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Why the Battle for Luhansk Airport is just as important as the Battle for Donetsk Airport

Article by: Olha Stryzhova
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
Completely surrounded by Russian and separatist forces, Ukrainian paratroopers defended Luhansk Airport from early April 2014 to early September 2014. In July, Ukrainian troops took over one transport road leading to the airport.

We underline that this was a time of turmoil in Ukraine – there was no viable government in Kyiv, presidential elections were held on May 25, 2014, the Ukrainian army was in ruins, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, Russian-backed troops occupied the Donbas and declared the so-called “DNR” and “LNR”.

On June 14, 2014, the terrorists shot down a Ukrainian military transport aircraft IL-76 that was preparing to land at Luhansk Airport. 49 people (9 crew members and 40 paratroopers of the 25th Separate Dnipropetrovsk Brigade) were killed.

In August 2014, regular Russian troops launched a massive tank attack on Luhansk Airport. The airport buildings were completely destroyed by Russian artillery. On the night of September 1, 2014, the remaining Ukrainian soldiers left the ruined airport, after 146 days of defense.

The Defense of Luhansk Airport – a chronicle of events recounting the defense of Luhansk Airport, which lasted from April to early September 2014 – will be released sometime this year. Serhiy Glotov, a volunteer from Luhansk, one of the five authors working on the book, says that the book will tell the story of the people who took part in the battle – ordinary soldiers and medics who defended Luhansk Airport for 146 days.

Paratroopers of the 80th Brigade in front of Luhansk Airport, spring 2014
Paratroopers of the 80th Airborne Brigade before Luhansk Airport, spring 2014

– When did you decide to write a book about Luhansk Airport?

– I got the idea about two years after the events. I’m from Luhansk, and participated actively in the Luhansk Euromaidan. I closely followed the battle at our airport, and I knew the guys who were the first to arrive there. We were in touch with them and continued helping them out throughout those tough days.

In September 2016, there was an awards ceremony during which volunteers awarded the 80th Brigade with medals for the defense of Luhansk Airport. Can you imagine that it took two hours to read out the names of all the soldiers… and almost half of them were rewarded posthumously. Their wives, parents and children came up to receive the awards… We saw their emotions, tears and sorrow…

Then, my friends and I finally decided to honour the memory of these heroes by writing a book. In fact, we all know a great deal about the Battle of Donetsk Airport, but there’s almost no information about Luhansk. Very few people know that Luhansk Airport and nearby villages were defended not just by the 80th Airborne Brigade, but also by more than ten military divisions from different regions of Ukraine, as well as police officers and medics.

First, we wanted to write a novel. But, so many servicemen from different units responded to our appeal to share their memories! The more material we collected, the more interesting and valuable information we discovered. So, we decided to create a historical chronicle of those events. By the way, more than 50 volunteers from all over Ukraine, including the temporarily occupied territories and from abroad, have joined our team in order to help collect and process the materials.

– For many Ukrainians, the defense of Luhansk Airport is associated with the tragic downing of the Il-76 aircraft …

– In fact, so many things were happening in the area at that time: a transport route was opened to the airport, there were daily assaults and attacks by Russian troops, and special operations were organized by the Ukrainian army to liberate neighbouring settlements: Heorhiyivka, Lutuhyne, Khryashchuvate, and Novosvitlivka. A raid was organized in the south of Luhansk Oblast and a large area was liberated. Lviv paratroopers remained at the airport for more than 140 days, but there was very little information about the siege. Moreover, at that moment, other “more important” events were taking place, namely the bloody battle of Ilovaisk. Those events were scooped up by the media and broadcast everywhere, while information about the defense of Luhansk Airport was lost or buried. When our boys were forced to leave in late August-early September, some experts claimed that Luhansk Airport was literally handed to the enemy on a silver platter, that little had been done to maintain our positions in the area. They didn’t check the facts at all… as a matter of fact, there were no real military experts or journalists at the scene – for a long time, the airport was completely cut off from the rest of the country. So, we decided to tell this story just as the fighters themselves saw it.

