Fighting in the Donbas Region Turned Donetsk International Airport Into Rubble

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: Joao Bolan / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Donetsk International Airport – also referred to as Sergei Prokofiev International Airport, after the 20th century composer – is located 10 KM northwest of the Eastern European city of Donetsk. While internationally recognized as part of Ukraine, the area has operated under the de facto administration of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) since the 2014 War in Donbas.

Construction of Donetsk International Airport

The original structures that made up Donetsk International Airport were constructed between the 1940s-50s, following the completion of the Second World War. Over the years, it was rebuilt numerous times, beginning in 1973.

View of the ruins of Donetsk International Airport
Photo Credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP / Getty Images
Remains of the terminal at Donetsk International Airport
Photo Credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP / Getty Images
Airplane wing lying on the grass
Photo Credit: Gennadiy Dubovoy / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

In 2011, a new airport terminal, developed by experts from Croatia, was built by Altcom, a Ukrainian construction company. It was just one of the many structures built in preparation for the UEFA Euro championship, which was hosted by Ukraine the following year.

Donetsk International Airport’s use throughout the decades

For the majority of its existence, Donetsk International Airport operated like any other civilian air hub. However, there were some tragic incidents of note in its history.

One was the assassination of local businessman Yevhen Shcherban. On November 3, 1996, a group of contract killers dressed in security force gear began firing at the aircraft Shcherban was onboard. His wife, the airport’s ground technician and the plane’s flight engineer also lost their lives in the shooting.

Ruins of Donetsk International Airport
Photo Credit: ALEKSEY FILIPPOV / AFP / Getty Images
Charred remains of a military tank
Photo Credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP / Getty Images

In 2013, the airport was the site of a devastating crash that resulted in the deaths of five passengers. South Airlines Flight 8971 was attempting to land on the runway, but overshot it and crashed during an emergency landing.

Civilian airline operations at Donetsk International Airport ceased in May 2014, following the Maiden Revolution – also known as the Revolution of Dignity. There was an increase in armed conflict in the region, and the stoppage meant passengers had to queue to return their pre-purchased airline tickets.

The War in Donbas leads to the airport’s destruction

Donetsk International Airport was destroyed during the War in Donbas, following the 2014 Ukrainian presidential election. During the First Battle of Donetsk Airport from May 26-27, 2014, fighters from the DPR, with assistance from Russian mercenaries, seized the airport. In response, Ukrainian forces launched a series of air attacks and regained control of the property.

Due to the danger posed to civilians, the airport did not resume service.

Rebel flag atop a building at Donetsk International Airport
Photo Credit: Joao Bolan / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images
Remains of a damaged airplane
Photo Credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP / Getty Images
Ruins of Donetsk International Airport
Photo Credit: icorpus YouTube Channel / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

The Second Battle of Donetsk Airport occurred between September 28, 2014, and January 21, 2015. DPR rebels made an attempt to regain control of the airport, and the Ukrainian government publicly stated the country’s military had repelled four attacks that evening, during which seven Donetsk fighters were killed and a T-64 tank was destroyed.

This went against what DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko stated at the time: that 95 percent of the airport was under the control of rebel forces.

View of the ruins of Donetsk International Airport
Photo Credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP / Getty Images
Debris at Donetsk International Airport
Photo Credit: Joao Bolan / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Throughout the months of fighting, the Ukrainian military continued its attempts to regain full control of the airport. The troops defending it were nicknamed “Cyborgs” for their toughness, and for many were a symbol of the new Ukrainian Army.

On January 17, 2015, Zakharchenko claimed DPR rebels had taken complete control of Donetsk International Airport after a series of armed engagements. However, it was reported the next day that Ukrainian forces had retaken almost the entire airport after a mass overnight operation.

Scaffolding covered in bullet holes
Photo Credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP / Getty Images
Wooden cross, with Donetsk International Airport in the background
Photo Credit: Joao Bolan / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images
Ruins of Donetsk International Airport
Photo Credit: Правда ДНР / Pravda DPR / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

It was on January 21 that Ukrainian forces admitted they’d lost control of the airport. The next month, DPR rebels brought Ukrainian prisoners of war to the site to recover their dead comrades from the rubble.

Damaged beyond repair

As a result of the months of fighting, Donetsk International Airport was severely damaged. The main terminal was hit by constant shelling by both sides, as it was used as a shelter by soldiers defending the airport. Due to the continued bombardment, the roof collapsed over the mezzanine.

The control tower also collapsed during the final days of the Second Battle of Donetsk Airport. Up until then, it had been a hotly contested part of the airport, as both sides saw it as the ideal location to set up a lookout post.

Remains of a destroyed airplane
Photo Credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP / Getty Images
Remains of a destroyed airplane
Photo Credit: Правда ДНР / Pravda DPR / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

More from us: This Airport Was Abandoned After The Olympic Games

After fighting ceased at the airport, rubble was removed from the ruins, leaving behind the concrete walls of the terminal and the adjacent parking garage.

It should be noted that the conflict over the independence of the Donbas and Luhansk regions continues to this day, having recently re-entered the news following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.