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Inside the Ring: Russian arms exporter under fire

A senior senator called out Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta this week over Pentagon cooperation with Russia’s state arms exporter amid new reports of weapons transfers by Moscow to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, restated in a letter to Mr. Panetta the “grave concerns I previously raised with you about the Department of Defense’s ongoing business relationship with Rosoboronexport.”

“Rosoboronexport, as the Assad regime’s chief supplier of weapons, is an enabler of mass murder in Syria,” Mr. Cornyn said.

In June 2011, the Pentagon awarded a no-bid Army contract to Rosoboronexport for the purchase of Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan military.

That contract was reached after an earlier contract for several Mi-17s was canceled with a European contractor and U.S. broker who had offered the same transports at lower prices and with faster delivery times to the Afghan military.

The non-Russian Mi-17 contract was scrapped after Pentagon officials caved in to Moscow’s demand that only Mi-17s sold through Rosoboronexport could be purchased for the Afghans, despite concerns about the exporter’s past sanctions-busting and links by its agents to Russian intelligence organizations, according to defense officials close to the deal.

The turn to Rosoboronexport for the Mi-17s was part of the Obama administration’s conciliatory “reset” policy that critics say has produced few positive results for the United States, the officials said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed on Tuesday that she is concerned about Russia’s transfer of attack helicopters — not Mi-17 transports — to Syria.

“We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria,” Mrs. Clinton said Tuesday. “They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry, everything they’re shipping is unrelated to [Syria’s] actions internally.

“That’s patently untrue, and we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.”

Mr. Cornyn, in his letter, said he remained “deeply troubled that [the Defense Department] would knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass atrocities in Syria.”

“Such actions by Rosoboronexport warrant the renewal of U.S. sanctions against it, not a $1 billion [Defense Department] contract,” he said.

The senator asked Mr. Panatta to make sure that future contracts for Mi-17s sent to Afghanistan are done through “full and open competition.”

Also, he asked the Pentagon’s Defense Contract Audit Agency to conduct a “complete audit” of the Army’s sole-source contract agreements with Rosobornexport.

Mr. Cornyn also suggested that the nomination of Heidi Shyu to be assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition could be held up.

Pentagon spokesman George Little, asked about the Cornyn letter, said a response to the senator is planned.

“The Mi-17 helicopter, from our vantage point, is about Afghanistan,” Mr. Little said.

“We understand the concerns,” he said. “We’re not ignoring them. But I would make the point that, in the case of Afghanistan, the Mi-17 is about giving them what they need and what they can use effectively to take on their own fights inside their own country.”


Behind the scenes of Mr. Panetta’s recent travels in Asia were questions about whether the U.S. military, in a time of fiscal constraint, can adequately build up forces in Asia following plans outlined in a secret directive on the Air Sea Battle Concept.

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About the Author

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon ( He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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