Europe

Donetsk airport: Ukraine's coveted prize

Destroyed plane at Donetsk airport Image copyright Reuters

Donetsk airport has been the focus of heavy fighting for months as pro-Russian separatists try to seize it from Ukrainian government forces.

The airport is strategically important. Government forces have now abandoned the main part of it, from where they have been able to shell rebel positions inside nearby Donetsk - the largest city held by the militants.

Its capture could help the rebels to resupply - allowing munitions, hardware and manpower to be airlifted into the conflict zone.

But its significance is as much symbolic as it is practical. It has long been viewed in Kiev as an emblem of "Ukrainian fighting spirit".

Image caption Built for the Euro 2012 football championship, Donetsk International Airport was an important hub
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption It was already badly damaged after months of shelling in September 2014
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption By October, the front of the airport was barely recognisable

Ukrainian troops defending the airport were called "cyborgs" for their toughness in repulsing constant attacks, and for many they symbolised a new Ukrainian army.

Social media users say the destruction of the airport looks like Stalingrad, the Russian city reduced to ruins in World War Two.

Satellite photos taken before the fighting and drone images taken last week offer a stark comparison.

Image copyright Google
Image copyright Reuters
Image copyright Google
Image copyright Reuters

'Cyborgs'

Image copyright Grigory Mustang
Image caption After months of fighting rebels, soldiers at Donetsk airport were viewed by Ukrainians as superhuman
  • Nickname given to Ukrainian soldiers defending Donetsk airport after May 2014
  • Included regular army soldiers and volunteer fighters
  • Treated as heroes by many Ukrainians
  • Received many of their supplies from Ukraine's volunteer movement. President Petro Poroshenko himself donated some night-vision goggles
  • Reality of the soldiers' lives was grim - they took to social media to describe cold, dark and dangerous conditions

Ukraine's 'cyborg' defenders at Donetsk airport


The Sergey Prokofiev International Airport was built ahead of the Euro 2012 football championships co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland.

It was estimated to have cost around $860m (£537m; €685m).

Images on its website still show a gleaming glass terminal, smiling faces and spotless waiting lounges.

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Media captionDrone footage shows the war-torn remains of Donetsk's airport

Latest footage shows the extent of the destruction, with barely the shell of the building remaining.

Some experts have pointed out that the runway could still be used for flying in supplies, which is proving difficult for the rebels. But the airport's infrastructure is otherwise completely destroyed.

Image caption This image taken from the website of Donetsk airport showing the interior of the terminal before the fighting
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The inside of the airport buildings looked very different by October 2014

The separatists have been trying to capture the airport since May, allegedly with backing from the Russian military.

They view the airport as part of their capital and, as long as it remained in government hands, a bridgehead for a potential Ukrainian offensive.

"Ukraine's control of Donetsk International Airport not only ensures Ukrainian presence on the outskirts of the city, but also might prove crucial in preventing the spread of instability to other areas of Ukraine," warned Euromaidan, Ukraine's pro-Europe protest group, in October 2014.

"A pro-Russian territory with an international airport of Donetsk's size would be a valuable asset for the territory's smuggling capabilities... de-stabilising other parts of Ukraine because of the unchecked flow of illicit weapons, drugs, and fighters."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The airport's control tower is now in ruins (R) but was intact last autumn (L) despite repeated shelling

Dr Mark Galeotti, Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at New York University, highlighted the combination of both strategic and symbolic significance in a January blog post.

"Kiev's forces have, to be charitable, a mixed record in fighting this conflict," he says.

"For them to have lost the airport, that advance intrusion into the heart of the rebellion, would have been a serious blow to their morale and the credibility of the government."

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