Luhansk Airport, September 2014
Luhansk Airport, September 2014

– I remember that, indeed, the first comments in social network were about “surrendering” Luhansk Airport. But, how and how long did our guys defend that territory? How many months did the neighbouring villagers have to spend in their cellars?

– The situation became critical in mid-July. Our soldiers stayed and resisted until there was nothing left of the airport buildings, the runway and other structures. In fact, there was nothing left to defend, and there was nowhere to hide from intense bombardments. Our men were compelled to lie on the bare ground, without protection, without assistance, without equipment. Everything had been destroyed by the Russian army. Interestingly, although the Russians had a much larger army, they suffered many more losses than our men. You know why? Because our guys were defending their country, while the enemy soldiers either got “lost” during their travels or were “on a business trip”. We were highly motivated, but their motivation was money. And who knows, if not for the heroic defense of Luhansk Airport and all the operations connected with it, this so-called “LNR” could have spread even further!

– Who’s writing the book?

– Our group consists of five authors. Among them is an officer who participated directly in these battles – Captain Yuriy Rudenko. At that time, he was in command of a division of the 80th Brigade, in particular, he took part in operations directed towards opening up a route to the airport, and the liberation of Novosvitlivka. He is therefore our main advisor for all of the events described in the book.

At the moment, we’re editing and polishing the manuscript. It has over 380 pages. 80-90% of the text is composed of quotes from our respondents. We also have comments from ordinary soldiers and commanders. For example, we recorded an interview with the Hero of Ukraine, Major-General Andriy Kovalchuk, who was the man in charge of leading the whole operation and was responsible for the men at the airport. The chronicle will also contain dozens of photographs and charts illustrating basic operations.

Major-General Andriy Kovalchuk (left) and co-author Serhiy Glotov
Major-General Andriy Kovalchuk (left) and co-author Serhiy Glotov (right)

– What impressed you most as you recorded these memories?

– First and foremost, their dedication. Soldiers from all over the country fought heroically for my hometown.

Secondly, their courage. It’s how they managed to defend the airport despite serious supply problems and complete isolation. Moreover, they knew they were all equal in the face of death. I even recorded some memories of a decision taken on August 31 when, during particularly massive shelling, the boys were ready to wrap themselves in Ukrainian flags and remain in the trenches. If we die, then we die for Ukraine, they said. Their stories were very moving; we were both impressed and inspired…

In general, each story can be published separately as a private memoir. Just think, they defended the airport for 146 days… and yet, there’s so little information about these battles.

Honestly, it’s very difficult psychologically. You try not to let these stories get to you, but it’s impossible.

– When are you planning to release the book?

– I hope it’ll be ready for the Book Arsenal in Kyiv. We’re still working on it because we really want it to be as accurate as possible. The men who went through these battles deserve it.

It’s important for all Ukrainians to read this book.

We’re all volunteers and not interested in making money. But, we’d be very grateful if someone called and said: “Hey there, we’re ready to print 120 books”. We’ll give copies to our heroes. Even if we find someone to pay for the printing of 1,000 books, we’ll give free copies to our heroes, their relatives, each brigade, and each library… This is our history. It’s being written now. This is not Soviet history, which is constantly changing, because the man in power changes. We must know the story from the people who were there and lived through such events. Personally, I’ll be very happy – if and when I return to my native village in Luhansk Oblast – to hear that they’ve read our book and know the history of the heroes of Luhansk Airport.

– Do you believe that the book will find its way into Luhansk schools that are now in the occupied territory?

– Do you know what really surprised me when I was listening to these stories? Our men’s faith and certitude! They’re convinced that they’ll return to the airport and to a Ukrainian Luhansk. Yes, this will be so… with all the territories that are now under the control of Russian-terrorist groups! Therefore, I believe that the blue and yellow flag will once again flutter over Luhansk, and that our book will be seen and read in my hometown.

Cyborgs of Luhansk Airport, Part 1 (in Ukrainian, Russian, 24 min)

Cyborgs of Luhansk Airport, Part 2 (in Ukrainian, Russian, 23 min)

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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