January 24, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: Russian transport plane crashes inside Russia, but who brought it down and were Ukrainian POW’s on board?

Institute for the Study of War

A Russian Il-76 military transport aircraft crashed in Belgorod Oblast on January 24. Geolocated footage posted by various Russian sources shows the Il-76 crashing in Yablonovo, Belgorod Oblast (about 50km northeast of Belgorod City).[1] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that the Il-76 was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) and was en route to a pre-arranged POW exchange at the Kolotylivka border-crossing checkpoint between Russian and Ukraine.[2] The Russian MoD accused Ukraine of hitting the plane with two unspecified missiles, killing the 65 POWs, six Russian crew members, and three Russian military personnel.[3] Senior Russian propagandist and Editor-in-Chief of state-controlled outlet RT Margarita Simonyan published a list of the names of the Ukrainian POWs supposedly on the flight, but several Russian and Ukrainian sources noted that at least one of the alleged POWs had already been exchanged in a previous POW swap on January 3.[4] Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Dmytro Lubinets and the Ukrainian Coordinating Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, immediately responded to the incident by emphasizing that Ukraine is investigating the crash and urged audiences not to draw premature conclusions about the crash based on unconfirmed reporting.[5] Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Spokesperson Andriy Yusov confirmed that a POW exchange was scheduled to take place on January 24 but that the exchange was no longer taking place and that GUR is investigating the circumstances of the crash.[6] GUR later stated that Ukraine “does not have reliable and comprehensive information about who exactly was on board the plane.”[7] The Ukrainian General Staff did not directly respond to the incident but emphasized that Russia has conducted 19 missile strikes against Kharkiv Oblast from Belgorod Oblast over the past week and stressed that Ukraine “will continue to take measures to destroy means of delivery” and “control the airspace” in the Kharkiv-Belgorod border area.[8] Ukrainian outlet Ukrainska Pravda, citing unspecified sources in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, claimed that the Il-76 was transporting S-300 air-defense missiles, which Russian forces frequently use in strikes against ground targets in Kharkiv Oblast.[9] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in his nightly address on January 24 that Ukraine is working to establish “all clear facts” and that GUR is looking into “the fate of all prisoners.” ISW offers no assessment of the circumstances of the Il-76 crash at this time and cannot independently verify Russian or Ukrainian statements on the incident.

Russian information space actors are seizing on the Il-76 crash to sow domestic discontent in Ukraine and undermine Western will to continue giving military support to Ukraine. Russian State Duma Defense Committee Chairperson Andrei Kartapolov claimed that Ukraine deliberately shot down the Il-76 knowing that it contained Ukrainian POWs and called for all POW exchanges to pause indefinitely.[10] Deputy Chairperson of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev accused Ukrainian “internal political struggles” of contributing to the crash.[11] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is currently in New York for UN Security Council (UNSC) meetings, called for an urgent UNSC meeting to address the crash and accused Ukraine of terrorism.[12] Such Russian accusations are meant in part to sow discontent in Ukraine and galvanize distrust of the Ukrainian government, which is consistent with several other Russian information efforts aimed at weakening Ukraine domestically.[13] POW exchanges are a sensitive issue in both Russia and Ukraine, and rhetorical invocations of POWs predictably elicit emotional responses. Russian officials additionally made unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine struck the Il-76 with US- or German-provided missile systems, likely in an attempt to discourage Ukraine’s Western partners from providing Ukraine with critical air defense systems necessary for Ukraine’s continued defense.[14]

Russian law enforcement authorities are codifying xenophobic profiling methods suggesting that migrants are predisposed to criminal activity against the backdrop of continued conflicts between Russian citizens and naturalized migrants. Russian outlet RTVI reported on January 24 that the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) published a “criminogenic index” detailing which countries’ migrants committed the most crimes in Russia in response to a request from Russian State Duma Deputy Mikhail Matveev to determine if “immigrants from certain countries have criminal characteristics.”[15] The MVD report found that crimes committed by migrants from “neighboring countries” declined between 2013 and 2019 but have increased since 2019.[16] The MVD report also found that citizens of Uzbekistan committed 40 percent of all crimes committed by foreigners from “neighboring countries” between January 2022 and May 2023. Uzbek citizens likely account for the highest percentage of crimes because there are more migrants from Uzbekistan in Russia than migrants from other Central Asian and South Caucasus countries.[17] Matveev stated that the MVD’s report excludes migrants with naturalized Russian citizenship, implying that migrants commit more crimes than reflected in the MVD’s official findings.[18] Russian Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin similarly claimed in September 2023 that the number of serious crimes that foreign citizens committed in Russia increased by 32 percent from 2022 to 2023.[19] Russian authorities’ deliberate attempts to highlight migrant crimes and portray migrants as a danger to Russian society are likely part of an ongoing effort to appease the pro-war Russian ultranationalist community that also routinely expresses xenophobia toward migrant and diaspora communities and to coerce migrants into Russian military service by limiting work opportunities in Russia.

Sakha Republic Head Aisen Nikolaev and other Russian sources claimed that unspecified foreign actors may have incited protests in Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, after a naturalized citizen from Tajikistan allegedly murdered a Russian citizen.[20] Nikolaev suggested that foreign agents may have encouraged these protests to incite conflict and divide Russian society.[21] Nikolaev instructed Sakha Republic authorities to monitor migrants and investigate the circumstances under which the murder suspect obtained Russian citizenship.[22] Nikolaev’s response of both condemning the protests as externally conceived and maintaining a harsh stance against a naturalized Russian citizen likely reflects the wider struggle Russian ultranationalists continue to face in attempting to portray non-ethnic Russian diaspora communities as an internal threat to Russian society while the Kremlin continues to portray Russia as a harmonious multiethnic society.

The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Ukrainian hackers recently conducted cyberattacks on Russian intelligence and communications infrastructure. The GUR reported on January 24 that Ukrainian hackers conducted a successful cyberattack against the Russian “Planet” Scientific Research Center of Space Hydrometeorology’s Far East branch, specifically targeting the center’s database, servers, and supercomputers.[23] The GUR reported that the attack destroyed a database that received and processed satellite data and contributed to products for over 50 Russian government agencies, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), General Staff, and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). The GUR noted that the database contained two petabytes (two million gigabytes) of data potentially worth over $10 million. The GUR reported that the attack also rendered the center’s supercomputers inoperable and unable to be completely restored and brought down the center’s servers and physical infrastructure. The GUR stated that the attack will leave dozens of unspecified strategic defense companies without “critically important information” for a long time. The GUR reported on January 23 that unspecified “cyber volunteers” attacked Russian internet provider Akado-telecom, which services the Russian Presidential Administration, Federal Security Service (FSB), Federal Protective Service, Moscow Oblast governing bodies, Russian state-owned bank Sberbank, and others, causing a large-scale internet failure on January 21 and 22.[24]

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated during the 18th Ukraine Defense Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base in Germany that recent Russian missile strikes against Ukraine underscore the need to strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses. Stoltenberg noted on January 23 that NATO has already transferred a variety of air defense systems to Ukraine, including Patriots, IRIS-T, and NASAMS, and that NATO is supplying Ukraine with additional demining equipment, winter equipment, and fuel as part of its Comprehensive Assistance Package.[25] Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) Press and Information Department Head Illarion Pavlyuk stated that Ukrainian and Western officials discussed increasing the supply of long-range weapons to Ukraine, including adapting Western anti-aircraft missiles to Soviet-era launch platforms and expanding the production and supply of ammunition and artillery systems to Ukraine.[26] ISW previously assessed that Russian forces likely continue to experiment with new strike packages with different means of penetrating Ukrainian air defenses and to pressure Ukrainian air defense deployments following recent Ukrainian adaptations to prior Russian strike packages.[27] ISW continues to assess that Western provisions of air defense systems and missiles remain crucial in defending Ukraine‘s growing defense industrial base (DIB) against Russian strikes.[28]

Russian and Chadian officials met in Moscow on January 24, suggesting that Chad may be the Kremlin’s next target among former French colonies on the African continent. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chadian junta leader Mahamat Idriss Deby to discuss counterterrorism efforts in Chad and announced an upcoming agreement expanding Russian–Chadian cooperation.[29] Russian Deputy Defense Ministers Colonel General Alexander Fomin and Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov also met with Chadian Minister of the Armed Forces, Veterans Affairs, and War Victims Dago Yacouba to discuss bilateral military and military-technical cooperation and regional security.[30] Fomin and Yevkurov previously met with Nigerien National Defense Minister Major General Saliufou Modi.[31] ISW previously reported that Russia and the Central African Republic (CAR) are in negotiations to construct a Russian military base in CAR.[32] Russia appears to be attempting to expand its involvement with and influence on authoritarian regimes in western and central Africa, particularly focusing on former French colonies in the Sahel such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) controlled Africa Corps published photos on January 24 claiming to show Africa Corps personnel arriving in Burkina Faso.[33] The Africa Corps claimed that 100 Russian personnel will perform executive protection and conduct counterterrorism operations in Burkina Faso and that another 200 personnel will arrive in the country in the near future.[34] ISW previously reported that the Kremlin is likely attempting to expand Russia’s influence in Africa through the Russian MoD and the MoD-controlled Africa Corps and assessed that the Kremlin is likely attempting to expand the Africa Corps’ operations in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali.[35] The Kremlin may also eventually set conditions to expand the Africa Corps’ operations in Chad, given January 24 Russian–Chadian government meetings.

NATO announced on January 24 that the Steadfast Defender 2024 exercises have started and will run until May 31, 2024.[36] NATO reported that the exercises will occur in the High North, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe.[37] ISW continues to assess that Russia will attempt to misrepresent these exercises as a threat against Russia despite the exercises’ defensive nature in response to real Russian aggression against Ukraine and overt Russian threats to NATO states.[38]

Key Takeaways:

  • A Russian Il-76 military transport aircraft crashed in Belgorod Oblast on January 24.
  • Russian information space actors are seizing on the Il-76 crash to sow domestic discontent in Ukraine and undermine Western will to continue giving military support to Ukraine.
  • Russian law enforcement authorities are codifying xenophobic profiling methods suggesting that migrants are predisposed to criminal activity against the backdrop of continued conflicts between Russian citizens and naturalized migrants.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that Ukrainian hackers recently conducted cyberattacks on Russian intelligence and communications infrastructure.
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated during the 18th Ukraine Defense Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base in Germany that recent Russian missile strikes against Ukraine underscore the need to strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses.
  • Russian and Chadian officials met in Moscow on January 24, suggesting that Chad may be the Kremlin’s next target among former French colonies on the African continent.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) controlled Africa Corps published photos on January 24 claiming to show Africa Corps personnel arriving in Burkina Faso.
  • NATO announced on January 24 that the Steadfast Defender 2024 exercises have started and will run until May 31, 2024.
  • Positional engagements continued throughout the theater.
  • Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov continues efforts to bolster the reputation of Chechen forces.
  • Russian occupation authorities are setting conditions to coerce voter turnout in the upcoming March 2024 presidential elections.

    For full report:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-january-24-2024 
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