LUHANSK — At number 63 Karl Marx Street, the tinted glass facade of the Ministry of Defense of the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) stands insolently among the scenery of shattered windows and crushed roads.
On the snow-covered square in front of the church, a dozen of half-asleep men smoke cigarette after cigarette while they wait for the recruitment office to open. The fatigue, anxiety and cold make their legs shiver, but don’t dissuade them from joining the Luhansk people’s militia even after the ceasefire recently signed in Minsk.
At exactly 9 a.m., like every day, a soldier walks out of the building with a Kalashnikov under his arm and breaks the silence: “Good morning gentlemen, you have five seconds to form a nice straight line for me!” After throwing their cigarettes to the ground, the men hastily obey the order.
The soldier examines the row with an amused expression and, after a brief silence, authorizes the volunteers to enter the building: “Give your identity, your age and your service records at the main desk.”
One after the other, the volunteers follow each other, future tankers, artillerymen or cooks. After the cold minutes spent waiting, the last man in line finally moves forward. He sticks his chest out and declares: “Sergey Illich Ivanov, 45, technician. I came to enlist in the military air force.”
An air base closed in 1996
By announcing, on Jan. 15, 2015, the creation of the LPR air force, the separatists of eastern Ukraine claim they are now part of the very small club of armed militias that managed to equip themselves with the ability to carry out airstrikes. An important symbol for this city, of which the military history, as well as the industrial city, is closely linked to war aviation.
Beyond the saber rattling, this announcement — a communication campaign — could be a pretext for Russian air raids in Ukraine.
Where do these planes come from? The pro-Russians remain vague concerning the exact composition of the new air force. They mention a varied mix of planes captured during the summer and others displayed until now at the Luhansk aviation museum. On Jan. 17, the Russian government television networks LifeNews and Rossiya 24 were the first to film the inside of this former air base that closed down in 1996.
At Luhansk aviation museum — YouTube screenshot
They showed the head of the Luhansk people’s militia, Sergey Kozlov, as well as the vice-minister of defense Vitali Kisseliov, wearing his usual cap displaying the red star. They came to introduce their new arsenal. On the frozen runway, a training one-man Delfin L-29A carries out a demonstration in front of the cameras without ever taking off.
According to the report, the pilots are former military men trained during the Soviet era. Next to his biplane, the pilot Aram Avagian says: “This plane hasn’t flown for seven years. Needless to say we have had to replace a few parts.”
According to the Russian government network, the aircraft is now ready for combat, but no explanation is given regarding the replacement parts, or the origin of the kerosene, which is supposed to be unobtainable in separatist territory, but is abundant in Russia.
Cover-up for Russian aircraft?
Harmless on a military level at first glance, this separatist air force is seen as a serious threat by the Ukrainian army. On Jan. 27, the Ukrainian Ministry of defense announced the destruction of the entire rebel air force in the south east of Donetsk. According to a Kiev member of Parliament Boris Filatov: “This strike will wipe the smile off the face of the separatists, and make them think twice before bringing in planes from Mordor.”
Konstantin Mashovet, a military expert and advisor to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense, sets out the problem more clearly. “The separatists don’t have the logistics allowing them to maintain and supply a combat air force. The only explanation is that this so-called separatist force is simply a facade to cover-up the arrival of Russian aircrafts in the Ukrainian sky. Such an escalation has not been witnessed in this conflict yet.”
An analysis shared by Andrey Lyssenko, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, who expressed himself on the topic during a briefing on Jan. 18. “For the Ukrainians, the threat of a disguised Russian air attack will exist as long as the planes and the runways in the hands of the separatists are not incapacitated.”
The day that followed the destruction of the separatist air force, the pro-Russians denied the news with a video shot at the Luhansk aviation museum. It showed the head engineer Alexei Yakovlev insisting that no aircraft was damaged. Behind him, a Sukhoi Su-25, a ground attack plane that was designed in the 1970s and is still part of the Russian and Ukrainian air forces.
On its cabin, a flag of Novorossiya (“New Russia”, the name given by Vladimir Putin to southeast Ukraine) is laid next to a message in white paint: “Direction Odessa!” Alexei Yakovlev says: “Our planes are not all that young, of course, and we’ve had to renovate them somewhat, but our spirits are high and we’re ready to fight.”
Reduced to dust by violent clashes, the Donetsk and Luhansk airports are now snow-covered ruins, craters making their runways impracticable, with non-detonated mines and shells. As for the recreation airfields in the region, they are either too basic to receive military aircraft, or already damaged by bombings. All that remains is the Luhansk aviation museum.
Located at the edge of the aptly named “Sharp-Edged Tombstone” neighborhood, this former Soviet air base has been spared shelling. Its access is now strictly forbidden to the press. “Sergeievich,” the advisor to the LPR’s Minister of Defense, explains: “It was imprudent for us to reveal the location of our aviation forces, we only have a few planes in operable condition. We now hide them.”
On Jan. 7, two soldiers were guarding the entrance. Behind them, a Pantsir-S1 air defense system was stationed in the main alley. The Pantsir-S1 came into service in 2012 and is the most sophisticated short and medium-range anti-aircraft defense system of the Russian army, and has never been exported into Ukraine. Its arrival in separatist territory was documented for the first time thanks to photographs uploaded online on Jan. 24. Nic Jenzen-Jones, the director of the Ares weaponry research center, says: “The presence of Pantsir systems in eastern Ukraine is noteworthy, and their military value and high-end capability may indicate that the airfield is considered important by separatist forces.”
Runway at Luhansk's aviation museum — Photo: YouTube screenshot
Since then, assertions and denials continue. On Feb. 4, the separatists claim they carried out their first air attack, a way to prove their planes are operational. The Ukrainian army talks about a “vain wish.” In the area surrounding the Luhansk museum, no one has ever seen or heard a single plane take off.
At 54 years old, Nikolai wishes to remain discreet. “They’d put me behind bars if they knew I spoke to you.” Sitting on the backseat of his grey Lada parked in the courtyard of a building, he glances nervously outside and says: “The whole neighborhood is aware that this so-called air force is a smokescreen, their two old crates are no more capable of flying than the car in which we’re sitting.”
Nicolai claims he saw with his own eyes at least five anti-aircraft systems near the museum in the past three weeks, including at least two Pantsir-S1s. He adds: “People are talking in the neighborhood and even the pro-Russians themselves don’t keep it a secret, all this comes from Russia. There’s a Russian air base 50 kilometers away from the border. It’s only a question of time before Russian planes appear in the Ukrainian sky.”