A decade later, neither Congress nor the Kremlin could have foreseen that these helicopters would be used against Russian forces through arms transfers arranged by the United States in response to the invasion of Ukraine by Moscow and the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
The Mi-17s’ unusual trip was not mentioned in President Biden’s announcement last week touting his endorsement of an $800 million security package that dramatically expands the scope of military aid that Washington supplies in kyiv.
“These new capabilities include artillery systems, artillery shells and armored personnel carriers,” Biden said. “I have also approved the transfer of additional helicopters.”
These 11 helicopters are heading for Ukraine at a crucial time for its underarmed and understaffed military, as Russia steps up its attacks on the east and south of the country. Mi-17s are personnel carriers that can be armed with cannons and rockets, allowing them to play an attack role and provide close air support.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky personally appealed to Biden for the helicopters last week in a phone call that resulted in the plane’s last-minute addition to the latest security package, people familiar with the matter said. decision who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss arms transfers.
“Ukraine could use the Mi-17s to transport troops, including for special operations raids, evacuate casualties, move munitions and other essential supplies, or attack Russian targets, including troops or infrastructure,” said Rob Lee, senior fellow at Foreign Policy. Research institute that focuses on Russian defense policy.
“The more helicopters they have, the more aggressively they can use them,” he said.
In total, the United States has agreed to supply 16 Mi-17s to Ukraine. All were undergoing US contract maintenance outside Afghanistan in August when the Taliban took over the country and seized billions of dollars worth of Western-supplied military equipment, said Captain Mike Kafka, a Pentagon spokesman.
At that time, the helicopters were still owned by the Afghan government, but because they were being paid for by American taxpayers as part of the Afghan Security Forces Fund, the Pentagon notified Congress in December that it intended to “Treat” the plane as the property of the Department of Defense, said US defense officials are familiar with the matter.
Once Biden agreed to transfer the helicopters to Ukraine, the next challenge was getting them there.
Ideally, five Mi-17s were already in Ukraine for maintenance when the Russian offensive began – a fairly common occurrence given Ukraine’s expertise in Soviet-designed military equipment. The helicopters, considered “excess defense items” under the arms export control law, have been officially handed over to Ukraine, a defense official said.
The remaining 11 Mi-17s are stored at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson. The Pentagon could send them to Ukraine as early as this weekend, the defense official said, warning that “many factors,” including the weather, would determine the specific date.
The flood of arms into Ukraine has infuriated Moscow, which has warned the United States to stop arming Ukraine or face “unforeseeable consequences”.
The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Wednesday that the Pentagon helicopter transfers should serve as a warning to Ukraine about how Washington treats its security partners.
“The Pentagon is now sending helicopters to Ukraine, helicopters it previously ordered for the Afghan army – a country that the Americans eventually abandoned,” said Maria Zakharova. “Will Ukraine repeat the fate of Afghanistan? Helicopters did. American politicians are true to their words in this regard. The art of betraying their closest allies is in their political blood.
Ukrainian officials, however, expressed gratitude for Washington’s security assistance, while continuing to rely on more sophisticated weapons.
“President Biden has shown true leadership in helping [provide] assistance to Ukraine, by mobilizing [the] international community to support Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in recent days.
The irony of the use of Russian military equipment against Moscow forces in Ukraine is not lost on military experts, some of whom have suggested that Mi-17s would likely be used to greater effect there than in Afghanistan.
“For once, we’re handing over resources to a government and military that can use them,” said Jason Dempsey, a former army officer who helped train Afghan forces.
Military personnel in Ukraine, a former Soviet state, have more experience operating Russian helicopters than American Chinooks or Black Hawks, Dempsey said.
This comfort with Russian-made equipment has led other European countries to agree to supply key Soviet-era weapons that can be easily used by Ukrainians in combat. Slovakia, for example, agreed to send its Russian-made S-300 missile defense system after Washington offered to replace it with a replacement battery of more advanced Patriot missiles. The governments of Poland and the Czech Republic have also supplied Russian-made T-72 tanks to Ukraine.
“The Russians have so flooded the world with cheap but 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 backlash resulting from such sales is no stranger to the United States, the world’s largest arms supplier, which has repeatedly fought opponents armed with American weapons or supplied governments that then committed atrocities.
“When you sell a hammer to someone, you don’t know if it’s going to be used to build a house or break your window,” said JJ Gertler, principal analyst at consultancy Teal Group.
Greg Jaffe, Missy Ryan, Karen DeYoung and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.