The battle of Hostomel: How Ukraine’s unlikely victory changed the course of the war – National |

It was 5.30 a.m. on a cold winter’s morning at Antonov Airport, when Vitalii Rudenko, a commander of the Ukrainian airfield’s national guard base, awoke to a phone call.

Get up, the duty officer called down the line, and be ready for combat.

Minutes earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin began broadcasting a state address, in which he announced the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. As the speech finished, booms resounded across Kyiv. Columns of Russian tanks began pouring into the country, heading for the capital.

Rudenko dressed quickly and issued an order for his soldiers to do the same. His unit of about 120 soldiers had been at the Hostomel airport for almost a week, preparing for the possibility of war.

But he didn’t actually believe it would happen.

With a unit of about 120, Vitalii Rudenko, a commander of Antonov Airport’s national guard base, was the airfield’s first line of defence.

Ashleigh Stewart

Rudenko was out the door and en route to the aircraft hangars in his car when the first missile made landfall. It exploded near the airport’s administration building.

“I heard it, but I didn’t see it,” Rudenko tells Global News.

Antonov Airport, an international cargo terminal with a long runway built to handle the world’s largest cargo plane, the Antonov An-225, was a key component of Putin’s planned blitzkrieg on Kyiv. The airbridge would have allowed Russian troops and heavy equipment to be ferried in on large aircraft, leaving just 10 kilometres between them and the gates of the capital.

The destroyed Mriya is now surrounded by the charred remains of Russian equipment and spent ammunition.

Ashleigh Stewart

But Russia never did take Kyiv; because what transpired over the next five weeks was a series of blunders, ending in a humiliating retreat. A slew of tactical errors and miscalculations left the Russians bogged down on the capital’s periphery, stalled by poor military planning, significant logistical problems, low combat readiness and, perhaps most significantly, a very obvious misjudgment in the Ukrainians’ ability to fight back.

And experts point to one place where the Russian army’s plan for a rapid-fire victory misfired more than anywhere else: Hostomel.

Just how the Armed Forces of Ukraine, many times outnumbered by as much as 12:1, thwarted the seizure of Antonov Airport and forced Russia into a war of attrition on the outskirts of Kyiv, has become the subject of widespread veneration.

The Russians retreated from Hostomel at the end of March, after suffering heavy losses.

Ashleigh Stewart

But those who fought in the battle say it came down to one simple thing: repeatedly destroying their own infrastructure — bridges, dams, runways — to manipulate the terrain. That, and guerilla tactics, expert knowledge of their own back yard and, of course, Russian missteps.

Global News visited Hostomel in August and has spent months interviewing Ukrainian servicemen, commanders, Antonov officials and officials to assemble a detailed account of how the battle for Antonov Airport changed the course of the war.

The first line of defence was Rudenko’s unit.

Spread out across airfield grounds, as the sun crested the horizon, they waited for the onslaught.

But for the next few hours, there was just silence.

Prepping for war under the cover of darkness

Across town, Volodymyr Smus was in his car, racing to the airport. As the head of its control and dispatch centre, Smus was in charge of much of the airfield’s fleet of aircraft. So when his son called him at about 5 a.m. to tell him of explosions being heard at an airport nearby, Smus’s first thought was for Antonov Airport’s planes — and one in particular.

The Antonov 225 — known as the “Mriya,” which is Ukrainian for “dream” — had been parked up in an aircraft hangar since Feb. 5, as engineers worked on an engine problem.

The repairs were completed at 9.45 p.m. the prior evening, mere hours before war broke out. In the weeks that followed, much would be said about whether the plane should have been immediately moved outside the country — to Leipzig, Germany, for instance, one of the airfield’s partner airports — as the threat of a full-scale invasion loomed.

Volodymyr Smus, head of Antonov Airport’s control and dispatch centre, says the ‘Mriya’ was not moved because the airport didn’t want to risk the safety of the pilots.

Ashleigh Stewart

But it wasn’t, Smus says, because Antonov staff didn’t believe it would happen.

“We were not prepared for war. The airfield was preparing for the reception of Boeing and Antonov planes,” Smus says.

“Missile strikes on the territory of the airfield were considered at planning meetings. But [not] a full-scale invasion.”

