A clip shows a drone as it lands on the radar dome of a Russian A-50 parked in Belarusian airport.
On Feb. 26, 2023, the news spread that a Russian Beriev A-50U Mainstay airborne early warning & control aircraft had been damaged in a drone attack carried out by the Belarusian partisan group, BYPOL, at the Machulishchy Airbase, Belarus. The base, aircraft was first spotted operating from the base located some 12 kilometers from Minsk on Jan. 19, 2023, when, according to the UK Ministry of Defence’s daily intelligence bulletin on the war in Ukraine, it flew alongside two MiG-31K aircraft.
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine – 28 February 2023
Find out more about Defence Intelligence: https://t.co/v3cDaShXOA
🇺🇦 #StandWithUkraine 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/Sa5TUFHvxF
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) February 28, 2023
The UK MOD Intelligence report said on Feb. 28 that attribution and damage had not been officially corroborated. “However, the loss of an A-50 MAINSTAY would be significant as it is critical to Russian air operations for providing an air battlespace picture. This will likely leave 6 operational A-50s in service, further constraining Russian air operations.”
While the news got a lot of media attention around the world, the high-rez satellite images released by Maxar in the following days
showed the A-50U pretty much intact on the apron of the Belarusian air base. Obviously, this didn’t prove the AEW asset was not damaged in some kind of attack, but for sure, the color satellite imagery seemed to rule out a full loss or heavy damage to the A-50U.
Maxar has also made imagery available, which provides a slightly higher resolution image of the aircraft. pic.twitter.com/GsdLzDnsYm
— Bellingcat (@bellingcat) February 28, 2023
Eventually, on Mar. 2, BYPOL released a first clip that just showed a drone approaching the A-50U parked at the airbase. Later on the same day, a longer video was also posted on Youtube. The latter one is particularly important, as it shows the drone landing on the A-50U and taking off. It does not show an attack or explosions.
The statement posted along with the full clip, does not mention an attack.
The translation of the statement posted along with the video on Telegram by BYPOL can be read below: pic.twitter.com/juHTNJ0WXZ
— Bellingcat (@bellingcat) March 2, 2023
While some questions around this episode remain (for example: was a real attack with an actual explosion carried out after the video was filmed?), the alleged damage to the A-50U is a stark reminder you should trust nothing coming from the Ukraine war zone. No matter who posted it: a proper fact checking is always required to confirm the veracity of the claims. This is a lesson media outlets all around the world should have learned since the first days of the Ukrainian war.
In general, I suggest everyone to apply to all the news and updates (including videos and photos) coming from the “battlefield” the very same approach used in cybersecurity: “Zero Trust”. Just like in the world of cybersecurity someone cannot be trusted even after he/she was successfully previously authenticated and given access to a network or service, it is necessary to evaluate the truthfulness of any claim and distrust a priori all sources, including the official ones. Nothing can be taken at face value unless it has been properly and rigorously verified.