'Merchant of Death' Lands in New York City

Charismatic, mustachioed dealer of doom prepares for his trial for arming conflict zones

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Viktor Bout, the charming, mustachioed arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death, has arrived in New York City to be tried for conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles to the Colombian rebel group FARC. The Russian was extradited from Thailand in a "victory for the rule of law worldwide," Attorney General Eric Holder said, though it's a victory that comes decades after Bout began his lucrative business of selling weapons to places where people really want to kill each other.

Russia fought the extradition, calling it "extreme injustice," and the protestations fueled "suspicions that it feared exposure of Bout's secrets, accumulated in a long and shadowy career" that began in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, Agence France Presse reports. Bout speaks six languages, inspired the movie Lord of War, and used a fleet of cargo planes to deliver arms to conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.

  • Why Russia's Backing Bout, Jackson Diehl explains in The Washington Post, is not just because he's a citizen. "International criminals with ties to the Russian government are accustomed to enjoying impunity. A couple even sit in the parliament despite being charged by foreign police with murder," Diehl writes. Experts say "Russia's elite are terrified of what Bout might reveal as a part of a plea bargain with U.S. prosecutors. Where did he obtain the weapons and helicopters he has been delivering to war zones, or the Russian-made transport aircraft that carried them? Did he deliver Russian weapons to Hezbollah? And who encouraged him to do business with the FARC?" Surely Putin doesn't want these questions answered. On the other hand, Bout "may have embarrassing information about the U.S. government. His companies reportedly were hired as subcontractors by the Pentagon to deliver weapons to Iraq in 2003 and 2004."
  • A Symbolic Arrest, Douglas Farah writes at Counterterrorism Blog. "Among the things he offered the undercover operatives in the final meeting in Bangkok, believing them to be FARC commanders, were drones to attack U.S.-build radar stations, surface-to-air missiles, and the usual assortment of assault rifles and ammunition." But, "The arrest is more than symbolic in importance. It targeted one of the master facilitators who, through exploiting the rapidly changing world order, was able to be of use to multiple non-state armed groups, including often arming both sides of the same conflict. Many of these groups (the FARC, Taliban etc.) are terrorists, and almost all were criminal."
  • Bout Might Have Offered Russia Plausible Deniability in Conflict Zones, Nikolas K. Gvosdev at the National Interest, writes that the CIA used shady intermediaries to get weapons for the Afghan mujahideen in the '80s because they allowed for plausible deniability. Bout might have played a similar role for Russia. "This is not to suggest that every Bout transaction in Asia, Africa and Latin America over the last two decades occurred with the knowledge or blessing of the Russian government. But as has also been alleged in the state's relationship with the prolific and talented Russian hacker community, the Kremlin might be prepared to turn a blind eye to a variety of activities if, at times, the covert interests of the state are being served in other areas... Some of this too can just be a sense of embarrassment. As Russia seeks to position itself for taking a greater share of the global military market, forging new ties with European conglomerates and trying to develop new contracts, having Bout back on the front pages is a reminder of 'the bad old days' of the 1990s. And, by having failed to prevent Thailand from extraditing Bout to the United States, Moscow has received an unwelcome reminder that, despite its resurgence and the problems that the United States itself is undergoing, there is no equal contest between Moscow and Washington..."
  • Bout's Wife Says Moscow Failed, RIA Novosti reports. "This is a failure of Russia's foreign policy," Alla Bout told a Russian newspaper. "The extradition has shown that Russia plays no role in the region, that the United States is stronger and that the United States does whatever it wants to throughout the world." It also indicates that Russians "cannot count on help from their own state in a difficult situation," she said.
  • Bad for U.S.-Russia Relations, Reuters writes. "Earlier this month we had news that a key Russian spymaster and double agent had defected to the United States after unmasking the spy ring here. And then to top it all off, Republicans signaled they would block ratification of the START Treaty this year.  It looks like more of a meltdown than a reset in US-Russia relations. ... if anyone was hoping President Barack Obama would rescue the second half of his presidency by focusing on foreign policy, it has hardly been an auspicious couple of weeks, after the debacle of the G20 meeting, the failure to strike a trade deal with South Korea and now this."
  • Who Is Viktor Bout? Allow his website to explain: "Victor Bout is a dynamic, charismatic, spontaneous, well-dressed, well-spoken, and highly energetic person who can easily communicate in several languages including Russian, Portuguese, English, French, Arabic, among several others. He is a born salesman with undying love for aviation and eternal drive to succeed. Victor was born in the Soviet Union, the city of Dushanbe, in an average home and an average family." After high school, Bout moved to Moscow. "There he was drafted to do the mandatory military service as a translator serving in the Soviet Union and abroad, and that was how he got introduced to Africa. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union Victor decided to leave the military service and start his own aviation business, the field he was always fascinated by. And with some help from his family and his wife, Victor was able to purchase four Antonov-8 cargo aircraft that became the core and starting point of his fleet and his business. Venturing into Africa was a matter of necessity rather than choice. Victor who had already invested all he had into the purchase of the AN-8 had no other choice but to operate in Africa, and particularly, Angola which was the first and only country to grant a certificate for civilian operations to the Antonov-8... until the demise of his operations in Africa there was not any operator capable of competing with Victor Bout."
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