Ukrainian troops have retreated from the artillery-shattered skeleton of what was once the country’s second-busiest airport after an eight-month battle apparently lost to pro-Russia separatists, Ukrainian officials conceded Thursday.
Although military leaders in Kiev, the capital, contended Ukrainian forces still held positions near the ruins of the Donetsk international airport, the loss could herald a turning point in the war for government forces trying to prevent the permanent division of the country.
Ukrainian leaders for months had been shoring up the position of army troops and irregular militia volunteers at the airport, strategically located on a hilltop six miles outside the Donetsk city center. The facility had been under a separatist onslaught since May, shortly after the pro-Russia militants seized the government headquarters of the city of 1 million residents and proclaimed an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
Fighting has intensified throughout eastern Ukrainian regions in recent days amid what Ukrainian officials say has been a heavy influx of Russian troops and armor. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top commander in Europe, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, confirmed that the alliance was observing an intensification and “changed character” of the fighting in Ukraine.
Ten Ukrainian soldiers died in fighting over the previous 24 hours, Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council told reporters in Kiev. Six of the fatalities occurred at the airport, he said.
Several soldiers were wounded in the collapse of part of the airport structure this week, and a number of others were taken prisoner by the separatists when they attempted to rescue the wounded, Ukrainian officials said.
The airport’s capture marks the first important territorial advance for pro-Russia separatists since a cease-fire — often ignored — was signed Sept. 5. Defense officials said the retreat was necessary to avoid further casualties.
“Taking into account the danger and in order to save lives ... it was decided yesterday to move out of the terminal’s territory and to the new lines,” Vladyslav Selezniov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces, said at a briefing.
Sergei Prokofiev International Airport was a gleaming symbol of prosperity in Donetsk, modernized three years ago when the city hosted the 2012 European soccer championship. The glass-and-steel facade of the main terminal has been reduced to ruins; the control tower has collapsed, and the runways have been pocked by shelling. Still, analysts say the airport could eventually provide a key supply line into the region.
The airport’s destruction has stripped it of any immediate strategic advantage for the militants, but its fall nonetheless dealt a demoralizing defeat to the government forces who had struggled to retain their last stronghold in Donetsk.
“For six days we were desperately trying to regain control of the new terminal but failed,” presidential aide Yuri Biryukov said in an interview. “At the same time the airport continues to remain the battlefield and the front line.”
“We are 700 meters [nearly half a mile] away from the terminal,” one Ukrainian defender wrote in a message to The Times on Wednesday. “There is nothing left there. Only our 200-s,” a Soviet-era military slang term for those killed in action.
The latest setback for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s effort to hold Ukraine together also serves as a metaphor for the civil war that began in April, with the two sides attacking and destroying the infrastructure and communities they sought to control. Rail lines, bridges, military depots and thousands of homes and businesses have been reduced to rubble. Economic lifelines between the government-controlled western regions and the separatist-held east have been severed as Kiev has ceased to send budget funds to the areas out of its control.
Poroshenko had been at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to lobby European and U.S. allies for help in averting a looming financial crisis in deeply indebted Ukraine. He cut short his visit to return to Kiev and oversee defense moves to counter what he said was a vastly expanded Russian troop presence — as many as 9,000 soldiers — supporting the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s Tass news agency reported Thursday that authorities in Kharkiv — Ukraine’s second-largest city, which managed to fend off separatist assaults in April — had reinforced security with 2,400 additional police officers on patrol and armored vehicles deployed to protect strategic sites. The agency quoted Kharkiv regional leader Ihor Baluta as saying the measures were necessary because the front lines in neighboring regions were moving closer to Kharkiv, though still more than 140 miles away.
More than 4,800 people have been killed and at least 1.2 million others displaced since pro-Russia separatists seized parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in April.
Loiko reported from Dnipropetrovsk and Williams from Los Angeles.