February 11, 2024
Eye on Eurasia
On the night of November 30, 2023, Ukrainian saboteurs detonated an explosion in a key strategic tunnel located on the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) railroad in eastern Siberia. The attack on the Severomuysky tunnel is notable not only for the impact it had on Russian rail traffic in the Russian Far East but also because the Ukrainian security services organized and conducted a clandestine strike deep inside Russia at a distance of nearly 4,000 miles from the territory of Ukraine.
Attributed to the Ukrainian Security Service, or SBU, the attack is to date one of Kyiv’s boldest infrastructure strikes in the past year marked by repeated raids on Russian bases, factories, and railroads. These attacks include cross-border assaults into Russian territory adjoining Ukraine, such as Belgorod province, and also include aerial attacks on Russian strategic air bases by Ukrainian drones – such as the Tula air-based attack (home to the TU-95 nuclear bombers); and finally an attack on the Pskov air base that disabled/destroyed several Il-76 transport planes. By far the strike on the Severomuysky tunnel was perhaps the most stunning attack since the start of the 2022 war as one Ukrainian news outlet compared the Siberian attack to be the equivalent to the July 17, 2023 strike on the Kerch Strait Bridge that disabled the strategic bridge making it inoperable for several months.
Aside from the penetrating nature of the attack deep inside the Russian Far East, Ukrainian military planners also revealed they have an excellent understanding of the strategic impact the strike would have on Russian trade with China and the rest of Asia. Only two Russian railroads operate in the frozen tundra of the Russian Far East: the BAM railway and the noted Trans-Siberian railway. The impact of the Severomuysky attack was felt immediately because it temporarily reduced Russia to one functioning railroad line to its Asian port of Vladivostok. Perhaps more importantly the attack put Moscow on notice that military planners in Kyiv understand that Russia’s Siberian flank is highly vulnerable to Ukrainian sabotage.
The Devil’s Gamble
The attack on the Severomuysky Tunnel was brilliantly planned and executed. Up to four explosive devices went off while an enormous train consisting of 50 railroad cars was moving through the 15-kilometer-long tunnel. Euromaidan Press reported that as many as 35 trains were trapped inside the tunnel while 14 trains managed to escape the carnage of the blast by virtue of being outside the tunnel when the detonation occurred. Moreover, the sequencing of the attack indicated Ukrainian planners perfectly understood how Moscow would react to the first attack
and planned accordingly knowing exactly what steps the Russians would pursue once it lost access to the first tunnel.
The 30 Meter High Devil’s Bridge
Immediately following the November 30 explosion in the Severomuysky tunnel another railroad train was attacked the following day on December 1st. This attack occurred in the same area but on a strategic bypass route, reported by the pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Baza in a lengthy video of the explosions.
Known as the Chortov Most’, or Devil’s Bridge, this bypass line to BAM is the only detour route for Russian rail traffic from the Severomuysky Tunnel. The Devil’s Bridge is an imposing structure built in the Siberian permafrost that lies astride a 35-meter-high viaduct structure. Due to its height and fragility caused by its exposure to the elements, no train can use the Devil’s Bridge train speeds faster than 20 km per hour. This limits the total weight of any train that can cross it and forces Moscow to use additional locomotives to push the train. The very reason the 15-kilometer Severomuysky tunnel was built was to lessen the burden if not avoid use of the fragile bridge. It was at this point that SBU saboteurs struck again on December 1st.
In a post-explosion analysis of the Siberian attacks, the Ukrainian publication Defense Express reported that the Severomuysky explosions destroyed key sections of the tunnel and caused partial flooding of the tunnel. Damage also was caused to the signaling and electrification system inside the tunnel.
Russia’s Railway Dilemma in the Far East
With only two rail lines servicing the Russian Far East, Moscow has to plan carefully for its transportation options in the region due to the limitations of both railways. Trans-Siberian is far larger and can carry as much as 53 million tons a year while BAM is far more limited, and is capable of carrying only 16 million tons a year, or one-third of the Trans-Siberian. In light of the damage done to the Severomuysky tunnel Moscow was forced to divert traffic to the Trans-Siberian railroad line which created a major transportation bottleneck for the Kremlin. Given the fact that the bulk of the material being sent on the BAM is destined for China, Moscow’s trade ties to China were also affected by the blast and will likely raise questions in Beijing about the reliability of this route.
The Trans-Siberian railway is one of the oldest strategic railroads in the world and was constructed amidst Russia’s 19th-century pivot to Asia. Built in the era of Russian great power competition with a rising Japan in the second half of the 19th century by the Russian financier Sergei Witte, the Trans-Siberian helped to bolster Russian demography in the Far East by transporting hundreds of thousands of settlers to the fertile Amur and Ussuri River regions. The Trans-Siberian also served Russia masterfully in the Russo-Japanese War transporting over 300,000 Russian soldiers to fight against the Japanese in the 1905 battle of Mukden in Russian-occupied Manchuria.
The BAM railway project was built in the 1980s during another Russian confrontation in Asia, this time amidst the Sino-Soviet conflict. Soviet planners oversaw the highly strategic BAM
project to bolster Russia’s position vis-à-vis-China, both economically and strategically following border clashes with China on the Ussuri River in March 1969. According to one of the few works written on the history of BAM Siberian Development and East Asia by the historian Alan Whiting, if China attacked the USSR in a war it could easily destroy the Trans-Siberian railroad and sever Moscow’s communications with Vladivostok and the rest of the Russian Far East. In short, BAM was built to serve as an alternative means of communication in the event of a war with China and the Trans-Siberian could no longer operate.
