The Iron Horse in Ukraine
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

The Iron Horse in Ukraine

A digital map of Ukraine overlaid with Russian advances, Russian-controlled territory (in red), and the Ukrainian railroad network, created by on as of 13 March 2022

I added this map to my previous post on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it is worth studying. War in Ukraine has to be supplied by rail. One reason why many people much more knowledgeable than me did not believe Putin would actually invade was that the Russians had plenty of tanks and aircraft but not the trucks they would need to supply such an attack:

logistically, Russian forces are tied to railroad from factory to army depot and to combined arms army and, where possible, to the division/brigade level. No other European nation uses railroads to the extent that the Russian army does. …The Russian army does not have enough trucks to meet its logistic requirement more than 90 miles (140 km) beyond supply dumps. To reach a 180-mile (290 km) range, the Russian army would have to double truck allocation to 400 trucks for each of the material-technical support brigades. To gain familiarity with Russian logistic requirements and lift resources, a useful starting point is the Russian combined arms army. They all have different force structures, but on paper, each combined army is assigned a material-technical support brigade. Each material-technical support brigade has two truck battalions with a total of 150 general cargo trucks with 50 trailers and 260 specialized trucks per brigade. The Russian army makes heavy use of tube and rocket artillery fire, and rocket ammunition is very bulky. Although each army is different, there are usually 56 to 90 multiple launch rocket system launchers in an army. Replenishing each launcher takes up the entire bed of the truck. If the combined arms army fired a single volley, it would require 56 to 90 trucks just to replenish rocket ammunition. That is about a half of a dry cargo truck force in the material-technical support brigade just to replace one volley of rockets. There is also between six to nine tube artillery battalions, nine air defense artillery battalions, 12 mechanized and recon battalions, three to five tank battalions, mortars, anti-tank missiles, and small arms ammunition — not to mention, food, engineering, medical supplies, and so on.

Alex Vershinin, “Feeding the Bear: A Closer Look at Russian Army Logistics and the Fait Accompli,” War on the Rocks, 23 November 2021

Such an army also needs massive stockpiles of gravel, culvert sections, asphalt, concrete, and other materials to repair roads and bridges. Just driving heavy armoured vehicles damages roads, especially during the rasputisa. When vehicles burn out on the roads, they damage them more. Prepared defenders demolish bridges, block roads, sink boats in waterways, and launch bombs and missiles at any transport infrastructure the invaders build or capture. If you overlay a scale on maps of Ukraine, you can see that most of the Russian advances have not gone beyond this 90 mile / 140 km rule of thumb. The USA is so rich that it could supply the war in Afghanistan by truck from Pakistan (Afghanistan has no railways). Russia is not so rich, and its army is built around railways.

a topographical map of terrain with no cities, roads, or railroads but Russian troop movements
A map of Russian columns (thin red lines) and a 90 mile limit from pre-war Russian occupied territory (wide purple line) by ‘Nathan Russer’ on 15 March 2022

With a glance at the first map, you can see why it was so important for the Russians to take Kherson at the mouth of the Dniepr River (the river which divides Ukraine into eastern and western halves). It is a rail junction so lets them bring up supplies from Crimea for attacks further west. Zaporizhzhia is not just the site of a nuclear power plant but the next city along one of the few rail lines the invaders control. As we saw in my review of Supplying War (link), modern armies consume ammunition, spare parts, fuel, and all kinds of things which have to be made in distant factories and brought to the fighting. Ransacking supermarkets and draining gas stations only goes so far. And it is much more expensive to transport those things by truck than by rail, and even on paper Russia has a small transport fleet for its fighting force. Just like in the Iraq war, local militias are concentrating their attacks on transport because its much easier to fight a column of trucks than a column of tanks. And on 13 or 14 March, the Ukrainian armed forces announced the destruction or capture of a column of 200 vehicles near Melitopol.

As of 14 March, both Kyiv on the Dniepr and Kharkov on the Russian border appear to have multiple intact rail connections to free Ukraine. Refugees can escape along them and weapons, ammunition, food, and fuel can come in. So do the Ukrainian troops facing the Russian proxy states on the Don River in the east. The Russian advance along the Sea of Azov towards Mariupol seems to have followed roads, not a railway (this may be one reason why they are blockading the town but not assaulting it). And the Ukrainians claim to have destroyed 200 Russian vehicles and a headquarters near the railhead at Melitopol on 13 March, so a large Ukrainian unit seems to still be in the area. The Russian army would like to trap part of the Ukrainian army in a Kessel against the proxy states on the Don or force it into a massed retreat where Russian bombs and missiles can hit it in the open. But so far, the Ukrainians have been successful in keeping their railroads running and preventing the Russians from advancing along the rail lines. The longer that they can continue, the colder and hungrier the Russians will get (and the harder it will be to keep bombarding Kyiv).

