After two years of diplomatic wrangling between Washington, Moscow and Bangkok, Thailand finally extradited Viktor Bout, a Russian national and suspected arms dealer, to the United States. The US Drug Enforcement Agency nabbed Bout, affectionately referred to in the press as the “merchant of death,” in a sting operation in Bangkok in 2008 for allegedly offering to supply the Colombian terrorist group FARC with surface-to-air missiles (the men he thought were FARC representatives were actually undercover agents). Bout pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court last Wednesday.
But his detention and extradition have riled both Russian officials and the public. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, called the extradition an “extreme injustice” and “a consequence of unprecedented political pressure exerted by the U.S. on the government and judicial authorities of Thailand.” Commentators are debating in Russian newspapers whether to “punish” Thailand for abiding by the extradition request. In 2008 the Russian Duma even passed a resolution calling for his release, prior to his extradition. As Jackson Diehl at the Washington Post pointed out, “You’d think that the Obama administration had kidnapped a national hero.”
Why is that? Why are the Russian authorities sticking up for a man who was censured by the UN for supplying weapons to the former Liberian dictator and accused war criminal Charles Taylor (among others)?
Many observers, like Bout’s biographer Douglas Farah, believe he has close ties with many high-ranking Kremlin officials including Vladimir Putin’s deputy, Igor Sechin. It is no surprise, then, that officials in Moscow are worried about what information may surface as a result of Bout’s trial (or worse, co-operation with the U.S. government). As one reader of the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda put it on the paper’s website: “It’s clear that at the very top in Russia they’re worried that Bout will begin to give up high-ranking officials. And it’s obvious that he ‘worked’ with their consent.”
Second, some Russians may see the Victor Bout case as a conspiracy, as many interpreted the spy-ring scandal earlier this year. In July, at the peak of the Russian “sleeper agent” scandal, the Levada Center – an independent survey research organization in Russia – asked its respondents: “What do you think, did the FBI really track Russian ‘spies’ or is it a provocation by American security services, aimed at undermining relations between the United States and Russia?” Only 10% responded “Yes, the FBI really tracked Russian spies,” while 53% thought it was a specially-crafted provocation.
So it should come as no surprise that State Duma deputy Mikhail Grishankov recently described Bout’s arrest to RT by saying, “Judging by the information available to us, this was purely a provocation by security services.”
RT is pushing at least three additional conspiracy theories. The first argues that “Neocons” want to derail the New-START treaty. The second theory, more creative, claims that the former U.S. Attorney who indicted Bout “has his own odd relationships with the U.S. small arms industry” – implying, without any supporting evidence, that the prosecutor stood to gain from Bout’s arrest. The third is that Bout “crossed” the CIA by stealing trafficking business from the agency in Africa.
No polling on Bout’s case has been released, but in what may be a sign of the public’s attitude practically all Russian news sources refer to the accused as “businessman” Viktor Bout (compare this to “alleged arms dealer” or “suspected weapons trafficker” in most U.S. sources).
Further, many Russians may fail to recognize the U.S.’ grievance with Viktor Bout. The original March 2008 indictment against Bout charged him with conspiracy to kill United States nationals and conspiracy to kill United States officers or employees. This was based on statements he made during the sting operation that “FARC’s fight against the United States was also his fight.”
Two other charges were included in that indictment – conspiracy to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. A subsequent indictment from February 2010 added nine additional charges relating to money laundering and wire fraud.
But in this tangle of accusations, it is hard for Russians to see how the US was wronged. Another commenter at Komsomolskaya Pravda represents this view well: “The supply of weapons to FARC was carried out by Bout for profit and not ‘with the purpose of killing citizens and officials of the US’… So where in this is a ‘conspiracy against the US’? Rather, it’s a ‘conspiracy against Colombia’.”
And finally, to many Russians the whole situation reeks of hypocrisy. The newspaper Pravda asked a number of politicians and political scientists to address the question, “What do the Americans want and how will the Bout affair affect our relations?” Maksim Shevchenko, a member of the Russian Civic Chamber, responded: “So, they accuse Bout of illegal traffic in arms – they, those same Americans, who are first in selling [weapons] in the world!” Meanwhile Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy, struck a similar tone: “With this the Americans are openly demonstrating that they want to strictly control the the sale of weapons.”
Stay tuned for the next hearing on January 11, 2011. Bout’s trial may feature Kremlin intrigue, blood diamonds, shell companies and connections to the Taliban. Unless, of course, its all a provocation.
This image is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.