Virtual museum of Russian aggression.

Virtual museum of Russian aggression.



Initial Assault and Battle for the Airport

The war came to Hostomel at around 6:30 in the morning on February 24th, 2022. A single cruise missile hit the parade ground of the military base where a Ukrainian National Guard unit was stationed. Another exploded in the courtyard of a high-rise building that was home to ordinary Ukrainian families.

At approximately 8:00, a large group of Russian helicopters took off in Belarus at a low altitude and headed toward Kyiv. There were at least 35 aircraft, including K-52s, Mi-24s, Mi-28s, as well as Mi-8s with airborne troops on board. The Russians tried to mask the invasion and use the element of surprise while avoiding detection. However, their plans for a sudden appearance were shattered by the guardsmen of the Ukrainian National Guard unit that was providing security for the Kyiv Hydroelectric Plant. The Russians came under fire in the area of the Kyiv Cistern. One helicopter crashed into the Dnipro as a result of anti-aircraft missile fire, and another was forced to make an emergency landing.

After arriving at the airport at approximately 10:00, Russian helicopters and Su-24 bombers escorted by Su-25 attack aircraft fired missiles at Ukrainian positions. At that time, 6 Russian helicopters were shot down by anti-aircraft fire from “Igla” (“Needle”) MANPADS systems: 3 Mi-8s, 2 Ka-52s and 1 Mi-24. Three aircraft managed to fly away but soon crash-landed in the surrounding fields. It was presumed that non-critical damage was inflicted on the other aircraft, since the runway remained littered with debris.

The core of the guardsmen tactical group (approximately 200 soldiers) who met the enemy at the airfield were conscripts from a support battalion. At the time of the attack, the majority of the brigade’s military personnel were in the Sieverodonetsk region. Therefore, the first soldiers to repel the enemy were not professional Ukrainian military soldiers – they were conscripts. The brigade’s press officer gave a vivid description of the guardsmens’ response, describing them as "raging".

Background information

Antonov Airport

You can't stay in the air forever and when you land, we will kill you

A message from Harytin Starsky to the Russians, 

YouTube, 24.02.2022

It turned out that young, sufficiently trained, motivated soldiers could easily hold their own against the professionals considered to be the elite of the Russian army. With only small arms, MANPADS and a few Zu-23-2 anti-aircraft guns at their disposal, they permanently grounded several high-tech Russian helicopters. Of particular note is the partially armored $15-million-dollar Ka-52 "Alligator", which, according to descriptions supplied by the Russians themselves, is "the best helicopter in the world", "jam packed with smart electronics", and "capable of flying with its tail to the front". One such “Alligator” was shot down by concentrated fire from small arms and large-caliber machine guns, and another was brought down by Junior Lieutenant Serhii Falatiuk, commander of the Ukrainian National Guard’s anti-aircraft missile platoon, with one well-placed shot from a Soviet “Igla” MANPADS. Both instances of forced landings poked literal and figurative holes in the image of the "flying tank" that Russian propaganda had given to the helicopter.

The Russian plan to seize the airport relied more on bravado than operational efficiency. Until that moment, Russia had never carried out such a massive operation, one that would involve both a helicopter attack and airborne landings. Moreover, in all of the operations that involved the paratroopers of which modern Russia is so proud, the paratroopers served as ground infantry. In its own history, the Ukrainian army has never encountered anything like this. The architects of Russia’s so-called "special operation" primarily anticipated fear and panic among the airport’s defenders that would expedite a quiet and decisive capture at the sight of such a formidable airborne armada.

The battle ended without Ukrainian losses, but several guardsmen were captured. After their exchange, they recalled that the Russians had constantly asked them under interrogation why they had been shooting at Russian helicopters. The arrogant campaign to capture the airport did not take organized Ukrainian resistance into account. In short, Russia was counting on a warm welcome.

Other aspects of the enemy’s attack on the airport were executed more professionally. The Russians used the so-called "carousel of fire" tactic, in which helicopters attacked in groups of 4, rained down their ammunition and returned to the Irpin River, from which new groups were already on approach. The unrelenting and uneven battle lasted for several hours.

Despite the fact that the airport’s defenders repelled the assault by forcing Russian attack helicopters to withdraw and cease fire support for Russian ground forces, the Russian air armada still managed to land Russian soldiers from the 31st Guard Separate Airborne Assault Brigade (based in Ulianovsk, Russia). According to the Ukrainian participants in the events, as well as video from the helmet cameras of the Russian paratroopers, the Russians demonstrated their skills despite the loss of air support by landing on three fronts at the same time, maneuvering in unfamiliar terrain and quickly evacuating their vulnerable landing point. A battle lasting several hours at the airport itself and around the Ukrainian National Guard base ended with the capture of the airport. 

