While Western governments are escalating their sanctions on Russia, the UN continues to spend tens of millions of dollars a year on Russian goods and services. This procurement, which principally involves Russian companies providing aircraft and pilots to UN peacekeeping missions, undermines U.S. and allied efforts to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
From 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea, through 2020 (the last year for which complete data is available), the UN spent more than $2.3 billion to procure Russian goods and services. Most of the helicopters currently being used by UN peacekeeping missions are reportedly supplied by Russian companies.
In April, former Ukrainian officials at the UN alleged that because UN aircraft supplied by Russian companies are often piloted by retired Russian military officers, “it is likely that soon the UN will be served by the same aircrews who leveled Aleppo and are now bombing Kharkiv and Mariupol.”
It is an embarrassment for the UN to be hiring Russian aircraft for peacekeeping operations when Russia and its aircraft are slaughtering civilians in Ukraine under the false pretext of conducting a “peacekeeping operation” there. In paying for these services, the UN also appears to be violating the spirit of Western sanctions cutting Russia off from the international financial system.
In March, Ukraine urged the UN Secretariat to “immediately suspend all non essential procurement cooperation of the UN with the Russian Federation.” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters in response that “it’s no secret that a lot of our aviation procurement for peacekeeping and just logistics comes from the Russian Federation.” Dujarric also said that “[t]he rules are set by the General Assembly, and we follow those rules.”
The General Assembly has already taken other steps against Russia, including suspending it from the UN Human Rights Council. It should act now to minimize UN procurements from Russia.
The top provider of UN peacekeeping helicopters (currently at 30 of the roughly 130) has long been the Siberian-based UTAir Group. The UN procurement database lists tens of millions of dollars in open multi-year contracts with UTAir to provide helicopter services to UN peacekeepers and other personnel in Abyei (a disputed Sudanese territory), Afghanistan, Somalia, and South Sudan.
The UN database also lists open contracts with two other Russian companies to provide additional tens of millions of dollars of such services in Abyei (Abakan Air), the Central African Republic (Abakan Air), and South Sudan (both Abakan Air and PANH Helicopters).
UTAir, the largest Russian provider, has one of the worst safety ratings of any airlines in the world. In April, the U.S. Commerce Department determined that UTAir had violated U.S. export regulations and banned it from receiving further U.S. exports. Also in April, UTAir was listed by the EU as having failed to meet international safety standards. As a result, UTAir is barred from operating to, in, and from the European Union, including overflight.
Meanwhile, in 2016 the two then-owners of Abakan Air – at least one of whom is reportedly still involved with the company — were described by the New York Times as having been the subject of an internal UN investigation in 2007 that “recommended no further dealings with them.”
The UN’s current procurement contracts with Russia raise particular concerns for U.S. taxpayers. Since the U.S. contributes 22 percent of the UN’s regular budget and 25 percent of its peacekeeping budget (far more than any other country), U.S. taxpayers effectively contributed around $60 million of the $270 million the UN spent on contracts with Russia during 2020 (the most recent year for which complete numbers are available).
President Biden’s 2023 budget request includes $2.33 billion for the Contributions for International Peacekeeping Activities account, which funds U.S. assessed contributions to most U.N. peacekeeping operations. That’s a nearly $830 million increase over the enacted fiscal 2022 amount of $1.5 billion, which included funding up to the 25 percent cap on the U.S. share of peacekeeping costs which has been imposed by Congress (the UN’s assessment level for the U.S. is over 30 percent). More than $730 million of the funds requested for 2023 would pay for arrears accrued since 2017 as a result of the 25 percent cap.
Congress should insist that U.S. taxpayer dollars not fund UN procurement from Russia, including especially procurement from companies such as UTAir which are banned from the U.S. and EU for safety and other reasons. Furthermore, the U.S. should not pay arrears for UN peacekeeping operations unless the Secretary of State certifies that the UN has immediately suspended all non-essential procurement from Russian companies and submitted to the State Department all available identifying information for Russian nationals who are peacekeeping contractors.
Orde Kittrie, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and law professor at Arizona State University, is a former U.S. State Department attorney.