Ukraine Live Day 333: Under Constant Attack, Can The ‘Cyborgs’ Hold Out At Donetsk Airport?

January 16, 2015
The old terminal of Donetsk Airport, bearing the flags of the Russian-backed DNR, as viewed by LifeNews reporters and DNR soldiers from the underground parking garage on Jan. 15, 2015

Yesterday’s live coverage of the Ukraine conflict can be found here. An archive of our liveblogs can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

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Shelling And Flashes At Donetsk Airport Right Now

Missing Soledar Deputy Found Murdered In Salt Mine

Ukrainska Pravda reports that Ivan Reznichenko, a town council deputy in from Soledar, in the Donetsk region, who went missing on June 21 last year, has been found dead in a nearby salt mine.

The press office of Reznichenko’s party, Batkivshchyna, reported that he had been killed on the orders of separatist fighters.


The head of the Independent Union of Miners, Mikhail Volynets, said that Reznichenko’s body was found on January 14 by his friend, another Soledar council deputy, during a search.

Volynets announced that two criminals, who had, he claimed, killed Reznichenko on the orders of the separatists, have been arrested by law enforcement officers.

Ukrainska Pravda reports that Reznichenko was the head of the local union branch of the Artyomsol salt company and was known for holding patriotic, pro-Ukrainian views.

The detainees were reported to have confessed to following Reznichenko for a week before kidnapping him on his way home from a garage 

Wolynets said that the men had shot Reznichenko twice in the head and then, seeing that he was still alive, slit his throat before throwing him into a a pit at the mine.

Reznichenko’s family had reportedly held out hope that he was being detained until the news of the discovery.

As Ukrainska Pravda notes, the case is reminiscent of the abduction and murder of another Batkivshchyna deputy, Volodymyr Rybak.

Rybak was a deputy in the Gorlovka city council and was abducted from the city hall by Russian or separatist militants on April 17 last year.

Rybak’s body was found several days later near Slovyansk. Both he and another, unidentified man, had been tortured and left to drown in a river

— Pierre Vaux

Ukrainians Protest Due To Lack Of Action To Save The ‘Cyborgs’ At Donetsk Airport

Ukrainians concerned about the fate of the “Cyborgs” demonstrated outside the presidential administration building this evening in Kiev, and Ukrinform reported.

As the Cyborgs — as the Ukrainian soldiers defending the airport are known — engage in a fierce battle to defend the remnants of the Donetsk Airport, concern has mounted about their fate.

They demanded that reinforcements be brought into the soldiers, and that the wounded be evacuated. Aleksey Pokotilo, deputy head of the main department of security and defense of the presidential administration, came out to speak to the demonstrators. The Interpreter has the translation of his remarks:

“Really, the situation around the airport is very difficult now. Battles are underway. The losses you know about, remain the same. At this time there are no more losses. All those who are wounded are now in hospitals. Assistance is being given to them. Their status is critical but stable, but there is no reason to believe there is a threat to their lives.”

Pokotilo said one soldier was killed and 11 wounded in the last 24 hours.

He also noted that it was hard to bring in armaments to the area around the airport, and at any rate the soldiers there have enough weapons. He said that reinforcements had been sent to the Cyborgs, but there was “a certain problem” with this, evidently due to the fierce fighting. He said a plan to rescue the Cyborgs has been developed.

The demonstrators began to disperse after meeting with Pokotilo, Ukrinform reports. They cancelled plans to travel to President Petro Poroshenko’s residence in Kozintsi to present their demands.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Firemen Coping with Fuel Tank Fire at Shebelinka

Firemen have reportedly doused the flames in one of three fuel tanks at the Shebelinka Rail Station in Kharkiv Region, says Sergei Bondarenko, a citizen reporter.

He says they are still working on the other two tanks.

“They are still putting out [the flames]. Two tanks remain, and they’ve dragged the other [tanks] to the side,” he told The Interpreter.

Bondarenko has posted some footage of the fire which he says was taken at a distance, at a rail crossing. “The fire is under it, and a bit behind,” he said.


— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Shocking Amounts Of Damage To Donetsk Airport – As Seen From a Drone
A group called Army SOS — a private group which is collecting donations to help the Ukrainian military — has released footage taken from a drone yesterday over Donetsk airport. This video shows the entire campus of the airport. The amount of  damage is simply breathtaking.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine how anyone could survive shelling like that, and yet not only have Ukraine’s Cyborgs continued to hold the airport, the airport has suffered even more heavy shelling today.

James Miller

Bomb in Odessa – No Injuries

There are reports at this hour of a terrorist attack in Odessa, apparently on an aid collection center for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Translation: #Odess #terrorist act Troitskaya St., 54 (1/3).

 The location is here on Google maps.

Odessa has experienced a number of bombings, including on December 10, when a volunteer center to aid the Ukrainian Army was hit.

Translation: #Odessa #terrorist act 54 Troitskaya St. No causalties.

Translation: Odessa, explosion on Troitskaya, Diamant Bank.

Translation: Odessa, explosion on Troitskaya, Diamant Bank.

Translation: Yes, it’s next door to our aid collection center. We’re all ok. Now the questions remain — perhaps the door was amaged )))) Or Diamant?

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Grenade Strikes Fuel Tanks on Rail Cars at Train Station in Kharkiv Region; Firemen Attempting to Douse Flames

Vsevolod Kozhemyako, a Ukrainian blogger, reports on his Facebook:

I was just in Kharkiv Region, in the Balakleyevsky District, a terrorist act was committed at the Shebelinka station.

Evidently, a grenade-launcher was used to strike a fuel tank. Already three tanks are on fire, the train has 50 such tanks. You can understand what is threatened here. All the services are deployed, they’re trying to block off the burning tanks from the train.

(Translation by The Interpreter).

We are attempting to confirm the report.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Significant Explosions, Likely The Result of Heavy Shelling (Not An Airstrike), At Donetsk Airport
The video is dramatic. First there is a strange noise, then a massive series of explosions on the horizon. The title of this video suggests a massive airstrike has just hit Donetsk. It was shot within the last hour:

That scenario, however, is unlikely. It’s not clear what payload a single aircraft could deliver that would cause that many explosions spread out over a very wide area. The roar we hear before the explosions is likely the sound of rockets traveling through the air, many rockets since this appears to be the result of a multiple-launch-rocket-system, perhaps a Grad strike.

The fact that we hear the rockets before seeing the explosions means that they likely came from behind the camera – territory held by the Russian-backed fighters.

Most of the rockets hit the western half of the airport, and all of those explosions give off about the same amount of light and sound.


However, there are two more things that are odd about this video. The first is that there are several much louder and brighter explosions in the center.


The second is that there are a long series of explosions far off to the right after this initial wave. These explosions are the last of the series, are much fainter flashes, and don’t appear to give off any sound.


So what just happened? Here’s our theory.

A multiple-launch-rocket-system, likely a Grad launcher, struck the airport. This would account for the large amounts of explosions in a tight cluster.

A different weapon fired the shots that hit in the center of the screen. We used a stop watch to time the gap between the light and the sound of these explosions. It took approximately 8.57 seconds for the sound to reach the camera, which means that the explosion was approximately 1.86 miles away. What this means is that those shells are much closer than the ones that hit on the right side of the screen. But it’s also possible, as we see on this map, that they may have hit a series of fuel storage tankers which are near the airport (the same ones filmed by Graham Phillips earlier today). Might that account for the fact that four of the explosions appear to be much larger than the rest? Either way, this indicates a coordinated strike between multiple artillery batteries:


The last set of explosions may also be Grad rockets, but they likely targeted the Ukrainian position near Avdiivka. Interestingly, though, these explosions are much further to the east than we’re used to seeing. Perhaps they missed their target?

Either way, if the Russian-backed fighters are the ones shelling the airport, then it’s another sign that they do not fully control this location.

Oliver Carroll reports from Donetsk.

James Miller
A ‘Cyborg’ Says Situation In Donetsk Airport ‘Tolerable’
In this report, another Cyborg says that some of the volunteers are exaggerating and the regular forces controlling Donetsk Airport’s new terminal are in a “tolerable” situation.
The Last Fight For Donetsk Airport?

We currently believe that the Ukrainian military is in possession of at least part of Donetsk International Airport. We believe this for several reasons:

– The Russian-backed militants have repeatedly claimed to have taken part or all of the airport over the last several months. Most of these reports have proven false in the past.