At 4:45 PM, the Ukrainian National Guard brigade posted the results of a difficult day to Facebook – the airport was under the control of a battalion of Russian troops, as the defenders had taken their flag and withdrawn with minimal losses when the MANPADS and anti-aircraft shells had run out. 

Artillery strikes by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Ukrainian National Guard, Su-24M bombers, Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft, and Su-25 attack aircraft had caused extensive damage to the airport and its runway. Ukrainian paratroopers then inflicted a defeat on Russian forces in a two-phase operation. First, Ukrainian helicopters fired at the airport from the air, and then landing forces hunted for their Russian counterparts in the territory surrounding the airport that night. 

The guardsmen released from captivity would later report that on the third day after the invasion, the occupiers ordered them to collect the bodies of at least 80 Russian paratroopers that had been killed and scattered on and around the airfield and military base. In total, about two hundred members of the Russian airborne forces were killed in that long battle.

Ukrainian paratroopers held the airport for a short time. They managed to destroy the first column of Russian equipment that had crossed into Ukrainian territory from Belarus and left the airport only after running out of ammunition, as the guardsmen had done the day before. In this way, the “pendulum” of battles had begun to swing, and it would continue for several more days. The Ukrainian army eliminated more than 50 occupiers from the 31st Brigade of Ulianovsk, as well as an unspecified number of Kadyrov’s Chechen troops from the 141st regiment of the Russian Guard, along with its commander, Magomed Tushaev. Finally, on February 27th, 2022, the Ukrainian Armed Forces launched a new artillery attack on the Antonov airfield, rendering it unusable for the Russians.

Further battles were already taking place for control over the village of Hostomel. Like many of Kyiv’s other northwestern suburbs, it had been captured by Russian invaders. The residents of entire residential complexes often became hostages of the Russian military, which complicated the work of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Russia used the territory of the airport as a simple base for its own equipment and personnel. However, the Russian army was unable to capture the airfield without destroying it entirely. According to experts, the enemy was landing "reckless, unprepared and unsecured airborne troops" without proper military intelligence or the establishment of a logistical system for their support. 

Captured maps from Russian mid-level commanders did not contain a decision to attack, but they did detail a decision to march in the absence of the threat of encountering the enemy. They didn’t have any information about the possible response of our troops, almost as if we didn’t exist at all

Сергій Савченко, генерал-майор ЗСУ, керівник громадської організації «Аналітичний центр вивчення і протидії гібридним загрозам», стаття у «Дзеркалі тижня», 22.07.2022

The Myth of the 200 Spartans

Less than a day after the first assault, conjecture began to form around the events at the Antonov airport. Analytical reports, official statements and propaganda regarding the Russian Federation also appeared.

There are many different versions of the events that took place. The Wall Street Journal reported that American intelligence had warned Ukraine about Russia's intention to seize the Antonov airport in mid-January. Military bloggers Stein Mitzer and Just Olimans concluded that if the assault were carried out by Russian helicopters, then the attack would be a surprise for Ukrainian troops.

However, according to the press office of the Ukrainian National Guard brigade that defended the airport, drills were repeatedly run by the soldiers and conscripts as part of their combat training. Even if real military operations had not begun on February 24th, 2022, the soldiers would have still been carrying out their drills. Naturally, the officers and soldiers of the brigade could not predict when the attack against them would occur down to the minute at the beginning of the war, but the Russians did not catch them by surprise either. The defenders of the airport were ready, armed, in position and had clear instructions.

There’s no real difference between training conscripts and training contract soldiers. Today’s conscript is tomorrow’s contract soldier… That’s why the conscripts handled the battle so well

Stanislav "Stolytsia" Petryakov, Chief Sergeant, 

Ukrainian National Guard, Channel 5

At around 6:00 PM on February 24th, 2022, head of Bellingcat (a widely respected international group of investigative journalists) Christo Grozev reported that 18 Russian Il-76 military transport planes were flying from Pskov to Kyiv. However, it soon became apparent that events were not unfolding according to the scenario established by the Russians. The first paratroopers did not manage to accomplish their objective and the Ils changed their course to the Belarusian city of Gomel. Later, after establishing control over the airfield, the Russians tried to repair the runway. However, this also proved to be impossible due to the constant fighting, which prevented the Russians from implementing their plan logistically. Instead of landing on the threshold of Kyiv, several thousand Russian paratroopers were forced to advance on the Ukrainian capital on their own.

Russian propaganda interprets the events in a profoundly different way. As early as the afternoon of February 25th, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the Antonov airport had been seized the day before after a successful operation involving 200 helicopters, the suppression of all Ukrainian air defense systems and the complete isolation of the landing area from the air. According to the Russian version of events, 200 paratroopers allegedly landed, fought a successful battle, captured the airfield and the military base, repelled all Ukrainian counterattacks, facilitated the landing of Russia’s main forces and defended the facility without losing a single soldier. At the same time, 200 “Ukrainian nationalists” were purportedly eliminated during the operation.

