The battle for Donetsk

People are not yet calling the situation in Eastern Ukraine a ‘civil war,’ but the battle for Donetsk might change that. на русском языке

Ilya Vasyunin
6 June 2014

During the two months of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army in Slovyansk, Donetsk, the centre of the Donetsk oblast (region), or – as the separatist insurgents prefer to call it – the capital of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), lived in relative peace and quiet. The only signs of the standoff with Kyiv were the roadblocks at the entrance to the city, manned first by Ukrainian troops, and then by separatists; and the Donetsk Regional Administration building in the city centre, ringed by barricades of car tyres and barbed wire. 

The battle for the airport

All this suddenly changed on Monday 26 May, just after Petro Poroshenko’s victory in the presidential election. The 7am flight to Kyiv had just taken off from the Sergei Prokofiev International Airport, some 15 minutes drive from the centre of Donetsk, when police officers started approaching the many waiting passengers, and asking them to leave the building, explaining that they were being 'evacuated.' An airline employee explained that there were armed men inside the building and that the airport would probably have to close until the next day. A police patrol then appeared at the entrance to the airport, and uniformed men announced that the building had been stormed.

Armed and masked Anti-Kyiv militia on the outskirts of Donetsk.

Anti-Kyiv militia on the outskirts of Donetsk. (c) Ilya Vasyunin

Until the Monday, the airport's internal perimeter, inspection points and technical areas were controlled by the Ukrainian army. On Sunday night, the DPR leaders declared martial law: the Speaker of the regional Parliament, Denis Pushilin, announced that their aim was to rid the Donestsk People's Republic of Ukrainian forces. According to some reports, separatist rebels had arrived at the airport in the dead of night, but operations only started in the morning when they demanded that the Ukrainian military leave the airport. 

Kyiv reacted to this ultimatum by sending in its air force. From seven until midday the standoff was peaceful, but then the planes started shooting at the airport building. Fighter aircraft appeared over the city, and witnesses began to report explosions from the airport area. Officers in charge of this so-called anti-terrorist operation also announced that a landing force was carrying out a mopping up operation at the airport.  

By two o'clock there was thick black smoke rising from one of the airport buildings near the runway.

By two o'clock there was thick black smoke rising from one of the airport buildings near the runway, and fighting had spread beyond the perimeter. There was also an exchange of fire outside a supermarket near the perimeter fence. The rebels, soldiers reported, had retreated from the airport into a residential area. 

Local residents subsequently told us that they had had no warning of the operation, so civilians found themselves under fire, particularly residents of the village of Oktyabrsky, a kilometre from the airport, as did journalists positioned at the crossroads between the village and the last stretch of road leading to the airport terminal.

Armed men stand near a military vehicle.

Anti-Kyiv forces suffered serious casualties during the battle for Donetsk airport. (c) Ilya Vasyunin

A handful of insurgents had hidden in the bushes beside the road, and were shooting at the airport buildings, but a truce was called when one of them was wounded. An ambulance was summoned over the radio, and the journalists ran up behind it. Shooting was renewed almost immediately; the posse of journalists, however, had not managed to return to their previous position. People were seen running, and it soon became apparent that the rebels were running away with the journalists, so they all ended up under fire from the direction of some allotments; and in the end the village streets were under fire as well. 

The aftermath

Social media later accused journalists who had been at the airport of 'aiding and abetting the terrorists' (an accusation more usually heard from the Ukrainian secret services after an incident with journalists from the Russian station LifeNews). Most of those caught in the shooting were from Western agencies, but a Chinese film crew and Ukrainian video journalists were also at the scene. 

The rebels were clearly not expecting fighter planes and a landing force. 'We made heaps of mistakes,' admitted a representative of the Vostok Battalion  – one of the key military units of the Donetsk People’s Republic – (who asked not to be named) at the civil funeral ceremony for his fallen comrades. 

Over 30 militia were killed in the battle for the airport. Locals bury their dead.

Over 30 militia were killed in the battle for the airport. Locals bury their dead. (c) Ilya Vasyunin

The Ukrainian army's tough reaction is no doubt linked to promises made by President-elect Petro Poroshenko. Firstly, he announced his intention of holding his inauguration 'somewhere in the Donetsk oblast,' i.e. on territory currently in the hands of the unrecognised republic. In addition, Poroshenko said that the anti-terrorist operation, as the Ukrainian army's military action against the insurgents is called, 'cannot and will not last for a month or more,' but 'must, and will, end in a few hours.'

The civilian dead were a car park attendant and a woman waiting for a train.

