U.S. May Rue the Day It Won Viktor Bout Tug of War With Russia

Viktor BoutAfter spending more than two years in a Southeast Asian prison cell, international arms-trafficker and so-called “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout faces imminent extradition to the United States. Last Tuesday, Thailand’s Criminal Court dismissed charges of money laundering and fraud leveled against the infamous “Lord of War” in Bangkok, all but clearing the way for his eventual hand-off to American authorities. Prosecutors here eagerly await his arrival, where they plan to try Bout for conspiracy to kill Americans, and a handful of other terrorism-related charges.

Bout has become something of a flashpoint in US-Russian affairs of late. While Washington has made the arms dealer’s extradition to US soil a matter of priority, Moscow has just as vehemently demanded his release. Bout, a former Soviet air force officer with deep ties to Moscow, is widely believed to possess intimate knowledge of Russian military intelligence, secrets that might be revealed during trial. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled the importance Moscow places on Bout’s future by publicly announcing his personal commitment to securing the arms dealer’s return to Russia, a vow that to this point has been brushed aside by US authorities. But Vladimir Kozin, a high-ranking member of the Russian foreign ministry, has underscored the Russian position, warning that American hopes of a “reset” with Moscow will simply not take place if Bout lands in the States.

Yet any fears Moscow may harbor could prove negligible when compared with the anxiety being experienced in certain quarters of Washington’s Beltway. As it turns out, Bout’s extensive resume includes dealings not only with international bogeymen like Charles Taylor, the Taliban, and Colombia’s narcotrafficking FARC, but also with the United Nations and George W. Bush. This inconvenient fact could provoke conflict between federal lawyers intent on bringing Bout to justice and a Pentagon determined to protect its own.

In the grand scheme of international arms dealing, Bout is a bit player. As FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan notes, “the global arms trade is a $60 billion yearly enterprise,” the great majority of which is controlled licitly by states. Businessmen like Bout are nothing more than “shadowy actors that play on the margins.” Hugh Griffiths, a small-arms expert with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, concurs, adding that he’s a dime-a-dozen actor on the international stage. “There are thirty to forty other individuals just like Viktor Bout.”

Yet the media attention devoted to Bout’s case is not without merit. Beyond the cinematic quality of Bout’s personal story, the trafficker’s case offers insight into the poorly understood intersections between nation-states and criminal markets. The fact that Bout enjoys personal ties both with leaders in the Global South as well as superpower political elites in the North demonstrates the tightness with which formal actors in the global arena are bound to organized crime.

The Lord of War’s story is itself incredible, bearing all the hallmarks of a Hollywood action flick. Originally hailing from Tajikistan, Bout established himself early within the Soviet military as an aircraft pilot and skilled linguist. He was deployed frequently to Africa during the 1980s as a translator, experiences that laid the groundwork for his dealings on the continent a decade later, feeding arms to rival factions battling for natural resources and state power. Bout emerged from the wreckage of Soviet collapse well-connected and eager to make money. Der Spiegel charts the early years in its extensive six-part investigation into the Bout affair:

Unused aircraft stood idle on the tarmac at the waning superpower’s airports, and unsold weapons were piled high in the country’s weapons factories. The enterprising Bout purchased—with the help of military intelligence, some claim—three old Antonov cargo planes for the ridiculously low price of $40,000 apiece…There was no shortage of pilots…during those months of turmoil [and] Bout was clever enough to register his fleet, which soon grew to four dozen aircraft, in obscure countries…like Equatorial Guinea and Central African Republic.

Soon, Bout was running everything from guns to flowers, and even UN peacekeepers, to spots as far-flung as Somalia, Congo, Colombia, Iran and North Korea. In return, Bout received cash and, at least in his dealings with Charles Taylor, looted diamonds from Sierra Leone.

But his high-flying adventures through the world’s top shelf warzones took an unexpected turn following 9/11. As Washington allowed its attention to wander from Afghanistan to the Middle East, the US government began subcontracting Bout to supply its war effort in Iraq. According to Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, authors of Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible, Bout was awarded $60 million in American contracts between 2003 and 2004, flying over 1,000 missions to the Middle East on behalf of the US government. Der Spiegel reports that:

To this day, it remains unclear whether the collaboration [between Washington and Bout] was the result of sloppy work on the part of US officials or whether Washington knew who was the owner of Irbis air…It is clear, however, that Bout’s aircraft were subcontracted to the US Air Mobility Command, as well as to defense contractor KBR, a company owned by the Halliburton conglomerate [of which] then-US Vice President Dick Cheney was the CEO…until 2000.

Whatever the truth, Bout was cut off from American funding in 2005, and busted by DEA agents posing as FARC guerillas two years later in Thailand. Why the sudden change of heart? “Bout was caught because he pissed off the Americans” by selling weapons to the Taliban, small arms expert Michael Ashkenazi told Deutsche Welle, “not because anyone thought he was a bad guy. Everyone knew he was a bad guy, but suddenly he stepped on the wrong toes.”

The Bush administration’s willingness to enrich a man who actively undermined American security will surely complicate proceedings once Bout lands in an American courthouse. It’s interesting to note that American prosecutors have thus far refused to expand their charges against Bout beyond his alleged dealings with the FARC. Some observers point out that evidence establishing Bout’s international exploits is flimsy, and thus the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been forced to pursue a narrow line of inquiry. But the indictment also raises questions about what, if any, pressure the Pentagon has put on the DOJ to prevent embarrassing revelations of its own complicity with the globe-trotting salesman. Brian Johnston-Thomas, a former UN arms trafficking expert, believes American authorities will take pains to prevent Bout from letting slip his connections to the United States government. “It’s unlikely that his defense team will be able to bring into evidence that he has on occasion been of assistance both to the Pentagon and to other NATO countries.”

Regardless of whether specific individuals from the former or current presidential administrations are implicated in the “Merchant of Death” affair, Bout’s appearance in the United States will offer hopeful possibilities for public deliberation. The wheels of a UN-sponsored international arms trade agreement have been slowly churning since 2008, and are set to produce a complete treaty by 2012. While the terms of negotiation will likely focus on big-ticket weapons production, the Bout case offers Washington the chance to focus on small-time dealers who nevertheless wield gigantic influence in world affairs. Particularly, if the United States is serious about combating the Viktor Bouts of the world, it must reckon with what, exactly, it’s willing to do in the name of fighting terror and—perhaps more importantly—with whom.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.