The circumstances around the downing of a Russian Ilyushin-76 military transport plane in Russia’s Belgorod region near the Ukrainian border on Wednesday morning remain unconfirmed, with both Moscow and Kyiv casting doubt on statements made by the other and competing online narratives increasingly being used to fill in the gaps.
According to Russia’s Defence Ministry, the aircraft was shot down by a Ukrainian missile and had been transporting Ukrainian prisoners of war to take part in a prisoner swap planned for later the same day.
For its part, Ukraine’s military intelligence accused Russia of deliberately putting Ukrainian soldiers’ lives at risk and, in a very ambiguously worded statement, appeared to tacitly admit that its forces shot down the plane, blaming Russia’s “strategy of terror” and saying it would continue to take all necessary measures to prevent deliveries of weapons to Russia ”to eliminate the terrorist threat”.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, at 11:15 am a Russian Il-76 military transport plane was shot down while on approach to Chkalovsky-Belgorod airfield. "The Ukrainian leadership knew perfectly well that according to the established practice, a military transport plane would today be transporting Ukrainian servicemen to Belgorod aerodrome for exchange.”
“The aircraft was hit by the Ukrainian Armed Forces from around the village of Liptsy in the Kharkiv region using an anti-aircraft missile system. … The Russian Armed Forces radar equipment observed the launch of two Ukrainian missiles".
The ministry said that all on board — six crew members, three Russian military escorts and 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war — were killed when the plane crashed to the ground outside the town of Yablonovo.
Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan published a list of Ukrainian prisoners of war who she said had been on board the downed Il-76. Novaya Gazeta Europe verified that at least 13 of them were confirmed to be in Russian captivity, although at least one of the servicemen on the list was discovered to have been returned to Ukraine at the start of the year.
The moment before the crash. Photo: 7x7 / Telegram
Viktor Bondarev, a Russian senator and a former Russian Air Force chief, told reporters that the crew of the downed plane had had time to report the external impact on the aircraft to ground control.
The video of the crash that appeared on social media shortly afterwards shows a large fragment separating from the aircraft and falling to the ground, with flames on its side. This could be the result of either a missile attack or the aftermath of an explosion inside the plane, Russian military expert Alexey Kuznetsov* told Novaya Gazeta Europe.
The AFU could have used a Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to shoot down the Il-76 as its firing range against aircraft is 160 kilometres, and the site of the plane crash is about 50 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, but moving such an valuable system so close to the front line would be an extremely risky undertaking, according to Kuznetsov, who noted that Ukraine had a total of three Patriot systems, and that they’re also the only surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down Russian hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, and that they are also vital for guaranteeing Kyiv’s aerial security.
“Is it worth dragging one of these systems into the range of enemy artillery to shoot down an Ilyushin Il-76?” Kuznetsov wondered. “At the same time, there are Su-34s flying at the front, which bomb Ukrainian positions, Su-35s and Su-30s — a bunch of really important targets. But the AFU shoots down a shed that can carry dry rations or uniforms.”
Another possibility would be Ukraine using the S-200 long-range SAM system, a Soviet-era
system that while poorly suited to firing on moving targets, wouldn’t find it a challenge to shoot down a hulking Il-76 transport plane.
Ukraine withdrew the S-200 from service many years ago, but as part of the country’s war effort its missiles were repurposed for use on ground targets, and so the UAF has likely managed to remodel the SAMs to fire on aircraft as well.
The Il-76 plane crash. Photo: 7x7 / Telegram
Perhaps the most dramatic development in the reporting on the crash on Wednesday came from Ukrainska Pravda, which initially attributed the downing of the Il-76 to the UAF, but subsequently deleted the claim after reports emerged that the aircraft had been carrying Ukrainian POWs.
While Kuznetsov admitted he was unaware how true the Ukrainian claim was that standard protocol would be for both sides to inform the other of the planned movement of POWs to ensure their safety, he said that the AFU anti-aircraft gunners would have had no reason not to believe that they were targeting a military aircraft delivering weapons or personnel to the Russian military, adding that “an enemy military aircraft is an absolutely legitimate target in this situation”.
*Not his real name
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