Over the course of two days this past week, as the conflict in Ukraine raged on, a significant number of aircraft assigned to Russia’s Rossiya Special Flight Detachment have made curious flights in and around the country. This unit, technically part of state-owned Rossiya Airlines, a division of the flag carrier Aeroflot, operates a variety of specialized planes, including airborne command posts, communications relay jets, and VVIP aircraft, among others. The sorties have come amid a flurry of other interesting flight activity emanating from Russia, as well.
The flights in question took place between Thursday and Friday, March 17 and 18. It should be noted immediately that the Rossiya Special Flight Detachment’s aircraft fly regularly and that the total number of sorties was not necessarily higher than one might expect to see, at least as part of average day-to-day or week-to-week activity. However, what was visible via online flight tracking software drew particular attention because of the unusually coordinated nature of a large number of flights all at once from the Moscow area followed by the largely unexplained dispersal of many of them to intriguing locations, particularly to the east.
On Friday, online flight tracking software showed at least six planes from the Rossiya Special Flight Detachment departing from the Moscow area in relatively rapid succession, including an Il-96-300PU presidential plane, a Russian equivalent to America’s VC-25A Air Force One jets, and a smaller Tu-214PU airborne command post jet. Another specialized aircraft assigned to this unit, the Il-96-400VPU, was also subsequently spotted leaving the Moscow area. The Il-96-400VPU is generally believed to be a “doomsday” plane able to provide command and control for Russian nuclear forces in a crisis, and that is roughly analogous to the U.S. Air Force’s E-4B Nightwatch jets.
A number of these aircraft flew to points east within Russia, where they either appeared to stop briefly or made landing approaches without actually touching down, before returning to the Moscow area. One of the flights, an Airbus A319-115CJ, flew west to St. Petersburg first before returning to base.
One of the Rossiya Special Flight Detachment’s more conventionally configured Il-96-300 passenger transport aircraft flew to the Russian resort city of Sochi on the Black Sea, via western Kazakhstan. Another one of the unit’s Il-96-300s flew to Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan.
The Il-96-300PU presidential aircraft only made a very brief trip to the west before coming back to land. The Il-96-400VPU command post plane flew a racetrack orbit over the Moscow area for a time.
Separately, a Rossiya Flight Detachment Tu-154 that is associated with Russia’s Federal Security Service, better known by the acronym FSB, was tracked flying west from the Moscow area to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad is a highly strategic, but geographically separated enclave that is home to numerous Russian military bases.
The timing, destinations, and general nature of the Rossiya Special Flight Detachment flights observed Friday were unusual and notable in their own right. They also come a day after a number of the unit’s aircraft executed different, but equally curious sorties.
On Thursday, at least eight planes from the Rossiya Special Flight Detachment there were tracked online, including an Il-96-300PU, a Tu-214PU, and a Tu-214SR communications relay jet. Another Il-96-300 assigned to this unit was also subsequently spotted leaving the Moscow area.
Again, virtually all of these planes headed to various points to the east, with a number of them making relatively brief stops before returning to the Moscow area. At one point, the Tu-214SR flew in a circular orbit, appearing to perform its relay function for other aircraft in the area before making a stop at the airport in the Siberian city of Omsk.
The same Airbus A319-115CJ passenger transport that was among those tracked on Friday also flew a sortie on Thursday that was similar in many ways. This jet appeared to abort a landing, or maybe even conduct some kind of touch-and-go, at the airport in Novosibirsk, another Siberian city. A smaller An-148-100E passenger aircraft from that unit flew to Ufa, also in Siberia, and then flew a curious low-altitude pattern around the airport there.
The second Il-96 headed northeast and then flew a circuit around much of Russia. Though the tracking data for this flight was spotty, the times when it was visible online combined with the total distances covered indicate that it did not make any stops along the way.
It’s not perfectly clear what the purposes of any of these flights over the past two days might have been or how much of this activity, if any of it, has been interrelated. Individuals who keep track of the Rossiya Special Flight Detachment’s flight patterns, as well as those of other Russian government aircraft, noted that the total volume of flights has not necessarily been out of the ordinary.
At the same time, where these aircraft flew and the timing of their flights – especially the sequential departures from the Moscow area followed by the dispersal of many aircraft to locations to the east – are out of the ordinary. It’s not unreasonable to then ask whether at least some of this activity might be tied to the conflict in Ukraine, which by every indication has not gone according to President Vladimir Putin’s plans, or the second-order impacts that the war has had on Russia and its relations with the international community.
The appearance of the Il-96-400VPU over the Moscow area Friday may well have had to do, in part, with Putin taking part in a massive pro-war rally in the city. That event also marked the eighth anniversary of the Russian government seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
As others have already pointed out, many of the other Rossiya Special Flight Detachment sorties have the look of a strategic drill of some kind meant to demonstrate Russia’s continuity of government plans. The locations in Siberia where a number of the aircraft flew on Thursday were relatively close to known and suspected underground bunker complexes that Russia’s top leadership, including Putin, and other officials might flee to in a major crisis, such as a nuclear war. Ufa, for instance, is around 90 miles northwest of Mount Yamantau, which is said to house a huge underground city that is part of a complete “complex” covering some 400 square miles, as you can read more about here.
