The Merchant of Death versus the Reset

Will Viktor Bout (a.k.a. Merchant of Death, a.k.a. Lord of War) destroy the "reset" between Russia and the United States?

[amazon B000BYA5GO full]Author George Crile, in his best-selling book Charlie Wilson's War, discussed the role the CIA's Covert Action Procurement and Logistics Division played in finding and purchasing weaponry and equipment for the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s. In obtaining the needed supplies from a variety of suppliers ranging from Yugoslavia to Egypt to China, a key role was always played by the "merchants of death"—the intermediaries who could either procure what was requested through black-market deals or who served as the plausibly deniable intermediaries to cloak the involvement of governments.

Did Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer (and inspiration for the 2005 film Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage), serve a similar function for Moscow? Press reports consistently describe Bout as having "cultivated close ties to the top of Russia's military intelligence," as the Financial Times reported. Certainly, the diplomatic furor emanating from Russia after Bout's successful extradition from Thailand to the United States seems somewhat odd if Bout was simply a black-marketer scavenging around the detritus of the Soviet military establishment in the wake of the collapse of the USSR.

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—such as helping Moscow develop its own cyberwar capabilities.

Russia is often caught between competing and contradictory interests. Its weapons industry is one of the most profitable sources of export revenue for the country. Like the United States and a number of European countries, Russia is a leader in the sale of all sorts of military technology. But some of Russia's actual and potential customers may not be able to purchase openly or directly—especially due to sanctions. The Russian government took a major financial "hit" by agreeing not to sell the S-300 air-defense system to Iran. Russia has also had to fend off criticism for weapons sales to countries like Syria and Sudan. The administration of Dmitry Medvedev, in working to advance the "reset" with Barack Obama, has taken steps that have had an impact on the country's bottom line.

Is the concern about Bout's extradition into U.S. jurisdiction, therefore, that Bout, under interrogation, will reveal "proprietary" information as to the ways in which sanctions regimes can be bypassed? The manner in which Russian intelligence develops "plausible deniability" for when Russian military equipment ends up in places that it shouldn't? Dmitry Zaks, writing for Agence France Press, quoted two Russian experts on the matter:

"Bout can reveal too much about who took part in the shadowy arms sales and when he was doing it," said Institute of Strategic Assessment head Alexander Konovalov.

"Bout is a person who knows an extraordinary amount about arms contracts," agreed Alexei Makarkin of the Centre of Political Technologies.

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 when America can bring the full weight of its influence to bear on a problem. Despite all the talk of a multipolar world and the decline of the United States, the reality of the Bout extradition is that Washington still wields a predominant influence in the global arena. No wonder, then, that the deputy chair of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, Leonid Slutsky, complained, "The United States is now trying to dictate its position on the entire system of global politics and international relations."

But this sounds a bit hyperbolic. Yes, there are probably intelligence "trade secrets" Moscow doesn't want Bout to reveal. But the "reset" depends on much more substantial things—passage of New START and implementation of the civil nuclear agreement. The "sleeper spy scandal" was a nine-day wonder earlier this year—a flash in the pan. Bout's extradition might end up being the same thing. If the reset is damaged, it will not be because of this.