Updated Jan 25, 2024 - World

Zelensky calls for international probe into Russia's plane crash, POW claim

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 16.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 16. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for an international investigation into a Russian military aircraft crash on Wednesday, which Russian officials claimed had been transporting Ukrainian prisoners of war.

Driving the news: The United Nations Security Council is set to hold an emergency meeting on Thursday over the plane crash at the request of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

  • Zelensky accused Russia of "playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners" and attempting to inflame tensions within Ukraine society with its claims.
  • Zelensky ordered the country's intelligence services to determine what happened to the plane and what exactly it was transporting, though he acknowledged that doing so would be difficult "given that the aircraft crashed in Russian territory that is beyond our control."
  • "Our state will insist on an international investigation," he said on Wednesday.

Details: Footage of the crash posted on Telegram by groups linked to Russian security services showed a large aircraft falling from the sky near the village of Yablonovo in the Belgorod region before exploding on impact, Reuters reported.

  • Axios could not verify Russian military claims that its aircraft, a Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane, had been carrying dozens of Ukrainian POWs.
  • It also could not verify Ukrainian military claims to Ukrainska Pravda that the plane had been carrying surface-to-air missiles.

What they're saying: In response to Russian claims about the plane crash, the Ukrainian governmental body that coordinates the treatment of prisoners of war warned that the Kremlin has carried out several misinformation campaigns in the past.

  • Ukrainian officials said they were collecting and analyzing information on the crash and urged media outlets to refrain from reporting unverified information stemming from the Russian claims.
  • Ukraine's military intelligence service said on social media that a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine had been scheduled for Wednesday.
  • However, it said it lacks reliable information on who was on board and warned the incident may involve "planned and deliberate actions by Russia."

Of note: Ukraine transferred the Russian POWs it has to the designated exchange place on time, the intelligence service said.

  • Russia did not say how it would deliver Ukrainian POWs to site, such as the method of transportation they would use or the routes they would take, it added.
  • It said Russia also did not notify the Ukrainian military to ensure a safe airspace around the city of Belgorod at a specific time, as it had repeatedly done on previous occasions.
  • It noted that in the past, Ukrainian POWs had been delivered by air, rail and in vehicles.
  • The service said Russia, which is responsible for the safety of the troops it has captured, deliberately withheld information on the transfer to create "a threat to the lives and safety of prisoners."

The big picture: Ukrainians have previously accused Russia of withholding Ukrainian POWs by stalling prisoner exchanges to worsen tensions within Ukrainian society.

  • After several months without exchanges, Ukraine and Russia earlier this month completed their largest prisoner swap since the start of Russia's invasion.
  • Testimony from former Ukrainian prisoners of war collected by a United Nations observer last year indicated that Russia has extensively used torture against captive Ukrainians.
  • A UN report published last year also found that both Ukraine and Russia have violated international human rights laws with their treatment of prisoners of war, who have at times faced summary executions and torture.

Go deeper: Zelensky tells Davos that "predator" Putin will not accept a frozen conflict

Editor's note: This story was updated with new information, additional context and background.

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