Why the Russian president’s words may or may not be credible: the analysis
“Ukraine shot down Russian plane in Belgorod region with Patriot missile.” This is the sentence with which Vladimir Putin tries to close, at least in Russia, the case relating to the shooting down of the Il-76 plane, which crashed last January 24 in the Belgorod region, not far from the border with Ukraine.
Moscow immediately pointed the finger at Kiev, held responsible for the shooting down of the aircraft and the death of 65 Ukrainian prisoners on board the plane. The presence of the Ukrainian soldiers, destined for a scheduled exchange, has never been confirmed by independent sources: the videos and photos released on Telegram from the site of the disaster showed wreckage, but not the corpses of dozens of Ukrainian soldiers.
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.
After the Il-76 was shot down, Kiev initially claimed responsibility for the action, saying that S-300 missiles were being carried on the plane. The information released by the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda and attributed to anonymous army sources, however, was removed from the article. Subsequently, within a few hours, Ukraine adopted a more cautious position, merely referring to a planned prisoner exchange.
The intelligence of the Ministry of Defense announced that on January 24 “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 agreements , the safety of our defenders had to be guaranteed by the Russian side.” 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.
Ukraine and the missile: plausible hypothesis?
The episode immediately offered Moscow a new opportunity to call Ukraine’s Western partners into question. Andrey Kartapolov, chairman of the Defense Committee of the Duma, already stated on January 24 that the shooting down was attributable to the use of US Patriot missiles or German IRIS-T systems: no proof, however, was provided. Today Putin referred to the results of an investigation coordinated by Moscow. Kiev reportedly used a Patriot missile. According to analyzes and experts, however, there are no Patriots present in the border areas with Russia. The use of an IRIS-T should be excluded with greater conviction, given the limited range of action.
So, is it impossible 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 circumstance.
Anomalies: what doesn’t add up
In the analysis of the yes, there is also room for 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.