Stealing A MiG-25 Foxbat, How An Elite Russian Pilot Defected With One Of World’s Fastest Fighter Jets

After reportedly being “lured” by a six-month intelligence operation, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter pilot finally caved in and defected to Ukraine. Now, in a not-so-mysterious turn of events, he blames the defection on the conduct of his Russian Commanders.

Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence agency claimed last month that a Russian Mi-8 helicopter with the defecting pilot and his unaware crew members had landed at a Ukrainian airfield. The agency, however, did not reveal the exact date and time of the chopper’s landing.

The announcement was startling and came as a rude shock to Russia because it followed weeks of claims by a Russian aviation blogger called ‘Fighterbomber’ that suggested that a Russian helicopter carrying three people had “accidentally” crossed the border. The Ukrainian intelligence officials finally broke their silence in late August, stating that the crossing over by the pilot was a premeditated Ukrainian act.

“This was a GUR operation,” spokesperson Andriy Yusov said at the time. “The aircraft moved according to the plan. You must wait a bit; work is being conducted, including with the crew. Everything is fine, there will be news,” Yusov told the media at the time. And finally, new details have emerged unraveling the incident.

The Russian helicopter pilot, known as Maxim Kuzminov by Ukrainian officials, finally revealed the details of the brave operation he had to undertake to fly across the border in his Mi-8 combat helicopter in an interview published by Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence on September 4.

Explaining the driving force behind his decision that would change his life forever, Kuzminov blamed senior Russian military commanders. He said they “live for their pleasure” and that the subordinates in the Russian military are generally “left to their own devices,” and the commanders “never have time to deal with it; they have their problems.”

Not just that, Kuzminov also listed out some instances, like two helicopters being told to engage in a bizarre mission of transporting a cat. He noted how the Commanders were comfortable with burning resources and time so long as it suited them and their convenience.

The pilot has also seemingly been tasked with debunking the claims about Nazism in Ukraine, a reason cited by Russia as a precursor for its so-called ‘Special Military Operation.’ He told the interviewer, “The truth is, there are no Nazis or fascists here. It’s a real disgrace what is happening here. Murder, tears, blood. People are simply killing each other. That’s all I can make of this, and I don’t want to be a part of it.”

Elaborating how he got through to the other side, Kuzminov said, “I contacted representatives of Ukrainian intelligence, explained my situation, to which they offered this option: ‘Come on, we guarantee your safety, guarantee new documents, guarantee monetary compensation, a reward.'”

During one flight, he said, “I realized that I was near the border. I relayed my location. I said: ‘Let’s try it; I’m not far away.’ And, having made a final decision, I flew at an extremely low altitude in radio silence mode. No one understood what was going on with me at all.”

Luring his colleagues to join the Ukrainian military, he emphasized, “You’ll be provided for the rest of your lives. You will be offered a job everywhere, no matter what you do. You’ll discover a world of colors.” On its part, Ukraine has also been meticulously hatching plans since the war broke out to make Russian pilots defect to its side.

For instance, earlier this year, the EurAsian Times provided an account of Ukrainian GUR’s efforts to persuade three Russian pilots to defect with their respective military aircraft, encompassing a Su-34 fighter bomber, a Tu-22M3 strategic bomber, and a Su-24 tactical bomber. That plan, however, never went through and was foiled by the Russian FSB.

Maxim Kuzminov appealed to his brethren from the Russian military to also defect to the Ukrainian side by emphasizing, “What is going on now is simply the genocide of the Ukrainian people. Both Ukrainian and Russian. The motivation for my action was to not contribute to these crimes.”

While this incident does not augur well for Russia’s reputation and has given rise to concern that it may lure others to follow suit, the country has a history of defections that goes back decades. Some Soviet pilots are notoriously remembered for jumping to the enemy camp during the Cold War days. There is one that warrants mention — Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko.

