The diplomatic tug of war between the United States and Russia over the fate of suspected international arms dealer Viktor Bout was won Tuesday by officials in Washington. For the past two years since his arrest in a US sting operation, Bout has languished in a Thai prison as Moscow and Washington sparred to control his fate. The United States has publicly pushed for his extradition to American soil where he will very likely be put on trial for conspiracy to kill Americans. Bout purportedly enjoys close ties to the upper echelons of power in Moscow which some believe has driven Russia to fight for his release in fear of what beans might be spilled about state secrets in an American courtroom.
Bout—known popularly as the “Lord of War”—was extradited Tuesday morning by Thai officials in a security operation worthy of the Secret Service. The New York Times gives a sense of the scope and scale of security measures taken to keep Bout alive for quick trip between the prison where the alleged “Merchant of Death” and the Bangkok’s international airport.
Two motorcades — one apparently a decoy — made the trip to the airport and shortly afterward an airport official confirmed that Mr. Bout had left on a chartered American aircraft. The Bangkok Post reported that about 50 police, including snipers, were at Don Muang airport to protect Mr. Bout. The 20-seat aircraft also carried two pilots and six officials from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
Bout will arrive in the United States, likely in New York, sometime Tuesday night.
Thailand’s last minute decision to ship Bout off to the States came as a huge relief to American officials. Thailand’s criminal court, which had opened the door for extradition in a ruling last month conditioned their decision by announcing that Bout had to be moved before November 20, or else set free. In the month since, Washington and Moscow have heavily lobbied the Thai government, with Russia being unusually visible in its proactive attempts to have Bout released. But authorities in Bangkok signed off on the suspected arms trafficker’s extradition early this morning, and state police wasted no time in putting Bout on a plane to the United States.
Russia was predictably upset. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the move as “an example of extreme injustice. We as a country,” Lavrov said, “will support him by all means.” The foreign minister also cast doubt on the independence of the Thai legal system, noting that Bangkok’s decision resulted from “unprecedented political pressure from the USA on the government and judicial authorities of Thailand.” For its part, American officials had no immediate comment, but a press conference to discuss the issue has been scheduled for tomorrow morning in New York.
The big question in the immediate term is what effect, if any, Bout’s extradition will have on recent efforts by both Washington and Moscow to “reset” US-Russian relations. Despite the angry posturing by the Russian foreign ministry, the Bout case is unlikely to single-handedly disrupt attempts by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to draw their countries closer on issues of common interest even as they push points of possible dispute to the sidelines. Renewed relations have successfully navigated some turbulence in recent months, not least of which, as the Telegraph points out, “a major spy scandal this summer that saw the FBI catch ten Russian agents did not spoil the party.” It’s hoped that the Bout situation will also not present a major speed bump to improved relations between the two powers.
For some, Bout’s extradition is not nearly so threatening to a US-Russia reset as the recently recalibrated US Congress. The Telegraph goes on to argue that “After Mr Obama’s Democrats fared badly in recent midterm elections, the fate of the new US-Russia nuclear pact or START, which needs to be ratified by the Senate, seems uncertain. If that falls, then the “reset” really will be in trouble.” Perhaps, but it isn’t just American lawmakers that could throw a wrench into the works.
Russia has recently exhibited an emerging block of reactionary legislators no less suspicious of the Obama White House than the US Congress is of their Cold War antagonists. Medvedev’s concessions to the Obama administration on anti-proliferation matters particularly have come under heavy fire from Russian lawmakers who argue that it represents of victory of American power over that of Russia. An irate Leonid Slutsky, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the Duma’s lower house, decried what he sees as clear US bullying. “The United States is now trying to dictate its position on the entire system of global politics and international relations. It is trying to somehow reintroduce a unipolar world.”
In this sense, the Bout case will likely bolster fears throughout various quarters in Moscow that Washington is intent on getting its way irrespective of Russian interests. It remains to be seen how well the Obama and Medvedev regimes handle this latest flashpoint in US-Russia relations. What is clear, however, is that in the face of a conservative resurgence in both countries, what otherwise could have been a minor nuisance in the management of foreign affairs suddenly may now take on greater dimensions, and further frustrate the maintenance of international security.
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.