When a U.S. District Court in New York sentenced arms dealer Viktor Bout to the minimum term of 25 years in prison on Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it would hurt relations with the United States. The ministry put out an indignant statement on Thursday, calling the sentence "unfounded and biased," and saying it would "take all the necessary steps for the return of Viktor Bout," according to a Google translation, though it didn't say what those steps would be.
A little antagonism with Russia might be just the thing for the Obama administration, in light of criticism from Mitt Romney and other Republicans that the president was being too cooperative with Moscow on missile defense, following last month's "hot mic" gaffe. And the Bout case could provide just the right amount. Russia had already registered its disapproval of Bout's conviction before last month's nuclear summit in Korea, which is where Obama first got into trouble for saying "after my last election I have more flexibility," to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. So the issue apparently hadn't done serious harm to U.S. - Russia relations. And now Bout's gotten the minimum sentence (he had faced life). In fact, as The New York Times points out, any action but staying the course on Bout's conviction would be a mistake on Obama's part. Writes Michael Schwartz:
Aleskei Pushkov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s Parliament, called on President Obama to pardon Mr. Bout and allow for his return to Russia. It is an outcome that seems unlikely given the November election and recent criticism of the White House for appearing to grant Russia too much flexibility in talks over missile defense.
Russia fought Bout's extradition from Thailand when he was arrested there in 2008, and it has put out statements critical of the arms dealer's prosecution and conviction, but so far it hasn't publicly leaned on Bout's case in matters of high-level diplomacy, such as last month's Korean nuclear summit. Bout, for his part, still maintains he's innocent.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.