The War of the Trains
by Carlo Graziani
As war in Ukraine approaches the 7-month mark, those of us who have been watching it through the lens of Adam Silverman’s nightly Ukraine War Updates on Balloon Juice, and discussing each night’s take, have seen the conflict gradually transform itself. The initial clash seemed nearly unintelligible, built as it was from contradictory media and Twitter narratives. But time and better information—together with the opportunity for real-time Jackal education in modern warfare derived from what rapidly became our nightly discussion seminar—wrought a more stable overall picture of the conflict, with definite themes that we can now see to have been threaded through the narrative since the beginning, even though these themes were not perceptible at the outset.
What I propose to do here is describe my own synthesis of this picture. I am indebted to Adam for his tireless work as convener and material seeder of the seminar, and to many Jackals, whose ideas I ruthlessly farmed for this piece1. This synthesis is almost certainly not the same overall scheme that Adam, or any particular Jackal, might choose for the task, and many details are probably still arguable. Nonetheless, I believe that now is a good time to sum up where we’ve been by distilling what we’ve learned from those nightly reports-cum-seminars, because we can see clearly much that was originally obscure, and because a few possible futures are more clearly discernible now as a consequence.
One feature that I find very striking is the importance that logistical considerations have played in the war since its earliest days, and the slight appreciation that these considerations receive compared to the flashier “kaboom-war” stories of drones, tanks, artillery, fighter aircraft, and so on. I think these considerations have shaped the campaign to a very great extent for both combatants, and I’ve therefore chosen them as organizing themes of the narrative. If you were wondering why “trains”, that’s why, although as we’ll see, there’s quite a bit more to the train part of the story. Railways have played an outsized role in this conflict, to an extent that seems almost anachronistic: one must look to WWI, or the European continental wars of the late 19th Century, or the US Civil War, to find comparable examples. And yet, while one occasionally catches a dutiful reference to a “key railway junction” as a battle site in the Ukraine war, this aspect of the conflict has passed largely under silence. I hope to illustrate here what’s been missing from narratives that don’t emphasize rail supply as a key factor in the war.
Prologue: Misleading First Impressions
It’s useful to set things up by looking back at a few things that many people were very sure about that we know now were actually quite wrong. This in not an exercise in “neener-neener”—I was wrong about a few important things myself—but rather is helpful in that it reminds us not only of how much has happened since February, but also of how much our understanding of the war has changed since then.
An Unfair Fight: The original Russian attack on Ukraine on 24 February was a four-theatre assault—Kyiv, Kharkiv, the Donbas, and the Azov/Black Sea coasts—whose scope and ambition must certainly have reminded many in the West of their nightmares about the Cold War Soviet Army when it stood for decades, poised in apparent readiness to sweep down and envelop Western Europe. In those first few weeks, despite the early signs of Russian reverses, it appeared to many that a straightforward accounting of the balance of forces condemned Ukraine to being crushed by sheer mass.