- A Russian pilot defected to Ukraine with an Mi-8 helicopter and fighter jet parts this week.
- The incident is the first public instance of such a defection after months of Ukrainian efforts.
- Ukraine offers monetary rewards to Russian soldiers who bring their equipment to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s longstanding efforts to convince Russian soldiers to defect alongside their equipment paid off in a cinematic way this week.
A Russian helicopter pilot landed an Mi-8 AMTSh on a Ukrainian air base on Wednesday in what Ukrainian officials said was the culmination of a six-month secret defection plot that involved moving the pilot’s family out of Russia and into Ukraine.
On board the helicopter, the pilot also brought parts of Su-27 and Su-30SM multirole fighter jets, which were meant to be moved between two Russian air bases, The Kyiv Post reported.
“This sort of thing is not unprecedented, but it is unusual,” Mark Cancian, a retired US Marine Corps colonel and a senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ security program, told Insider.
Ukraine has sought to incentivize Russian soldiers to defect since the war began in February 2022, launching at least two programs targeted at would-be turncoats.
In April 2022, the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a law aimed at targeting Putin’s demoralized troops, explicitly offering monetary rewards to Russian soldiers who defect with their equipment.
The bill promises payouts to anyone who delivers Russian equipment to Ukraine. For a warship or combat aircraft, a Russian soldier could pocket up to $1 million. A military vehicle, such as a specialized truck, meanwhile, carries a $10,000 prize.
A helicopter — like the one a Russian pilot flew into Ukraine this week — fetches $500,000, according to the legislation. It was not immediately clear if the pilot would be compensated in this instance.
“Right from the start, the Ukrainians have set the environment for Russians who wish to defect or cross over to the other side to do so,” Mick Ryan, a retired Major General in the Australian Army and a military strategist, told Insider.
The Rada bill also promises “secrecy, a safe stay in Ukraine, and support in obtaining new documents and leaving for a third country,” for any Russian soldiers who abandon post.
The country broadened its efforts in September 2022, when the intelligence branch of the Ukrainian defense ministry launched the “I Want to Live” hotline, which encourages Russian soldiers to surrender safely. The emergence of the hotline coincided with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that nearly 300,000 people would be mobilized, sending many Russian civilians into a panic.
As of January 2023, more than a million Russians had called, texted, or visited the hotline’s website, the project spokesperson told ABC News, and more than 6,000 Russian personnel had requested to surrender, officials told The Guardian earlier this year.
The project treats high-level military personnel as top priority given their potential access to valuable intelligence, ABC News reported.
The helicopter that was surrendered this week was carrying two additional crew members who didn’t know they were being flown into Ukraine by the defecting pilot, Ukrainian military officials told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said the two crew members tried to run when they realized what happened and were ultimately unwilling to surrender and “eliminated.”
Russian propaganda outlets said the helicopter landed in Ukraine by mistake after the pilot became disoriented, according to The Kyiv Post, but the Poltava military air base in Kharkiv where the helicopter landed is more than 180 miles from the frontline.
Whatever led to the defection, Ukraine undoubtedly secured itself a propaganda win, Ryan said.
“The Ukrainians can use this to set an example for other Russians who might like to defect or not fight,” he told Insider, adding that the incident plays in Ukraine’s favor among a Russian domestic audience as well.