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Controversy Over U.S. Military Contracts with Russia

The U.S. Department of Defense has come under fire from a bipartisan group in Congress over military contracts with Russia’s state-owned arms dealer.

The U.S. Department of Defense has come under fire from a bipartisan group in Congress over military contracts with Russia’s state-owned arms dealer. Since 2011 the Pentagon has signed three contracts with Rosoboronexport totaling $1.12 billion. The contracts are for 63 Mi-17 helicopters and related equipment to be used by the Afghan National Security Forces. Congress has now passed two amendments aimed at curbing future contracts, citing Rosoboronexport’s arms shipments to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war.

Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut wrote both amendments.

“We are purchasing helicopters from an arms dealer that in fact is supplying Syria, where we have seen over 70 or 90,000 people who have been killed," DeLauro said Sunday on Weekends with Alex Witt.

The first amendment was attached to the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act. It banned contracts with Rosoboronexport unless they were in the interest of either the public or national security. After President Obama signed that bill into law, the Defense Department entered into another contract, worth $572 million, using funds allocated to the previous year. Those funds were not restricted by the new law. In response, Congress passed another amendment last month in a vote of 423-0. That measure prohibits future business with the Russian arms dealer unless the firm undergoes a Defense Department audit, stops supplying missile defense batteries to Syria, and proves that it has not signed any new contracts with the Assad government.

A Defense Department spokesperson told msnbc that the Pentagon will comply with any new amendments that are signed by the President.

“The United States has made it clear to the most senior levels in the Russian government that we are concerned about Russian arms shipments to the Assad regime,” the spokesperson said, “particularly while the regime engages in violence against the Syrian people. That said, careful consideration of all the information available to the Department confirmed that it was in both the public's and national security interest to procure the Mi-17s needed…to achieve the U.S. forces drawdown timeline.”

Congress is not the only one raising the alarm on the helicopter contracts. In May the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued a report that warned the Afghans “lack the capacity—in both personnel numbers and expertise—to operate and maintain the existing and planned SMW [Special Mission Wing] fleets.” The report noted that U.S. contractors currently perform 50% of the repairs for the unit's fleet and 70% of critical maintenance and logistics management. The Inspector General recommended that the Department of Defense suspend all contracts until the Afghans are able to meet certain requirements.

The Pentagon strongly disagreed with the report, but admits the Afghans are not fully capable of sustaining the fleet. “We do not agree with the assessment that the ANSF can't fly or maintain Mi-17s,” said the Defense Department spokesperson. “Not only do they do this today, Afghans have been flying Mi-17s for decades … Having said that we do recognize that there are real challenges with ensuring the Afghans have a fully sustainable Mi-17 operational capability and we are already implementing 6 of the 7 [Inspector General] recommendations to ensure this happens.”

The helicopter at the heart of the debate, the Mi-17, was developed by the Soviet Union in 1981 and used in its war in Afghanistan. According to the Inspector General, the helicopters are especially well-equipped for the country. They are easy to fly and maintain and their pressurized cabins allow them to be used in Afghanistan’s high altitude mountains. They are only available through Russia’s Rosoboronexport.