Kommersant, a respected, independent business-focused daily, said on its website on Saturday that a Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber, Su-35 fighter, and two Mi-8 helicopters that had made up a military raiding party were “shot down almost simultaneously” in an ambush in the Bryansk region, adjoining northeast Ukraine.
“According to preliminary data … the fighters were supposed to deliver a missile and bomb attack on targets in the Chernihiv region of Ukraine, and the helicopters were there to back them up — among other things to pick up the ‘Su’ crews if they were shot down,” the media outlet reported.
Kommersant provided no evidence for its report that the four aircraft had been downed by Ukrainian forces, but the same assertion was also made by several heavily followed prowar military bloggers.
Russia’s Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. There was no official response from Ukraine, which usually declines to comment on reports of attacks within Russian territory, though pro-Ukrainian social media was awash with speculation that the downing of the four aircraft was not accidental.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote in a tweet that the Russian aircraft had intended to launch a “missile-bomb attack” on Ukraine’s Chernihiv region but were “destroyed by ‘unidentified persons’”, which he described as “instant karma”.
“’Killers on wings’ were destroyed BEFORE the next crime would be committed,” he added.
The Russian state news agency TASS reported on Saturday that a Russian Su-34 warplane had crashed in that region but did not specify a cause.
TASS also reported an emergency services official saying an engine fire in a Russian helicopter had caused it to crash near the city of Klintsy in Bryansk, about 40 km (25 miles) from the border with Ukraine. The report made no mention of the Su-35 or of a second Russian helicopter crashing or being shot down.
A video posted on the Russian prowar Telegram channel Voyenniy Osvedomitel, which has about half a million followers, showed a helicopter high in the sky suffering an explosion, being thrown off course, and then plunging towards the ground in flames and later a huge plume of thick black smoke emerging from the apparent crash site.
Comments accompanying the video said it showed a Mi-8 being shot down by a missile. Other images posted by the channel and other military blogging sites showed images of falling aircraft and wreckage in fields.
Voyenniy Osvedomitel said it appeared that “most likely, the enemy staged an ambush with air defences previously transferred to a border zone close enough to hit our group”.
It added the downed helicopters appeared to be Mi-8MTPR-1 electronic warfare craft able to jam enemy radio and target signals.
The Kommersant news site claimed all four crews had been killed.
Ukraine’s The Kyiv Independent reported that Russian authorities are now searching for “saboteurs” in connection with the destruction of the military aircraft.
The Institute for the Study of War said that geolocated footage from the crash sites placed the incident some 50km (31 miles) from the Ukrainian border.
“Russian [military bloggers] speculated that all four aircraft crashed as the result of a coordinated Ukrainian strike using air defence systems pulled to the border area of Chernihiv Oblast,” the Washington, DC-based think tank reported.
“Several Russian milbloggers seized on the incident to criticize aspects of how the Russian aerospace forces conduct air operations and to accuse the leadership responsible for these aircraft of gross negligence and incompetence,” the ISW reported.