The Ukrainian Military Could Be Walking Into Another Trap Like Donetsk Airport

March 29, 2016
An airplane on the destroyed tarmac of Donetsk International Airport | Dominique Faget / AFP / Getty Images

Throughout August and the first days of September of 2014, Ukraine was faced with an urgent crisis. The Russian military was invading the Donbass with tanks, rocket launchers, artillery units, anti-aircraft systems, armored personnel carriers, spetsnaz soldiers, and other equipment. In order to solve the crisis and bring about a ceasefire, the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine — which included representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE, (Russia, which has always claimed it wasn’t a party to the conflict, was negotiating on their behalf, which tells you everything you need to know about Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, though separatist representatives did come to some of the meetings) — met on July 31 and August 26, but had nothing to show for it. Just days after the second meeting, violence in Ukraine was hitting its apex. The day before the September 1 meeting,  on August 31, two Ukrainian naval ships were sunk off the coast of the crucially important coastal city of Mariupol. Video clearly showed what many experts told The Interpreter was a low-flying helicopter attacking, and sinking, one of the ships. The invasion was real enough, but it was still in a cloaked, hybrid form. Moscow was sending a clear message — if they don’t soon cooperate and sign a “peace” agreement with a gun to their head, then Russia could show them the true meaning of the word “invasion.”

It worked. The September 1 meeting appeared to net more progress than the previous two meetings, and on September 5 the Minsk Protocol was signed.

And immediately it was broken as Russian-backed forces who consolidated their territory by taking advantage of Ukraine’s reluctance to press their own attack. The Russian-backed fighters ran the show, with Moscow’s considerable firepower backing them up.

But even with the support of the Russian military, the Russian-backed separatists had a problem. Their leadership was clearly not content with their current territorial gains, but they were also clearly not willing to push without the backing of Moscow. Thus far, Moscow had attempted to maintain plausible deniability about both their own military involvement, but also about the legitimacy of the “separatist” cause. Soon it became clear how they could extend their own military positions while simultaneously finding an excuse to launch a larger offensive.

They needed to attack Donetsk International Airport.

Positioned at the northwestern corner of the de facto capital city of the Russian-backed fighters, the Donetsk International Airport was also the symbol of the modernization of eastern Ukraine having been recently renovated to the tune of $758 million. It held a strategic location, on high ground overlooking the city, but it was also the site of the most one-sided defeat suffered by the Russian-backed forces in the entire war, one which cost a lot of lives — including Russian soldiers. The siege of the airport started soon after the Minsk agreement was inked in September 2014 and continued to escalate until, in January 2015, the Ukrainian military’s “Cyborg” soldiers were overrun.

Much has been written about the battle and its significance, but one part of the story is somewhat overlooked. Both the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed fighters had publicly stressed how important the location was to their defenses, for at least its symbolic value. The Ukrainian military position at the top of the hill was exposed to incoming artillery, which exposed the Ukrainian government to a major political liability. They could not lose the position for fear of handing a major symbolic victory to their enemies. They could not properly defend the position, at least not without significantly ramping up their military operations. They could not sit back idly and watch as their soldiers were butchered live on streaming TV.

Donetsk Airport was a trap. Nothing Ukraine could do would be a proper solution. Clearly, the decision in Kiev was made to split the difference and hope for the best. The Cyborgs held their ground against increasingly-impossible odds and the Ukrainian military increased their direct artillery support, returning fire, and, as happens in war, accidentally lobbing some shells into the city. Each day, starting in October, the fighting surrounding the airport increased, even as the ceasefire largely held. Soon, the Russian-backed separatists and Moscow were screaming about Ukraine’s military action and fighting was escalating on other fronts — near Mariupol, near Lugansk, and on the highways that connect all three cities. Once the airport fell, the ceasefire was shattered, more battles quickly followed, and the Russian-backed forces, with support from Russian combat units, were again gaining ground.

Is Avdeyevka Another Donetsk Airport?

As we have seen on multiple occasions, now, Ukraine’s ceasefires are cyclical, and the pattern is always similar. Just like how Donetsk Airport and Debaltsevo were the focal points of the last two breakdowns, today Avdeyevka, north of Donetsk Airport, is in the separatists’ crosshairs. Every day the Ukrainian military reports more and more shelling. Several attempts to “storm” the city have occurred over the last week. Today the Ukrainian military is reporting a record number of attacks against their positions there. In theory, Avdeyevka is more easily defendable than the airport (and much more secure than Debaltsevo), but is Ukraine once again caught in a trap? In order to properly protect the lives of Ukrainian servicemen, the Ukrainian military will have to target those who are targeting Avdeyevka. Such an artillery duel is costly, and risky, but what will the political consequences be if the Russian-backed fighters continue to pound Ukraine’s positions, consequence free? Worse yet, can we really expect that, should the Russian-backed fighters seize Avdeyevka, or Marinka, or any other positions, that they will stop there?

The ultimate question remains: how is Ukraine ever supposed to end this war if its opponents will not negotiate but it cannot fight back for fear to triggering yet another wave of Russian military aggression?