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Meet Ukraine’s legend: the cyborgs defending Donetsk airport

Meet Ukraine’s legend: the cyborgs defending Donetsk airport
Article by: Alya Shandra
A defensive operation that has been  followed by millions of observers, a strip of land that hundreds of fighters have torn into, 15 powerful enemy attacks, at least 20 heroes who never returned home, a legend of “cyborgs” – this is how the defense of the Donetsk airport will be remembered by Ukrainians. That is how it will go down in history.
Donetsk airport after reconstruction was finished on May 14, 2012
Donetsk airport after reconstruction was finished on May 14, 2012

The story of the Donetsk Airport’s defense in Eastern Ukraine turned 140 days on October 13, the TV channel TSN has reported in a special project After a shelling by Russian militants on May 26, 2014, it has been closed and battles for the airport’s control have raged over the summer and fall. Constructed in 1933, and named after the 20th century composer Sergei Prokofiev who was born in the Donetsk Oblast, the international airport underwent massive reconstruction for the 2012 UEFA European Championship that took place in Poland and Ukraine. The reconstruction сosts exceeded the initial estimate 3,5 times, amounting to $875 mn and giving the airport a 7-floor terminal with a with a capacity of 3,100 passengers per hour, a rather excessive commodity for Donetsk with its population of around a million. During the reign of Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast-born ex-President Yanukovych ousted by Euromaidan such excessive investments from the state budget were a common trick to please the electorate in his home region.

First attacks

The flag of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) was raised above the airport on April 18, but it kept on functioning until May 25, when armed militants of the DNR “Vostok” battalion entered the premises. The Ukrainian 3rd separate special purpose regiment from Kirovohrad liberated the airport in only a couple of hours on May 26 in a well-planned operation, after which Donetsk airport was upheld by Ukrainian forces in relative calm until late August, when Russia-backed militants first started shelling it with the large batch of Grads that they received from Russia. Tanks with the numbers of regular Russian army divisions masked out started their attacks. Simultaneously, Russia started an active offensive: Ukrainian servicemen were encircled in Ilovaisk and Russians attempted to invade Mariupol. The defenders of the airport were left to face the enemy alone: they repelled attack after attack and could only hope for reinforcements.

Tale of the cyborgs

On September 10, the militants got fresh reinforcements: Russian T-72s directly from the trains, 240-millimeter Tyulpan mortars, which were created for destruction of fortified areas, howitzers and powerful Uragans, mercenaries trained in field camps.

The legend about the “cyborgs” defending the airport was born after these powerful Russian-backed attacks were repelled. And it was the Russian-backed “DNR” militants that first started calling the Ukrainian defenders that.

“Jeez, I don’t know who is defending that airport, but we cant kick them out of there for three months. Tried an assault – got busted ourselves and retreated… I don’t know who is sitting there, but they’re not human, they’re “cyborgs,”
-a description of the Ukrainian defenders of the
airport by a so-called “Novorossiya” militant
From that time one, the defenders are called only that, “cyborgs.” The Ukrainian fighters later told that they don’t recognize ranks and titles among themselves. The enemy’s fire has instated a battle brotherhood that only heroes know of. Their days and nights have passed in repelling attacks throughout weeks without end. Ukraine’s warriors withstood fierce shellings, crushed enemy tanks, and fought like lions.
What is left of Donetsk airport after 5 months of attacks
What is left of Donetsk airport after 5 months of attacks
 In late September, the airport became an ATO hotspot. The militants drew all their “elite” divisions to it: Vostok, Motorolla, Kalmius was transfered here from the South front. Their leaders promised: tomorrow the airport will be theirs.  Light guns, grenade launchers and heavy caliber guns fired at the airport from a residential building. The dispatching tower was shelled with anti-tank guns, and tanks pounded the terminals from a distance of 200 meters.
A video of the shelling of the airport on September 25 is below:
The militant leaders first declared that they seized control of the airport on September 30, then on October 3, and after that on October 5. But in reality the DNR militants have moved forward only 500 meters over the last month. Battles are now being held not for the airport, but for its ruins. The terminals are fully destroyed, the warehouses of fuels and lubricants have been blown up. But the Ukrainian flag still flies above the tower, which by some miracle still withstands the daily attacks.
Dispatching tower in Donetsk airport with Ukrainian flag on top
Dispatching tower in Donetsk airport crowned by Ukrainian flag

The intense shelling has destroyed almost all the interior of the airport:

Why hold on?

There have been many theories expressed on why it’s important to hold on to this object, encircled on all sides by enemy forces.  Among them are a hypothesis that there are underground tunnels of strategic importance (later debunked by the airport’s architect), that the airport could be used to land enemy airplanes (the runways are now destroyed, but could be easily repaired). It seems now that the most realistic reasons are a strategic one —the Ukrainian army will retain a presence on the outskirts of Donetsk— and also a tactical acknowledgement that a frozen conflict has descended upon Ukraine. Also, the brave defense of the airport has become symbolical of the Ukrainian army’s resistance and heroism.

Who are the cyborgs

The divisions that are taking part in the airport’s defense are:

  • 3d separate special regiment (Kirovohrad)
  • 93d mechanized brigade (Dnipropetrovsk Oblast)
  • 79th aeromobile brigade (Mykolaiv)
  • 17th separate tank brigade (Kryvyi Rih)
  • Right Sector

Some of the defenders are rather young – among them a Right Sector fighter of only 18 years of age. The cyborgs even find time to read.

The volunteer army supplier of Yuri Biryukov aka Wings Phoenix has taken to visiting the cyborgs and has been bringing them humanitarian aid, as well as things to keep spirits up – the last of which has been Kyiv cakes for a birthday of one of the legendary fighters.

Meanwhile, popular imagination has given the courageous defenders a true cyborg appearance:

As for their spirits and plans, they are best expressed in this tweet, also a fruit of the popular imagination:

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