Antonov was likely taking its lead from the Ukrainian government. In early 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was busy downplaying the threat of an invasion and criticizing countries for pulling their embassies out of Ukraine, despite Russian troops amassing on the Belarusian border.

During a secret trip to Kyiv in January 2022, CIA Director William Burns again urged Zelenskyy to take the threat of war seriously. He warned of specific details of the plan, including that Antonov Airport would be targeted as a staging area for the assault on Kyiv.

Zelenskyy remained skeptical. But the military went into planning mode.

“It was already clear at the beginning of February,” says Col. Oleksandr Vdovychenko, commander of the 72nd Mechanized Brigade, a crucial component in the defence of Kyiv.

“Valery Zaluzhnyi made a decision and units of the brigades began to advance in the direction of Kyiv at night. Before that, we made all the calculations and understood who would occupy the defence where.”

Col. Oleksandr Vdovychenko, commander of the 72nd Mechanized Brigade.


Zaluzhnyi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, transformed the Ukrainian military into a modern fighting force after he took the top job in July 2021. He ordered command posts moved into the field towards the probable axis of a Russian advance. Artillery was set in defensive positions outside the capital. Tactical groups were sent to meet enemy forces from their suspected entry points.

But no one noticed because it was all done under the cover of darkness, Vdovychenko says. They didn’t want to alarm the public.

But even with preparations in place, the sheer number of advancing Russian troops — analysts suggest Russia was at a 12:1 force ratio advantage north of Kyiv — caught the Ukrainians unaware. So, too did their entry points.

An attack force from Russia advanced from Belarus along the west bank of the Dnipro River, supported by two axes of attack at Chernihiv, in Ukraine’s north, and Sumy, in the east. The Ukrainians were overwhelmed, Vdovychenko says, and convoys met “little resistance.”

Russian troops advanced on Kyiv from three main directions in the early days of the war.

Global News

As missiles rained down on the country, Ukrainians jumped in their cars to flee. Traffic jams snarled for kilometres, heading west of Kyiv.

Smus and his deputy finally arrived to work at about 9 a.m. A trip that would usually take 15 minutes took more than an hour. Staff were in crisis mode, deciding what to do with the fleet — namely, the Mriya, a monumental source of pride for the country, which was now a sitting duck. They discussed flying it to Germany immediately, to get it out of harm’s way, but didn’t want to risk the safety of the pilots if it was shot down.

The decision was made to leave it where it was, in its gargantuan hangar, and to move the rest of the aircraft and equipment to different areas of the airport so it wouldn’t all be destroyed in one go.

Antonov staff scurried around the airfield, preparing for the onslaught, knowing they too were in the eye of the storm.

Another hour of relative calm passed. Then came the whirring of the helicopter blades.

“We didn’t see them because they flew so low to the ground,” Rudenko recalls. “We saw them when they came above the trees and they started shooting at the airport.”

“I probably didn’t believe until the last moment that this was possible, that a full-scale offensive was possible, but after the first group of helicopters, I understood that it had really begun.”

They came from Belarus — a video from Russian state media shows helicopters being loaded up at an airfield near Mazyr, near the Ukrainian border. Rudenko estimates there were between 30 to 40 in total, led by a Mi-24 helicopter, known as a ‘flying tank’ for transporting troops, followed by about 30 Mi-8 multipurpose helicopters and tailed by a K-52 Alligator, considered the deadliest chopper Russia has ever produced.


Ukraine braces for battle as Russia unleashes attack

Dozens of airport employees were still on-site. As the Russians opened fire, they ran for cover. About 80 employees, including Smus, managed to make it to the bomb shelter under the cafeteria. Others hid in the sewers.

Rudenko and his troops aimed at the sky.

“When we received the shelling from the helicopters I gave the order to fire back. We were trying to shoot down the helicopters.”

They shot down about six, Rudenko claims, with a combination of surface-to-air missiles — man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) — and small-arms fire. Two more were damaged and had to make an emergency landing. One Ka-52 was recorded crashing into the Dnieper River.

A Ukrainian soldier examines fragments of a Russian military helicopter near Makariv, near Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky).


