The U.S. State Department has approved the transfer of five Russian-made Mi-17 Hip helicopters that had belonged to the now-defunct Afghan Air Force to the Ukrainian armed forces, according to a new report from CNN. American officials also authorized plans by the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian governments to send U.S.-made weapons, including Javelin anti-tank guided missiles, and other equipment to Ukraine. This is all part of a broader push by the United States and its allies and partners to bolster Ukraine's military capabilities ahead of a potential new Russian invasion, the prospects for which look ever more imminent.
President Joe Biden's administration has been reportedly considering sending some ex-Afghan Mi-17s to Ukraine, which already operates Hip helicopter variants, for months now. Last November, The War Zone
was the first to report that the U.S. military was starting to relocate a number of ex-Afghan aircraft of various types to the U.S. Air Force's boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. As of Dec. 9, 2021, Air Force Materiel Command said that there were seven Mi-17s, as well as 17 MD 530F Little Bird armed light helicopters at the boneyard.
The five Mi-17s "are already in Ukraine for maintenance after being pulled out of Afghanistan during the withdrawal there," according to CNN. It's not clear whether these ex-Afghan Mi-17s include any of the ones that had been moved to the boneyard in Arizona or were helicopters taken from stocks at other locations. A number of Hips and other Afghan Air Force aircraft escaped to other countries as the Taliban took over last August, while others were reportedly in other countries undergoing deep maintenance. Ukrainian companies had been among those contracted to do depot maintenance on Afghanistan's Mi-17s in the past. At least two Afghan Hips were reportedly spotted in Ukraine in August 2021.
It is also important to note that while the State Department has now approved the transfer, there are still additional steps to complete before the helicopters can be formally transferred to the Ukrainian military. The same goes for the Javelins and other materiel that the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians are looking to deliver to their Ukrainian counterparts.
"European allies have what they need to move forward on additional security assistance from Ukraine in the coming days and weeks," a State Department spokesperson told CNN. "We are in close touch with our Ukrainian partners and our NATO Allies on this, as well as utilizing all available security cooperation tools available to us including expediting authorized transfers of U.S. origin equipment from other allies and partners via our Third Party Transfer process and Excess Defense Articles from DoD inventories, among other mechanisms."
This all comes after the U.K. government's announcement earlier this week that it would start delivering guided anti-tank missiles, later confirmed to be Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) types, to Ukraine. That was followed by the start of a very public airbridge involving U.K. Royal Air Force (RAF) C-17 cargo planes carrying hundreds of NLAWs. A British advisory team will also train Ukrainian troops on how to use them.
In recent months, the U.S. government has delivered shipments of weapons, including Javelins and small arms, as well as ammunition and other equipment as part of previously agreed to military assistance programs. An American military team returned in December from a mission to Ukraine to assess the country's air and missile defense posture and potential ways to improve its capabilities in this regard, too.
The Ukrainians will undoubtedly see the five Mi-17s as a welcome addition to this other assistance, giving the country's armed forces additional capacity to move personnel and supplies around the battlefield during any future contingency, as well as recover casualties. These helicopters can be configured to act as gunships armed with anti-tank missiles, unguided rockets, and gun pods, as well.
At the same time, this is a relatively small number of aircraft, though the U.S. government could move to transfer additional ex-Afghan Mi-17s, as well as some of the MD 530Fs in the future. Regardless, there do not appear to be enough of the former Afghan helicopters available to have any significant impact in offsetting Russia's advantages in both the size and capabilities of its aircraft fleets, something The
All of this only underscores the limitations in what the United States, as well as its allies and partners, are willing and able to do to directly deter or otherwise confront the growing prospect of a new large-scale Russian military intervention into Ukraine. President Biden drew particular criticism for remarks during a press conference yesterday that were interpreted as indicating that the U.S. government might act in a less forceful manner to a "minor incursion" or some kind by Russia into Ukraine, something that American officials have since sought to stress is not the case.
"If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a subsequent statement. "President Biden also knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response."
"We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations," Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on Twitter today. "Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power."
It's worth noting that Biden also continues to be criticized at home and abroad for his handling of the final withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban takeover there. This is, of course, how the U.S. government has come to be in possession of ex-Afghan helicopters that it can transfer to Ukraine in the first place.
Biden and other U.S. officials have threatened a mix of responses, including increasing the deployment of American forces to NATO countries along Russia's periphery, something that has already drawn the Kremlin's ire, and crippling sanctions on the Russian banking sector in retaliation for a new invasion of Ukraine. Other NATO members, along with countries in Europe that are not part of the alliance but are aligned with it, have outlined similar plans.
Whether these threats, plus the newly approved arms transfers, will help form an effective deterrent to Russian plans for Ukraine remains to be seen.
"Look, the only thing I’m confident of is that decision is totally, solely, completely a Putin decision," President Biden said yesterday. "Nobody else is going to make that decision; no one else is going to impact that decision. He’s making that decision. And I suspect it matters which side of the bed he gets up on in the morning as to exactly what he’s going to do."
Whatever Putin's ultimate decision might be in this regard looks increasingly likely to come soon. In the meantime, the five ex-Afghan Mi-17s for Ukraine, as well as other military assistance packages, will continue to wend their way through bureaucratic arms transfer processes.
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