Wagner Mercenaries Did What Ukrainian Troops Couldn’t Do: Shoot Down A Priceless Russian Command Plane
Jun 26, 2023,04:45pm
A Russian air force Il-22M.
The weekend mutiny by The Wagner Group, Russia’s shadowy mercenary army, ended as abruptly as it began. Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin on Friday ordered his fighters to cross the border into Russia after, he claimed, Russian forces bombarded a Wagner base in Ukraine.
A day later, he turned his men around and reportedly retreated with them to Belarus. “The moment has come when blood may spill,” Prigozhin explained. “That’s why … we are turning back our convoys and going back to field camps.”
But blood did spill. During their 400-mile march toward Moscow, the Wagner fighters shot down six Russian aircraft: five helicopters and an Ilyushin Il-22M Coot aerial command post and radio-relay plane. Reportedly, 13 crew died in the six shoot-downs.
That command-post and relay plane is a particularly painful loss for the Russian air force. The Russians have deployed the four-engine, propeller-driven Il-22Ms and similar planes to coordinate their air war over Ukraine.
The aircraft are so valuable that Ukrainian forces have gone to extraordinary lengths to target them — with little success. The planes tend to stay inside Russian air space, after all.
When Wagner shot down that Il-22M, it did Ukraine a huge favor. The Russian air force has just 30 Il-22Ms and variants.
The weekend mutiny was the culmination of a long war of words between the official military establishment in Russia and The Wagner Group, easily the most powerful of Russia’s many mercenary firms.
Wagner had lost thousands of fighters in human-wave attacks on Ukrainian positions in the ruins of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region — “stupid meat assaults,” Prigozhin called them. He blamed the Kremlin for wasting his men’s lives.
In rolling his fighters through the cities of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh toward Moscow this weekend, Prigozhin aimed to unseat the Kremlin’s top military leaders, including defense minister Sergei Shoigu.
Russian president Vladimir Putin apparently cut some sort of deal with Prigozhin to end the mutiny. But it’s not yet clear whether that deal includes changes in the military’s leadership — and how those changes might help or hurt Russia’s campaign in Ukraine.
Regardless, the mutiny already has benefitted Ukraine. It temporarily distracted Russian leaders and disrupted the main supply lines between Russia and Ukraine. It may also result in Wagner sitting out the rest of the war.
And it cost Russia one of its most important special-mission aircraft. A video that circulated online on Saturday depicts the Il-22M on fire, tumbling toward the ground near Voronezh. Prigozhin reportedly was displeased. He told one correspondent a “fool” in the mercenary convoy shot at “everything that took off.”
Prigozhin reportedly has offered 50 million rubles — that’s $600,000 — to the families of the Il-22M’s crew.
It’s unclear which of Wagner’s air-defense systems engaged the Il-22. The mercenaries rolled into Russia with at least two short-range surface-to-air missile vehicles: a Strela-10 and a Pantsir. The Il-22M with its 39,000-foot maximum altitude can get above both SAM systems, so it’s possible the Wagner crew hit the plane while it was climbing away from its airfield.
Photos and videos from the crash site seem to confirm that the Coot the Wagner missile crew shot down was an Il-22M11-RT variant whose main role is to relay radio broadcasts between far-flung Russian forces.
The Ilyushins and a smaller number of jet-propelled Beriev A-50 early-warning planes have played an important role in Russia’s wider war on Ukraine.
Russian war doctrine requires senior commanders to sign off on even local operational plans. By the same token, Russian fighter pilots lean heavily on radar-operators on the ground to pass along information on Ukrainian air-defense activities.
Both require robust long-range communications. When the distance is too far for two radio operators to reach each other, an Il-22M crew can act as an intermediary — receiving then rebroadcasting signals over the horizon.
Long-range radio relay is so central to Russian operations that any breakdown in the retransmission can disrupt front-line ops. Case in point: Russian fighter squadrons patrolling the front line over northern Ukraine depend on a long-range Podlet-K1 radar installation in Belarus for early warning about approaching Ukrainian fighters.
This system hasn’t always worked, Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling explained in a report for the Royal United Services Institute in London. Especially during the wider war’s early days.
“The success on various occasions of low-flying Ukrainian fighters in ambushing Russian high-altitude patrols during the first week of the war in areas covered by the Podlet-K1 system … may simply indicate a poor dissemination of surveillance information from the radar to the Il-20M Coot airborne command post and relay aircraft passing information from ground networks to patrolling Russian fighters.”
Having seen for themselves how debilitating a breakdown in radio-relay could be for the Russians, the Ukrainians prioritized taking out Russia’s Il-22Ms and A-50s.
One Il-22M reportedly ate a Ukrainian missile early in the war but managed to land safely. And Ukrainian drone crews in February managed to land explosives-laden drones on at least one A-50 at its base in Belarus, lightly damaging the plane.
But Russia didn’t fully write off one of its priceless relay planes until Wagner mutinied, and started shooting at every helicopter and airplane in sight along the road from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow