WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. lawmakers who
oppose the Pentagon's dealings with Russia's state-owned arms exporting
firm are using Moscow's intervention in Ukraine to press the argument
that contracts with Rosoboronexport should end.
"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 of five lawmakers
from the House of Representatives wrote in a letter to U.S. Defense
Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday.
Most of the five signatories represent districts that are home to
some major U.S. defense contractors.
In an unusual program, the Pentagon has been buying Russian Mi-17
helicopters from Rosoboronexport to equip U.S.-backed Afghan
security forces who are used to operating Russian-made equipment.
In November, under congressional pressure, the Pentagon said it was
canceling plans to buy any additional Mi-17 aircraft, but that
action did not affect contracts already under way.
There was no immediate comment on the lawmakers' letter from the
Pentagon or a spokesman for Rosoboronexport.
Reuters reported in August that the Pentagon had opened a criminal
investigation of the Army aviation unit that oversees the contracts
for buying new Russian helicopters and overhauling older ones.
The criminal probe was ongoing, sources familiar with the matter
said this week. No charges have been filed.
Earlier this week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced sanctions
on several Russian and Ukrainian officials. He expanded the scope of
that presidential order to permit the freezing of assets of
individuals who "operate in the arms or related materiel sector in
Obama had not yet exercised that authority to impose sanctions on
anyone in Russia's arms sector.
Under the current contract awarded in June, the Pentagon is paying
Rosoboronexport $572 million for 30 Mi-17s and related parts and
Six of the 30 had been delivered, and the remaining aircraft were
scheduled to be delivered at the rate of three each month, a
Pentagon spokeswoman said.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers had said they opposed the
program because Rosoboronexport also sells weapons to the government
of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has been involved in a bloody,
three-year civil war against anti-government rebels.
The Pentagon staunchly defended the Mi-17 program as the fastest way
to equip the Afghan National Security Forces' Special Mission Wing
to conduct counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics missions, with a
year-end deadline looming for the end of the NATO combat mission.
"While we are pleased to see that future business with
Rosoboronexport is terminated, we firmly believe that given Russia's
recent escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, current contracts with
the Russian arms dealer must be terminated as well," the lawmakers
wrote to Hagel.
The letter was signed by Republican Kay Granger of Texas;
Connecticut Democrats Rosa DeLauro and Elizabeth Esty; James Moran
of Virginia, and Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and David Alexander;
editing by G Crosse and Amanda Kwan)