As SOFREP previously reported, Russia earlier this month made headlines for the arrival of a Russian Air Force Antonov-124 cargo plane at New York’s JFK Airport on 1 April. The cargo plane, registration number RA-82038, reportedly delivered much-needed medical supplies to the city following a phone conversation earlier that week between President Trump and Vladimir Putin. This is was a propaganda coup on the part of Russia.

While the Russian Mission to the United Nations (U.N.) in New York proclaimed Russia’s moral imperative to assist the U.S. in solidarity against the coronavirus, analysts were hesitant to accept this act at face value. Open-source research reveals such hesitation is warranted, and that Russia used the same cargo plane to deliver NATO-defying advanced weapons systems to Serbia and Turkey, in addition to conducting resupply operations of Russian forces backing the Assad regime in Syria.

Here’s our basic open-source investigation highlighting Russia’s use of its Antonov fleet to deliver both humanitarian aid and advanced weapons around the globe — an arguably duplicitous move.

Russian Mission to the UN touting delivery of humanitarian aid arrival to JFK airport, NYC on 1 April.

Visual recognition

Thankfully, this Antonov airframe has a very distinct visual signature from its long, sweeping wings, its four jet turbine engines, to its massive fuselage, and single pronounced tail. The An-124 is relatively renowned for its cargo capacity and can load and unload cargo from either the aft or nose of the aircraft. Specifically, however, we are most interested in the aircraft’s registration data, serial number, and other identifiers that allow us to perform visual recognition and corroboration of activity during research.

RA-82038 belongs to the Russian Air Force’s 224th Flight Unit, as evidenced by the “224” visible on the aircraft’s vertical stabilizer (commonly referred to as the ‘tail’). The below video still from the Russian U.N. mission’s Twitter account displays the logo for us as they aircraft pulls into JFK airport for inspection and unloading. The aircraft’s identifying marks allow us to confirm its identity and corroborate it with official government press releases, unofficial press reports, visual cues taken from geolocated photos or videos, and open-source flight tracking software that relies on current flight safety standards for the global tracking of aircraft of interest, including military aircraft such as RA-82038.

Visual cues of Antonov-124 aircraft upon arrival to JFK airport on 1 April.

The 224th Flight Unit is a state-owned autonomous company under the authority of the Russian Air Force — in short, a hybrid state/non-state entity. Its primary customers, according to its official website, are the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, the Rossiya Special Flight Unit, and Rosoboronexport. All three of these customers are critical to the export of Russian global influence, VIP travel (i.e. support vehicles and equipment for Vladimir Putin), and the delivery of Russian weapons exports.

While only portions of the 224th’s website appear current, estimates suggest RA-82038 is one of at least seven more An-124 aircraft — 224th Flight Unit also possibly has 18 Il-76 aircraft, a smaller cargo aircraft. In short, the 224th possesses a veritable fleet and an expanding one at that. While boasting of global reach, noticeably absent from the company website is any mention of the numerous special flights into Syria — of which we can observe at least four made by RA-82038 alone in the past six months.

It must also be noted that in Syria a representative of the Russian state-owned holding conglomerate, Rostec, maintains an office that ensures the interests of Rosoboronexport and Russian support to the Assad regime. As numerous 224th flights to Russia’s Khmeimim (variant: Hmeimim) Air Base in Latakia, Syria identify, Russian use of state-backed enterprises to export Russian weapon systems and capabilities while exerting regional geopolitical influence is critical.