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Analysis & Opinion
18.11.10 Arms Secret Dealer
By Tom Balmforth

Alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout pleaded not guilty on Thursday and claimed that the Americans tried to coerce him into making a full confession on his flight from Thailand to New York, as Russia continues to fume over its citizen’s extradition. Moscow claims that Bangkok broke international law by handing over Bout to the Americans, who exerted political pressure on the Thais. But analysts say Russia’s noisy opposition to Bout’s extradition could show that it wants to keep a lid on the secrets he knows. The alleged gun-runner who inspired the Hollywood thriller “Lord of War” continues to grip the world, but what are the larger stakes in his extradition?

Bout was arrested in 2008 in a Bangkok hotel in a sting operation, where undercover U.S. agents posed as terrorists from Columbia’s FARC to whom Bout apparently tried to sell stinger missiles and an arsenal of colossal firepower. For two and a half years while Bout languished in a Thai prison, Bangkok found itself at the center of a superpower tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow, both of which sought for him to be handed over.

Spectacular rumors circulate in Thailand’s capital that Russia tried to coax Thailand’s favor with cheap oil, while the United States tried – somewhat ironically – to offer military hardware in return for his extradition, the New York Times reported. The bureaucratic and diplomatic deadlock appeared insurmountable even after Bout’s extradition was approved in a Thai court late August.

Still, on Tuesday Viktor Bout was abruptly whisked away by the Americans and by Wednesday he had been charged with involvement in a staggering global arms trafficking network, trying to sell weapons and putting American nationals at risk.

Moscow is still fuming over his extradition. “It is deeply regrettable that the Thai authorities succumbed to political pressure from outside and carried out the illegal extradition of Viktor Bout,” laments a Russian Foreign Ministry statement. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s spritely lapdog, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, called for diplomatic relations with Thailand to be severed.

Today Bout pleaded not guilty. On his Web site, the ex-Soviet pilot describes himself as a “dynamic” and “spontaneous” Russian businessman who has simply fallen foul of “fictitious tales and stories.”

So why are the Russians so angry? “Of course, Russia has reason to be offended,” said Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Analysis. “They didn’t even tell his wife, his lawyers or the Russians officially before they flew him hurriedly and secretly to America. But I think that will pass. There is reason to suspect that the Americans had information that providing security for Bout in a Thai jail would have been extremely difficult.” It is widely assumed that Bout’s line of work brought him intimately close to secrets linked to the world of the illegal arms trade, which could explain Russia’s spirited defense of Bout, say analysts.

“There are two reasons why the Russians are defiant: one official, one unofficial,” said Alexander Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information. The first and official explanation is that Russia traditionally does its utmost to protect its citizens. “The second, unofficial reason is that, most likely, Bout has information about the illegal arms trade involving the Russian special services. And there is no doubt that this information will be extracted from him.”

Many theories on Bout’s shady connections are pinned on a report by Stratfor, a conservative U.S. intelligence think tank, which links Bout with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, said to be the second most powerful person in Russia. According to the report, Sechin served as a military translator in Mozambique and Angola in the late 1980s, when Bout arrived in Africa. Many speculate that Bout was working for the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence, where Sechin is supposed to have worked. When contacted, Stratfor declined to expand on the veracity or sources for these links. But these links continue to circulate.

Journalist Yulia Latynina in August joined the dots in a characteristically provocative piece for The Moscow Times, arguing that the colossal scale of Bout’s proposed deal with FARC could only have been taken with the Russian state’s knowledge, and therefore also its backing, meaning someone from the top of the Russian political elite – read Sechin – gave the go-ahead to arming terrorists neighboring America, with much the same logic as the United States had when arming the Taliban against the Soviet Union.

Other commentators have become bored with journalists who see the world through Hollywood lenses. Writing for state-owned RIA Novosti, political commentator Dmitry Babich said that the Western press on Bout had become like an “echo chamber” where different publications simply quote each other, bringing nothing new to the story.

“I think that the connection between Sechin and Bout is a myth,” said Mukhin. “That is my personal opinion. I tried myself to find the possible connection between them but I didn’t find it,” he said. Nonetheless, the feeling among commentators is that Bout could not possibly have trafficked arms without high-level contacts. Although Mukhin was reluctant to mention specific names, he said Bout’s extradition represents a “dangerous” moment for Russia’s secret services agents who became caught up in the illegal arms trade.

But will the Bout saga hurt U.S.-Russian relations? This latest irritant comes at an awkward moment, with the new strategic arms reduction treaty not ratified and the Republicans’ comeback in the recent mid-term elections. Konovalov said there a two main ways the spat can develop, depending on whether Bout decides to cooperate with the Americans or the Russians. The former is likely, Konovalov said, because of the “considerable evidence” against him held by the Americans, which is enough to send him to prison for life. He therefore may decide to try and negotiate. In this eventuality, the impact on relations will depend on the nature of the secrets which come to light. “It all depends on how Bout worked. Was it on behalf of Russian government institutions, or was it separate corrupt, or less corrupt Russian bureaucrats? It’s one thing if it is Russia official, and another completely if it is corrupt civil servants.”

In the second version, “the Russian government could pile in huge money into Bout’s defense team and find the best lawyers to explain that Bout is not the devil that he has so far been portrayed as,” said Konovalov. But with Bout already immortalized in the Western press as the “Merchant of War,” this could be an uphill struggle, and Moscow may have to brace itself for some uncomfortable truths to come out.
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