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Editorial

The market for Russia's weapons

The U.S. wants Moscow to stop shipping arms to Syria. But we're buying Russian helicopters for the Aghans.

June 10, 2012
  • Avaaz, a human rights advocacy organization, stages a demonstration featuring corpses and actors masked as Russia's Vladimir Putin and Syria's Bashar Assad near the United Nations in New York to protest killings in Syria and its support from Russia.
Avaaz, a human rights advocacy organization, stages a demonstration featuring… (Bebeto Matthews / Associated…)

As the atrocities mount in Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has started increasing the pressure on Russia, which, as Syria's biggest weapons supplier, is propping up the regime of dictator Bashar Assad. In a speech in Oslo last week, she said that Russia's refusal to halt this arms trade flies in the face of international efforts to sanction Syria and raises serious concerns in Washington.

It's a principled stance, but it presents a major consistency problem. Even as the administration slams Russian arms exporters for shipping weapons to Syria, the Pentagon is doing a multimillion-dollar business with Russian arms exporters.

The Defense Department contracted a year ago to buy 21 Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport, a state-owned Russian arms dealer that's heavily involved in the Syrian arms trade. The Mi-17 is sort of like the helicopter equivalent of the AK-47, a reliable and comparatively cheap craft that's unusually suited for the harsh environments of the Middle East. The $375-million contract is to supply helicopters for the Afghan military.

To say this sends a mixed message is an understatement; by continuing to buy Russian weapons even as it calls for Russia to stop selling weapons to Syria, Washington demonstrates that there will be no consequences if Russia fails to comply. It signals that the U.S. cares more about its mercantile or strategic interests than the human rights of the Syrian people — just as Moscow clearly does.

The Rosoboronexport contract has attracted concern in Congress. In March, a bipartisan group of 17 senators sent a letter to Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta urging the Pentagon to review all options for procuring helicopters for Afghanistan through other means; some senators favor buying only American-made choppers. The Pentagon has responded by saying the Russian craft are cheaper, highly versatile in their load-carrying capacity and are already familiar to Afghan pilots and mechanics, who have been using them for decades. (According to a Defense spokeswoman, the Mi-17 was actually designed for use in Afghanistan.)

Opponents of the contract don't think that's good enough. The House version of the defense authorization bill contained an amendment ordering the Government Accountability Office to investigate the helicopter contract and why it was awarded on a "no-bid" basis; a companion amendment is making its way to the Senate floor. We think a full investigation of the alternatives makes sense. If there is any practical way to punish Russia and its arms merchants for their support of Syria, where thousands have been slaughtered by Assad's repressive regime, the U.S. is obliged to pursue it.

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