Viktor Bout, an alleged international arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” was extradited to the U.S. from Thailand on Tuesday. Bout, a Russian whose exploits inspired the 2005 movie “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage, has been in a Thai jail since his arrest in a 2008 sting. His extradition to face terrorism charges in the U.S. angered the Russians and is seen as a possible threat to healing U.S./Russia relations.
Why the Russians worry about Viktor Bout
Viktor Bout boarded a plane bound for the U.S. Tuesday after two years of legal wrangling by Washington to get him extradited on terrorism charges. The Thai government resisted intense pressure from Moscow to set Bout free. He was arrested by the Royal Thai Police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008 for attempting to sell $5 million in weapons to Columbian rebels. Bout denies being an arms dealer. He said he owned a business focusing on delivering goods to inaccessible places around the world. Insiders claim Bout knows about Russian military intelligence operations, and Moscow is afraid he will spill the beans to U.S. officials.
Tracking the Merchant of Death
Viktor Bout is suspected of furnishing ruthless warlords in the Middle East, South America and Africa with weapons. A former lieutenant in the Russian military, Bout allegedly ran global weapons operations that employed about 300 people. Stories broke that Bout’s companies were funneling weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2002. He went underground, and DEA agents finally caught up to him in 2008, posing as arms buyers for Columbian rebels. A DEA indictment accuses Bout of hawking missiles, landmines, drones and other advanced weapons.
A pawn in the U.S./Russia chess match
When Viktor Bout was shipped to the U.S., the Russian foreign ministry called his extradition illegal and politically motivated. Some analysts wonder whether the dispute will reverse the thaw in U.S./Russian relations nurtured by President Barack Obama and his counterpart Dimitry Medvedev. Other say that if last summer’s Russian spy scandal featuring Anna Chapman did little to disrupt the new spirit of detente, Viktor Bout isn’t much of a threat. What could be a setback is the new Republican advantage in the U.S. Congress, which is set to debate the ratification of a new U.S./Russia nuclear treaty.