February 1, 2015:
In eastern Ukraine, on 21th January, the saga of the defenders of Donetsk's airport, also known as "Cyborgs", ended with victory by the pro-Russian rebels. The Cyborgs earned their nickname with their tireless and stalwart defense of the airport for 242 days. This was a motley force consisting of Ukrainian Army soldiers, Territorial Defense soldiers, and volunteers from various paramilitary organizations, including the Right Sector. The Cyborg numbers varied between 100 and 200 throughout their battle. They were periodically supported, resupplied and reinforced by nearby Ukrainian Army units the closest of which were located two kilometers away from the airport terminal building the Cyborgs defended. The support included lots of artillery fire, which was very effective thanks to the Cyborg's forward position and excellent observation posts, especially the airfield's air traffic control tower. In addition there were counterattacks with small units of armor against pro-Russian rebel attempts to encircle the airfield.
Up until January, this setup has functioned reasonably well for the defenders, creating the Cyborg's legend, which in turn provided a great symbol, example, and morale boost for all the Ukrainian forces. However, during the recent de-escalation efforts, Ukrainian forces were forced to limit artillery use and counterattack maneuvers for political reasons. The Minsk Memorandum signed on 19th September urged all sides of the conflict to, among other things, withdraw heavy weaponry 15 kilometers away from the frontlines, withdraw foreign mercenaries, and cease offensive operations. With rebel takeover of the airfield this agreement is dead. To reinforce that rebel leaders have clearly stated that they will ignore the September ceasefire from now on.
Ukraine made serious efforts to honor this agreement in order to preserve the international support it enjoys, while the rebels, since late 2014, began ignoring the ceasefire terms. That meant more rebel artillery fire on the Cyborgs in addition to moving tanks and professional soldiers direct from Russia into this battle. This allowed the rebels to gain launch an offensive that surrounded the airport while also hitting the Cyborgs with continuous artillery and rocket fire. This advance made resupply and reinforcement efforts extremely risky, as the Ukrainian armored vehicles risked being fired on by the tanks and antitank missiles the rebels had moved forward in violation of the ceasefire.
On top of that, on January 13th, all the shelling done so far during the conflict led to the control tower collapsing, depriving the defenders of the ability to see the entire battle area. Noticing the rapidly deteriorating situation of the airport defenders, on January 17th the Ukrainian Army attempted a desperate, poorly organized counterattack against the rebel positions. The Russian troops (with the rebels) expected this and the attack failed with significant Ukrainian losses. The attack might have succeeded had not senior Ukrainian generals, far from Donetsk, not gotten involved with directing the operation. The main problem was that the counterattacking force was too small and the interference by senior commanders led to poor coordination and communication between the attacking units and bad tactical decisions that doomed the relief effort.
With the failed counterattack the Cyborg's were doomed. They were cut off from friendly forces, and the territory they held was pretty much limited to the terminal building, which itself was not the greatest defensive position. Recently built, it had a modern, light structure, which limited the cover provided by it, forcing the defenders to rely on improvised fortifications. The only truly effective cover from artillery fire was provided by the Soviet era tunnels beneath the airfield, which also had to be defended from separatist infiltration attempts.
The rebel troops and tanks attacked the terminal building with the help of some convenient fog. On January 19th, after taking some parts of the terminal, they used demolition charges to collapse parts of the terminal's first floor ceiling, peppering many defenders with a rain of debris which killed and wounded many of them. By the end of the 19th both sides claimed control of the airfield. But by the 21tst Ukraine admitted that the rebels had overrun the area. The rebels claimed to have taken 44 of the defenders alive.
What the rebels won was nothing more than a ruin. There was barely a metal skeleton left where the terminal, built for the Euro 2012 games at the cost of almost $900 million, once stood. Other buildings were also heavily damaged by the shelling, and the runways are full of craters created by constant artillery bombardment. No matter how the civil war ends, this kind of economic damage will take many years to repair, especially in a country as cash-stricken as Ukraine.
How will the Ukrainian forces take the defeat of the brave Cyborgs? Will they take the right lessons from their final battle? Only time will tell.