Unsuspecting Russian Pilot Defected To The US

Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko was a Russian pilot assigned to the Chuguyevka, Primorsky Krai-based 513th Fighter Regiment, 11th Air Army, Soviet Air Defense Forces. He successfully defected to the West on September 6, 1976, by flying his MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor jet to Hakodate Airport in Hokkaido, Japan.

File Image: MiG-25

The Soviet Air Defense Forces were an aerial branch somewhat separate from the Soviet Air Force. The members of this branch were an elite and trusted band, which meant that the defecting pilot also enjoyed significant trust with his Commanders and peers. He was so trusted that when Belenko’s blood pressure spiked on the morning he intended to flee, the flight surgeon believed Belenko when he insisted he was not anxious.

At the time, Lieutenant Viktor Ivanovich Belenko was training on the brand-new Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 supersonic interceptor jet. While Western analysts had not yet had a chance to examine a real “Foxbat,” they believed it to be a very potent danger to NATO aircraft. Robert Seamans, the Secretary of the Air Force, had referred to the MiG-25 as “probably the best interceptor in production in the world.”

Viktor Belenko’s ID.

The 29-year-old Belenko played a gamble and predicted that the US would seek to acquire a Foxbat. He intended to deliver one in exchange for refuge in the US.

However, because the plane used fuel at an alarming rate, it could not travel from Chuguyevka to an air base in the United States or Canada. That’s how Japan became the intended destination, and the Foxbat took its last flight out with Belenko piloting the jet.

On September 6, 1976, Belenko and his squadron snuck into position. He performed a standard circuit. But he didn’t turn around as per the flight plan at the far end of the journey. Instead, he carried on. He dropped altitude to 19,000 feet gradually. He abruptly launched the Foxbat into a steep dive.

He sped along at that altitude where he couldn’t be seen on radar. The other pilots followed Belenko in his squadron, but Belenko had a good lead. As he was about to enter Japanese airspace, Belenko started making himself known to Japanese radar with a series of pop-ups and descents before diving back down to avoid being shot from the air.

Of course, the Foxbat guzzled fuel at an incredible pace. The jet’s fuel supply was critically low. Miraculously, Belenko spotted an airfield — with a civilian 727 jetliner heading directly toward him.

Viktor Belenko’s stolen secret Soviet aircraft.

“He jerked the MiG into the tightest turn of which it was capable, allowed the 727 to clear, dived at a dangerously sharp angle, and touched the runway at 220 knots. As he deployed the drag chute and repeatedly slammed down the brake pedal, the MiG bucked, bridled, and vibrated as if it were going to come apart. Tires burning, it screeched and skidded down the runway, slowing but not stopping.

“It ran off the north end of the field, knocked down a pole, plowed over a second, and finally stopped a few feet from a large antenna 800 feet off the runway. The front tire had blown, but that was all,” according to an excerpt from a biography of the pilot written by John Barron MiG Pilot, The Final Escape of Lieutenant Belenko, published in 1980.

Before the MiG was disassembled and shipped back to the USSR in 30 crates, the Japanese government restricted US access out of concern for its relations with the Soviet Union. But Belenko remained in the West and was eventually granted asylum after months of debriefing organized by the CIA.

Belenko was not the first pilot to flee from a Soviet-bloc nation or even the only one to do so from the Soviet Union. However, it is believed that he might have been aware of the US government’s practice of rewarding communist pilots who defect with significant monetary awards.

With Belenko’s defection, many secrets and surprises were disclosed to the West because this was the first opportunity for Western military intelligence to examine the aircraft and its specifications closely.

President Gerald Ford of the United States granted Belenko asylum, and a trust fund was established for him, ensuring him a very comfortable lifestyle in his final years. After his defection, the US government briefed him for five months before hiring him as a consultant. Belenko carried the MiG-25 pilot’s manual with him because he planned to help US pilots evaluate and test the aircraft.

In the case of the recent defection, Kuzminov may not be bringing new technology to the Ukrainian camp. Still, a turning over of highly-trained pilots from Russia is a significant blow to Moscow. As for the Russian pilot, there is US$5,00,000 million as a reward.