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Home World News Washington Post World News On the battlefield with Russia, Afghanistan’s loss is Ukraine’s gain

On the battlefield with Russia, Afghanistan’s loss is Ukraine’s gain

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When the United States wanted to buy a fleet of helicopters for the Afghan government in early 2010, they opted for the Mi-17 sold by a Russian state arms exporter.

The decision infuriated lawmakers who felt that the Pentagon should choose an American manufacturer. But the Defense Ministry stayed on track, saying that the Russian helicopters were relatively cheap, functioned well in the desert plains and high altitudes of Afghanistan, and that Afghan pilots knew how to fly them.

A decade later, neither Congress nor the Kremlin could have foreseen that those helicopters would be used against Russian forces through arms transfers designed by the United States in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. .

The Mi-17s’ unusual journey was not mentioned in President Biden’s announcement last week, in which he offered his approval for an $800 million security package that will dramatically expand the scope of the military aid Washington provides to Kiev.

“These new capabilities include artillery systems, artillery rounds and armored personnel carriers,” Biden said. “I also approved the transfer of additional helicopters.”

that 11 helicopters are headed for Ukraine at a crucial time for its underprivileged and manned army, as Russia intensifies its attacks on the east and south of the country. The Mi-17s are personnel transports that can be armed with cannons and missiles, allowing them to perform an attack role and provide air support.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky personally called on Biden for the helicopters last week during a phone call that resulted in the plane’s last-minute addition to the latest security package, people familiar with the decision and, like others, said. on condition of anonymity to discuss the arms transfers.

“Ukraine could use the Mi-17s to transport troops, including for special operations, evacuate casualties, move ammunition and other vital supplies, or attack Russian targets, including troops or infrastructure,” said Rob Lee, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy. Research institute focusing on Russian defense policy.

“The more helicopters they have, the more they can use them more aggressively,” he said.

In total, the United States has agreed to deliver 16 Mi-17s to Ukraine. All were undergoing US maintenance outside Afghanistan in August, when the Taliban took over the country and seized billions of dollars in military equipment supplied by the West. said Captain Mike Kafka, a Pentagon spokesman.

The helicopters were then owned by the Afghan government, but because they were paid for by US taxpayers as part of the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, the Pentagon informed Congress in December that it planned to “treat” the plane. as property of the Ministry of Defence. US defense officials are familiar with the case.

When Biden agreed to transfer the helicopters to Ukraine, the next challenge was getting them there.

Conveniently, five Mi-17s were already in Ukraine for maintenance when the Russian offensive began – not uncommon given Ukraine’s expertise in Soviet-designed military equipment. Those helicopters, which are considered “surplus defense items” under the Arms Export Control Act, have been officially handed over to Ukraine, a defense official said.

The other 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 weather, would determine the exact date.

The tidal wave of weapons in Ukraine has enraged Moscow, which has warned the United States to stop arming Ukraine or face “unpredictable consequences”.

The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said on Wednesday that the Pentagon’s helicopter transfers should serve as a warning to Ukraine about how Washington is treating its security partners.

“The Pentagon is now sending helicopters to Ukraine, helicopters it had previously ordered for the military in Afghanistan — a country the Americans eventually dumped,” said Maria Zakharova. “Will Ukraine repeat the fate of Afghanistan? The helicopters did. American politicians are true to their words in this regard. The art of betraying their closest allies is in their political blood.”

However, Ukrainian officials have expressed gratitude for Washington’s security assistance as they continue to advocate for more advanced weapons.

“President Biden has shown real leadership in helping [provide] aid to Ukraine, in 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’s forces in Ukraine has not escaped military experts, some of whom suggested the Mi-17s would likely be used to greater effect there than in Afghanistan.

“For once, we are transferring assets to a government and military that can use them,” said Jason Dempsey, a former army officer who helped train Afghan troops.

Military personnel in Ukraine, a former Soviet state, have more experience using Russian helicopters than American Chinooks or Black Hawks, Dempsey said.

That comfort with Russian-made equipment has led other European countries to agree to provide key Soviet-era weapons for easy use by Ukrainians in combat. For example, Slovakia has agreed to send its Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile 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 from such sales is not unknown to the United States, the world’s largest arms supplier, which has repeatedly fought opponents armed with American weapons or supplied governments that later committed atrocities.

“If 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, senior analyst at the consulting firm Teal Group.

Greg Jaffe, Missy Ryan, Karen DeYoung and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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