– The Ukrainian military reports and the reports of soldiers at the airport, however, have been much more reliable, and those reports claim that the Ukrainian ‘Cyborgs’ still hold the new terminal.

– There is no evidence that the Russian-backed fighters hold the new terminal today. This is despite the fact that yesterday they had significant footage showing them inside the new terminal. This suggests that Ukraine’s claim of having retaken the terminal may be accurate.

– Heavy shelling has hit the new terminal today. We believe some or all of that shelling came from Russian-backed militants.

– Reports from both soldiers on social media and from the Ukrainian military confirm each others’ details — that the new terminal is in Ukrainian hands, and that the Russian-backed fighters used a smokescreen to withdraw, pulling out their wounded.

That said, we cannot be 100% sure without more information.

One report, however, suggests that the Cyborgs may be running out of ammunition:

Even in this video, where the Russian-backed fighters claim to control the entire airport, there is obviously still fighting, and it’s not clear if this was filmed today or yesterday:

In the report, a Ukrainian soldier tells 112.UA that he believes the Cyborgs only have enough ammunition left for one more fight.

What we do know is that yesterday the Russian-backed fighters
nearly overran  the Cyborgs for the second time this week. As we wrote
in our assessment last night, the Cyborgs are tough, but they have never been in a more precarious position than they are right now.

James Miller

Today’s Peace Talks Cancelled In Minsk

Peace talks originally scheduled to happen today in Minsk have officially be cancelled. RFE/RL reports:

Pro-Russian separatist leaders from eastern Ukraine were leaving Minsk on January 16 after proposed negotiations with Kyiv, Moscow, and representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) fell through.

Interfax quotes Denis Pushilin, the so-called deputy chairman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, as saying that “no meetings were held in Minsk” on January 16 and a date for new talks had not been set.

Russian Propaganda Journalist Posts Video Of Donetsk Airport, Distorts Narrative
Graham Phillips, the infamous pro-Russian propagandist who now works for the Russian state-owned RT/Ruptly and the Ministry of Defense news agency TV Zvezda, has posted a video reportedly showing today’s shelling of Donetsk airport. The only problem — he’s changed the narrative. According to Phillips, this video shows the Ukrainians shelling Donetsk Airport after they have withdrawn from it. But in this video the building being shelled is the old terminal, which has been held by the Russian-backed “Motorola Battalion” for some time now. The fire is coming from the south-southwest, likely Ukrainian artillery targeting this part of the airport.

As you can see from the mashup of several maps and the video below (common structures marked by like colors), this video could only have been taken somewhere southeast of the airport, beyond the white storage tanks. This means that the shells we see hitting the airport are coming from the southwest, positions held by the Ukrainian military, or the south, which would mean that they were launched by the Russian-backed fighters. Either way, it’s not evidence of the new terminal of the airport having fallen to the anti-Ukrainian forces.

The new terminal, which is west of here, is reportedly largely under control of the Ukrainian soldiers today, despite being partially overrun by Motorola’s troops yesterday.

James Miller

Two Chechen Fighters Reportedly Killed Attacking Airport

Ukrainian journalist Andriy Tsaplienko has written on his Facebook page that Chechen fighters were identified among the Russian and separatist fighters attacking the airport.

The Interpreter translates:

After the battle our forces in the Cyborgport [Donetsk Airport] found 2 dead and 9 wounded Kadyrovtsy* in the basement blown up by our soldiers. Our artillery provided very strong support. Aeroportnash**, in one word. Motorola*** were still lingering on the third floor. Praviy Sektor are about to knock them out.

* Chechen fighters supporting Moscow-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov.

** ‘the airport is ours,’ a play against the Russian ‘Krym Nash’ – Crimea is ours – slogan.

*** Another name for the separatist Sparta battalion, led by Arsen Pavlov, who goes by the call sign of Motorola.


Ukrainska Pravda reports that the head of the ATO Press Centre, Roman Turovets, had declined to comment on the reports of Chechen fighters while the battle was continuing.