The long-distance Il-96 flight three days ago now reflects another option for how Russian leaders could continue to exercise command and control over the country’s military and other key government agencies while reducing their vulnerability during various contingencies.
In addition, Sochi on the Black Sea, where another one of the Rossiya Special Flight Detachment’s Il-96-300 flew on Friday, is within 100 miles of Putin’s Palace at Cape Idokopas, among other things. That palace, which is part of an extensive and heavily guarded complex, has a significant underground component, as well.
Even before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, there had been concerns about how such a conflict might escalate and potential spillover elsewhere in the region, and what the potential thresholds might be for the employment of nuclear weapons. Though experts and observers have long debated the exact nuances of Russian government policy in this regard, there are long-standing fears that the Kremlin could pursue a so-called escalate-to-deescalate strategy. This would a limited nuclear strike with the aim of effectively freezing a conflict by making opponents fearful of the potential for further escalation, as well as of creating a situation where third parties would be extremely unwilling to intervene for the same general reasons.
In announcing the start of the “special military operation,” in Ukraine, Putin had made what many interpreted as a veiled threat to possibly use nuclear weapons against any country that attempted to intervene on behalf of the government in Kyiv. Just days after that, he announced he was placing the country’s strategic deterrent forces on heightened alert. At the rally in Moscow on Friday, Putin had pointed out that the invasion of Ukraine had started on the birthday of a famous Russian Imperial Navy admiral, Fyodor Ushakov, who is now the patron saint of the country’s nuclear bomber forces.
Deputy Secretary of Russia’s Security Council and former president Dmitry Medvedev said separately on Friday that “Russia has the might to put all of our brash enemies in their place,” raising new concerns in this regard.
Since then, Russian authorities have accused the Ukrainian government, possibly with help from the United States, of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction. Some have feared these wholly unsubstantiated remarks could be preludes to Russian forces employing these kinds of weapons, or otherwise staging nuclear, chemical, or biological incidents, in Ukraine or elsewhere.
Beyond all this, these two days of flights involving Rossiya Special Flight Detachment came amid other eye-catching flight activity on the part of the Russian military and other government agencies in the country, some of which appeared to be interconnected. For example, while the Il-96-300 that headed to Sochi was tailed at least for part of its trip by an Il-76 airlifter from the country’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, also referred to by the acronym EMERCOM. This ministry is ostensibly in charge of overseeing civil emergency responses to natural disasters and other crises. However, its aircraft have been used to move other cargoes in the past, including deliveries of weapons and humanitarian aid to foreign countries.
Online flight tracking software had separately picked up a pair of Russian Air Force Il-76 airlifters heading to Kaliningrad on Thursday and then spotted heading back on Friday.
A mixture of Russian Air Force and EMERCOM Il-76 airlifters and Tu-134AK, Tu-154M, and Il-62M passenger transports were also spotted flying to and from locations in southern Russia, Armenia, and Syria between Thursday and Friday.
There was what looked to be an exodus of private business jets from the Moscow area on Thursday toward the Middle East, possibly to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, too.
A continuity of government drill or some other kind of strategic exercise doesn’t necessarily explain all of these other Russian flights. Reports indicate Russia is trying to find additional manpower, both within its own security services and from outside the country, to support its operations in Ukraine. This may be part of the reason for some of the sorties. Authorities in the semi-autonomous Russian Republic of Chechyna have already pledged additional troops to go to the front. Dictator Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria has reportedly helped to organize groups in that country, though U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top American officer for operations in the Middle East, said on Friday that there appeared to be “little effort” so far to actually get those individuals to Ukraine.
There have been separate reports that Russian forces presently deployed in foreign countries, including in disputed breakaway regions such as Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, might be in the process of being recalled in order to fight in Ukraine. This could include Russian forces that were deployed to Armenia, one of the locations where Russian military flights headed this past week, in the aftermath of a brief war between that country and neighboring Azerbaijan in 2020.
There’s also the matter of the private jets scurrying to the Middle East. That may well be, at least in part, a product of increasingly crippling sanctions on elite members of Russian society and on the country’s aviation sector, including foreign-made commercial aircraft. With many countries closing their airspace to Russian-owned or operated aircraft of any kind, positioning these planes in a third country that is still open to them, or even re-registering them there, might be advantageous in some way. These movements could have been part of an effort to avoid the planes being effectively seized by the Russian government as part of counter-sanctions efforts, as well.
Of course, these are all just some possible reasons for these various flights based on other information that is available. We really can’t say for certain that these are the exact explanations for what was observed in recent days. More information may well yet emerge that provides additional context or outright confirmation of the purposes of these sorties. But one would think that drilling for continuity of government operations, including a quick exodus of leadership from Moscow to a number of predetermined and more survivable locations, would be prudent considering the geopolitical realities of the day.
Whatever the case, it is worth noting that all of these aircraft in question were flying with their transponders on, allowing them to be tracked online. This all but certainly means that the Russian government wanted this activity noticed and for it to send signals to various parties, including those now arrayed in opposition to the country over the conflict in Ukraine. Of course, indirect signaling always comes with the risk of being misinterpreted, but the risk of such a problem would be quite low based on the limited information we observed. Now that could be different for state actors with robust intelligence-gathering capabilities.
We will definitely be on the lookout for more information that could help explain some or all of these flights, as well as be on the lookout for similar trends in activity going forward.
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