Why Is Donetsk Airport So Important?

Still image taken from handout aerial footage shot by drone shows outline o airplane in the snow at the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport damaged by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces, in Donetsk

Not looking its best

As of writing, after having almost lost Donetsk’s poor, battered airport to rebel forces, the Ukrainian army seems to have launched a counter-attack which has at least stabilised the situation, and may even mean they will take it back in its entirety. This is ‘proper’ war in all its boy’s own pyrotechnics, with armour, artillery and close-quarters fighting, and has left the recently-rebuilt and once-glittering airport a blasted ruin. So why is it so important?

1. Symbolism. Kiev’s forces have, to be charitable, a mixed record in fighting this conflict. Regardless of the scale of Russian assistance to the rebels–sometimes in the form of direct intervention, largely through men and materiel–the government forces have often seemed badly-prepared, unable to follow through local successes and, frankly, badly commanded. The “cyborgs” defending the beleaguered airport for so long, despite near-constant threat of snipers, artillery and outright assault, have been conspicuous in their resolution. 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, as well as a fillip for the DNR at a time when its backing in Moscow looks under some pressure.

2. Supply. One of the clear aims of successive government offensives has been to isolate Donetsk or at least to be able to do more to interdict resupply to the city. Luhansk is one thing, but Donetsk is the real heart of the rebellion. If they 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. Modern warfare is voracious in its demands for logistical support, and the capacity of the rebels to maintain the kind of high-tempo attacks we’ve seen of late would be severely affected. Sure, they wouldn’t run out of bullets for a long time, but the Grad rockets and similar artillery support they’ve deployed would have to be used much more sparingly.

However, if the rebels controlled the airport, and could clear it enough to be even marginally useable (and let’s face it, for all their crudity at times, Soviet/Russian transports are typically better at rough landings), Moscow acquired the air resupply option. Let’s say they mounted their own “Berlin Airlift”, with white-painted aircraft they say are just bringing in relief supplies for the poor, hungry citizens of Donetsk. This would pose a tricky military/political dilemma for Kiev. Let the planes through and allow the Russians to resupply DNR forces with impunity? Or try to block the flights and look heartless and, worse yet, maybe ending up shooting down a plane and give Moscow a casus belli and something that would make the MH17 shootdown history?

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27 Comments

  1. Somehow you missed the most obvious importance of it for both sides – how vital the Ukraine Putsch regime force occupying the airport was to the ability to direct artillery fire from Pesky down into Donetsk – and conversely how important that position was to the NAF for ending the ceaseless artillery shelling of the center and residential districts of the city.

    Reply
  2. Reblogged this on CCCC Project.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for clarifying what seems to have become a modern-day version of the “Battle of Verdun”. I hadn’t thought of the resupply significance. But what about use as an air base? I have seen photos of SU-25s in Novorossiyan colours, and have heard serious commentators suggest they might be used against the Ukrainians. Any thoughts?

    As to our first poster’s point about Ukrainians mindlessly firing at Donetsk just for the sake of killing civilians, it exemplifies a psychosis that could infect much of Russian society. All Ukrainians are now Nazis who do things for no rational reason–other than to cause evil. Unfortunately, Ukrainians are being labelled as “nyechistiye sily”.

    Reply
  4. American traitor and professional Kremlin propagandist Mark Sleboda never tires of peddling the Putin regime’s cynical lies.

    Reply
  5. So, is the proverbial doo doo about to hit the proverbial fan?

    Reply
      • How uplifting, sigh…

      • So, I’ve been reading a bit of Edward Walker’s blog and it’s both an interesting and depressing/terrifying series of reads on the state of things and where they could be headed. This is especially the case when it comes to his views on the possibilities of all out war between Russia and Ukraine and how that might spiral out of control and involve NATO somehow. I’m not looking for some sort of “everything’s going to be alright” narrative, because we don’t know what will happen, but I’d just like to press further as to why you think that this won’t spiral into a global conflict. With certain treaties being all but abandoned and Russia’s need to remind everybody about their nuclear capabilities, it’s getting a bit too tense for my (or most people’s) liking. While I don’t want to see places like Ukraine stomped all over, I want to see East and West blow each other to pieces over it even less

      • Mark Galeotti

         /  January 21, 2015

        The bottom line is that Russia knows absolutely that it cannot fight any kind of a war with NATO, and NATO certainly doesn’t want to fight a war with Russia. Just as Khrushchev was forced to back down during the Cuban Missile Crisis largely by his own generals, so too if Putin really seemed as if he was brining Russia to war, I think he’d have a serious problem with his own elite.

      • Thanks Mark, I hope I’m not exasperating you with my constant dread filled questions. This has been a life long fear of mine and between all of the intensification this week along with the news stories about Russia conducting nuclear drills and walking away from the nuclear security treaty, I’m even more jittery than usual.

  6. andreinternational

     /  January 22, 2015

    Reblogged this on Your World Explained and commented:
    Great explanation of why the fall of Donetsk Airport is such a blow to the Ukrainian war effort. Together with the shelling of a trolley bus, it’s a hard day for Donetsk.

    Reply
  7. andreinternational

     /  January 22, 2015

    I think another aspect of this will be the effect on morale of the people still living in Donetsk. Having lived in Donetsk for 5 years, I still have some contact with friends who first fled and then returned during the ceasefire. Those hoping for the liberation of the city will have just had their hopes crushed in a big way. Could lead to more fatalistic acceptance of the DNR if it looks like the Ukrainian army won’t be pushing back.

    Reply
  8. There is an Airport (Lugansk) far more usable and protected than the one in Donetsk for Russian planes to use if they wanted to.

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  January 29, 2015

      But not if government forces even manage to encircle Donetsk or interdict its land routes

      Reply
    • The Russians are trying to keep things boiling and denying the Ukraine the use of the airport. There must be some old Harriers they can sell them.

      Reply
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