The Ukraine India Antonov Aircraft Scandal

The Ukraine India Antonov Aircraft scandal is a controversy surrounding the mysterious landing of the aircraft in Jaipur enroute from Karachi. Further, there have been a spate of crashes of Antonov AN-32 aircraft in the past 2 years which have led to the deaths of 55 brave personnel of our Indian Air Force. Therefore, an issue which pertains to the maintenance and upkeep of these aircraft is not only of major importance but also any possible corruption in this issue deserves the strictest punishment.

Ukraine India Antonov Aircraft Scandal
Ukraine India Antonov Aircraft Scandal

Antonov Aircraft Scandal

On May 10th, 2019 at around 4pm, the Indian Air Force radars detected an Antonov AN-12 aircraft crossing into Indian airspace from an unauthorized point near Gujarat. The aircraft’s (Identity, friend or foe) IFF transponder was turned on but the deviation from the standard route raised red flags. When the Air Force tried to contact the plane, it allegedly didn’t respond.

That’s when the Air Force scrambled 2 fully armed Sukhoi fighter jets to intercept this aircraft. The Air Force claims that the AN-12 did not initially respond on the international distress frequency or to the visual signals by the scrambled Sukhoi fighters. All of North India’s missile defense systems were activated (including in Delhi) when this plane was intercepted. It was allegedly only after the fighter jets challenged it with “offensive postures” that the aircraft identified itself as a “non-scheduled flight” originating from Tbilisi, Georgia and en route to New Delhi via Karachi.

The aircraft was forced to land at Jaipur airport where it was allegedly checked by the IB, Air Force, CISF, and Jaipur Police. As reported by the media, the aircraft was allowed to leave after that as Air Force sources were quoted as saying “nothing suspicious was found” and that “it was a minor violation”.

What was this Antonov AN-12 plane carrying and what was the purpose of its visit to India, especially in the middle of the Lok Sabha elections? How did this Antonov AN-12 manage to fly from Karachi to New Delhi in the period when the airspace for flights to and from India was closed by Pakistan? Why did the Ministry of Defense not issue an official statement clarifying circumstances surrounding this AN-12 plane along with details of its manifest/cargo/crew?

This AN-12 aircraft intercepted by the Indian Air Force was a Ukranian flag carrier belonging to a company called Motor Sich with the registration number UR-11316. Motor Sich is a Ukranian aerospace firm that manufactures the Al-20 engines for the Antonov AN-32 aircraft. The only operator of AN-32 aircraft in India is the Indian Air Force with a fleet of 105 aircrafts.

Was the cargo inside this intercepted aircraft meant to be a delivery for the Indian Air Force? In that case, what exactly was this aircraft perhaps carrying Indian Air Force equipment doing in Karachi? It is a massive breach of national security if an aircraft carrying spare parts for the Indian Air Force made a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, especially in the backdrop of heightened tensions between both neighboring countries. If this intercepted AN-12 aircraft was purportedly carrying cargo for the Indian Air Force, why were the Jodhpur base of the Indian Air Force and the ATC not given pre-information about this aircraft and its manifest?

It is extremely strange and indicates a lack of proper communication (during heightened tensions) that an IAF base is unaware of the identity and manifest of a foreign aircraft allegedly carrying cargo meant for the Indian Air Force.

As stated earlier, the AN-12 aircraft intercepted by the Indian Air Force Sukhoi fighters was a Ukranian flag carrier belonging to a company called Motor Sich with the registration number UR-11316. This company Motor Sich was placed under investigation in July 2019 by the Ukranian Security Service for funding the terrorist organization “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR). Also, in September 2019, Ukrainian authorities raided Motor Sich for indulging in “subversive activities against the country” and selling technology to the Russians which can be used against Ukraine.

Is the Ministry of Defense aware of these allegations and proceedings launched by the Ukranian authorities against the activities of Motor Sich? If they are, why did the Ministry not raise a red flag and issue a clarification about a Motor Sich aircraft flying from Pakistan to India and being intercepted by Sukhoi aircraft for entry from an unauthorized point? Why were the details of this incident and a follow-up never issued to the people of India or the Parliament in the Budget session?

The official India liaison office of Motor Sich is located at 24, Ferozeshah Road, New Delhi which is the address of the Russian Cultural Centre. The office of Motor Sich is located inside the premises of a property owned by the Russian Embassy. Similarly, the “representative office” of Motor Sich is located at 4, Zamrudpur Community Centre, Kailash Colony inside a building called Influence House.

The property at 4, Zamrudpur Community Centre is owned by the family of Shri. Gautam Thadani. All offices (barring 2) operating in that building are concerns owned by Shri. Gautam Thadani and his brother-in-law Shri. Rajan Madhu as directors.

Shri. Gautam Thadani was an accused in the 2012 Tatra Truck Defense Scam allegedly involving a serving Lt. General of the Indian Army where allegations were made by the then-Army Chief V.K Singh about someone trying to bribe him. In this matter the CBI claimed to have recovered Rs 98 lakhs of cash during a raid on the residence of Gautam Thadani. In 2014, just 3 months after the new government came to power, the CBI surprisingly filed a closure report in this case stating that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the accused.

