For Moscow, Kiev hit the Il-76 carrying 65 prisoners. Ukraine does not confirm
Ilyushin Il-76 crashed in the Belgorod region, not far from the border between Russia and Ukraine, is the latest mystery of the war between Moscow and Kiev between hypotheses, news, denials and images to decipher. The plane, which Russia generally uses for the transport of vehicles and men, crashed on the morning of January 24: according to the Moscow authorities, all 74 people on board died. Among them, 65 Ukrainian prisoners destined to return home in an agreed exchange.
What Moscow says
The Russian authorities immediately called Ukraine into question: the plane would have been shot down by the enemy armed forces, communications supported by Moscow call into question at least 2 missiles reported by radar and launched from the Liptsy area, in the Kharkiv region, approximately 80 km from the point of impact.
In the past, Russia has accused Kiev of killing its soldiers. In particular, according to the Russian authorities, it was Ukrainian missiles that hit a prison camp in Olenivka, Donetsk, 18 months ago. The analyzes carried out on the episode, based mainly on images, have cast doubt on the Russian version.
What Kiev says
Kiev initially claimed responsibility for the January 24 action, specifying that S-300 missiles were being transported on the plane. The information released by the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda and attributed to anonymous army sources, however, was removed from the article. Kiev officially adopted a more cautious position during the daymerely referring to a planned prisoner exchange.
The military leaders reiterated that the aircraft in the Belgorod region should be considered legitimate targets: no explicit admission, however, in relation to the Il-76.
The Ministry of Defense intelligence announced that “today there was supposed to be an exchange of prisoners, which did not happen. At the moment we have no information on who was on board the plane and what the numbers were. According to the Russian side, the plane allegedly transported our prisoners. Ukraine fulfilled all agreements to prepare the exchange. According to the agreements, the safety of our defenders was to be guaranteed by the Russian side.”
“Ukraine was not informed about the number of vehicles, route and method of delivery of prisoners. It is known that prisoners are delivered by air, rail and road transport. This could suggest deliberate actions by Russia aimed at create a threat to the lives and safety of prisoners,” the intelligence continues.
On the Telegram profiles that have been contributing to documenting war operations for two years, videos have appeared showing the fall of the plane. The Il-76, according to the not very clear images, seems to lose a piece in the uncontrolled descent towards the ground. According to initial analyses, however, the shape of the falling plane does not appear to have been damaged by 3 missiles.
The crash area was quickly cordoned off and inspected by Russian experts. The videos released show wreckage and only one body can be glimpsed: no trace of the dozens of prisoners who would have been on board. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, “the Ukrainian leadership knew very well that, according to a proven protocol, today Ukrainian military personnel would be transported to the Belgorod air base for an exchange” at the Kolotilovka checkpoint, on the border with the Ukrainian region of Sumy.
Which missile was used?
The episode gave Moscow a new opportunity to call out Ukraine’s Western partners. Andrey Kartapolov, chairman of the Defense Committee of the Duma, stated that the shooting was due to the use of US Patriot missiles or German IRIS-T systems: no evidence, however, was provided. There are no Patriots present in the border areas with Russia, while the range of action of the IRIS-T makes the hypothesis of a launch from territory controlled by Kiev implausible.
Anomalies: what doesn’t add up
The analysis also includes considerations relating to the Russian personnel who would have been present – according to Moscow – on the plane with the prisoners. The 65 Ukrainian soldiers would have been accompanied by 3 men in charge of managing the operation. The ratio of 1 to 22 does not appear consistent with the practice generally followed in prisoner exchanges. Ukrainian military sources highlight that, as has been established so far, Russia allocates one ‘escort’ man for every 2-3 prisoners based on the number of Ukrainian soldiers involved in the operation.
Russian media have released a list of names that correspond to the dead prisoners. According to Ukrainian media, the list contains obvious anomalies: some names relate to soldiers who were returned to Ukraine in an exchange completed on January 3. The list of victims of January 24, therefore, would be inaccurate to say the least.
Ukrainian missile, because the hypothesis should not be discarded
Is it possible that Ukraine actually shot down a Russian plane with prisoners on board? The Kiev soldiers who returned home in recent months, after periods of imprisonment, mainly referred to transfers by train and bus. The use of an aircraft in a sensitive area appears risky. It cannot be ruled out, however, that the Il-76 was part of the agreed operation. An aircraft of this size, without defenses, would at any moment be destined to become a target in a region like Belgorod already affected by Kiev’s actions.
The absence of communications between the two sides, essentially, could have pushed the Ukrainian armed forces to hit the big target, which had never been shot down in 2 years of war. The attack would be compatible with the script we have been witnessing for weeks. Earlier this year, Kiev claimed responsibility for shooting down an A-50 – one of Russia’s most modern control and reconnaissance aircraft – over the Sea of Azov. In the absence of admissions from Moscow, analysts hypothesize that Patriot missiles were used in the event.