World

Ukraine: Will the railroad be what decides the war?

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..
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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.

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.

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