On the battlefield with Russia, Afghanistan’s loss is Ukraine’s gain
The Washington Post April 21, 2022
When the United States wanted to purchase a fleet of helicopters for the Afghan government in the early 2010s, it chose the Mi-17 sold by a Russian state-owned arms exporter.
The decision infuriated lawmakers who felt the Pentagon should choose an American manufacturer. But the Defense Department stayed the course, saying the Russian helicopters were relatively inexpensive, functioned well in Afghanistan’s desert expanses and high altitudes, and Afghan pilots knew how to fly them.
A decade later, neither Congress nor the Kremlin could have anticipated that those helicopters would be used against Russian forces by way of arms transfers engineered by the United States in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
The Mi-17s’ unusual journey went unmentioned in the announcement last week by President Joe Biden touting his approval of an $800 million security package dramatically expanding the scope of military aid Washington is supplying to Kyiv.
“These new capabilities include artillery systems, artillery rounds and armored personnel carriers,” said Biden. “I have also approved the transfer of additional helicopters.”
Those 11 helicopters are headed to Ukraine at a crucial time for its outgunned and outmanned military, as Russia intensifies its attacks on the country’s east and south. The Mi-17s are personnel transports that can be armed with cannons and rockets, allowing them to perform an attack role and provide close air support.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky personally appealed to Biden for the helicopters last week during a phone call that resulted in the last-minute addition of the aircraft to the latest security package, said people familiar with the decision who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the arms transfers.
“Ukraine could use the Mi-17s to transport troops, including for special operations raids, evacuate casualties, move ammunition and other key supplies, or attack Russian targets, including troops or infrastructure,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who focuses on Russian defense policy.
“The more helicopters they have means they can use them more aggressively,” he said.
In total, the United States has agreed to provide 16 Mi-17s to Ukraine. All were undergoing U.S.-contracted maintenance outside of Afghanistan in August when the Taliban took over the country and seized billions of dollars in Western-supplied military equipment, said Capt. Mike Kafka, a Pentagon spokesman.
At that time, the helicopters still belonged to the Afghan government, but because they were paid for by U.S. taxpayers under the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, the Pentagon notified Congress in December that it intended to “treat” the aircraft as Defense Department property, said U.S. defense officials familiar with the matter.
Once Biden agreed to transfer the helicopters to Ukraine, the next challenge was getting them there.
Conveniently, five Mi-17s already were in Ukraine for maintenance when Russia’s offensive began - not an uncommon occurrence given Ukraine’s expertise in Soviet-designed military equipment. Those helicopters, deemed “excess defense articles” under the Arms Export Control Act, officially have been handed over to Ukraine, said a defense official.
The other 11 Mi-17s are in storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside of Tucson. The Pentagon could send them to Ukraine as early as this weekend, the defense official said, cautioning that “a lot of factors,” including the weather, would determine the precise date.
The flood of weapons into Ukraine has infuriated Moscow, which has warned the United States to stop arming Ukraine or face “unpredictable consequences.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Wednesday that the Pentagon’s helicopter transfers should serve as a warning to Ukraine of how Washington treats its security partners.
“The Pentagon is now sending helicopters to Ukraine, helicopters it had previously ordered for the army of Afghanistan — a country that the Americans finally dumped,” Maria Zakharova said. “Will Ukraine repeat the fate of Afghanistan? The helicopters did. American politicians are true to their words in this respect. The art of betraying their closest allies is in their political blood.”
Ukrainian officials, however, have expressed gratitude for Washington’s security assistance, while continuing to appeal for more sophisticated weaponry.
“President Biden has demonstrated true leadership in helping [provide] assistance to Ukraine, in mobilizing [the] international community to support Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in recent days.
The irony of using Russian military equipment against Moscow’s forces in Ukraine is not lost on military experts, some of whom suggested the Mi-17s were likely to be used to greater effect there than in Afghanistan.
“For once, we’re handing over assets to a government and military that’s capable of using them,” said Jason Dempsey, a former Army officer who helped train Afghan forces.
Military personnel in Ukraine, a former Soviet state, have more experience using Russian helicopters than U.S. Chinooks or Black Hawks, said Dempsey.
That comfort with Russian-made equipment has resulted in other European countries agreeing to provide key Soviet-era weapons that can be easily used by Ukrainians in battle. Slovakia, for instance, has agreed to send its Russian-made S-300 antiaircraft missile defense system after Washington offered to replace it with a substitute battery of more-advanced Patriot missiles. The governments of Poland and the Czech Republic have provided Russian-made T-72 tanks to Ukraine, as well.
“The Russians have so flooded the world with cheap yet reliable weapons that they have effectively armed both sides in the war,” said Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The blowback stemming from such sales is not unfamiliar to the United States, the world’s largest supplier of arms, which has repeatedly fought opponents armed with U.S. weapons or supplied governments that later committed atrocities.
“When you sell someone a hammer, you don’t know if it’s going to be used to build a house or break your window,” said JJ Gertler, a senior analyst at the Teal Group consultancy.
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The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe, Missy Ryan, Karen DeYoung and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.