Ukraine Searches for Answers on Russian Plane Crash

Ukrainian officials searched for answers on Thursday to the circumstances of a deadly plane crash over the border in Russia, asking for patience from citizens while they investigated Moscow’s claims that Ukraine had shot down a Russian military aircraft carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine called for his country’s intelligence agency to determine what had happened and for an international investigation into the crash, while also accusing Russia of engaging in wartime propaganda over the episode.

The plane went down in the Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine, killing all onboard, the Russian Ministry of Defense and the regional governor said on Wednesday. The ministry said that the plane had been carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war who were to be released in a prisoner exchange. The Russian claims could not be independently verified.

The cause of the crash remains unknown, though Ukrainian officials have not denied shooting down the aircraft. They say they cannot confirm that Ukrainian soldiers on their way to a prisoner exchange were aboard the plane.

But the Ukrainian military intelligence agency on Wednesday hinted at the possibility of a tragic mistake, acknowledging that a prisoner swap had been planned and saying in a statement that Russia had not warned Ukraine’s military that prisoners of war were being transported to the border — as it had in previous exchanges.

Either way, the episode is a vexing challenge for a government in Kyiv trying to brace its citizens for a third year of war and contemplating a new mobilization that would likely be domestically unpopular. At the same time, Ukraine is on the defensive on the battlefield and striving daily to shore up critically needed Western support.

Officials in Kyiv have said that it is too early to draw conclusions about the crash and that relatives should await confirmation from the authorities in Ukraine. “We have not seen any signs of this number of people aboard the plane, whether Ukrainian citizens or not,” Dmytro Lubinets, the country’s human rights ombudsman, told news media on Thursday.

Complicating any investigation by Ukraine is the fact that Russia possesses most of the key details about the episode, including who was onboard. Ukrainians are deeply skeptical about any information emanating from Russia, which they see as being determined to twist the crash into a painful ordeal for families of prisoners.

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, asserted again on Thursday that Ukraine had shot down its own soldiers and called it a “monstrous act.”

Groups that monitor Russian propaganda say Moscow is pushing a message aimed at the West: that Ukraine cannot be trusted with long-range weaponry. Russians posting on social networking sites have blamed Ukraine for killing its own people.

“It is obvious that Russians are messing with the lives of Ukrainian captives, the feeling of their relatives, and the emotions of our society,” Mr. Zelensky said in his nightly video address on Wednesday.

The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based organization, wrote in an analysis that Russian propagandists were “seizing on the Il-76 crash to sow domestic discontent in Ukraine and undermine Western will to continue giving military support to Ukraine.”

No independent groups have visited the crash site. The United Nations and Red Cross did not immediately respond to questions on Thursday about gaining access to the site.

Neither the Ukrainian military nor the domestic intelligence agency that Mr. Zelensky has asked to investigate the crash had released information about the incident by early Thursday.

“The microphone is in the hands of Russia,” said Hanna Chabarai, an analyst of Russian propaganda at the Institute of Mass Information, an independent organization in Ukraine. “This is emotional terrorism because relatives and friends of prisoners of war are very scared.”

A lack of clarity has been a feature throughout Russia’s war in Ukraine not only because of the murkiness of what happens on the battlefield but also because Russia uses misinformation for propaganda purposes at home and abroad. Ukraine is also reluctant to disclose any military setbacks. Tragedies and turning points in the war have been clouded by uncertainty, sometimes for weeks or longer.

An explosion in July 2022 at the Olenivka camp for Ukrainian prisoners of war killed at least 51 detainees and prompted a monthslong effort by Ukraine and international organizations to ascertain what happened.

Russia asserted that Ukraine had hit the site with an American-provided rocket. But a United Nations investigation eventually determined that an American rocket could not have struck the site and faulted Russia for detaining prisoners of war near the front line.

Maria Varenikova and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.