Ukraine is withdrawing its troops and equipment, including helicopters, involved in U.N. peacekeeping missions in Africa and Europe to counter Russia’s invasion at home.
Ukrainian peacekeepers across Africa are waiting to be deployed to another conflict, fighting tens of thousands of Russian forces in urban warfare.
Around 308 Ukrainians are currently deployed across six missions with the UN, with the Congo having the highest number.
Six helicopters including Mi-24s, and Mi-8s deployed with the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali, have been requisitioned by Kiev, thereby compromising UN force’s operational capacity.
The Ukrainian helicopters make up about a third of the UN mission in the Congo (Monusco) helicopter fleet. Ukraine troops and helicopters are expected to soon leave the country amid an increase of murderous violence in the east, where rebel groups are gaining ground.
The Ukrainian forces in the Congo is by far the largest for Ukraine in all the UN missions. And it’s armed helicopters plays an important role in military offensives led by Monusco’s Force Intervention Brigade, which was established in 2013 to oust the M23 militia.
In a March 23 press briefing, Monusco in Kinshasa, confirmed that the Ukrainian officers and helicopter unit workforce and their choppers would be repatriated by mid-April.
The helicopters will need to be repainted to remove UN insignia, but the logistics are the bigger challenge, says Munusco. Even though Ukraine delivered the fleet to Monusco, the country does not have capacity to transport them home, given that the country is at war. So the UN peacekeeping headquarters in New York City must will have deliver the helicopters back to Ukraine.
For years, Ukrainian peacekeepers have sent aircraft and personnel to UN peacekeeping missions, including the UN mission in Liberia (Unmil), which closed in 2018.
In March 2012, Kiev first contributed 12 Mi-24s for the mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations praised the contribution, stating that “Ukraine’s contribution will help improve the mission’s ability to protect the civilian population in areas where they are threatened by the activities of foreign and national armed groups,”
In 2019, Ukraine withdrew three Mi-24 helicopter gunships capable of launching air-to-ground missiles and replaced them with Mi-8 helicopters, despite the UN’s resistance to the move.
The Mi-24s were successful in repelling an advance by the Mai-Mai Yakatumba rebel group back in 2017.
Although, the Mi-8s had been modified to fire missiles but are less accurate and raised concerns about potential collateral damage.
The drawdown of Ukrainian troops and helicopters is coming at a time when there are attacks by the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) against the Congolese military and civilians in recent months and coupled with the resurgence of the M23 rebel group in the Petit Nord region of the country, near Rwanda.
Some of the Ukrainian helicopters are stationed in Goma, the capital of North Kivu where they fly to conflict zones such as Beni, west of Virunga National Park.
The helicopters provide vital functions for the UN mission overall, including troop and personnel deployments, logistics and food supplies for bases, medical evacuations of peacekeepers, civilians, and Congolese troops, and assistance with demobilizing the many rebel groups infiltrated in eastern Congo, and investigations into human rights abuses.
Regarding the troops and helicopter withdrawal, the spokesperson for the UN, Stéphane Dujarric, said it was “in the process of finding replacements for all of the departing Ukrainian assets” and “we’ll try in the upcoming days to get an update on what the situation on the ground is in Beni.”
If Monusco should lose a third of its fleet, it would be severely detrimental to operations, as Congo’s rugged terrain are impassable without air support, thereby posing a challenge to the mission.
MI-8 types, including the MTV, AMT, and T models, are the most used for the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), for a combination of reasons, including reliability, cost, operational context, and the expected capacity needs of the operation.