Viktor Bout’s Big Secret

bout082010.jpgIt has long been a subject of wild speculation as to why the Russian government has lobbied to bring home the reputed arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is currently detained in Thailand and, according to a recent announcement, may in fact be extradited to the United States.

The former Russian Air Force officer has allegedly built quite the illustrious career in arms dealing, even inspiring a Hollywood dedication starring Nicolas Cage (I wouldn’t blame him for feeling insulted by the casting) based on a popular book.  Long suspected of formerly being involved in the KGB, Bout reportedly worked right alongside Igor Sechin in Angola and other locales in Africa, before branching out his business empire to the Middle East and Latin America.  Fluent in six different languages, Bout oversaw a vast underground shipping empire, eventually popping up on the U.S. radar after alleged dealings with the Charles Taylor regime in Liberia and arms supply to the civil conflict in the Congo.

Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 on an INTERPOL warrant after a four-year-long sting operation by the U.S. DEA, which involved agents posing as prospective buyers on behalf of the Colombian FARC.  However in the past two years, Thailand has hemmed and hawed regarding the extradition to the U.S. for trial or the repatriation back to Russia where he would apparently be set free, strung between competing diplomatic pressure from Washington and Moscow.  Bout has even launched his own website to decry his persecution, emphasizing that he is just “a born salesman with undying love for aviation and eternal drive to succeed.

Amnesty International has been on Bout’s case for close to a decade, citing him in this 2003 report:

Besides the “official” trade in weapons, there are a large numberof arms traffickers and brokers willing to supply arms to warringfactions across Africa. One example is the network operated byVictor Bout who, through his UAE based Air Cess Company, isreported to have delivered arms clandestinely to Angola, SierraLeone, Liberia and Congo and to have been paid in “conflictdiamonds” mined illegally. Much of the weaponry traded originatedin Russia, Central Asia and other Eastern European countries.Another example is the Zimbabwean company, Avient, with managementlinks to the UK, which was reported to have hired Russian aircraftand air crew to support the government of Laurent Kabila in theCongo with “air drops”, and also admitted to repairing andmaintaining Russian MIG fighters for the Kabilaregime.

Back in 2000 Amnesty also cited a UN investigation in Sierra Leone which had exposed arms-for-diamonds trading, issuing a call for “the immediate grounding for inspection of all aircraft suspectedof being used to ship arms and ammunition to rebel forces in SierraLeone, including aircraft operated by Russian businessman VictorBout, who is accused of arming the RUF and the Angolan armedopposition, UNITA.

In 2009, more than two dozen U.S. lawmakers additionally signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to press Thailand for the extradition of Bout, warning that Russia was applying negative pressure to disallow the extradition and set the so-called “Merchant of Death” free.

Russia is not at all happy with the idea of Bout being extradited to stand trial.  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has described the extradition as “political,” and emphasized “This decisionwas taken with very strong outside pressure, according to theinformation we have. This is sad.”  Over the years since his arrest, the Russian government has consistently argued in his favor, rejecting the U.S. case against him, and demanding that he be repatriated. 

There have been a wide range of suspected criminals who get into trouble abroad, but are welcomed home to Russia as folk heroes, from Andrei Lugovoi, Vitali Kaloyev, to mob boss Vyacheslav Ivankov.  However it appears much more difficult to make the popular case for Viktor Bout, and indeed the high-level state support for his release is much more perplexing.

In various interviews, author Douglas Farah has said that Russia’s interest in Bout stems from fears over what might be revealed during an open trial.  Bout is said to have cultivated very close ties with many Russian officials, allowing him to purchase a large fleet of aging aircraft, and maintain access to Russian weapons manufacturers as suppliers in his deals.  Farah has said that Russia offered Thailand everything from fighter jets to discounted oil and gas in exchange for Bout, which appeared to keep him in legal limbo for some time.

Mr. Lavrov is of course 100% correct that the extradition request is political.  The government of Thailand is currently in very poor standing internationally, following a violent crackdown on the Red Shirt protesters in April in May which resulted in more than 80 people being killed, inviting the censure of a wide range of human rights observers.  If there were ever a time for an unelected government to curry favor with Washington, the time is now.

But I am not convinced Bout had quite as much value to Russian officials as the conspiracy theorists would have us believe.  What is it, exactly, that could come out in the trial in the United States that would be so damaging?  Bout could name a few names, some people would be fired, and anything that went too high up the totem pole could be denied and buried (besides, he Bout had real leverage against anyone at these levels of power (Sechin, Chemezov, etc.), we can just assume that he would be persuaded not to talk about it).  For example, we did not see the Russian state go after the release of Bout as heavily as they did for Evgeny Adamov and Pavel Borodin, among others.  My sense is that if Bout has his connections in the Russian government, they just aren’t high enough or perhaps their clan is on the outs.  Lavrov may be complaining, but nobody looks too distraught.

Then again, they may also rest assured that that Washington wants to avoid these kind of conflicts even more than the Kremlin does in order to preserve the reset and coast into the next election boasting Russia as the key foreign policy success.  Judging by how the spy scandal was handled, it appears the Obama administration is taking on a “see no evil, hear no evil” doctrine in dealing with third party security threats like Bout.  It’s highly inconvenient to the administration, and we may see the case minimized, delayed, or somehow affected by the foreign policy agenda.

Although it is always very interesting to think of a highly secretive and connected Russian player going on record before a real court, at the end of the day it is somewhat irrelevant.  Where there is demand for these weapons, someone else will just jump in his shoes and fulfill the job unless authorities are actually able to target their pressure on the source.