UKRAINIANS, IN A TRANSCONTINENTAL WAR OF SABOTAGE, REACH ACROSS RUSSIA TO BLOW UP TRAINS TO STOP MILITARY CARGO FROM CHINA AND NORTH KOREA
Kremlin calls for revival of SMERSH, Stalin’s unit to bring ‘Death to Spies.’
December 5, 2023
The New York Sun
Reaching 4,000 miles across Russia to remote Siberia, Ukrainian saboteurs blew up two cargo trains last week in an effort to block military supplies coming from China and North Korea. In a one-two punch, the first train exploded inside Russia’s longest tunnel, the 9.5 mile-long Severomuysky. Hours later, as the Russians diverted freight traffic to a mountain bypass line, the Ukrainians blew up a train laboring across the “Devil’s Bridge,” a span over a 115-feet deep gorge. Days earlier in rail freight yards, explosives apparently were attached to tanker cars filled with jet fuel and other explosives.
When the trains reached the precise GPS coordinates of the tunnel and bridge, the explosives were detonated remotely. Russian Railways says freight traffic was restored Sunday night, three days after the first bombing.
The explosions and fires hit the Baikal Amur Mainline, the main rail line linking Siberia with the Russian Far East. Known as the BAM, this $14 billion line was completed only 20 years ago. At its start in 1974, it was hailed by the Soviet party boss, Leonid Brezhnev, as “the construction project of the century.”
The BAM is a modern duplicate of the eastern portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was built 120 years ago, when China was weak. For security reasons, Soviet-era planners routed the BAM through wilderness hundreds of miles north of the Chinese border. The tunnel took 18 years to build and was inaugurated by President Putin.
Russia denounced the bombings as “terrorist acts.” Ukrainian press reports that they are the work of the Security Service of Ukraine. Russian officials are reacting with rage at the realization that Ukrainian agents are operating across their country, the largest in the world. The distance between Ukraine and Severomuysky compares to the distance between New York and Alaska.
Russia will reactivate a modern SMERSH, the ruthless “death-to-spies” counter-intelligence agency that Stalin used during World War II, State Duma member Andrey Gurulyov wrote Sunday on his Telegram channel. Referring to emergency talks with “our special services,” Mr. Gurulyov, a former Russian Army commander, said: “We talked about SMERSH. Today, we created a department that works in approximately the same way.” “Two trains at BAM are derailed,” he said. “Anyone who has been to BAM knows that you can’t just get there at all. There are simply no roads or trails there. There are villages where everyone knows each other by sight. It is impossible for someone else to get in somewhere.”
Referring to a campaign by anti-war Russians to derail freight trains, he added: “This is not an isolated case. Punks all over the country are trying to cause trouble on the railway.” He continued: “All the tunnels on the BAM have serious security. You can’t just board a work train. The conductors know everyone by sight; it seemed impossible to get through there. It turned out that it was possible. Therefore, the fight against saboteurs and spies throughout the country is necessary, because the war has affected the territory.”
In one sign that foreigners are under increased scrutiny, Russian investigators announced Friday that they had arrested a 34-year-old, dual Russian-Italian national on suspicion that he planted bombs that derailed a freight train about 100 miles southeast of Moscow on November 11. In one spy vs. spy move, an attempt was made two weeks ago to poison the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, and his wife Marianna Budanova. He was not affected, but she was hospitalized for ingesting a large amount of heavy metals.
Since Russia’s full-bore attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the couple have lived together at the agency compound in Kyiv. Mr. Budanov has said that there had been at least 10 attempts by Russia to kill him.
Once considered a red line for the Kremlin, attacks on mainland Russia and annexed Crimea now are almost daily events. A new map and list prepared by Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press show nearly 200 attacks this year, mostly by Ukrainian drones and missiles.
Some may be the work of Ukrainian agents releasing kamikaze drones from deep inside Russia. In the last three weeks, big fires raged through a military vehicle factory 10 miles northwest of Moscow, at an arms depot in Kotluban, 300 miles east of Ukraine, and at the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant, a tank and armored fighting vehicle factory 1,300 miles east of Ukraine. A senior Ukrainian official boasted to Politico news site: “Russian special services should get used to the fact that our people are everywhere.”
The attacks on the Siberian railroads, like the bombing of Russia’s Crimea Bridge one year ago, required operatives inside Russia. For that attack, head of Ukraine’s State Security Service, Vasyl Malyuk, told NV news site that his agents smuggled into Russia a truck loaded with 21 tons of hexogen wrapped into cellophane to fool customs scanners.
The truck bomb severely damaged Russia’s longest bridge, another construction trophy inaugurated by Mr. Putin. After a Ukrainian “Sea Baby” drone severely damaged another span of the bridge in July, Russian authorities started talking with Chinese Railway Construction Corporation officials about digging a tunnel to connect Crimea with Russia’s mainland, the Washington Post reported 10 days ago.
In this battle over transport logistics, cutting Russia’s east-west rail lines would be a huge coup for Ukraine. North Korea is now a major source of artillery shells for Russia’s forces in Ukraine. All the shells go by rail to the Ukraine front.
Russia’s de facto partnership with Communist China allows Russia to shift tanks and armored personnel carriers from the Russian Far East. These stocks had been maintained since the Sino-Soviet border clashes of 1969.
Finally, due to Western sanctions, China is Russia’s largest trading partner. Although China denies sending military equipment to Russia, some of its exports — like drones — have dual civilian and military uses. Cutting transport ties with China would also have implications for Russia’s national unity.
The opening in 1869 of the Transcontinental Railroad in America and, in 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway inspired Tsar Alexander III to start building his railroad across Russia. Ever since the first train crossed Russia in 1904, the Trans-Siberian Railway has extended Moscow fiat to the Pacific. If the two railroads were ever cut, the Eastern part of Russia would fall increasingly under the economic and political sway of China.
James Brooke is a Contributor for the Sun. Mr. Brooke has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for the New York Times, Bloomberg, and Voice of America. He reported from Russia for eight years and from Ukraine for six years, coming home in 2021.