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Due West: Bout’s Sentence Poses Dilemma for Moscow

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
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The hysteria surrounding Viktor Bout, a 45-year old Russian with a murky past, convicted by a U.S. court of conspiring to kill American citizens and sentenced to 25 years in jail, surpasses everything the Russian government has ever done to defend one of its citizens abroad.

The hysteria surrounding Viktor Bout, a 45-year old Russian with a murky past, convicted by a U.S. court of conspiring to kill American citizens and sentenced to 25 years in jail,  surpasses everything the Russian government has ever done to defend one of its citizens abroad.

It’s certainly on a par with the time Russia extracted two of its agents caught in Qatar after assassinating former Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in 2004.

Emotions have rarely abated ever since Mr. Bout was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 in a sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and then extradited to the U.S. in 2010 to stand trial.

The jury in New York came to the conclusion that the former Soviet army officer, who has repeatedly been named by various media and even the UN as one of the world's most dangerous and unscrupulous gun runners, indeed agreed to sell surface-to-air missiles and ammunition to a Colombian terrorist group that is fighting DEA agents and Colombian armed forces. Of course, the “terrorists” Bout dealt with were Americans masquerading as Colombian emissaries.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement said that Moscow will take all necessary measures to repatriate Mr. Bout.

Those who are following Bout's case think he will eventually be exchanged for someone who is doing time in Russia for espionage. Another option is to arrest some American and use them barter for Mr. Bout.

If such thing happens it will put official Russia in an awkward position. An exchange would be a de facto admission that Viktor Bout's colorful if mysterious career was more than just a lonely freebooter's odyssey. It may imply that he acted with approval – or even on the orders – of the Russian state.

It seems that the convicted Russian himself believes that he will be set free soon. So does his wife.

Facing more than twenty years in foreign jail could break many a man, but Mr. Bout staunchly refused to cooperate with the investigation and protested his innocence. He is behaving like someone who is certain that he will eventually be rescued.

Without gong into the details of the case, of which I have no more than an opinion, I still am perplexed by the question: “Why is Russia so steadfastly defending someone accused of such dubious activities?”

My personal view is that a normal state should be interested in finding out what its citizens abroad are up to. And if they are caught red-handed by a foreign power, it may be worthwhile checking out whether there is any substance to the accusations before switching to all-out indignation.

Another worrying trend is that when the Russian state decides to take action (as it did in the case of Viktor Bout), it always goes over the top, especially when the case in question involves a Western country. Accusations of “Russophobia,” “Cold war thinking” and “bias” are immediately thrown at the Americans or Europeans.

This is never the case with dictatorships. Russian citizens who get into trouble in places like Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan cannot count on such massive propaganda support and publicity.

Which takes us back to the beginning: “Did Mr. Bout know or do something that is very valuable – or very damaging – to make official Moscow so eloquent in his defense?” Actually, I doubt he will spend his whole prison term in the U.S., especially if Barack Obama, for whom the whole case is an awkward legacy of the George W. Bush era, stays in the White House and pursues a “Reset-2” policy. Still, even if Mr. Bout walks, his international career is definitely over.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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