Lawmakers want to halt the US purchase of Russian helicopters for Afghanistan. (Russia Helicopters)
WASHINGTON — Over three dozen US lawmakers are urging senior Obama administration officials to slap sanctions on the Russian firm that has been supplying helicopters to the Afghan military.
To the chagrin of many on Capitol Hill, state-owned Rosoboronexport has been receiving US taxpayer monies via a Pentagon contract for Mi-17 medium-sized helicopters for Afghanistan’s security forces. Routinely in recent years, each time Russia has bucked the United States, lawmakers have demanded the relationship be severed.
The 38 lawmakers, in a Friday letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry, expressed their “deep concern” about “Russia’s recent actions that violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The US Defense Department in 2011 entered into a $375 million contract with Rosoboronexport for 21 Mi-17s, and later opted to add 10 more for $171.4 million. Last year, DoD and the Russian firm agreed to a $553.8 million deal for 30 more Mi-17s.
“The contract was entered into despite strong bipartisan opposition in Congress and elsewhere to DoD entering into contracts with an arms dealer that is the main supplier of the weapons the regime of Bashar al-Assad is using to fuel the ongoing war and commit mass atrocities in Syria,” wrote the group of lawmakers, which includes Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.; Kay Granger, R-Texas; James Moran, D-Va.; Jack Kingston, R-Ga.; Appropriations Ranking Member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.; and Walter Jones, R-N.C.
The lawmakers say Lew and Kerry have the authority to sanction the Russian arms firm under an executive order issued by President Barack Obama they contend will allow blocking dollars meant to procure the Mi-17s.
The lawmakers point to a section of that order that states Russia’s actions in Ukraine “undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine … and contribute to the misappropriation of its assets and thereby constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Lawmakers’ frustration is bipartisan and bicameral.
Senate Armed Services Airland subcommittee Chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., this week said he sent his own letter to Kerry that calls for even tougher measures than does the House letter.
Blumenthal said his letter urges “that we cease all purchases of military equipment from Russia across the board.”
Blumenthal acknowledges there are sound reasons why the Afghans prefer the Russian-made aircraft.
“I respect his view that the Afghanistan Army is accustomed to using those Russian helicopters,” he said during a Wednesday subcommittee hearing. “They know how to fly them. They’re much less sophisticated. They are, as was once said to me, the equivalent of flying refrigerators. And they are much easier to maintain.”
Still, Blumenthal says there is “a feeling of bipartisan outrage.”
“I think it is brought into the starkest and most staggering profile by the Russians in effect thumbing their nose at us in Ukraine and [we] are continuing to purchase these helicopters from Rosoboronexport … at the same time is selling arms to Assad in Syria and bankrolling the troops that are on the border of Ukraine, having seized Crimea and now threatening the rest of that country.”
Like other lawmakers, Blumenthal says US firms could fill any void if the Rosoboronexport deal is put to an end.
“Our helicopters are better. And eventually if the Afghanis are really going to defend their future, they’re going to have to use the best military equipment,” he said. “And, moreover, for United States taxpayers to be funding those helicopters and to buy them from the Russians. I think is just absolutely unacceptable.” ■