Kremlin to Viktor Bout: Game Not Over

Posted April 25th, 2012 at 5:16 pm (UTC+0)
43 comments

As Viktor Bout starts his 25-year jail sentence in the United States, the question on the minds of movie goers worldwide is: will the convicted Russian arms merchant take a visit from Nicolas Cage?

In the 2005 Hollywood movie, Lord of War, the American actor played a Ukrainian-American arms dealer who made his fortune selling leftover Soviet weapons stocks to African warlords.

A prison meeting would be a bonanza for glossy entertainment magazines.

But it is not going to happen.

Why?

Because Bout, locked deep inside the American prison system, is still a player.

Why?

Because Bout, at aged 45, knows far too much for the Kremlin’s comfort.

On April 5, a New York judge imposed a 25-year sentence on Bout, the legal minimum, for conspiring to sell weapons to a US-designated terrorist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

A journalist friend was in the Manhattan courtroom. Back in Moscow, he tells me Bout “lost it,” verbally attacking the American agent in charge of the case.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents take Russian arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout from a chartered plane in New York on Nov. 16, 2010. After a two year extradition battle in Bangkok, Thailand, Bout was flown to U.S. to face terrorism charges: Photo: AP/Drug Enforcement Administration

Within hours, the Kremlin swung into action.
On a visit to Kazakhstan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced Bout’s trial and sentencing. A few days later, in Washington, he brought up Bout in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In Moscow, the Russian Duma’s International Affairs Committee voted unanimously to protest the conviction and vowed public hearings in May.

Russian trade union members and Kremlin support groups picketed the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Russia’s state-controlled television channels gave generous airtime to a courthouse interview with Bout’s wife, Alla, and to Bout’s post-sentencing video link interview from prison.

“It was not a trial, but an Inquisition-like act,” Bout said from New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center. “There is no evidence that I traded in weapons.”

Reviewing official Russia’s chorus of complaint, I am tempted to paraphrase Shakespeare’s classic line of suspicion in Hamlet: “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”

Alla Bout, wife of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, speaks to Russian TV and radio reporters following the sentencing of her husband in the U.S. Federal Court in New York on April 5, 2012. Bout, caught in an undercover sting by U.S. agents posing as Colombian guerrillas seeking weapons, was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a U.S. judge. Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

On one level, the Kremlin’s multi-level campaign has a target audience of one: Viktor Bout.

It is highly unlikely that Bout acted without official Russian approval in 2008, when he flew to Thailand, met with American agents posing as FARC agents, and offered prices, terms and delivery dates for 100 shoulder held anti-aircraft missiles.

As they might say in a 1930s gangster movie: “Don’t squeal, Bugsy. We’ll spring ya.”

Kremlin’s second target audience is the White House.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry now considers the Bout case “one of the priorities on the Russian-American agenda.” On May 7, Vladimir Putin returns to Russia’s presidency. His return is expected to bring a hyper-pragmatic approach to the West: every Russian “favor” has a price.

Presumably, the Russians are realistic enough to realize that there will be no horse trading over a Bout repatriation to Russia until the American presidential election is decided. Last month, an open microphone caught President Obama telling President Medvedev about missile defense: “After my election, I have more flexibility.”

If a Republican candidate (presumably Mitt Romney) wins in November, resistance may be high to trading Bout. The operation to entrap and arrest Bout in Thailand took place on the watch of the last Republican President, George W. Bush.

While some people in Moscow are debating what the Russians might trade for Bout, the key question is: what is Bout’s value to the Kremlin?

In this courtroom illustration Viktor Bout sits during sentencing in New York on April 5, 2012. At age 45, he faces 25 years in prison. What will the Kremlin offer to get him home? Drawing: Reuters/Jan Rosenberg

For this, I called Doug Farah, a friend and former competitor from our days covering Colombia in the 1990s for rival American newspapers. During our years in Colombia, Farah and I flew over Amazon jungles and Andean mountains in Colombian military aircraft. We know what a game changer it would be if the FARC got their hands on 100 shoulder-held, heat-seeking missiles.

After leaving Colombia, Farah authored with Stephen Braun in 2007 what is considered the definitive Bout book: “The Merchant of Death.”
Speaking from his home in the Washington area, Farah said that during the 1990s and early 2000s, Bout operated on the margins of the Russian power structure.

“If they had caught him in 2003-2004-2005, I doubt the Russian state would have reacted the same way,” Farah said, reviewing the Kremlin’s reaction to Bout’s sentencing. “Then around 2005, Putin imposed control on intelligence services. Bout goes from being an outside operator, from being a freelance operator, to being part of the system.”

In the past, Farah said, Bout would meet with an African warlord, take down his shopping list for Soviet equipment, and then say he would see what he could do. Farah said: “Bout never offered something he could not deliver.”

