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.
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.
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.
Analysis of information on both the 224th and Rosoboronexport websites reveal clear ties between them, specifically surrounding the export and delivery of Russian advanced weapons systems using the 224th’s airlift capability. For example, a July 2019 Rosoboronexport press release identifies “30-plus [224th Flight Unit] special flights” to Turkey alone for the delivery of an advanced long-range anti-aircraft missile system — we will examine these momentarily. Also among Rosoboronexport products is the Buk-M2E surface-to-air missile system, renowned for its role in the ill-fated shoot-down of MH17 in 2014 over Ukraine.
“Pattern of life” activity
Relying on publicly available open-source flight tracking software to establish a baseline for other RA-82038 and other 224th aircraft flights is made possible by various standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized U.N. body. One such tracking standard, Mode S, is used to provide position and aircraft identification data, which allows us to conduct a historical flight search of RA-82038. The Mode S transponder value for RA-82038 is 154076. Searches of flight tracking software for this value reveals extensive flights worldwide. While aircraft callsigns often change (i.e. the aircraft’s callsign flying into JFK was “RFF 8460”), other identifiers such as the Mode S, etc. do not.
Using Flightradar24, a quick search for historical flight records for RA-82038 unsurprisingly reveals extensive travel to and from Moscow into various other countries. We are most interested in flights to Belgrade, Serbia; Latakia, Syria; and Ankara, Turkey, given that these flights contrast most starkly with the strong humanitarian theme of the NYC flight on 1 April propagated by Russia.
Given that this event was widely publicized, examining another sighting of the aircraft is beneficial.
Just over a month before it landed in NYC, we also observe that RA-82038 landed in Belgrade, Serbia on 22 February. This is significant because Serbia, against the European Union’s (EU) wishes, received a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system, as confirmed in a press release from the Serbian Ministry of Defense.
Again, from Flightradar24 Mode S transponder data, we can confirm that RA-82038 indeed departed from Moscow and landed at Batajnica airfield, located northwest of Belgrade, on 22 February. This is corroborated by the Ministry of Defense press release from the same day.
There is a natural tension between Serbia, which seeks to join the EU, and EU member nations, which expressed reasonable concern over Serbia’s purchase of Russian advanced military equipment. Such transactions risk the imposition of sanctions currently experienced by Russia under the U.S. Opposition through the Sanctions Act. As such, not much publicity was given to this military delivery. However, an earlier delivery of an S-400 also made by RA-82038 to Turkey does offer additional insight into Russia’s export of military equipment. Once again, Flightradar24 data shows RA-82038 flying into the Ankara area prior to landing at Mürted airfield (ICAO: LTAE) on 12 July 2019. The arrival of this delivery, unlike in Serbia, was widely publicized by the Turkish Ministry of Defense, as evidenced by a video and press release dated the same day.
To enhance our analysis, we can use the photos and video stills provided by the Turkish Ministry of Defense to geolocate the images and corroborate them with RA-82038’s flight into Ankara. A preliminary photo of RA-82038 taxiing to a parking apron after landing identifies several identifying features that can be used to geolocate the image using satellite imagery. Additional video stills corroborate the geolocation.
In the taxiing photo, RA-82038’s flaps are down, suggesting the aircraft just conducted a landing; additionally, it appears to be located at the end of the runway, with a large portion of the runway visible behind it. More cues can be derived from the environment in the photo; namely, the orientation of the runway itself, a partially visible aircraft tail in the left of the frame, and other small markers on the runway such as the white line paint scheme, lights, service roads, and signage.
The layering of geolocation, press releases, and flight tracking data provides us with a relatively comprehensive understanding of the use of RA-82038 for the delivery of advanced weapon systems. Naturally, these weapons deliveries are abruptly juxtaposed with the more public flights touting the delivery of medical aid under the banner of a solidarity-driven humanitarian mission.
Such a dichotomy demands even further analysis when examining Russian use of 224th airlift capabilities to bolster the Assad regime.
It is important to note that Russia has been using its An-124 fleet to deliver military equipment and supplies to forces in Latakia for several years, as evidenced by the previous outstanding work by Russian investigative outfit Conflict Intelligence Team. Attempting to keep pace with Russia watchers critical of Moscow’s Middle East meddling, the Russian Federation had previously claimed to be using the An-124s to deliver humanitarian aid to its Syrian allies. However, this is difficult to accept at face value when we acknowledge that the An-124 is also capable of transporting attack helicopters and fighter jets, as exemplified by this photograph of a 224th aircraft loading an attack helicopter.
Continuing our investigation
As the preliminary analysis of the flights into Serbia and Turkey concludes, it is evident Russia’s humanitarian aid deliveries to the U.S., Italy, and other countries must be examined in the overall context of Russia’s information strategy against the West. While Russia indeed delivered medical supplies to the U.S. in early April, it is difficult to accept such goodwill when the very same military aircraft is used to deliver advanced weapons systems to nations within Russia’s sphere of influence and on NATO’s fringe. Russia’s reliance on military aircraft such as RA-82038 to deliver medical supplies just as easily as advanced weapon systems and military equipment, thus directly countering Western interests abroad, is a deliberate move that warrants further scrutiny.
Our challenge: By using open source means, geolocate RA-82038 to Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in Syria, where Vladimir Putin has met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, keeping in mind Russian complicity in the confirmed use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.
Thanks for listening.