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Fatal plane crash spotlights Russia and Ukraine's battle to control the skies — and the narrative

KYIV, Ukraine — More than 24 hours after a military transport plane’s fiery crash into the snowy fields of a Russian border region, there were still more questions than answers in an episode that has already proved deadly and damaging for Ukraine.

The Kremlin accuses Kyiv of shooting the plane down, knowing 65 of its own prisoners of war were on board. Ukraine has so far not directly confirmed nor flatly denied the accusation, while calling for an international investigation.

It remains to be seen exactly who was on board, what brought the plane down, and where this fits in the high-stakes information battle that has seen claim and counterclaim in the nearly two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The incident comes at a particularly crucial moment for Kyiv, which is struggling to retain Western support and attention. With fighting across the war’s front lines largely at a stalemate, focus has shifted to the air, where Ukraine has increasingly dealt blows to Russia’s more powerful air force and taken aim deeper within enemy territory.

Now that growing power may have taken a tragic turn, and the two sides are battling not for control of the skies, but for control of the narrative.

“It could be a terrible accident, it could be something completely different, or it could be a disinformation campaign,” said Neil Melvin, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a London-based think tank. “All of these scenarios, I think, currently are possible until we can get some more information,” he told NBC News.

‘Messing with the lives of Ukrainian captives’

Reliable information is hard to come by at the best of times in this war, in which both sides tightly control its flow. But with the plane downed inside Russia — no stranger to deadly and mysterious incidents involving aircraft — there seemed little hope that the exact circumstances of the crash would be clarified.

On Thursday, Russia said “fragmented human remains” and flight recorders of the downed plane had been found, but it remains unclear how much information Moscow will share, and whether any independent investigators will be allowed to examine the wreckage or the site. It’s also not clear if any bodies have been recovered.

But the Kremlin lost no time in accusing Ukraine of gunning down its own troops.

The Russian Defense Ministry said that Kyiv knew full well that 65 Ukrainian POWs were on board, but shot the plane down anyway to put the blame on Moscow. A leading Russian propagandist even published a list of the names of those allegedly on board, which Ukraine said contained some who had already been swapped.

On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called for an international probe into what he called the “criminal actions of the Kyiv regime.”

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