All things considered, blaming Zaluzhny – perhaps by claiming that he should have verified alleged intelligence about the IL-76’s cargo before shooting it down in order to make this seem like an unfortunate accident – is the most politically convenient option at Zelensky and his US patron’s disposal. It could shift the blame from them to him and facilitate Zaluzhny’s replacement with the much more politically reliable Budanov without much resistance from the armed forces or civil society.
Kiev shot down a Russian Il-76 military transport plane carrying 65 Ukrainian POWs as it was flying over the border region of Belgorod on Wednesday. Patriot missiles were reportedly used during the attack, which was carried out with the aid of American instructors. The regime was informed of the flight ahead of time and was aware that it was carrying its detained troops. The planned swap has now been called off and questions are swirling about why Kiev would kill its own POWs.
CNN ridiculously suggested that it might have been a case of friendly fire by drawing attention to a prior air alert and drone interception an hour before the incident, while some Ukrainian sources circulated the conspiracy theory that the plane was allegedly carrying only S-300 air defense missiles onboard. The first narrative is meant to smear the reputation of the Russian Armed Forces while the second is a “face-saving” deflection from Kiev’s culpability for what happened.
A more realistic interpretation is that American proxy war tactics are shifting as the conflict began to wind down late last year after Kiev was pushed back on the defensive following its failed counteroffensive. That theory also has its faults, however, since five Russian military aircraft were reportedly shot down by Patriot missiles over the border region of Bryansk last May so there isn’t anything new this time except that 65 Ukrainian POWs were killed after Kiev knew they were on board.
The specifics of this incident therefore lead to suspicion that these detained troops were deliberately targeted by those American-advised Ukrainian air defense controllers who were operating the Patriot air defense systems on Wednesday for the reasons that will now be explained. The backdrop to what happened was that Russia’s foreign spy agency predicted an impending bureaucratic reshuffle on Monday a day before a former Pentagon official reported on rumors that Zelensky might oust Zaluzhny.
Stephen Bryen, who served as staff director of the Near East Subcommittee of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as deputy undersecretary of defense for policy and is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and Yorktown Institute, published the article on his Substack. According to him, the Ukrainian leader wants to replace the Commander-in-Chief with military intelligence head Budanov, and he’s planning to do so by blaming Zaluzhny for recent battlefield losses near Avdeevka.
Zelensky’s top rival commands immense respect among the armed forces and civil society, the first of which are growing so angry with their leadership’s military plans that there was even a whiff of mutiny in the New York Times’ report last month about the Kyrnki debacle. Aware of how much Ukraine’s already fragile military-political dynamics had been destabilized by the failed counteroffensive, an expert from the influential Atlantic Council called on Zelensky to form a “government of national unity” a month ago.
Adrian Karatnycky’s demand was made through his article for Politico and sold as the best way to preemptively avert potentially forthcoming protests with the innuendo being that it could also neutralize any possibly impending plans for a military coup that could occur independently of those protests. The dilemma that Zelensky found himself in is that complying with Karatnycky’s proposal could signal weakness and lead to the end of his political career while removing Zaluzhny could lead to a mutiny.
Delaying any action also has its detriments too since grassroots and military pressure could reach uncontrollable proportions in the coming future, further worsening the strategic situation that he found himself in. Russia’s foreign spy agency didn’t mention any military reshuffle plans in their statement earlier this week, however, which might be because they were unaware of them or wagered that it’s better not to comment since doing so could influence the process in ways adverse to their interests.
In any case, the sequence of events from mid-December up until Wednesday’s IL-76 incident – especially the aforementioned statement that preceded Bryen’s report about Zelensky’s plans to replace Zaluzhny with the much more politically reliable Budanov by a single day – suggested deepening intrigue in Kiev.
After what just happened following Kiev’s downing of a plane full of Ukrainian POWs by American-advised air defense operators, the public pretext has now been created for replacing him if he wants to.
That’s not to say that Zelensky will certainly do so since any such a move is fraught with the very real risk of blowback due to how popular Zaluzhny is among the armed forces and civil society, but both categories of his supporters might only put up mild resistance if he’s blamed for this incident. It’s not implausible that Zelensky will either directly blame him or do so via media surrogates since he himself wants to eschew responsibility and he definitely doesn’t want anyone pointing fingers at America.
All things considered, blaming Zaluzhny – perhaps by claiming that he should have verified alleged intelligence about the IL-76’s cargo before shooting it down in order to make this seem like an unfortunate accident – is the most politically convenient option at Zelensky and his US patron’s disposal. It could shift the blame from them to him and facilitate Zaluzhny’s replacement with Budanov without much resistance from the armed forces or civil society.
As for why the US might want him to go, it could be that he’s deemed more amendable to the peace talks that America’s leading liberal–globalist policymaking faction is still reluctant to relaunch, in which case they could fear that a possible coup would stop their proxy war plans and doom Biden’s re-election. They might of course also calculate that the risk of a coup, which could possibly be preceded by large-scale protests across the country in his support, would spike with his removal and thus call it off.
Whatever ultimately ends up happening, it’s important for observers not to extend credence to CNN and Ukraine’s conspiracy theories about Russia accidentally shooting down its own plane and it supposedly only carrying S-300s respectively, since Kiev definitely knew that there were POWs on board.
It therefore remains to be seen why its American-advised air defense operators still shot it down, but more clarity is expected as time passes and the military and/or political consequences of this incident become known.