“Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout Arrives in the US

viktor boutViktor Bout.

Viktor Bout, the arms dealer who inspired the movie “Lord of War,” is set to arrive in the United States around 9:00 p.m. today* after being extradicted from Thailand, where he was arrested in a Drug Enforcement Agency-run sting in 2008.

Mother Jones has been following Bout’s story for years. In 2007, Laura Rozen related the real-life story of the former Soviet military officer who made millions selling weapons to anyone and everyone who could afford them. In March 2008, after the first reports of Bout’s arrest in Thailand, Bruce Falconer reminded readers that the “Merchant of Death” had been among the first to bring supplies into Baghdad after the city fell to invading American armies in 2003. Later that month, Falconer told the full story of the DEA-led sting that captured Bout and brought us to where we are now. That piece was called “Viktor Bout’s Last Deal.” And this August, I worried that the US may have bungled the extradition process. It took a few months, but Thailand and the Obama administration worked things out. 

The successful extradition is sure to anger Russia, which maintains Bout’s innocence. The New York Times‘ Seth Mydans, who’s on the scene in Bangkok, explains: 

Russia quickly called the extradition illegal.

“From a legal perspective, what has occurred cannot have a rational explanation and justification,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “There is no doubt that the illegal extradition of Viktor Bout came about as a consequence of unprecedented political pressure exerted by the U.S. on the government and judicial authorities of Thailand. It is deeply regrettable that the Thai authorities succumbed to political pressure from outside and undertook the illegal extradition.”

At first glance, this seems like a straight win for the White House. The Russians weren’t even alerted that Bout was headed to the airport, and America clearly won the tug-of-war in Bangkok. But this is about more than just Bout and Thailand—it has to be understood in the broader context of President Barack Obama’s somewhat stalled efforts to strengthen relations with Moscow. The centerpiece of that effort, the New START nuclear arms treaty, is languishing in the Senate, and Russian hardliners have recently been emboldened by the victories of their Republican counterparts in the US. The decision to extradict Bout—and upset the Russians—may suggest that the Obama administration is beginning to give up hope on New Start and moving to take victories where it can get them. UPDATE: Okay, maybe that was going too far. Obviously, it seems hard to imagine that the Russians would fail to ratify New START just because of Bout. (The Senate still has to move before the Russians.) You can read a lot of different things in these tea leaves: maybe extraditing Bout suggests the administration thinks its relationship with Russia is strong enough to withstand the controversy over one arms dealer. Who knows. 

*Corrected to reflect the fact that Bout is arriving at 9:00 p.m.