How Russia Cashes in on UN Corruption

For much of the past decade, Russia has been engaged in a systematic effort to stymie attempts to root out corruption in U.N. spending.


That only seems fair enough considering the role that Soviet agents played in creating the United Nations.

For much of the past decade, Russia has been engaged in a systematic effort to stymie attempts to root out corruption in U.N. spending. The Russians have pushed out U.N. reformers. They've defanged watchdogs. And they've blocked internal budget reforms aimed at saving costs.

Russia's zeal for turning back reform has been felt most powerfully in the U.N.'s leasing of aircraft — a $1 billion a year market — that provide transport for the world's second-largest expeditionary force.

An examination of U.N. procurement practices in the air-transport sector — drawing on dozens of interviews with U.N.-based officials and diplomats, as well as a review of internal U.N. communications and audits — suggests that Russia has enjoyed unfair advantages, including contracts that all but demand that the United Nations lease Russia's Soviet-era aircraft.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russian entrepreneurs have turned the Soviet-era air fleet into a thriving business, supplying the U.N. and other international agencies with low-cost surplus aircraft, including Antonov transport planes and Mi-8 and Mi-26 helicopters. The low-cost aircraft — which Russian factories continue to produce — have largely dissuaded Western air operators from competing for U.N. contracts, which must go to the lowest bidder. Russian companies now account for about 75 percent of all contracts for commercial helicopters, the most lucrative segment of U.N. peacekeeping's multibillion-dollar marketplace.

For several years, the Russian government has also dragged out negotiations in the U.N. budget committee aimed at implementing the U.N. chief's procurement reforms, according to senior Western diplomats. Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said his government has no objections to reforming the U.N.'s buying practices, but he sees a raft of reforms as a direct threat to Russia's commercial interests at the United Nations.

In May, Secretary-General Ban traveled to Sochi, Russia, to meet with President Putin and his top diplomat, Lavrov, to forge a diplomatic strategy for ending the war in Syria.

But the conversation quickly segued into a discussion of Russian misgivings over procurement matters. The Russian leadership was especially alarmed by a plan to delegate authority for leasing helicopters to U.N. field missions and logistical hubs in Entebbe, Uganda, and Brindisi, Italy, a move that would limit the ability of Moscow's powerful U.N. headquarters delegation to monitor and influence decisions.

The issue came to a head after a Russian Mi-8 slammed into a mountainside in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Following the crash, a U.N. aviation official at the U.N.'s headquarters sent an email requiring that U.N. helicopters be upgraded with a safety device — known as an enhanced ground proximity warning system — that relies on a digital terrain mapping system to detect large physical objects, including buildings and mountains, in bad weather. But a senior U.N. official subsequently overruled that decision, saying that the U.N. safety review had not yet determined whether the system would be mandatory or not.

Who needs to detect the ground anyway? In Russia, ground detects you.