Which side holds the airport now?

Photographer: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

The Deadly Legend of the Donetsk Airport

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Donetsk Airport has become a dystopian ruin, with its runways so cratered, only a helicopter could land. Yet both sides in the fight over it keep claiming to control it. Ukrainians consider it a symbol of their military resurgence since last summer's painful defeats. Instead, it is coming to embody  the senselessness of seeking any military solution to the conflict.

The airport's career as a symbol began under ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. As Ukraine prepared to host the 2012 European soccer championship, it was expanded to serve 10 million passengers a year. At a cost of 6.5 billion hryvnias (more than $800 million), the airport's upgrade was the most expensive item on the Euro-2012 budget. In 2013, however, only about 1.1 million passengers came though. The imposing new terminal -- named after composer Sergei Prokofiev, a native of eastern Ukraine -- was a monument to corruption.

Boris Kolesnikov, the Donetsk businessman who was in charge of infrastructure projects in Yanukovych's government, predicted in 2013 that the airport would become one of the biggest air-travel hubs in the former Soviet Union. Two years later, it is the region's most dangerous no-man's land.

Standoff in Ukraine

Last September, Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels signed the Minsk ceasefire, which called on the sides to respect the territorial status quo, established after the Ukrainian army's onslaught was crushed by Russian military units that Moscow had sent to the rescue. The Minsk documents didn't specifically mention the airport; at the time they were written, it was held by the Ukrainian army but contested by the rebels. So even after the ceasefire was signed, the fighting continued, and Ukrainians, badly in need of a morale-boosting model of heroism, seized on the fighting men who defended the airport.

These soldiers have come to be known as "cyborgs," though it's hard to track down the first mention of it. Ukrainian websites -- including an online dictionary  that named it "word of the year" for 2014 -- attribute it to overawed separatists who had come to respect their formidable rivals.  I have never seen or heard the rebels refer to their government adversaries that way -- "ukrop" is the common term -- but Ukrainian propaganda has picked up the cyborg legend and run with it. President Petro Poroshenko's press service reported in December that he had met with the "cyborgs."

"The words 'cyborg' and 'ukrop' have today become symbols of the indomitable Ukrainian spirit, of how Ukrainians can fight, an example that will serve generations of Ukrainian warriors," Poroshenko told the soldiers.

He also said if they gave up the Donetsk airport, the enemy would soon be in Kiev and even in Lviv, not far from the Polish border. 

So no wonder the Ukrainian soldiers are fanatical about defending the bombed-out terminal. The rebels have been just as persistent: They say the Ukrainian military has used the airport as a base from which to shell the city of Donetsk, the rebels' stronghold. Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik has speculated that Ukraine wants to use the airport as a springboard for an attack on the rebel-held areas. At least as important, I suspect, is the symbolism attached to the terminal by Kiev.

On Saturday, the rebels announced they had cleared the airport of Ukrainian troops. Then the government forces counterattacked. Poroshenko said  he had given orders for a "one-time response" so that wounded soldiers and bodies could be evacuated, and Kiev has spent the past three days denying the airport's loss.  Journalists have been unable to get close enough to establish the truth. Conflict watchers have to be content with shaky reports on the social networks:

It is clear, however, that both sides have forgotten the ceasefire. Journalist Ivan Yakovina wrote in the Kiev weekly Novoye Vremya:

The airport, which does not have much strategic value, has probably become the main object of attack because of its symbolic importance. Its possible loss would lead to an outbreak of pessimism, a search for internal enemies and defeatist talk not only in the Ukrainian military ranks but also among laymen. Apparently the militants are trying to achieve this psychological effect rather than any military gain.

Building up legends is worthwhile only if a military believes it can win. Even as officials in Kiev report increased Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine, Poroshenko is betting that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not dare step in again to help the rebels expand their territory. After all, in March, the European Union is due to decide what to do about its economic sanctions against Russia.

Putin, however, cannot afford the ignominy of letting the Ukrainian army get an upper hand. Regardless of the international reaction, Russia will crush Ukraine's military hopes every time they arise, simply because it has a stronger, better-trained army. It is wishful thinking to believe the balance of forces has changed since September, when Ukrainians crumbled in the face of what were, by all accounts, just a few thousand crack Russian troops.

Yesterday, Poroshenko tweeted:

Yet, if he is counting on Russia to succumb to Western pressure and low oil prices and give up, he has to intensify fighting in a war he cannot win. That is an extremely risky bet, since Russia can take an inordinate amount of pain as long as its people continue to believe Putin's cause is just. Poroshenko's success is also predicated on Western nations' acquiescence in being dragged deeper into the conflict, because for Ukraine to hold out even a few months, it needs better weaponry. Yet, like Putin, the Ukrainian president can't afford to give in: He would be swept away in a tide of protest, led by fighters returning from the front lines.

The Donetsk airport is, in the end, a symbol of both sides' intractable machismo. The only way to end the fighting quickly is for the West to pressure Poroshenko to make concessions to Putin. For Western leaders, who rightly condemn Russia's aggression, that is politically impossible. So the conflict will drag on, bleeding both Ukraine and Russia when their economies can least afford it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net