Amid Ukraine Crisis, U.S.-Purchased Russian Helicopters Still Scheduled For Afghanistan

CREDIT: Wikimedia

Russian made MI-17 helicopters take off in a formation practice in Afghanistan

Russian-made helicopters — purchased using U.S. funding for the Afghan army’s use — are still on pace for delivery the Pentagon has confirmed, moving forward with delivery despite the current deep freeze in relations between the two former Cold War adversaries.

The Pentagon’s purchase of 33 Mi-17 attack helicopters was the first major deal inked with Russian state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport since sanctions on the company were lifted in 2010. The initial version of the contract was signed in 2011 and was followed up last June with an order for an additional 30 helicopters. By then, however, Congress was in full revolt, banning the deal in legislation that the administration swiftly overturned as a national security concern. Last November, reports indicated that the Defense Department was giving up on the purchase of additional helicopters from Russia — but intended to follow through on the already signed contract.

“In November, the department announced that we were delivering all of the Mi17s agreed to in the Afghan Program of Record, on time and as planned,” Pentagon spokesperson Maureen Schumann said in an email. “After initially requesting funds from Congress in the [fiscal year 2014] budget to provide additional enhancements for the Afghan National Security Forces, the department has re-evaluated requirements in consultation with Congress. We currently do not have plans to purchase additional Mi17s from Rosoboronexport beyond those in the Afghan Program of Record.”

Schumann’s colleague, Navy Commander Elissa Smith, later confirmed that “6 of the 30 [helicopters] from the June contract have been delivered,” with the remaining aircraft “scheduled to be delivered at a rate of 3 per month until complete.” Schumann was unsure at the time of publishing if funding from the contract — worth nearly $1 billion over its several iterations — remained to be dispersed to Rosoboronexport.

The origin of the Afghan Army’s helicopters could become an issue again in the near future, due to tensions between the U.S. and Russian Federation over the latter’s actions in Ukraine. On Monday, President Obama signed an executive order that froze the assets of seven Russian government officials and banned them from travel to the United States. Moscow shrugged off these designations and proceeded apace to formally annex the Crimean peninsula into its territory on Tuesday, leading to a new escalation from the White House on Tuesday. The authority from Monday’s executive order is much broader than those seven, however, leaving the door open for the administration to choose to target many other Russian officials should Russia not back down, including those who “operate in the arms or related material sector” — of which Rosoboronexport is the key exporter.

Under Monday’s order, the Treasury Department has the lead on designating new entities for sanction — but as recently as last night they weren’t disclosing who else could wind up on the list. “The two executive orders related to the situation in Ukraine are flexible tools to take targeted action as appropriate and as the situation develops in Ukraine,” a Treasury spokesperson told ThinkProgress on Wednesday. “Generally we do not comment on future actions, but as the President has made clear we will impose costs on those that undermine Ukraine’s democratic processes and institutions, threaten its peace, security or territorial integrity, contribute to its instability, and engage in the misappropriation of its assets.”

On Thursday morning, the U.S. announced another executive order and the addition of 20 individuals and St. Petersberg-based Bank Rossiya as being cut off from any U.S. assets. Speaking from the South Lawn of the White House, Obama said the sanctions are in response to the “choices the Russian government has made.” Under the new order, the Russian defense sector has been put on notice as being a target of American sanctions should Russia continue to escalate. Of the individuals designated today, none listed are among Rosoboronexport’s senior officials.

In the past, the administration has defended the necessity of the purchase, with Pentagon spokesman James Gregory last year saying, “Given current timelines, the department has determined that Rosoboronexport is the only viable means of meeting [Afghan National Security Forces] requirements” for the helicopters. Neither the State Department nor White House provided comment about the Rosoboronexport helicopters nor the possibility of cancelling the contract. A spokesman for Rosoboronexport was unable to be reached.