Belgorod plane attack: Why did Ukraine shoot down an aircraft carrying dozens of its own soldiers?
On Wednesday, an Il-76 transport plane was downed in Russian airspace. It was reportedly carrying 65 Ukrainian POWs scheduled for a prisoner swap, escorted by three Russian military guards, as well as six crew members. All on board were killed. It seems the aircraft was destroyed by missiles launched from a US-supplied Patriot system.
The incident prompts a critical question: What were the Ukrainian soldiers doing so far from their homeland that air transportation was necessary? The answer is simple: The POWs were initially held in the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, but then came a Ukrainian HIMARS attack on a prisoner camp in Olenovka near Volnovakha on July 29, 2022, killing 53 people. This seems to have been the reason for the transfer, aiming to distance the POWs from high-tech precision weapons systems provided to Kiev by NATO.
Today, we can say with absolute certainty that this did not help. Ukraine has once again shown the world just how dangerous it can be for its own citizens.
Around noon on Wednesday, Moscow time (9am GMT), footage spread online depicting the crash on snow-covered fields. A distinctive church seen on video meant the location was soon identified as being near the village of Yablonovo, Korochansky District, in Belgorod Region.
Almost immediately, Ukrainian Telegram channels, both anonymous and verified (such as Unian and Ukrainskaya Pravda), were inundated with posts citing sources close to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). These posts claimed that a) the plane was purportedly carrying missiles for Russia’s S-300 systems intended for use in attacks on Kharkov, and b) the downing was attributed to the Kiev's actions.
A short time later, the Russian Defense Ministry officially announced that 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers who were being transported to Belgorod for a prisoner exchange were on board the plane, along with six crew members and three guards.
Immediately afterwards, statements about the involvement of Kiev’s forces began to disappear from the Ukrainian internet, as well as any mention of the alleged cargo (missiles for the S-300 system).
At 3pm Moscow time, the Russian Defense Ministry made an official announcement, stating that two Ukrainian missiles had been launched from the Liptsy suburb of Kharkov. The point of impact was approximately 100km away, a range well within the coverage of the AFU’s Patriot missiles of all modifications, including PAC-2 GEM-T and PAC-3 MSE.
Concurrently, lists featuring the names of Ukrainian servicemen surfaced, which can be verified through the meticulous maintenance of Ukrainian POW databases by dedicated enthusiasts.
Belgorod’s civilian airport has been shut down since Russia launched its military operation in February 2022. This closure is a precautionary measure due to the airport’s location within the range of Ukrainian air defenses.
Nevertheless, the air transportation of prisoners to Belgorod for exchange is a well-established practice. Previous instances were conducted using the Il-76 aircraft, notably on January 3, 2024, with the actual exchange occurring on January 8.
It’s reasonable to assume that the Ukrainian side was notified about these flights, similar to how Russia is informed about visits by foreign leaders to Kiev.
On Wednesday, two planes were involved; the second Il-76 aircraft, transporting another group of prisoners, promptly reversed course and returned to base after the first aircraft crashed.
The AFU’s actions have precedents. On multiple occasions, they have covertly positioned Western air defense systems, including Patriots and IRIS-Ts, near the border of Belgorod Region or the line of contact, attempting to use them to engage aircraft within Russian airspace. Despite claiming success in these operations, Ukrainian forces have consistently failed to substantiate their reports with evidence.
Ukraine, as always, is firmly in denial, so we are unlikely to learn the real motives behind the actions of its military anytime soon. Was it a mistake caused by a lack of coordination and general sloppiness, a deliberate provocation, or both? Were they aiming to shoot the plane down on its way home with Russian POWs on board, but something went wrong?
Is this the end of prisoner exchanges? One would hope not. In just under two years, more than a thousand captured Russian soldiers have been brought home in POW swaps, but many others are still being held captive, so these exchanges need to go on.
Will there be any reaction from the West? I’m certain there won’t be. At best, we’ll hear routine hypocritical expressions of concern, or, more likely, another round of tirades about how Russia is to blame. The West continues to use Ukraine, while it can get away with it, and will keep turning a blind eye to anything, including the killing of Ukrainians by Western “weapons of freedom.”
Not that it matters to the dead Russian pilots or Ukrainian soldiers who were on their way home. What matters is that the idea that the Ukrainian government being the worst enemy of its own people has just be bolstered.
The Ukrainian army, which is getting weaker by the day, is not fighting for a “better future.”
The Ukrainian army is not fighting for “freedom.” People at the highest levels in Kiev have confirmed that they were offered what would be incredibly accommodating terms by current standards at the peace negotiations with Russia in Istanbul back in March and April 2022.
The Ukrainian army is not fighting “to expel the enemy,” as only the craziest of fanatics continue to claim that this can be achieved by military means.
It’s not even fighting for “the European way,” as NATO and EU membership is receding into background, like a dot on the horizon, which is no secret to anyone.
The Ukrainian army is fighting and Ukrainian soldiers are rotting alive in rat-infested trenches, dying by the thousands for one thing only: to keep the current Kiev regime in power.
It’s a regime that refuses to accept reality and keeps saying it’s winning.
It’s a regime that has no qualms about sacrificing thousands upon thousands of its own citizens for a fleeting spot in the media limelight, just for the show.
It sacrificed them in Bakhmut, even though trying to hold the city was clearly pointless. It sacrificed them near Rabotino, even though the Ukrainian army leadership realized the failure of the counteroffensive after just a few days.
It sacrificed them during suicidal, flag-waving raids on Snake Island and Crimea, even though few came back from those escapades. It’s sacrificing them today in Krynki, in Avdeevka, and near Belgorod – just like that, for nothing in particular.
Every day, Ukraine’s plight is getting worse. Zelensky is running out of fuel for his fire, but he keeps throwing more soldiers into the flames, sending people-catchers to grab anyone they can get their hands on in the street.
All of those are not separate incidents but the work of an inhuman machine of annihilation, which will only go down when the Ukrainian state falls.
The plane incident is just another episode. But one would like to think that this will be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
If that happens, it will mean that the deaths of our pilots and Ukrainian POWs will not have been in vain.