Come Fly With Me: Donetsk’s Destroyed Airport
In 2010, Donetsk International Airport had fewer than 800,000 passengers. After an expensive renovation in 2011, at the price of $758 million, the airport had well over one million passengers in 2013. Business was picking up and investment in infrastructure was paying off. In 2015, however, there will be zero people using the airport; it has been completely destroyed by artillery fire.
The battle for the airport, which has raged for several months, ceased being strategic and became symbolic some time ago. Whichever side could take the airport and defend it would deflate their enemy’s morale and boost their own. While it had little or no value itself, one could reliably predict which side had the momentum in the whole conflict simply by checking which military controlled the airport.
But the story runs deeper than that; we can learn a lot about the separatists’ persistent approach to the airport. The first thing it shows is that they either have no genuine interest in establishing a Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), or they are incredibly, unfathomably stupid – or both. Put simply, an independent nation the size of the DPR would face significant economic challenges, particularly as it would likely face heavy Western sanctions. Having newly built and expensive infrastructure either in the DPR or nearby would be its only hope for survival. The most rational thing for the separatists to do would have been to leave the airport well alone, even if it meant conceding it to Kiev.
This also tells us something about Vladimir Putin. By now it should be obvious that he isn’t interested in state building, nor does he care for the lives of Ukrainians and Russians whom the conflict affects.
So, what’s his plan? This is where things become murky: there isn’t a plan. Or at least, there is no grand, definable objective. Putin makes decisions on a step-by-step basis; this is what makes it so difficult to tactically outmanoeuvre him: one cannot predict his moves because even he does not know what they will be until the last moment.
This whole conflict began with a mistake – a huge miscalculation from the Kremlin over how Ukrainians would react to rejecting closer ties with the EU. Since then, he has done what he does best: playfully improvised, exploiting Obama’s lackadaisical and amorphous foreign policy. These improvisations have largely been successful, but their rewards are trivial, aimless and in the long run, often come at great cost to Russia (such as financial sanctions).
But I think we can carve some sense out of this labyrinth. It is undeniable that Western sanctions are damaging the Russian economy. The Rouble has withered, the price of crude oil has plummeted, and the Kremlin has been forced to make cutbacks. From this, we can surmise that the most self-interested action for Putin to perform would be to find a solution to the crisis he made.
But it cannot just be any solution; it has to be a solution that suits him, it has to be a solution that makes him look strong even if, ultimately, he has failed. This is because machismo is important in Russian politics; Russians want their leaders to look like and act like warriors, like somebody you would fear in a physical fight. This obsession with hyper-masculine displays of strength has roots in Russia’s history as a solitary world power: Czar Alexander III once famously remarked that “Russia has only two allies: her army and navy”. If Russia is to be a world power with few friends, then she must at least convince her citizens that she is powerful enough to stand alone.
This is the skeleton of Putin’s problem. He has no definable objective in Ukraine, so it is unclear how he could declare the “intervention” victorious. He cannot simply back down, because that would be disastrous for his public image in Russia, perhaps fatally so amongst the ultra-nationalists (literally). But he cannot reasonably keep the crisis going for long; American led sanctions are causing damage to Russia which will last for years. The longer the Ukraine crisis continues, the more Putin resembles Donetsk Airport – an icon battered in a conflict fought with no purpose and no meaningful end in sight.
Written by Gregory Pichorowycz