Western sanctions on Russia continue to bite into the Russian economy affecting their performance in the war in Ukraine.  The Russian rail system is being starved of rolling stock because of a shortage of roller bearings for their axles. Some 10,000 railway cars were pulled offline because of a bearing shortage in August with another 20,000 expected to be sidelined in the next two months.  Repair facilities are unable to repair them because of the shortage.  This represents about 20-30% of Russian rail cars of all types.

Russian imports about half of the bearings it uses in heavy industry. In May, Russian truck manufacturers like the GAZ group, KAMAZ and UAZ had to stop their production because of these shortages. Premium bearing makers like SKF(Sweden), Schaeffler(Germany), NSK(US) and Timken(US) have either closed facilities in Russia and moved them elsewhere to countries like Poland or sold off their assets to private individuals inside Russia.

A man stands near a trainload of modified T-72 Russian tanks after their arrival in Gvardeyskoe railway station near the Crimean capital Simferopol, on March 31, 2014.  AFP PHOTO / OLGA MALTSEVA

Russia moves much of its freight by rail, especially heavy equipment like tanks, APCs, and artillery. It also moves coal by rail and this shortage will affect the ability of Russia to make promised deliveries of coal to China. One of the bearing types in short supply is Cassette-type bearings fitted to rail cars with large axial loads. These are mostly used for coal transportation in Russia.

This problem with rolling stock being out of service for a lack of roller bearings will have a ripple effect on Russian industries like transportation, military hardware, trucks and cars, communications, and the production of consumer goods.  Almost all heavy machinery used in manufacturing uses bearings of some kind.

Russia is looking to resource these bearings from Asian countries but will face significant quality problems in doing so.  The manufacture of roller bearings requires specially treated steel and a very precise process of milling and finishing.  It is doubtful China or India would be able to make roller bearings to these specifications or the Russians would already be buying them.

The Russian railway system is 98% state-owned and employs some 750,000 people.  It represents about 3% of Russia’s GDP and hauls more than 1.5 billion tons of freight annually.  It is the third largest railway system in the world, followed by the US and China, both of which have much larger populations.  In the more remote reaches of Russia, there really is no other way to ship consumer goods, food, and medicines, except by rail.

It is said of war that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics.  No small part of the Russian failure to invade Ukraine has been a failure of logistics. I once read a translation of a soldier’s letter home to his family.  He was stationed in England and his family was in Italy.  In the letter, he asked them not to forget about him and sent some money home with the request that they use it to purchase for him a donkey cart, some olive oil, and a warm cloak to keep him warm for the approaching winter.  He asked them to mail these items to him as soon as possible.  The letter was about 2,000 years old and was from a Roman Legionnaire. It immediately struck me that the Romans had lines of communication so secure and quick that a Roman soldier in England could mail silver coins home in Italy without fear of it being stolen and had the confidence to know that a donkey cart, a jug of oil, and a cloak could be mailed back to him nearly 1000 miles away.

Russia is having immense problems just feeding and equipping its soldiers inside their own country and a crippled rail system will not make that any easier.