That changed, he said, by the time Bout met with Hezbollah guerrilla leaders in Lebanon in 2006. That meeting apparently led to the delivery of late Soviet-era anti-tank weapons and rocket propelled grenades. Hezbollah immediately used these weapons in the summer 2006 war with Israel.

The move from selling surplus stocks of AK-47 assault rifles to offering sophisticated late Soviet weaponry, such as shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles, came because Bout won official protection, says Farah, who is a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.

“Igor Sechin is his main guy, protecting him as he comes up,” said Farah, referring to a Russian Deputy Prime Minister seen as a right hand man to President-elect Putin.

Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin looks on as he attends a Cabinet meeting in Moscow. Sechin and Bout, both Soviet military translators in Portuguese-speaking Africa in the 1980s, say they have never met each other. Photo: AP/ Alexander Zemlianichenko

In his April 12 video link from jail, Bout explicitly denied any ties to the Kremlin.

“Let me say to the ladies and gentlemen who are trying to capitalize on my connections to the Kremlin, to Vladimir Putin or Igor Sechin: you need not pursue this,” Bout said to the Russian press from prison. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any contacts with the Kremlin, or with Putin, or with Sechin.”

Two weeks after Bout’s conviction in New York, Sechin made his first trip ever to the United States, traveling to New York. In the only interview with the American media on the trip, Sechin told The Wall Street Journal that he came to New York to promote American investment in developing Russia’s Arctic oil and gas reserves.

In the 1980s, Sechin worked in Mozambique, where his official Soviet post was Russian-Portuguese interpreter. Bout, believed to be fluent in six languages, was also a Russian-Portuguese military translator, apparently serving in Angola and Mozambique in the late 1980s.

To this day, Mozambique’s national flag is emblazoned with the image of an AK-47, a tribute to the crucial military aid that the Soviet Union gave its independence fighters in the 1970s and its government during a civil war in the 1980s.

Sechin and Bout have said they have never met.

Russian Arms dealer Victor Bout is processed after his arrest in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 8, 2008. Reflecting the value Washington put on Bout, then President George Bush raised the issue of Bout's extradition during a visit with then Prime Minister Samak Sundravei. Photo: AP/David Longstreath

If they were posted at the same time to the same southern African country, that is highly unlikely.

In the 1980s, I made repeated reporting trips to Angola and one to Mozambique. Soviet advisors were clannish and closed, partly because they stood out a mile away against the human landscape of black Africa.

(Toward the end, they opened up to other foreigners. I’ll never forget the evening in February 1989 when a Pravda correspondent gave me a ride in his Lada back to the Hotel Presidente, in Luanda. To my total shock, he volunteered to me his opinion that the Soviet Union was doomed.)

In recent years, Sechin has used his fluency in Spanish to become the Kremlin’s point man on Russia’s arms deals with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

His work bears fruit this year as Venezuela opens a Russia-licensed factory for production of AK-103 assault rifles, an upgraded model of the AK-47.

Regarding the internal violence in neighboring Colombia, Venezuela maintained an official policy of neutrality for the first four decades after the founding of the FARC, in 1964. But in 2002, President Chavez barely survived a coup attempt and the coup leader took refuge in the Colombian embassy in Caracas. After that, President Chavez started to secretly supply the FARC.

Farah said that some of Russia’s arms sales to Venezuela in the 2000s were diverted to Colombian guerrillas. Since Russia and Colombia maintain diplomatic relations, it would be impossible for Russia to openly ship guns directly to Colombia’s anti-government rebels.

“Bout knows a lot about the weapons gray market, about intel issues in Russia,” Farah said about arms trades that the Kremlin does not want to acknowledge. “There is a lot that he could say. And that makes them nervous.”

But then, Bout could also get nervous.

In the Lord of War movie, Nicolas Cage plays an arms dealer named Yuri Orlov.

In real life, a Russian businessman named Oleg Orlov was arrested in 2005 on suspicion of smuggling Soviet-era long-range missiles from Ukraine to Iran. Orlov is often described as an associate of Viktor Bout.

In 2007, the slow moving investigation of Orlov came to an abrupt end. Orlov was found strangled to death in prison in Kyiv.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

43 Responses to “Kremlin to Viktor Bout: Game Not Over”

  1. [...] and original article: http://blogs.voanews.com/russia-watch/2012/04/25/kremlin-to-viktor-bout-game-not-over/ This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink. ← Vice-president backs ways to [...]

  2. [...] Russia Watch: Kremlin to Viktor Bout: Game Not Over [...]

  3. John says:

    Thanks VOA – a very informative and interesting article on Bout. Bout should not have been surprised at the verdict because American juries might tend to be harsh about charges that include intent to kill Americans.

    If there IS prisoner horse-trading going on in a second Obama term, hopefully Bout could be exchanged for Khodorkosky/Lebedev or the three young women from Pussy Riot band, who will probably still be in jail if Patriarch Kirill has his way.

