BANGKOK - While Bangkok-based observers weigh the legal merits of extraditing
alleged Russian gunrunner Viktor Bout to the United States, a far more
important issue seems to have eluded the media: why is Washington so eager to
get its hands on Bout and why is Moscow doing everything in its power to
prevent that from happening?
Bout was caught in a sting operation in Bangkok in March 2008 when US Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, posing as representatives of the
Colombian narco-rebel movement Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia
(FARC), claimed that they wanted to buy a large consignment of weapons from
Notably there had been no other reports of Bout's alleged involvement in the
international arms trade since he reportedly
flew weapons from a base in the Middle East to virtually every conflict zone in
Africa during the 1990s and early 2000s. Russia claims that he is innocent of
the charges, insisting that he is just an ordinary businessman.
Underscoring that official claim, Vladimir Kozin, deputy director of the
information and press department at Russia's Foreign Ministry, wrote in the
Moscow Times on August 26 that Washington's attempts to extradite Bout "may
inevitably affect Russian-US relations to the detriment of the US effort to
So why then all the geopolitical fuss over Bout? One plausible answer was
ventured in another recent Moscow Times opinion piece by Yulia Latynina, host
of a political talk show on Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station. She pointed out
that Bout served in Mozambique in the 1980s, along with a man named Igor
Sechin, who today serves as Russia's deputy prime minister and who is widely
considered the second-most-important person in that country after Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin. The op-ed article was headlined "Bout, Sechin and a
According to a court statement by DEA special agent Robert Zachariasiewicz,
undercover agents in Bangkok were told that Bout had 100 Russian-made Igla
surface-to-air missiles available immediately. The DEA agents had advised Bout
that they needed anti-aircraft weapons to kill American pilots on anti-drug
missions in Colombia.
According to the same court documents submitted by the DEA, "Bout indicated
that he could supply the FARC with 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000
AK-47 firearms, millions of rounds of ammunition, various Russian spare parts
for rifles, anti-personnel mines and C-4 explosives, night-vision equipment,
'ultralight' airplanes, which could be outfitted with grenade launchers and
missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles, which have a range of 200 to 300
Latynina wrote in her article: "The delivery of 100 Russian anti-aircraft
missiles appears to be a government-sponsored program ... it is frightening to
consider what Bout could tell US authorities about who promised to provide him
with [those] 100 Russian anti-aircraft weapons."
Sechin is seven years older than Bout, and they both are linguists fluent in
Portuguese and French. Bout served under Sechin in the 1980s in
Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, when, officially, Sechin was an interpreter
with the then Soviet trade and diplomatic mission there. However, according to
http://rt.com website, "Some consider this to be the beginning of [Sechin's]
career at the KGB. He was allegedly the USSR's point man for weapons smuggling
to Latin America and the Middle East."
Douglas Farah, author of a controversial biography about Bout, pointed out in a
Foreign Policy article on August 20: "[Bout's] knowledge base, although he is
only 43 years old, goes back more than two decades and possibly extends to the
heart of the Russian campaigns around the globe."
If accurate, it could go a long way toward explaining why Russia doesn't want
to see him extradited to the US. And that may be what Washington wants more
than just to bust Bout for alleged gunrunning. Some suggest a plea-bargain
could be offered by the US whereby Bout would be treated leniently if he is
found guilty in exchange for sharing what he may know about any possible
Russian clandestine arms dealings.
Bout is not the only alleged global arms dealer in the US's sights. Syrian
millionaire and alleged arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar was arrested in Spain in
2007 in a similar sting operation organized by US authorities. He had also been
indicted on charges of seeking to sell weapons, including surface-to-air
missiles, to FARC. After a year of legal wrangling, al-Kassar was eventually
extradited to the US.
In September 2006, Indonesian arms dealer Hadja Subandi and a group of Sri
Lankan and Singaporean associates were arrested in a sting on the Pacific
Island of Guam, a US territory. They were accused of trying to sell US$900,000
worth of surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weaponry to the Sri
Lankan separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group.
It has been clear for more than a decade that Western security services have
been concerned over the proliferation of man-portable air defense systems, or
MANPADS, including the shoulder-launched Igla surface-to-air missiles Bout was
allegedly trying to sell to the FARC. The US has been more active than any
other country in trying to secure stocks of these missiles, persuading
governments to destroy obsolescent stocks while cracking down on arms merchants
dealing in them and identifying the actual suppliers of such weapons.
"When you have al-Kassar in 2007 and Viktor Bout in 2008 caught in strikingly
similar sting operations, a pattern clearly emerges,” says Anthony Davis, a
security analyst with IHS-Jane's, a military information group. That pattern is
precisely why the US is on a collision course with Russia, where many
surface-to-air missiles are manufactured and from where they later somehow find
their way onto black markets. China is another, even more important, source of
surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weaponry that is bought and
sold on underground international markets.
Bout was in prison in Bangkok when Thailand was shaken by another incident
involving Russian arms traders. A Russian-made Il-76 was impounded on December
12, 2009, in Bangkok with 35 tonnes of weapons on board. The plane had flown
from North Korea and was on its way to Iran, and according to Latynina the
shipment was allegedly "owned by a firm controlled by Bout".
Bout could not possibly have organized arms shipments to anywhere while in
prison. However, Latynina traced the ownership of the plane to Air West
Georgia, which does have its registered address in the former Soviet republic
of Georgia but whose actual location is at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow. According
to Latynina, Air West is also listed in the business directory Gde24.ru as
being located "near the Okhotny Road metro station and just a stone's throw
from the Kremlin and the headquarters of [the KGB's successor agency] the
Federal Security Service on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad."
It is unlikely, however, that the ultimate destination for the
Russian-organized arms shipment from North Korea was Iran, which has its own
arsenal of relatively small weapons similar to those on the Il-76 plane. Iran
has for years armed the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon with weapons through its
Syrian allies. That Russian-made weapons may end up in the hands of Islamic
extremist groups is for the US a far more serious security concern than
deliveries to Columbia's FARC. The North Korean shipment is reported to have
included MANPADS of unknown origin.
According to security analyst Davis, the US and others are especially worried
about the black-market proliferation of Russia's 9K38 Igla, which the US
Department of Defense designates as SA-18, an improved version of the simpler
9K310 Igla-1, or SA-16 Gimlet. It is uncertain which kind of Igla Bout was
allegedly trying to sell to the undercover DEA agents in Bangkok, but the
SA-18, according to Davis, is capable of avoiding counter weapons carried on
If Hezbollah could access such weapons, it would be a serious concern for
Israel, a close US strategic ally. Even more alarmingly, if the Taliban or
al-Qaeda gained access to MANPADS of that degree of sophistication it would
raise even greater risks for the US and its allied forces in Iraq and
Thus, the main question remains: what does Bout know and would he be willing to
talk once he has been extradited to the United States? When this correspondent
met Bout in Bangkok's Remand Prison in June 2008, he was fiercely
anti-American, spewing anger at the US agents who had seemingly lured him into
the trap. Bout is known to be a strong nationalist and he might, if eventually
extradited to the US, prefer to be a Russian hero in a US jail than serve as a
turncoat source on Russia's clandestine arms business.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review and the author of Bloodbrothers: Crime, Business and Politics in
Asia. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.