Why Ukrainian Troops Are Calling the Donetsk Airport Siege ‘Stalingrad’
The battle is both symbolic and strategic
There’s been a violent escalation in the battle for Donetsk International Airport in Eastern Ukraine. The fighting is terrible and carried out in close quarters—and it’s not clear who’s in control.
Russian-backed separatists have besieged Ukrainian troops inside the airport for months. On Jan. 16, the separatists claimed to have driven most of the remaining Ukrainians out of its vast terminal building. The iconic control tower—ridden with holes from artillery fire—collapsed during the recent fighting.
According to The New York Times, the separatists raised their flag over the terminal, and appeared to have largely won the battle. Only a few isolated pockets of “cyborgs”—a slang term for the Ukrainian defenders—remained inside.
But on Jan. 18, the Ukrainian army claimed it retook the lost territory up to a previously-agreed ceasefire line—although this ceasefire is hardly respected by either side.
If true, it means Kiev has pushed the separatists back to where they were a few days ago.
“We succeeded in almost completely cleansing the territory of the airport, which belongs to the territory of Ukrainian forces as marked by military separation lines,” Andriy Lysenko, a spokesmen for the national defense council, said.
One Ukrainian soldier on Facebook—whose page has since disappeared—mentioned a “direct duel” between tanks. “The situation is very tense,” the soldier wrote.
The Ukrainian army also used some creative tricks, such as resupplying the besieged soldiers with fresh ammunition using a remote-controlled “electric pallet truck,” Ukrainian soldier Roman Donik posted on Facebook.
“The Donetsk airport is truly our Stalingrad,” Donik wrote. “This is the Stalingrad of this war.”
There are several reasons why Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists are throwing so much sweat and blood into the airport. For one, the battle grew to possess huge symbolic significance.
The now-destroyed control tower was highly recognizable in photographs. Pictures taken inside the huge, wrecked terminal building sparked an unavoidable comparison to catastrophic World War II battles on the Eastern Front.
“For [the Ukrainian army] 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,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian history and security at New York University, wrote on his blog In Moscow’s Shadows.
A lot is riding on the battle for the separatists, too. A victory could bolster support from Russia. If the rebels can’t win the battle, then the Kremlin may be reluctant to aid them in the future.
There’s also important material consequences for whoever controls the airport. “Luhansk is one thing, but Donetsk is the real heart of the rebellion,” Galeotti adds.
“If [the Ukrainian government] were able to encircle the city, they could besiege it, and while one hopes they would not violate international law and try to starve it, they could at least seek to prevent the resupply of weapons and ammunition.”
Size also matters.
The Donetsk International Airport has a 13,000-foot-long concrete runway—that’s badly marred by artillery fire, to be sure. But this places it among the longest runways in Europe, and it’s big enough to handle Russia’s heaviest military transport planes.
While in the short term, the airport is a wreck. Over the long term, if the separatists can capture it, they will possess a crucial logistics and transportation hub, which is essential to building an independent state in eastern Ukraine.
For the Ukrainians, there’s worries a defeat would lead to the airport becoming a hub for weapons and organized crime—like the Grozny Airport in Chechnya during the 1990s.
“The airport became a conduit for nearly unprecedented levels of organized crime, on which the Chechen separatist regime largely depended upon, and unsanctioned flights brought in large amounts of drugs, weapons, and fighters,” wrote Chris Dunnett of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center—a pro-Ukraine media outlet.
But for now, neither side appears fully in control.