Readers might have missed the verdict issued to a Russian arms dealer named Viktor Bout, the “The Merchant of Death. After being seized in Thailand, he was brought to New York in 2010, where he was tried for his efforts to sell arms — particularly weapons that could shoot down American helicopters, to Colombians. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years.
U.S. officials believe they rid the world of a dangerous individual. The reaction was different in Moscow. No sooner had Bout been sentenced than the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the trial “ungrounded” and “biased.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned the court’s action and said he would fight to have Bout extradited to Russia.
The Americans are convinced that Bout was in the process of providing individuals posing as FARC terrorists with what they thought were sophisticated weapons. No one denies that he was delivering Russian weapons. Russian reports indicate that in addition to surface-to-air missiles, he was offering 20,000 AK-47s, 20,000 rounds for grenade launchers, 740 mortars, 360 sniper rifles and 10 tons of C-4 explosives — all for $20 million.
What the Foreign Ministry’s involvement tells us is Bout is not an ordinary Russian who got himself in trouble. Another indication is Lavrov’s comment, “Bout is a topic that has regularly figured in our talks with the Americans over the last year. We are regularly pushing and calling for them to present a just approach to the case.”
A number of Russian citizens are in jails around the world, and the task of getting them freed is normally left to a low level consular officer. Why did the Foreign Ministry make Bout’s case such a high priority?
To begin with, Bout has been a member of the government. He was trained as a military officer and was a military adviser in Angola. Military advisers had close ties with the KGB until the U.S.S.R. collapsed. After that, Bout’s connections permitted him to create a private transportation company — one that included heavy cargo aircraft.
Bout was very good at selling weapons and quickly extended his services to most of the world’s hot spots. Importantly, he was able to obtain and sell a large volume of Soviet-era weaponry. He could never have pulled all of this off if he had not had good ties with the security segment of the Russian government.
That does not mean the government was directly involved in the sense that Moscow was telling him where and when to sell weapons. Rather, it means he was able to provide sufficient kickbacks to “friends” in Moscow to compensate for their assistance. Given the enormity of his operation, there is no doubt government officials were involved. After all, he was providing a wide range of weapons. All that Bout’s customers —including terror organizations — had to do was to pick up the phone and tell him what they needed and when. Once the price was set, Bout and his Russian colleagues ensured that the weapons were on their way — even if it meant “renting” some big Russian Air Force planes.
Bout is a gold mine of information on terror groups around the world. If he wants to talk, the FBI would be happy to listen. He also has countless secrets about the Russian arms trade. Such a discussion would involve key Russian officials and would expose the shadowy actions of a number of senior officials. Besides, what do the Russians have to trade for Bout? At present there isn’t an American of his importance in a Russian jail. The Russians could seize some American to trade, but that would be too obvious, and I doubt they’ll risk the publicity. Alternatively, they could offer some Russian sitting in jail for Bout.
The Russians want Bout back and if the United States frees him, he would probably be given a hero’s welcome back in Moscow. However, there is no sign that the United States has any intention of releasing him.
One Russian newspaper probably said it best when it noted, “The Bout case will remain on the U.S.-Russian agenda for a long time, although negotiations might eventually shift from public posturing to backroom deal making.” One certainty is that if the Obama administration continues our present policy, Bout’s return will come at a very high price for Russia.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.