The scale of the attack, particularly in relation to the number of helicopters, is wildly overstated and not supported by any existing evidence. Russian propaganda tried to cover up the failure of the landing by describing an attack on an absurd scale. At that time, Russian armor convoys had entered Hostomel. After connecting the remnants of the first Russian landing group with the rest of the airborne forces and reinforcements supplied by additional army units, the airport came under the control of the Russian army.

The fixation of Russian propagandists on the number 200 has a history of its own that goes back as far as the Incident at the Pristina airport in June 1999, when 200 Russian airborne troops seized the international airport of Pristina (the capital of the Republic of Kosovo). The incident was also considered to be a “pre-emptive" operation that took place surrounded by enemy forces, namely actual NATO troops, not imagined ones. Russia assigned an epochal historical significance to the incident, calling it "the beginning of the transition to an independent foreign policy."

The victory in Hostomel was supposed to be a triumph of the Russian military and constitute a new milestone in Russian geopolitics. These goals were not achieved, but Russia is not used to departing from a story that it has already announced as factual. Therefore, the myth engineering shifted its focus to an unequal battle. Stories about the "200 Spartans" and the "heroes of Hostomel" began to circulate in Russian social networks, including a poem that was written in their honor which later would later become a song.

In mid-July 2022, Russia published a video with footage of both the landing in Mozyr, Belarus and the 45th Separate Guards Special Forces Brigade (based in Kubinka, near Moscow) disembarking at the Antonov airport. The military personnel of this airborne unit did actually occupy Hostomel, but they most likely entered the village after crossing into Ukraine from Belarus after February 24th, 2022 along with the armored convoys. Certain Russian brigades were also swapped out in order to further serve Russian propaganda narratives. Instead of the decimated 31st Brigade, whose participation in the assault has been confirmed by Ukrainian and foreign sources, Russian media widely glorified the 45th Brigade, which did not suffer devastating losses. Despite their best efforts, Russian propaganda outlets could not change the factual reality of the events - Russia had lost the battle, despite its own superiority in manpower and equipment.

The architect of the military operation to storm the Antonov airport remains unknown. However, the course of the actual battle, the results of the battle and Russia’s attempts to rewrite history are evidence to the fact that the authors did not give adequate consideration to the impending assault. On February 27th, 2022, the Ukrainian Security Service released documents recovered from soldiers of the Russian National Guard that had been killed near Hostomel, including call signs, planned maneuvers, conventional designations, ciphers, and more. In addition to the general utility these documents supplied to the Ukrainian special services, the information provides further supporting evidence for the idea of a planned Russian blitzkrieg. Russian units tasked with dispersing Ukrainian rallies and protests were just behind the initial invasion forces leading the assault into Ukraine, as Russian strategists did not anticipate they would encounter serious resistance.

A Destroyed "Mriya” and Ukrainian Invincibility

Russian interest in Ukrainian aircraft manufacturing has always oscillated between evident and outright predatory. The website of the Antonov State Enterprise has repeatedly been attacked by hackers. In January 2018, a fake open letter appeared on the site in which the company accused the Ukrainian government of complicating their work and not providing adequate support to its employees. In April of the same year, another notice appeared on the site detailing the enterprise’s decline after its transfer into Ukroboronprom (Ukrainian Defense Industry). A direct connection between the cyberattacks and the Russian Federation has not been established, but an analysis based on the simple principle of cui bono (“to whom it benefits”) leaves Russia as the singular suspect. Kostiantyn Kryvolap, a former test engineer at the Antonov Design Bureau, believes an FSB operation was established to re-orient the Ukrainian aircraft industry towards Russia, as Kremlin control over Ukraine's aviation industry would solve many of Russia's technological problems and remove a powerful competitor from the global market.

At the time of the Antonov airport attack, one of the hangars housed a marvel of human engineering in the field of aircraft manufacturing - the world's largest super-heavy transport aircraft, a national and world record holder in carrying capacity, speed, and flight altitude, the An-225 "Mriya" (“Dream”). The plane was in need of repairs, but there was no time to fly the plane out of Ukraine before the invasion and it was subsequently destroyed by the Russians. The Mriya burned, but not completely, which makes the prospects of its restoration a topic of conversation among aviation professionals and enthusiasts around the world. As a result of the Mriya’s destruction, a pre-trial investigation into the violation of the laws and customs of war was opened (Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine) by the Kyiv Regional Prosecutor's Office.

