Lining Putin's Pockets: Senators Want Obama to Call Off Contracts with Russian Arms Giant
WASHINGTON -- While President Vladimir Putin has been violating a nuclear treaty, arming Bashar al-Assad and closing in on Eastern Europe, Russia's state-owned arms behemoth has been cashing in on U.S. government contracts.
Arms exporter Rosoboronexport has raked in $1,133,783,077 in Defense Department contracts since 2011, according to federal contracting records. Shortly before these contracts began getting the green light, Rosoboronexport had been the subject of U.S. sanctions for assisting Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
Since the arms giant supplied Assad with more than $1 billion in deliveries in 2011 alone, Congress leaned on the White House to cut a lucrative no-bid contract with Rosoboronexport to supply the Afghan military with Mi-17 helicopters.
President Obama last year skirted around an amendment passed unanimously by the Senate to prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars to enter into agreements with Rosoboronexport, using a national security loophole to claim that dealing with the Russian firm was in America's critical interest. As the death toll from Russian arms rose in Syria and protests from both sides of the aisle grew louder, the Pentagon agreed in November to cut its contact with the exporter short and canceled a $345 million order for 15 additional helicopters in Fiscal Year 2014.
Today, senators sent a strong bipartisan message to Obama: cancel all existing contracts with the Russian arms exporter including upcoming deliveries, scrap plans to ink new contracts, and put the company back on the sanctions list where it belongs.
"In light of the Russian Federation’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, we ask for your leadership in re-imposing sanctions on Rosoboronexport, Russia’s official state arms exporter, and fully severing the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) business relationship with this unsavory agency," wrote the lawmakers. "Since 2011, DoD has awarded Rosoboronexport more than $1 billion in no-bid contracts for the procurement of Mi-17 helicopters. Prior to that, this agency had rightly been under U.S. sanctions for several years."
The sanctions barring any business with the firm had been placed on Rosoboronexport by President George W. Bush in 2008. When Obama decided to lift the sanctions in May 2010, the administration rejected accusations that they were doing so in an attempt to butter up Russia to support the U.S. position on Iran at the UN Security Council.
"We felt that as Russia shared our concern about Iran and was willing to support the kinds of arms restrictions that are in the draft (UN) resolution, we felt confident that we could remove these penalties while protecting our non-proliferation interests," then-spokesman P.J. Crowley said at the State Department at the time. "Actions are connected in the sense that clearly the actions Russia has taken over time have demonstrated that they take the situation with Iran seriously."
Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), David Vitter (R-La.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) wrote in today's letter to Obama that until the invasion of Ukraine, their key concern has been Assad "using these very weapons" obtained from Rosoboronexport "to murder innocent Syrian civilians, as confirmed by DoD."
"We remain deeply troubled that DoD is sending huge cash payments to an agency that continues to enable mass murder," they added.
"However, Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine give us a broader reason to put an end to DoD’s misguided business dealings with Rosoboronexport and sanction this agency. Rosoboronexport is an arm of the Russian government and a powerful instrument of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy, and it handles more than 80% of Russia's weapons exports. By obstructing the business of Rosoboronexport and limiting the income it provides to corrupt Russian officials, we would increase the costs of Putin’s aggression."
Obama has been trickling out travel sanctions on Russian officials since the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and emerged from a G-7 meeting this week announcing that harsher sanctions could be in store if Putin invades more of Ukraine with forces that have been ominously massing on the country's eastern border.
The senators on today's letter argued the "costs must be real" to be heard by Putin.
"To that end, we call on you to cancel all existing DoD contracts with Rosoboronexport, as well as any plans for future deals, and impose sanctions to ban contracts with any company that cooperates with Rosoboronexport on military programs. Doing so would require our foreign partners to make a choice between America and Putin," they wrote. "These were the very objectives of an amendment we authored or otherwise supported during this week’s Senate consideration of the Ukraine aid bill. Unfortunately, that amendment has not been considered. These steps would also help implement sanctions you authorized on March 17, which included penalties against persons who 'operate in the arms or related materiel sector in the Russian Federation.'”
The aid bill providing $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians instrumental in the Crimea takeover passed the House 399-19 and the Senate 98-2, with the "no" votes coming from GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Dean Heller (Nev.). Reconciliation on the two bills is expected swiftly to get the bill to Obama by the end of the week.
The senators who wrote Obama noted that the administration flirted with danger in "relying too heavily" on the Russian firm to build up the Afghan military, "and DoD’s blindness to these risks has been deeply troubling."
"Indeed, DoD’s procurement of 63 Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport has created strategic vulnerabilities that could have serious implications for our own national security, should the Afghan military not reach its intended capacity," they noted.
"On August 5, 2013, a number of us raised these issues regarding overreliance on Russia in a letter to DoD. We specifically asked: 'Does the overreliance on Russia fostered by this Mi-17 program put the U.S. at risk of Russian coercion or blackmail on other security issues, such as the crisis in Syria, Iran’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons, U.S. missile defense, arms control negotiations, or the security of former Soviet republics?' In a reply letter from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, these and other concerns were ignored. In addition, DoD recently indicated that it has contemplated further business dealings with Rosoboronexport in the areas of Mi-17 sustainment and machine-gun procurement. We ask you to end any such plans."
The senators stressed that the Pentagon's "failure to consider the strategic implications of sourcing mission-critical military equipment from a hostile power such as Russia is surprising."
"This problem was self-inflicted, but it is not too late to address it. Rosoboronexport has yet to deliver two dozen Mi-17s that are already on contract for the Afghans, which presents an opportunity to cancel those deliveries and mitigate the risks by transitioning the Afghans away from a pure Russian fleet and incorporating U.S.-made platforms. This is consistent with unclassified recommendations made by DoD’s own rotary wing aviation experts in a study conducted three years ago," they wrote. The Connecticut Dems have been concerned about lost business to Sikorsky in their home state.
"Sanctioning Rosoboronexport would send a powerful message to Putin, and we urge you to give serious consideration to these requests. The outcome in Ukraine is critically important both to American credibility and to the future of the international order, and our actions should reflect that."