By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A day after President Barack Obama slapped sanctions on several Russian arms firms over the Ukraine conflict, a top U.S. general warned that a congressional bid to bar dealings with Moscow's main weapons exporter could be "catastrophic" for U.S. forces.
Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said 88 Russian helicopters the Pentagon is buying for Afghan security forces were critical for protecting U.S. troops that remain in the country after the end of this year.
Dunford’s comments to a Senate committee illustrate the fine line the U.S. government walks in imposing sanctions on Russia without compromising its interests or those of its allies. It shows the wide-ranging, and often unintended, consequences of sanctions on specific industries such as defense.
His comments came on the same day as the downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine, killing all 259 people aboard. Ukraine said the plane was brought down by a heavy Soviet-era air-to-ground missile.
On Wednesday, Obama imposed sanctions on some of Russia's biggest firms for the first time, striking at the heart of Russian President Vladimir Putin's power base by targeting companies closest to him. The ban included eight arms firms.
Dunford said the 88 Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters had been purchased for the Afghan air force, with the last deliveries expected this year. Thirty of the helicopters will go to Afghan special operations forces for counterterrorism and counter-narcotics operations, he said.
"Without the operational reach of the Mi-17, the Afghan forces will not be successful in providing security and stability in Afghanistan and will not be an effective counterterrorism partner," said Dunford, who has been nominated by Obama to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps.
He also said the decision to reduce the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan to 9,800 by the end of the year was partly based on the assumption that Afghans would be equipped to provide some security to the remaining U.S. and coalition forces.
"Their ability to do that would be significantly degraded without the Mi-17," Dunford said, adding it would have a "catastrophic" effect.
"The reason I used the word 'catastrophic,' which I don't think is hyperbole, is because the inability of the Afghans to have the operational reach represented by the Mi-17 will seriously deteriorate their ability to take the fight to the enemy," the general told lawmakers
"Their inability to take the fight to the enemy actually will put young Americans in harm's way in 2015 and beyond," Dunford said.
Many U.S. lawmakers, concerned about Russia's involvement in Syria and later Ukraine, have strongly opposed the military's decision to buy Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan air forces from Rosoboronexport, the state-owned Russian arms exporter.
Defense officials say the Mi-17 is the best choice for Afghanistan because it handles the climate and terrain well and Afghan pilots, air crews and maintenance workers have dealt with the aircraft since the 1980s.
Shifting to more sophisticated U.S. helicopters would require retraining pilots and maintenance workers, delaying the effort to build Afghanistan's air capacity by several years, officials say.
Rosoboronexport has so far not been sanctioned by Washington over the Ukraine crisis, but senators who oppose the helicopter deal have included language in this year's defense policy bill that would prevent Pentagon dealings with the firm.
Dunford said that while the helicopters already had been bought, the law would make it hard to buy spare parts to maintain the aircraft. He said he had been able to find no way to maintain the helicopters without dealing with Rosoboronexport.
"My assessment is that that would not be possible," he said.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey)