Fog of war is engulfing the crash of the Russian military transport aircraft Il-76 that has reportedly killed 65 Ukrainian Prisoners of War onboard.
While Ukrainian news outlets are claiming that the aircraft that crashed was carrying S-300 missiles, Russia is blaming Kyiv’s missiles for the crash. The blame game has put the prisoner exchange scheduled for Wednesday in jeopardy.
The Ilyushin Il-76 crashed in the Belgorod region when it was ferrying 65 Ukrainians for a prisoners’ exchange. Six crew members also perished in the incident. Video circulating on social media appeared to show the moment a large aircraft crashed and exploded in a vast fireball. Other images showed wreckage scattered over a snow-laden field.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Duma, alleged that the plane was “shot down” by Ukrainian missiles. “They shot their soldiers in the air. Their own,” Volodin told lawmakers in a plenary session. “Our pilots, who were carrying out a humanitarian mission, were shot down.”
Il-76, NATO codename ‘Candid’ is a medium-range military transport aircraft. The Ukrainian news outlets have been denying the claim and said that the explosion in the aircraft suggests that it was carrying a different sort of cargo other than the prisoners. They suggest the aircraft was carrying missiles for the S-300 air defense system.
The long version of the video showing the crash of the Russian Il-76 military transport plane has important information
It shows a cloud of dark smoke high in the air, indicating that an explosion took place in the air before the plane crashed.
75 dead pic.twitter.com/98G6JGNiwG
— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) January 24, 2024
Russia and Ukraine were to exchange 192 prisoners each on Wednesday. It was the largest exchange of prisoners since the start of the war in a deal mediated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Russian side is claiming that another aircraft carrying 80 Ukrainians onboard was turned around after the crash.
Another Russian lawmaker and retired general, Andrei Kartapolov, claimed that the aircraft was either shot down by American Patriots or a German-made IRIS-T missile. The lawmaker claimed that Kyiv was informed about the flight route in advance.
Preceding the first reports of the Il-76 crash, a missile alert was issued in Belgorod, prompting residents to seek shelter in secure locations.
The Russian telegram channels are rife with rumors that the strike on Il-76 was carried out from the Kharkiv region and “judging by the range, suspicion falls more on the American Patriot.”
The Ukrainian border region of Belgorod serves as a crucial hub for Russian supply routes. It has been subjected to months of intense drone and artillery bombardment, including a missile strike on the region’s capital in December that claimed 25 lives.
The Russian news outlet said: “The publication Ukrainska Pravda, which wrote concerning a source that the Ukrainian Armed Forces were responsible for the crash of the IL-76, deleted this message after it became known about the Ukrainian prisoners on board.”
A video on the Russian telegram channel Military Informant showed the photo of the aircraft wreckage riddled with holes, which is consistent with being hit by “an anti-aircraft missile.” All the missiles carry a proximity fuse that makes the warhead detonate when the target comes within its lethal range.
— EurAsian Times (@THEEURASIATIMES) January 24, 2024
Kartapolov asserted that in light of this tragedy, any prisoner exchange is “out of the question for now,” suggesting that Kyiv had carried out the attack to thwart the exchange.
Russian Air Force Losses
Russia had an ominous start to 2024 as it lost two of its critical aircraft, the A-50 flying radar and the Il-22 airborne command center, in January. It has been deemed as the single biggest loss for the Russian Air Force since the beginning of the war, as both aircraft are few.
It has been a big morale booster for the Ukrainian armed forces and a big blow to the Russian airpower. For Kyiv, it was a big achievement since its counter-offensive in 2023 failed to yield results.
Ukraine has attacked Russian military infrastructure in Crimea through concerted military efforts. It also bombed the Headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol and forced it to relocate its naval assets to other safer ports.
Now, Kyiv seems to be determined to challenge Russian domination of the Sea of Azov. In December 2023, Ukrainian missiles brought down two Su-34s in the region. In January it was followed by the downing of A-50 and damaging the Il-22 beyond repair.
While there have been conjectures about how Kyiv brought down the A-50 aircraft, there have been speculations swirling around it. The clever teaming of S-300 and Patriot missiles brought down the aircraft.
Russia has lost a fifth of its manned aircraft and helicopters till August 2023 due to accidents not related to enemy fire. Between February 24, 2022, when Moscow’s troops crossed over into Ukraine, and August 17, 2023, 21.7 percent—or one in five—of Russia’s verified aircraft losses, including fighter jets, helicopters, and transport aircraft, were blamed on Russian system malfunctions, pilot errors, friendly fire or other accidents not related to direct combat against Ukraine.
The large number of losses was attributed to oversight in the aircraft’s maintenance and withering pilot training standards. The recent crashes have also meant the loss of trained manpower, besides the loss of expensive equipment.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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