Viktor Bout: Whose Secrets Does the Alleged Arms Dealer Know?

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Sukree Sukplang / REUTERS

Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout is escorted by members of a special police unit after a criminal court hearing in Bangkok Oct., 5th, 2010. Thai government extradited Bout to the US Nov., 16th, 2010.

Some powerful people in Moscow may have felt a chill go up their spines this week, and not because winter has set in. Viktor Bout, a well-connected Russian cargo magnate accused in the U.S. of being one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers, was extradited on Tuesday from Thailand to stand trial in New York City. Now facing a possible life sentence, Bout's best chance at freedom could be a plea bargain with U.S. authorities — even if it requires him to share some stories about his friends back in Russia, who have failed to get him off the hook. "And what of it?" his wife Alla asked on Wednesday. "Since Viktor turned out to be more valuable to the Americans than to his own country, let him now do everything they ask in order to survive," she told the daily Kommersant. But what exactly could Bout reveal?

According to one defense adviser to the Russian government who served in the upper ranks of the KGB throughout the 1980s, Bout knows at least enough to embarrass, if not incriminate, a lot of Russia's political brass. "Bout's background is in military intelligence, so he can explain who does what in those structures," the defense adviser says, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of what he calls "this dirty business." But such revelations, he adds, would not make for very exciting news, at least not for the CIA. "The much more worrying factor is [Bout's] knowledge of the arms trade, which is a very gray area. He knows about military stockpiles, and he can explain which of our brother-nations are given access to what kinds of weapons, what kinds of bribes are given for access to these weapons, how international rules are skirted, and so on. On top of that, he has a lot of associates he can name, because you don't conduct a business like this on your own. Of course this is all very messy."

The course of Bout's trial, which is to start early next year, will determine who, if anyone, gets implicated in this mess. But in Bout's biography, there are hints that his connections reach all the way up the Kremlin ladder. Although neither has ever acknowledged knowing the other, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and Bout both served in the same parts of Africa in the 1980s as military interpreters, a common cover for Soviet spies. Sechin, a leading figure in the Kremlin clan of military men, is the right hand of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is himself a former KGB agent. Bout's education at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, a breeding ground for Soviet secret agents, as well as his time in the Soviet air force, would also have allowed him to make the acquaintance of the military elite, although he has always denied any links to Russian secret services.

Soon after the Soviet Union collapsed, Bout bought up a fleet of old military cargo planes and, according to U.S. investigators, used his contacts in the armed forces to get his pick of everything from Kalashnikov rifles to unmanned aerial vehicles. He is then alleged to have sold such weapons to some of the most vicious regimes and terrorist groups in the world, feeding conflicts from the Congo to Colombia. According to investigators, during the sting operation that led to his arrest in Bangkok in March 2008, officers from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a terrorist group known as FARC. They allegedly struck a deal with Bout to buy an enormous haul of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, before handing him over to Thai authorities.

In a New York City court on Wednesday, Bout pleaded not guilty to charges including terrorism and arms trafficking, and his lawyers maintain that he is an honest businessman who fell victim to a media smear campaign fueled by anti-Russian discrimination. The Russian government has unequivocally supported Bout, as has the media it controls, with the three big state-run television channels all airing broadcasts on Tuesday that suggested Bout's "secretive" extradition was a breach of international law. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also went on air to call the case against Bout a "blatant injustice" and to complain about the "unprecedented pressure" the U.S. exerted on Thai authorities.

The intensity of U.S. lobbying for Bout's extradition has also sparked a lot speculation in Russia, with many observers taking it as a sign that Washington is after more than arms control. "It makes no practical sense to go to so much trouble over Bout if all they want to do is catch an arms trader," says Maxim Pyadushkin, editor of Export Vooruzheniya, a journal on the weapons trade. "There are dozens of Russian citizens who work as middleman in this business, and it is not clear that Bout was even the largest."

Evgeny Tarlo, a senator with the ruling United Russia party, says the U.S. may want Bout as a bargaining chip as it seeks to "extend its hegemony" over Russia. "This case is deeply political," Tarlo tells TIME. "It is not a demonstration of international justice but of American power, and this is very dangerous. A lot of people are now hostage to this game."

But Bout acted neither like a hostage nor a man facing life in prison when he was led in shackles to the Thai airport on Tuesday. Whistling a tune from beneath his mustache as he filed past reporters, he seemed more like a man with an ace or two left to play.