Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of “gambling with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners” following a fatal plane crash in western Russia. He called for an international investigation into the crash, which occurred near Ukraine’s border in the Belgorod region. Russia stated that there were no survivors after the Il-76 plane, carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war, six Russian crew members, and three escorts, was shot down by Kyiv.
Russia claimed the prisoners were being transported for a prisoner exchange. However, Ukraine’s military intelligence said it had not been informed to ensure safe airspace as it had been on previous occasions. In a video address, President Zelensky said it was clear that Russia was toying with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners and their families’ emotions.
Zelensky, who cancelled a planned regional trip linked to his birthday, emphasized the need to establish all clear facts. Ukraine’s military intelligence seemed to indirectly admit that it shot down the military transport plane but stressed it had no reliable information about who was on board.
Social media footage showed a plane descending followed by an explosion and a fireball near Yablonovo village, northeast of Belgorod city. Belgorod’s regional governor confirmed that the plane crashed near a residential area and everyone on board died. Ukraine’s general staff initially reported that the plane was transporting missiles for Russia’s S-300 air defense systems and made no mention of prisoners of war.
Ukraine’s military intelligence stated that it was Russia’s responsibility to ensure the safety of their defenders under agreed-upon terms. It suggested that Russia’s actions deliberately endangered the lives and safety of the prisoners of war.
Despite Russia’s attempts to portray Ukraine as the aggressor, it was Russia that initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Ahead of the planned prisoner exchange, Ukrainian officials confirmed that captured Russian military servicemen were safely delivered to the agreed location.
Russia’s defense ministry said the exchange was scheduled to occur at a border checkpoint west of Belgorod. The ministry claimed that Ukraine’s air force fired two anti-aircraft missiles from the Lyptsi area south of the Ukrainian border.
Ukraine’s government body responsible for prisoners of war warned that Russia was conducting special information operations against Ukraine to destabilize its society. Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s parliamentary human rights commissioner, urged Ukrainians to trust only official sources.
Andrei Kartapolov, chairman of Russia’s parliamentary defense committee, claimed a second plane carrying 80 Ukrainian prisoners had changed its course. He stated that no further prisoner exchanges could be discussed.
The largest prisoner exchange since the war began occurred earlier this month, with Ukraine freeing 248 Russian prisoners of war and Russia releasing 230 people in a deal mediated by the United Arab Emirates. Over 8,000 Ukrainians, both civilian and military, are still held by Russia, with tens of thousands more missing.
Belgorod has suffered numerous casualties from air strikes and drones since the war in Ukraine began. Last week, Russia claimed to have captured a village near the devastated city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region. Russian air attacks have intensified recently, with 18 people killed and 130 injured in missile attacks on Ukrainian cities on Tuesday. Despite a shortage of ammunition, Ukrainian forces continue to fight, primarily using drones.