More than a year ago, the UN 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. 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 have lucrative contracts in a country Russian troops left two decades ago.
Aviation industry analysts say many of these contractors have bad safety records and that NATO has hired some operators with questionable backgrounds through arms-length leasing deals.
“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.
Spokesman Ari Gaitanis wrote in an e-mail that the UN suspended and removed Vertikal-T from its list of approved companies because of “serious violation of international safety requirements.”
But the company said it was dropped because “Vertikal-T could not sufficiently prove that it could comply with the requirements and regulations of the UN”
“There is no mention of safety,” it said.
Vertikal-T also said it was subject to Russian safety regulators and recently had its Russian commercial license renewed as an air carrier.
Russian firms play a big role in providing non-combat air support in NATO’s war against the Taliban. In Russia, where the NATO alliance 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 US 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 conditions.
Western analysts say they are also prepared to take risks.
Russia’s aviation sector has a spotty safety record, they say, with helicopters crashing on a frequent basis. Poor maintenance is often cited as the cause.
Intermediaries such as Skylink Aviation, based in Canada, often handle the subleasing for NATO forces, giving governments an element of “plausible deniability,” experts say.
Fluor, a Texas-based company providing logistical back-up to US 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.