General Valerii Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said on Monday morning that a Russian A-50 spy plane, worth more than £250m, had been destroyed in overnight strikes in the southern occupied territories, while an IL-22 command aircraft had been hit off the Crimean coast.
“I am grateful to the Air Force for the perfectly planned and executed operation in the Azov Sea region!”
Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s chief of military intelligence, later told the Financial Times that the A-50 was shot down and exploded, while the Il-22 was badly damaged.
“Unfortunately for us, [the Il-22] managed to make an emergency landing in Anapa,” Mr Budanov said, referring to a small Russian coastal town to the east of Russian-occupied Crimea.
While not yet independently confirmed, it would make the first time an A-50 plane has been destroyed by Ukrainian forces. It first came into service near the end of the Soviet era and is a large airborne early warning and control aircraft that can scan an area several hundred kilometres across for enemy aircraft, ships and missiles.
Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine's southern military command, told a briefing that Russia had used the plane extensively to prepare for and conduct long-range missile strikes on Ukraine.
"We expect such a strike [on the A-50] to be fairly painful and, at least, to delay powerful missile strikes," she said.
The Ukrainian Air Forces destroyed the enemy A-50 long-range radar detection and control aircraft, worth $330 million, and the Il-22 enemy air control center.
Great job, warriors!
Ukraine will win! pic.twitter.com/kzJYhQwJ4U
— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) January 15, 2024
Some Russian military bloggers said the downing of the A-50 would be a huge loss for Russia's air force, since there was a limited number of the planes in service.
“It will be another dark day for the Russian Aerospace Forces and Air Defence,” wrote Rybar, or Mikhail Zvinchuk, a blogger with nearly 1.2 million subscribers who supports and provides running commentary on Russia's war in Ukraine.
"There are not many A-50s. And the specialists operating them are generally rare. If an aircraft of this type is hit, the crew will not be able to escape."
In November, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) reported that Russia was likely to “accept more risk by flying [the A-50s] closer to the front line” to capitalise on the aircraft’s superior scanning abilities. Russia’s MoD said early last year that they had deployed an upgraded A-50U in Ukraine.
Military sources told Ukraine’s public broadcaster that the aircraft was hit near the coastal village of Kyrylivka by the Sea of Azov, just over 100 miles from the nearest Ukrainian soldiers. Footage published by Gen Zaluznhy, allegedly of the plane’s flight path, also showed the aircraft disappearing near Kyrylivka.
The sources said the plane was shot down shortly after taking off at 9.10pm local time. The Il-22 was allegedly hit 10 minutes later.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the strikes, said he knew nothing of the reports, but a number of Russian military bloggers spoke of the incident. Fighterbomber, believed to be a pilot in the Russian air force, described the incident as a “tragedy”.
He added: “We most likely will not know who is to blame for the death of the pilots.”
Another channel suggested the plane that was hit was the RF-50610, which is an updated A-50U, of which there are only eight in existence, according to Rob Lee, an expert on Russian defence policy.
Meanwhile, footage posted on Monday afternoon appeared to confirm the damage sustained by the second Russian warplane.
Fighterbomber posted a photo claiming to show the cut-up tailfin of the Ilyushin 22 command aircraft in an undisclosed location.
RBC-Ukraine, another broadcaster, subsequently posted what they claimed was a radio intercept detailing the Il-22’s pilot speaking to an airfield controller in Anapa, roughly 170 miles west of where the aircraft was originally struck.
During the intercept, the pilot can be heard calling for an ambulance and firefighters to meet them after landing.
It is only the second IL-22 to be damaged by Ukraine during Russia’s full-scale invasion, according to war tracker Oryx, though the Wagner Group destroyed one of the aircraft during its attempted mutiny in Moscow last June. The Kremlin still denies this happened.
Sometimes referred to as Airborne Protected Command Posts (APCPs), the IL-22s are used to coordinate Russian forces across a section of the frontline. It is believed there are roughly 30 in operation.