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Moscow Should Hand Over Fugitive Weapons Trafficker

U.S. is derelict in not demanding action from its war-on-terror ally.


Most Americans would be shocked to learn that one of the Taliban's favorite arms smugglers is now living freely and openly in a country that is supposed to be an ally in the U.S. war against terrorism--and that the Bush administration has done nothing about it.

Another story of double-dealing by Saudi Arabia or divided loyalties in Pakistan? No, this problem is in Russia. It offers a glimpse into the global infrastructure of terrorism and international crime, and why Russia's role in international affairs is still unclear.

When Vladimir V. Putin became president, it appeared that Russia would take control of its future from the oligarchs and criminals. And it still might. Putin has taken a number of impressive steps to begin to reform Russian society. Yet the story of Victor Bout raises some of the old questions.

According to at least four separate United Nations reports, Bout, a former Soviet military officer fluent in five languages, built an international arms trafficking network that delivers arms to all of Africa's major conflict zones. Bout has also reportedly worked on behalf of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines and Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, whom Washington still considers a sponsor of terrorism. And for years Bout also secretly helped the Taliban obtain tons of heavy artillery, assault rifles and other weaponry.

Despite the overwhelming evidence against him, and his connection to a regime that gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, Bout is not running for his life. On the contrary, he is living quite comfortably in Russia. To date, Putin has not touched him. And why should he? Neither President Bush nor any senior administration official has asked him to.

That is a far different approach than the one taken by President Clinton. After identifying Bout as a threat to U.S. interests in 2000, the U.S. began to work with Britain, South Africa and Belgium to disrupt Bout's activities and take down his organization.

Earlier this year, those efforts came into the open when the Belgians issued an international arrest warrant for Bout. The Interpol warrant dislodged him from his base in the United Arab Emirates and made him an international fugitive. But Bout fled to Russia, where he appears to be enjoying official protection.

On Feb. 28, the same day that Bout walked into a Moscow radio station to maintain his innocence, a spokesman for Interpol's Russian bureau suggested that Bout was not even in Russia.

Today, he remains a free man in Moscow, sheltered by a Russian government that is reportedly skeptical of the allegations against him.

Bush should press Putin to hand Bout over to international law enforcement authorities. Bush should explain to Putin that Bout's organization--and groups like it--threaten common Russian and U.S. security interests. It is clear that Russian law enforcement agencies will not act without Putin's direct intervention.

In fueling the deaths of innocents, Bout's organization offends Russian and American values. And in arming rogues and terrorists, it undermines our common objectives in promoting international security and the rule of law.

Bout's continuing impunity also sends the wrong message about the future of a country still teetering between the rule of law and criminality. To create a stable international order, the U.S. and Russia need to address post-Cold War threats together.

A good way to start would be to take down Victor Bout.


William F. Wechsler was director of transnational threats on the National Security Council under President Clinton. Lee S. Wolosky held the same post under presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

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