Politics & Government

Congress’ anger flares anew as defense official defends Russian helicopter deal

The Department of Defense said Friday it understood Congress’ concerns about its $550 million contract with Russia’s state-owned arms dealer, but gave no indication it would heed repeated calls to cancel the deal.

Defense Department Spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday, “We understand the concerns expressed by members of Congress over this contract. And we will respond appropriately to these concerns through proper channels.”

The contract, to supply 30 Russian Mi-17 helicopters to Afghan defense forces, has been increasingly criticized since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Protests on Capitol Hill have come from all sides, with Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, leading the way.

Connecticut’s Congressional delegation has been particularly critical – in part because Stratford-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. would be a likely beneficiary should the contract be canceled. Two dozen of the helicopters with a pricetag upwards of $440 million have yet to be delivered.

Speaking on background Friday, a Defense official said, “The contract with Rosoboronexport is providing important helicopter lift capabilities to Afghan National Security Forces.”

Blumenthal, reached in Connecticut Friday, angrily disputed that, saying, “I can tell you unequivocally as a member of the Armed Services Committee that there are better alternatives to the Russian helicopters to meet the mission in Afghanistan, without relying on a criminal enterprise like Rosoboronexport.

“The better alternatives are within driving distance of me right now. They are right under our nose (in Connecticut). We know it and we’re proud of it.”

Cornyn said Friday night, “If the Department truly understands these concerns, they will cancel” the contract.

“Frankly, I am perplexed as why the Department finds this so difficult considering the numerous human rights violations Rosoboronexport has engaged in and the numerous alternatives we have,” Cornyn added, including Fort Worth’s Bell Helicopters.

Blumenthal said the DoD response was “inexplicable and offensive,” adding, “It is beyond belief to be saying that we should continue a contract with Russian thugs who have 40,000 to 100,000 troops massed on the Ukrainian border right now. The president is condemning them, and the Defense Department is in effect bankrolling their aggression.”

He called Kirby’s statement “bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo,” saying “I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was speaking from last year’s notes, which were invalid then but simply ludicrous now.”

In all, the Defense Department has awarded more than $1 billion in no-bid contracts for the Afghan helicopters to Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms exporter.

“Not a penny more” should be paid, Blumenthal said Friday.

Rep Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., said Friday, “The contract with Rosoboronexport was questionable from the beginning and is now entirely indefensible in light of Putin’s aggressive actions in annexing Crimea. Continuing the contract undermines our new sanctions and the Obama administration’s other efforts to force Russia to the negotiating table. It’s time to stop sending American taxpayers’ dollars to Russian arms suppliers.”

A letter to President Barack Obama Thursday, signed by Cornyn, Blumenthal, Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and half a dozen other Republican senators from around the country, said, “Rosoboronexport is an arm of the Russian government and a powerful instrument of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy, and it handles more than 80 percent of Russia’s weapons exports.” The fact that the company has provided arms to Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria as Assad tries to retain power in the country’s ongoing civil war has also drawn Congressional criticism.

A House staffer familiar with the issue said Friday, “The question is not whether the Mi-17s are providing important capabilities. The question is whether Rosoboronexport’s Mi-17 is the best platform for providing those capabilities, especially in light of Russia’s inexcusable actions in the Ukraine and their continued role in supplying arms to Syria and Iran.”


David McCumber is Hearst Newspapers’ Washington Bureau Chief.

Email: david.mccumber@hearstdc.com