While Biden critics are disgusted by trading a Black, Lesbian basketball player, Brittney Griner, for the notorious arms dealer, Viktor Bout, Biden supporters are ecstatic. Personally, I think any effort to free Griner is ridiculous, but she played a role in making herself a victim. The real story lies behind the Western meme that portrays Bout as the spawn of Satan intent on creating mayhem and slaughter around the globe. I have a different take.
I believe Viktor Bout was a Russian intelligence officer operating under cover as an arms dealer. In this capacity he could identify key players in revolutionary and criminal movements around the world. It is the United States that has created the Merchant of Death tale.
Let us start with the fact that Bout previously sold weapons to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. That kind of sale would have been monitored and known to Russian intelligence. Important to recall that the Northern Alliance played a key role in helping the United States oust the Taliban in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Although some reports claim Bout also sold to the Taliban, I’ve seen no credible evidence supporting that. However, I cannot discount him doing so with the support of Russia’s Government as a means of identifying and developing potential intelligence sources with the Taliban.
Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call George W Bush after the 9-11 attacks to offer assistance. We took him up on that and the Russians, as a result of their ties to the Northern Alliance, facilitated the deployment of the CIA JAWBREAKER team. First team in was led by Gary Schroen, who was followed by Gary Berntsen. Gary Berntsen’s book, JAWKBREAKER, recounts that adventure.
Bout’s work as a Russian intel operative working under the cover of arms trafficking gave him incredible access to sources and activities not normally available to a Russian intelligence officer working under diplomatic or military cover. It is a smart way for the Russians to collect intel and recruit human sources on a variety of active insurgent groups and criminal organizations. If you think the United States has not ried something like this, think again.
I know from previous conversations with friends involved in CIA logistics activities that the United States has used people like Bout to buy weapons for our own international adventures. Worth recalling that the CIA was gathering up weapons and arming Islamic radicals in Syria in a bid to overthrow Bashir Assad (remember Benghazi?).
Bout’s arrest in March 2008 needs to be considered in the broader context of U.S./Russian relations. It is trued that Bout was arrested in Thailand as part of a DEA sting. But the story has some significant holes. The official version is that a DEA Confidential Informant approached Bout about selling arms, including SAMs, to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The subsequent US indictment claimed that Bout was selling weapons use against U.S. forces in Colombia.
This is nonsense. That was an artful creation on the part of US prosecutors. The FARC’s military capability in 2008 was in severe decline. If the FARC had plans to use IGLAs, they would have been used against Colombian air assets attacking FARC camps in the jungles of Colombia.
On March 1, 2008, the Colombian military attacked a FARC–EP camp inside Ecuador‘s territory, resulting in the death of over 20 people, with at least 17 of them being FARC–EP guerillas. Raúl Reyes was among the dead, along with at least 16 of his fellow guerrillas. Raúl Reyes was FARC–EP’s international spokesman and hostage release negotiator and considered to be FARC–EP’s second-in-command. This incident led to a breakdown in diplomatic relations between Ecuador and Colombia, and between Venezuela and Colombia. Ecuador condemned the attack.
This is considered the biggest blow against FARC–EP in its more than four decades of existence. This event was quickly followed by the death of Ivan Rios, another member of FARC–EP’s seven-man Secretariat, less than a week later, by the hand of his own bodyguard. It came as a result of heavy Colombian military pressure and a reward offer of up to $5 million from the Colombian government.
Bout is not the kind of guy who is clueless about the strategic situation on the ground in Colombia and would have known this proposal was questionable. In fact, Bout’s dealing with the DEA informant could have been part of a Russian effort to develop better intel on the waning fortunes of the FARC. I believe some other deal was proposed but that was not included in the indictment. That helps explain why Bout denied the charge in the indictment. He was not trying to kill or facilitate the killing of U.S. military personnel.
One month later (April 2, 2008), Vladimir Putin spoke at the NATO Summit in Bucharest and laid down clear markers warning the West to not incorporate Ukraine or Georgia into NATO. NATO gave some lip service to this but tensions between Russia and Georgia escalated in the following months.
On 15 July, the United States and Russia began two parallel military trainings in the Caucasus, though Russia denied that the identical timing was intentional. The joint US-Georgian exercise was called Immediate Response 2008 and also included servicemen from Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia. A total of 1,630 servicemen, including 1,000 American troops, took part in the exercise, which concluded on 31 July. Counter-insurgency action was the focal point of the joint exercise. The Georgian brigade was trained to serve in Iraq. The Russian exercise was named Caucasus 2008 and units of the North Caucasus Military District, including the 58th Army, took part. The exercise included training to aid peacekeeping forces stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. During exercises, a pamphlet named “Soldier! Know your probable enemy!” was circulated among the Russian soldiers. The pamphlet described the Georgian Armed Forces. Russian troops stayed near the border with Georgia after the end of their exercise on 2 August, instead of going back to their barracks.
Hostilities broke out on 1 August 2008 between the Russian supported South Ossetians and Georgia. The fighting escalated and continued for 11 days, with Russian forces increasing their forces inside Georgia, when then Russian President Medvedev announced the cessation of the “peace enforcement” operation in Georgia.:
“The operation has achieved its goal, security for peacekeepers and civilians has been restored. The aggressor was punished, suffering huge losses.”
The 2008 Russo-Georgian War was seen by the West as an unwelcome Russian victory and set back for NATO expansion into Georgia. Viewed in this context, punishing Bout was part of a broader effort to punish Russia for winning in Georgia. Russia had a military presence in this region going back to the 1990 civil war in Georgia. Prior to 2008, Russian forces were there as peacekeepers and were recognized as such by both sides. That all changed after the August 2008 military operation. Russia expanded it military infrastructure and political ties with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That stuck in the craw of Washington and NATO.
I am amused by the critics who criticized harshly Russia’s action in Georgia because it marked the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union “that the Russian military had been used against an independent state, thereby demonstrating Russia’s willingness to use military force to attain its political objectives”. Hello? And U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya were humanitarian missions? From the Russian perspective, Russia was doing what the U.S. had been doing for years. Using military force to secure its borders.
In short, I think Bout was a scapegoat that the United States could punish and send a message to Russia. Bout’s arrest and imprisonment was a serious blow to Russia’s intelligence operations. I think the Russian’s got the message and looked for opportunities to recover one of their intelligence assets. I imagine the Russian intel chiefs are laughing their asses off that they secured the release of a valued intelligence asset for a pot smoking, LGBTQ basketball player. Talk about something for nothing.