The Defense Department continues to do business with Russia’s state-owned arms exporter, and Congress wants that to stop.
In light of Russia’s recent incursion into Ukraine, some lawmakers in Washington are calling on the Defense Department to cancel a $572 million contract it awarded in June to Rosoboronexport. The U.S. is paying the Russian firm to manufacture 30 MI-17 helicopters for use by Afghan National Security Forces.
“Given Russia’s recent actions that violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity Ukraine, including its support of the illegal referendum for Crimean separation, we strongly urge you to terminate these contracts,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) wrote in a letter, cosigned by four other lawmakers, addressed to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. They said the Pentagon has the authority to exercise what’s known as the convenience clause and sever ties with Rosoboronexport.
That would not leave the U.S. with fiscally sound options, though, according to some experts.
“It’s a challenge because if you do want to sanction Russia, failing to sanction its arms export company seems like a big gap,” said Olga Oliker, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. “But it’s not as simple as ‘Let’s just buy another helicopter.’ Any U.S. helicopter is going to flat out cost more and require more maintenance and training.”
Afghans have been using the Russian-made helicopters for decades, in part because of their simplicity and high level of performance amid the mountainous terrain. Critics of the U.S.-Rosoboronexport partnership say that while American-made helicopters would cost more, it’s an investment worth making.
“The Pentagon should cancel this contract,” said Christopher Griffin, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. “Rosoboronexport is not a partner of the U.S.”
He said the least expensive option isn’t always the best and noted that Afghanistan has been requesting more U.S. and NATO sourced material.
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014, signed into law by President Obama in December, prohibits the Pentagon from using funds for future contracts with Rosoboronexport unless the Defense Department says doing so is in the interest of national security. The Pentagon has already said it doesn’t plan on purchasing more of the Russian-made helicopters beyond the existing contract.
“While we are pleased to see that future business with Rosoboronexport is terminated, we firmly believe that given Russia's recent escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, current contracts with the Russian arms dealer must be terminated as well," the lawmakers wrote yesterday.
This isn’t the first time lawmakers have made the request. Last year, a bipartisan group of senators – seven Republicans and five Democrats – sent a now prescient letter to Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling on the Pentagon to sever its business ties with Rosoboronexport, mainly because of the firm’s ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We are concerned by DoD’s apparent failure to consider the strategic implications of sourcing mission-critical military equipment from a potentially hostile power such as Russia” the lawmakers wrote in August.
Obama today announced sanctions against 20 Russian citizens and a St. Petersburg-based bank.
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