The war in Ukraine has entered its eighth calendar year. Today, tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops remain hunkered down in trenches and ad hoc forts along a 250-mile-long front line in the country’s embattled southeastern Donbas region. The Ukrainians continue to fight a static trench war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars.
Since April 2014 the war has killed more than 13,000 people and left a swath of Ukrainian territory in utter ruin. Yet, over the duration of the ongoing conflict, the 2014-15 battle for the Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport stands apart for its brutality. A smaller-scale reincarnation of the battle for Stalingrad in World War II, combat at the airport was apocalyptic and total.
The Ukrainian soldiers who fought in that battle earned the nickname “cyborgs,” a reference to the half human, half machine creatures of science fiction. The label aptly suits the inhuman conditions they faced. For months, the cyborgs endured near constant shelling, tank shots, and rocket attacks from the Russian side. Opposing units sometimes sheltered on different floors of the same building, leading to close-quarters gun battles and even hand-to-hand fighting.
“In some places there were clashes with the enemy face to face. Those who survived were faster and smarter,” Ukrainian army sniper Alexander Pochynok, 41, a cyborg who fought at the Donetsk airport, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
Comparing the Donetsk airport battle to the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, Pochynok said the two battles were “united” by the scale of their destruction and “the fierce combat fought for every meter of dead earth.”
The battle, which lasted from May 26, 2014, until Jan. 22, 2015, ultimately took the lives of more than 100 Ukrainian soldiers and wounded some 440 more. It was the Russian camp that originally named the Ukrainian troops cyborgs — a grudging acknowledgment of their enemies’ grit. The name stuck, and Jan. 16 is now an official Ukrainian holiday called “Cyborgs Commemoration Day.”
For his part, Pochynok served at the Donetsk airport battle from late November 2014 to its conclusion in January 2015. He described a hellacious ordeal amid temperatures that dipped as low as minus 20 Fahrenheit. To make matters worse, the Ukrainians fought with dilapidated equipment, outdated weapons, and sparse supplies of food and clothing.
“The battle for the [Donetsk Airport] was very fierce all 244 days,” Pochynok recounted. “Toward the end of the defense, we hated the tanks and the cold the most.”
On Jan. 22, 2015, Vitalii Baranov, a Ukrainian army lieutenant colonel, assumed command of the 90th Separate Airmobile Battalion, which was engaged in the Donetsk airport battle. Until that date, Baranov had served as the battalion’s deputy commander under Lt. Col. Oleh Kuzminykh, who was taken prisoner by the Russian side on Jan. 20, 2015.
Recalling the airport battle in an interview with Coffee or Die Magazine, Baranov said that once his troops had exhausted all the wooden detritus for use as fuel for making fires, they resorted to using gas cooking stoves, designed for camping, as well as hand warmers to stave off the extreme cold. As for combat, Baranov said that tanks were by far the biggest threat.
“The hardest thing in fights inside the airport terminal was the enemy tanks. Of course there were enemy snipers, artillery, and heavy machine guns that could penetrate through the building walls. But tanks were the major threat,” Baranov explained.
He continued: “If you compare [tanks] to artillery — artillery is dangerous but it is far away and you still can get to a safe place and have some time to take cover. [...] But when you hear the tank engine’s whistling sounds, the only thing left to do was to pray. [...] Compared to artillery, enemy tanks fired at point-blank range, so there was no time left for you to react.”
Located on the periphery of the city of Donetsk — now a stronghold for Russia’s war effort in the Donbas — the Donetsk International Airport was rebuilt in 2011 for the Euro 2012 soccer championships. More than 1 million passengers passed through the facility in 2013, the year before the war started, on airlines including Lufthansa and Aeroflot.
The new terminal was stylish and modern. It featured manicured landscaping, polished floors, and chic metal detailing. A bellwether, many hoped, for Ukraine’s more prosperous future.
As the war in Ukraine evolved from skirmishes to artillery and tank battles in 2014, the airport became a key strategic prize. On May 16, 2014, the facility was closed after it was pummeled by artillery fire from Russian forces. No civilian aircraft has landed there since.
Ukrainian soldiers took control of the airport that May, during the opening weeks of the war. Fighting ebbed until September when combined Russian-separatist forces launched an offensive comprising tanks, artillery, and Grad rocket attacks. The Russian gambit to take the airport came just days after the conflict’s first cease-fire was signed, dashing hopes for a durable peace. What followed was an apocalyptic showdown known as the Second Battle of the Donetsk Airport.
The opposing sides fought savagely for control. Artillery, tank shots, and rocket attacks reduced the modern buildings to gutted ruins of crumbling concrete and twisted rebar.
The airport’s runways and the surrounding open spaces were churned into a cratered lunarscape, reminiscent of images of no man’s land from World War I battles like the Somme or Verdun. The charred skeletons of planes littered the tarmac. The physical destruction evidenced the intensity of the battle, and the hellish conditions endured by soldiers on both sides.
“The airport was a massacre,” Denys Antipov, a Ukrainian army veteran of the war in the Donbas, said. “It was like a sandwich. The enemy was below you and always around you — everything was tangled up.”
Surrounding villages like Pisky, about 1 mile from the airport perimeter, where Ukrainian troops staged for battle and fired artillery, also were reduced to demolished ghost towns by reciprocal Russian fire.
Yet even amid the bloodletting, the opposing sides were able to demonstrate fleeting acts of humanity. Soldiers who fought at the airport recounted short truces during which officers ventured out to collect the dead. Enemies walked near one another, sometimes close enough to reach out and touch. Yet those brief pauses in the war did not dim the Ukrainians’ desire to kill their enemies. Nor, for that matter, did the constant proximity of the opposing camp.
“In general, the closeness to the enemy did not alleviate my hatred for them,” Pochynok said, adding the Ukrainians and their Russian-backed foes would often trade profanity-laced barbs and threats over the open radio airwaves.
“When my brothers were killed, it made me very angry,” Pochynok said.
Baranov, the cyborg commander, said the constant closeness to the enemy made the combat more personal for him — a fight to the death to defend Ukrainian land from foreign invaders.
“The closer was the enemy, the more we hated him. Why so? Because day by day the enemy became vile, and was killing more and more of our guys while occupying our land, so we had no softening in our attitude toward the enemy,” Baranov said, adding: “We had only a will to destroy them. That’s it.”
Russia’s combined separatist forces ultimately overran the Ukrainian positions and won control of the airport in January 2015. The surviving Ukrainian units pulled back to nearby villages where they dug in for a protracted, long-range battle.
Five years later, Ukrainian forces remain entrenched on the periphery of the Donetsk airport. Both sides fight from trenches and abandoned homes and buildings in tit-for-tat exchanges of artillery and sniper fire.
Over the intervening years, the war, writ large, has become a long-range battle not unlike World War I trench warfare (albeit on a much smaller scale) in which soldiers hardly ever see at whom they’re shooting. At some places, no man’s land can be several kilometers wide. At others, the Ukrainians and their enemies remain close enough to hurl insults back and forth.