Cyborgs vs Kremlin

Ukraine Today in cooperation with Ukrainian news agency TSN.ua presents a guide to the Battle for Donetsk International Airport

For the past five months Ukrainian forces have battled Kremlin-backed insurgents for control of Donetsk International Airport. The battle for this strategically and symbolically crucial objective has reduced the formerly state-of-the-art air hub to ruins, while transforming the airport's Ukrainian defenders into national heroes whose heroics have seen them dubbed as 'cyborgs' by their disbelieving opponents

Donetsk International Airport
Facts and Figures


Stalino Airport is founded (Donetsk was known as Stalino until 1961). The airport's first flight was between Stalino and Starobilsk.


As Ukraine prepares to host Euro 2012, Donetsk International Airport undergoes major reconstruction works. The airport is renamed in honour of celebrated local composer Serhiy Prokofiev.


A new 45-meter high airport control tower is constructed providing visibility over the expanded airport complex.

14 May 2012

On the eve of the big Euro 2012 kick-off, a new seven-storey terminal building with a capacity of 3,100 passengers per hour is unveiled.


The reconstruction of Donetsk International Airport cost around USD 875 million – almost three and a half times the initial budget for the project.

26 May 2014

Donetsk International Airport is closed after coming under attack from Kremlin-backed insurgents. Ukrainian forces storm the airport, dislodge insurgent forces and take control of the complex.

Technical characteristics of the airport

• International class A airport
• Terminal capacity: 3,100 passengers/per hour
• Cargo warehouse capacity : 30 tonnes
• Runway length: 4,000 m
• Runway width: 60 m
• Accepts all classes of aircraft

Battle for Donetsk International Airport

The flag of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic was first raised above Donetsk International Airport on 18 April. Despite escalating conflict in the region, the airport remained partially functional until the end of April.

Staff claimed that the airport continued to operate according to Ukrainian legislation and international standards, but many airlines nevertheless cancelled flight services to Donetsk.

Ukraine's First Victory

On 26 May Kremlin-backed insurgents occupied the airport complex, leading to the cancellation of the last few remaining civilian flights.

Ukraine's military response was both immediate and emphatic. Ukrainian Special Forces troops, backed by aviation, stormed the airport complex and completely routed the insurgents. Within a few hours, Donetsk International Airport was back in Ukrainian hands. The battle was hailed as the biggest military success to date in Ukraine's efforts to combat the Russian-orchestrated uprising in the country's east.

"A major battle is taking place at Donetsk airport. Blasts can be heard and jets dot the sky." Many Donbas residents followed the battle on Facebook.
The operation to liberate Donetsk International Airport was planned and executed by Ukrainian Special Forces units from the city of Kirovohrad. Ukrainian troops were transported to the airport combat zone via helicopter while Ukrainian aviation destroyed the heavy weaponry of the insurgents. By the end of the day, the yellow and blue flag of Ukraine flew once more over the airport.

Storming of Donetsk International Airport

The defeat at Donetsk International Airport sparked panic among the ranks of the insurgents, with numerous examples of 'friendly fire' among Kremlin forces adding to the death toll. In Donetsk itself, news of the Ukrainian victory led to the temporary evacuation of the insurgency headquarters in the Regional Administration Building.

The Illusion of Tranquility

As the insurgency raged elsewhere in the Donbas, Ukrainian forces remained in control of Donetsk International Airport throughout summer 2014. In late August, fighting around the airport flared up again. Insurgent forces, reinforced by regular Russian army troops and bolstered by an arsenal of Grad rocket launchers and other heavy weapons, renewed their efforts to seize control of the airport.

The late August attacks on Donetsk International Airport were timed to coincide with a larger Russian army offensive along Ukraine's southern coastline towards Mariupol.

With Ukrainian forces struggling to contain insurgent breakthroughs along the front lines of the Donbas conflict, the defenders of Donetsk International Airport found themselves having to cope without reinforcements. They succeeded in repelling wave after wave of attacks.

Legend of the Cyborgs

In early September the fight for Donetsk International Airport intensified, with insurgent forces bolstered by the arrival of hundreds of fighters fresh from Russian military training camps in Rostov. The attackers were also boosted by deliveries of Russian tanks and artillery sent across the undefended border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

The legend of the 'Ukrainian Cyborgs' was born in the first days of September when these reinforced insurgent forces found themselves unable to dislodge the airport's defenders. The 'cyborg' tag actually originated from social media commentaries posted by disbelieving fighters from within the ranks of the Russian insurgency.

''I don't know who is guarding the airport in Donetsk but we haven't been able to dislodge them for the past three months. We tried storming the complex but each time we are repulsed and forced to withdraw. I've no idea who is defending the airport but they are not people. They are cyborgs."
These comments gave rise to a new national legend – the Ukrainian cyborgs of Donetsk International Airport. The 'cyborgs' themselves responded modestly to their new status and claimed to be simply doing their duty.
"We saw that the insurgents were suffering tremendous
losses but we weren't able to keep track of the exact numbers."
Ukrainian defender of Donetsk International Airport
Despite the existence of a nominal ceasefire, fighting continued around the airport relentlessly throughout September. By the end of the month, Donetsk International Airport had become the undisputed hotspot of the entire conflict in east Ukraine.

With the airport complex increasingly surrounded on three sides, insurgent forces used nearby residential buildings to direct a torrent of artillery fire against the Ukrainian defenders. Meanwhile, Russian tanks shelled the terminal building from almost point-blank range of less than 200 meters.

Shelling of Donetsk Airport

As the battle for Donetsk International airport gained in symbolic importance, Kremlin-backed forces repeatedly declared victory. The first announcement that the airport had fallen to the insurgents was made on 30 September, with similar declarations being issued on 3 October and on numerous subsequent occasions. In reality, the gains made were more modest and amounted to localized advances towards the airport runway and buildings on the periphery of the complex.

By mid-October the battle was no longer being fought for the airport, but rather for its ruins. What was once one of the most up-to-date regional air hubs in the whole of eastern Europe had been reduced to a collection of smoldering shells. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian flag continued to fly from the devastated control tower, which refused to collapse despite being hit by countless artillery strikes.

Photos taken by Ukraine's 'Cyborgs'

The remarkable defence of Donetsk International Airport has already passed into Ukrainian folklore, while the defenders themselves have become known simply as cyborgs. The grudging praise of their enemies has helped to cement the place of these defenders in the national psyche, providing a boost to Ukrainian morale during one of the darkest moments in the country's history.


  • 3rd Special Forces Regiment (Kirovohrad)
  • 93rd Mechanised Brigade (Dnipropetrovsk region)
  • 79th Airmobile Brigade (Mykolaiv)
  • 17th Tank Brigade (Kryvyi Rih)
  • Pravy Sector volunteer battalion

Photo Gallery: Insurgent forces fighting for Donetsk International Airport

Photo Gallery: Insurgent forces fighting for Donetsk International Airport

Cyborgs coming home

Ukraine Today Exclusive Interview: Ukrainian 'cyborg' soldier on the defence of Donetsk airport

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Produced in cooperation with tsn.ua