The airport here in this battle-scarred region of eastern Ukraine seems oblivious to the cease-fire brokered six weeks ago.
The battles between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces rage on at a place that has taken on greater significance in Ukraine with each passing day: It’s strategically important, to be sure, but interviews with the rebels and Ukrainian forces waging this war make it clear that Donetsk is about much more.
Cmdr. Mikhael “Givi” Sergeyevich Tolstikh, a rebel commander leading the fight around the Donetsk airport, says his forces will “hold the line” against Ukrainian forces whom he claimed were preparing an assault to retake the facility.
“My main aim is to hold the defense of the airport, not to attack, just hold the line,” Tolstikh said in an interview with USA TODAY on Friday at the pockmarked apartment building his forces are using as a command post. It’s about a mile from the airport’s main terminal.
The building sits in a residential neighborhood known as Kyivski, surrounded by single-family homes and a playground now strewn with shards of glass, rubble, spent artillery shell casings and boxes of ammunition.
Pro-Russian rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces here since May 26, when Ukrainian commandos retook control of the airport with support from fighter jets and helicopter gunships.
Those forces have since gained legendary status in the rest of Ukraine, where they’re known as “Cyborgs.” The moniker comes from an intercepted rebel radio transmission in which a fighter spoke of their perseverance despite repeated attacks.
The rebel leadership signed a cease-fire agreement with Ukraine on Sept. 5 in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, but the sound of shells landing near the rebel command post and the boom of outgoing artillery made clear that no cease-fire was being observed at this location.