But with such a small number of troops on the ground, Rudenko knew he was in trouble as soon as the paratroopers hit the tarmac.

“I started to receive information over the radio that the paratroopers were landing,” Rudenko says. “We didn’t know where, and on which side, so I jumped in an armoured vehicle to go to the runway to see. (As I drove) my vehicle was under machine gun fire.”

A video on Russian state media, reportedly of the opening moments of the assault on Hostomel, shows troops pouring out of transport helicopters at about 1:20 p.m. and rushing into a thicket of trees, as a plume of black smoke rose into the sky.

Meanwhile, in the bomb shelter underneath the airport, Smus and the airport staff were trying to figure out what was going on above them. They came up for air at regular intervals to try to see if an escape might be possible.

Smoke rises near the town of Hostomel and Antonov Airport on February 24, 2022. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images).

Getty Images

At some point in the afternoon, Smus says, they went outside and came face-to-face with a group of Russian soldiers.

The men told them they needed to leave the airport grounds. They were escorted to the entrance of the airport.

Upon reaching the gates, Smus asked to return to retrieve the wounded, of which there were about five. Two people had been killed that he knew of, including the chief of the airport’s fire department, who died in machine gun fire from a helicopter as he rushed out to extinguish blazes burning on the grounds.

The Russians relented. Smus returned in his car to evacuate an injured man and his father.

Inside, Rudenko’s troops stood their ground. But ammunition was beginning to run low. In the early afternoon, he doesn’t remember what time, Rudenko gave the order to withdraw.


World waits for Russia’s next moves as invasion intensifies

“Our enemy dominated us in the air, and they had many more paratroopers,” he says.

“To save the lives of our team, we had to retreat.”

It was a frenzied escape. Some soldiers jumped the fence that ran around the perimeter of the airport. Those close enough to vehicles commandeered them. Others sprinted away on foot.

As ground troops fled, Ukrainian artillery moved in, shelling the airport’s runways in the hopes it would prevent Russian planes from landing.

Local residents living on the airport’s periphery, seeing the mass exodus of Ukrainian soldiers, came to help. One man, Rudenko recalls, helped soldiers bury their weapons and documents, gave them a change of clothes, and then drove them to Kyiv.

“There were many stories like this.”

From the destroyed control tower, Russian soldiers could see the entire airfield.

Ashleigh Stewart

But some weren’t so lucky. Several Ukrainian troops were taken captive — Rudenko won’t say how many. Some have since returned home after prisoner-of-war exchanges, but others remain in prison in Russia.

The Russian Defence Ministry claimed that Russian forces suffered no casualties that day, and Ukraine suffered heavy losses.

But Rudenko says he didn’t lose a single man. One was injured. Russia, on the other hand, lost many, he says, because the soldiers that were captured later told him they were forced to load their bodies for evacuation. They counted 80.

At 3 p.m., the Russian state TV video showed soldiers storming the airport’s administration building and raising Russian flags above the control tower.

“Antonov Airport is captured,” the caption reads.

\’He pretended to be dead\’

Ukrainian reinforcements came swiftly.

At about 10 p.m., Dmytro — call sign “Zeus” — a serviceman with the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces, was onboard one of three Mi8 helicopters with about 50 soldiers, headed for Antonov Airport. They thought they were headed in to help defend the airfield, believing it to still be under Ukrainian control.  Ukrainian officials were busy claiming they’d wrested it back from Russian hands.

Both Rudenko and Dmytro dispute that, however, saying the airport was firmly under Russian control after Feb. 24. Villagers living nearby the airport also confirmed this.

By the time the choppers landed, Dmytro was told the airport was captured and their new objective was to prevent the landing of incoming IL76 freight aircraft, carrying thousands of troops, which would have meant a quick capture of Kyiv. The Georgian Legion, a group of battle-hardened foreigners, and troops from Vdovychenko’s 72nd mechanized brigade, had also moved into Hostomel.

As troops disembarked, the choppers fired on the runway.


Dmytro — call sign “Zeus” — a serviceman with the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces, pictured in Hostomel.


