The flight was on its way to the southern region of Belgorod ahead of a prisoner exchange at the border when it was brought down by a “terrorist act,” the Kremlin said.
NBC News could not independently verify who was on board the flight or what caused it to crash. Ukrainian officials cautioned against sharing “unverified information” but did not immediately deny the claims or offer further details.
The neighbors have traded conflicting accusations throughout the war, which is approaching the two-year mark.
The Ilyushin Il-76 was “performing a scheduled flight” to an airfield near the border when it was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile system, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
“On board the plane were six crew members, 65 Ukrainian military personnel for the exchange and three Russian military personnel accompanying them. The crew and all passengers of the plane were killed,” the statement said.
Russian radar systems “observed the launch of two Ukrainian missiles,” it added. The Defense Ministry said that Ukraine’s government “knew very well that, according to established practice,” a military transport aircraft would be flying that route ahead of the planned prisoner swap.
Ukraine’s military said in a statement that its forces “take all measures to protect Ukraine and Ukrainians.” Pointing to recent aerial attacks by Russia on Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, it said that: “In order to reduce the missile threat, the Armed Forces of Ukraine not only control the airspace, but also monitor in detail the launch points of missiles and the logistics of their delivery, especially with the use of military transport aviation.”
It added: “The recorded intensity of shelling is directly related to the increase in the number of military transport planes that have recently been heading to the Belgorod airfield. Taking this into account, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue to take measures to destroy means of delivery, control the airspace to destroy the terrorist threat, including in the Belgorod-Kharkiv direction.”
The statement did not directly address the crash Wednesday morning.
However, Ukraine’s military intelligence service said “there was supposed to be an exchange of prisoners, which did not take place,” in a statement on Telegram. But it said it did not have reliable information about who was traveling on the plane and how many people were on board.
It added that Ukraine had fulfilled its obligations and that the captured Russian servicemen “were delivered in time to the designated exchange point, where they were kept safe.”
Russia had not informed Ukraine “about the need to ensure the safety of the airspace in the area of the city of Belgorod in a certain period of time, as was repeatedly done in the past,” the statement said.
The two countries regularly carry out exchanges of prisoners, even as they continue to fight along the war’s front lines in Ukraine’s east and south.
The most recent swap, brokered by the United Arab Emirates, saw 230 Ukrainian POWs exchanged for 248 Russians. It was the biggest of the war and the first in almost five months.
As influential Ukrainian social media accounts pushed back on the Russian claims, a former Ukrainian POW dismissed the suggestion that there would be just three Russian guards on board the flight for 65 Ukrainian prisoners. When he was flown to Belgorod from elsewhere in Russia “there were about 20 of their military police for every 50 prisoners,” Max Kolesnikov said in a post on X.
Regions across western Russia, including Belgorod, have also come under regular attack in recent weeks in what has appeared to be an intensifying campaign of Ukrainian strikes behind enemy lines.
Russian officials have accused Kyiv of carrying out the strikes. Ukrainian officials rarely take public responsibility for attacks on Russian territory or the occupied Crimean Peninsula. However, larger aerial strikes against Russia have previously followed heavy assaults on Ukrainian cities.
Belgorod, the largest Russian city near the border, has a population of about 340,000. It is about 60 miles north of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.