Russia’s main weapons exporter Rosoboronexport, a state-owned company currently being paid by the Pentagon to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, emerged unscathed Monday as the White House and its European allies added new sanctions against Moscow.
The relationship with Rosoboronexport is prompting mounting frustration among a bipartisan clutch of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who say the White House is giving an inexplicable pass to the company despite Moscow’s land grab in Ukraine and its ongoing dealing with such U.S. adversaries as Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The George W. Bush administration had slapped sanctions on Rosonboronexport in 2006 amid allegations that the Russian government-owned company was aiding Iran’s nuclear program, but they were lifted four years later by the Obama administration as it “reset” relations with Moscow.
By 2011, Rosonboronexport had emerged a as central player in the administration’s evolving military strategy in Afghanistan. Specifically, the Pentagon began contracting the company to supply Afghan security forces with a fleet of Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. The Pentagon has agreed to pay Rosoboronexport more than $1 billion for 63 of the aircraft, which are known to perform well at high altitudes such as those over Afghanistan’s rough mountain terrain.
In late-March, a group of bipartisan senators called on the administration to take control of the situation by swiftly cutting all U.S. ties to the Russian arms exporter.
“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,” the lawmakers wrote to President Obama on March 27. “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine highlights the dangers of relying too heavily on Russia for the future capacity of the Afghan military, and DoD’s blindness to these risks has been deeply troubling.”
“Rosoboronexport is an arm of the Russian government and a powerful instrument of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy,” stated the letter signed by Republicans John Cornyn of Texas, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Donald Kirk of Illinois, Dan Coats of Indiana, John Boozman of Arkansas, James Risch of Idaho, David Vitter of Louisiana, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both of Connecticut.
It was not the first time that the Pentagon’s dealings with the Russian arms exporter have drawn ire on Capitol Hill. Senators were raising red flags about the situation nearly two years before the Ukraine crisis had emerged as a major geopolitical crisis.
In 2012, a similar group of lawmakers wrote to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressing outrage that the Pentagon was doing business in Afghanistan with a company known to be ferrying weapons to military forces in Syria, who were committing “atrocities against the Syrian people.”
“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,” the lawmakers wrote in 2012. “Doing so would require our foreign partners to make a choice between America and Putin.”
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, told reporters last month that he and other officials “understand the concern.”
“But I do think it’s important to remember the original intent of the contract was to — was to help deliver to the Afghan National Security Forces a helicopter that is well-suited to the missions they need to fly and will need to continue to fly post-2014,” Rear Adm. Kirby said during a March 20 Pentagon press briefing.
Major U.S. defense contractors also do business with the Russian company.
The Wall Street Journal noted last month that Boeing presently operates a joint-manufacturing facility to produce titanium in Russia with VSMPO-Avisma Corp, in which Rosonboronexport’s parent company, Rostec Corp. is a major shareholder. And, in 2011, General Electric launched two joint ventures with units of Rostec to manufacture gas-fired power turbines and a range of medical devices in Russia.