Donetsk airport: Strategic rubble of high symbolic value

Flughafen Donezk 16.01.2015

"There's no such thing as a winnable war" is a line from the lyrics of "Russians", a 1985 anti-war song by British rock musician Sting which is based on music written by Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev.

Donetsk airport is the most fiercely embattled area in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatists have been trying to seize what is believed to be the key to the city since April 2014.

30 years later, Prokofiev's name is associated with war again: The airport in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk,which was named after him, has become the scene of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army. The record so far: hundreds of casualties on both sides, a ruined infrastructure and no clear winner. As of mid-January 2015, the fighting has become particularly intense. Dozens of tanks and heavy artillery are constantly in operation.

The airport area bears an uncanny resemblance to apocalyptic scenes from computer games with dilapidated buildings, burned-out rubble, twisted steel girders. On Monday (19.01.2015), separatists managed to blow up parts of the first floor in the new terminal. One week earlier, the control tower collapsed in the wake of particularly heavy shelling.

Two fateful villages

However, nothing of all this is mentioned on the airport's web page, where time seems to have come to a standstill. The heading "Airport today" introduces the new terminal with its gigantic glass façade, inaugurated during the European football championship in 2012. A brief note dated end of May 2014 states that there are no flights available at this point and that the Ukrainian army has assumed control of the airport, conducting an anti-terror raid.

According to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, that is still the current state of affairs. The pro-Russian separatists, however, disagree: "We're in control of 95 percent of the airport," says Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk. He is known for this kind of victory declaration. In the past, all of them turned out to be premature.

This time, it might be different: of late, separatists have significantly increased their attacks on the airport, apparently not without success. In response, the Ukrainian army launched a counteroffensive. The eventual outcome is still uncertain. Thus far, Ukrainian forces were able to withstand heavy shelling predominantly from their positions in the airport's underground facilities. Two villages located nearby see grim fighting as well: Pisky and Avdiivka have been used as supply routes by Ukrainian troops. The airport's destiny will probably be decided here.

Convenient location on the outskirts

Currently, Donetsk airport is the most fiercely embattled area in the eastern Ukraine conflict. Due to its location it is considered the "key" to the Donetsk metropolis, the heart of the Donbas coalfield. The airport is located a mere ten kilometers from the city center. It was refurbished for $870 million (753 million euros). Thanks to a new runway, it could accommodate virtually all types of aircraft. Due to its proximity to the separatist stronghold, the airport is of strategic importance to both sides. The Ukrainian government in Kyiv is determined to hold on to it by all means: "If we give up Donetsk, the enemy will advance to Kyiv or Lviv," Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said lately.

As early as April 2014, the separatists tried twice to capture the airport, only to be repelled. In the course of their third attempt - during the night of May 25th - they managed to occupy the new terminal without firing a single shot. It was the night of the early presidential election in Ukraine which saw Poroshenko being elected as the country's new head of state.

However, once again the Ukrainian army retaliated successfully. More than 100 separatists were forced to flee. According to their own account, the insurgents lost almost half of their contingent, most of them being Russians. "This was the worst operation of them all," a well-informed separatist blogger wrote later: No-one had expected that "the Ukrainian army would launch air attacks on the airport whose construction had been so expensive."

Brief ceasefire prior to New Year's Eve

In the wake of the Minsk agreement signed in September - which stipulated a ceasefire between separatists and the Kyiv government - things have calmed down in eastern Ukraine, with Donetsk airport being among the few exceptions: it saw gunfire and casualties almost on a daily basis.

Only just ahead of New Year's eve there was a short-lived ceasefire: separatists even allowed Ukrainian paratroopers to provide supplies to their comrades inside the airport and evacuate the wounded. Now this has come to an end.

Ukraine celebrating "Cyborgs"

Both sides are using the airport for propaganda purposes as well. Whenever people in Ukraine come across the word "Cyborg", they don't associate it with the humanoid battle robots introduced in Hollywood's "Terminator" movie, but with the soldiers fighting at Donetsk airport. Since September 2014, they have been hailed as heroes in Ukrainian media and social networks. When he formally awarded Donetsk fighters, President Poroshenko said the "Cyborgs" would make their way into history books.

On the separatists' side, actor Mikhail Porechenkov, who likes to present himself as Russia's answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, tried to steal the show, being filmed at Donetsk airport while shooting at positions of the Ukrainian army with a heavy machine gun.

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