Cancel Russia Copter Deal, Lawmakers Say

Jefferson Morley

While President Barack Obama seeks economic sanctions against Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine, the Defense Department is continuing to fulfill a $554 million contract with Russia’s arms export agency to supply military helicopters to the government of Afghanistan.

Some members of Congress are objecting. In a March 19 letter, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and four other House members urged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to cancel the contract with Rosoboronexport, citing a recent executive order by Obama that imposes sanctions on persons “in the arms or related material sector of the Russian Federation” in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea.

In the past, the Pentagon has supported the Afghan military’s use of the Russian-made, battle-tested Mi-17 helicopter. In 2012, James Miller, acting undersecretary of defense for policy, said the Russian-made aircraft had “proven operational capabilities in the extreme environments of Afghanistan.” Cancellation of the contract would “complicate the maintenance, sustainment, and supply systems required to support the fleet” of the embattled Afghan armed forces, the Pentagon said in response to criticism from Congress and human rights advocates over Rosoboronexport supplying weapons to the Syrian government as it waged a bloody civil war.

When Congress prohibited dealings with Rosobornonexport in 2013, the Pentagon invoked a national security waiver provision in the law and extended the contract, triggering more criticism from Congress.

In November, the Defense Department dropped plans to purchase 15 to 20 additional helicopters from Rosoboronexport. Pentagon officials said at that time they would fulfill the original contract, calling for 30 helicopters to be delivered in batches of six. The second batch arrived in Afghanistan in late February, according to the Itar-Tass news agency, with three more deliveries scheduled before the end of 2014.

When asked for comment, a Defense Department spokesman said in a March 21 e-mail that “the government ensures that termination is authorized in all contracts by including the appropriate termination clauses in each contract” and cited the “requirement to use those termination clauses,” suggesting that termination because of Rosoboronexport’s trade with Syria or Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is not permitted under the contract.