KIEV, Ukraine — Just months ago, Donetsk’s airport was a gleaming testament to Ukraine’s hopeful future. Now it is a dystopian burned-out hulk where intense fighting continues despite a nearly eight-week-old cease-fire.
The battle for Donetsk’s Sergey Prokofiev Airport comes during a period in which Ukraine’s warring sides are supposed to have officially laid down their arms. It is just the latest episode in the grinding conflict between Kiev and pro-Russian rebels in which words have frequently failed to match reality.
The rebels have carved out a portion of eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland. If they seize the entirety of the airport, they will have gained a significant piece of infrastructure that could help them supply their proto-state, free from the control of Ukraine’s central government. They will also have eliminated a Ukrainian outpost close to their headquarters in the regional capital.
The Ukrainian soldiers who remain inside the airport — many of them poorly trained volunteers — have been nicknamed “cyborgs” by the Ukrainian media, a mark of respect and surprise that they have been able to hold on for so long. Ukraine’s need for the airport appears to be less pressing than the rebels' desire to take it over, but so many soldiers’ lives have been claimed in the fight to hold on to it that a loss would still sting bitterly.
“There’s no strategic value. It’s just a symbol,” said Vladimir Shylov, commander of a company in the Dnipro-1 Battalion, a volunteer pro-Kiev militia that has been fighting near the airport. “From the control tower, people in Donetsk see the Ukrainian flag flying. It’s a shock.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s May 25 election victory was just a few hours old when rebels stormed the airport for the first time. The rebels reportedly expected that the airport was so new and beautiful that the Kiev government would hand it over rather than see it destroyed. It was renovated just a few years ago, so that Donetsk could host portions of the 2012 European soccer championship. But the government routed the rebels in a violent confrontation.
Since then, Kiev’s forces have held on to the airport even as it has been the scene of intense clashes. Ukrainian leaders have floated the idea of a land swap in which they give control of the airport to the rebels in exchange for a portion of separatist-controlled territory elsewhere in the Donetsk region. But the rebels appear to have shown little interest in the prospect.
Parliamentary elections held Sunday showed unexpectedly strong support for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a Poroshenko ally who has criticized the cease-fire as giving in to the rebels and to Russia. On Nov. 2, rebels plan to hold elections of their own, further solidifying the split between the two sides.
For now, the battle continues to rage as the tenuous cease-fire persists, in name if not in actuality.