Associated Press Exclusive: Philippines cancels Russian helicopter deal

Philippine officials said the Philippine government has canceled a deal to buy 16 Russian military transport helicopters due to concerns about possible US sanctions.

Former Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Tuesday night that he canceled a 12.7 billion pesos ($227 million) deal to buy Mi-17 helicopters in a decision last month approved by then-President Rodrigo Duterte before their terms expired in June. 30.

“We may face sanctions,” Lorenzana told the Associated Press, describing ways Washington could express its displeasure if the Philippines go ahead with the deal because of the deepening U.S. conflict with Russia.

He said US security officials were aware of Manila’s decision and could provide similar heavy helicopters for Philippine military use.

After serving as defense minister under Duterte, Lorenzana was appointed by new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to head a government agency responsible for converting former military bases into commercial hubs.

Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez told The Associated Press that the deal was canceled because Manila could face potential sanctions under a US federal law called the Countering America’s Enemies Through Sanctions Act if the helicopter deal is concluded.

A Philippine military official said the helicopter deal would be subject to a “termination process” after the decision to cancel was made because the contract had already been signed. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authority to discuss the issue publicly, said the Russians could appeal, but there was little room for the Philippine government to reconsider.

Under the helicopter purchase agreement, signed in November, the first batch of multi-purpose helicopters was scheduled to be delivered by the Russian company SoftknoExport in about two years.

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Asked in March whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would affect the purchase, Lorenzana told reporters, “We don’t see any possibility of it being canceled as of this moment” and added that “only time will tell.”

Lorenzana said at the time that the Philippines made an initial payment in January. It was not immediately clear what would happen to the payment after the Philippines decided to back out of the deal.

Philippine officials said the Russian-made helicopters could have been used in combat, search and rescue and medical evacuation operations in the Southeast Asian archipelago, which is often hit by typhoons and other natural disasters.

In March, the Philippines voted “yes” to a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate halt to Moscow’s attack on Ukraine and the withdrawal of all Russian forces. It condemned the invasion and echoed the appeal of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to respect the humanitarian principles to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

Duterte expressed concern about the global impact of the Russian invasion but did not condemn it personally. While in office, he forged close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once called him his “idol,” and Chinese leader Xi Jinping while frequently criticizing US security policies.

The Philippines is a treaty ally of Washington, which has imposed severe sanctions aimed at pressuring Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine.

The Russian helicopter deal was among several arms purchase agreements signed during Duterte’s final months in office.

Last February, Lorenzana signed a 32 billion pesos ($571 million) deal to buy 32 S-70i Black Hawk helicopters from Poland-based aerospace company PZL Mielec. It was the largest contract to purchase military aircraft signed under Duterte, Philippine defense officials said.

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Due to financial constraints, the Philippines has struggled for years to modernize its army, one of the most underfunded regions in Asia, to deal with decades of Islamist and communist insurgencies and defend its territory in the disputed South China Sea.

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