    By the way, a chilling intro theme-video of Lord of War, “The Life of a Bullet”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=herWQgQUTK8

  4. John says:

    Interesting coincidence that Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor just convicted today of crimes in Sierra Leone, including abetting murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers, sexual slavery and mining diamonds to pay for guns – and it was Bout who sold guns to Taylor. On Bout’s conviction, a Liberian newspaper commented that, “We are overwhelmed of the news that Victor Bout, Charles Taylor’s gun runner was this week sentenced to 25 years prison. This guy contributed towards the distruction of Liberia and its people during the nearly fifteen years of the country’s civil war; providing huge quantity of arms and amunitions to fuel Charles Taylor war.”

    (http://gnnliberia.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3246%3Aliberia-liberians-welcome-charles-taylors-gun-runner-victor-bout-25-years-sentence&catid=34%3Apolitics&Itemid=54)

  5. Manana Chkdaua says:

    I hope Russia will see that Victor Bout is send back to Russia. US did not prove its allegations as to arms dealing. In addition, it protected many of the proven major arms dealers. Actually, one of them, a French national, was dealing arms from his website while residing in Florida. As Victor Bout has no dealings in the US territory, US had no jurisdiction to try him in the first place. I hope Russia will see that he is re-united with his family. The whole trial was a circus. The jury selected for the trial was apparently border line retarded and openly admitted that they were unable to differentiate between Victor Bout and Nicolas Cage character in the movie “Lord of War”.And my had is spinning from all the books stories about Belgian arms dealer, Orlovs, FARC and have of them are CIA agents representing themselves as FARC. After Victor Bout arrest, real FARC actually did not go out of business but continue to use real arms dealers to supply it. All the charges should be dismissed and he should be freed.

    • Radman says:

      Does Manana think anyone will believe these silly statements? Or is Manana the one on the borderline, probably having trouble telling reality from fiction. Russia will probably see that he is returned. But I would take heavy odds that he ends up like Orlov – mysteriously killed once publicity goes down.

  6. Observer says:

    Victor is in a bad shape, either way. Its just business.

    Option 1.
    Ends up like Orlov, most likely.

    Option 2.
    Traded, dissapears, announced dead, while he is quietly “exported” under different name to another 3rd world country, with new life as nobody.

    Option 3.
    Gets swapped after couple years and then see Option 1 or 2.

  7. Larry Malasko says:

    Didn’t Bout delivered wapons to Iraq as a contractor for CIA. May be he was arrested to keep those transactions out of hands of Kremlin.

    • John says:

      Larry:

      Braun and Farah in their Merchant of Death text discuss Bout’s extensive and legal dealings with the US, NATO, and United Nations (to Sudan) where the shipments were as official contractor. Apparently, the attraction of using Bout’s air shipment service was that he was efficient and effective in getting shipments to the right place, on time, on budget. Not sure what you mean about “keeping the transactions out of the hands of the Kremlin”, but certainly possible that Bout had continuing and extensive ties with the government of Russia, including the FSB’s foreign branch, the SVR.

      However, after several years of pressure, including from independent, international human rights NGOs who had been tracking Bout’s illegal African-Mid-East shipments, and the blood-diamonds payments from Charles Taylor and other warlords, especially through airports that didn’t keep records of airplanes or shipments, such as in Sharjah, UAE (http://goo.gl/maps/JFGU).

      Changing airplane registrations are falsifying documentation are allegations yet to be proven in a court, but if Bout is released from his US prison through an exchange with Russia, the possibility exists that such charges might be brought against him, trapping him in Russia and keeping him away from his business.

      There are websites (including http://www.victorbout.com/) that address Viktor Bout from a perspective that treats him just as an honest entrepreneur doing business in risky regions, but they don’t appear to address sufficiently and objectively the US government charges, the concerns as purported by Braun and Farah, nor those of the NGOs.

  8. Kevin H says:

    How about all those US manufactured assault rifles being used down in Mexico’s own war?

  9. [...] it is thought to be impossible for Bout to carry out his work without acquiescence from Putin. But according to Bout’s biographer Douglas Farah, sometime around 2005 “Putin imposed control on intelligence [...]

  10. [...] in third countries. That second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  11. [...] in third countries. That second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  12. [...] in third countries. That second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  13. [...] in third countries. That second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  14. [...] in third countries. That second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  15. [...] in third countries. That second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  16. [...] second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  17. [...] second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  18. [...] second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  19. [...] second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  20. [...] second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  21. [...] second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  22. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  23. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  24. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  25. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  26. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  27. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  28. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  29. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  30. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  31. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  32. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  33. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  34. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  35. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  36. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  37. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  38. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  39. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  40. [...] second category primarily concerns convicted Russian arms dealerViktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

  41. [...] second category primarily concerns the convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then turned over to U.S. [...]

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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