Donbas inferno. Why Ukrainians desperately fighting for Donetsk Airport

Over the last six months Donetsk airport has been one of the crisis spots in the east of Ukraine. Oleksiy Melnik, a foreign policy expert at the Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies, offers his explanation for the fact that Ukrainian troops are trying to retain control over the airport despite separatists’ unending attacks.

Belsat: Is defending Donetsk Airport strategically needed? Is it worth defending at all costs?

Melnik: I will never want it to be defended to the last drop of blood and at all costs, but it does have a strategic importance. One of the key points we should realise is that as soon as the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People Republics get Donetsk Airport it won’t take much time to Air Forces to appear there too.

Belsat: What is the point in using Donetsk airport for transporting militants and weapons to Ukraine if the Ukrainian-Russian border is still open?

Melnik: Separatists’ websites have recently reported that they possessed Air Forces then. I believe it’s not coincidence.

After Crimea’s airport Belbek was seized a transfer of military equipment took place. But they gave back only faulty aviation equipment – the Russian side kept battle-ready aircraft. Thus, if pro-Russian militants get Donetsk Airport fighter jets from Crimea will be there in a blink. We should realise that even if the planes won’t be used, they will be deployed there. And then the planes of Russia under the pretence of those of militants will be employed. It means that a strike radius will expand and may even reach Kyiv.

Melnik: Before retreat Ukrainians withdrew Luhansk Airport from operational use. Of course, it may be renewed, and this issue remains open. It may be used as a military airfield.

Belsat: Is it crucial that Ukraine’s army retain control Donetsk Airport?

It has been reported that there are some secret undeground objects in Donetsk, but I can’t confirm or deny it. But if we thoroughly study recent Minsk agreements, this area is considered as a zone of pro-Russian militants’ influence.

If we compare two maps – one as of Sept 5 and that of today – we’ll see that the area controlled by terrorists (or, to be more precise, Russia) has increased, particularly in the south of Ukraine. In fact, ceasefire has never been in place. There is an attempt to expand the area controlled by terrorists to Luhansk and Donetsk regions. And it is not known whether they will stop there. If we fail to stop militants in Donetsk, they will march off to Mariupol, Kherson, Odessa, Kharkiv.  

Belsat: it is reported that every day hundreds of pro-Russian separatists die during offensives at Donetsk Airport. Maybe Putin uses it as a trap for radicals who got beyound his control?

Melnik: Such version can’t be ruled out. Putin realises how dangerous the militants who have returned from Donbas are. In fact, all of them are criminals. Their actions fall within the scope of several articles of Russia’s Criminal Code. A sharp increase in crime in Rostov region [close to the border with Ukraine] was reported earlier. It means that weapons that Russia shipped to Ukraine is partially coming back to its own territory. And the people who enjoy power and the climate of impunity in Donbas are highly unlikely to return to car service centres where they used to work before.

Belsat: In your opinion, should Ukrainians hold out to the last defending Donetsk Airport or should they destroy it but save the lives of soldiers?

Melnik: I say again – I will never want the airport to be defended to the last. Its infrastructure has been already destroyed, only takeoff strip is left. This piece of concrete is not worth human lives. I hope some well-thought plan does exist.

Hanna Andriyevskaya for Belsat

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