The main terminal of Donetsk airport is hit by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces. (AP)

Ukraine’s Last Flash Point: Donetsk Airport

The epic battle for the Donetsk International Airport and its huge symbolism for the Ukraine crisis, explained.

by Chris Dunnett, Hromadske International

What You Need to Know

✓ The Donetsk International Airport was completed in May 2012, just in time for the European Football Championship in June of that year

✓ The airport became one of the first hotspots in the Ukrainian conflict, after the Ukrainian military took back control of the airport from Russian-backed separatists in May. Back then thirty-four of the dead insurgents were Russian nationals whose bodies were returned to Russia

✓ The Ukrainian military has struggled to maintain control of the airport since then

✓ A cease fire was declared between Ukraine and Pro-Russian militiamen on September 5. However, fighting for the airport has continued largely unabated.

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The Sergei Prokofiev International Airport was once hailed as a potent symbol of Donetsk’s transformation from a gritty post-Soviet industrial town to a vibrant, modern city. Completed in time for the European Football Championship in summer 2012, the Donetsk airport was projected to host more than 5 million visitors in 2015. Its facilities and slick glass exterior matched any in Europe for its aesthetics and comforts.

The airport in better days. The airport was open in 2012 just in time to host European fans for the 2012 Euro Cup that was co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland

“A new terminal of municipal enterprise Donetsk international airport was commissioned on May 14, 2012. The press service of the Infrastructure Ministry of Ukraine reported that Vice Premier and Infrastructure Minister Borys Kolesnikov took part in the opening of the terminal.”

And After

Not now. The new terminal lies in shatters, the runway damaged, and the control tower shattered. The Ukrainian military continues to withstand shelling and assaults, even as rebel commanders claim that the airport is nearly in their grasps.

An exterior view shows the damaged main terminal of Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, September 20, 2014. Source: REUTERS / Marko Djurica
Christopher Miller, Mashable’s Chief Foreign Correspondent
Fighting in May as Ukrainian troops storm the Donetsk airport.

How It All Started

The airport may be one of the last remaining hot spots post-cease fire, but it was also one of the first. In May, the Ukrainian military forcibly seized the airport from armed separatists, killing more than two dozen with the help of helicopters and fighter jets. Ukrainian officials reported no losses. Thirty-four of the dead insurgents were Russian nationals and Donetsk insurgents claimed the bodies were returned to Russia. It was later revealed the bodies were returned covertly to hide the fact that they were Russian, eventually ending up in a Rostov-on-Done morgue in the Russian Federation.

Battle for Donetsk airport: the story of one Russian fighter
Bodies of at least 30 Moscow-allied separatists taken to morgues as Kyiv’s forces retake eastern Ukraine airport, May 26, 2014. PHOTOMIG / EPA

Even in the fierce fighting since then, the Ukrainian military has managed to maintain a toehold on the outskirts of Donetsk, even during the separatists offensives in early summer and late August.

Russian militiamen and Pro-Russian armed groups defend the Donetsk International Airport in May. They were successfully pushed out in a government offensive.

Following direct Russian military intervention at the end of August, a cease fire between the Ukraine and separatists was announced in Minsk on September 5. However, the exact boundaries of the territory allotted to the government and rebels remained unclear.

Rebels with direct Russian military assistance continued to gain territory even following the declared cease fire.

Rebel-held territory has expanded even following the September 5 ceasefire, linking forces in the north with Russian military-backed troop

Violence has flared up along many areas of the front lines since September. But nowhere has the fighting been a vicious and deadly as around the airport. As Ukraine and Russian-backed armed groups dig in their positions along the front, creating the spectacle of a frozen conflict, heavy firefights continue in and around the airport. Scores of Ukrainian military personnel and separatists have died.

Myroslava Petsa, a Ukrainian TV-journalist

Army Of ‘Cyborgs’ To Defend The Airport

Ukrainians have fixed their attention to the last remaining hot spot in the country’s east, one which threatens to unravel a fragile ceasefire. The Ukrainian forces’ defense of the airport has earned them hero status among many, but are called “cyborgs” by their enemies.

