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Why is Ukraine holding on to Donetsk airport?

Why is Ukraine holding on to Donetsk airport?
Article by: Zhanna Bezpyatchuk
Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
Kyiv – Former head of the Donetsk Oblast State Administration Serhiy Taruta claims that half a month ago an agreement was reached to exchange the International Donetsk Airport for other territories occupied by pro-Russian mercenaries, however it is not being executed, as the Ukrainian side does not want to give up this location. At the same time the NSDC claims that the possibility of exchanging the airport or any other territories is not subject to discussion. The Luhansk OSA states that the same possibility is not being examined in regard to the town of Shchastya, where the separatists currently control the higher peaks. And the Ukrainian fighters who are defending the roads to the airport, as well as the object itself, as Radio Liberty managed to find out, has a negative attitude towards the ideas of exchanging it, just like before. 

Former head of the Donetsk OSA Serhiy Taruta says that he does not understand why the Ukrainian government continues to hold onto Donetsk airport. He said this in an interview to Komersant.

“As I see it, they don’t want to give it up, which is why they advance towards the airport everyday. Only why do they want it, if the entire infrastructure there was destroyed and it cannot be used for any flights,” says Taruta.

At the same time, according to him, before, an agreement had been reached to exchange the airport on other mercenary-occupied territories. These talks took place 1,5 months ago. At first they discussed the option of return Novoazovsk to Ukraine in exchange for part of northern Donetsk oblast. Later they wanted the Ukrainian side to give up the airport.

“I don’t understand why the government refuses, however, such talks did happen, they occurred, this was accorded, but for some reason this side doesn’t want to give in. There was an agreement that first they give in to us, and then we hand over the airport,” said Taruta.

However, Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak soon after his appointment excluded the possibility of handing Donetsk Airport over to the mercenaries.

“This airport is a symbol of the courage and heroism of our soldiers. We need it, this airport, and we will defend it,” he stated.

The Minister emphasized that the Armed Forces had reached such a high level that they are able to retain this object under their effective control for a long time.

NSDC: the possibility of exchanging Donetsk Airport is not being discussed

However, spokesman of the NSDC Information Center Andriy Lysenko told Radio Liberty that any territorial exchanges are not being discussed at the moment, just like they had not been discussed 1,5 months ago.

“We are not examining the possibility of exchanging Donetsk airport for any localities or of exchanging any other locations, as according to the agreements signed in Minsk on September 5, and the September 19 Memorandum, this is not required. The demarkation line at the moment of the signing remains in the same place, and no territories are part of the ‘DNR’ nor do they belong to the Ukrainian government,” emphasized the NSDC spokesman.

Andriy Lysenko explained that the demarkation line at the moment of the agreements includes 15 kilometers on either side, the distance to which the sides of the conflict have to remove their heavy equipment. If the Ukrainian army controls the airport, then, having counted 15 kilometers, the mercenaries should remove their equipment all the way to Lenin Square in Donetsk. As such, almost one-third of Donetsk will remain in this buffer zone.

OSA spokesman: the issue of territorial exchange is not discussed in Luhansk oblast

Besides Donetsk airport, there are several more strategic objects which are constantly under fire on part of the illegal armed formations, who are constantly trying to take them away from the Ukrainian army: the railway station of Debaltseve and the town of Shchastya near Luhansk, where the Luhansk thermal power plant is located. The pro-Russian mercenaries currently control all the high points over Shchstya.

As such, first command of the 2nd regiment of Aydar volunteer battalion Yevhen Dyky assumes that the Ukrainian army may have to retreat from Shchstya.

“We might have to give up Shchstya, as it is very inconvenient in terms of defense. It is located on a low bank and can be fully fired at from high rises on the other side. The term ‘high points’ is not abstract. Those who are high above shoot at those down below. Now all the high rises on the left bank of Siversky Donets are in the hands of the separatists. The only thing that helps is that there is only one bridge and it is ours, the enemy simply finds it difficult to traverse the river,” he said.

Radio Liberty asked Luhansk OSA spokesman Yaroslav Halas whether Luhansk oblast was examining any options for the exchange of territories, first and foremost, Shchstya.

“Here in Luhansk oblast this issue was never raised by anyone, and never discussed, especially with the other side, the ‘LNR.’ This is 100% true,” said the Luhansk OSA spokesman.

Mashovets: the issue of territorial exchange is political

Information Resistance group coordinator, military expert Kostyantyn Mashovets told Radio Liberty that the issue of exchanging the airport for other territories is essentially political. From the military viewpoint, according to him, there is a point to retaining this object until it causes severe casualties to the Ukrainian side.

“It is politics. I cannot tell you this. We have to correlated the expediency of holding on to this position and receiving control over other territories, so correlated the political expediency of territory exchange with the military, operative expediency of holding onto them,” the expert notes.

He adds that the Ukrainian forces could theoretically leave the airport, retreat a couple of kilometers and obtain a new defense line if needs be.

Whom to exchange territories with? The gangs fight among themselves – Hay

Volunteer Miroslav Hay, who is in the village of Pisky, where the Ukrainian fighters are defending the approaches to the airport and where fire from artillery and machine guns on part of the ‘DNR’ do not stop for a minute, told Radio Liberty that the defenders of the airport know about the idea of exchanging it for Novoazovsk and consider it negatively.

“They have a negative attitude towards the because if there was a normal order to advance, this territory would have been ours a long time ago, so under our control, at least this is what the military guys are saying. I mean the airport and the adjacent territories, Donetsk territories as well. The guys say that they can fight well. The separatists are fighting among themselves, and this is obvious, we see it all the time, their shootings. We have a so-called ceasefire with them, with some of them. Some do not follow the conditions of this ceasefire, as there are many gangs here, various groups,” said the volunteer.

Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
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