Who Wants the Merchant of Death?

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is trying to repair damaged relations with the Kremlin after Moscow's foreign minister condemned a decision to extradite a suspected Russian weapons smuggler, Viktor Bout, from Bangkok to New York.

"In a situation like this, pressure is normal. So it is best to handle it in a straightforward manner," Abhisit said Saturday after hearing Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insult Thailand's judicial system. "The [Thai] government has been saying all along to the US and Russia that it doesn't, and it can't, intervene in the justice process."

Lavrov, however, lashed out at the Bangkok court's verdict hours after it was announced, calling it a "non-legal decision, politically motivated decision, that Thailand's court made," Lavrov told Russia's TV channel RT. "This decision, according to information we dispose, was made under strong pressure from outside, and this is sad," he said, without mentioning the United States or offering any evidence.

After stalking the 43-year-old Bout around the world for more than a decade, America's frustrating legal battle to extradite him from Thailand after his arrest in March 2008 has put double-barreled pressure on Bangkok. And, as badly as the US wants Bout in an American courtroom, the Russians want to keep him out of it – and some other countries might well want him dead. Security has been increased at the Bangkok jail where he is being held amid rumors of a possible assassination attempt. There are concerns that Bout was supplying plausible deniability to many nations involved in the arms trade to rebels and unsavory governments around the world.

Whether Bout is connected to Russian arms sales is unknown at this point. However, since the end of the Cold War, Russia has allegedly continued to supply arms to countries as variegated as Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Myanmar and Sudan, according to a 2006 story in the New York Times, "seemingly immune to ethical debates that affect the industry elsewhere."

Russian arms sales and those of every other nation are dwarfed by those by the United States, for those who are looking for other Merchants of Death. From 2001 to 2008, according to a report to the US Congress, American companies supplied US$151 billion in arms – 41 percent of the world’s guns. Russia followed, with US$63.82 billion, or only 17 percent of the total. BAE systems, the British arms manufacturer, emerged as the world’s biggest single supplier, dwarfing even all American companies, with £21 billion (US$31.7 billion) in sales.)

There is a spy-vs-spy aspect to the case, a private security consultant told Asia Sentinel. "Where the US enthusiasm for Bout may create trouble is that it marks a second defeat for the Russians – the DC 'spy ring' and now this. There may be high fives among the Cold Warriors in Langley, bored with the perpetual pursuit of unworthy opponents among the dust and smoke of the 'Stans and back alleys of West Asia. But while Americans play poker, the Russians prefer chess and I imagine they may well be preparing a counter-strike against the Obama administration – probably in time for the mid-terms. I've no idea what form this may take, but it would have to be subtle enough not to seriously damage important ties while sharp enough to remind Washington to show some respect."

Both Washington and Moscow are Thailand's major trading and security partners. The US is a much bigger player in Thailand's military, political and commercial circles, having provided training to its armed forces since the 1960s, supported its previous dictators and democratically elected governments, plus offering large-scale investment including a healthy flow of imports and exports.

Russia, however, has emerged in recent years as a growing business partner by attempting to sell warplanes, helicopters, petroleum and other strategic items – not through Bout -- to Thailand, and sending thousands of Russian tourists to Thailand's tropical beaches.

"Bout should be extradited in about a week, although the Russian government has already made clear it will do what it can to slow the process even further," said Douglas Farah, co-author of the book about Bout entitled Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible. Bout, who speaks six languages, previously worked as military translator and allegedly entered the international weapons business in the 1990s. The US has to reel him in within 30 days according to Thai law, or he will be freed.

"One thing is for sure, the last thing Russia wants is Bout on American soil, spilling his guts after getting a taste of American justice meted out in a federal courthouse," said Michael A. Braun who, as chief of operations in 2007 for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), was asked by the U.S. National Security Council to finally bring Bout to trial after chasing him since President Clinton's administration.

It may well be the last thing other countries want as well. He has been implicated in trafficking former Eastern bloc weaponry, particularly from Bulgaria and Romania, to 17 African countries, according to a report by Amnesty International, as well as to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. And, according to the report, while many gun runners could deliver small arms, Bout allegedly was able to deliver major weapons systems, an indication that he was probably working with governments.

"There are countless private arms dealers around the world, often operating at 'deniable' arms length from states happy to see their wares introduced to conflicts and to support often unsavoury allies few western politicians would wish to have their names linked to but whose actions are deemed as vital for anything between strategic national interest to short term expediency," the independent security consultant said.

As an example, Bout was arrested in a Bangkok luxury hotel during the DEA sting for allegedly planning to sell weapons to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. He was allegedly offering the AT-4 Spigot, a wire-guided Russian missile system that has a maximum range of 2,000-2,500 meters and can penetrate up to 400-460mm of armor, depending on the type of missile used, an indication of the sophistication of weapons that Bout was able to offer, as well as 100 shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, which could shoot down military and commercial planes.

After a lower Bangkok court rejected the first U.S. request for extradition in August 2009, New York prosecutors bolstered their request in February by adding allegations of money laundering and wire fraud conspiracy. Those newer, seemingly more incriminating charges possibly indicate the main strategy prosecutors will pursue during Bout's trial in New York.

The newer indictment alleges that Bout and his Syrian-American partner Richard Ammar Chichakli wired about $1.7 million through banks in the U.S. to buy two Boeing airplanes in America. Chichakli, who served in the US Army, is a Syrian-born US citizen, also known as Robert Cunning and Raman Cedorov.

Chichakli escaped arrest and may be in Russia after the US Treasury Department seized his assets.

The newest indictment said prosecutors would seek to seize Bout's alleged accounts at Wachovia, the International Bank of Commerce, Deutsche Bank, and the Israel Discount Bank of New York, according to the New York Daily News.

The stout, mustachioed Bout arrived at the appeals court on Aug. 20, grinning and winking with confidence, but after hearing the final guilty verdict in the "United States of America vs. Viktor Bout" case, began crying while led away in mandatory leg chains after hugging his wife and daughter.

"We will face the trial in the United States and win it," Mr. Bout told reporters in Russian after the verdict, according to Russia's RIA Novosti news agency.

"I appeal to Russian authorities to interfere in the case, and react the same tough way to this dishonest [American] interference, and help the citizen of the Russian Federation," Bout's wife, Alla, declared in Bangkok after the verdict was read, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com