Railways Helped Drive Russia Off Track and Into Ukraine’s Cities

How Ukraine’s Rail Network Threw Russia’s Military Off Track

Russian armored personnel carriers are stalled by the roadside for lack of fuel. Soldiers forage for food in grocery stores. Trucks are backed up from Kyiv like a Friday night traffic jam.

Images of Russia’s travails in the first week of its invasion of Ukraine have transfixed the world, raising questions over the assumed invincibility of President Vladimir Putin’s modernized military. Yet one cause of its stumbles is very simple: the humble railway junction. 

The Russian armed forces, like the Soviets before them, move almost everything by rail. They also build temporary pipelines to deliver oil and water to the front. Yet in Ukraine, all of that is now having to be moved by road and the Russian army is chronically short of the trucks to do it, simply because it doesn’t normally need them.

Railways Helped Drive Russia Off Track and Into Ukraine’s Cities

While Ukraine’s armed forces have done a lot to foil the Kremlin’s plan for a lightning strike invasion that would swiftly remove the government in Kyiv, so too have logistics, and in particular a lack of access to rail transport.

Those logistical issues can be fixed and the stalling of a massive convoy north of Kyiv in recent days may even be partly a matter of choice, as commanders regroup, learn lessons and develop a new strategy for securing the capital, according to Alex Vershinin, recently retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. He spoke in a private capacity.

On Thursday, Putin gave every indication he will give his forces the time they need. Speaking to the national security council, Russia’s leader said in televised remarks that the “special military operation” in Ukraine was “going strictly according to schedule, according to plan.” 

But many of the problems facing Russian forces can be traced directly to the ways in which they are constructed and resupply units in the field, Vershinin said. They were also foreseeable.

Vital Cities

Ukraine -– unlike Western Europe -– uses the same gauge of railroad as Russia. That infrastructure, though, can’t be used to bring supplies until troops control the towns that sit on them, in particular key junctions such as Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv in the north, or Kherson, Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia in the south. 

Railways Helped Drive Russia Off Track and Into Ukraine’s Cities

The problem for Russia is that its military needs to take major cities to access the rail network, Vershinin said by telephone from Virginia. “The other problem is that the Russians have not brought enough manpower,” he said. “This is a huge country, and every time they need to take a city they also have to leave force behind to hold it.”

That means the military also can’t yet run out temporary pipelines to deliver fuel, because they don’t control the territory and can’t rely on locals not to destroy them. Instead, oil tankers have to be sent by road, putting further stress on a limited resource. 

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry urged citizens to “destroy or detain” rear convoys carrying fuel, fuel and ammunition with Molotov cocktails, hunting rifles or whatever they could get their hands on.

Miles of Troops

Other issues are common to any military operation on the scale of the one underway in Ukraine, a nation of 41 million with a land area larger than France. Big campaigns are notorious for the kind of traffic back-up seen north of Kyiv, Vershinin said.

One Russian brigade –- typically 3,000 to 5,000 men –- would have about 400 vehicles, he said. Each vehicle has to stay 50 meters from the next, so as not to offer too rich a target for attack. That’s a 20 kilometer (12 miles) convoy right there. According to U.S. officials, Russia has moved 80% of the force it assembled into Ukraine, in the region of 150,000 troops. Whole divisions comprising three-to-four brigades apiece have entered from the north.

Once a road is jammed up, it becomes a juggling act to thread fuel supply vehicles through the congestion, or the equipment to span a blown up bridge at the front of a column. 

That’s a particular problem in muddy conditions, because trucks can’t move off road to make way for fear of getting stuck. The roads south to Kyiv pass through not just muddy fields, but the Pripyat marshes. 

Because of its reliance on rail and pipelines, Russia maintains fewer logistical battalions per combat unit to move material by road than NATO counterparts. As a result, it only has enough trucks to efficiently resupply units up to 90 miles from depots, Vershinin wrote in a November article that in many ways foresaw the delays. To go 180 miles, it needs twice as many.

Railways Helped Drive Russia Off Track and Into Ukraine’s Cities

Worrying Omen

In Ukraine, Russian units have had to travel long distances from supply depots. That isn’t necessarily a failure, but it means there have to be pauses in an advance to allow supplies to catch up. 

That creates a special problem for Russia because its military carries three times as many artillery pieces and multiple launch rocket systems as the U.S. military does. Reloading just the rocket launchers of a Russian army -- units of which there are several in Ukraine -- takes as many as 90 trucks per volley, based on Vershinin’s math.

Once Russian forces control the railroads, they’ll be able to move fuel, ammunition, and equipment to the front much more efficiently, according to Roger McDermott, a Russian military specialist at the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S. think tank. That suggests even darker times ahead for the Ukrainian armed forces and civilians on the receiving end.

Despite the “mystifying lack of planning,” the Russian military historically has tended to make early errors and then learn quickly from them, according to McDermott, who also works at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 

“If you get hold of one of the old Soviet maps of the rail structure, you can start to make sense of why they are putting so much importance on a place like Kharkiv,” McDermott said. “Once they have the rail hubs and can control the rail roads, they can start to fix a lot of the problems they’ve had.”

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