Victory in the Video at Donetsk Airport?

Analyzing recent extraordinary claims of a Ukrainian military victory

Ukrainian flag flying near the Donetsk Airport. (Source: TSN)

This week, extraordinary claims emerged online: the Ukrainian military allegedly gained control over the Donetsk Airport (DAP). In particular, Ukrainian media outlet UNIAN published a report with the headline “Ukrainian soldiers have declared full control over the runway and outskirts of the Donetsk Airport.”

If the claims of Ukrainian control of sections of Donetsk Airport are true, it would be a key logistical and symbolic victory for the Ukrainian Arms Forces. The development would also be a violation of the Minsk agreements by moving past the front lines. The Press Secretary for the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) refuted the reports and stated the UAF did not move beyond the front lines between Avdiivka and Donetsk.

Thus, understanding the original report from Ukrainian news program TSN (Телевизионная служба новостей) requires analysis of both the phrasing used in the report and the video footage taken on the outskirts of the Donetsk Airport. The news was not quite as explosive as the headline indicated, but it is still worth close attention. TSN claimed the UAF took “fire control” near the Donetsk Airport, including the runway, and planted the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag as evidence of their progress.

“Fire control” of the Airport

The TSN report does not indicate that the actual airport itself is under Ukrainian control; rather, the outskirts of the airport and the runway are under Ukrainian “fire control” — a term that needs further explanation. The key sections of the TSN report puts the term into better context:

The battle for the Donetsk Airport continues. Ukrainian forces who are holding positions near the DAP claim that the runway and airport outskirts are under our fire control. As proof — a Ukrainian flag just a few hundred meters from the terminal. […] Additionally, the Ukrainian flag that has been shot-through with bullets is fluttering over the position. [Separatist forces] have tried to shoot it down a few times, but every time our boys have returned it in view of the enemy’s eyes. […] At this position, they know when to open fire and where to shoot at. The ruins of the DAP are under the fire control of [Ukrainian] soldiers.

What exactly does “fire control” (“огневой контроль”) entail? For one, it does not indicate that the UAF actually seized physical control of the territory near the DAP —the video makes clear that the soldiers and flag are still hundreds of meters away. Rather, “fire control” over a location signifies the Ukrainian firing positions have superiority in artillery and light arms over an area, preventing Russian-led separatist forces from occupying the space or establishing their own firing positions. As the penultimate line in the above excerpt shows, the Ukrainian forces “know when to open fire and where to shoot at” from their current positions, and which apparently means they have virtual control over the area and hold superior positions facing the DAP outskirts and runway, but not the terminal itself.

Video Footage

A close look at the TSN video footage supports the claim that the UAF may hold a superior position adjacent to the outskirts and runway of the DAP, but does not physically occupy either. A particular shot from the TSN report reveals a rough approximate location of the Ukrainian position.

Outskirts of the DAP from a Ukrainian position. (Source: TSN)

This screenshot shows the ruined new terminal of the DAP from the north. Many drone footage clips on YouTube show the terminal from the opposite direction of the Russian-led separatist-controlled south.

New terminal of the DAP, filmed from the south. (Source: YouTube / Patrick Lancaster)

We can also see another destroyed residential building in the distance from a separate shot included in TSN’s report.

Residential building near the DAP. (Source: TSN)

This residential building is located southeast of the DAP, with photographs from Wikimapia and other sources matching the structure’s facade.

Destroyed residential building southeast of the DAP. (Source: Wikimapia)

Due to the zoom on the camera and lack of publicly available 2017 satellite imagery of the area, it is difficult to determine the exact location of the film crew. The only visible fortified position near the filming location can be found in a 2016 satellite image on Google Earth.

Fortified position south of the DAP. (Source: Google Earth, imagery from September 12, 2016)

The distance from the fortified position to the runway and new terminal is difficult using only the satellite imagery and TSN’s zoomed-in video clip. By referencing this location to drone footage from RT, we can better contextualize its proximity.

Possible position of TSN video highlighted in yellow. (Source: YouTube / RT)

Some details from the geolocation that do not entirely coincide with the RT drone footage — the concrete barriers seem too far away from the location on the satellite image and the tree line is not quite in the right location. It is highly likely that the film crew shot from near the visible fortified position or that the Ukrainian military dug a new position nearby that is not yet visible on publicly available satellite imagery. Regardless of the exact details, it is clear the TSN crew filmed either at or quite near the fortified position due north of the new terminal of the DAP, just hundreds of meters from Russian-led separatist forces.

Conclusion

While the TSN video reportage is quite interesting for long-time watchers of the Ukrainian conflict, there are few substantial revelations within. With recent tactical maneuvers, the Ukrainian Armed Forces may feel like they have a better control over the northern part of the DAP (specifically, the northern outskirts and runway), but the terminal is still under firm Russian-led separatist control. In fact, the position of the UAF— whether it is at the fortified position visible in 2016 imagery or a newly-created one nearby — is far from a secret. Ukrainian soldiers bragged to TSN and raised the Ukrainian flag while loudly speaking Ukrainian, within sight and earshot of Russian-led separatist forces.

Going forward, it will be worth monitoring further reports from the DAP in both Ukrainian and separatist media sources to observe new developments, as well as watching for new satellite imagery of the area to look for new Ukrainian positions in the area.


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