Battle of Antonov Airport — Russia’s Bridge Too Far

By Peter Suciu
Posted in #History
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Battle of Antonov Airport — Russia’s Bridge Too Far

April 9th, 2024

11 minute read

In today’s article, Peter Suciu takes a look at the Battle of Antonov Airport, a key engagement in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Antonov International Airport (GML) is located northwest of Kyiv (formerly: Kiev) and was intended to support Russian troops moving on the Ukrainian capital. Ultimately, the Russian advance was stopped by the tenacious defense and counter-attacks of the Ukrainian defenders.

Shown in this photo is a Ukrainian Border Guards unit near Hostomel during the initial Russian invasion of their country. During the course of the war, the Border Guards have played an important role.
Ukrainian Border Guards were among those troops fighting Russians in and around Hostomel. They are shown here in a field training exercise with Ukrainian AK-74 rifles. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The Battle of Antonov Airport is also known as the Battle of Hostomel Airport. To distinguish this engagement from the larger Battle of Hostomel, many people prefer to use the former term rather than the later. We follow suit here. 

Military planners don’t use the words “daring,” “bold” or “audacious,” nor will they describe an operation as “risky” or “perilous.” All those terms are employed by historians after the fact. Yet, many plans are still bold, risky and at times perilous — and for good reason. War is tricky business, and requires a certain amount of daring and risk to achieve victory.

Russian paratroopers jumping out of a transport plane
Russian paratroopers jumping out of a Il-76 Candid transport plane. Image: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

The Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz was noted for writing, “Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage than audacity.” Of course, von Clausewitz also argued that “there is only one decisive victory: the last.” 

All of this is important to note when military planners conceived of what can now in hindsight be rightfully described as a bold plan that was meant to bring a quick and decisive victory. One such campaign called for airborne troops, dropping deep behind enemy lines to seize a key strategic asset and then hold it until ground forces could arrive. Of course, the enemy had other plans and the engagement didn’t result in a decisive victory or anything close to it.

In this photograph, we see Ukrainian infantry riding a BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle to engage the invaders. The Russian attack threatened the capital city, and these troops helped to stop the invaders in this early battle of the Russo-Ukrainian War. 
In February 2022, Ukrainian soldiers ride an infantry fighting vehicle to engage Russian troops near the Antonov Airport. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

That may sound like the plot of the film A Bridge Too Far — based on the actual Operation Market Garden of the Second World War that was fought nearly 80 years ago — but it was actually from the now largely forgotten Battle of Antonov Airport that took place just over two years ago, which occurred in the opening stages of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Instead of a British-led attempt to capture several key bridges left intact in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, the Russian operation looked to take control of a cargo airport located just over six miles northwest of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

In this photograph we see a member of the Ukrainian resistance. These men and women fight the Russian invaders in occupied territories. They are officially known as the Popular Resistance of Ukraine — an organized partisan fighting unit of the Ukrainian armed forces.
Resistance fighters of the NSU helped stop the Russian attack outside of Kyiv. NSU is the Popular Resistance of Ukraine that operates inside enemy-held territory. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The Kremlin’s plan called for the airport to be quickly overrun, and then use the facility to airlift additional troops and heavier equipment to then move on Kyiv. 

Much like Market Garden, it had moments of success, only for the situation to change quickly. Yet, it was far from the only lesson in history that highlighted how airborne operations present both risk and reward.

Mixed Results — History of Airborne Operations

The first known airborne operation actually happened nearly three decades before Market Garden when Maximilian Hermann Richard Paschen von Cossel, then Lieutenant of the Royal Prussian Army, was dropped behind enemy lines on the Russian front. Cossel successfully blew up a railway line and then managed to return to friendly lines.

In this image, a Russian paratrooper lands in a snow covered field during training. Russian paratroopers battled Ukrainian forces to capture the Antonov airfield. The Russian troops were supported by Russian helicopters including the Ka-51 Alligator.
Russian paratroopers land in a snow covered field. Airborne operations offer significant tactical advantages, but can also go horribly wrong. Image: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

It was then on April 9, 1940 — as part of Weserübung, the invasion of Denmark — when units of German paratroopers first took part in large-scale combat operations, supported by infantry and armor. The Fallschirmjäger troops later were employed in the invasion of Norway and the Netherlands. It was during the latter operations that Germany’s paratroopers suffered the first noted setback, suffering heavy casualties while taking the town of Dordrecht. While they successfully captured several airfields — key to their objectives — many of their aircraft had been shot down. 

