Accusations and confusion surround the shooting down of a Russian air force Ilyushin Il-76 transport near the Russian city of Belgorod on 24 January.

Social media footage shot from a distance shows the aircraft plunging to the ground in an urban area. While it is clear that an Il-76 crashed in flames near Belgorod, just north of the border between the two warring countries, the circumstances are clouded with uncertainty and recrimination.

Russian crash jpeg

Source: Tass

A Russian investigator inspects the wreckage of the downed Il-76

According to Russia’s official Tass news agency, Moscow contends that the aircraft was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners who were to be exchanged for Russians in Ukrainian captivity. It claims that all 74 people aboard the aircraft were killed, calling the disaster an act of terrorism.

Moscow also believes that if the aircraft was shot down by a foreign supplied surface-to-air missile, such as the Diehl Defence IRIS-T or the Raytheon Patriot, then Ukraine’s Western backers are complicit.

Kyiv, for its part, says that a prisoner exchange was set to take place, but that Moscow provided no information about how it would transport Ukrainian prisoners. It adds that Moscow has offered no proof that Ukrainian prisoners were on the doomed jet.

In any event, it says the aircraft would have been a legitimate military target given that the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv is subject to shellfire from the region around Belgorod. It observes that the jet was part of the 117th Regiment, which routinely transports weapons and ammunition to Russian forces.

“If those onboard the Il-76 were truly Ukrainians, then this time Moscow consciously went to violate the established protocols of exchange, and used this to exclusively accuse Ukraine of ‘another bloody crime’,” the Ukrainian government says.

“If Russia lied and there were no Ukrainian prisoners onboard the Il-76, there are still serious grounds for concern about the fate of the prisoners, already declared dead by Moscow.”

Both nations have called for an investigation into the aircraft’s loss. At a press briefing in Washington DC, a US Department of State spokesman said that the US government had no “independent verification to offer” about the downed aircraft. 

The Il-76’s downing follows Russia’s 14 January loss of a Beriev A-50 (itself a variant of the Il-76) airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, which exploded and crashed in the Sea of Azov. The same incident also saw an Il-22 airborne command post make an emergency landing with major shrapnel damage to its tail section.

Kyiv claimed credit for attacking both aircraft. While details about how it may have struck the Russian aircraft have yet to emerge, speculation suggests that a relocated Patriot battery was used. In theory, a similar tactic could have been used to strike the Il-76 over Belgorod.

If Kyiv is indeed pushing up surface-to-air missile systems to down aircraft deep behind Russian lines, then large, lumbering transports such as the Il-76 would be relatively easier targets for missiles flying out to extreme ranges. 

Cirium fleets data suggests that Russia operates 233 Il-76s of various variants. Uses for the type include utility transport, air-to-air refueling, and AEW&C.