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How Will Decision to Stop Russia-Ukraine Train Links Affect Ukrainians?
28 August, 2018

Only bears will go to Russia. This was jokingly promised by Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan in a Facebook comment on August 15 after he announced signing a “historic document.” Not much is known about the document itself, which is currently believed to be under review at the Cabinet of Ministers, but from Omelyan’s comments to various Ukrainian media it is understood that the move will affect rail and bus links between Ukraine and Russia.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Synytsa/UNIAN

Earlier this month, Omelyan explained to Ukraine’s Interfax news agency that the reason for the new measures is Russia’s recent behavior regarding the Azov Sea. Since April 2015, the country has been blocking Ukrainian vessels from sailing on these waters, which has affected the Ukrainian economy.

READ MORE: Is Russia Annexing The Azov Sea?

Omelyan’s move comes nearly two years after Ukraine cancelled all air links to Russia, saying that they would only be reinstated if Russia returned annexed Crimea to Ukraine. In an interview with Ukrainian news site Liga.net, Omelyan also said that controlling car traffic between the two countries would be “the next step.”

Hromadske takes a look at how Omelyan’s decision, if implemented, could affect Ukrainians and Russians alike.

Profitability and Reality

Oleksandr, who has asked not to use his surname, travels from Moscow to Ukraine once every two to three months. He moved to the Russian capital after getting married. He often goes back to Ukraine to see family and friends.

Oleksandr uses all modes of transport to get to Ukraine, but he mainly goes by train. The journey from Moscow to Kyiv takes around 14 hours. He says that a lot of people do the same, and you have to book tickets a week or two in advance for the standard class seats as they sell out fairly quickly. People who travel to Russia for work normally buy these tickets.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Synytsa/UNIAN

Georgiy Chizhov has lived in Ukraine for 10 years. He also travels to Russia often. He chooses to travel by plane or train and for him it is a matter of convenience. He also notes that train tickets from Kyiv to Moscow, or Lviv to Moscow, sell out fast, therefore you need to book them early.

Direct transport links between Russia and Ukraine have decreased significantly over the last four years. In May 2014, Ukraine’s state-owned rail company Ukrzaliznytsia announced it was cutting nine pairs of trains to Russia. Then, in December of that same year, its Russian counterpart Russian Railways (RZD) cancelled four of the five trains to Ukraine. RZD stated that this decision was made due to low profits and promised to reinstate the services when demand for them returns.

In October 2015, Ukraine cancelled air links to Russia. In response, Russia banned Ukrainian aircrafts from using Russian airspace. The mutual ban remains in place to this day.

READ MORE: Russia’s Blockade of Azov Sea Ports is a Problem. What’s the Solution?

Now you can only fly from Russia to Ukraine via a third country – the most convenient being Belarus. The Belarusian airline Belavia introduced the Kyiv-Moscow flights via Belarus immediately after the ban came into force. With the Minsk layover, the journey can take between four to eight hours.

Photo credit: Belarusian Airlines

Rail and bus services provide the only direct routes between Ukraine and Russia. The Ukrzaliznytsia press department told Hromadske that 13 pairs of trains make up the rail service between Ukraine and Russia: eight Ukrainian, three Moldovan, one RZD and one from Azerbaijani Railways. These services terminate at Moscow and St. Petersburg.  

There is a lot more choice when it comes to bus links between Ukraine and Russia. On the website for the Ukrainian bus service operator Busfor.ua, there are routes to almost every city in Russia, apart from those furthest away such as Vladivostok or Yekaterinburg. Another option is the ride-sharing service BlaBlaCar.

Despite the fact people say that the trains to Russia are always full, Ukrzaliznytsia claim that the number of passengers travelling that route are decreasing each year.  

Photo credit: EPA.com

“If, in 2013, the Russia-Ukraine route carried 5.1 million passengers, then, in 2014 there were 2.2 million, in 2015 – 1.2 million, 2016 – one million. In 2017, Ukrzaliznytsia carried 0.9 million passengers,” the company’s press service told Hromadske.

In the first seven months of 2018, 450 thousand people used the trains – this is 89 thousand less than last year. However, Ukrzaliznytsia clarified that they decreased the number of carriages this year, so this could be the reason for the drop in number of passengers.

According to the State Statistics Services of Ukraine, the number of trips to Russia from Ukraine has increased. In 2017, Ukrainians traveled to Russia almost 4.4 million times, which is 13.4% more than in 2016. This is the first time the number of trips to Russia has increased since 2014 and the start of the armed conflict in Donbas between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists.

And according to the Russian Security Services (FSB), around 2.3 million Russians traveled to Ukraine in 2017, of which of only 8786 people for business trips, and 68 for tourism. The rest went to Ukraine for personal reasons.

What Will This Lead to?

Representatives of the transport operators have yet to comment on the Infrastructure Minister’s proposal. The First Vice President of civic organization Ukraine Transport Union Volodymyr Balin told Hromadske that everyone is still awaiting official explanations on the situation.

According to Balin, the bus services between Ukraine and Russia can be divided into three separate groups.  

The first includes the international companies, which provide transport services in Ukrainian territory. They receive permission from the governments of the countries the roads of which they plan to use. Balin says that if links to Russia are banned completely, then “something will have to be done about this.” Balin also does not rule out the possibility of them being shut down completely.   

Photo credit: UNIAN

The next group involves the Ukrainian transport operators, which function legally and also have to have permission to use similar international routes.

The third involves the unregulated, illegal operators, which operate without permission. Ukraine “does not allow international bus operators, which are made for less than 20 passengers,” Balin says, adding that “this means sprinter vans, which can carry eight passengers and have a large luggage space, where people could also sit. No one will say how large this segment is because, according to their documents, they are light-duty passenger vehicles.”

According to Ukrzaliznytsia, they received $6.5 million in profit in the first half of 2018 from their transport links to Russia. But according to Minister Omelyan, these Ukrainian operators will not incur any losses from the ban. He says that the trains used on the Russia routes could be used for journeys within Ukraine or toward Europe instead. “They will generate the same profit or even more profit from transporting to Europe,” the Minister of Infrastructure asserts.  

Photo credit: UNIAN

Former Deputy Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kava, however, does not agree. “The trains which go to Russia, are unable to go to Europe because of the difference in track width,” Kava explained to Hromadske. And he says that the profit from routes within Ukraine will not be able to replace the profits from international routes.

“Take the routes from Kyiv to Uzhgorod and Kyiv to Moscow – these are about the same distance. A coupe ticket (bed in compartment for four people) from Kyiv to Uzhgorod costs from $8. A coupe ticket to Moscow cost from $108. That’s where the difference is,” Kava says.  

According to Kava and Balin, a total ban on transport links to Russia would lead to a number of consequences. First of all, the number of illegal transport operators will increase. Balin says the number of illegal sprinter vans will increase a lot. And Kava says that some service providers will continue to operate in the shadows, but will not refuse trips to Russia because there is a lot of demand for them.

With regards to rail links, there could be two outcomes, according to Kava. If links are maintained through the Moldovan and Azerbaijani providers, then they are the ones who will benefit – especially Moldova. In the same way Belarusian airline Belavia has benefited from the reduction in air links, the Moldovan railways could add extra carriages to their trains and increase their income. However, if Ukraine also bans these trains, it could lead to a deterioration in Ukraine-Moldova relations, Kava notes.

In any case, it’s the passengers that stand to lose the most, the majority of whom are Ukrainian.  

/By Yuliana Skibitska with support from Russian Language News Exchange

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko