The debris from the crashed Russian military plane in Belgorod (Picture: CEN)
As the wreckage is examined for answers, a virtual storm is brewing – fuelled by dissemination of unverified claims.
Where are the bodies of the Ukrainian prisoners of war who were on board? Was the plane shot down? Was it travelling from Iran?
What drives the most suspicion is a video, reportedly of the site, which shows only one body on the ground – presumably the pilot.
Putin’s Kremlin is known for its propaganda. Built on Soviet Cold War-era techniques, it has previously been described as ‘the firehose of falsehood’ for its willingness to share partial truths or outright lies.
Russia’s state media is also claiming fragments if what appears to be a missile was found at the site of the crash.
For Ukraine, propaganda has become a tool to keep the English-speaking world on its side.
Establishing who is behind this mysterious plane crash is difficult, as the two governments traded blame within hours – but this is what we know so far.
Accusations and intrigue
Footage shared widely on social media shows the plane falling from the sky, followed by a large explosion and a fireball.
The incident happened near the village of Yablonovo, 44 miles to the north-east of the city of Belgorod, around 11am on Wednesday.
Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said the plane crashed in a field near a residential area.
Within about half an hour after the crash was reported, authorities confirmed that all 74 people on board, including the crew, had been killed.
The Kremlin said the Ilyushin Il-76 military jet was carrying 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers to a prisoner exchange when it was downed – but this claim has already been questioned.
The Belgorod region has come under frequent attacks from Ukraine in the last few months, including a December missile strike which killed 25 people.
The incident happened near the village of Yablonovo, 44 miles to the north-east of the city of Belgorod (Picture: Anadolu)
What we know about the plane
The Ilyushin Il-76 is a military transport plane and an icon in Russian aviation dating back to Soviet times.
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It is designed to airlift troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons. It usually has a crew of five, and can carry up to 90 passengers.
Ukrainian OSINT analyst Skrinka Pandori reported that RA-78830 flew over Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea and Iran, disappeared from radar near Syria, then again appeared above Belgorod .
FlightRadar24 showed that in the last seven days it had flown twice on January 20 and then again on January 23 and 24.
The site of the wreckage is currently being examined and both black boxes have since been recovered, the RIA news agency reported on Thursday, citing rescue services.
Flames rising from the scene of the crash (Picture: AP)
Were there 74 Ukrainian PoWs on board?
A video of the aftermath of the crash shared on Telegram shows parts of the jet charred from the explosion
The body of one man can be seen in the white snow near the wreckage. But that is it.
They said: ‘Where are the 70+ bodies? We only see one (the pilot) and we do not see even hints of blood on the snow or blood on the metal.’
Other analysts pointed out that more than three security guards would normally be deployed with PoWs in exchanges unlike this time.
Ukrainian veteran Max Kolesnikov said on X: ‘The Ministry of War of Russia stated that the Il-76 had 65 prisoners, six crew members and three escorts.
‘This is complete bulls***. When I was taken by plane from Bryansk to Belgorod, there were about 20 of their military police for every 50 prisoners. Three guards, yeah.’
Ukraine stresses that it has no reliable information about the passengers on the plane.
Media outlet Ukrainska Pravda initially cited military sources as saying Ukraine had shot down the plane because it was carrying S-300 missiles.
But later corrected the story saying that information had not been confirmed by other sources. It made no mention of PoWs.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said greater clarity was needed about what happened, particularly when it came to who was on board.
‘It is clear that the Russians are playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners, the feelings of their loved ones and the emotions of our society,’ he said.
The SBU Ukrainian secret service has today opened a case into Russia’s ‘violation of the laws of war’, denying that any warning was given that the aircraft had PoWs on board.
‘We demand a recognised international investigation,’ ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets told national television, adding he would send letters to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross calling for such a probe.
‘Regarding an international investigation, I believe that we will do our part to make it happen.
‘But I am convinced that… the Russians will make loud statements but will not allow anyone in.
They will not hand over any materials for analysis and will simply blame Ukraine.’
Lubinets stressed that Ukraine ‘did not see any indication that there was such a large number of people on the plane’.
What has Russia said?
The rhetoric in Russia has ben consistent – Ukraine is to blame and the attack was ‘absolutely deliberate’.
Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the prisoners were being prepared for exchange, calling the incident ‘monstrous’.
Meanwhile, ex-deputy defence minister Col-Gen Andrey Kartapolov, a pro-war MP and trusted loyalist, said Ukraine was ‘officially warned’ about the exchange.
Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, said the chamber would prepare an appeal to the US Congress and the German Bundestag ‘so their lawmakers at last can see clearly who they are financing, who they are helping.’
‘They (Ukraine) shot down their own soldiers in mid-air. Their mothers, wives and children were waiting for them,’ he said.
‘They took a decision and shot down our defenceless pilots on a military transport plane, who were carrying out a humanitarian mission, with American and German rockets.’
Andrei Kartapolov, a lawmaker in Russia’s parliament and a retired general, said in a TV interview with the SHOT outlet said ‘They knew very well that the plane was en route, where it was going and the operators of (Ukrainian) surface-to-air missile systems cannot mistake transport planes for military planes or helicopters as targets.’
‘It was done deliberately to sabotage the prisoner exchange.’
Kartapolov, who still has close links to the defence ministry, said the aircraft had been shot down by three missiles of either US of German manufacture.
If the details are confirmed, it would be the deadliest incident of the almost two-year-old war inside Russia’s internationally recognised borders.
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Where are the bodies of the Ukrainians who were on board? Was the plane shot down? Was it travelling from Iran?