— Pierre Vaux

Ukrainian Positions Attacked Near Marinka, Orlovo-Ivanovka And Granitnoye

Ukraine’s ATO Press Centre has announced that Russian-backed forces have attacked Ukrainian positions near Orlovo-Ivanovka, south of Debaltsevo, and the Marinka suburb to the west of Donetsk.

According to the report, the assault outside Orlovo-Ivanovka, supported by tanks and mortar fire, was repelled by Ukrainian troops, with the attackers reportedly suffering losses. Russian-backed troops then proceeded to shell Ukrainian positions after withdrawing. 

The press centre reported that the attack near Marinka had devolved into ongoing skirmishes in the area.

Meanwhile, TSN reports that the volunteer-based Azov regiment has announced that their positions outside Granitnoye, north-east of Mariupol, are under fire.

According to Azov, two Ukrainian fighters were wounded during the 120 mm mortar attack. One Azov volunteer received shrapnel wounds and a Ukrainian regular was seriously injured.

As of 13:43 GMT, the regiment reported that the battle was continuing, but that the wounded had been successfully evacuated.

Here is a map indicating the locations attacked:


— Pierre Vaux

Russian Media Relays Separatist Claims Of “Chemical Weapons Use” At Donetsk Airport, But Was It Just Smoke Grenades?

Earlier this afternoon, Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency carried a shocking headline: ‘Donetsk republic says Kiev used chemical munitions in attack on airport.’

The article quoted both the ‘prime minister’ of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko and a reporter for the news agency:

“After the shells burst, a pungent cloud of gas spread across the old terminal. They are firing banned munitions in breach of the Geneva convention,” Zakharchenko said after visiting the Donetsk airport with a group of journalists.

“There is a pungent smell after a shell burst and sulfur can be smelled, and it is impossible to breathe,” he was quoted by the official Donetsk news agency as saying.

A correspondent working for the agency, who was among the group of media representatives, said he has felt the impact of chemical substances, which made his eyes tear and he had trouble breathing.

A militia member also needed medical assistance.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence meanwhile claimed that Russian-backed fighters had deployed “one of the varieties of tear gas against Ukrainian servicemen.”

It is worth noting here that in Censor.NET editor Yuri Butusov’s report on the battle, which we translated a short while ago, Russian-backed fighters were reported to have deployed a smoke screen so as to cover the evacuation of their dead and wounded.

This seems the most likely culprit for the claims, and especially the symptoms described, which resemble those of inhaling several types of smoke used for military screening.

Furthermore, some smoke mixtures are known for their sulphurous smell. Many of these, which also leave yellow residue, have been documented in the Syrian conflict.

It would appear likely then, that both sides are referring to the real use of smoke grenades.

The side most likely to have deployed them, given the tactical situation, is the Russian-backed Sparta battalion. Given that Ukrainian troops are hold up inside the building and have little ability or apparent interest in retreating, a smokescreen would be very little tactical use. On the other hand, the scenario described in Butusov’s report would be a logical use of such weapons, covering troops from targeted fire while they withdraw slowly with dead and wounded.

It would also be less than surprising for the DNR and Russian media to take advantage of any outward signs of smoke agent exposure to make claims of chemical weapons use against Ukraine. A propaganda bonus to a tactical tool.

— Pierre Vaux

Several Rounds Of Artillery Strike Donetsk Airport In Last Few Minutes
In the last few minutes several scenes like this could be seen on the live video feed from a camera facing Donetsk International Airport:

The explosions are not just dramatic; they’re important data points. These explosions are likely caused by artillery and/or rockets fired by the Russian-backed militants. Explosions have mainly occurred on the western half of the airport and points behind it, but that blast and several others appear to have fallen, we estimate, on the new terminal at the airport. This indicates that, as the Ukrainian military is maintaining, Ukraine’s ‘Cyborgs’ are still in control of the bulk of the airport.

Here’s another flash we’ve screen-captured just seconds ago.


Reported Oliver Carroll has a new update from the Ukrainian military. According to the report, so far the airport is holding and Ukraine’s artillery is firing back, but they admit that they are in danger of being completely surrounded.

