Ukraine tells families: Russia has not given evidence of POWs on downed plane
The Washington Post January 26, 2024
KYIV — Russia has not provided evidence that Ukrainian prisoners of war were aboard a military plane that was downed Wednesday, Ukrainian officials told relatives of captured soldiers Friday, as the warring countries continued to trade blame over the murky incident.
Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, met Friday with relatives of the prisoners of war who were allegedly being transported on the Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane, which crashed Wednesday in Russia’s Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine.
Russia claims that the plane was carrying 65 Ukrainian POWs who were set to be exchanged that day.
Budanov told the POW families that Russia asked for the prisoners’ relatives to submit DNA to match to the bodies of detainees allegedly killed onboard, while not providing any evidence of their remains, according to two people present at the meeting.
Ukraine has rejected that request, Budanov said, according to the two relatives who attended the meeting and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“The puzzle doesn’t fit,” Budanov told the families, according to one of the relatives — the mother of one POW. She added that the exchange was supposed to involve more than 190 prisoners, matching a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday. The Russian Defense Ministry has said that just 65 detainees were on the plane.
Putin, in his first comments about the incident, said Friday that Ukraine shot down the plane with its own military personnel on board and that Russia would make the results of its investigation public “so that people in Ukraine know what happened.”
“I don’t know if it was on purpose or by mistake, but it is obvious that they did it,” Putin said, adding without evidence that the Ukrainians probably used an American or European air-defense system. Western countries generally have prohibited Kyiv from using their weapons to strike targets on Russian territory.
“We were transporting their citizens, their military personnel, but no, they struck there,” Putin said. “Our only regrets are with regards to our pilots.”
But more than 48 hours after the plane fell from the sky and charred a large swath of earth, Russia has provided scant evidence of its claims. Ukrainian officials said that despite the Kremlin’s rhetoric, Moscow is blocking an international investigation.
Russian political and military officials, while quick to blame Ukraine, have not explained how their military jet was left vulnerable to being destroyed in midair, a highly unusual occurrence in a war in which each side has sophisticated antiaircraft weapons. Ukraine has targeted Russian planes, but usually while they are on the ground.
Ukrainian officials maintain that they have not seen proof that dozens of people died aboard the aircraft. The few short video clips released from the scene have shown scattered debris but few visible body parts.
A new clip released by Russian state media Friday purported to show the passports of some Ukrainians allegedly on board, but they were not shown at the crash site, and parts of the video were blurred. In another part of the clip, a Russian official is seen zipping up a black body bag.
Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence, told Ukrainian media Thursday that just five bodies had been brought to the local morgue in Belgorod. The claim could not be independently verified. Russia has said that in addition to the POWs, there were six crew members and three other people aboard.
Ukraine has not directly confirmed that it shot down the plane, but it has not denied involvement and has hinted that it was responsible, calling the aircraft a military target that was regularly used to ferry missiles to be launched at Ukrainian cities.
Officials in Kyiv have insisted they do not know whether POWs were on the plane. Instead, they have called for Russia to provide more information to Kyiv and to international organizations and investigators.
But it is unclear how, when or if Moscow will cooperate.
Russia has resisted international investigations in the past, including into the 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a banned nerve agent and the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in which all 298 people aboard were killed.
In the case of that plane, investigators determined that a Russian antiaircraft weapon was used, and two former Russian security agents and a third defendant were convicted in absentia of murder by a Dutch court. One of those convicted, Igor Girkin, remained free in Russia until last year, when he was arrested and charged with inciting extremism for criticizing the Russian military’s battlefield performance in Ukraine. On Thursday, he was sentenced to four years.
Russia’s refusal to allow an international inquiry or provide access to physical evidence could prevent a definitive answer as to who or what was on the Il-76 that went down Wednesday.
At the meeting with Budanov, “most people are sure that [the Russian version of events] is fake news,” the mother of the POW said.
“I think I expected more hysterical, panicked reactions,” the woman said. “Intelligence spoke very openly with us. Budanov started the conversation with, ‘Let’s get to the point, let’s start with questions,’ and that was it.”
“I was hysterical during the first day,” she added. “But now I’ve calmed down.”
The woman said that after one young woman asked when the families could get the body parts of their loved ones returned, a second military intelligence official responded, “Wait, we hope for the best, and now we’re not speaking about the worst-case scenario.”
Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliamentary commissioner for human rights, said on Ukrainian radio Friday that Kyiv had not received an official list of prisoners who allegedly died on board the plane.
Margarita Simonyan, head of the Russian state propaganda channel RT, published a list of names and birth dates that she said documented the Ukrainian POWs on board, but news outlets quickly reported that some of those named by Simonyan appeared to be prisoners released in previous swaps.
The wife of one of the prisoners listed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said she did not believe that her husband died in the crash. Simonyan’s list was the first time she had heard any news of her husband since he was taken prisoner more than a year ago.
“I don’t believe they were there,” the woman said. “I hope for the best.”
In a statement Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that it had not received a list of the prisoners who were set to be exchanged.
“We understand the stress and worry that this kind of news can bring to families that have been separated from their loved ones for months,” the statement said. “We will continue doing our utmost to help clarify the fate of POWs separated from their families from both sides and other missing persons.”
Yusov, the Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman, called on Russia to allow an international commission to investigate the site of the crash and examine the black boxes recovered from the plane, but he added that Moscow has so far refused to do so. Ukraine has requested that the Red Cross and the United Nations be granted access.
It could take months to get answers. A July 2022 explosion at a camp for Ukrainian prisoners of war in occupied eastern Ukraine killed at least 51 detainees and prompted a months-long effort by Ukraine and international groups to investigate.
Russia accused Ukraine of striking that site with a U.S.-provided rocket, but a United Nations report — released more than a year after the explosion — ruled that out. Ukraine’s government repeatedly criticized the Red Cross for not sending a delegation to investigate the scene.
An emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, convened at Moscow’s request, yielded no new information about the plane’s destruction or who was on board. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov complained Friday that the global reaction was inadequate.
“There is no strong condemnation here from the West of this horrific terrorist act, the destruction of the airplane that was carrying, first of all our pilots, escorts, but also killed a very large number of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” Peskov said. “What happened requires proper assessment by the international community.”
Siobhán O’Grady, Kamila Hrabchuk and Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv and Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.