ISW on the consequences of another Russian A-50 defeat and the reasons why the occupiers attribute it to their air defense system

Russian propaganda attributes the destruction of the second A-50 to Russian air defense. Illustrative photo

The day before, on February 23, the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported the downing of the second Russian long-range radar detection aircraft A-50 in 2024. These very rare aircraft, of which Russia has only a few in service, helped the occupiers coordinate Russian aviation and air defense.

Russian propagandists, meanwhile, stubbornly insist that this plane, like the previous one, was shot down by Russian air defense. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assessed the consequences of this loss for the situation on the battlefield and explained why Russia categorically refuses to recognize the success of the Ukrainian army.

On the evening of February 23, the Ukrainian Air Force and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reported that Ukrainian soldiers had shot down a Russian A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft. According to the reports, it was shot down near Yeysk, Krasnodar Territory, over the Sea of Azov.

Videos have also been posted online, one showing the crash of the plane and the other showing a large fire with secondary detonation. According to the geolocation data, the second video was filmed near the Russian village of Trudovaya Armenia in the Kanev district of Krasnodar Krai, northeast of Primorsko-Akhtarsk.

A little later, footage of mangled parts of the plane appeared on the network, so, according to analysts, "it is highly unlikely that Russian forces will be able to repair the A-50 or that the crew survived the crash."

In Russia, meanwhile, the crash of the "unidentified aircraft" was confirmed, but the cause was not specified.

The ISW analysts clarified that Russian troops use aircraft such as the A-50 to coordinate their aviation and air defense. And after the first A-50 was shot down in mid-January, the Russians significantly, albeit temporarily, reduced the tactical activity of their aircraft over the Azov Sea.

Having somewhat recovered from the shock of the repeated and very painful loss of the scarce aircraft, Russian propagandists once again claimed that it was hit by Russian air defense. This practice is becoming more and more commonplace for the "ultranationalist" Russian community.

"Russian military bloggers claimed that Russian troops had mistakenly shot down their own A-50 aircraft and blamed the Russian military for systemic problems that they must address to avoid further 'friendly fire' incidents," ISW noted.

One Russian propagandist acknowledged that the A-50 and its highly specialized crew are a scarce resource for Russia that it cannot easily replace. And Russian military bloggers have begun to vigorously refute the information about the rare aircraft being shot down by Ukrainian soldiers. Instead, they claim that both on February 23 and January 14, Russian A-50s allegedly fell victim to "friendly fire" from Russian air defense. In addition, Russian propaganda attributes the recent downing of several Su-34 and Su-35 fighters to its own air defense. Those who doubt Ukraine's innocence in the reduction in the number of Russian aircraft are mercilessly criticized by most Russian propagandists.

"Russian military bloggers may be refusing to attribute any success to Ukrainian forces as part of a broader effort in the Russian information space to demoralize Ukrainians and convince Russians that victory is assured. Recent Kremlin rhetoric has focused on portraying Russia as being able to outlast Ukraine's willingness and ability to fight with continued Western military support, and consistent statements by Russian military bloggers about the ineffectiveness of Ukraine's air defense and other battlefield capabilities are consistent with this disinformation campaign," ISW said.

However, the destruction of two strategic Russian aircraft by Ukrainians at once, especially with an interval of several weeks, seriously undermines the Russian narrative, analysts say.

"The enthusiasm of military bloggers to attribute staggering incompetence to Russia's own air defense system - the only possible explanation for the numerous cases of shooting down aircraft that helps coordinate the air defense system itself - looks strange," ISW summarized.

Before the full-scale invasion, Russia had only nine such aircraft: three A-50s and six A-50Us.

The A-50 and A-50U aircraft are used by the occupiers to detect and track air and surface targets and alert command posts of automated control systems of the armed forces about the air and surface situation. It can also be used to control fighter and strike aircraft when they are guided at air, land and sea targets, as well as serve as an air command post.

The A-50 airborne surveillance aircraft are very valuable to the Russians. They play the role of coordinators during massive shelling of Ukraine and are worth at least $330 million.

It was believed that these aircraft could not be shot down. However, the Ukrainian Defense Forces first shattered this stereotype on January 14 when they shot down two Russian occupation aircraft over the Sea of Azov. An A-50 long-range radar detection and control aircraft was shot down and an Il-22 was damaged.

The myth of the Russian A-50's indestructibility was disproven for the second time the day before.

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