Russia has just launched a rail line connecting its southwestern Rostov and Voronezh regions. The new line, announced two years ago, will now allow passengers to avoid crossing through Ukrainian territory when traveling from European Russia to the Black Sea.
Work continues on the rail project, but it’s running ahead of schedule, Russia’s interfax news agency reported. And the country can now look forward to “railway independence” from its Ukrainian neighbor.
Hromadske breaks down Moscow’s plan to finally cut one of its longest-standing and most fundamental interdependencies with Ukraine: it’s border-crossing, Soviet-era domestic rail system.
Wait, what? Why does Russia’s domestic rail system cross into Ukraine?
Funny situation, right? Under the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine were both part of the same country. Although technically separate “Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics” with distinct territories, in practice their borders meant nothing. There were no border controls.
The Soviet Union obviously never planned to collapse. So, when the Soviet authorities built the first rail route from Moscow to Adler, a resort city on the Black Sea, back in the 1960s, they didn’t care if part of the track was in Ukraine.
As a result, around 30 km of track ran through Ukraine’s Luhansk region, where one of the rail stations, Zorynivka, is located.
What’s the problem?
Have you followed the news at all these past three years? In 2014, after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists in its Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Moscow’s relations with Kyiv collapsed. Suddenly, Zorynivka became a problem.
Zorynivka may be located on Ukrainian territory, but it has long been under the control of Russian Railways (RZhD). According to Russia’s RBC news site, the Russian state company “unofficially leased” a segment of the railroad from the local village council, even though Ukrainian legislation does not allow railway tracks to be rented. However, the trains did not stop in Zorynivka, so border inspections were not carried out there.
What about moving the border?
That may sound outlandish, but there was a time when it seemed easier than moving the rails.
Because Russia long regarded building new tracks as a project it could not afford, it also sought other means to resolve the issue. Moscow even tried to come to an agreement with Ukraine to move the border.
In 2012, RZhD offered to shift the border so that the railroad would be in Russian territory. Under the proposal, two settlements in the Luhansk region – Dibrova and Khumynske – would also be transferred to Russia. The proposal failed.
How does Russia usually solve railroad issues?
Considering that the Trans-Siberian Railroad was in part constructed by exiled opposition intelligentsia in imperial times, history probably isn’t the best precedent. That said, Russia has been know to come to successful agreements with its friends.
For example, the Russian Federation laid claim to over 11 railway sites in Kazakhstan – more 800 km in total. Under an intergovernmental agreement signed in 2011, Russia leased the land plots where the tracks are located from Kazakhstan.
But Russia failed to come to an intergovernmental agreement with Ukraine. Therefore, RZhD signed lease agreements with the village councils in the Luhansk region. Serhiy Pryschepa, head of the Morozivsky village council under whose jurisdiction Zorynivka station falls, told Hromadske that the lease agreement was concluded in 2007 for 49 years. According to the document, RZhD pays a percentage of the cost of the land.
Pryschepa added that, in the next three years, trains will start running. Russia will most likely use the Luhansk part of the railroad for cargo transportation (metal, coal, timber, etc.) and the new line on Russian territory for passenger transportation.
When did Russia decide to build its own tracks?
It’s not a new idea. RZhD had previously proposed building new tracks to bypass Ukraine. The project existed, but it never before received enough funding.
That previously unsuccessful plan to bypass Ukraine only reemerged in March 2014 and funding miraculously materialized. At the time, Vadim Morozov, a RZhD representative, said it was necessary to accelerate work on the "Prokhorivka – Zhuravka – Chertkovo – Bataysk" project, a rail line over 748 km in length.
According to Morozov, the track between Zhuravka – Chertkovo needed to be built more quickly in order to "have a constant, certain and completely independent path in the southern direction."
In 2015, the Russian government approved the construction of 7 new stations. According to official figures, the project cost Russia over a billion dollars.
Why does Russia need this?
This line is the main route for freight traffic from European Russia to its Black Sea ports and back. Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said that the rail line’s construction will provide Russia with “independence” from crossing Ukraine’s border.