Despite the mixed performance of the Fallschirmjägers in the Netherlands, airborne operations were again carried out during the Greek Campaign in 1941. But these also didn’t go so smoothly, and one group was even accidentally dropped into the sea, with many of the paratroopers drowning. 

This photograph shows a destroyed Russian light artillery piece at Antonov International Airport. During the Battle of Hostomel Airport, the Russians had little artillery and were forced to rely on infantry weapons almost exclusively.
This Russian artillery piece was destroyed during the Battle of Antonov airport. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The last major German paratrooper drop was carried out during Operation Merkur to capture the Greek Island of Crete. While the operation was successful and resulted in some 15,000 British and Commonwealth troops being captured, the Fallschirmjägers experienced high losses. In addition, the German Air Ministry lost a significant number of transport aircraft. Following that operation, Adolf Hitler ordered that the Luftwaffe conduct no further airborne missions. 

The Allies also employed paratroopers to a great extent in World War II, and the British and American airborne units played a critical role in the D-Day landings. However, as noted by the aforementioned movie, in September 1944, they went a bridge too far — and Operation Market Garden failed to meet its objectives, and the casualties were especially high. One factor was that it called for absolutely everything to go right, and thus from the beginning it was essentially doomed to fail. 

Air Assault on the Hostomel Airport

Clearly, the Kremlin didn’t get the memo about the mixed results that airborne forces had delivered notably during Operation Market Garden, but it should be remembered that Moscow didn’t anticipate much resistance. It was expected Kyiv would be reached in three days or sooner — at least, that was the plan. The Russian ground forces failed to ask the Ukrainians their opinion on the issue.

In this black and white photograph, we see the unique Antonov An-225 plane that was destroyed during the fighting. It was the only aircraft of its design that was ever completely built. 
The world’s largest plane, the Antonov An-225, was destroyed by the Russians during the Battle of Antonov Airport. Image: Oleksii Samsonov/KCSA

Underestimating an enemy wasn’t unique to these two airborne operations, and it has been an issue throughout history. But clearly, the Kremlin’s expectations in Ukraine should be seen as unrealistic. 

Part of the issue was that it relied too much on wishful thinking. Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped that if Kyiv could be taken quickly, a pro-Russian regime could be installed — not all that different from how the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin subdued much of Eastern and Central Europe — and resistance would be minimal to nonexistent.

In this photo, we see a Ukrainian soldier in camouflage and carrying an AK-74 assault rifle in a trench near the perimeter of the airport. The airport was captured by the Russian forces, but was liberated by Ukraine. 
Ukrainian soldiers provided a tough defense against the Russian invasion around Kyiv. They ultimately pushed the Russians out of the region. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

Seizing an airport to mount a larger attack had been achieved by the Russians previously, notably the Simferopol airport that Russia’s “Little Green Men” took control of that preceded the annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

As a result, confidence was running high, perhaps too high, when Russia began its “special military operation” on February 24, 2022.

In this photograph we see three Ukraine Border Guards training with AK-74 rifles to fight Russian soldiers. 
Ukrainian Border Guards have been on the front line of fighting the Russian invaders from the very beginning. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

There have been reports that Russian soldiers were told they’d be greeted as liberators with young girls handing them flowers. Thus, the Russians anticipated the invasion to be like the scenes in A Bridge Too Far where the populace came out to welcome the columns of tanks. That certainly could explain why Russian tankers reportedly brought dress uniforms rather than cold weather clothing in the late February invasion. 

It also explains why the Russian forces were decimated in their assault on Kyiv just weeks later. The landings at the Hostomel Airport seems to have been a portent for what was to come. 

In this photograph, we see the damaged hangar containing the Antonov An-225 Mriya. 300 Ukrainian National Guardsmen were tasked to defend the airport. Deployed around the airport, they initially blocked the Russians from taking it. However, the superior numbers of the Russians overwhelmed them. In the ensuing weeks, Ukraine was able to take the airport back and send the Russians running. 
The destroyed An-225 had been prepped to be evacuated from Antonov airport, but the Russians launched the invasion before it could be flown to another location. Image: Oleksii Samsonov/KCSA

As the Modern Warfare Institute (MWI) at West Point noted, “The geographic similarities between mass parachute operations in the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden and the early morning airborne assault on Antonov Airport near Kyiv are striking. Both objectives were approximately 60 miles from the nearest friendly lines. Commanders sought to significantly shorten the war by seizing critical operational and strategic objectives. Commanders in both cases underestimated the enemy forces waiting below.”