Arriving at the airfield, soldiers sidled up to the concrete wall around its perimeter and began sending men over the top. The idea was for some soldiers to hide on airport grounds to act as spotters, sending coordinates of Russian positions to the artillery, and standing back as they were picked off, one by one.

The first Ukrainian soldier to climb over the wall was hit with a VOG-25 grenade, Dmytro says. They lost contact with him, assuming he was dead. Two others were quickly wounded. The Russians were using smoke and explosions to throw the Ukrainians off, Dmytro says, and firing at their positions.

As the smoke cleared, the Ukrainians fixed their aim and returned enough fire to provide cover for some soldiers to make it over the fence.

With the battle raging below them, the Russian IL-76s were unable to land, forcing them to turn around mid-flight and return. The fighting and artillery strikes had largely rendered the runway unusable for large aircraft to land.


Russia-Ukraine conflict: Sirens sound in Kyiv as Ukrainian forces battle Russia outside city

But by the early hours of the morning, the Ukrainians were in need of ammunition.

An order was given to retrieve the wounded and pull back slightly. Incoming Russian fire prevented the Ukrainian troops from climbing over the airport wall, so they dug under it instead. By 4 a.m., the conscious wounded were evacuated. The first soldier who scaled the wall, who’d been hit by a grenade, and several others they couldn’t contact, had to be left behind.

But the grenade never killed the first soldier.

“He survived. He came around at dawn when the enemy was trying to take his weapon. He pretended to be dead until the enemy left then got up and went to his unit,” Dmytro laughs.

From then, Dmytro’s group split into two: 30 soldiers went to ambush an incoming convoy of Russian equipment, while he and three others stayed at the airfield to act as artillery spotters.

They perched themselves in or on high buildings in the nearby village to spy on the airport grounds, Dmytro says, and “divided the airport into squares,” to provide coordinates more easily. They peered through gaps in fences. They hid in apartments on the airport periphery and stashed their weapons around the area in case they needed to move positions.

The airport was transformed into a post-apocalyptic theatre of war during weeks of fighting.

Braden Latam

There were many close calls. On one of their searches for Russian positions around Hostomel, Dmytro and his men encountered a column of 120 enemy tanks, headed for Bucha. Each fighter immediately dropped to the ground, hoping the grass, no more than 30 cm high, would camouflage them.

“The column stops, and one tank simply turns its muzzle in our direction. We just lie in the grass and think ‘Right now they will just shoot and they won’t find us,’” Dmytro says.

“The muzzle of the tank is looking at me, and for some reason, at that very moment, my phone starts ringing and my music starts playing. I try to somehow turn off the music.

“I don’t know by what miracle they just didn’t notice us and the convoy drove on and we continued to advance.”

\’Irpin was like Stalingrad\’

North of Kyiv, Ukraine was busy blowing up its own infrastructure to try to channel Russia into a massive kill zone.

Vdovychenko’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade was charged with holding the right bank of the Irpin River, the main line of defence to the west of Kyiv, facing down about 10,000 Russian troops. He won’t say how many Ukrainian soldiers there were, but says it was “many times less.”

The Ukrainians had blown up the Kozarovychi dam across the Irpin River, 30 km northeast of Hostomel, to stymie the Russian advance, Vdovychenko says. The river flooded the river’s banks and inundated the Irpin floodplain, stranding Russian troops nearby and handing Ukrainian forces a monumental advantage. Left to hastily erect pontoon bridges, Russian soldier and equipment transfer slowed and became vulnerable to artillery strikes. Some reports say Russian troops had to discard their body armour and swim across the river.

A map of the major battle sites around Kyiv, as Russia tried to advance on the capital.

Global News

Blocked by Ukrainian resistance to the south, the Russians couldn’t advance eastwards. They fanned out; trying through Bucha, and Irpin, laying siege to the towns and killing and torturing hundreds of civilians, but couldn’t break through Ukrainian defences.

Bogged down, the Russians shelled the towns beyond recognition as Ukrainian soldiers attempted to fend them off.

“Irpin was like Stalingrad,” Vdovychenko says.

Ukrainian soldiers walk next to heavily damaged residential buildings in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine.

(AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The Russians also tried to break through nearby Makariv and Zhytomyr, inflicting widespread destruction, but Ukrainian resistance was strong, Vdovychenko says, and their logistics and offensive lines became stretched.

