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Battle of the Donetsk Airport, Collapse of Ceasefire Pretense

Mirko Petriw (Vancouver)

The very much imaginary ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine that was deemed to exist since the early days of September 2014, ended on January 15, 2015. On that day, Muscovite forces made an all-out attempt to dislodge the Ukrainians from the New Terminal Building of the Donetsk Airport. (I use the historically correct term Muscovite/Muscovy to avoid the Rossia/Russia/Rus’ confabulation of many western historians.)

The main terminal of Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport hit by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

The main terminal of Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport hit by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

The Donetsk Airport is of absolutely no strategic importance. It has been destroyed beyond all recognition. And yet is has acquired a near mystical symbolic significance, both as the site of Ukraine’s first military victory in their counterattack last May, and as the stronghold of volunteer fighters whose prowess gained them the name Cyborgs. This has given this real estate great tactical significance as a mousetrap for an overconfident enemy and a killing field of hundreds of Muscovite troops. The Muscovite overconfidence echoed as far afield as Vancouver when the Vancouver Sun published a paragraph claiming that “Russians” had occupied the Airport Terminal Building. Yes, much like a mouse occupies a mousetrap.

During the holiday period just after the Julian calendar Christmas, many armchair generals predicted January 15 as the day the Muscovites would restart their war. A three kilometer long convoy of Muscovite armour seen heading to the city of Donetsk served to confirm this prognosis. And sure enough the latest and most powerful assault on the Cyborgs of the Donetsk Airport Terminal began on January 15.

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Cyborgs in the Donetsk Airport. Photo: Sergei Loiko / Los Angeles Times

Tasked with eliminating the Ukrainian Armed Forces from the Airport, Muscovite staff officers prepared a new plan for the assault. Previously, the standard procedure was to soften the target with an artillery barrage including Grad MLRS, then to advance en masse. What would happen next was a barrage of extremely accurate Ukrainian artillery fire from the village of Pisky and the town of Avdiivka just west and north of the airport respectively. Surviving Muscovite assault troops would then find themselves in the warm embraces of the Ukrainian Cyborgs, with predictable consequences. This time the Muscovite plan was to sneak special forces as close to the objective as possible and fortify themselves there. They would then serve as artillery spotters ensuring maximum effectiveness of the barrage that would follow. Only then would the main assault forces attack towards the Ukrainian strong point.

Units that were available for this task included: 5th Tank Brigade of the 36th ОФ ВВО 331st Parachute Assault Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division of the RF 234th Airborne Assault Regiment of the 76th Div. 104th paratrooper assault company of the 76 Div. Consolidated Unit of the assault battalion of the Chechen Ministry of the Interior 31st Guards Airborne ОДШБ ВДВ (73612 Ulianovsk) Unit (21men) of the 175th reconnaissance company of the 76th Div. Units of the 22nd brigade of the Russian GRU (11659, Rostov Region)

The total number of troops was 1200 men and between 8 and 20 tanks. Facing them were no more than 50 Ukrainian “Cyborgs” manning the twisted metal skeleton of the Airport Terminal, backed by rocket and artillery units located 4km away in Pisky and MRLS rockets some 7km away in Avdiivka.

The ability of these various Muscovite units to cooperate effectively was put to question on Jan. 14 when a member of the Chechen assault battalion shot and killed an officer of the 31st Guards Airborne during a personal argument. As a result neither unit would be used in the planned assault. In addition the morale of the 22nd brigade of the GRU was low as they had experienced losses in the Luhansk area of 42 killed and 23 wounded with 1 MIA. This “Interior Troops” brigade is often referred to as Chechen as they were formed as a Muslim battalion, but in fact they include various ethnic groups. They usually serve in the Caucasus region. This unit was a long-term veteran of the Ukrainian-Muscovite war and had covered the retreat of Muscovite forces in late November after a previous example of the many unsuccessful assaults on the Donetsk Airport Terminal.

The preparation of the January 15th assault included a preliminary artillery barrage and the clearing of the mine field near the target area. Mine clearing was carried out by the detonation of a specificly designed explosive charge that generates a pressure wave to set off any mines in its proximity. There was no verification carried out to ascertain the effectiveness of this mine clearing operation.

The first stage of the attack plan was carried out by the men of the 175th Recon. Company of the 76th Div. They were to sneak up to the Terminal and at close range pinpoint targets and correct the subsequent artillery fire. What actually happened is that they crossed a portion of the minefield that had not been successfully cleared. The resultant explosions revealed their positions and they were cut down by machine gun fire from the Ukrainian Cyborgs. Communication with this unit was lost.

