The Other Tug Of War With Russia: Viktor Bout

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Add another complication to the tangle of relations–with a happy face–that is the U.S.-Russian relationship. It does not concern nuclear weapons, Iran, missile defense, Saakashvili’s Georgia or even Vladamir Putin’s creepy penchant for baring his pecs. Rather the dispute centers around an alleged criminal, whom Russia authorities seem intent on protecting from prosecution.

Viktor Bout, a renegade Russian arms trafficker, known at various times, with multiple passports, as a the “Merchant of Death” and the “Lord of War,” was captured in March of 2008 in Thailand in a sting that involved U.S. agents posing as Colombian guerrillas. Bout had long been known as one of the most brazen arms traffickers to some of the worlds bloodiest conflicts–in Angola and Liberia, Afghanistan and Columbia, and many others. He had been blacklisted by the United States Treasury Department and singled out by the United Nations. (I have also reported on a major embarrassment that tied Bout to the Bush Administration: companies tied to Bout did cargo shipping for the Pentagon in Iraq.)

But Thailand has so far refused to extradite Bout to the United States for trial. Even more alarming, the Russian government is seeking to bring Bout back to Moscow. For decades, Bout has also long been suspected of having friends in high places in Russia, which protected Bout long after he became an international fugitive. Peter Landesman, writing in the New York Times in 2003, summed up the situation well, after meeting an unidentified source in Moscow:

He said to imagine the structure of arms trafficking in Russia like a mushroom. Bout was among those in the mushroom’s cap, which we can see. The stalk is made up of the men who are really running things in Russia and making decisions. Looking from above, he said, you never see the stalk.

Earlier, in Kiev, Grigory Omelchenko, the former chief of Ukrainian counterintelligence, had said that traffickers like Bout are either protected or killed. ”There’s total state control.” Said E.J. Hogendoorn, the former U.N. arms investigator: ”There was the sense that there were bigger and murkier forces involved in this. Bout’s being protected by highly influential people.”

And so it continues. For their part, Hillary Clinton and the Obama Administration are refusing to let the Bout issue drop. Quite the contrary, they are making it a central fact in U.S. relations with Thailand. According to the Associated Press:

A senior U.S. Justice Department official on Tuesday told Thai officials the extradition of suspected arms dealer Viktor Bout is “a matter of great importance to the United States.”

U.S. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden told reporters he was “disappointed” by the decision of a Thai lower court in August to reject a U.S. extradition request for the Russian and was hopeful an appeals court would rule to extradite him.

For his part, Bout continues to maintain his innocence, and complain about his confinement. His wife, Alla, has said that Bout’s detention in Thailand is “probably worse than Guantanamo.” “This is like medieval times,” she said, speaking through a translator. “At first, I cried. But now I’m used to this atrocity.”

If we are going to talk about human rights, it might be good to note the United Nation’s conclusions about Bout’s roles in the wars in Angola and Liberia. As the United Nations concluded in 2000:

Landing heavy cargo planes with illicit cargoes in war conditions and breaking international embargoes such as the one on Angola requires more than individual effort. It takes an internationally organized network of individuals, well funded, well connected and well versed in brokering and logistics, with the ability to move illicit cargo around the world without raising the suspicions of the law or with the ability to deal with obstacles. One organization, headed, or at least to all appearances outwardly controlled by an Eastern European, Victor Bout, is such an organization.

To learn more, see this report by PBS’s Frontline.