James Miller
After A Lull, Shelling, Grads And Small Arms Heard In Donetsk

There are reports that, following intense shelling and fighting earlier today, Russian-backed forces have put up a smoke screen to evacuate their dead and wounded. However the lull in fighting appears to be coming to an end, with outbound artillery, Grad and small arms fire now audible on the Ruptly feed from Donetsk.

Yuri Butusov, the editor of Censor.NET, reported on the situation on his Facebook page (translated by The Interpreter):

Donetsk Airport 14:00 [12:00 GMT], January 16

It was quiet in the morning. Then the enemy launched a new assault, in the exact same manner as the previous two days. Targeted tank fire, artillery shelling, then close combat with assault team forces. Out artillery opened fire in response, the attack was repelled. After that, active operations ceased. Now there are occasional shots ringing out, but the Russian Sparta unit have created a smoke screen at the terminal to conceal the evacuation of their many dead and wounded. Everything is in smoke. Quiet so far. But this won’t likely last long. The battle around the airport is now personally run by Mikats, the commander of the 93rd brigade, he’s a decent commander, who understands the situation perfectly. However he doesn’t make the operational decisions. Our guys are holding out. But it’s not easy. Major action is needed.

Shelling at Donetsk usually peaks after 17:00 local time, which comes in just under half an hour.

— Pierre Vaux

Peace Talks Up In The Air As Battle Rages In Donetsk And Elsewhere

World leaders who are supposed to be working with the Russians and Ukrainians to find a political solution to this crisis have begun to realize that what the Russian-backed militants in Donetsk are doing is highly problematic. In the last week one round of peace talks was ended abruptly in Berlin, another round cancelled in Kazakhstan. Today talks are supposed to be held in Minsk, Belarus, but RFE/RL notes that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry is saying it cannot confirm if the talks will even take place.

Bloomberg reports that leaders are citing fighting in Donetsk as an unacceptable breech of ceasefire:

Ukrainian servicemen were holding their positions at the Donetsk airport, which has been mostly destroyed since a revamp that ended in 2012, as of 7 a.m. today, the military’s press office said on Facebook. Ukraine said yesterday that cease-fire violations had surged to a record, while the nation’s security council warned the unrest may spark a “continental war” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for emergency talks…

“The increased fighting in recent days most likely does not represent a major and broad offensive by the separatists, though they do appear intent on taking Donetsk’s airport,” Eurasia Group Chairman Cliff Kupchan said in an e-mailed note. “Russia/the separatists likely want the airport to improve their leverage over Kiev and in on-and-off diplomatic talks.”

Russia rejects accusations by Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union and NATO that it’s meddling in the conflict by sending troops and weapons. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Ukraine Jan. 14 against efforts “to resort once again to force” amid truce breaches “on a mass and regular scale.”

This statement by Kupchan is interesting. While violence is still far more concentrated, limited to far fewer areas than it was before the “ceasefire” was signed in the closing hours of August,” there is an escalation of violence in many areas, not just Donetsk, though clearly the fighting at the airport is the most intense.

Here is the latest reporting from the ATO:

In other words, Europe is still downplaying the threat even as they acknowledge it.

The Ukrainian government is noting that European Parliament is requesting that the Council of Europe apply more pressure to Russia:

Since the Russian-backed fighters are firing artillery at this very moment in Donetsk, it seems Russia and the Russian-backed fighters are still not getting the message.

James Miller

Battle Continues With Heavy Shelling At Donetsk Airport

UNIAN reports that Vladislav Seleznyov, the press secretary of the Ukrainian military general staff, has told reporters at a briefing in Kiev this morning that the new terminal at Donetsk Airport remains under the control of Ukrainian forces.

His comments were echoed by ATO spokesman Leonid Matyukhin.

Yesterday, both Russian and Ukrainian media reported that Russian-backed fighters had penetrated the building itself, occupying both the first and fourth floors. Video from Russia’s LifeNews, which as long been suspected of links to the security services, appeared to show separatist fighters operating inside the terminal and firing both up and down stairwells.

Intense close combat was reported on the second floor of the building.

However, while Seleznyov reported that there had been a “lull” in the fighting this morning, shelling is now clearly audible on the Ruptly live feed from Donetsk, suggesting that the defenders of the airport, popularly known as the ‘cyborgs,’ are still putting up resistance against Russian-backed forces.

— Pierre Vaux