RUSSIA has reportedly begun building a new railway line between Rostov-on-Don in Russia, near the Sea of Azov and the border with Ukraine, and Yakymivka, about 10 kilometres north of the Crimea peninsula, the Russian-appointed governor of the Zaporizhzhia oblast, Mr Yevgeny Balytsky, has told the Russian news agency RIA Novosty. The new line would mainly go through occupied Ukrainian territory, through the southern Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts which Russia have has claimed to annex, and past the important cities of Mariupol and Melitopol.

Details on the new railway are sparse, including whether or not construction has actually begun: two days after Balytsky’s announcement, the head of the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration, Mr Yury Malashko, said that only preparatory work had started. However, Mr Petro Andriushchenko, an advisor to Mariupol's exiled mayor, wrote in a Telegram post as early as on September 27 that construction work had begun, providing pictures that allegedly proved this.

Speaking to the Ukrainian news outlet TSN, Andriushchenko elaborated that the Russians “want to build and unite the entire coast of the Sea of ​​Azov into a single ring. This branch should start in Rostov-on-Don, go through Mariupol, then Berdyansk, Melitopol district, and end in Crimea. Taking into account the Crimean bridge, they make a circle around the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov.”

Russia traditionally relies heavily on railways for transporting its military troops, and since its invasion of Ukraine, it has made much use of the Kerch Strait bridge - which Russia built after annexing the Crimean peninsula - for that purpose. However, Ukraine has prioritised attacking the bridge, and was able to damage it severely during the summer.

With Ukraine having established a bridgehead south of the Dnipro river and vowing to take back Crimea, Russia will urgently need to reinforce its defences of the peninsula, which it has equally vowed to retain. Consequently, Balytsky admits that “[the Kerch Strait bridge] is… a high-risk object. By building a railway line… we will solve the military's problem.” He also says that the new line would be used for transporting grain to Russia, as well as “scrap metal, coal and many other items we need to move to the mainland.”

Under international law, however, Russia is not allowed to build such a railway, the former under-secretary general for legal affairs and the legal counsel of the United Nations, ambassador Mr Hans Corell, tells IRJ.

“No, they cannot do that. My immediate reaction when I hear this is that this cannot be within the framework of what an occupation force may do,” he says when asked about this specific plan.

“Let’s say that an [existing] bridge suddenly breaks down. Then, perhaps, they would be allowed to repair it. In general, they may take various measures to protect civilians. But if they start building railways, they’re going too far,” Corell says.

Moreover, contractors participating in the construction might become guilty of crime, Corell says.

“I think that such a company would need to be very cautious so as not to become an accomplice in crime,” Corell says.

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