Ukrainian Railway Sabotage Increasingly Unsettles Kremlin

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 14

Image of explosion on BAM, originally posted on VKontakte, taken down after 15 minutes (Source:

Executive Summary:

  • Ukrainian sabotage of Russian railways has severely disrupted Moscow’s military logistics in supplying the frontlines.
  • Russian authorities arrested 137 individuals suspected of railway sabotage between February 2022 and October 2023, charging some with acts of treason and terrorism.
  • Some of the sabotage has targeted Russian railway connections with China and North Korea to stem the flow of military aid from Beijing and Pyongyang.

On January 22, Stanislav Kolesnik, deputy head of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Main Directorate for Public Order Maintenance, stated that, since the beginning of the “special military operation” (SVO), Russian law enforcement agencies have registered 220 cases of arson and other attacks against military registration and enlistment offices as well as other government facilities. They reported another 184 incidents of sabotage on the Russian Railways (RZhD) network across 58 of the country’s 89 administrative “federal subjects,” with a rate of roughly two attacks per week (TASS, January 22). As Russia’s war against Ukraine nears its third year, most Western media coverage remains focused on the frontlines. The conflict, however, has seeped into Russia itself, in some cases, thousands of miles from the Ukrainian theater. While Ukraine’s audacious drone strikes from Sevastopol to Moscow have received coverage, Ukrainian sabotage against RZhD, the prime operator of transit corridors for Russian military supplies, has received relatively scant attention in Western media. While consistently downplayed in the Russian press, railway sabotage has been part of a larger picture of anti-Kremlin Ukrainian actions since Russian President Vladimir Putin began his SVO in February 2022.

The mounting arrest statistics of suspected saboteurs reflects the scale of this problem and the Kremlin’s growing fears. From February 2022 to early October 2023, criminal cases of railway sabotage in Russia were initiated against 137 individuals, the majority under age 25 and roughly a third of them minors (Korrespondent, October 5, 2023). The 137 suspects arrested for sabotage have been prosecuted under various articles of the Russian Criminal Code. According to analysis from Russian opposition website Mediazona, these include relatively mild offenses, such as “destruction of property” (Article 167, six cases) or “putting tracks out of commission” (Article 267, three cases). During investigations, additional charges are often heaped on suspects. Sixteen cases were eventually upgraded under the Criminal Code’s articles to acts of terrorism (Article 205–205.5), three to treason against the state (Article 275), or the lesser charge of “confidential cooperation with a foreign state, international, or foreign organization” (Article 275.1). “Sabotage” is the largest single category of those charged (Article 281, 38 cases) (Mediazona, October 5, 2023).

Kyiv’s Western partners have applauded Ukrainian efforts to disrupt Russian military logistics. On May 5, 2023, the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) commented on the rising impact of Ukraine’s sabotage on Russia’s railway network. The MoD noted, “A recent uptick in Russian rail accidents in areas bordering Ukraine, attributed to sabotage committed by unknown actors, has almost certainly caused short-term localised disruption to Russian military rail movements. Although its railway troop brigades are capable of restoring lines quickly, these incidents will increase pressure on Russia’s internal security forces, who will highly likely remain unable to fully protect Russia’s vast and vulnerable rail networks” (, May 5, 2023). Given the lack of peaceful, democratic channels for Russians to protest against Putin’s war, the British military concluded at the end of last year: “With virtually all methods of overt dissent banned in Russia, sabotage continues to appeal to a minority of young people as a method of protest against the ‘special military operation’” (, November 28, 2023).

Moscow feigns that all is well and that acts of sabotage have been infrequent and carried out by “rogue” individuals. New legal measures, however, highlight just how worried the Kremlin is about future attacks. A group of deputies from the “A Just Russia” party in the State Duma, led by Sergei Mironov, have drafted a bill increasing penalties for crimes involving railway sabotage. The draft law proposes amending Article 267 of the Criminal Code, “The Destruction of Transport Vehicles or Communication Routes.” The article currently stipulates a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison. The Duma deputies are pushing to increase this penalty to 20 years (The Moscow Times, September 28, 2023).

The Ukrainian attacks are now beginning to affect one of RZhD’s most valuable customers, China Railway Express. On November 29, 2023, 3,000 miles from the Ukrainian border in Siberia, the Itykit-Okusikan section of RZhD’s Baikal-Amur Railway (BAM) was paralyzed after an explosion in the Severomuiskii railway tunnel in Buryatia. RBC-Ukraine claims that the tracks were blown up due to sabotage by the Ukrainian Security Service. BAM is the only railway connecting central Russia, China, and North Korea. The attack effectively blocked the only serious railway route between Russia and China. The 9.53-mile (15.34-kilometer) Severomuiskii tunnel is the longest in Russia. The train caught in the explosion consisted of 50 cars, including 41 diesel-fuel and three aviation-fuel tankers (Ukrainian Military Center, December 1, 2023). Worse for RZhD, after the attack, Russian operators attempted to move the train over the 115-foot (35-meter) Chortov Most (“Devil’s Bridge”) bypass, which then triggered explosive devices embedded in the bridge. (; Nikolayevskiye Novosti, December 1, 2023; Kommersant, December 2, 2023). At least ten freight trains were reportedly delayed as a result (The Moscow Times, November 30, 2023).

Putin claims that the West has provided Kyiv with the necessary intelligence to carry out such attacks. On December 20, 2023, in a video address, the Kremlin leader declared, “With direct support from foreign intelligence agencies, the Kyiv regime has openly resorted to terrorist methods, engaging, in fact, in state terrorism. This includes sabotage at civilian sites, transport, and energy infrastructure.” He concluded his address by exhorting internal security personnel to redouble their vigilance against the terrorists (, December 20, 2023). The same day, in a video conference discussing the improvement of eastern Siberia’s transit network, Putin did not mention any of the attacks. Instead, he spoke about the importance of Russia’s railway network and mentioned plans to expand it (, December 20, 2023; TASS, December 20, 2023). Earlier, on December 15, TASS reported that, at the Fourth Railway Congress, Putin stated that “the enemy” is trying to target the most important railways in the east, and workers there must exercise more vigilance (TASS, December 15, 2023;, December 15, 2023).

The RZhD network spans 53,190 miles (85,600 kilometers), which makes providing security along its entire length extremely difficult (Kommersant, February 16, 2022). Ukraine’s continued disruption of Russia’s railway network will likely lead to further chaos as the effects of the war on the Russian home front are becoming more apparent (see EDM, December 21, 2023). It seems inevitable that the Russian government will stiffen penalties for those brave or foolish enough to interrupt the country’s railway network.