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Today, a report came up about a Russian attack aircraft dropping ordnance over Belgorod, causing a crater 40m wide in one of the central streets of the city. Some reports indicate that this was an accidental weapons release, and the Russian Ministry of Defence stated that an investigation is underway.

In the current Russia invasion of Ukraine, the information war has been more important than ever, with both sides constantly trying to wrestle the truth to make it fit their own narrative, to rally both foreign and local receptors to their side.

I am wondering - considering the situation, and the previous instances of back-and-forth blaming for different actions like cross-border attacks on Russia, intention of nuclear attacks, or even the nord stream pipeline explosion - what would prompt Russia to directly admit to a mishap in such an incident?

It seems that it would be easier to blame the attack in Ukraine, considering the current state of affairs and the obvious convenience of the Russian government to rally their population behind them to increase the war support, why would they admit to an obvious blunder? Does this offer political advantages of any sort?

I can only think that NATO AWACS are able to identify which aircraft were in the vicinity of the city when the explosion happened, and western countries could use that information to counter the Russian narrative, should they decide to accuse e.g. Ukraine, but it would not seem anything too different from the information/disinformation campaigns we have already experienced.


UPDATE: As of 2023-04-23, two more unexploded ordnance were found in Belgorod coming from the same aircraft, giving more weight to the hypothesis of an accidental/deliberate emergency jettison, with maybe one of the bombs going off accidentally.

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    "the information war has been more important than ever" Not on the ground really. For over a year now bomb shells kill people in Ukraine. Not sure how important the information campaigns really are. This may be its own question. Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 16:34
  • I think that this boils down to one thing. The truth will come out eventually, and so it's better to admit to the truth than to lie about it and be caught out lying. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 10:36
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    In the real world no one is like the lying guards in the twoo-door riddle who are compelled to lie even if it is detrimental to them. So why is it so strange for them to admit a mistake, especially if 1. it is a mistake occasionally made by any other military, including the US one, and 2. it would be trivial to disprove them if they tried to lie about it.
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 12:36
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    @Valorum: when it comes to contracting the official MoD line, one can be sent to prison in Russia for that [IIRC for up to 5 years] for "discrediting" it. (About 5,800 cases opened thus far english.alarabiya.net/News/world/2023/03/01/…) So, it's not like with other stories, had the MoD decided to cover this up. (But given the 2nd, unexploded bomb, that would have been difficult--see my answer.) Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 17:33
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    Information war does not mean necessarily lying all the time. Here the Russian army boosts its own credibility by admitting its own mishap, which produced little damage, and would be hard to deny.
    – Morisco
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 9:49

9 Answers 9

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Kremlin admitted the fact that it was Russia that bombed its own city, because if they blame Ukraine for the bombing, the Russian population will question the efficacy of the Russian air defense systems.

References:

Об этом сказал советник главы Офиса президента Михаил Подоляк в эфире телемарафона, сообщает РБК-Украина в пятницу, 21 апреля. ... "Они посчитали риски. Если они скажут, что Украина атаковала – тогда это существенно деморализует дополнительно. Тогда в России начнут говорить, а где же ПВО? Они тогда будут понимать, что Россия не защищена", – сказал Подоляк.

This was mentioned by the advisor to the head of the Office of the President Mykhailo Podolyak during telethon, as reported by RBK-Ukraine on Friday, April 21. ... They [The Kremlin] calculated the risks. If they say that Ukraine carried out the attack, then this will demoralize [the Russian population] even more. Then in Russia they will start talking: where is the air defense? They will start to understand that Russia is not protected.

Konstantin Katyshev "The Office of the President explained why Russia admitted the strike on Belgorod". Korrespondent.net, April 21, 2023: https://korrespondent.net/ukraine/4583030-v-op-poiasnyly-pochemu-rossyia-pryznala-udar-po-belhorodu

The same quote appears here.

