Ukraine has said it shot down an A-50 Russian reconnaissance plane and an Il-22 airborne command post in a potentially significant blow to the Kremlin’s forces.
Ukrainian army chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi announced the aircraft had been hit on the Telegram messenger on Monday, posting a video of a tracking map suggesting the planes were struck over the Sea of Azov, which lies to the east of the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.
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“I am grateful to the air force for the excellently planned and conducted operation in Azov region!” Zaluzhnyi wrote.
Hours after Zaluzhnyi’s statement, a Russian military blog posted an image of the shrapnel-riddled tail section of an Il-22 standing on the tarmac and lauded the crew as “real heroes”.
Kyiv’s Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat reposted the image, saying the plane appeared to have made it to the Russian town of Anapa but that it was beyond repair as it had been on fire. He added that the A-50 had been Kyiv’s priority target.
The A-50 is a Russian reconnaissance plane, equivalent to the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) plane, used by NATO. Topped with a large radar, it typically has a crew of 15 and can scan an area of several hundred kilometres for enemy aircraft, ships and missiles. The Russian Air Force is thought to have nine of the planes in its fleet.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, told a briefing that Russia had used the plane extensively to prepare for and conduct long-range missile strikes on Ukraine.
“We expect such a strike [on the A-50] to be fairly painful and, at least, to delay powerful missile strikes,” she said.
The Il-22, meanwhile, oversees military operations and sends radio signals to troops on the front line. The Russian Air Force reportedly has a dozen such planes.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters he had “no information” on the attacks and that further questions should be directed to the Defence Ministry.
Russia has largely maintained air dominance since launching a full-scale invasion of its neighbour nearly two years ago. The A-50 and IL-22 play a central role in orchestrating Russian battlefield movements in Ukraine. Their loss would be a landmark feat for Kyiv as well as a major blow to Moscow with fighting along the front line largely bogged down in trench and artillery warfare.
Russian military bloggers with close army links did report an incident over the Azov Sea.
“It will be another dark day for the Russian Aerospace Forces and Air Defense,” wrote Rybar, a blogger with nearly 1.2 million subscribers who supports and provides running commentary on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“There are not many A-50s. And the specialists operating them are generally rare. If an aircraft of this type is hit, the crew will not be able to escape.”
Telegram channel WarGonzo acknowledged that the A-50 had been destroyed.
“Unfortunately war is never without tragedies, and the death of our fighters always hurts. We express our condolences to the families and close ones of the crew,” it said.
It too reported that the Il-22 was able to make it back to base.
“According to reports, the pilots were able to land the damaged machine,” it said.
A February 2023 drone attack at an airfield in Belarus damaged a parked A-50 but Russian and Belarusian officials described the damage as minor.