Putin’s Presidential Planes: What We Know

When President Vladimir V. Putin travels abroad — as he did this week to North Korea and Vietnam to bolster alliances and nurture security ties amid Russia’s war in Ukraine — he typically flies in dated, Soviet-designed Ilyushin Il-96 series jets.

With his latest trip coming shortly after aircraft crashes killed two other world leaders, President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran and Vice President Saulos Chilima of Malawi, a Kremlin spokesman felt it necessary recently to reassure the Russian public that Mr. Putin’s planes were “very reliable.”

Though Russian airline carriers have abandoned Ilyushin models in favor of newer Western models — neither of the country’s two major airlines, Aeroflot and Rossiya, currently list any Ilyushin planes in their commercial passenger fleet — Mr. Putin seems steadfast in his commitment.

Accompanied by fighter jets, Mr. Putin took an Il-96 on a whirlwind day trip in 2023 for talks with leaders in United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Earlier that same year, another plane in the government’s Il-96 fleet was tracked stopping at airports in Washington and New York to retrieve Russian diplomats who the Kremlin said had been ordered to leave the United States.

In 2018, Mr. Putin traveled to Finland in an Il-96 — and was accused of briefly trespassing in NATO airspace — for a summit meeting with former U.S. President Donald J. Trump.

Little is known about the Rossiya special flight squadron, also known as the 235th separate aviation detachment, that is responsible for the Kremlin’s aircrafts, including the Il-96s, Tu-214 airplanes and Mi-38 helicopters. Russian state media reports that 2,500 people work in the unit.

Though using an outdated plane may baffle outsiders, Mr. Putin may be using the Soviet-designed aircraft to send a message of Russian resiliency and strength.

“It’s the musings of a czar,” said Adam Taichi Kraft, a former intelligence collection strategist with the Defense Intelligence Agency who now consults on national security issues, “to be able to will himself into the sky using whatever equipment he wants.”

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