In the evening, Donetsk’s mayor, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, ordered people to stay away from the airport and the railway station, and also announced the first casualty numbers: 35 rebels had died in the fighting. Two civilians were also killed outside the railway station at the other end of Oktyabrsky, four kilometres from the airport, as planes continued to hunt down rebels in the village’s residential areas: the civilian dead were a car park attendant and a woman waiting for a train, killed apparently by splinters from mortar shells. Altogether, seven civilians were killed in the airborne attack, and Aleksandr Borodai,the DNR’s 'Prime Minister,' put the number of rebels killed at 60. 

Siege and curfew

On the day after the fighting at the airport, a ceasefire was announced. The separatists used the time to set up another roadblock at the airport exit.

A half-burned lorry lies on its side following the battle.

A half-burned lorry lies on its side following the battle. (c) Ilya Vasyunin

They brought cranes to lay concrete blocks, and then people filled sandbags to construct reinforcements with gun slots. There were three people in uniform, two of them with Kalashnikovs, and the third with a sawn-off shotgun. Local residents looking on said that the previous evening, a truck had attempted to force its way out of the airport, its passengers firing shots in all directions. Sergei, one of the locals, pointed out the bullets lodged in the wall of his flat, which faces the road being blocked. ‘It was the [Ukrainian] National Guard,’ he said confidently. 

‘Auntie Nina, go home’, Sergei called out to his neighbour. ‘I’m ok, I didn’t get killed yesterday and I won’t today either.’ Many of his neighbours have already left the city to stay with relatives. But Sergei has nowhere to go - his family live in the village of Volnovakha, a couple of hours drive from Donetsk, where last week there were clashes between the rebels and the National Guard: ‘What’s the point in me leaving if it’s the same situation down there?’ Like the other locals, when the aerial shooting started, he hid in the basement of his building, with his wife and two daughters.

One of the locals pointed out the bullets lodged in the wall of his flat.

Here, he was following official advice posted all over the city centre, which, as well as listing temporary evacuation points, advise the public to avoid windows and balconies during military operations, and to carry ID, and other essential belongings with them at all times,. This is all the local authorities can do for the city’s residents, who are still facing air strikes. Mayor Lukyanchenko, (who took up his post 12 years ago under President Kuchma, in power until the Orange Revolution of 2004) explains that neither the leadership of the unrecognised DPR, based just a block away from the mayor’s office, nor the armed forces of Ukraine, have been keeping him informed about military actions. Meanwhile, the leaders of the DPR have introduced a curfew in the city. Shops and other places normally open 24/7 in the city centre are beginning to close at 10pm, and at night the streets are empty of pedestrians and cars. 


On Thursday 29 May, the 11-storey building of the Donetsk regional administration was surrounded by the Vostok Battalion. The separatists had taken control of the administration back in April, and set up the headquarters of their ‘republic,’ and accommodation for their activists there. These have been living in the city’s central building for nearly two months now, and in this time the DNR itself has changed leadership, with Denis Pushilin, head of the People’s Council, being replaced by Aleksandr Borodai, self-styled ‘Prime Minister’ of the Donetsk People’s Republic (and former assistant of the ‘People’s Governor’ of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov).

Lightly armed militia man a roadblock in Donetsk.

Lightly armed militia man a roadblock in Donetsk. (c) Ilya Vasyunin

Now, insurgents in camouflage drove an anti-aircraft gun and troop carrier up to the building, and demanded that those inside leave. This action by the Vostok Battalion looked like a political coup against the ‘republic’s’ leadership. However, it has calmed people down: the paramilitaries are at least dealing with looters (after the fighting at the airport, a nearby Metro supermarket was ransacked, and amongst the looters were pro-DNR activists).

The people coming out from the administration building two-by-two had their bags searched. ‘Were there looters inside?’ ‘We didn’t see anything,’ they answered guardedly. 

In order to prove that there were indeed looters, the Vostok Battalion fighters helpfully organised an excursion for journalists around the whole building-cum-stronghold; and among the mattresses and a heap of documents  they found food stored in fridges, which had clearly been taken from the Metro supermarket.

‘Here you go, some red caviar’, said the ‘guide’, picking up a tin from a pile. He was dressed in camouflage gear and a mask, and carried a grenade launcher on his back. ‘And here are some new clothes –  socks, tracksuit trousers.’ We walked from room to room on a typical floor of the administrative building. More signs of looting. ‘This is Metro own-brand stuff’, says the guide, reading the label on a can. The paramilitaries had stopped several lorries –  ‘the kind used to transport sand’, he says – and found them literally stuffed to the brim with Metro products. He promised they would return the stuff  to the company, and give opened goods to children’s homes.

‘Prime Minister’ Borodai has promised to deal with looters through the courts –‘Russian style.’

‘You know yourself how they punished looters during wartime,’ said ‘Prime Minister’ Borodai. However, he has promised to deal with looters through the courts. ‘Russian style,’ he specifies.