A week after war broke out, the Russians were still fighting in Hostomel.

Some did break through, though. After advancing through Chornobyl, some Russian forces managed to side-step a fierce defence in Ivankiv, 80 km northeast of Kyiv, and the bridge the Ukrainians had blown up over the Teteriv River, to barrel onwards to Antonov Airport.

By early March, the Russians had occupied most of Hostomel and were using the airport as a hub.

Ukrainians cross an improvised path under a destroyed bridge while fleeing Irpin. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana).


After weeks of ferocious fighting, but still controlled by the Russians, the airport had been transformed into a post-apocalyptic theatre of war, strewn with the charred remnants of Russian equipment, Ukrainian plane carcasses and pockmarked with craters. Everything was destroyed, in some way — including its most prized possession.

A Russian airstrike had destroyed the Mriya, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry announced on Feb. 27. Days later, Russian state television celebrated by airing footage of it lying in a mangled heap in its hangar.

But not all Russians were feeling jubilant, Dmytro says. While embedded in the ruined apartment complexes near the airport, he says he frequently spoke to locals who were interacting with Russian soldiers. Many of them were disillusioned, he was told.

“We talked with a priest from one of the churches, the Orthodox Ukrainian Church, who told us that soldiers or officers came to his church and begged for forgiveness for ‘killing people without wanting to,’” Dmytro says.

“They … said that “this is not our war. We do not want to kill.’”

\’No one could say where the front line was\’

On March 6, Dmytro reported to his commander, after a routine search, that there was no longer a large accumulation of Russian equipment at the airport.

Ukrainian forces around the airport were also facing their own issues, running low on food and water and facing “critical” problems with communication — most of the mobile towers were destroyed or damaged, batteries and chargers were dead, and the Russians were jamming the internet.

They were ordered to withdraw, to try to reach the 72nd brigade, about 20 kilometres away.

But how?

They tried through Hostomel and nearby Bucha, which was by now a Russian-occupied wasteland, strewn with burnt-out equipment, corpses and being bombarded by artillery.

Soldiers walk amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd).


“There were snipers firing. In Bucha, we saw enemy equipment on the streets, enemies searching houses, When I contacted the leadership, I asked where we should go — what route, to which forces — they answered me something like this: ‘You were there, you know where to go,’” Dmytro says.

“The situation was changing so quickly, no one could say exactly where they were. No one could say where the front line was. They simply could not tell me where I should go out.”

After days of trying, they found a Ukrainian special operations group near Hostomel who were also trying to escape and joined forces, finding a back route through the fields, forests and plantations between Hostomel and Bucha.

Nearby, Russian troops remained mired in battle failures and flooded plains.

Some paratroopers had made it to the Ukrainian side of the Irpin River and were trying to link up with troops in Moschun, which had been captured early in the war, Vdovychenko says. Moschun was on Kyiv’s doorstep; if troops made it there en masse, the Russians had a clear run to the capital.

A large military convoy seen north of Kyiv stretches from near Antonov airport in the south to the northern end of the convoy near Prybirsk, Ukraine on Feb. 28, 2022..

Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

But Vdovychenko’s troops, against all odds, held the line. They pushed the Russians back across the river. The infamous 65-kilometre-long Russian convoy on the outskirts of Kyiv, estimated to be holding up to 15,000 troops, snarled to a halt — stymied by Ukrainian resistance, a lack of food and fuel, maintenance issues and low morale — making it vulnerable to attack.

Over the following days, as Ukrainians pummeled the convoy with anti-tank weapons and artillery strikes, the Kremlin ordered a retreat from the north of Ukraine — including Hostomel.

Col. Oleksandr Vdovychenko says the Russians underestimated the mettle of his soldiers.


But Vdovychenko says the victory didn’t solely come down to Russian blunders. The grit of the Ukrainian troops counted, too.

Early on, he’d prepped his troops to make decisions for themselves on the spot, not to wait for directions. He wanted them to feel empowered, to know that they could, and would, make the right call.

“We knew that we would defend Kyiv and we knew that the highest distinction that a brigade can receive is to defend the capital.

