Russia has accused Ukraine of bringing down a military transport plane it says was carrying 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers to a prisoner exchange. Kyiv’s military itself has not expressly confirmed or denied shooting down the plane, accusing Moscow of using such transport planes to carry missiles used to strike Ukrainian cities and suggested that the Kremlin and the wider Russian government are using the incident as part of a wider information war.
Russia has a history of trying to shape narratives to fit its own purposes. Take the annexation of Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014 – the Kremlin denied that Russian soldiers were involved before eventually acknowledging their presence. There have been a number of other examples since, including the Kremlin’s statements the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine that same year and the novichok poisonings in Salisbury. In the current invasion, Russia has repeatedly accused the government in Kyiv of being a “Nazi” regime to jusity its invasion in the most bombastic way possile. A claim that does not stand up to even the merest scrutiny.
Not every statement that comes out of the Kremlim or government departments will be without truth, but given the importance of the information war over events in Ukraine, alongside the pyhsical fighting on the frontline, there is a need to look critically at what is said. The fact that Ukraine also took some time to issue statements after the downing of the plane, saying facts needed to be establised, giving the Kremlin the space to try and dominate the initial release of information about the crash.
Here is what we know so far.
What was the plane, and who was on board?
The aircraft was an Ilyushin Il-76, a large military transport plane designed to carry troops, cargo or weapons. Russia said that, besides 65 Ukrainian PoWs, there were six Russian crew members and three Russian soldiers on board. The plane crashed in a huge fireball, killing all 74 people on board, the Russian defence ministry said.
Ukrainian military intelligence said it had no reliable information about who was aboard the crashed plane. “We haven’t seen any indication that such a large number of people was on that plane, Ukrainian citizens or not,” Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, said on national television on Thursday.
Where did it happen?
The crash occurred northeast of the city of Belgorod in western Russia, close to the border with Ukraine. The Belgorod region has been the target of frequent cross-border attacks by Ukraine, but this, if the toll is confirmed, would be by far the deadliest single incident of its kind, since the war began almost two years ago, to take place inside Russia’s borders.
What caused the crash?
Russia’s defence ministry accused the “Kyiv regime” of shooting down the plane, saying that Russian radar had detected the launch of two Ukrainian missiles from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. Earlier, Russian lawmaker and former general Andrei Kartapolov had spoken of three missiles and said they were either US Patriots or German-made IRIS-Ts. He said investigators would determine exactly what kind of missiles were used when they recovered fragments from the crash site.
Media in Kyiv initially cited sources within the Ukrainian military as saying that the plane had been carrying S-300 missiles intended for an attack on the nearby Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. The Ukrainska Pravda website reported that the aircraft had been brought down by the Ukrainian armed forces, but later revised its article to remove the reference.
Neither Ukrainian military intelligence nor Ukraine’s army confirmed that Ukraine had shot down the plane. They accused the Russian army of having used military transport planes to deliver missiles to the Belgorod region in order to perform cross-border attacks in recent weeks – which they linked to Russian missile strikes on Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities, such as Kyiv.
“With this in mind, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue to take measures to destroy means of delivery and exercise airspace control to eliminate the terrorist threat, including in the Belgorod-Kharkiv direction,” the army said on Telegram.
Investigators have found the flight recorders from a Russian military transport plane that crashed in a border region near Ukraine, Russian media reported on Thursday. There was also a claim by the TASS news agency, citing the emergency services, that fragments of what appeared to have been a missile had been found at the site.
Ukraine’s army said that Russia’s accusations could amount to “a planned action to destabilise the situation in Ukraine and weaken international support for our state”.
Air force commander Mykola Oleshchuk accused Russia of trying to undermine international support for Ukraine. “Ukraine has the right to defend itself and destroy the means of the aggressors’ aerial attack,” he said.
Russian air defence systems were active in the Belgorod region on Wednesday, the same day that a Russian military transport plane crashed, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s military intelligence, Andriy Yusov, said.
“On this day, both sides used UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles]: Ukraine reconnaissance drones, Russia kamikaze drones. Russian reports confirm that the Russian air defence system worked on the Ukrainian drone,” said Mr Yusov.
What was the prisoner exchange that was planned?
Russia’s defence ministry said an exchange had been due to take place at the Kolotilovka checkpoint on the border between Russia and Ukraine. It said the plane that was shot down had been flying from the Chkalovsky airbase near Moscow to Belgorod, in which case it would have been in the final stage of its flight.
Ukrainian military intelligence confirmed that a swap was planned for Wednesday and said that Kyiv had met all the terms for it, but it was not informed by Russia about the means of transport for the prisoners of war, or their routes. It said that, unlike in previous exchanges, Ukraine had not been asked to guarantee the security of airspace over Belgorod at a specific time.
Mr Kartapolov, a former general with close links to the defence ministry, who now heads Russia’s parliamentary defence committee, claimed Ukraine had been given a 15-minute warning of the plane entering the area in which it went down. He offered no evidence in support of this claim.
Mr Yusov told Radio Svoboda on Thursday that two other Russian military transport planes, An-26 and An-72, were simultaneously in the airspace.
“Unfortunately, we can assume various scenarios, including provocation, as well as the use of Ukrainian prisoners as a human shield for transporting ammunition and weapons,” he said.
Russia and Ukraine have carried out several big prisoner swaps during the course of the war. Russian state TV journalist Margarita Simonyan published what she said was a list of the names of the 65 Ukrainian PoWs on the plane. That list has not yet been verified.
“The Russians are playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners, the feelings of their loved ones and the emotions of our society,” the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in his usual overnight address.
He called for an international investigation, in an appeal that was echoed on Thursday by Ukraine’s ombudsman, Dmytro Lubinets.
“But I am convinced that ... the Russians will make loud statements but will not allow anyone in. They will not hand over any materials for analysis and will simply blame Ukraine,” Mr Lubinets told national television.
Reuters contributed to this report