In an interview with NBC, Vladimir Putin acknowledged the possibility of an exchange of prisoners between the United States and Russia. One of the key figures that the Kremlin may demand to surrender is the Russian Viktor Bout, convicted of arms trafficking and supporting terrorism. Not only Bout's lawyers say his exchange would be expedient, but so does the judge who sentenced him to 25 years in prison in 2011. But why would the Kremlin welcome the extradition of the «merchant of death» who armed Colombian terrorists and was immortalized by the Hollywood movie Lord of War, in which he was played by Nicolas Cage? The answer to this question can be found in the memoirs of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB lieutenant colonel who was poisoned with polonium in London.
On the eve of the meeting between Biden and Putin in Geneva on June 16, 2021, Russian propaganda claimed the release of Viktor Bout would become a topic for discussion between the two presidents. The host of the weekly Vesti Nedeli news program Dmitry Kiselev even compared the arrest of Bout in 2008 with the arrest of Roman Protasevich. The next portion of propaganda reports about Victor Bout being “slandered by the US”, was also timed to coincide with the Putin-Biden summit. Previously, similar lobbying efforts were undertaken under the Trump administration, and before that, under the Obama administration. Over the years, the Kremlin has never abandoned its attempts to secure the release of the «honest businessman». Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was «too early to talk about specifics» on the exchange of prisoners before the meeting between Biden and Putin, but a letter from Viktor Bout's elderly mother to Biden and Putin had been prepared in advance of the meeting, and the pro-Kremlin media have been openly discussing the prospects for Bout's release.
In addition to the United States, Bout was prosecuted for illegal arms trading by France, Belgium and even Sierra Leone. He has been under UN sanctions for illegal arms trading since 2001. However, this did not bother Bout for a while, since the «honest businessman» had five passports with different surnames. In arresting Bout on charges of selling weapons to militants in Colombia (an analogue of the «forest brothers» in the North Caucasus), the United States was assisted by the Romanian, Danish and Dutch police. The global media, in contrast to the Russian media outlets, describe Bout as a «merchant of death» who contributed to the incitement of bloody conflicts. French journalist Jean-Michel Vernochet argues that the wars in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia, DRC, Angola, and Sudan would not have been of such magnitude, had Victor Bout not supplied the warring parties with weapons.
The Insider has obtained materials that help shed light on the reason for the Kremlin's grandiose efforts to free Bout. We have in our possession a video recording of an interview with Alexander Litvinenko, in which he tells how he met Bout at the Lubyanka. He did not come in for interrogation: Bout collaborated with General Khokholkov on the issue of illegal arms sales to Africa and the Middle East, Litvinenko claims. According to The Insider, retired General Khokholkov maintains ties with the Solntsevo organized crime group, which is an indirect confirmation of Litvinenko's words.
Litvinenko was videotaped by a freelance Australian journalist Nick Lazaredes in 2003. Here is the transcript:
“I was told by an employee of the Internal Security Directorate with whom I met: Sasha, you know, they sell tanks. They sell heavy arms to Africa; they go to the Middle East. In confirmation of these words, I saw in the office of Khokholkov, my boss, head of the Directorate (and it was the group that was associated with Khokholkov, he is one of the leaders of the group), I saw Bout in his office. Bout is now on the international wanted list for illegal arms trafficking. This person is associated with Ukrainian criminal groups, this person, according to operational data, was associated with the son of Derkach - the former head of the SBU, the closest person to the President of Ukraine Kuchma.»
According to Litvinenko, the context of his conversation with the members of the Internal Security Department about corruption in the FSB was as follows:
“Starting in 1996, when I served in the FSB, we began noticing we had many workers who were living beyond their means. They had cash ... well, let us say we had an employee who carried $10,000 in his pocket every day. When you start detaining members of a criminal group – a real criminal group that's engaged in murder and racketeering – as soon as you start arresting them, someone comes to you, or you get a call from one of your colleagues, from your superiors, and they tell you you need to release this person, because he, as it turns out, is in the intelligence apparatus of another unit. FSB officers began to establish business ties with the leaders of the underworld. And in order to somehow legalize and cover up those connections, they hired them as agents. And as soon as you detain one of them, they tell you: You detained an agent, let him go...”.
Victor Bout studied at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages (journalist Orhan Jemal was his classmate), served as a translator in Mozambique and Angola; as stated in the book The Merchant of Death by Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah, British intelligence considers him to be a GRU officer. According to the authors, it was with the GRU's money that Bout purchased his first Antonov and Ilyushin planes, which had sat idle at airfields during perestroika. Bout had several dozen aircraft assigned to different countries, their routes changing in flight, which allowed Bout to remain at large for a long time. However, while Bout's connection with the GRU has not been unequivocally proven, Litvinenko's story about Bout and the FSB general Khokholkov has received indirect confirmation.
Khokholkov is a well-known figure in the criminal world. Banker German Gorbuntsov, who now lives in London, said in a conversation with The Insider that it was General Khokholkov who had arranged his meeting with members of the Solntsevo gang interested in the business of Gorbuntsov and his partners connected with Russian Railways (click here to learn more about Gorbuntsov and Russian Railways).
