Ukraine is set to receive a new fleet of helicopters courtesy of the United States and her military failures. President Joe Biden referenced the transfer of these helicopters when touting the $800 million security package the U.S. government approved to provide Ukraine, a marked increase in the amount of military aid Washington has agreed to give Kiev in its fight against Russia. Yet the story behind these helicopters now heading to Ukraine, which were originally purchased for the now-nonexistent government of Afghanistan, went mostly unnoticed.
The United States purchased the Soviet-designed Mi-17 helicopters from a Russian state-owned arms exporter for the Afghan government in the early part of last decade. When the Defense Department announced its decision to buy the Mi-17s, lawmakers were incensed. Not because the U.S. government continued its project of nation building that was already failing to achieve its desired results, but because the helicopters were not being purchased from an American manufacturer. Lawmakers were angered on behalf of the American domestic arms industry, which felt it was denied a piece of the war-making pie. Nevertheless, the Obama administration stayed the course and bought the Mi-17s because, they argued, the Russian helicopters were relatively inexpensive, performed well in Afghanistan’s conditions, and Afghan pilots already knew how to fly them.
Ten years later, those Mi-17s will be heading to Ukraine at the behest of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, according to the Washington Post, made a personal appeal to Biden over the phone last week, begging the president to add the helicopters to the latest aid package.
The package provides Ukraine with 16 Mi-17 helicopters, which function as personnel carriers but can also be armed with rockets and other artillery. Despite the collapse of the Afghan government and chaotic U.S. withdrawal that left millions of dollars worth of equipment behind, the helicopters remained in U.S. possession because they were undergoing maintenance by a U.S. contractor outside of Afghanistan when the government collapsed, according to Pentagon spokesman Captain Mike Kafka.
Though the helicopters are technically Afghan government property, they were bought with U.S. taxpayer dollars in the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund. Since the Afghan government won’t be trying to take these helicopters back any time soon, the Pentagon informed Congress late last year that it planned to “treat” the fleet of Mi-17s as U.S. government property.
Eleven of the 16 Mi-17s were being kept in storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, just outside of Tucson, Arizona. Exactly when these helicopters will be transferred to the Ukrainians remains unclear.
Lucky for Zelensky, the other five helicopters are already in Ukraine, and were receiving maintenance there when Russia invaded. Apparently it is standard procedure to have this kind of U.S.-owned military equipment serviced in Ukraine, right on Russia’s doorstep, because of the region’s experience with Soviet-designed weaponry. Why the U.S. government chose to service these helicopters in Ukraine as tensions with Russia were rising, rather than Poland, Romania, or other NATO countries that maintain their own Soviet-era equipment, is unclear.
Moscow is becoming increasingly frustrated by the U.S. and other western nations forking over large amounts of money and military equipment for Ukraine’s defense, warning the continuation of such policies could result in “unpredictable consequences.”
“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,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated last week. “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,” Zakharova added.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has threatened countries that attempt to provide aid to the Ukrainian Air Force. Providing combat aircraft or access to airfield networks, for instance, “could be considered as those countries’ engagement in the military conflict.”
But the Ukrainians will take what they can get. After the U.S. pledged hundreds of millions more in military support, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba praised Biden, saying, “President Biden has demonstrated true leadership in helping [provide] assistance to Ukraine, in mobilizing [the] international community to support Ukraine.”
Robby Smith, a former advisor to Senator Mike Lee, told The American Conservative via email that “it is not surprising” that the Biden administration “is getting creative with its support for Ukraine.” Smith told TAC that Congress should reclaim its role in military and foreign policy issues:
Through its lack of attention to detail and unwillingness to take tough votes, over time, Congress has increasingly ceded its authority to the executive branch. Though military and foreign policy powers are more executive-branch centric (as opposed to legislative), there is a clear, compelling, and constitutional role for Congress in the conducting of U.S. foreign policy that has long been missing as a check on a more adventurous executive branch since the days of Woodrow Wilson.
Congress has failed to do oversight; failed to have an actual picture of the success, end goals, and status of operations in Afghanistan and kept the money flowing happily with little requirements in return. Over time, Congress has allowed DOD a lot of leeway on things—reprogramming requests, transfer authorities, and etc., making great use of the ‘congressional notification’ process.
While there wouldn’t be a large policy shift if Congress reasserted itself, given the bipartisan consensus in support of sending military aid, friction between parties and branches could cull some of the more egregious excess. At least it would provide avenues for objectors to Biden’s Ukraine policy to make themselves heard.
Beyond large aid packages that include a hodgepodge of military equipment, Washington has been working behind the scenes to pressure smaller nations into acting as middlemen for aid to the Ukrainians. For example, the United States has agreed to replace Slovakia’s Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile defense system with a Patriot missile system on the condition that it gives the S-300 system to the Ukrainians.
While the domestic arms industry and military industrial complex that dominate Washington may be disappointed that the U.S. is giving the Ukrainians Soviet-era helicopters instead of American-made ones—as they were when the U.S. government initially bought the Mi-17s for the Afghan government—the Mi-17 transfer serves to prolong hostilities in Eastern Europe. Though they might have missed out on this sliver of the war-making pie, the pie is set to get much bigger. Fat generals will gorge, as they have already.
Senior fellow and military expert for Defense Priorities Daniel L. Davis, who served four combat deployments during his 21-year Army career, told The American Conservative via email that, beyond the Mi-17s, the Ukrainians have received “Vietnam-vintage M113 armored vehicles, towed howitzers, lightly armored and old hummers, and then of course thousands of anti-armor and anti-air missiles.”
As the economy of everyday goods and services has globalized, so too has the economy of war.
Such weapons transfers and aid packages, Davis added, will “continue to foster hope in the Ukrainian leadership that there is no floor on the weapons they can continue to get from the West, for the foreseeable future, and will give them every incentive in the world to eschew any consideration of a diplomatic solution, preferring to hold on until they can win.”
It’s possible, Davis went on to say, that U.S. aid to Ukraine could “potentially result in a stalemate.”
Let’s be clear about the cost of a stalemate: tens of thousands more Ukrainians will die, untold numbers of more Ukrainian towns, villages, and cities turned to rubble, and a war that drags on indefinitely. The reason: there is no near-term prospect that Putin will passively stand by and allow his military to be ground to a standstill and not ramp up or change his tactics. He will respond, he will adjust, and he will try something else to win. Western hope is that he’ll conclude he can’t win, take his tanks, and go home.
“The reality—as is already being amply demonstrated on a daily basis—is that the cost to even pursuing this course of action is to greatly increase the cost to the civil population of Ukraine, extend the physical destruction of their cities, and prolong a war that almost certainly will eventually result in a negotiated settlement regardless,” Davis said.
“Without question,” he added, “these weapons have had a real impact on the Russian invasion and substantially increased the cost of their offensives. But will the cumulative total result in defeating Russia? It is a virtual certainty the answer is no.”
about the author
Bradley Devlin is a Staff Reporter for The American Conservative. Previously, he was an Analysis Reporter for the Daily Caller, and has been published in the Daily Wire and the Daily Signal, among other publications that don’t include the word “Daily.” He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Economy. You can follow Bradley on Twitter @bradleydevlin.