Shri Rajan Madhu also operates a private non-government entity called “India Ukraine Chamber of Commerce” from 4, Zamrudpur Community Centre. It must be stressed here that this is a private company with no official charter from the Indian or the Ukranian governments. The company claims that it assists Ukranian businesses to operate in India and vice-versa. As revealed by annual reports, rent agreements, and corporate filings, the only 2 entities in Influence House, 4 Zamrudpur Community Centre are (a) Motor Sich India Representative Office and (b) Big Synergy Entertainment which is a subsidiary of Reliance MediaWorks owned by Shri Anil Dhirubhai Ambani.

Incidentally, in 2017, Reliance Defense owned by Shri Anil Dhirubhai Ambani signed a joint venture with Ukraine’s Antonov which would bid for the upkeep, production, and development of Antonov’s products to the Indian Air Force. As stated earlier, Motor Sich is the only producer of engines required for the Antonov aircraft currently owned by the Indian Air Force. A rent agreement exists between Gautam Thadani’s wife Lavlin Thadani and Big Synergy Entertainment leasing the premises at 4, Zamrudpur Community Centre. However, no such agreement can be found in public records between the Thadanis and Motor Sich.

Why is Motor Sich operating from the Embassy premises of Russia a country that has been sanctioned by Ukraine and is at war with? Was the Defense Ministry or the Indian Air Force aware of this link especially during the debriefing of the crew of the IAF-intercepted Antonov AN-12 plane on 10th May, 2019 which belongs to Motor Sich? What is the link between Shri Gautam Thadani, his brother-in-law Shri Rajan Madhu, and Shri Anil Ambani? 

The reason whether a link exists needs to be probed is because the common factor between these 3 entities is Antonov and Motor Sich. Shri Anil Ambani’s company has a JV with Antonov and the engines are produced by Motor Sich. This same Motor Sich operates out of premises owned by Gautam Thadani according to their documents. The fact that a subsidiary of Mr. Ambani (Big Synergy Entertainment) once operated from the same premises makes this question very pertinent.

In 2017, Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau launched a corruption investigation into Ukraine’s state-owned defense company Ukroboronprom. The investigation said that officials at UkrOboronProm siphoned off funds from a $39 million contract to supply parts for Antonov AN-32.

Interestingly, the anti-corruption bureau was investigating 2 executives at SpetsTechnoExport (the export arm of the state defense company) and an Indian citizen living in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, who transferred around $6 milion to the bank account of a company called Paramount General Trading, in the United Arab Emirates.

In March 2019, the director of SpetsTechnoExport Vadyslav Belbas was arrested by the Ukranian authorities and charged with embezzlement in defense contracts with India. Incidentally, the Ukranian National Anti-Corruption Bureau had written a letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs, India requesting legal assistance from the Government of India in regard to these embezzlement and corruption charges.

The letter from the Ukranians had also said that “officials in the Indian Defense Ministry might have been a witness to this incident” while naming a specific official Bharat Khera who is a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Defense. When this letter was leaked, then-Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had categorically denied that any of their officials had anything to do with this matter by merely stating that “the letter does not name any Indian officials and that India does not deal with any third-party company.

Was a preliminary enquiry launched by then Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman after receiving this letter from the Ukranian government? What was the nature of the “legal assistance” requested by the Ukranian Anti Corruption Bureau if it is claimed that their complaint does not name Indian officials? Was this matter investigated after the receipt of the letter? Was an internal probe/departmental enquiry carried out with MoD officials involved with the Ukranian contract? Was the statement of Shri. Bharat Khera (named specifically as a witness in the Ukranian letter) taken on the record by the MHA or the MoD?

What progress has been made by the Ministry of Defense on the contents of this letter by Ukraine? Has the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Home Affairs spoken to the UAE authorities to gain more understanding of this intermediary firm that siphoned off funds? Why did then-Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman dismiss the contents of the Ukranian letter instead of following due process and initiating an internal enquiry into the details mentioned in the letter?

Between 2009 to 2019, 3 Antonov aircraft of the Indian Air Force have crashed resulting in 55 casualties of personnel on board. Of these, 2 crashes have happened after India signed the agreement with Ukraine for refurbishing the fleet of 105 Antonov aircraft of the Indian Air Force. In the light of this, any issue related to Antonov as well as Motor Sich has serious repercussions on our national security and on the well-being of our brave IAF personnel.

Prima facie, there are a lot of legitimate unanswered questions. These questions need to be answered by former Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the public interest and to ensure that the MoD has investigated every possible angle of this issue. If there has been a scam, the perpetrators must be punished for jeopardizing India’s national security interests. For that, there needs to be a detailed impartial investigation.

Investigation by Saket Gokhale, former foreign correspondent. Send in your tips and submissions by filling out this form or write to us directly at the email provided.

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