There may have been no bridge to hold in Ukraine, nor were there multiple objectives — yet the airport proved to be as significant an obstacle as the Arnhem Bridge. In addition to serving as a cargo airport, it was also a military airbase with an 11,483 foot (3,500 meter) runway that was capable of supporting the largest of transport aircraft.

VDV — Russian Airborne Troops

The unit charged with leading the assault was the Vozdushno-desantnye voyska Rossii (VDV), an elite Russian airborne organization, designed to serve as “light imperial infantry.” As MWI also described the unit, except for the vaunted and mysterious Spetsnaz (Russian special forces), the 45,000-strong VDV is seen as the most elite element of the Russian military. It is celebrated with the annual and nationally recognized Paratroopers Day, while it maintains a separate branch status on par with the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, responsible for ground-based nuclear missiles, within the Russian Armed Forces. 

Russian airborne troops
Russian airborne troops were well trained and highly mobile. However, they lacked the heavy equipment needed to hold against a determined counterattack. Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

Dating back to the era of the Soviet Red Army, the Russian VDV was the first military organization to practice parachute operations as a mass military maneuver, starting with initial 12-parachutist sticks in 1930 and progressing to brigade-sized elements by 1933. More recently, units of the VDV were believed to have been among those “Little Green Men” — who wore unmarked uniforms or disguised themselves as pro-Russian separatists — that helped seize Crimea in 2014. 

The VDV could be described as an elite of elites, and the fact that it was tasked with the mission also suggests that at least some Russian military planners didn’t expect every Ukrainian to be so welcoming.

In this image, we see the military forces of Ukraine train in counterattack techniques. In this war, Russian equipment has been largely inferior to the Western equipment that Ukraine has been supplied with. The Russian Defence Ministry doesn't like it, but they probably shouldn't have invaded another country.
Ukrainian troops train in counterattacking techniques which have proved effective against the Russian ground forces. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The initial VDV assault into the Antonov Airport began as part of Russia’s special military operation, which Putin propagandized as a move to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. It consisted of approximately a company-sized element of three hundred light infantry soldiers, armed with light anti-tank weapons and assault rifles. 

While the VDV troops — which included the 11th Guards Air Assault Brigade — were trained as paratroopers, most reports indicated they were carried into the fight on upwards of 34 Mi-8 helicopters and supported by Ka-52 Alligator attack choppers. Thus they had far more support than the British 1st Airborne Division had at Arnhem.

In this unusual photo taken from the interior of a Ka-52, we see the Russian helicopter engaging Ukrainian military forces at the Antonov Airport. Shortly after this image was taken, the Ka-52 and several Mi-8 helicopters were shot down with anti-aircraft missiles. 
A Russian Ka-52 attacks the Antonov Airport in Hostomel on Feb 22, 2022. A Ka-52 and several Mi-8 were downed shortly after by the Ukrainian Forces. Image: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

Much like the initial wave during Market Garden, the Russian military essentially utilized an infiltration corridor straight to the airport. This included firing missiles to neutralize the defenses, while radars were damaged and major air defense sites targeted.

It may have seemed like overkill, given that the airport was defended by a small garrison of about 300 Ukrainian National Guard troops, with the remainder of the unit believed to have been sent to the frontlines in eastern Ukraine. Yet, when the attack began around 8 am local time, the Ukrainian forces sprung into action with a ferocity known only to men defending their homes and families.

In this photo we see a Russian BMP that was destroyed near Kyiv. It had been part of a Russian convoy that was driving toward the capital of Ukraine after the airport had been fully captured. 
Ukrainian troops provided a stiff defense and caused many casualties to the Russian military forces. Many Russian vehicles were destroyed or captured by Ukraine. Image: Alexei Samsonov/KMDA

Yet, the operation — like that of Market Garden — actually seemed to be going largely as planned, and by midmorning on February 24, 2022, the Russians had taken control of the airport. To those watching the events unfold, it seemed that Russia could achieve its goals.

The Tide Turns in the Battle for Antonov Airport

Whereas the British 1st Airborne had the unwelcome surprise of finding it was facing two SS Panzer divisions, which quickly counterattacked and isolated the paratroopers, the Russians were facing more than just the 300 Ukrainian troops. 