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    “People, don't worry! Our military is superior, nothing could ever breach our defenses! Anybody trying would get blown into smithereens! We missile any enemy plane and shoot any enemy tank and carpet-bomb any enemy spy who has made it into our cities!” Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 20:08
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    Plot twist: it was actually the Ukrainians?
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 6:44
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    @leftaroundabout Also the enemy can't bomb our cites and kill our civilians, so we have to do it for them;-) Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 8:15
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    BTW the logic is very similar to the case of sinking of Moskva: everybody knows it was hit by a Ukrainian attack, but the Kremlin insists on something else.
    – Ruslan
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 18:13
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In addition to the reasoning that it would akin to admit weakness against Ukraine, some other motives come from the nature of the incident:

  • It was an accident, which meant that it was unexpected (duh!). The Russian government did not have time to prepare an accusation against Ukraine. Typically, if the government was to accuse Ukraine, it would not just say "It was Ukraine" but also provide details ("we detected an aircraft flying from this Ukrainian airbase at this time that followed that route...") and "evidence". There was no time to prepare such a story.

  • Also because it was an accident, it is to be expected that at the moment there were lots of communications between the parties involved (the pilots, the airbase, the civil defense authorities) before it could be curtailed and censored. So probably some of those communications have been recorded, and a relatively large amount of people could know the truth.

Both of those made a vague accusation against Ukraine quite risky, as the Russian government did not know what evidence could be out there refuting its claims. So pressing the accusations carried the risk of ending with a loss of credibility for the Russian government.

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The whole incident happened on a busy street, which means there were a lot of witnesses that could testify the origin of the blast was an explosive fired from a fighter jet. That would imply two things:

  1. Ukraine has operational fighter jets.

  2. These aircraft can enter Russian airspace.

Not a good message to send. Instead, if the Russian military admits it was their own jet, they can mantain to have absolute control over their own airspace, and even air superiority anywhere in the war theater.

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    That kind of fits with the given explanation for the sinking of the cruiser Moskva back in April 2022. It was during strong winds and heavy sea (only it wasn't) not just because of Ukrainian fire. Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 16:37
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    Well, the could have claimed it was a Ukrainian missile or GLSDB. Russia does regularly claim Belgorod markets are hit by mortar fire. Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 16:43
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    And they even claimed attacks with bigger weapons last summer tass.com/russia/1475005 "Kiev uses Tochka-U, Tu-143 drones on residential areas in Belgorod and Kursk" Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 16:51
  • @Fizz But the towns and villages along the border in the Belgorod region are indeed hit
    – CITBL
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 21:18
  • @CITBL: In my own estimation, that's very likely true. I'm just saying here that "Russia doesn't want to acknowledge being hit, as that shows weakness" is probably not that compelling in this case/region [of Belgorod]. (Although there's the Moskva cruiser which argues in the opposite direction, in some [different perhaps] circumstances.) Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 21:37
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Russian pro-war commentators initially blamed Ukraine for the blast and questioned why Kyiv was able to launch an attack on the centre of Belgorod (source, The Guardian):

Ukrainian special services show that they can blow up almost everything.

This may sound too much in the favor of the enemy. As there were no casualties (just three injured), it may be more beneficial to tell the truth if it really was an accidental discharge.

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Another possible/additional explanation is that they knew (from the pilot) that in fact two (!) bombs had been dropped. And since only one went off, the other had to be somewhere in the city. It was located and defused about one-and-a-half days later. Covering up unexploded ordnance search would have been slightly more difficult, as would have been the op to dig it up and defuse it etc. (But I am somewhat speculating here since the details of this 2nd bomb have been a bit sketchy, at least in the Western press, besides the evacuation it caused. Only photos I found of the latter were on Twitter, and they have a narrow field of view of the dig site. So I'm not sure how obvious this 2nd bomb's presence/location was a day before, to random passers by.) But once exposed intact, it would have been hard[er] to pretend it was a GLSDB or some other long-range Western weapon. And unless Belgorod had anti-air activation the night of the event (none was reported) it would have been both implausible and undesirable to claim a Ukrainian plane could have snuck in undetected and dropped a couple of FABs.

Finally, according to Western media, around the time of the Ukrainian offensive last year, a high-level decision was made to start admitting some failures. So we might also see a small reflection of that here as well. (This new communication paradigm came together with more calls for total war though.)

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  • Upvoted - needing to dig up some bombs may very well have motivated this. Things to keep in mind however: a) they could have said their air defense radar "saw" multiple bombs drop - who's going to know/contradict? b) you have to cordon off bomb disposal areas, making it easier to control info and c) the bomb in question is a std 500kg Soviet model. Ukraine probably has some in its own fleet and... easy enough to lie about that anyway. The, as you point out, non-activation of air defense radar probably is a factor. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 17:58
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: well, if they saw the bombs on radar, but not the plane... or if they saw the plane but didn't shoot it... it would look pretty bad. There was a low-level incursion from Ukr helos in that region last year though (prolly the kind you don't seen on radar). youtube.com/watch?v=8F45FHLpKtI Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 18:21
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I must state an obvious thing which is left over by other answers:

Russian MoD understood that the word will get out, and they would look unreliable and (even more) untrustworthy. It is obviously better mid- and long-term to admit a mistake rather than much later be blamed for mistake and covering it up.

I believe it is possible that a year ago they would try the cover-up route, but seeing as the military action is quite transparent in the XXI century they were finally able to admit the reality that you can't cover up things like that.

There's a russian saying of шила в мешке не утаишь (literally "you cannot hide a stitching awl in a bag"), meaning some things cannot be hidden.

A comparable incident would be UIA Flight 752 where Iran was comparatively quick at admitting that they have downed the civilian plane, rather than waiting and having somebody else stick it in their face.

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    There's probably some truth to this. Even Russians may come to notice TASS lies all the time if that's the only thing it does. While the answers based on "it would show incompetence in air defense" have some ring of truth, Russia acknowledged strikes on its strategic air bomber airfields last December. Which were then propagandized to "terrorism". So it could have been a clear benefit for RU to blame UA, as long as the truth did not come to light. Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 23:07
  • Russians do not watch TV that much and they're all on either WhatsApp or Telegram.
    – alamar
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 10:15
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    “шила в мешке не утаишь”, please explain the meaning in the answer. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 11:12
  • @alamar, that's not quite true: 4 hours/day average is not nothing (and obviously a lot more amongst 55+). Then, as we've learnt, propaganda and cover-up doesn't work (anymore) by offering a plausible counter-story, but rather by flooding with many different stories, however ridiculous and contradictory they are (cf. MH17). And Russians are well-versed in doublethink: they will be the first to acknowledge that "everybody lies", yet comfortably prefer the official line. Nevertheless, this is likely a reason.
    – Zeus
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 1:14
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    @A.L: I added a translation. Feel free to correct it.
    – sleske
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 9:43
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if Russia tried to claim this was a Ukrainian attach, they would be in effect stating that they could not prevent the Ukraine from attacking into Russia. In other words their defenses did not work.

Add to this embarrassment when the truth comes out that it was a Russian plane that dropped the bombs.

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    why would the first paragraph be a problem for them? They can use it to justify even more conscription, even more bombing, etc Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 16:15
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    They had no qualms claiming such prior attacks happened bbc.com/news/world-europe-62025541 ; it's true that the one one with video footage of helos (in April last year) would have been harder to disguise as something else. But Russia also claimed [some of] these helos hit residential buildings reuters.com/world/europe/… Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 17:00
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    @user253751 As coercive as Russian society is, they still need some compliance from the public on these things. "Look, we're too incompetent to protect our territory, but you should still let us take all your male children and everything will work out fine" does not inspire confidence.
    – Joe
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 14:15
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Bombs fall at an angle, not straight down. The fall angle is typically 25-45 degrees. The crater tends to have a steeper slope on the impact direction side. Bomb tail debris tends to fly in the opposite direction.

It's also possible that some witnesses in the city have heard the aircraft and the which direction it's been flying, north or south.

No point losing credibility on something so easily verified.

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    It happened at night, so somewhat hard to do "planespotting". Also, if you watched the video, the bomb had a pretty long delay fuse (seconds). The paper you've lined is about impact craters. That one was negligible here. (The low casualties are in fact because it exploded rather deep under the street, so there was little shrapnel. It was more like a demo charge.) And above all, anyone contradicting the Russian MoD can be sent to prison in Russia, for "discrediting" the armed forces. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 14:39
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    In fact, the 2nd bomb (yeah, there were two), took like one-and-a-half days to find. Because it didn't explode and made such a small impact crater it was hard to find (approx. 250 meters from where first one fell.) Some reports even say this was found 7 meters underground, but I'm skeptical it went that deep, unless it fell in a sewer or somethig. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 16:15
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    I do not follow the logic of "since it came from the NE it was a Russian bombers." Mostly because almost all of the airplanes that have been designed are able to turn while in flight (perhaps with a few exceptions like the Wright brothers' first prototypes). So an Ukrainian military airplane could certainly have made a small turn and approached Belgorod from a direction other than straight from Ukraine.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 21:03
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    @SJuan76 Bombs can be released from as far as 100 km away, about 40 km realistically, so it's possible to bomb Belgorod without even exiting Ukraine's airspace. Doing a U-turn north of the city is a massive and pointless risk.
    – Therac
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 21:15
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    This question about the motivation for TASS not to lie is difficult to answer without insider knowledge. Fancy diagrams about bomb flight paths don't add one bit to it, nor claims that bystanders would recognize a, possibly high/medium-altitude, plane in the midst of the night. -1. Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 23:13
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Because They Hit The City With Two Bombs

Which implies that the bombing was intentional.
And the Russian propaganda wants you to believe the bombing has happened by accident.


the second russian bomb
(image from mil.in.ua)

More than 3,000 people have been evacuated from their homes in the Russian city of Belgorod after an undetonated explosive was found. […] The undetonated device was found in the same area as the bomb that was accidentally dropped on Thursday evening — BBC

Russian media claim that the second bomb was discovered in the area of house №15 on Shalandina Street, approximately 250 meters from the site of the first bomb explosion. Presumably, this is a 500-kilogram FAB-500 high-explosive bomb. It damaged the balconies of a high-rise building, falling just a few meters away. The bomb buried itself in the ground next to the foundation to a depth of several meters and did not explode. — mil.in.ua

The unexploded item is a general purpose air-dropped bomb designated FAB-500, reported Izvestia, a Russian publication. It added that the weapon, which weighs 500 kilogrammes (1,100 pounds), was discovered at a depth of five metres. — RepublicWorld


So it is now easy to reproduce the logic of the Russian commandment and their propaganda:

  • The construction of Su-34 aircraft does not allow to release two ordnance at the same time, even occasionally. Simply speaking, you have to push the trigger twice;
  • Which implies that the pilot had intent to release two bombs;
  • At the moment, there is no publicly available information about whether the pilot intentionally bombed Belgorod or was he thinking he is slaughtering another large city (e.g. Kharkiv).
  • The Russian commandment had known about the fact at once. There is no chance they could have known about the first bomb and not about the second one.
  • So they decided to insist on "bombing by accident" version in public media.

A rule of thumb: if a clearly biased source seemingly admits a blunder, stay assured that the truth is even worse.

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    ... so why not blame Ukraine for dropping two bombs? Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 16:30
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    what does any of that have to do with the fact there were two bombs instead of one? Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 17:02
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    "The construction of Su-34 aircraft does not allow to release two ordnance at the same time" -> SU-34 avionics don't allow the double-pickle release mode or releases based on distance, etc like western ones e.g. F-16, F-18, Eurofighter...? Have you got links on that as your premise hangs on it (genuine question)?
    – HaroldH
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 17:41
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    Why would Russia intentionally bomb its own city only to freely admit it later? Because it is not a false flag operation if you do not make it look like it was your enemy who performed it. There is nothing to gain by this. This just makes no sense.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 21:09
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    @HaroldH if I understand correctly, you are talking about salvo mode. It takes more than a single button push to activate. Nevertheless, I'm going to find Su-34 operating manual for a solid proof. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 21:28

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