On Sunday evening, two valuable Russian military command and surveillance planes were destroyed, probably by air defense missiles over the Sea of Azov, marking a significant blow for the Kremlin in the Russo-Ukrainian War.
The costliest of the two planes was the four-engine Beriev A-50 (NATO reporting name: Mainstay) airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft based on the Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane. This aircraft, equipped with advanced electronics and capable of monitoring airspace up to 400 kilometers away, comes with a hefty price tag of around $300 million.
The second plane, the Il-22M, is an electronic reconnaissance turboprop based on a Soviet passenger plane from the 1960s.
Despite its outdated origin, it has been repeatedly upgraded, allowing it to function as a flying command post. Its purpose is to identify valuable ground targets.
Russian reports downplayed the idea that Ukrainian forces targeted the A-50 aircraft, instead suggesting a peculiar narrative that the plane was hit by friendly fire from Russian air defenses.
If true, this would signal another serious failure by Russian forces. A source who focuses on Russian aviation blamed failure by commanders who lacked the necessary background to control the use of the aircraft.
However, the current commander of Russia’s aerospace forces, Colonel General Viktor Afzalov, has extensive experience in air defense operations, raising some doubt about the incident resulting from friendly fire.
A purported insider within Russia’s security structure claimed a false “duck” was blamed to reassure pilots that missions over the Black Sea and Sea of Azov are still safe from Ukrainian attack and that human error was the cause of the incident.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment and referred inquiries to the Russian Ministry of Defense, which, as the time of writing, has yet to issue an official statement on the matter.
In responding to the shootdown Russians reacted emotionally with most sticking to the “friendly fire” narrative as widely presented by the vast number of Russian media and milbloggers.
"Is this the accurate news? It could be a rumor. If true, then this is a disaster!" Denis Naumov reacted emotionally to the publication on Telegram.
“Wow, that's news! Ukry [Ukrainians] will celebrate it!” Aleksandr Pashkov wrote commenting on the publication on the “Two Mayors” Telegram channel.
“This is a serious setback regarding the downed reconnaissance and control aircraft. There are only a few such aircraft, and it definitely disrupts the early target detection system,” the Pashkov added.
“Medvedev threatened to launch a nuclear strike on Ukraine. Will he fulfil his promise?” a commentator using the name Megapon asked.
“We are waiting for clarifications, no need to get in froth. In war, everything is possible. Moreover, the Ukrainians have accurate missiles, but ours [our planes] secretly wanted to explore the sky without transponders, and sharp-sighted anti-aircraft gunners spotted ‘enemy’ targets and messed up. Apparently, they were not warned beforehand. The picture’s still very blurred,” Yury wrote, trying to comfort other commentators.
“Wow, so it's not far from the launch of the Kinzhal at the Kremlin, as it was possible for their planes to be a complete mess,” Maryanna wrote.
“Now I understand why our planes are flying to bomb along the same route. Interaction and communication are a disaster...” a user under the nickname Yury Yury wrote.
American planes were also blamed.
“It's time to get rid of the American reconnaissance planes... Oh, it's not for nothing that they circled these days at our borders... and no one knows what they ‘carry’ yet...” Marina wrote.
Other commentators, however, questioned the narrative that the plane was hit by friendly fire from Russian air defences.
“Some game with downed aircraft. On the ground, I understand the scale and number of units involved (there's enough nonsense). But with overwhelming air supremacy, for such incidents, the perpetrators must be held accountable,” Viacheslav Smirnov wrote.
A user under the nickname Nautilus said “Theoretically, the state recognition system may not work, although it is unlikely. But the connection is still there, right? The locator sees where the plane came from and how it ended up in the protected airspace,” Nautilus wrote.
“In principle, it is impossible to confuse such aircraft with an enemy target like a UAV or a missile in terms of speed characteristics, heights, and radar portrait. Something's not right here,".
Sergey, meanwhile, saw even greater powers at play:
“Hmm... the friendly fire on such aircraft... There are doubts. And even over the inner Sea of Azov. It looks more like a well-thought-out NATO operation to destroy particularly valuable and important aircraft for us,” he wrote.
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