Ukraine Offers Cash and Freedom to Defecting Russian Pilots

Could the U.S. get involved?

By Andrew R. Arthur on March 14, 2022

On March 8, Sandboxx — a company offering services to U.S. troops — reported that Ukroboronprom (a Ukrainian defense contractor) is offering to pay Russian pilots who defect with working aircraft payments of up to $1 million and “the issuance of citizenship in a free country”. That sounds like a pretty good deal, but I am not so sure that critical United States signoff will be forthcoming.

This deal is apparently not just idle chatter. On March 10, Visegrad 24 — which bills itself as the news aggregator for the Visegrad Group of four Central European nations (Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) — tweeted:

Cold War Soviet Pilot Defections. Back during the Cold War, we referred to Soviet pilots who flew their planes to the West as “defectors”, and while there were not many, such defections did occur.

For example, in September 1976, 29-year-old Soviet Air Defense Force Flight Lieutenant Viktor Belenko flew his MiG-25 about 400 miles to a provincial airport on the Japanese island of Hokkaido (the runway was too short, and Belenko ended up ditching it at the end), and announced that he was defecting.

The Japanese Defense Force was not looking for MiGs, but Belenko’s plane (given the sobriquet “Foxbat” by the United States and its allies) was of great interest to the West, as it represented Soviet state of the art design. The Soviets asked for it back, but the Japanese did not budge until after the United States took it apart and learned its secrets.

After a thorough U.S. look-see, Japan eventually sent it back in 30 wooden crates, billing the USSR $40,000 for shipping costs (which was never paid). A private law was passed giving Belenko United States citizenship in 1980, and he is reportedly still alive and employed as an aerospace engineer.

In 1989, Soviet Captain Aleksandr Zuyev flew his MiG-29 “Fulcrum” to Trabzon, Turkey, where he requested political asylum in the United States. Zuyev had become disillusioned with the political system back home, and his first words when he stepped out of his aircraft were: “Finally, I — am American!”

The Turkish government, not wishing to spark an incident, sent the plane back, though Zuyev was allowed to remain. The pilot made his way to the United States where he worked for the CIA and the Department of Defense before dying in a plane crash in 2001.

These are just two of about six Soviet pilot defections, including Lieutenant Piotr Pirogov and his copilot, Anatoly Barsov, who flew a Tu-2 “Bat” bomber to a U.S. airbase in Linz, Austria, in 1948 (Barsov went back a year later and was thereafter reportedly shot); Lieutenant Vasily Epatko, who landed his MiG-17 “Fresco” in West Germany and requested asylum in the United States in 1967; and mechanic Yevgeny Vronsky, who crashed a Su-7 “Fitter-A” in West Germany — where he was allowed to remain —in 1973 (the wreckage was returned; Vronsky did not have much flight training and remained in the West).

“Operation Moolah”. The Ukrainian proposal harkens back to “Operation Moolah”, which was a Korean War effort by the United States to snag a MiG-15. The first pilot defecting with one of these top-of-the-line jets was promised (via radio broadcasts and later leaflets) $100,000 and asylum in the United States, whereas successive pilots and planes were to receive $50,000 and asylum.

Interestingly, Communist authorities grounded the jets for more than a week after the leaflet drops, but thereafter “UN jet pilots reported a noticeable decrease in flying skills and aggressiveness” by the other side. Seven weeks after an armistice was declared, North Korean pilot No Kum Sok flew a MiG-15 to Kimpo Air Base in South Korea.

Mr. No apparently had no idea about Operation Moolah — he simply hated North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and wanted to come to the United States.

He was later vaguely irritated by the premise that he would be more interested in money than freedom, and “he knew that Communist pilots did not understand how much $100,000 was worth. The reward would have been much more tempting, he thought, if the Americans had promised a good job in America.”

President Eisenhower was not that crazy about the operation, either (as commander in Europe during World War II, he had apparently lost a couple of planes when allied pilots flew them to Germany) and questioned whether enemy pilots would risk the danger to their families for cash.

Ike wanted the plane returned north (he also balked at paying the money), and so U.S. flight experts (including Chuck Yeager) checked it out with No’s assistance on Okinawa. No eventually arrived in the United States eight months after his defection, enrolling at the University of Delaware in 1954.

The Ukrainian Proposal. To be precise, the Ukrainians are proposing a payment of $1 million to Russian pilots who cross over with working planes, and $500,000 for those who come with operational helicopters.

The Ukrainian offer would address its need for combat aircraft without requiring the imposition of a NATO “no-fly” zone over some or all of the country (which both the United States and the UK have rejected).

And it would be a bargain for the besieged country. A Russian Su-34 “Fullback” fighter bomber of the sort that Putin’s air force has been using in Ukraine costs $40 million, a Mi-24/35 “Hind” helicopter goes for $36 million, or you could buy a 1999 Mi-8 “Hip” used for about $3 million.

As for the offer of “citizenship of a free country”, that likely means the United States: I would question how many would want to remain in Ukraine given the ongoing conflict, and Putin has shown the ability to strike at opponents in Europe.

Would the Biden administration agree to such a deal, however? There is no indication that Washington has been consulted on this plan, but given the fact that DHS has relocated tens of thousands of Afghans to the United States in recent months (with more than a fair share of vetting problems), it would likely not otherwise balk at resettling a handful of Russian pilots.

That said, however, the Biden administration has been extremely gun shy about getting directly involved in the Ukrainian conflict. For example, it has nixed a Polish plan to swap modern jets for that NATO ally’s MiG-29s — the same plane Zuyev defected in more than 32 years ago — which would then be transferred to Ukraine, after Secretary of State Antony Blinken had endorsed the idea.

The Ukrainian offer to defecting Russian pilots of up to $1 million and resettlement in a free country has many positives. Fulfilling that offer would likely require the Biden administration to grant some sort of status here to those defectors. Though DHS has enthusiastically resettled others from war-torn areas (regardless of the risk), this plan likely comes with too many pitfalls to get presidential sign-off.