On January 24, 2024, a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane crashed in the Belgorod region near the Ukrainian border, resulting in the deaths of all 74 people on board. The crash has become a focal point of contention between Russia and Ukraine, amidst the ongoing conflict that has persisted for nearly two years.
Who Was on Board? According to Russian authorities, the plane was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs), six Russian crew members, and three Russian soldiers. The Ukrainian military intelligence stated it had no reliable information regarding the passengers on the plane.
Circumstances of the Crash: The crash occurred northeast of Belgorod, close to the Ukrainian border. Russia’s defense ministry accused Ukraine of shooting down the plane, claiming its radar detected the launch of two Ukrainian missiles from the Kharkiv region. Ukrainian military intelligence did not confirm shooting down the plane but suggested Russia’s accusation could be a deliberate action to destabilize Ukraine and weaken international support.
Planned Prisoner Exchange: The plane, en route from Chkalovsky airbase near Moscow to Belgorod, was allegedly part of a planned prisoner exchange at the Kolotilovka checkpoint on the Russia-Ukraine border. Ukrainian military intelligence confirmed a swap was planned for that day but was not informed about the transport means or routes for the POWs.
International Reactions and Accusations: The Russian foreign ministry called the incident “a barbaric act,” and Russia requested an emergency U.N. Security Council session. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for an internal investigation and accused Russia of endangering the lives of Ukrainian prisoners. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov suggested the need for an international investigation into Ukraine’s actions.
Allegations and Speculations: Ukraine insisted that Russia provided no information about the plane, which they claim was carrying missiles for S-300 air defense systems. Allegations have also surfaced that Russia might have used Ukrainian POWs as human shields, transporting ammunition and weapons for missile systems, as suggested by Ukraine’s military intelligence spokesperson Andrii Yusov.
Controversies and Inconsistencies: The incident has prompted various allegations and theories, including potential provocations and misinformation campaigns. There are claims that Russia could have staged the incident, paralleling past incidents like the downing of Malaysian MH-17 in 2014. The authenticity of the list of Ukrainian POWs reportedly on the plane, shared by Russian state media, remains unconfirmed.