Now that it is a burned-out shell, destroyed by fighting, it is a new source of pride to Ukrainians for a different reason.

The soldiers who have defended this airport from incessant attacks from the Russian army and insurgents they support have become nothing short of legendary and are even called “cyborgs” – indestructible half-men, half-machines — by their enemies.

One of the famed “cyborgs.”

Widespread reports indicate that Russian officers and soldiers are directly engaged in fighting over the airport.

Former Swedish Prime Minister and most recently Foreign Minister (2006–2014) weighs in on the conflict in Donetsk.
Russian-backed rebels storm Ukrainian-held positions in a tank

The Donetsk Airport ‘Bloodbath’

Civilians have also died. Human rights organizations have criticized indiscriminate shelling by both Russian-backed armed groups and the Ukrainian military. More than 300 people have died since September 5.

“ At least 331 people were reported killed in the month after the cease-fire was announced on Sept. 5, the United Nations’ human rights office in Geneva said, adding that exchanges of artillery, tank and light arms fire had continued on an almost daily basis in some areas of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.”

The Donetsk Airport battle provoked one of the most horrific attacks on civilians in the whole conflict’s history. Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces must immediately end indiscriminate attacks in residential areas, Amnesty International said today after at least nine civilians were killed in strikes on a school and a bus in Donetsk.

Maxim Eristavi, Hromadske co-founder
Paul Gypteau, AFP’s photo-correspondent

In and around Donetsk, any pretenses of a ceasefire vanished long ago. There is also evidence that pro-Russian armed groups are embedding themselves in the local population in their attacks on the Ukrainian positions at the airport, exacerbating civilian casualities.

Seven stories up, a veteran rebel commander who goes by the code name Givi runs a war supposedly on pause from an apartment kitchen. From his vantage point near the airport on Saturday, he directed ceaseless volleys of tank, artillery and rocket fire into the burned-out terminals and hangars.

Why Both Sides Ready To Risk It All For It

Why is the airport so important? The Russian-backed separatists say that the airport gives the Ukrainian military a base of operations for a future blitzkrieg against the capital of their self-proclaimed state.

“The airport, located just north of Donetsk, the largest city in the east, gives the Ukrainian forces a convenient vantage point to target rebel positions.”

Ukraine is loathe to give up territory it has lost so many lives defending.

“Ukrainian soldiers defending Donetsk airport all big heroes, they do almost impossible [sic] these days.”

“Our troopers suffered losses. Nine Ukrainian servicemen died, 27 wounded in the last 24 hours.”- Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council

“Colonel Lysenko underlined that despite heavy ongoing fighting, Donetsk airport was, remains and will always be Ukrainian.”

The real reason might be even more complicated. Following the First Chechen War in the 1990s, the airport of the Chechen capital of Grozny served as an important conduit for unsanctioned flights, greatly expediting the flow of illicit guns, drugs, fighters, and other contraband into the rogue Chechen separatist state. At the time, the Russian government saw the Grozny airport as a headache that de-stabilized the entire region. Ukrainian officials may be looking ahead to the role of the airport once the expected frozen conflict is further entrenched.

“A pro-Russian territory with an international airport of Donetsk’s size would be a valuable asset for the territory’s smuggling capabilities, just as the Grozny airport was in the 90s, de-stabilizing other parts of Ukraine because of the unchecked flow of illicit weapons, drugs, and fighters.”

The airport has clear strategic value to both the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists, allowing several possible scenarios. In this environment, heavy fighting is likely to continue until a decisive resolution is reached. The rebels might seize the airport. The Ukrainian government, as some have advocated, could hand over the airport in return for a large amount of territory elsewhere. Finally, Ukraine might rationalize that defending the airport indefinitely is better than having the airport fall into separatists hands, which might further de-stabilize Ukraine in the future. The airport will continue to be a worrying flash point in a cease fire that is mostly in name only, threatening to break an increasingly fragile ceasefire.

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Eastern Europe, explained.

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