To Russia with love, P2-B downpayment

THIRD EYE - Ramon J. Farolan - The Philippine Star

Congratulations to Maj. General Rowen S. Tolentino on his assumption of command as superintendent of the Philippine Military Academy. In accordance with the new retirement law, RA 11709, he shall serve for four years with the rank of Lt. General, a tour of duty longer than that of the AFP chief of staff. Tolentino was formerly commander of the 2nd Infantry Division and is a member of PMA class 1989.

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Last July, former defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that in June 2022, the last month of the Duterte administration, he cancelled a P12.7-billion deal to acquire 16 MI-17 multi-purpose helicopters from Russia. The transaction was signed in November 2021, and a down payment of P2 billion was made in January of 2022 with the expected delivery of the first batch in two years. In justifying the last-minute cancellation, Lorenzana explained that the purchase of Russian military aircraft could have led to US sanctions under a 2017 law “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA).

Well, well, but didn’t we know when we were negotiating with the Russians in 2020 or 2021 that we ran the risk of sanctions under the above-mentioned US law? Or, could it have been a case of incomplete staff work that president Fidel Ramos would have returned to the office of origin with a sharp notation using his red-tipped pen? Hard to believe though!

As late as March this year, Lorenzana was saying that the deal was on after down payment was made. Then, shortly after, the whole deal was cancelled just days before Lorenzana left office. These events make the transaction intriguing, to say the least. Some naughty folks call it a “midnight deal” costing the Filipino taxpayer P2 billion.

Let me share with our readers some interesting notes on the Russian transaction. First of all, the United States is the largest arms exporter in the world, with 38.6 percent of the market. Russia is the second largest with 18.6 percent. Its main exports are aircraft, engines and missiles.

The MI-17 medium transport helicopter is one of its bestsellers, considering its proven dependability in combat under rugged conditions. It can be used for combat, search and rescue, medevac, with a medium lift capability. It is used by over 70 air units around the world. Today it forms the backbone of the Russian Army aviation transport force. It also costs $16 million to $18 million each, making it less expensive than others in the same class.

The CAATSA is a US law passed in 2017 aimed at countering Iran, Russia and North Korea specifically, by imposing sanctions on countries that deal with them. Thus, we could be sanctioned for activities concerning transactions with Russia, such as the proposed purchase of the MI-17 helicopters.

Fear of sanctions has not always led to non-acquisition of Russian military hardware. India has acquired the Russian S-400 air defense system without being sanctioned. The only explanation is that India is an important and powerful partner of the United States. On the other hand, Indonesia recently cancelled plans to buy Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 multi-role fighter jets, and opted instead to purchase the French-made Dassault fighter.

The application of CAATSA can therefore be seen as one on a case-to-case basis, and the use of sanctions can actually backfire. For instance, Vietnam is increasingly assertive and refuses to tie itself to any single power that could compromise its strategic autonomy.

Apparently, we are not the only ones interested in the MI-17. The United States actually bought a number of MI-17 helicopters from Russian state-owned arms exporters for the purpose of turning them over to the Afghan Air Force, before the Taliban took over. However, with the swift victory of the Taliban, those same helicopters are instead being transferred from an Arizona air base to Ukraine for use by its pilots in the war against Russia.

Perhaps, this is what Lorenzana meant about a possible similar arrangement being made that would allow the Philippine Air Force to acquire the helicopters from the United States.

Of course, what remains puzzling is why everything was cancelled after the P2-billion down payment was made. With the Ukraine conflict still ongoing, who could possibly be thinking of making refunds when every ruble is needed for the war effort?

This episode brings to mind another arms deal  that, for different reasons, did not push through. Some years ago, we were buying 27,000 M-4 assault rifles for the Philippine National Police from the United States. The sale was blocked by the US Congress for alleged human rights violations, citing the growing number of extrajudicial killings being reported in media. While it is true that there had been numerous killings of this nature that remained unsolved, let us look at how the United States treats its other allies who are also accused of violating international norms of conduct as regards human rights.

Check with Amnesty International or other similar organizations on the human rights record of Egypt. You will find the situation there to be one of the most oppressive in the region, with thousands of victims dead, missing or being held in prison without trial under the most difficult circumstances. Egypt continues to be one of the largest beneficiaries of foreign aid from the United States, second only to Israel.

We buy arms from the United States, the Congress blocks the sale. We buy helicopters from Russia; we face sanctions from the United States. That is what happens when one is a client state of a powerful nation. Unless we develop and sustain a respectable degree of self-reliance and strength, our situation shall never change.


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