An Ilyushin Il-96, a Russian-made wide-body jet I’ve been dying to fly for a while and part of Russia’s “Special Flight Squadron,” was dispatched this morning to Washington DC to repatriate key Russian diplomats. I’ve been following the plane on FlightRadar for the past several hours and it’s been pretty interesting.
Designated RSD898, the flight took off from Moscow’s Vnukovo International Airport at 9:27 AM local time today. In an attempt to avoid EU airspace, the flight took an unusual 11-hour and 40-minute route, bypassing the northern edge of Finland, Sweden, and Norway instead of the usual 10-hour journey. The plane, bearing the registration RA-96018, arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport just a few minutes ago, at 2:08 PM.
The US State Department confirmed the airlift is intended to return Russian diplomats stationed in the US back to Moscow and to bring their replacements to the US. According to the State Department, on arrival in Moscow, the returning diplomats will provide insights into Washington’s perspective on the failed coup attempt by the Wagner Group’s Yegveny Prigozhin. There’s also speculation that the plane might be transporting potential intelligence agents back to the US as relations have soured.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, attempted to downplay the airlift as nothing more than a regularly scheduled rotation:
A number of information resources have become excited about the Russian plane, which is heading to the United States. No sensations. It will take out Russian diplomats who were ordered by the US authorities to leave the country in connection with the completion of a three-year stay. This is not about expulsion, but about restrictions on the work created by Washington for Russian foreign institutions.
While all that may well be true, the timing here suggest there’s more to this story–either an opportunity for high-level in-person talks between the two countries, a chance for Russian and American diplomats and agents to debrief, etc.–as was suggested by State Department officials.
Furthermore, the assumption that this might not be a run-of-the-mill diplomatic rotation but rather an expulsion wouldn’t be crazy, given that’s exactly what happened last month when the very same Il-96 showed up in Berlin.
Why I find this fascinating
I’m somewhat of a geopolitical buff, so it’s always exciting when this sort of thing and my interest in aviation intersect, revealing how statecraft can influence flight paths and how aircraft can become instruments of diplomatic maneuvering. On a more fundamental level, I also think this plane looks pretty damn cool, and it’s rare nowadays to spot it in the wild, especially in the West.
Photos from Dulles
One Twitter user has posted photos of the plane taken just moments after landing at Dulles, showing several vehicles lining up besides the aircraft. Presumably, this is a bus gate.
Amid escalating geopolitical tensions, a special Russian flight just landed in Washington DC at Dulles International Airport. Its main purpose is to return Russian diplomats from the US to Russia, reflecting the complex and evolving nature of international diplomacy between Russia and the West.
This is a dream for plane spotters in the Washington–Baltimore area–when was the last time an Ilyushin Il-96 landed at Dulles? If anyone is currently at Dulles Airport and has seen the plane or its passengers, please comment!