Commentary Magazine


Putin Retaliates Against U.S. on Behalf of the “Merchant of Death”

Vladimir Putin is putting the finishing touches on a second retaliation for American legislation targeting Russian human rights abusers. After the U.S. passed the Magnitsky Act, banning American entry of Russian officials involved in the brutal prison death of a whistleblower, Putin responded by having his allies push through a ban on American adoption of Russian children. This was a particularly cruel act, since Americans are the ones who usually adopt disabled Russian children; Putin was gratuitously punishing the young and disabled.

But Putin has since added another ban on Americans in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, since one was not enough to fully convey Putin’s disdain for human rights. And this one is a list of his own: now finalized, the “Guantanamo list” bans certain Americans from entering Russia, and it is centered on the supposedly “medieval” conditions of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to one Russian official, however, calling it the “Guantanamo list” is merely a convenient categorization; “It’s a label,” Russia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs told Bloomberg. “Like Johnnie Walker.” And true to form, Putin’s version of the list was constructed without much actual concern for human rights, as the Washington Times reports:

He said the additions to the list included “judges, investigators, justice ministry officials and special service agents” who had participated in the prosecution of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted drug smuggler.

Bout, whose nickname is the “merchant of death” and who was apparently the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in Lord of War, is a legend in the world of illicit arms dealing. Russia has fought Bout’s extradition to the U.S. after he was finally arrested in Bangkok in 2008, probably because Bout knows a thing or two the Kremlin would like to remain under wraps. The Russian government’s links to Russian arms dealers are well known, and at the very least it is thought to be impossible for Bout to carry out his work without acquiescence from Putin. But according to Bout’s biographer Douglas Farah, sometime around 2005 “Putin imposed control on intelligence services. Bout goes from being an outside operator, from being a freelance operator, to being part of the system.”

Speaking of Bout’s arrest, here is Colum Lynch’s description of the sting operation that nabbed him:

During a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation in Bangkok in March 2008, the alleged arms dealer, known as the Merchant of Death, was caught on tape describing his plan to sell millions of dollars in weapons to the Colombian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to “kill American pilots.”

Bout claimed he never intended to follow through; a jury tossed his defense right back at him attached to a 25-year prison sentence. And while the plan Bout facilitated was designed to end with the shedding of American blood, this is far from a U.S.-Russia bilateral issue. Lynch describes some of Bout’s history:

The Security Council imposed a travel ban on Bout in March 2004 and later froze his financial assets for his alleged role in supplying arms to former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who was tried for war crimes by a U.N.-backed court. “[B]etween 1996 and 2008, BOUT had the capacity to transport large-scale military machinery, as well as extensive stores of weapons to virtually any location in the world,” read a 2009 federal indictment by the U.S. attorney from the Southern District of New York.

Putin is believed to want Bout back in a Cold War-style prisoner swap, but chances for that are dim. There is also the possibility that the Guantanamo list was drawn up and expanded six-fold because the adoption ban has provoked an outcry from Russian protesters, media, and human rights groups. Opponents of the ban hope it will be quietly dropped at a later date, and thus the Guantanamo list will stand as the official mode of Russian retaliation.

But there is also a good chance that both bans will stand. Putin is quite obviously attempting to create bargaining chips to nudge along the second-term “flexibility” President Obama promised him before the election. And as shameless and reprehensible as they are, these moves demonstrate a certain amount of weakness on Putin’s part; if he had the means to challenge the U.S. in other, more substantial ways, he would most likely employ them. Nonetheless, the Obama administration’s attempts to patch up relations with Russia have failed repeatedly and spectacularly. Putin’s bad faith suggests the administration’s diplomatic time and effort would be better spent elsewhere.

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