Tracking Viktor Bout: Puppet or Profiteer?

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If the U.S. had intervened against Bout as early as 2004 when he was in violation of both U.S. and international law, it could have been spared the expense and security concerns in mounting an international sting operation. No wonder the press at large questions American hypocrisy around this case.
Russia doesn’t exactly have clean hands either.

During his opening statements in court, Bout’s lawyer, Albert Dayan, told the jury that $6 billion worth of Bout’s assets had been frozen in the U.S., Switzerland and Europe in response to U.N. Security Council resolutions but made no mention of Russian compliance.

Rather, the wiretapped conversations played by the U.S. prosecution during the trial paints a different picture. Bout could be heard saying he had “confidence” that “I’ll be finding out 24 hours before” if the money in his Russian bank account were to be blocked – inferring he could withdraw the funds in advance.

Furthermore, as heard in the replayed secret recordings, Bout told his clients that they should launder their money for the proposed arms deal through Russia, Belarus or Venezuela rather than use American dollars that could readily be frozen.

Another “tried and true” trade trick of arms traffickers is to relocate operations whenever their illicit activities come under too close scrutiny by authorities. Over the years, I’ve tracked Bout moving shop from Belgium, South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda and the United Arab Emirates.

By the time, U.S. law enforcement caught up to Bout during the sting operation, he was residing in Moscow.
As the replayed wiretapped conversations reveal, Bout seemed quite at ease plying his own alleged arms trade business from inside Russia. A matter of public record, Bout’s employment history links him to Cold War warriors with official ties to the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Outside of Russia, trial watchers listening to the wiretaps or reading the transcripts question Russian sincerity in enforcing the U.N. sanctions prohibitions against Bout, leading to blowback vis-à-vis Russia’s international reputation.

Back to the issue of a resurgent Cold War: Given the way the courtroom drama has played out, there are good reasons why the public on both sides view the trial through the lens of an on-going superpower conflict.

In his opening statements, U.S. Assistant Attorney Brendan McGuire told the jury that when the former Soviet military officer Viktor Bout was offered the chance to sell weapons worth millions of dollars “in order to kill Americans…he jumped at the opportunity.”

During the presentation of government evidence, McGuire replayed wiretapped conversations during which Bout offers a supply of Russian brand surface-to-air missiles known as IGLAS. Bout recommends them as the most effective weapon against American-made Apache and Black Hawk helicopters.

In the opening statement of the defense, Bout’s attorney Albert Dayan portrayed Bout as the victim of “a very aggressive hunt” by U.S. agents that had “baited” him out of Moscow and “goaded” into an “anti-American chant” to prejudice him to a jury.

For those Russians whose only news source is state-controlled TV, I’m not surprised that there have been angry protests, especially since Russian officials likewise have denounced Bout’s extradition to the U.S. and let it be known that they question whether a fair trial is possible in light of what they call American propaganda about their citizen.

If the situation were reversed, I can imagine how Americans might feel if they heard that a U.S. citizen had been lured to a third country as part of a convoluted Russian sting operation involving former Central American drug traffickers paid millions for their services. Especially if they heard the code name for this scheme was Operation Relentless.

Resurgent Cold War thinking in the case of Bout hopefully will not undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to reset relations with Russia. As the record shows, both Russia and the U.S. are blemished by past relations with Bout. Both nations, too, have been beset with internal conflicts as to whether Bout has constituted a national asset or a liability As the Viktor Bout trial unfolds, it continues to be a fascinating look into the damning and murky black market arms trade and its corrupting influences.

To answer the question, who is Viktor Bout?

Regrettably, he’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Kathi Austin.

Kathi Lynn Austin

Kathi Lynn Austin

Kathi Lynn Austin is an internationally recognized expert on arms trafficking, peace and security, and human rights. She is founder and Executive Director of Conflict Awareness Project and for nearly 20 years has carried out in-depth field investigations into the illegal trade in weapons, illicit trafficking operations, illegal resource exploitation, transnational crime and terrorism. Ms. Austin has served in official capacity for the United Nations as a member of the Group of Experts on the DRC and Liberia. In 2012, Random House will release Kathi’s dramatic investigative field memoir, which focuses in part on her 15-year odyssey tracking Viktor Bout. Follow Kathi Austin on twitter: @kathilynnaustin
Kathi Lynn Austin

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