According to the banker's recollections, on April 26 or 27, 2009, General Khokholkov arranged a meeting for him; besides the general himself, it was attended by one of the leaders of the Solntsevo gang Viktor Averin (Avera) and the businessmen Andrei Krapivin, Boris Usherovich and Viktor Markelov. The banker claims Khokholkov “had built a bathhouse for the Solntsevo gang near the Komsomolskaya metro station,” which earned him special respect. Currently, FSB General Yevgeny Khokholkov has joined the Patriots of Russia and has been saying he knows Uzbekistan well, and therefore Alisher Usmanov would be the best president of Uzbekistan. (You might recall that Usmanov has a common business with the father of Andrei Skoch from the Solntsevo gang).
Litvinenko's words - to the effect that not only the FSB, but also the SBU during Kuchma's time were associated with the organized criminal group - have been confirmed by a former member of the Solntsevo gang, Leonid Roitman. He currently lives in the United States, where he served a prison sentence. In a conversation with The Insider, he admitted that the son of General Leonid Derkach, who headed the SBU from 1998 to 2001, actively collaborated with the Solntsevo gang.
Fragments of the interview with Litvinenko were shown on the Australian television channel SBS on May 21, 2003. However, the passage about Viktor Bout was not included; what was included were Litvinenko's statements about the FSB helping drug trafficking from Afghanistan. The transcript was published in 2018. On May 22, 2003, the day after the broadcast, the Russian ambassador to Canberra Leonid Moiseev sent an angry letter to chairman of SBS's board of directors Carla Zampatti. The letter was written in the best traditions of the Russian Foreign Ministry and aggressively accused the journalist of promoting a conspiracy theory. The diplomat failed to explain which statements of the journalist he considered inaccurate:
“Dear Madam Zampatti, I am writing to you to express my deep surprise and inability to believe my eyes. Until yesterday, I always considered SBS journalists to be highly professional people, not subject to ideological stereotypes. Unfortunately, your yesterday's “Crimes of the Kremlin” program destroyed my belief that SBS promotes mutual understanding between countries and nationalities. ...<> This is indeed one of the most blatantly biased and unbalanced propaganda materials I have ever seen in recent years. Of course, I never expected to see something like this in Australia. After watching the material, I want to ask a very simple question. What or who sparked SBS's interest in the conspiracy theory?»
Litvinenko said in the interview with Nick Lazaredes that in 1998 he personally reported to Putin on the connections between organized crime groups and security forces, when Putin was chief of the FSB:
“Putin listened to me, shook my hand. I brought him a huge diagram which showed our generals, generals of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and certain persons in the Kremlin, and the arrows pointed down to business companies through which money was laundered, and to criminal groups. It was a general diagram, a huge one, it covered the whole table. We had been drawing it with my subordinates for about two weeks. I was open with the man. Well, operative sources claimed he was not entirely clean, but still I thought that if he were appointed director of the FSB, he would somehow, you know, think about the affairs of the state, not about his own pocket... I already understood my boss was a bandit, a drug dealer, and whatnot. I understood the matter had gone too far, but still I did not want to believe it was 100% true... Well, one must have at least some hope. You know, it felt the same as when a doctor tells you you have cancer. So, you have cancer. You will be dead in a month. It's true but still you hope he may be wrong».
As you might remember, The Insider wrote about the links between smugglers and the Russian secret services in the context of drug trafficking (see «The smooth wheeler-dealer. What links billionaire Sergei Adonyev with cocaine smuggling and Putin» and «Ministry of Strange Affairs. How the Foreign Ministry and intelligence agencies are helping to deliver cocaine to Russia»). But in the context of the arms trade, such links have already been found. In 2009, Arkady Gaydamak was convicted in absentia in France in the so-called «Angolan case» for laundering $790 million in proceeds from arms trade in Angola during the 1975-2002 civil war. Gaydamak is a native of the USSR with several passports; for example, he is also known as Bar Lev Arye. Gaydamak released a memoir in French, in which he denied any ties to the KGB/FSB, but Gaydamak's accomplice, convicted in France, gave a different testimony: according to him, it was Gaydamak's work for the KGB that helped him to convince his partners he was an official trader (the testimony was recorded by the French court).
Litvinenko lived in exile in London from 2000, and he published the book Lubyanka Criminal Group in 2002, in which he accused the FSB of “protecting” organized criminal groups, foiling investigations against them in Russia and sabotaging international investigations. Litvinenko also collaborated with Spanish investigators looking into the Russian Mafia case as part of Operation Wasp; the Spanish Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office was preparing his official questioning in 2006, which never took place because of the poisoning. In 2006, according to British investigators Litvinenko was poisoned by an FSB officer, now a State Duma deputy, Andrei Lugovoi. A High Court judge ruled in 2016 that the murder was ordered by Nikolai Patrushev and «probably approved by Vladimir Putin”.
This text is also available in Russian.