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U.S.-Russian Helicopter Deal In Spotlight After Crimean Annexation

U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan favor the Mi-17's durability.
U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan favor the Mi-17's durability.
WASHINGTON -- Pressure is mounting in Washington to axe a $550 million contract with a Russian state arms dealer for military helicopters after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory.

But more than half of that money has already been spent, while Russia has only delivered a fifth of the promised aircraft, according to the latest data from the Pentagon.

As of March 20, the Department of Defense had disbursed $290 million to Rosoboronexport under the current $553.8 million contract for 30 Mi-17 helicopters to be used by Afghan security forces, Pentagon spokeswoman Maureen Schumann told RFE/RL.

As of the same date, six of the 30 helicopters had been delivered, Schumann said in emailed comments. She added, however, that "when executing a contract, the data can change frequently."

Amid pressure from U.S. lawmakers who said contracts with Rosoboronexport were helping Russia prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, the Pentagon announced last year that after consultations with Congress, it had opted not to purchase any more helicopters from the firm. The current contract, however, would continue, it said.

But members of Congress have renewed efforts to have the contract scrapped entirely in light of Russia’s takeover of Crimea.

"Given Russia’s recent actions that violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including its support of the illegal referendum for Crimean separation, we strongly urge you to terminate these contracts," a bipartisan group wrote in a March 19 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Afghan Deployment

On March 24, U.S. Senator Dan Coats, a Republican from the state of Indiana, introduced an amendment to the Ukrainian aid bill that would levy sanctions on Rosoboronexport.

"Taking steps to meaningfully obstruct Rosoboronexport’s work and the revenue it provides the Russian state is among the most effective ways we can condemn [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s recent aggression,” Coats said in a statement this week.

"This specific economic sanction will harm Russian interests in a serious way without damaging America’s economy."

The Pentagon has contracted more than $1billion for rotary-wing aircraft from Rosoboronexport since 2011.

U.S. military officials and defense experts have said the Russian-made aircraft are well-suited for deployment in Afghanistan. U.S. commanders in Afghanistan prefer the Mi-17 because of its durability and the fact that Afghan forces already have experience operating the aircraft, The Associated Press cited an unidentified senior Defense Department official as saying last year.

Should the current contract ultimately be canceled or otherwise interrupted due to possible sanctions, it was not immediately clear whether the United States could recoup any of the $290 million it has already paid to Rosoboronexport for helicopters that have not been delivered.

Schumann, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said she could not immediately say whether the terms of the contract would allow such a scenario.

William Hartung, a defense industry expert and director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said he doubts it.

“I would be surprised if there is a clawback provision, and the contract was signed and the helicopters were being delivered,” he said.
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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