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Haze engulfs VVIP copters

New Delhi, July 18: The escalating diplomatic crisis over Ukraine threatens to ground helicopters that fly the Indian President, Prime Minister and other dignitaries.

The Indian military, which is largely dependent on Ukrainian companies to maintain and operate a bulk of its platforms, is required to take special permission from western European nations to fly in and out of Ukraine and avoid Russian airspace.

India’s large stakes in both Ukraine and Russia is behind New Delhi’s decision to not participate in the blame game over the Malaysia Airlines plane tragedy.

India is also dependent on both Russia and Ukraine for technology for its own surface-to-air defence systems (SAMs) — missiles comparable with the one suspected to have downed the Malaysian plane.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict also threatens to substantially ground the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy.

The debris of the MH-17 is spread over wheat fields in Ukraine’s Donetsk Region where rebels had declared an independent republic. Donetsk is adjacent to Zhaporizhzha Region, 500km south east of the capital, Kiev. Zhaporizhzha, formerly known as Alexondrovsk, has an estimated 20 per cent ethnic Russian population.

It is also home to the headquarters of the Motor-Sich Joint Stock Company that manufactures engines for Mi-8 helicopters — that equip the IAF Headquarters’ Communications (or VVIP) Squadron — that are due to be phased out.

So long, Indian defence officials were claiming that the Indian military, heavily dependent on Ukraine, is insulated from the crisis because most of the production facilities were in the west of that country that is untouched by its conflict with Russia and Russia-backed separatists.

In March, however, India had to take special permission from western European nations to fly out five An-32 transport aircraft from Kiev because there were restrictions on flying them from Ukraine through Russian airspace. The five An-32 aircraft — the makers are the Ukrainian company, Antonov, and the engines are powered by Motor-Sich — were the seventh batch of planes to be upgraded and despatched from Kiev to Kanpur.

The next, eighth batch, is scheduled for delivery in August. The IAF’s fleet of 102 An-32 aircraft are being upgraded by Ukraine. Forty of the aircraft were being modernised in that country under a May 2009 contract of $400 million and an additional contract of $110 million with Motor-Sich. The balance 62 are to be modernised in Kanpur by the Ukrainian firms. India was the first buyer of the aircraft. The contracts were signed with Ukrainian state enterprise Ukroboronprom.

Indian officials say that Kiev will do its utmost to insulate a customer like India from the unrest because Ukraine’s economy is dependent on its aerospace and technology industries.

In a statement on the Ukroboronprom website, general director Sergiy Gromov assured customers it is “business as usual”.

But at least one country — Croatia — reported that 12 of its MiG 21 aircraft sent to Kiev for repair and overhaul in 2013 were stuck in Kiev. Variants of the outdated MiG 21 fighter jet also make the bulk of the IAF’s defensive-combat fleet.

Before the break-up of the erstwhile USSR, nearly 30 per cent of the Soviet military-industrial complex was based in the Ukraine. The independent Ukraine has inherited that and modernised the facilities while tilting away from Moscow Nato-wards. For Russia it meant a huge loss. For instance, Moscow lost its entire helicopter-engine production facilities.

The Indian military flies mostly Soviet-origin helicopters that are now supplied and maintained with Ukrainian help. Additionally, the Indian Air Force has contracted an additional 59 Mi17V-5 helicopters that are to be used for, among other things, counter-Maoist operations.

So far, 27 copters have been delivered. The rest are expected by 2015 but delivery will depend on how the Ukraine-Russia conflict plays out.

For the Indian Navy, the watch is on the shores of Odessa because engines from Ukraine power 80 per cent of the destroyer and frigate fleet.