Logistics: The War On Russian Railroads In Ukraine


November 11, 2022: In Russian occupied Ukraine, there have been a growing number of disruptions in the railroads that carry most of the supplies from Russia to Russian forces inside Ukraine. Ukrainian civilians in Russian occupied territory were inspired to sabotage rail lines because of the early example of anti-Russia Belarusians who sabotaged the few rail lines crossing the Ukrainian border. These lines were used by Russia in the first months of the war before Russian forces were driven out of northern Ukraine. One reason the Russians withdrew was this sabotage of the rail lines into Ukraine. When those lines were down, the primary mode of transport into or out of Ukraine was halted as Russia depends on rail lines more than roads or rivers to move people and supplies. Local civilians discovered that they could sabotage the rail by damaging signals and other auxiliary equipment and forcing a temporary halt in traffic. Three months into the war these civilian railroad saboteurs were getting in touch with one another via encrypted Internet apps. Many of these local groups learned what to sabotage by searching the Internet for information, especially about how Ukrainian and Russian partisans sabotaged German rail traffic during World War II. Employees of the Ukrainian railroad were soon on these Internet groups, explaining post-World War II equipment improvements and how to sabotage them. This soon brought the Ukrainian military, especially the special operations and partisan activity support departments, help Ukrainians in Russian occupied territory obtain explosives and advice on how best use this to cut rail lines. Each of these cut lines can take several days to repair. The special operations people also carried out their own major attacks on some Russian rail lines. One such attack was on the rail line across the Kerch Strait bridge from Russia to Crimea. This attack wasn’t completely successful but it weakened the bridge structure to the extent that Russia had to substantially reduce the cargo tonnage of trains using the bridge. There were also attacks on other rail bridges. If successful, these attacks can disrupt traffic for weeks or months. When Ukrainian forces come within 80 kilometers of such choke points, they can be attacked using GMLRS guided missiles.

Russia tried to shut down Ukrainian rail traffic early in the war with air and long-range missile attacks, but the internal railway system was so dense, and track repair capabilities so quickly expanded, that track damage was rapidly fixed and there were usually ways to reroute traffic until repairs were completed. Ukraine has 22,300 kilometers of railway and employs over 400,000 people to operate nearly 2,000 locomotives, 85,000 freight and 4,000 passenger cars. The Ukrainian railroad had its own telephone system, running next to the tracks. Early in the war, before the Starlink system had expanded to all of Ukraine, the railroad telephone was one uninterruptible form of communication. Recently Russia tried another approach to disrupting Ukrainian railroads by bombing electrical power generating facilities all over Ukraine. NATO countries that border Ukraine provide electrical power, especially for Ukrainian railroads.

Russia has a much larger railroad system with 161,100 kilometers of railway and employs over 800,000 people to operate nearly 19,700 locomotives, 796,000 freight and 24,200 passenger cars. The railroad system has many choke points (bridges and tunnels) inside Russia and some of these are shut down because of deferred maintenance or natural disasters, Ukraine is only interested in key lines crossing the border into Ukraine and a growing number of these have been subject to sabotage or explosions on the Russian side of the border Most are the work of Ukrainian special forces but some were apparently carried out by Russians opposed to the war.

Until early March Russia had no problem using railroad crossings from Belarus, where six rail lines cross into Ukraine. In early March Belarussian railway employees were found to be cooperating with their Ukrainian counterparts to sabotage Russian rail traffic from Belarus to Ukraine. Belarus had refused to send troops into Ukraine but has been forced to allow Russian troops to operate in Belarus and cross into Ukraine via railroad. The pro-Russia Belarus government was forced to divert some of its few reliable military units to guard the rail crossings. This did not stop the sabotage but slowed it down. Most Belarussians oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as their own pro-Russia ruler, who was recently helped by Russian troops moved into Belarus to help suppress the growing number of demonstrations against the unpopular Belarussian ruler and Russia in general.




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