The building of BAM involved massive expenditures by the Soviet Union in strategic infrastructure to bolster Moscow’s traditionally weak demographic foothold in the Russian Far East. East of Lake Baikal Moscow is estimated to have a population of approximately 5.7 million, down by 2 million from the population of 7.7 million in the late 1980s.
In light of the recent railroad attacks on the Baikal-Amur Mainline, Moscow has another threat to worry about in the Russian Far East created by the long arm of Ukrainian intelligence. Immediately following the Siberian attack one SBU official told the Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda that the “Russian special services should get used to the fact that our people are everywhere. Even in distant Buryatia.” What the official was indirectly referring to was the existence in the Russian Far East of a network known as Ukraine’s “Green Wedge”.
Ukraine’s Secret Weapon: The Green Wedge
Ukraine’s Siberian attacks certainly came as no surprise to officials in the Kremlin. In January 2023 Nikolai Patrushev the former head of the Russian Federal Security Service and current head of the Russian Security Council made a public warning about the potential Ukrainian threat to the Russia Far East posed by the existence of a large Ukrainian community in Siberia known as the “Green Wedge”.
In a prescient article on this topic, Paul Goble noted that Patrushev explicitly referred to the security threat posed by the Ukrainian population in the Russian Far East, stating that “in the southern parts of the Far East, given the large share of those who resettled there already during the times of [tsarist prime minister Pyotr] Stolypin, a significant number of residents consider the culture of the Ukrainian people to be their native one.”
Goble underscored the importance of this statement by noting: “Few in the West or even in Moscow know about these communities. But for Ukrainians, they are key outposts of Ukrainian civilization.” Russian analysts have long described the Ukrainian communities in the Far East as “wedges” with the one in the Far East between Vladivostok, Vostok, and Khabarovsk being referred to as the “Green” wedge and others such as those along the Russian-Kazakhstani border and in the Kuban being the “Blue” and “Crimson” Wedges, respectively.
Ukrainian officials first began raising the issue of the Green Wedges after the 2014 Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea when a senior Ukrainian advisor to former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko publicly championed the cause of the “Green Wedge,” while some Ukrainians have coined the term “from the Don to the Amur” to capture its importance in Ukrainian nationalism.
The origin of the term “Green Wedge” dates back to Tsarist Russia’s strategic plan of resettlement of Ukrainians to the Russian Far East in the late 19th century. Ships loaded with Ukrainians regularly departed from Odesa for Vladivostok starting in 1883 – taking advantage of free transportation – to resettle in the rich agricultural areas of the Ussuri and Amur River regions. Ukrainian migration to the region changed the demographic composition of the two regions to the point that by 1926 Ukrainians made up 18 percent of the population in the Russian Far East.
Even today Russian sources estimate that Ukrainians make up between 15 to 20 percent of the population in the Far East but downplay their links to Ukraine due to their heavy Russification. However, Topwar.ru in a lengthy analysis of the topic admits Ukrainian nationalism was deeply rooted in the “Green Wedge” and that removing it would be difficult to achieve. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Ukrainian nationalists adopted their own flag, which was patterned after the yellow-blue flag of independent Ukraine. The fact that Topwar.ru and other Russian military and security websites have written about this topic for nearly a decade demonstrates that Moscow always has taken this threat quite seriously.
According to Goble the term for wedges comes from the Ukrainian word “klins” while the term “Green Wedge” originates from the word “Zelyonyi klin.” Despite Russian efforts at Russification, many Ukrainian descendants in the region remain attached to their Ukrainian roots and in some cases speak Ukrainian. An entire Wikipedia page has been dedicated to the term “Green Wedge” which documents the history of the Ukrainian nationalist movement in the Russian Far East. During the Russian Civil War, Ukrainians in the Far East even sought to form their own Ukrainian Far Eastern Republic.
Ironically, US officials as noted by Goble, once understood the importance of the “Green Wedge” and as part of the US information warfare campaign against the Soviet Union started broadcasting to the Russian Far East in the Ukrainian language from facilities in Japan in the mid-1980s.
The Security Implications of the Green Wedge on the Russian Far East
In light of the recent train attacks in Siberia and Patrushev’s concern about the existence of the threat posed by the “Green Wedge,” it is apparent that Ukraine has established and operates a major clandestine network to conduct further attacks on Russian infrastructure in the Far East. Whereas Moscow had to cope with the threat posed by the cross-border attacks in Belgorod province earlier this year, the BAM railway attacks in early December indicate that the Kremlin will also have to shift its security attention to combatting a new front it has yet to face in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
What is of particular concern to Moscow is how these Ukrainian attacks will affect Russia’s trade relations with China. With the Trans-Siberian overloaded and unable to accommodate more cargo the Kremlin finds itself in a difficult predicament and must rely on the BAM railroad line to meet Chinese demand. In 2024, Moscow reportedly will finish a second 340-kilometer railway on the Baikal-Amir Mainline that will enable the Russian government to increase its annual coal exports to China by 45 million tons through the Eligi and Ogoja coal mining deposits. Due to
these constraints, the BAM railway is Russia’s only alternative railroad line to feed China’s appetite for Russian natural resources and this creates an even greater likelihood that the strategic railroad will be a target of opportunity for Kyiv in 2024.
Important takeaways for Western policy experts are that the two recent Siberian attacks appear to be the beginning of a new and concerted Ukrainian sabotage campaign that will likely make the Russian Far East a new front in Ukraine’s sabotage efforts against the Kremlin. Less important but equally significant is that these attacks have important repercussions for Russian trade with China and could undermine Russia’s growing dependence on imports of weaponry from both China and North Korea since rail transportation is an integral part of the Russian military logistics system.
Glen Howard is a commentator on Russia and Eurasian defense and security issues. Former President of the Jamestown Foundation.