August 2nd has taken on a role of particular importance in today’s Ukraine, the date marked each year in dedication to the country’s airborne soldiers, better known as paratroopers. While August 2nd would come and go with little official acknowledge in more peaceful times, much like the plethora of other Soviet-era dates designated for various professions, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued hostilities in eastern Ukraine have brought the celebration of paratroopers to the forefront.
Paratroopers have long served as among Ukraine’s most competent and dedicated military units. Despite economic crises, widespread corruption, and neglect of the Ukrainian Armed Forces over the past twenty odd years, the paratroopers managed to assert themselves as crack troops with a depth of international experience. Founded in 1993 not long after Ukraine’s achievement of independence, Ukrainian paratroopers have served in various peacekeeping roles throughout the world, from the former Yugoslavia, to Africa, to the Middle East. It is likely that few Ukrainian paratroopers would have imagined that their expertise would be needed to defend their own country in the face of foreign aggression. These paratroopers have played a leading role in the defense of Ukraine against Russian-backed forces in Crimea and Donbas.
In March 2014, as Russian troops seized key infrastructure and surrounded Ukrainian military installments during the occupation of the Crimean peninsula, Ukraine’s military was in compete disarray. Decades of mismanagement and neglect had left Ukraine’s armed forces unable to defend themselves against foreign aggression. Months of political crisis in Kyiv had likewise unraveled the military’s chain of command, only exacerbating the helplessness of Ukraine’s armed forces as Russian commandos seized the peninsula. Despite these obstacles, paratroopers stationed in Crimea rightfully earned their reputation as the best of the best. Rather than surrender to the Russian military and forfeit their military hardware, soldiers of the 25th Separate Airborne Brigade managed to bravely hold off a siege of their base. After a tense standoff of two weeks, eighty of these paratroopers managed to avoid capture and successfully make their way to the Ukrainian mainland intact with ammunition and equipment. This small victory in a time of crisis was only the first of many a heroic actions accomplished by the paratroopers over the past two years.
Following the Russian annexation of Crimea, the paratroopers have continued to bravely defend their motherland, distinguishing themselves in various fields of battle as an indispensable asset to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Airborne forces played a decisive role in the campaigns to liberate the cities of Sloviansk and Krasnyi Lyman in the summer of 2014. The paratroopers likewise took part in various battles to retake control of the Russia-Ukraine border and seize strategic positions deep in Donbas. Troops from the city of Lviv managed to defend Luhansk’s airport for months under the relentless enemy attacks, only ceding the airport under the brunt of large-scale attack by the regular Russian military last August. Paratroopers also performed resolutely in the face of a full Russian onslaught during the Battle of Iloviask in the Donetsk region. Later, following the first Minsk Agreement, the airborne troops earned a place in Ukrainian military lore as part of the famed “cyborgs”—fearless troops who held onto the Donetsk airport under heavy siege for nine months. Likewise, the airborne troops selflessly defended the city of Debaltseve from the enemy earlier this year. It is safe to say that Ukraine’s paratroopers have been present in nearly all of the conflict’s major engagements, bravely protecting their country.
Along with their selfless service to the nation, the Ukrainian paratroopers have also suffered from terrible tragedy in the line of duty. On June 14, 2014 pro-Russian forces armed with infrared surface-to-air missiles shot down a transport plane landing at the Luhansk airport. All 40 paratroopers onboard perished in the attack. Paratroopers have lost lives throughout the various campaigns in the Donbas region. The paratroopers’ sacrifices have not been forgotten by their nation. In the course of the conflict, six members of the paratroopers have received the title “Hero of Ukraine”, the country’s highest honor. Many other airborne soldiers have received commendations and titles for their bravery and sacrifice throughout the course of the conflict.
It’s very likely that the course of the conflict would look very different without the sacrifices of Ukrainian paratroopers. While August 2nd used to pass with relative obscurity in more peaceful times, Ukrainians of all walks of life used the date to commemorate these heroes who have done so much to defend their homeland from cynical attack. While more peaceful days are hopefully on the horizon, the Ukrainian people are unlikely to forget the dedication of their paratroopers any time soon. They have rightly earned their reputation and lore in the imagination of the country.