US will send Russian-made helicopters to Ukraine
The US government is expediting the transfer of five transport helicopters to Kiev, as Washington insists that Moscow could “invade” Ukraine any day now. The Mi-17 helicopters were originally purchased from Russia and intended for the former Western-backed government in Afghanistan, before it surrendered to the Taliban last August.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed on Friday that Congress has been notified of the move, which will be conducted under the Excess Defense Articles program. The State Department said on Thursday this was the “fastest transfer ever” for the US government.
The helicopters are already in Ukraine, which was servicing them on behalf of the Pentagon and was supposed to send them to Afghanistan until the Taliban takeover disrupted those plans. Ukrainian Defense Minister Alexey Reznikov requested them from the Pentagon in late November, along with ammunition also earmarked for the defunct Afghan Army, Foreign Policy reported last month.
The US has echoed Ukraine’s claims of an impending Russian “invasion” since November, though Moscow has brushed off the accusations as “fake news” and insisted on talks with the US and NATO on security guarantees in Europe instead.
The Mi-17 was designed in the late 1970s as an upgrade to the Mi-8 transport. It is still known as Mi-8M in Russian service, with Mi-17 being its export designation. It is still in production at the helicopter plant in Kazan, east of Moscow.
The Pentagon had spent approximately $648 million by mid-2010 to buy 30 of the helicopters for the Afghan National Army, and asked Congress for funding for another 10, only to attract criticism for not buying American-made aircraft.
US military officials argued that the Mi-17 was designed with Afghanistan in mind, that the Afghans were more familiar with it, and that it was easier to operate than US-made Blackhawks or Hueys.
Plans to buy “dozens” more Mi-17s for the ANA, as well as some for the US Special Operations Command to help disguise clandestine missions, reportedly ran into pushback from Congress and cost issues, the Washington Post reported in June 2010, as Russia raised the price of the helicopter to “exorbitant” levels.
Much of the hardware the US has supplied to Afghanistan was captured by the Taliban last year, among them some Mi-17s, Mi-35 gunships, and even the US-made Blackhawk helicopters, as well as Humvees, armored vehicles, and various small arms.