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Major blow to Putin on two-year war anniversary as Ukraine ‘downs £250m spy plane’

Ukrainian forces downed a Russian early warning and control aircraft on Friday, the air force chief said, a major win for the country as its army fights to repel persistent Russian attacks along the front line as the war enters its third year.

General Mykola Oleshchuk thanked Ukraine's military intelligence for helping down the Russian A-50 aircraft on Russia's military holiday on Friday. “Congratulations to the occupiers on the Defender of the Fatherland day,” General Oleshchuk said on a sardonic note.

Ukrainian media carried footage purportedly showing a massive fire that erupted when the big warplane crashed in the Krasnodar region on the eastern coast of the Sea of Azov.

The Russian military didn't comment on the Ukrainian claim, but emergency officials in the Krasnodar region reported that a plane crashed in the area without identifying it. Several Russian military bloggers confirmed the plane's loss and some alleged that it was downed in a friendly fire incident.

If confirmed, the plane's downing would mark the loss of the second such aircraft in just over a month. Ukrainian officials said the country's military downed an A-50 over the Sea of Azov on 14 January. The Russian military never commented on the Ukrainian claim, but Russian bloggers and some media confirmed the aircraft's loss.

The A-50, which is capable of spotting targets up to 650km (400 miles) away, is a key command center aircraft that relays information to troops on the ground. Such planes are fundamental tools in helping direct Russian battlefield movements in Ukraine.

The A-50, which carries a large radar on its top, typically has a crew of 15. The Russian air force reportedly has been operating a fleet of only nine such aircraft.

In January, former commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, General Valerii Zaluzhny, said a similar Russian A-50 spy plane, estimated to be worth more than £250m, had been destroyed in overnight strikes in the southern occupied territories, while an IL-22 command aircraft had been hit off the Crimean coast.

If the downing of the precious Russian air asset is confirmed, it will serve as a major moral boost for Ukraine after the loss of Adviidka, a strategic eastern city. It was captured by Russian forces last weekend after a ferocious four-month battle in which they brought to bear their significant battlefield advantage in men, aircraft and artillery.

Emboldened by its first major triumph in the war in nine months, Moscow appears determined to leverage its superiority as it shifts its economy onto a war footing.

The Russian plane's downing will also be certain to impress Ukraine's Western allies.

Kyiv officials have pleaded with Ukraine’s Western partners to accelerate delivery of military aid so its forces can hold out against the onslaught. The front line running more than 1,000km across eastern and southern Ukraine has not shifted much in the run-up to the war’s two-year anniversary on 24 February.