Roving thoughts and provocations

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Moscow and the ‘Merchant of Death’

Apichart Weerawong/AP Photo
Victor Bout in prison in Bangkok, August 11, 2009 (Apichart Weerawong/AP Photo)

Over the past couple of weeks, the case of the infamous Russian arms trader Victor Bout—who has supplied guns, ammunition, and material to groups ranging from the FARC in Colombia to the Afghan Taliban—has generated enormous attention and raised many questions. Considered one of the world’s most prolific weapons traffickers, Bout has become the object of a high-level tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow over US efforts to extradite him from Thailand, where he is being held. Yet amid all the speculation about Russia’s interest in the case, one of the more revealing clues about Bout’s Kremlin connections has gone largely unnoticed.

On August 27, Bout issued an unusual statement through his wife, Alla. Not only did he deny that he had ties to the Kremlin: “I don’t know any secrets about the Russian government and its leaders….I never worked for Russian companies or government institutions.” He went on to single out one particular member of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin’s top advisor, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin: “As far as Igor Sechin is concerned, I never had the honor of knowing the vice-premier.”

Why did he name Sechin? Sechin is widely regarded as one of the most powerful men in the Kremlin, and reports have suggested that Bout and Sechin knew each other in the 1980s when both were working for the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) in Africa. Such ties would support the theory that he had high-level backing for his arms dealing in the 1990s, much of which was based in Africa. Whether on his own initiative or because he was getting instructions from Russian Embassy officials in Bangkok, Bout clearly wanted to quash these rumors and send a message to the Americans that, should they succeed in extraditing him, he would not have much to say.

Despite all that has been written about Bout, the details of his background remain murky. A journalist in Moscow who specializes in security matters told me that few Russians know much about him because Russian journalists who covered arms trading have stopped writing about the subject. It is too dangerous. (In March 2007 Ivan Safronov, who was preparing an article for the newspaper Kommersant on secret Russian arms deliveries to Syria and Iran, died from an unexplained fall out of a window in his apartment building.).

Contrary to what has been widely reported, Bout was never in the Soviet Air Force. He served as a conscript in the regular military for two years before enrolling in 1987, at age twenty, in a one-year, intensive course in Portuguese at the Red Banner Military Institute in Moscow. The Soviets were heavily involved in Angola and Mozambique at the time and they needed translators, so Bout was sent to southern Africa in 1988 with the rank of junior lieutenant. In all likelihood, Bout was working for the GRU, Soviet Military Intelligence, which recruited many of the Red Banner Military Institute’s graduates.

Bout has claimed that he left the military in 1990 and worked in Africa and Brazil as an interpreter for private firms before starting his own business as an aircraft broker. But he doubtless would have maintained his ties with the GRU, which continued to be a key part of Russia’s intelligence service after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That would explain how Bout managed to acquire a fleet of old Soviet aircraft and by the late 1990s earn millions of dollars transporting weapons to insurgents, war-lords, and terrorist networks in third-world countries. As Vadim Birstein, an expert on Soviet military counter-intelligence told me: “Bout could not have done his business without high-level contacts in the military, including the intelligence branch.”

It is certainly plausible that Igor Sechin was one of Bout’s Russian sponsors—what the Russians call a krysha, or “roof.” Sechin also studied Portuguese (at Leningrad State University) and worked as military interpreter in both Angola and Mozambique from 1984 to 1988, the year that Bout arrived in Africa. Bout claimed in his August 27 statement that he had just begun his language studies in Moscow when Sechin left Africa but in fact they were both there in 1988. (Tellingly, Sechin’s official biography on the Russian government website leaves the years up to 1988 blank.) Whether or not their paths crossed in Africa, Bout and Sechin had links to the same military intelligence network.

Russia has made its position in the case clear: in a public statement, its Foreign Ministry has described Bout as a “Russian businessman” who has the government’s “firm support”; it would like Bout released and handed over to Russia, where he would apparently face no further prosecution. (Indeed, in the years before his arrest, he moved about freely in Russia despite US efforts to have him arrested.)

If the supposition about Bout’s high-level sponsorship is correct, then he is only one of several dealers in illicit arms trade and money-laundering who have been protected by the Kremlin and its security services. In at least two cases the men in question have been linked to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In 2001, Pavel Borodin, who headed the Kremlin Property Department in the 1990s (Putin worked under him there), was charged by Swiss authorities with embezzlement and money-laundering At Putin’s behest, the Kremlin paid his $2.9 million bail and brought him back to Moscow. Borodin is currently state secretary of the Union of Russia and Belarus.

The well-known gangster Semyon Mogilevich, who was placed on the FBI’s ten most-wanted list in 2003 for fraud and money laundering, is also alleged to have close ties to Putin. The Kremlin resisted taking any action and allowed him to live peacefully in Moscow until January 2008, when he was finally jailed for tax evasion. He was released on bail a year and a half later because, in the words of a Russian Interior Ministry official, “he does not pose a threat to the public.”

What happens if Bout is extradited? Will he plea bargain with his captors and offer valuable information about the involvement of Russian politicians in international criminal networks in exchange for a reduced prison term? The problem for Bout is that, if he does “sing” to the Americans, he could face some sort of retribution from his Russian sponsors after his release. In last Friday’s statement, Bout scoffed at the idea, which was mentioned in the press, that the Russian government might try to have him physically “liquidated,” saying it was “absurd” and an “outright lie.”

Has he forgotten about the fate of ex-KGB/FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium by a former colleague in London? When Putin met for a celebratory drink in July with the group of spies who were sent back to Russia from the US as part of a swap, he made an ominous observation: “[the lives] of traitors always end badly.” Quite clearly, unless the Russians somehow manage to get him back, Victor Bout will be facing some grim choices.

But the larger threat the Bout case poses may be to the Obama administration itself. Until now, the president has made a point of breathing new life into the US-Russia relationship—not least in the areas of anti-proliferation and arms control. In the face of mounting evidence that members of the Russian leadership seem to have been colluding with arms traders and criminals and profiting from their activities, however, this effort may begin to look increasingly misguided. How long can the US continue to look the other way?

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