A silver convertible with a heavy machine gun and a Ukrainian flag mounted in the trunk
This technical is properly marked as a combatant with a Ukrainian flag (and glossy decals). Car people and gun people tell me it is a BMW 6 series convertible with a NSV heavy machine gun in the trunk. Photo care of Ukraine Weapons Tracker

Edit: I am also seeing claims that the Ukrainian Territorial Defense have been moving around in unmarked cars, while the Ukrainians show photos of a Russian ambulance full of munitions instead of wounded. The need to move but not die is driving this war in uglier and uglier directions (if any civilian car could be full of militia, Russian troops will shoot cars that don’t stop on command; if a marked ambulance could be full of munitions, Ukrainians will target them).

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Edit 2022-03-16: added a map with the ’90 mile limit’ and Russian advances marked

Edit 2022-03-25: I am seeing claims that Russian logistics are not even based on cranes on the trucks lifting pallets onto the truckbeds and that many shippers inside Russia do not use containers This is madness.

Edit 2022-10-15: WarTranslated quotes Russian telegram blogger Atomic Cherry who treats 100 km (70% as far as Vershin’s estimate) as the limit of truck-borne logistics and sees pallets as an innovation of the Cold war (shipping pallets were common in Commonwealth and US forces in WW II).

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7 thoughts on “The Iron Horse in Ukraine

  1. russell1200 says:

    The Alex Vershinin piece was spot on.

    I read it when it first came out. My thinking at the time was something like “That’s great, but the Russians know about their logistic issues too”. I figured they would strip logistics from other units to meet their supply needs.

    The Germans were mostly horse bound outside of their Panzer Divisions during WW2. They would push the Panzers supply columns up toward the front. In at least one case I recall reading of during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, their supply column actually wound up ahead of the fighting forces. But even so, the Germans, probably with much the same math as noted above, tended to be able to accomplish bounds in 300km intervals. But even there, there were two significant differences between the Germans of 1941 and the Russians of 2022 (beyond relative fighting capabilities), one is that the tanks of that point of the war were upgraded early war tanks. In other words, they were still very light. So their operational maneuverability was much higher. The risky practice of a few Jerry cans strapped on the back of the tank could make a difference.

    But biggest difference is that the Germans knew about the rainy seasons, and delayed their attack until June so as to avoid it. Although Mussolini and his Balkans fiasco are often blamed for their late start, the reality is that they knew they would be starting in June. The Balkans caused some causalities, and some wear and tear, but not serious delays.

    So how it is that the Russians decide to go to war with the Ukrainians with heavy road bound (when its raining) equipment is just stunning.

    1. Sean says:

      And it seemed like they sent ahead some troops in lightly armed and armoured vehicles in the first days of the invasion, but since the Ukrainians were fighting back those troops just got killed. I really don’t know much about warfare since 1914, but so many things about this invasion don’t make sense unless you assumed that the Ukrainians would not put up serious resistance and the international response would be mild.

      I added a new map to this post with the ‘145 km rule of thumb’ marked.

    2. Sean says:

      I added a link to a Russian telegram blogger whose assumption is that Russian army can only supply itself by truck at 100 km. from depots and railheads So they have less truck capacity than the Deutsches Afrika Korps in 1942.

  2. dearieme says:

    @russell: I’ve been asking around the internet “Why February?” I have had no answers.

    Is Putin an old man in a hurry, terminally ill? Mere conjecture, evidence-free.

    Or does he know some good reason not to defer until May/June? Not another pandemic I hope.

    1. Sean says:

      And if he had cancelled when the Americans leaked the pretext he was planning to stage, he would have made a little progress on subverting the Atlantic powers. Putin’s sympathizers would have kept saying that this showed that Putin was not aggressive and the Americans had been lying.

      And why on earth schedule that piece about putting an end to Ukraine as an anti-Russia before Russian troops could expect to occupy all of Ukraine? Even if Ukraine had been collapsing, that might have scared Poland enough to send in the army. I don’t think Putin knows the Evil Overlord List but he probably remembers how useful Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech was in anti-American propaganda.

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