Will the Deaths of Americans on MH17 Finally End $1B U.S. Relationship with Russian Arms Giant?

The Russian arms giant that has been the target of so much consternation in Congress since President Obama lifted its sanctions in 2010 recently marketed to Malaysia the same missile system believed to have taken down a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine today.

Lawmakers have been trying to block U.S. funds from lining the pockets of Rosoboronexport -- Russia’s state-owned arms behemoth that has raked in more than $1 billion in Defense Department contracts since 2011. President George W. Bush had placed a ban on doing business with the firm in 2008.

At the mid-April Defence Services Asia Conference and Exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, Rosoboronexport pitched to government officials the same surface-to-air system, the Russian-made Buk, suspected to have been fired at Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

"Our military technical cooperation with Malaysia has been developing rather dynamically on the mutually beneficial basis. It is fostered by successful operation of Russian-made equipment supplied earlier and our measures to improve after-sale services," said Nikolai Dimidyuk, Rosoboronexport's special project director and head of the delegation at the exhibition, in a statement at the time. "Good prospects are open for Russian air systems such as multi-role fighters and military transport helicopters in particular, air defense equipment, close combat weapons as well as littoral control systems and patrol vessels."

"Rosoboronexport specialists believe that the Malaysian side will be very much interested in the Buk-M2E medium-range air defence missile system," the arms exporter declared.

On board the doomed flight, which came down in eastern Ukraine, were 280 passengers and 15 crew members. Officials in the Netherlands confirmed that the victims include 154 Dutch, 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians, 11 Indonesians, six Brits, four Germans, three Belgians, one Filipino and one Canadian.

U.S. officials would not confirm reports, echoed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that 23 Americans were on board.

Ukrainian intelligence released a transcript of a conversation reportedly intercepted between Russian military intelligence officers and separatists in which Igor Bezler, a Russian military intelligence officer according to Ukraine's security service and leading commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, calls Vasili Geranin, identified as a colonel in Russian armed forces intelligence.

"We have just shot down a plane. Group Minera. It fell down beyond Yenakievo (Donetsk Oblast)," said Bezler in the conversation that took place 20 minutes after MH17 came down, according to the Ukrainians.

"Pilots. Where are the pilots?" Geranin asked.

"Gone to search for and photograph the plane," Bezler replied. "It's smoking."

In another conversation 40 minutes later, two separatists discuss the crash and confirm "in short, it was 100 percent a passenger aircraft." In a subsequent transcript, Cossack commander Nikolay Kozitsin tells an unidentified militant that the Malaysia Airlines plane must have been "carrying spies."

"They shouldn’t be f--cking flying," Kozitsin said. "There is a war going on."

As the drama was unfolding in Ukraine, Afghanistan commander Gen. Joseph Dunford was telling senators in his nomination hearing to become the next commandant of the Marine Corps that the relationship with Russia's arms giant is a necessary one.

In fact, Dunford said congressional effort to block the U.S. from doing business with Rosoboronexport could be "catastrophic" for forces in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon is expecting the last of the 88 Mi-17 helicopters purchased for Afghanistan's air force to be delivered by this fall, a purchase made on the assessment that the Afghans would be better able to operate and maintain the Russian technology.

"Without the operational reach of the Mi-17, the Afghan forces will not be successful in providing security and stability in Afghanistan and will not be an effective counterterrorism partner," Dunford told Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). "And one of the second order effects of that, chairman, which is why I use the word 'catastrophic,' is that we'll also have an adverse impact on our force protection in 2015."

"Among the assumptions that I make in 2015, is the Afghan Security Forces will contribute to the force protection of coalition forces in 2015. And their ability to do that would be significantly degraded without the Mi-17."

Dunford argued that even though the latest batch of Mi-17s is bought and paid for, the Pentagon needs to keep dealing with the Russians to secure spare parts for maintenance.