According to data from the operating company, a total of 3 aircraft were lost and 5 aircraft were damaged as a result of hostilities in Hostomel. The destruction of Ukrainian aircraft, aviation equipment and infrastructure at the Antonov airport could be the result of the deliberate actions of Russian troops. Dmytro Antonov, the crew commander of the Mriya shared this assumption on his video blog. After analyzing the state of the individual planes, he arrived to one conclusion - at least some of aircraft received small arms fire that was unrelated to the battle, and the nature of the damage is indicative of detonations from inside the aircraft. Valeriy Romanenko, a leading researcher of the State Aviation Museum of Ukraine, expressed a similar view, suggesting that the Russian military could have deliberately destroyed the An-225.

How is the “Mriya” now? The nose was torn away and the wings also fell off... The plane was intentionally destroyed to the point that it cannot be restored.

Valeriy Romanenko, Suspilne. News

In its characteristic manner of rewriting history and re-appropriating Soviet heritage, Russia did not recognize the "Mriya" as a Ukrainian aircraft. Its destruction could very well be an element of intentional sabotage designed to deprive Ukraine of its prospects in high-tech industries, including its already well-established aircraft industry. Every missile and artillery strike that Russia has carried out on places and objects that are of no military threat to the Kremlin since February 24th, 2022 are evidence to the same. 

The "Mriya" has become another symbol of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the large-scale losses that the Russian Federation inflicts on the modern world and Ukrainian perseverance in particular. Fans of aircraft spotting have lost one of the most famous and decorated “gems” of their hobby. As long as Russian propagandists continue to celebrate the "victory" at Hostomel that never was, the “Mriya” will remain as an image of Ukraine’s greatness and invincibility, spreading Ukrainian culture to the entire world. 

11-year-old Sofia Kravchuk, winner of the "What Does Ukraine Mean to Me?" art competition, drew a sketch of the world’s largest aircraft that was destroyed by Russian invaders. On June 28th, 2022, the Ukrainian Postal Service released a novel postage stamp based on this sketch into limited circulation. 

On July 9th, 2022, The American musician John Ondrasik (Five for Fighting) published a music video for the song "Can One Man Save The World" featuring the Ukrainian Orchestra against the background of the ruined airport and the destroyed plane.

They can bomb [our] happiness, They can shoot down our Dream (“Mriya”), But they will never break our will! All shall reap what they have sown!

the chorus of the song "Mriya" by Ukrainian singer Jerry Heil


The Russians’ failure in Hostomel did not deter them from their aggressive plans. After transferring a large amount of manpower and equipment by air, a strike on Kyiv remained a priority of the Russian command and the notion of a blitzkrieg retained its appeal. Russian attention was therefore shifted to the airfield of the city of Vasylkiv, and attempts to seize it on February 26-27, 2022 also failed pitifully.

The Antonov airport did not open the way to Kyiv for the Russian occupiers, and their failure forced them to seek out alternate routes to the capital. As a result, they dispersed throughout the surrounding towns and villages and revealed their cruelty there. As you drive to Kyiv on the M07 road (known by the locals as "Warshavka"), Hostomel stands apart in terms of the scale of its destruction, despite the fact that this road also runs through Borodianka and Bucha, whose sad fates are now known to the entire world. Military history will forever record the actions of the Russian army, which was unable to accept its tactical defeat with honor and redirected its terror and malice to the civilian population.

Hostomel was under occupation for more than 35 days. At the end of March, the Armed Forces of Ukraine encircled the invaders in and around Pushcha-Vodytsia, Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel, and liberated these villages on April 2nd, 2022. When Kyiv police began documenting Russia's war crimes in mid-April, the streets of Hostomel were almost entirely destroyed, particularly in the areas surrounding the airfield and local glass factory. Ruins of destroyed Russian military equipment would be found everywhere.

The airfield became clear evidence of Russian crimes and the site was visited by numerous international delegations. Since the de-occupation of the village, the former presidents of Estonia and Poland (Kersti Kaljulaid and Alexander Kwasniewski, respectively), Swedish ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt, current Chairman of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger, US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink, founder of the company " Virgin Galactic" and billionaire Richard Branson, and many others have visited the site.

In order to celebrate the feats, heroism and resilience of the citizens displayed while defending the city against the Russian Federation’s armed aggression, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy bestowed the honorary title "Hero City of Ukraine" on Hostomel on March 6th, 2022.

For modern Ukraine and the democratic world, the battle for the Hostomel airfield is important beyond the military significance of countering the capture or encirclement of Kyiv. This is a story about deeds and actions where the main characters completed their task without tragic self-sacrifice. The defense of the Hostomel airport is a new page in the Ukrainian heroic epic on par with the defense of Donetsk airport or Mariupol. Ukrainian soldiers once again demonstrated their professionalism and military competence in practice, showing the world that there is more myth than truth in the image of the invincible Russian army. 

Published on 2022-09-15

Ivan Valiushko

National Institute of Strategic Studies


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