing the Kremlin into a humiliating admission on March 29 that it was abandoning its attempt to take the capital.

Now that Putin's troops are mostly gone from the north-center of the country, Ukrainian forces need to re-focus on the east.

Second-order tactical priorities should be securing and enhancing logistical control of the rail system from Bucharest to Kyiv and interconnecting rail stations such as Odesa. Although there could be alternative means of transportation, like air cargo flights, to assist Ukrainians with supplies, it is imperative to respect the salience of ground infrastructure and preserve its functionality for post-war reconstruction.

In the meantime, the city of Lviv is probably the key strategic point in Ukraine and requires further defense. To preclude further damage by missiles (or, less likely, the Russian air force) the deployment of additional anti-missile technology in Lviv should be a Ukrainian priority.

The role of the railways will also be central to resuming Ukrainian exports and income, especially the wheat shipments which amount to 11% of world supplies. It has been reported that more than 24,000 wagons filled with export products are marooned near the Polish border, jammed by congestion and by history — Ukrainian railways have a Soviet gauge, while Poland uses the standard European measurement. That means freight often has to be unloaded and reloaded.

The quantities moving by rail are, however, very small relative to pre-war shipments from Ukraine’s ports. The rail system is absolutely vital to Ukraine and its future, but it needs protection, investment, and expansion. The country’s friends need to focus on this issue with technical support and funding.

Andrei-Valentin Bacrău is an independent researcher, with interests in academic philosophy, security studies, and political science. He was formally trained at George Washington University, Nālandā University in India, and the University of Zürich.

April 8, 2022