Putin blames Ukraine for downed plane as Russia boosts weaponry

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with China Media Corporation. Sergey Bobylev/Kremlin/dpa
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with China Media Corporation. Sergey Bobylev/Kremlin/dpa
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Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine on Friday in his first public comments following the crash of a plane in Russia's Belgorod region.

Ukraine in contrast called for a special UN Security Council session to determine what happened and who was on board the Russian plane that crashed on Wednesday.

Putin, at a meeting with military representatives in St Petersburg, said the air defence system in Ukrainian-controlled territory had shot down the Russian Ilyushin plane with two missiles.

The Ukrainian side had known in advance that 65 of their prisoners of war were on board, he added. Ukraine disputes the Russian claims and has so far only confirmed that a prisoner exchange was planned.

"What happened is a crime," Putin stressed.

Later Russia's Investigative Committee put out a video it said showed the crash site, with Ukrainian documents strewn among the bodies. The committee - an equivalent of the FBI in the United States - said this proved the passengers had been Ukrainian prisoners of war but this could not be independently verified.

The plane was shot down either by the US Patriot system or by a European system - "most likely a French one," Putin said earlier.

After examining the missile remains, there would be a clear answer in a few days as to which system had been used. The people in Ukraine also need to know what happened, he added.

"I don't know whether they did it on purpose or by mistake, out of thoughtlessness - but they did it," he said.

Putin categorically rejected the idea that the Russian armed forces could have shot down their own plane.

"Our air defence systems are fundamentally incapable of launching a strike against one of our own aircraft," he said.

The anti-aircraft missiles struck two or three minutes after take-off, he said. According to Russian information, nine Russian crew members also died.

The Ukrainian military intelligence service had been informed in advance about the transport of the prisoners of war, Putin said. However, there is still no independent confirmation about whether there were actually prisoners on board.

The warring parties engaged in a handover of soldiers' remains on Friday but it was not clear if those from the plane were included.

According to US estimates, over 70,000 Ukrainian and more than 120,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the war began almost two years ago.

At the St Petersburg meeting, which was attended by soldiers returning from the war, Putin said the objectives of his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine were being achieved. He said 600,000 soldiers were currently deployed on the front line.

Russia's military is set to receive more high-tech weaponry in 2024, Deputy Defence Minister Alexsey Krivoruchko announced at the meeting, according to the Interfax news agency.

The Sarmat nuclear missile, new Tupolev Tu-160M strategic bombers, modern S-500 air defence systems and a further strategic nuclear submarine are poised to be built.

The Tu-160M is a modernized version of the Soviet Tu-160 bomber, which Russia is still deploying in the war against Ukraine.

The new systems are apparently intended to replace the significant losses suffered by Russia during the war. The nuclear submarine Poscharski belongs to the Borei class, which can fire sea-based intercontinental missiles.

An increase of Russian firepower would only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.

Even with current weapons, the UN Refugee Agency has now categorized the humanitarian situation in Ukraine as very serious and warned that aid is slowing down.

Daily air strikes bring destruction and affect civilians, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told dpa in Kiev.

"So lots of people are made homeless and displaced," he said.

Meanwhile Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany's BND foreign intelligence service, told Focus magazine that Russia will remain a threat even when Putin is gone.

"Even if he fell out of the window or was harmed in some other way, there would be enough people who think exactly like him and would pursue the same policies," Kahl said.

Putin's aim is to re-establish the old power of Greater Russia, he said, adding: "If Ukraine were forced to give up, this would not quench Russia's thirst for power."

Kahl warned that if the West did not show a clear willingness to defend itself, there would no longer be any reason for Putin to shy away from an attack on NATO.