Zimbabwe's $320mn deal to purchase 32 helicopters from Russia raises dust

Zimbabwe's $320mn deal to purchase 32 helicopters from Russia raises dust
Kazan Ansat-K (Police of Russia) Park Patriot, Kubinka, Moscow Oblast, Russia / wikimedia, Alan Wilson
By Thulani Mpofu in Harare May 23, 2023

Zimbabwe has taken delivery of 18 helicopters from Russia under a $320mn deal that has sparked controversy due to the cost, transparency and utility of the purchase amidst an economic crisis. Serviceability is also an issue, due to US sanctions.

The Kazan Ansat helicopters, delivered by the Russian State Corporation (ROSTEC), will be used for air policing and rescue missions and as air ambulances. Fourteen more will have been delivered by the end of 2025.

Speaking after receiving the aircraft on Thursday (May 18), President Emmerson Mnangagwa said some of the aircraft will be used to serve tourism centres such as the world-renowned wildlife park Mana Pools as well as Victoria Falls.

“Zimbabwe is under sanctions; we are constrained unlike our neighbours and the rest of the world to acquire the tools we need to mitigate the impact of cyclones and disasters in our region,” he said, as quoted by state-owned The Herald on Friday (May 19).

Russian Ambassador to Zimbabwe Nikolai Krasilnikov thanked his host for supporting his country amid Moscow’s war with Ukraine.

“It makes us proud that in the current geopolitical situation Russia and Zimbabwe, as the all-weather friends, enhance their interaction despite threats of sanctions and challenges of the turbulent times we live through,” he said.

However, critics have questioned the Zimbabwe government’s priorities.

Mso Ndlovu, spokesperson of an opposition party, Zimbabwe African People’s Union, told the independent daily NewsDay that the purchase must be investigated.

“In a normal country, with a normal economy, purchasing such choppers would be a cause for celebration, but Zimbabwe is far from being a normal country,” Ndlovu is quoted on Monday (May 22) as saying.

“The country itself is desperate for airlifting to seek medical attention as everything has stopped working. Our hospitals have no medication, including basic painkillers like paracetamol. Our country has no single functioning cancer machine. Amid all this, the government procures helicopters to airlift patients and other emergencies only to fly them to empty hospitals.”

Zimbabwe is close to Russia and has not spoken out against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Private-public partnership means the money used belongs to the public and there should be accountability,” the daily cited a critic who declined to be named as saying.

“It also means there are private companies involved, but why has government only revealed State actors? Was this deal put to tender?”

The sale could just be Russia’s way of dumping craft it will not be able to easily service due to US sanctions, Ian Cox, an expert in aviation and defence matters has suggested.

The Kazan Ansat helicopters have engines from Pratt & Whitney, a Canadian entity whose holding company is US-owned Raytheon Technologies.

“Russia dumped these on Zimbabwe quickly because they knew they would not be able to get engine support for them anymore,” Cox wrote on Twitter.

“Do they even have a viable replacement engine for this type? I would put money on Zimbabwe not being able to get engine support either.

“Pratt & Whitney service network in Africa is not likely to touch a Russian airframe with a 10-foot pole even if their own engine is in it.

“Russia will not have any Pratt & Whitney spares to support them either. They are saving what they have. Honestly, this is probably the most bizarre helicopter purchase by an African nation (or any) I have seen in my lifetime.”