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Why Is Moscow So Interested In Securing Viktor Bout's Return?

  • VOA's Danila Galperovich
  • Robert Coalson

Convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (center) is escorted by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers after arriving in the United States following his extradition from Thailand last year.

Convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (center) is escorted by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers after arriving in the United States following his extradition from Thailand last year.

With the conviction in the United States of arms dealer Viktor Bout on November 2, the Russian government has stepped up its protests and vowed to secure Bout's return to Russia.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich was vehement in a statement broadcast by Russian state television:

"The Russian Foreign Ministry will continue to take all measures to ensure Viktor Bout's rights and interests as a Russian citizen," he said. "Our goal is return him back to his country."

Lukashevich repeated the Russian government's claims that Bout's extradition from Thailand was illegal.

He also reiterated allegations that the U.S. government was holding Bout in "unjustifiably cruel conditions" in order to compel his cooperation, and that U.S. officials had directly assisted in the creation of a negative atmosphere surrounding the case, which made an impartial verdict impossible.

This reaction to the case has left observers wondering why Moscow is seemingly so intensely interested in getting the 44-year-old Bout back.

'Two Possible Reasons' For Russia's Interest In Case

Military analyst Aleksandr Golts, who is deputy editor of the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal," believes that there are two main theories regarding Moscow's interest in the Bout affair.

"The first version is that Bout really does know something: his intrigues or his attempts to create intrigues with weaponry were based either on the support of some Russian state structures or of some highly placed people," he says.

"It is clear that, in this case, those highly placed people are extremely concerned that if Bout is given a life sentence, he will start to talk and will begin saying things that are highly unpleasant for official Moscow."

Some of Bout's supporters claim that the United States has kept him incarcerated in conditions that violate international law.

Some of Bout's supporters claim that the United States has kept him incarcerated in conditions that violate international law.

However, Golts adds, it cannot be excluded that Bout does not have such connections.

"A second theory is also possible," he says. "Bout is not connected with anyone, but in Moscow they have so little trust in the American judicial system and in the American government that they think that if they give Bout some long sentence, they will be able to force him to say something that would be discrediting to the Russian authorities.

"So that's why they want to get him out of there as quickly as possible, which -- by the way -- I don't think they have any chance of doing."

Other experts have no doubts that Bout could not have pursued his many years of arms dealing without some important contacts in Russia.

Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer believes that making such shipments would have been impossible without plausible documentation.

"I can confirm from my sources in the Russian customs service that weapons need to have certificates for the final recipient that are sufficiently convincing because everything has to go across borders and you can't fit it into a big suitcase," he says.

"We are talking about massive shipments and for that you need permit documents. You need the help of officials, although there are various places for that -- it isn't necessary to get [this assistance] in Moscow."

Yury Vdovin, deputy director of the NGO Citizen's Watch, which monitors Russia's security bodies, thinks the Federal Security Service (FSB) is using other structures within the Russian government in a bid to secure Bout's release to cover up its own involvement.

"[The FSB's predecessor] the KGB infiltrated all Soviet structures and supported terrorists around the world," he says, adding that the FSB "now secretly continues" this "fundamental criminal activity."

"I don't believe that this department was not involved with [Bout] because he couldn't have done what he did and shipped such weapons without them knowing about it," Vdovin claims.

"And so they are trying to defend him now through all possible committees and so on. This is, after all, down to its core, a criminal organization and there is no reason to expect anything good from it."

'A Responsible And Trustworthy Businessman'

One source of support for Bout comes straight from Russia's parliament. Shortly before the verdict, six deputies of the Russian State Duma sent a letter [LINK: http://www.courthousenews.com/2011/11/02/BoutLetter.pdf] to the Manhattan court where Bout was being tried and repeated the Foreign Ministry's claims about the case.

Although not all of the deputies' signatures are legible, most of them appear to be from the A Just Russia party and other official opposition parties, rather than from the ruling United Russia party.

The letter says the signatories believe the case against Bout is politically motivated and is an effort by unspecified U.S. "circles" to undermine the U.S.-Russian "reset."

They allege that Bout is a "responsible and trustworthy businessman" who has never had legal problems in Russia and that he is "an exemplary family man."

The deputies' claim that Bout is being held in the United States in conditions that "violate human rights and international law."

Russian journalist Vladimir Kozlovsky, who covered the entire Bout trial in New York, told RFE/RL's Russian Service before the sentencing that the Russian consulate had actually taken no particular interest in the case.

"[Except for the first day of the trial] I didn't see anyone from the Russian consulate," he said. "I only hear the protests that the Foreign Ministry loudly makes with tiresome regularity."

Danila Galperovich of RFE/RL's Russian Service reported from Moscow. Robert Coalson of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom reported and wrote from Prague

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