Russian sale of attack helicopters to Syria endangers trade deal

The passage of trade legislation with Russia has been jeopardized by the revelation that the Kremlin is arming the Syrian government with attack helicopters.

The Obama administration and business groups say U.S. exporters will suffer unless Congress passes legislation to establish normal trade ties with Russia when it joins the World Trade Organization (WTO) this summer. 

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Lawmakers who were wary of losing one of their few levers of influence over Russia had vowed to link the trade deal with legislation penalizing Russian human-rights violators with travel and financial restrictions. But now, in the wake of the arms shipments to Syria, even that might not be enough to win their support.

“Just because we want to give U.S. businesses the advantages that come from Russia joining WTO does not mean that we are going to ignore this issue,” said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the former chairman of the House tax and trade panel and a co-sponsor of the human-rights bill. “It will make it harder for the U.S. to establish normal trade relations with Russia.”

Russia says it’s merely respecting existing contracts with the Syria sale, but observers on the ground say President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are using helicopters to shoot at rebel forces and civilians.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a longtime Russia hard-liner, said Congress should scrap the trade bill entirely.

“In light of Russia’s policy in Syria, the Obama administration’s string of concessions to Moscow must stop, including the latest effort to … give Russia preferential trade benefits,” she said in statement after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first raised the helicopter allegations on Tuesday.



Others have expressed similar concern.


“I think it’s important to establish that we expect certain standards of conduct from countries that we grant PNTR [permanent normal trade relations] to,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the top Republican on the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade. “I would like to do PNTR, but I’d like to do it under the right circumstances.”

Hatch is one of eight committee Republicans who signed a letter to committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) on Tuesday warning that the panel will have to “satisfactorily address” the arms issue “if Congress is to successfully navigate a path toward granting PNTR to Russia.”

And Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a freshman mentioned as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney, on Wednesday said President Obama should “take a very, very hard line” with his counterpart Vladimir Putin when they meet at the G-20 summit in Mexico next week.

Obama, Ayotte told MSNBC, should “be very clear to him that we are not going to accept Russia sending arms to Syria and there are going to be grave consequences to our relationship if they continue.”

The flare-up comes as relations with Russia are already strained over a proposed European missile defense shield, the 2008 war in Georgia and other issues. 

In another sign of increased tensions, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is blocking the confirmation of the Army’s new acquisition chief over the Pentagon’s relationship with a Russian defense firm that is supplying weapons and support to Syria and Iran.

Some of Russia’s toughest critics acknowledge the United States has more to gain than to lose by granting normal trade ties. Asked if the trade bill should have language related to Syria in it, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Hill, “I would not think that would be the case.

“I don’t know how exactly you punish Russia. It calls for us to start looking at Russia from a more realistic viewpoint, and stop pushing the reset button.”

Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the Senate sponsor of the human-rights bill, told The Hill the trade deal should still move forward.

“The actions of Russia of late have made it more difficult to look at more normal relations between the United States and Russia — that’s understandable,” he said. But the human-rights bill, he said, will still signal U.S. disappointment.

John Engler, president of the pro-trade-deal Business Roundtable, said he’s seen “very little pushback” and remains optimistic Congress will pass a bill before the August recess.

— Erik Wasson and Bernie Becker contributed to this report.