Who Shot Down Russia’s IL-76?

There were 74 persons on board the aircraft, of which 65 were Ukrainian POWs

3 mins read
An investigator examines debris at the crash site of an Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft, which came down near the western Russian city of Belgorod on January 24.

The shootdown of IL-76 has raised serious questions over who ordered the shoot down. Was the shootdown on orders of Ukrainian military intelligence (GUR), and was Kyrylo Budanov in any way involved?

On January 24th a Russian IL-76 transport plane was shot down over the Belgorod region likely as it was descending to land.  Judging from video and photos, the aircraft was probably less than 5,000 feet altitude when two missiles hit it, one of them blowing up an engine on the starboard side.  

Russian reports say that the pilots struggled to bring the plane down away from populated areas.

The Belgorod area has frequently been targeted by Ukrainian missiles, drones and artillery. Most of these operations have been carried out by Ukrainian Spetsnaz forces under the control of Ukrainian military intelligence, headed by Kyrylo Budanov. Budanov was asked this week to take over general command of all Ukraine’s armed forces after Zelensky fired General Valerii Zaluzhny (confirmed on February 2).

The Il-76 has four jet engines.  The plane is a workhorse of the Russian fleet of military planes: it also serves in many civilian roles.  

The plane was operating over Russian territory but not far from the border with Ukraine.  It was landing at an airfield in Belgorod that has been closed because of its vulnerability to nearby Ukrainian air defense systems and vulnerability to missile and drone strikes.

According to the Russians, the transport aircraft transfer of Ukrainian POWs was announced 15 minutes before its arrival in Belgorod and Ukrainian authorities informed. Ukraine denies it received any announcement from the Russian side.

There were 74 persons on board the aircraft, of which 65 were Ukrainian POWs, the pilots and crew, and Russian officials responsible for the planned prisoner exchange. All 74 perished.

Initially, Vladimir Putin claimed that the IL-76 was hit either by US Patriot missiles or by a French missile (later described as a SAMP-T air defense system).

As the Russians collected evidence they did not find French missiles, but they found parts of US-made Patriot missiles, including serial numbers.  The missiles are identified as MIM-104A, an early Patriot missile that was manufactured in the early 1980s.

France has confirmed that two Patriot missiles were fired.  According to the French, as reported by the Associated Press, the Patriot radar was only turned on at the last minute to avoid any early warning the operators would fire missiles at the Russian transport.

The Ukrainian Patriot battery was located in the area of Liptsy, in the Kharkov Region of Ukraine, well inside the range of even old Patriot missiles.

The Russians may have had a second Il-76 inbound, but it turned around after the downing of the first aircraft.

The Russian Air Force did not provide any fighter cover for either plane, since the operations were over Russian territory and the Ukrainians had been informed of the flights.

Russian sources believe that Ukrainians are not capable of operating the Patriot.  Instead, they claim Patriot is run by Americans and supported and maintained by Americans. The Russians say that Ukraine lacks competent people and has its hands full trying to operate the loads of advanced western hardware sent to that country.

President Putin has called for an international investigation.  Would the US participate in any investigation?  There has been no statement from the US, but it is highly unlikely that the US would take the risk of being involved in any investigation.

There is an obvious problem with evidence, since the chain of custody could be questioned by any investigation.  On the other hand, the Russians have some powerful information that goes beyond the Patriot parts they say they recovered.  They also have radar tracks for the two Patriot missiles; they know the launch location, and possibly they know the names of the operators.  The Russians also have recovered body parts, some of them matched to DNA, some body parts with tattoos, others identified by military and POW records.  According to some reports they now can account for all the dead.  This is important because Ukraine has alleged that the Il-76 could not have carried so many prisoners.

Ukraine says it is demanding Russia return the bodies to Ukraine.  Russia has not responded to the Ukrainian demands.

At the time this is written, February 2nd, Russia and Ukraine have carried out another prisoner exchange.

Ukraine says the Russians shot down their own plane in order to blame Kiev.  

The shootdown raises a number of important questions.

Any investigation should examine the following:

1. The nature of the advisory Russia claims it sent to Ukraine.  Who was it sent to, when was it received, and what subsequent actions did Ukraine take after it received the alleged notification?

2. In prior prisoner exchanges, were notifications sent by either side to the other in order to avoid any mistake that could happen in a prisoner exchange?

3. Who manned the Patriot system facing Belgorod, what were their orders, and under what command did they operate?

4. Is there any evidence that Ukraine sacrificed its POWs for political reasons?

5. Were Americans operating the Patriot system near Belgorod?  If yes, were they uniformed American personnel or contractors? Do Americans man other Patriot systems in Ukraine, as for example in Kiev?

6. If there were American operators, whom do they report to?  Under what US laws do the personnel or contractors operate?

7. Was Ukrainian military intelligence involved in the shootdown? Given that Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence (GUR), heads this outfit, famous for assassinations and bombings inside Russia, the possible role of the GUR and Budanov is highly significant, as President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked Budanov to replace Zaluzhny.

Stephen Bryen

Stephen Bryen is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. Bryen writes for Asia Times, American Thinker, Epoch Times, Newsweek, Washington Times, the Jewish Policy Center and others.

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