Tuesday, March 15, 2022: The war in Ukraine is now in its third week, with Russian troops advancing several kilometers from the capital and trying to breach Kyiv’s defenses from the north and west. In the morning, the Ukrainian capital was shaken by powerful rocket attacks. Kyiv is threatened by encirclement from several sides.
And then the news: several EU heads of government went by train to Kyiv for an unexpected visit. The Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, with the leader of his party, Yaroslav Kaczyński, as well as his colleagues from Slovenia and the Czech Republic, Janez Janša and Piotr Fiala, met with the President of Ukraine Zelensky in the bunker under his official residence. Then a photo of politicians heading towards him, leaning over a map of Ukraine, went around the world.
Consultations in the train: Janez Jansha, Mateusz Moravetskyi, Yaroslav Kaczynskyi and Petr Fiala (from left) on the way to Kyiv
The beginning of “railway diplomacy”
The sensational trip of four top politicians was supposed to take place under conditions of the strictest secrecy. The danger of becoming a victim of a Russian attack was too great. And even if the Russian troops have meanwhile withdrawn from the wider area of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital can hardly be reached other than by train. All airspace over Ukraine has been closed since the beginning of the war. After sometimes heavy fighting, many access roads are still passable with difficulty.
So the railway became a means of transport that brings leaders from all over the world to Kyiv. The four Eastern Europeans are followed by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel, Prime Ministers Boris Johnson, Justin Trudeau and Carl Neuhammer, as well as US Ministers Anthony Blinken and Lloyd Austin. A number of politicians from Germany have already arrived in Kyiv, in particular the Minister of Foreign Affairs Berbok and the leader of the opposition Mertz. After a long back and forth, Chancellor Scholz left together with Emmanuel Macron and Mario Draghi.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Berbok was just one of many foreign state guests who traveled to Volodymyr Zelenskyi by train in recent weeks
Travel with risk
Meanwhile, the hostilities have largely shifted to the east of the country; however, traveling by train to Kyiv is not without its dangers. Railway tracks, bridges and provincial railway stations across the country are still being fired at by Russian missiles, in particular to prevent the delivery of weapons to eastern Ukraine. Usually, the starting point is one of the small border stations in Poland – due to the different track widths, Ukrainian trains cannot simply pass to the European capital. The road from there takes about eight to nine hours. Delegations of politicians are usually accompanied by both Ukrainian security and personal security of the respective state guests.
Strictest secrecy is usually the top priority. The visit of US Secretary of State Blinken and Defense Secretary Austin at the end of April was made public only after the event – due to fears about a possible Russian missile attack. Therefore, the security forces must have been quite restless when Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki announced his plans for a trip on Facebook on the way to Kyiv. Oleksandr Kamyshyn, head of Ukrainian Railways, later told CNN it was “important for us, but also quite naive.” Since the beginning of the war, he lived and worked in a mobile car of the emergency service of the Ukrainian Railways, which constantly changed its location due to fears of Russian missile fire. He advises even his children not to disclose their whereabouts – it is war after all. “Only: I cannot give any instructions to the prime ministers,” Kamishchyn said.
Obviously, neither the presidents of the European Commission: Ursula von der Leyen also announced her visit to Kyiv in advance on Twitter – on the same day when more than 50 people died as a result of a Russian missile attack on the railway station in Kramatorsk. in the east of Ukraine. The starting point of the trip also became known to her early: the Polish train station in Przemyśl, approximately 13 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
Boris Johnson’s visit to Volodymyr Zelensky, which took place almost at the same time, was planned weeks in advance, but had to be repeatedly postponed due to security concerns. He was also supposed to go public only after the trip was over. This time, however, the Ukrainian embassy in London posted a photo of the two on Twitter while Johnson was still in Kyiv, making Johnson’s visit so public.
Suite in a couch
But even without such carelessness, the Ukrainian railway cannot fully contain the risk of missile fire; otherwise, she tries to make it as pleasant as possible for state guests on their trip. According to Radio Free Europe, an elite carriage is being used, which was actually built in 2014 to transport wealthy tourists to Crimea. Before the Russian annexation of the peninsula in the same year, this carriage was probably used only a few times. Other Ukrainian elite carriages are from Soviet times, but were modernized a few years ago. For example, they have spacious king-size beds, dining and meeting rooms with soft seating and flat-screen TVs, and lounges with desks and leather armchairs.
Brocade curtains, leather chairs, marble tables: the trip can also be comfortable
For not so high-ranking state guests, it is also smaller: the German oppositionist Friedrich Merz, for example, traveled to Kyiv in a first-class sleeping car: with a narrow bed and a small folding table. , but still much more comfortable than second-class travelers, who often have to spend the night on better wooden bunks in not yet modernized carriages.
By the way, state guests in Kyiv do not have much time. A few hours’ stay, negotiations with President Selensky, a tour of war-torn suburbs, maybe a joint dinner. It turned out that in Kyiv, Boris Johnson was presented with chicken soup and salad with goat cheese, as well as roast beef and cherry dumplings. Shortly after that, the flying visit was over. Only symbols, images and gestures of solidarity and confidence in standing firmly on the side of Ukraine remain. Then he returns again to the foreign guests; eight, nine hours in a luxury car through a war-torn country.