Russia could have used Ukrainian prisoners of war as a human shield to transport ammunition and weapons for missile systems, Ukraine's military intelligence spokesperson Andrii Yusov suggested on Jan. 25 when commenting on the crash of the Il-76 aircraft that Moscow claims had Ukrainian POWs on board.
The Il-76 military transport plane crashed in Russia's Belgorod region on Jan. 24, allegedly killing everyone on board. Moscow then blamed a Ukrainian strike for the crash and claimed that 65 Ukrainian POWs had been on the plane. No evidence of this claim has been provided.
Ukraine's military intelligence agency did not confirm whether prisoners were on the plane nor commented on what might have caused the crash but said a prisoner exchange had been planned for that day. Ukrainian military sources told Ukrainska Pravda earlier that the plane was carrying S-300 missiles, regularly used by Russia to strike Kharkiv Oblast.
Speaking with the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Yusov suggested that both S-300 missiles and people might have been on board.
"We are talking about a large military aircraft. It was only a third loaded, based on their (Russian) statements," said Yusov.
"There were other planes in the airspace next to the Il-76, which crashed, — AN-26 and AN-72. There are many circumstances that require investigation and deep examination."
The Security Service of Ukraine has launched an investigation into all the circumstances of the plane's crash, and Kyiv has called for an international investigation. Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said he would appeal to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to help find out what happened.
Yusov emphasized that the norms of international law dictate that the state holding POWs is responsible for their safety, including transportation for an exchange, adding that prisoners should not be transported in military planes.
As another possible explanation for the incident, Yusov said Russia's military might have shot down the Il-76 plane accidentally when targeting a Ukrainian drone.
"This is actually a war zone. Drones were actively used on both sides at that time and on that day. In particular, we are talking about the use of reconnaissance drones by Ukraine, which could be a target for Russian air defenses."
Yusov refused to comment on a list that Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan had shared with the names of the Ukrainian POWs allegedly killed in the crash, saying that such information should come from Russia's official structures dealing with POWs.
"Otherwise, it is perceived as a deliberate informational and psychological operation of the enemy," added Yusov.
Ukrainian media outlet Suspilne analyzed the list, concluding that some of the names are, in fact, Ukrainian soldiers currently held by Russia. Suspilne could not confirm, however, that those on the list were actually on the plane when it crashed, nor that they were potentially part of a prisoner exchange.
According to Lubinets, photos and videos from the site of the Russian Il-76 plane crash do not indicate "any signs that there were such a large number of people on the plane," as Russia claims.