Moscow says the aircraft was shot down by Kyiv military forces and has Ukrainian POWs on board. But Ukraine says it doubts they were on board.
Russia and Ukraine are trading accusations over the crash of a military transport plane that Moscow said was carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war and was shot down by Kyiv’s forces.
It marks another heated episode in the information war that has been a feature of the conflict.
Though investigators reportedly found the flight recorders a day after Wednesday’s crash, there was little hope that the circumstances would be clarified in a war where both sides have often used accusations to sway opinion at home and abroad.
The Il-76 crashed in a huge ball of fire in a rural area of Russia’s Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, and authorities there said all 74 people on board, including 65 POWs, six crew members and three Russian servicemen, were killed.
The crash triggered a spate of claims and counterclaims, but neither side offered evidence for their accusations.
Russia alleged that Kyiv shot down the plane with two missiles and said the prisoners of war were headed for an exchange. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it as “a totally monstrous act.” Russia’s top investigative agency, known as the Investigative Committee, opened a criminal probe on Thursday on charges that the crash was a terrorist act.
Ukraine responded by casting doubt on the fact that POWs were aboard and putting forward their own theories, including implying that the plane may have posed a threat.
Neither side has provided evidence for their accusations, leaving the relatives and loved ones in vulnerable states with no answers. Many Ukrainians were already in distress before the incident and had heard nothing from their loved ones in captivity for months.
Yevheniia Synelnyk’s brother has been in captivity for over a year and a half. She cried and worried through Wednesday as conflicting items appeared on the news.
“You don’t understand which of these is true,” she said.
Without mentioning the crash, the general staff of the Ukrainian military said the country would target any Russian military transport plane believed to be delivering missiles, especially near the border.
Ukrainian officials have noted that Moscow did not ask for any specific airspace to be kept safe for a certain length of time, as it has in past prisoner exchanges.
Mykola Oleshchuk, Ukraine’s air force commander, alleged that “rampant Russian propaganda is directing a fake stream of information to the international audience, attempting to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the global community.”
Ukrainian officials confirmed that a prisoner exchange was due to happen on Wednesday – but they said it was called off. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine would push for an international investigation.
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called by Russia late on Thursday, Russian and Ukrainian diplomats clashed in person.
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky accused Ukraine of a premeditated attack that sacrificed its own citizens “to Western geopolitical interests.”
He said that if a preliminary investigation showing the plane was hit by an American or German missile is confirmed, the Western countries that supplied the weapons “will become direct participants of this crime.”
Polyansky reiterated Russian claims that the Ukrainian General Staff initially issued a congratulatory statement saying the plane was downed intentionally, and started a cover-up when they realised Ukrainian prisoners were on board.
He praised the “heroism” of the Russian pilots who at the last moment flew the plane away from residential areas so there were no casualties on the ground.
Ukraine’s deputy UN ambassador Khrystyna Hayovyshyn said Ukraine fulfilled its obligations on Wednesday and transferred Russian prisoners safely to the agreed location for the swap.
The Russian side was supposed to ensure the safety of Ukrainian prisoners, but she said the Ukrainian side wasn’t informed of the route and means of transportation of the captives, or told to secure the airspace in the vicinity of the city of Belgorod during a specified period.
Following the crash, Hayovyshyn said, Russian military and security officials didn’t allow emergency workers to inspect the site “as per protocol.” She added that according to Ukrainian military intelligence, “only five bodies were sent to the local morgue in Belgorod” – and that no human remains are visible on footage from the site.