By Jojo Riñoza and Luis Liwanag
The Philippines does not plan to scupper a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire Russian-made heavy-lift helicopters despite sanctions on Moscow by Western powers over the Russia-Ukraine war, Manila’s top defense official said Wednesday.
The Philippine Department of National Defense is not expected to review the multi-year procurement contract that Manila signed in November to purchase a package of 17 Mi-17 helicopters for 12.7 billion Philippine pesos ($244.2 million), Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters in Manila.
“No, we do not see any likelihood of [the deal] being scrapped as of this moment … We hope the Ukraine crisis is resolved soon,” he said.
“The heavy-lift helicopter procurement project with Russia is on track. The contract was signed, and the down payment was done before the Ukraine crisis happened.”
A heavy-lift helicopter is a rotary aircraft capable of lifting large numbers of personnel or cargo. The Mi-17 is a Soviet-designed Russian military helicopter family in production at two factories in Kazan and Ulan-Ude. It is known as the Mi-8M series among the Russian armed forces.
Lorenzana said the delivery of the first batch of the Russian helicopters was expected within the next two years.
“Will the Ukraine crisis affect the project? Only time will tell,” he said.
Western nations, including Manila’s longtime military ally, the United States, have started imposing strict economic sanctions on Russia in a bid to stop President Vladimir Putin’s punishing military offensive and invasion of neighboring Ukraine. The sanctions include a ban on all imports of Russian oil and gas, the freezing of assets of Russian banks, restrictions on oligarchs and other high-powered Russians close to the Kremlin, and a slew of other measures, according to news reports.
Last month, the Philippine government expressed its “explicit condemnation” of the Russian invasion. On March 2, the Philippines was among a large majority of U.N. member-states that voted in favor of a General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s military strike on Ukraine.
Those Philippine actions on the world stage marked a change of tack, because Lorenzana, mere days after Moscow launched the invasion on Feb. 24, had said that “it’s none of our business to meddle in whatever they’re doing in Europe.”
In Washington on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department declined to comment about the Philippine statement on the Russian helicopter deal.
Buy 16, get 17th for free
Under the government-to-government deal, LlC Sovtechnoexport of the Russian Federation will supply the Philippines with the helicopters, Arsenio Andolong, head of public affairs at the Department of National Defense, said Wednesday.
“Since the contract was signed and we made a down payment, there is already an ongoing contractual obligation on the side of Russia. The ball is now in their hands to fulfill those contractual obligations, whatever they are,” he said.
He also said that the defense department was in fact acquiring 16 Mi-17 helicopters, but the 17th unit was a “freebie.”
“It’s plus one; that’s part of their [Russian] obligation,” Andolong said.
Nonetheless, the defense department was prepared to cancel the deal if the Russians failed to deliver due to the conflict in Ukraine.
“But as of now, we are waiting if they can comply with their obligations under the contract; there are steps on that,” Andolong said.
The acquisition of the helicopters is part of an ongoing modernization program of the Philippine armed forces and would complement several helicopters currently in the Air Force’s fleet.
The Mi-17 has a maximum speed of 280 kilometers per hour (170 mph, 150 knots) and a range of 800 kilometers. It can transport 24 soldiers or 12 stretchers internally.
Duterte: ‘Watch out for Putin’
President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, has been seeking to expand defense ties of the Philippines, the United States’ staunchest military ally in Southeast Asia, since he came to power in 2016.
Manila, for example, has sought closer bilateral relations with America’s rivals, China and Russia, amid a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
During a trip to the northern town of Narvacan last Friday, Duterte said the country should remain “neutral” because it was too far from Russia geographically.
He also warned that President Putin was unpredictable, according to the transcripts of Duterte’s speech.
One should “watch out for Putin; he is suicidal,” Duterte said.” If he gets embarrassed by this conflict, he will lose it.”
“And I realized it when I went to Russia. I had a talk with him on all aspects of life. He told me, ‘We are friends.’ I said, ‘I have no beef with you,’” Duterte said on March 4.
Duterte’s statements contrasted sharply with those made by Vice President Leni Robredo, who condemned Russia’s invasion unequivocally on Sunday.
“I condemn the violence that has been inflicted upon the people of Ukraine, the violation of its sovereignty, and the threat that now hangs above the innocent lives in the region,” Robredo, who is running to replace Duterte in the May presidential election, said in a statement.
“It is a moral imperative to stand against bullying and unprovoked aggression, especially given the reports of civilians and residential areas deliberately targeted in the course of the invasion.”