By Richard Lardner
WASHINGTON: Seeking stiffer penalties against Moscow, a group of senators called on President Barack Obama Thursday to respond more forcefully to the incursion into the Crimean Peninsula by terminating the remainder of a $1 billion contract to buy helicopters from Russia.
Dozens of members of Congress have long pushed for the end of the Pentagon’s contract with Russia’s arms export agency, Rosoboronexport. Russia’s “illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea” provides an even broader reason to kill the deal, 10 senators wrote in a letter to Obama.
The eight Republicans and two Democrats also want Obama to impose sanctions banning any future U.S. business with Rosoboronexport. They describe the export agency as “unsavory” because it has supplied Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military forces with arms and ammunition that have been used against Syrian civilians.
“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 senators wrote.
By obstructing Rosoboronexport’s business, “we would increase the costs of Putin’s aggression,” the letter said. The senators said ending the contract would limit the income corrupt Russian officials earn by skimming the profits of arms deals.
The Pentagon is buying the Mi-17 transport helicopters for Afghanistan’s national security forces. About two dozen remain to be delivered of 63 helicopters ordered, according to the senators’ letter.
While acknowledging Rosoboronexport’s arms sales to Syria are deplorable, U.S. military officials have defended the Mi-17 contract. They’ve maintained the Russian helicopter is ideally suited for the Afghans, who are rebuilding their air force and need a reliable and easy-to-operate helicopter for transporting troops throughout the country.
The Pentagon and the Army office in Huntsville, Ala., that manages the contract did not respond to questions The Associated Press sent earlier this week about the contract’s terms and whether military officials have considered cancelling it due to the crisis in the Crimean Peninsula.
Two Republican senators who signed the letter, John Cornyn of Texas and Dan Coats of Indiana, had wanted to use the Ukrainian aid bill as the vehicle for terminating the Mi-17 contract and sanctioning Rosoboronexport. But an amendment to the bill they drafted has yet to be considered.