This incident, however served to identify the dangerous area of the minefield for the second-tier offensive units. These were part of the 22nd brigade of the Russian GRU, followed very closely by units of the 331st Parachute Assault Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division of the Russian Federation. This maneuver was carried out successfully. Their rapid advance brought them into close proximity to the Ukrainians and allowed for the massed use of “Shmel” flamethrowers. There was not enough time for the Ukrainian artillery barrage to catch these assault units while they were still exposed. This tactic was an apparent surprise to the Ukrainians protecting the terminal. But what was more surprising is that given this situation, the Ukrainians acted with amazing cleverness. They retreated deep into the terminal, depriving the attackers of any operational advantages. The retreating Cyborgs had melted away into the twisted bowels of the Terminal Building.

As the third wave of the assault, composed of the 234th Airborne Assault Regiment of the 76th closed the distance to the Terminal, the operational leader of the attackers was still busy with the second. At this point the third wave came under the poorly aimed but thick barrage of Ukrainian artillery fire. The losses were minimal, but the regiment wavered and hesitated. At this point it was hit by a second, already precisely adjusted volley from the Ukrainian “gods of war.”

Cut to pieces, the 234th began an unauthorised retreat. The head of the operation responded by ordering the 5th Tank Brigade of the 36th to plug the breach. But by now the Ukrainian artillery had acquired their range and covered the Muscovite armour with extremely accurate fire. Three tanks were destroyed.

In the meantime, in the terminal a separate drama developed. Once inside the terminal the attackers were in unfamiliar territory. They scattered throughout the various levels of the structure in a poorly coordinated action. Units of the 331st Airborne Regiment penetrated the higher floors of the building using fire escapes to navigate the terrain. They would run into a defender in the most unexpected places. This whole situation demanded precise coordination from the head of the operation, but at this moment radio communication went silent. The Ukrainian had employed some very interesting gadget … For the Muscovite troops, accustomed to the undeniable advantages of electronic communication, this came as a real shock. Attempts to establish communications failed. The battle broke up into separate little uncoordinated clashes. The Ukrainian artillery had blocked all attempts by the 5th Tank Brigade of the 36th to take part in the battle.

The advantage of the Cyborgs, in terms of knowledge of the terrain, good coordination, a great experience far outweighed the fact that they were outnumbered. The end result was predictable.

A group of Muscovy’s Chechen “Kadyrov’s fearless warriors” was trapped in the basement and all attempts to rescue them failed. (A day later when they refused to surrender they were blown up by the Cyborgs.)

At that point Ukrainian artillery began the suppression of Muscovite firing points. It became clear that the Ukrainian troops outside the terminal were preparing to break a corridor through to the airport. Units of the 5th Tank Brigade of the 36th once again tried an assault, but Ukrainian spotters did not miss this maneuver . With amazing swiftness they brought their artillery to bear. After losing another tank, the 5th Tank Brigade of the 36th retreated.

A breakthrough by Ukrainian special forces onto the territory of the terminal put an end to this battle. The 331st Parachute Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division of the Russian Federation, began to retreat followed by units of the 22th brigade of the GRU. The opening of a corridor by Ukraine’s Armed Forces and the clearing of the airport and surrounding area of Muscovite forces occurred on January 17. Details of that operation are not included here.

In the early morning hours of January 18, Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine ordered all forces in Sector B (the sector opposite the city of Donetsk) to open fire on all known fire positions of the Muscovite forces and ther collaborators.

Early reports as to Muscovite losses in this January 15th action show: 104th Paratrooper Assault company of the 76 Div. killed 4, wounded 9, MIA 2. 5th Tank Brigade suffered 8 killed, 11 wounded with 4 armoured vehicles lost. 331st Paratrooper Company of the 98 Div. suffered 38 killed, 42 wounded and 5 MIA. 22nd Brigade of the GRU suffered 12 killed, 25 wounded and 1 MIA. 234th Company of the 76th Div. suffered 53 killed, 71 wounded and 6 MIA. The 234th Company of the 76 Div is being withdrawn for regrouping. The perimeter that they held is being held by an assault battalion of Kadyrov’s Chechen “Interior Troops”.

Ukrainian “Cyborg” losses: 2 killed and 9 wounded. (later updated to 3 killed and 8 wounded)

Updated data on Muscovite losses: 132 killed, 149 wounded, 12 MIA

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