It will prove to be a terrible and tragic irony if it turns out that Kyiv shot down a Russian transport aircraft today that was transporting Ukrainian prisoners of war ready to be exchanged. Around 11 a.m. local time this morning an Il-76 transport aircraft crashed in a fireball near the Russian village of Yablonova in the Belgorod Region, some 35 miles from the Russian-Ukrainian border. Everyone on board was killed. It appears that, perhaps alongside a military cargo, the plane was carrying 65 Ukrainian PoWs – if the claims of the Russian defence ministry are to be believed.
As is always the case in this war, multiple and contradictory explanations quickly emerged, often without any real evidence. Pro-Kyiv sources on social media claimed the plane had been shot down by the Russians’ own air defences. There had been a number of air alerts already in Belgorod and their assumption was that hasty and careless Russian gunners leapt to lethal conclusions. This would mean that the IFF transponder equipment which should identify a friendly aircraft was not working or ignored, which has happened before. More to the point, the Il-76’s flight path from Moscow was hardly consistent with a Ukrainian attack.
As a variant of the above, there are claims that this is a ‘false flag’ attack intended to kill the PoWs and provide an excuse for Russia not to make further swaps. Similar allegations of false flag attacks appear with obsessive frequency online and rarely have anything to back them up. The suggestion that Moscow would sacrifice a 3.7 billion ruble (£32 million) aircraft when it could just as easily invent an excuse for any military escalations or deal suspension appears pretty implausible.
The Russians, on the other hand, are claiming that this was a Ukrainian attack.