“And we kept her.”

\’They robbed, smashed and broke everything\’

Rudenko’s unit returned to Antonov Airport at the beginning of April to inspect the damage.

Most of the buildings were destroyed. The burnt-out remains of Russian equipment, mines, spent ammunition, and the odd Russian corpse, made the terrain impenetrable. No one could even walk through it, let alone drive.

“Seeing all this horror that the Russians left behind — it was difficult,” Rudenko says. “They robbed, smashed and broke everything.”

Destroyed Russian equipment on the runway at Antonov Airport.

Braden Latam

Flechettes — razor-sharp, tiny projectiles designed to twist and rip through the body, prohibited for use in civilian areas — were strewn across the runway. So were plane carcasses, riddled with bullets and shrapnel wounds. The Mriya lay in pieces, its nose torn off and crumpled to the ground, its gargantuan body pierced by bullet and shrapnel holes.

The aviation world was in mourning. Built in the 1980s to ferry the Soviet space shuttle, the Antonov AN-225 set more than 120 world records throughout its 34 years in service. It was the heaviest aircraft ever built and had the largest wingspan of any aircraft in operational service.

The giant plane drew crowds wherever it went.

The Antonov An-225 was the largest cargo plane in the world, and a huge source of pride for Ukrainians.

Ashleigh Stewart

Its final commercial flight on Feb. 4 attracted a crowd of 10,000 people to the small Danish airfield of Billund, according to London-based air charter company 26Aviation, which hired the plane to transport urgent COVID-19 medical supplies from China to Denmark.

The flying leviathan returned to Hostomel the next day, farewelled by thousands. It never left.

Debate raged over who was responsible for the behemoth’s demise.

Its former pilot, Dymtro Antonov, released a video on YouTube in March accusing management of failing to save it.

In October, Ukraine’s Security Service concluded that Antonov officials had not taken “all the necessary measures” to save the Mriya, despite warnings from state authorities, as well as hindering the military in the early hours of the war, preventing them from organizing anti-aircraft and ground protection of the airfield. They also accused former Antonov director general Serhiy Bychkov of smuggling conscription-age men out of the country.

But Antonov continues to argue that it did not know about the Russian offensive until the day before it began.

A company spokesperson reiterated that the plane was undergoing repair work until late on Feb. 23, but refused to comment on why it didn’t depart after, saying the matter was part of a criminal investigation.

\’The dream cannot be destroyed\’

When Global News visited Hostomel in August, accompanied by Smus and Rudenko, the Mriya’s crumpled carcass still sat under the skeletal frame of its hangar.

Antonov workers stood on ladders around it, picking off any salvageable parts. A de-mining team was sifting through a pile of debris.

An Antonov worker salvages pieces from the destroyed AN-225, to use on the next ‘Mriya.’.

Ashleigh Stewart

Dozens of destroyed planes had formed a graveyard at another end of the airport. Lying in some places on top of each other, fuselages were reduced to mounds of disintegrating metal, with scorched engines hanging from bullet-riddled wings. Not a single plane had been spared.

Men with small straw brooms swept the ground below — an almost comical sight considering the scale of damage.

Dozens of destroyed planes formed a graveyard at one end of Antonov Airport.

Ashleigh Stewart

Rudenko was pensive as he watched the crew working on the Mriya. But as he stood in front of the remains of a Russian helicopter, he couldn’t hide his pride.

“[This] makes me happy,” he grins. “We brought the second army of the world to its knees. They are many times superior to us both in technology and in strength. But they got theirs.”

Smus, however, was still visibly affected by the sight of the stricken plane and its surroundings.

Accompanying Global News up a shaky ladder into the plane’s shorn-off fuselage, Smus took a deep breath.

“It’s the first time I’m in here,” he says.

Global News, accompanied by Volodymyr Smus, enter the fuselage of the Antonov AN-225 for the first time.

Braden Latam

Employees don’t like to be photographed against the background of the destroyed Mriya, Smus explains, because they prefer to remember it whole.

“As you can see, the Mriya is destroyed,” Smus says. “But the ‘mriya’, the dream, cannot be destroyed. It can be rebuilt.”