Shown in this photo is the destroyed turret of a BTR APC and a heavily damaged airplane hangar. Russian missile strikes and the battle for the airport did extensive damage to the facilities and surrounding town. 
One of many damaged buildings at Antonov International Airport due to the battle during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Image: Alexei Samsonov/KMDA

The National Guard of Ukraine’s 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade was a combined arms force trained to NATO standards. It also included a tank battalion, an artillery battery, and an intelligence section with organic signals intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles, all in support of its two infantry battalions. 

In total, the Russians lost at least one Ka-52 and three Mi-8 helicopters in the initial assault, and then the airborne troops had to face a counter-attack that soon came. The paratroopers were driven out of the airport and into the surrounding woods, where they were forced to regroup. 

In this photo we see a Russian helicopter that was shot down by Ukrainian soldiers. The Ka-52 is a two-seat version of the Ka-50 Black Shark helicopter. It uses a coaxial rotor system and uses an ejection system for the pilots.
Ukrainian troops shot down several Russian Ka-52 Alligator helicopters during the war. At least one was destroyed during the fighting for Antonov International Airport. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

Even worse for the Kremlin, the first Russian reinforcements were supposed to arrive by air — and included a force of 1,000 soldiers that were staged at an airbase in Pskov, Russia, two hours away. The troops were already loaded on nearly 20 Il-76 transport aircraft and were en route when the mission was aborted.

Where there was a significant difference from Market Garden is that Russia’s ground forces did manage to reach the attackers and expelled the Ukrainian defenders, gaining full control of the main objective. They were also able to link up with the ground forces.

Ukrainian Victory and Russian Retreat

However, it was a pyrrhic victory for the Russians — the airport’s runway was either sabotaged by the defenders or seriously damaged in the fighting and unable to be used as a functional airstrip. That fact, along with effective anti-aircraft fire, kept the reinforcements from arriving. 

In this photograph, we see a destroyed Russian T-80 tank. Casualties on the Russian side were high as Ukrainian defenses at the battle were tenacious fighters determined on preventing Russian control of their country.
This Russian tank was destroyed outside of Kyiv. The Ukrainian defense forces halted the Russian advances, forcing them to begin a retreat from the country. Image: Alexei Samsonov/KMDA

The Ukrainian forces then continued to engage the Russian forces in and around Hostomel. This is where the Ukrainian troops taught the Russians that invading a determined people is not something that can be determined with pre-war estimates. 

Ukrainian soldiers engaged the advancing Russian forces north of Kyiv on every street corner, playground, parking lot and roadway wearing them down. At every opportunity, Ukraine attacked the Russian positions. On the outskirts of Kyiv, the Russian offensive was stopped.

This photograph taken during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine shows a Ukrainian citizen waving to his country's troops after they defeated Russian airborne forces. Earlier in the day, soldiers celebrating the victory did take control of the city. 
Near Antonov International Airport, a Ukrainian tank and mounted infantry ride past a grateful citizen who waves a hand of greeting. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

By the end of March 2024, the Russian military withdrew its forces from the Kyiv area. In their hasty retreat, Russian units attempted to destroy the equipment that was not already destroyed by Ukrainian forces. A significant amount of the Russian hardware was captured intact by the Ukrainian military. 

In total, the Kremlin’s forces lost armored fighting vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles, multiple artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns, and at possibly four aforementioned helicopters. Moscow may not have gone a bridge too far, but it attempted a daring and audacious assault that should have been seen as perilous from the beginning.

In this digital image, we see a Ukrainian soldier waving his country's flag. After the battle for Hostomel, the Russians discovered the war would not go the way they expected.
A Ukrainian soldier waves his country’s flag after the defeat of Russian forces near Hostomel. Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

It also tarnished the reputation of the VDV, and possibly put into question whether Moscow would dare mount another airborne operation.

The Battle of Antonov Airport may not seem all that crucial given the more than two years of fighting since. However, it may have been one of the most critical engagements of the conflict — the actions by Ukraine’s National Guard delayed Russia’s assault long enough that the Kremlin was unable to land forces and quickly march on Kyiv.

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Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers military history and hardware for The National Interest and FoxNews. He has collected military small arms and headgear since he was 12 years old. His most recent book A Gallery of Military Headdress was released last year and is available from here.

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