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?