||Last Updated: Aug 10, 2009 - 5:55:47 AM
MOSCOW - More than a year ago, the U.N. dropped the Russian air
transport company Vertikal-T from its approved list of vendors after a
fatal helicopter crash in Nepal.
Yet NATO continued to use helicopters owned by Vertikal-T in
Afghanistan. And on July 19, one of those choppers crashed at southern
Afghanistan's largest NATO base, killing 16 civilians on board.
The crash reflects a little-known reality behind NATO's military push
in Afghanistan: It is relying on Russian aviators flying Soviet-design
aircraft, who are clocking up lucrative contracts in a country Russian
troops left two decades ago.
Aviation industry analysts say many of these contractors have bad
safety records, and allege that NATO has hired some operators with
questionable backgrounds through arms-length leasing deals. These same
analysts say governments have outsourced crucial military contracts to
"Normally this would be handled by the military, but the military have
been cut back. ... They are plugging the gaps with dodgy operators,"
said Hugh Griffiths, an analyst at the Stockholm International Peace
Research Institute, or SIPRI.
Spokesman Ari Gaitanis wrote in an email to The Associated Press that
the U.N. suspended and removed Vertikal-T from its list of approved
companies because of "serious violation of international safety
But the company responded to the AP that it was dropped because
"Vertikal-T could not sufficiently prove that it could comply with the
requirements and regulations of the U.N." It added: "There is no
mention of safety." Vertikal-T also noted that it is subject to Russian
air safety regulators, and recently had its Russian commercial license
renewed as an air carrier.
Russian companies play a big role in providing non-combat air support
in NATO's war against the Taliban. In Russia, where the NATO alliance -
set up to counter the Red Army - is still viewed as a threat, Russia's
involvement in Afghanistan is seldom discussed.
In 1989, the Soviet Union limped away from a 10-year war in Afghanistan
that cost 15,000 Soviet lives and hastened the end of the empire.
Moscow then armed both sides of a vicious war that pitted Afghan
factions against one another. When the U.S. went to war with
Afghanistan in the wake of Sept. 11, the Russians continued to play a
clandestine supporting role.
Now, the Russians are back in Afghanistan in force.
"We never left," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military
analyst. "Officially, Russia is not involved. Unofficially, it is."
Faced with a shortage of helicopters, NATO countries are turning to
cheap Eastern European and particularly Russian operators to ferry
supplies and civilian contractors, as well as recover downed choppers.
The modified Russian planes are ideally suited to the dust, heat and
high altitudes of Afghanistan, and their pilots are used to punishing
Western analysts say they are also prepared to take risks. Russia's
aviation sector has a spotty safety record, they point out, with
helicopters crashing on a frequent basis. Poor maintenance is often
cited as the cause.
Intermediaries such as Toronto-based Skylink Aviation often handle the
actual subleasing for NATO forces, giving governments an element of
"plausible deniability," these experts say. The Fluor Corporation, a
Texas-based company providing logistical back-up to U.S. military
operations, said Skylink provided the Vertikal-T helicopter that most
recently crashed in Afghanistan. The helicopter was transporting
contractors on behalf of Fluor.
Vertikal-T's reputation is as the "hot zone provider of choice," said
Mark Galeotti, a military and organized crime expert at New York
University. "If you want a pretty professional but slightly cowboyish
outfit that doesn't mind flying into war zones, doesn't mind taking off
from unsurfaced runways, then Vertikal-T now seems to be the front
runner," he said.
Experts say these companies generally provide legitimate air transport
services. But too often they draw the wrong kind of publicity.
Vertikal-T, based in the city of Tver northwest of Moscow, was left
red-faced in Sudan after authorities accused it of dropping arms to
rebels, an allegation the chopper company strenuously denied.
Volga-Dnepr was also dropped from the U.N.'s vendor list in 2007 after
it allegedly paid bribes to a U.N. employee to secure multimillion
dollar contracts. The company did not respond to requests for comment
on this issue.
And Aviacon Cargo, a Urals-based company that flies lighter Ilyushin
planes into Afghanistan, was singled out in a SIPRI report after the UN
noted suspicious movements in Tanzania. SIPRI claimed Aviacon shipped
arms on behalf of Russian defense companies to equip antagonists in
African conflicts. Aviacon insisted, however, it has never been
involved in illicit flows of arms.
NATO's logistics arm, NAMSA, said it did not have any direct contracts
with Russian companies, but admitted it did not probe its
A NATO spokesman declined to provide information on individual
companies, but said it was "important to bear in mind the great demands
placed on our countries' forces. ... Missions carried out by the
individual nations, the United Nations and the European Union involve
calling on nations' assets, both manpower and equipment."
NATO uses Russian aircraft in two main ways. At one end of the scale,
Russian choppers take on simple supply missions. At the other end,
massive Russian-owned Antonov planes are taking off from distant air
bases, such as RAF Brize Norton, the United Kingdom's largest station,
bound for the deserts of Afghanistan with heavy and sometimes
While the air service companies are private corporations, experts say
they almost certainly operate with Kremlin oversight.
"At the very least, there is an acquiescence," said Galeotti, a
military and organized crime expert at New York University.
Indeed, there appears to be a quid pro quo. Just days after Russia
agreed to allow the U.S. to transship lethal Afghanistan-bound cargo
via Russian territory, Russian cargo company Volga-Dnepr - which
already has contracts with the U.S. military - said it was in the lead
running for a U.S. tender to fly supplies to Afghanistan.
RIA-Novosti news agency quoted chief executive Valery Gabriel as saying
Washington had been advised to choose a Russian carrier for this
For the Kremlin, Russian carriers mean a degree of control over these
shipments. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia reserves
the right to inspect all cargo flown across its territories.
For the carriers, the work means millions in revenue. The U.S.
Transport Command said it has awarded Volga-Dnepr and another Russian
company, Polet, $400 million in contracts up to September
2009 in the past year.
Figures for chopper companies are harder to obtain. All of the
companies approached refused to divulge both numbers and the identity
of their government clients, citing confidentiality.
"Russia is delighted to be involved," said Galeotti. "One, it's big
business. Secondly, they are very keen for allied forces to be
increasingly dependent on supply lines through Russia."
He added that Russia's GRU, its military intelligence arm - believed to
have close links with several Russian companies operating in
Afghanistan - may also stand to benefit.
"From a GRU standpoint, you have an extremely useful source - low-level
but extremely useful intelligence," he said.
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