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Ukraine is relying on its secret weapon in the war against Russia: Trains

Rail has played a pivotal role for both sides of the war, and it may help explain the failure of Russian forces to win control of the country.
War Refugees From Ukraine In Lviv Railway Station
Ukrainian train guards wait on the platform at Lviv railway station. Nicolas Economou / AP

KYIV, Ukraine — The passenger train from Kyiv to Sumy was running Thursday morning with just a six-minute delay. The 200-mile route crosses territory scarred by more than two months of ground battles and aerial bombardment since Russia’s invasion began.

Despite what appear to be concerted efforts by the Russian military this week to disable the vital Ukrainian rail network, this journey and dozens of others are providing a crucial means of military support and civilian escape through the country.

Rail also acts as a symbol of Ukraine’s defiance and the limits of Russia’s military power. After cities and towns were reduced to rubble, with thousands killed, the trains are still running.

Ukraine has one of the largest rail networks in the world, with 12,400 miles of track. Rail is one of the country’s largest employers, with more than 260,000 staff members.

Before the war, it played a minor role in Ukraine’s agriculture and mining industries, but it has become a crutch for commodity industries as Russia maintains a blockade on the Black Sea. The movement of grain now is essential to maintain the country’s reputation as “Europe’s breadbasket.”

But the trains are no longer just for commodities and long journeys, as the network now moves military ordnance, refugees and humanitarian aid. Increasingly, it is transporting families back to areas previously held by Russian troops.

It delivers foreign leaders, too: Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv on Sunday, arriving by train from Poland, as have several other Western officials.

Lviv Ukraine with Phil McCausland
The main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, on April 12.Brendan Hoffman for NBC News

Rail has played a pivotal role for both sides of the war, and it may help explain the failure of Russian forces to win control of the country. Russia was unable to fully use the railways in the early stages of the invasion, experts say, leading to logistical problems and images of Russian trucks stuck in winter mud.

“The railways have played a massively important role in the conflict so far, insofar as it’s the way the Russian motorized ground forces move their troops around,” said Emily Ferris, a Russia expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “All of the problems they’ve had in the north are because they weren’t able to control the logistical hubs.”

Until recently, Russian forces had stopped short of targeting railway infrastructure in Ukraine in the hope they would take control of it themselves, said Oleksandr Pertsovskyi, the CEO of Ukrainian Railways’ passenger trains business.

“The Russian military depends heavily on rail logistics, and one of the reasons why they’re rather inefficient is the fact that they don’t have reliable supply lines at the moment,” he said.

Seemingly unable to take control of the rail network, Russia instead now appears to be intent on trying to disable it.

“Two weeks back, it appears that there were more and more deliberate attacks on rail infrastructure,” Pertsovskyi said.

Missiles rained down on five Ukrainian train stations and regional railway hubs Monday night, mostly in western and central areas, killing a railway worker and wounding four others, the Ukrainian rail authority said. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a briefing Monday that the railway station attacks were designed to stop the shipment of “foreign weapons and military equipment” to Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbas region.

A container is loaded onto a special train taking aid supplies to Ukraine from Berlin on March 24.John MacDougall / AFP via Getty Images

It’s there that Russian forces are now focused, with a crucial battle for eastern Ukraine that could be decided by Kyiv’s ability to mobilize equipment and weapons — much of which is being sent by allies to aid the defensive stand — by road and rail.

Russia wants to stop the inbound military aid from Western countries that are beginning to resupply the Ukrainians, said Gen. Philip Breedlove, a retired four-star Air Force general and former supreme allied commander of NATO, speaking by phone from Florida.

But that’s not the whole story.

“It’s also just another step in Russia’s ongoing war against the Ukrainian civilian population, on innocents,” said Breedlove, now the chair of the Frontier Europe Initiative at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“I believe the Russians are attacking, on purpose, civilian structures that move people around and protect people,” he said. “They want Ukrainians to lose confidence in the civilian transportation infrastructure.”

The Russians are “scattering these little attacks around” to keep killing a “few people in this town, kill a few people in that town, kill a few people over here,” to maintain pressure and civilian fear, Breedlove said.

Other experts agree that the airstrikes on railway targets also underscore the slow progress of Russia’s campaign and signal that the conflict has entered a dangerous new phase. Perhaps the first glimpse of that was the deadly attack on a train station in Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region on April 8, in which at least 30 people died and 100 others were injured, Ukrainian officials said.

A person lies on the platform after a rocket attack on the railway station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk on April 8. Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images

“In general, it’s part of a wider pattern to target Ukrainian infrastructure and civilians and to degrade their physical capacity to resist but also their morale — which doesn’t seem to be working,” said Ruth Deyermond, an expert in Russian security policy at King’s College London.

“Once it became clear that the Russian army wasn’t going to walk in and take Kyiv or Kharkiv or other cities, they moved to the second phase, which was trying to reduce parts of Ukraine to rubble, exactly as they did in Chechnya in the 1990s — it’s part of a long-standing pattern,” she said.

So far, every time a railroad is damaged, it just keeps getting repaired.

In some cases, Pertsovskyi said, damaged train lines can be fixed in a few hours. Destroyed or damaged bridges are harder to address, but “the bottom line is that even though the attacks are constant and intensifying, we still are able to run the system,” he said.

Actually destroying the rail infrastructure, he said, is “not an easy task, because the system is quite reliable.”

Damage caused by shelling close to the train station in Lviv this month.
Damage caused by shelling close to the train station in Lviv this month.@lesiavasylenko / Twitter

The railway system Russia has relied upon may not have proven so resilient.

Satellite pictures showed trains laden with military hardware making their way to the Ukrainian border in the weeks of buildup to the invasion — including through Belarus.

But the rail link from Belarus to Ukraine was severed, the head of the Ukrainian rail network said in March, leaving Russian forces even more reliant on their limited number of trucks, which were prime targets for small-scale ambush attacks, Ferris said.

“Controlling the railways is key here,” she said. “The Ukrainians know that, and they tried quite hard when they saw Russian advances on certain cities and villages … to bomb things like the bridges and cut off rail connections to stop the Russians where they were.”

The next logical step for Russia’s plan to create a corridor across Ukraine’s south is to take  the Black Sea port of Odesa. A bridge linking the region with the rest of Ukraine and neighboring Romania was shelled twice this week, a possible effort to cut it off from military supplies.

But as in the north, Russian forces may find victory here easier said than done.

“The Russian army has done very badly and suffered tremendous losses,” Deyermond said. “Now they’re talking about the south and Donbas — but even there it’s very hard to see how they have the capacity to do that.

“Will they make significant military gains?” she said. “Possibly, but are they going to be able to hold them? That seems much less likely.”

Phil McCausland reported from Kyiv, and Patrick Smith reported from London.