More so than any other military, Russia’s ground forces rely on its expansive railway network to move troops and materiel across the country, for training exercises in peacetime, and to mobilize and sustain troops in war theatres. Russia’s vast territory and varied geographic terrain make other forms of transport such as road or sea less efficient and more expensive; its railway network is one of the world’s largest, spanning more than 85,000 kilometers from its western exclave of Kaliningrad to Vladivostok in the East, on the Sea of Japan.
In addition to facilitating the movement of passenger and freight traffic, the rail network has an important military role in its war and peacetime strategies. Russia’s railways are intrinsic to its foreign policy goals, particularly the practicalities of reorientating its trade toward Asia amid Western sanctions, although a deeper discussion of the railways’ civilian use is beyond the scope of this paper.
This paper aims to discuss how and why railways and the military engineers who service them are such a fundamental part of the Russian armed forces. It examines the role and scope of specialized engineering units known as the Railway Troops (zheleznodorozhniye voiska (ZhV)) and assesses how these units have been deployed by Russia in previous and current conflicts. The ZhV play an integral role in many of Russia’s major conflicts as part of the rear (in Russian, tyl) of the armed forces, but they are an under-researched unit, mostly given passing reference as part of broader maneuvers. The ZhV’s contributions to furthering Russia’s strategic security and political goals, and the expertise that they have evolved from previous conflicts, merit closer attention.
This paper first offers an introduction to the importance of Russia’s railway network for military use before providing a more detailed explanation of how the ZhV’s visibility has changed through successive ministries of defense, their role in military exercises, and their evolving use in different conflicts. In particular, the paper examines the ZhV’s role in supporting the Russian armed forces in Chechnya and the North Caucasus and in Russia’s current war against Ukraine.Download full report
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- Pages: 22
- Document Number: IOP-2023-U-035262-Final
- Publication Date: 4/17/2023