No Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with a protagonist more colorful and chilling than Victor A. Bout of Russia. You can come across all sorts of wild and fanciful statements on the Internet just by surfing at random. But if you spent the next century doing so, you'd not likely come across anything more bizarre than the statement that decorates the home page of Victor A. Bout's website.
The site states that when Bout left the Russian military after being drafted and serving as a translator, his parents (a clerk and an accountant) and his wife "helped" him make a little purchase to start his own business.
What did they help him purchase, you ask? A used slicing machine for his deli? A sewing machine, maybe, or perhaps a bicycle to start a delivery franchise? Nope. Tired of guessing? OK, I'll tell you then: four (count them) Antonov-8 cargo airplanes.
According to his website, Bout then took the four planes to Angola, opened a cargo business and became a multi-millionaire by undercutting his competition.
What was his cargo, you ask? Well, you can search his website until you turn blue, but you won't find out. Victor could tell you, of course, but if he did (as they say), he'd have to kill you.
Now, let's leave aside the question of where the Bout family came up with the cash to buy four giant airplanes and fly them to Angola. Let's turn instead to the cargo, whose nature has become internationally famous: illegal weapons of virtually every kind imaginable, bound for the world's most maniacal dictatorships and terrorist organizations.
And most recently, it consisted of "more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters, and airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles." Where was it going, you ask? To Colombia, to be purchased by the terrorist organization FARC. The government of Colombia recently filed a document with a court in Thailand offering 607 reasons why FARC should be considered a terrorist group. It did so because thanks to an amazing sting orchestrated by Bush-administration U.S. law-enforcement officers, Victor A. Bout was lured into Thailand in March of last year by an offer of millions from arms buyers he believed were FARC representatives. They were actually from the DEA, and they facilitated Bout's arrest by Thai authorities.
According to Bout, he's a totally honest businessman who has been framed by jealous competitors in Africa. What were they all carrying around Africa, you ask? Don't.
Here's what Sergei Markov, a member of the Russian parliament, says about Bout's case: "Just because the Cold War is over doesn't mean the competition between military-industrial interests has ended. It's not about ideology, but it is about competing interests. Russia extends official support to Bout because he's a citizen, and because the Russian public doesn't see him as any kind of criminal. They expect him to be supported."
In other words, Russia agrees with Bout and intends to help him continue giving the world the business. As for the reams of evidence showing Bout's guilt? Russia could not care less.
Last month, a Thai court refused to extradite Bout to the U.S., finding that FARC is not a terrorist group. That ruling is now on appeal. If Bout is returned to Russia, it's clear he will be treated not as a bloodthirsty killer, but as a national hero. (Andrei Lugovoi, who was fingered in the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, sets the precedent: he reentered Russia not just to a hero's welcome, but also to a seat in parliament.)
Bout has been linked to arms shipments to the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and has been accused by the U.S. Justice Department of conspiring to kill Americans. Barack Obama is traveling to Asia next month, and he has promised to lobby for Bout's extradition. But after Obama's festival of Russia-appeasement when he visited Moscow in July, topped off by a unilateral withdrawal of America's missile defense system in Eastern Europe, it's hardly likely anyone will take him seriously, let alone the Russians.
So if somebody else in the U.S. government doesn't do something soon, our little friend Victor is going to slip once again into the Russian night.