Antonov announced in November that “design work” on the second AN-225 was already underway, at a cost of $502 million. But there’s already a second AN-225, lying half-finished in a warehouse near Kyiv — abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union. No one will say if this will be used to build the second Mriya.

“There are many negotiations on this matter, but everyone is waiting for peace,” Smus says.

Sir Richard Branson, pictured at Antonov Airport during a trip to Ukraine.

Taras Dumenko

One of those negotiations is with, apparently, Sir Richard Branson.

Branson visited Hostomel in June, during a tour of several Russian attacks. At the time, Hostomel Mayor Taras Dumenko told local media the Virgin Airlines founder had offered to help to rebuild the airport. It remains unclear if this ever happened.

A Virgin spokesperson told Global News in August that “conversations are ongoing” and “Richard is keen to find ways the international community can support in the rebuild of Mriya, and the airfield.”

When we asked again in February, we were told the situation was unchanged.

An Antonov spokesperson said there were no contractual agreements in place.

Ukraine faces a huge job rebuilding Antonov Airport and its surroundings.

Hostomel alone suffered more than 9.5 billion UAH ($258.7 million) worth of damage and more than 40 per cent of its buildings were damaged in some way. But Smus is adamant that the airfield can, and will, return to service.

On a Tuesday morning in August, just outside the airport, villagers walk by apartments with gaping holes torn through them, bricks and mortar spilling out into the street. About 50 people remain living in the pulverized complex near the airport’s entrance. Volunteers go door-to-door checking on residents.

An apartment complex near the entrance to the airport, where some local residents still live.

Ashleigh Stewart

Ukrainian soldiers wander the streets or mill about on the grass.

They’re there in case Russia tries to take the airport again, Rudenko says. He won’t say how many troops are stationed there now, but says it’s more than last February.

But it’s of little solace to local residents.

Tetiana Ostapchuk wishes they would leave. She thinks they’re making them more of a target.

“We lived through all of this occupation, leave us alone now here. I’m afraid that another rocket could land here,” she says, framed by the crumbling remains of an apartment block.

Tetiana Ostapchuk wishes Ukrainian soldiers would leave, saying she believes it’s making them more of a threat.

Ashleigh Stewart

Ostapchuk lived under occupation for 38 days. She lived in a basement, a doctor’s clinic, and then with a friend. Her son is a paramedic and treated 300 Ukrainians during the battle, and several Russians.

Many of her neighbours fled to Poland. About 40 residents were taken forcibly to Belarus, she says sadly.

“The Chechens stole everything from our apartments,” she says. “It was horrible.”

A woman named Helen walks by with a stroller, delivering food to the needy. She lived here once; she delivered her first baby a week into the occupation. While she was in the hospital, her apartment building burned to the ground.

“I’m angry,” says Helen, who did not want her last name used. “Nobody asked them to come here.”

Ostapchuk similarly berates us, the international community, for not doing more to help them.

“A lot of foreigners have come here and nothing has changed.” They need aid and new housing, immediately, she says.

As the one-year anniversary of the war draws near, many say it will pass like any other day. But everyone we spoke to acknowledged how different things might have been had Russia taken the airport as planned.

Dmytro has since recovered from a concussion and been redeployed to another area of Ukraine.


Dmytro, who has been redeployed after treatment for a concussion sustained in Zhytomyr, 140 km west of Kyiv and another site of Russian attacks, says there was “nothing heroic” about his task.

“I have many friends who ask me how it is to kill people. I simply did not feel anything — I saw the task, saw the goal and destroyed it. It was like a challenge or a shooting-range challenge where a target goes up and you shoot at it.

“The only thing I felt was very, very cold. That’s the only thing I felt.”

Vdovychenko, on the other hand, is more sanguine.

“When the enemy retreated from Kyiv … I said that we have already won this war. The only question is when it will end and in which administrative boundaries and at what price,” he says.

“We did something incredible. The enemy did not even enter the outskirts of Kyiv. The city is alive, the city is full of life, there’s children’s laughter and this is already a victory. No matter if anyone tries to take away the glory, we are already history.”

Col. Oleksandr Vdovychenko says Ukrainians defended the capital because it was the ‘highest honour’ for a soldier.


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