The fighters

Immediately after the start of the fighting, pro-Ukrainian media in the Donbas region (north of Donetsk) reported: ‘the Donetsk regional administration building has been seized by Kadyrov forces’ – Chechens trained in special units answering to Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. That is not quite true: the fighters themselves call their battalion ‘combined.’ It indeed includes volunteers from Chechnya, but also South Ossetia and the Krasnodarsk region of Russia, all saying that they came here to fight not for money but ‘to help.’ But the majority is from Donetsk itself. ‘Look at me! How am I a Kadyrov guy? asked the young man in camouflage, who led the ‘excursion,’ in his characteristically Ukrainian accent. ‘It’s such a shame. Just six months ago we could hang out with lads from Western Ukraine, but now they call us terrorists. Even before I took up arms,’ he said, pointing at his automatic.

A militia weapons cache. The St. George's ribbon tied on the barrel has become a symbol for the movement.

A militia weapons cache. The St. George's ribbon tied on the barrel has become a symbol for the movement. (c) Ilya Vasyunin

‘There are some real hell-raiser field commanders who don’t take orders from anyone.’

A person close to the ‘republic’s’ leadership explained that not all commanding officers fighting with Kyiv in the region obeyed DPR’s leaders. The leadership, for example, didn’t know for quite some time where four observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had disappeared to on May 27 (later the self-proclaimed ‘people’s mayor’ of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, confirmed that his people had detained them). ‘We don’t need to detain them’, said a DPR representative. ‘Why would we want to look like a terrorist group? We contacted everyone we could but there are some real hell-raiser field commanders who don’t take orders from anyone.’


Thirty three Russians died in the fight for Donetsk airport. On 29 May, their bodies were transported from Donetsk to Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. These deaths could provide an excuse for Russia to send troops into south-east Ukraine. President Putin said at a press conference, after Crimea became part of Russia in March, that any threat to Russian-speaking people could be a justification for Russian military action in Ukraine. 

А member of the Vostok Battalion guards a roadblock at the entrance to Donetsk

А member of the Chechen Vostok Battalion guards a roadblock at the entrance to Donetsk (c) RIA Novosti/Maksim Blinov

The influence of Russia in the region, a favourite subject for the Ukrainian media, is much exaggerated – even allowing for the brigades of volunteers hailing from across the border. The Kremlin is in a difficult situation: on the one hand, it has promised to help the separatist insurgents, while on the other hand it faces the threat of international isolation if it does not remove troops from the border.

So far, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has only spoken of a promise to provide ‘humanitarian help’ to Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s Investigative Committee has also launched a criminal case against Ukraine’s armed forces and National Guard for ‘using illegal weapons and methods in the Donesk and Luhansk People’s Republics. 

The two self-styled republics – Donetsk and Luhansk – have announced the creation of a federated state called Novorossiya.

The separatists have higher expectations. The two neighbouring regions which now call themselves republics – Donetsk and Luhansk – have announced the creation of a federative state called Novorossiya (Russian for 'New Russia') and have asked Russia to officially incorporate this new entity into the Russian Federation. Denis Pushilin, the speaker of the People’s Council, then sent a follow-up request from the DNR to the Kremlin, but Moscow for the time being is silent. ‘Our ideal would be to become part of the RF’, says Aleksandr Borodai. ‘But if they don’t agree with that in Russia, we will exist as an independent state’, he states confidently. He says that he is also ready to hold talks with Kyiv (on condition that its ‘antiterrorist operations’ cease), but for the moment, he says, they still can’t even agree on how to collect all the dead bodies from around the airport.

Fighting continues

For the moment, the Ukrainian army is conducting artillery attacks on Slovyansk. The civilian death count already stands at seven. According to the separatist rebels, Kyiv now plans to close the borders, because, despite the fact that the border points are still controlled by the Ukrainians, reinforcements for the DPR are still arriving from Russia.

If the fighting transfers from the outskirts of the city to the centre then the numbers of civilian dead may increase considerably.

Meanwhile, it has been announced that Petro Poroshenko’s inauguration as President will take place on 7 June, in Kyiv. No matter where his inauguration is held, he faces a challenge to his authority: if the fighting moves from the outskirts of the city to the centre then the numbers of civilian dead may increase considerably; and if this happens, even those who support ‘Donbas as part of Ukraine’ may turn their back on the Kyiv authorities.

The best solution for Kyiv would be to give maximum autonomy to Donetsk, and, with the support of pro-Ukrainian citizens of Donbas, gradually try to replace the ‘republic’s’ leadership with their supporters. This will take time, but if the battle for Donetsk escalates into civil war, the secession of south-east Ukraine from the rest of the country could become a very real possibility.

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