Mirror, Mirror on the Wall – Who Sells the Mostest Guns of All?

Uncle Volodya says, "Hey, Mr. Ahmedinijad - nice helicopter! Where'd you buy it?"

The Russian Flag, seen on less than a quarter of the world's weapons

If you’re just easing back into the grind of the working week, and were looking for some nice non-partisan analysis of current events, I can prevent you from making a horrible mistake. If you wanted to avoid holier-than-thou preaching about the arrest and disposition of alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout, garnished with the usual rubbish about how apoplectic with fury Russia is that its nefarious aims have been blocked once again by the glittering and righteous sword of American foreign policy – don’t go here.

If you’ve guessed that La Russophobe has rolled out another predictably reality-challenged piece of venomous nonsense, you’re right. Oh, it’s not so much that Bout is a good guy who’s being railroaded by a corrupt system – he probably is a bad guy who’s made a pile of money selling the sinews of war to anyone who’s got the money. The issue – and what makes me wonder why on earth the United States is so eager to try him on its own soil (with the attendant media attention and sensationalism that will bring) – is that Bout and his country of origin are a very distant second in the often-clandestine business of supplying foreign powers with the means to kill each other. Why is that important? I’ll tell you.

In his Report to Congress released September 2009 (warning – PDF file), International Security Specialist Richard Grimmett highlighted what those who keep abreast of current events already knew: the United States is the world’s largest dealer in weapons and armaments, by a significant margin. For example, the American share of global weapons sales (pg. 27) grew from 38.9% during the period 2001-2004 to 42.6% between 2005-2008. What is less well-known is that Russia’s share of arms trafficking in the world shrank from 17.6% to 16.3% in the same two periods. The American share of arms transfer agreements to Developing Countries (pg. 28) ballooned from 30.2% in 2007 to a mind-boggling 70.2% only a year later. Russia’s share dropped from 25.2% in 2007 to only 7.8% in 2008. Mr. Grimmett points out that there is considerable potential liquidity in the latter figures, since not all these agreements have been concluded, and there is still the possibility that some may be modified or cancelled. Nonetheless, the report paints a pretty clear picture of a United States that is aggressively pursuing a monopoly on world weapons trade.

Is this so bad? Not necessarily. It’s not illegal, usually. Developing countries will want to outfit their militaries; some are countries rich in natural resources such as oil, and have plenty of money. Arms trade agreements may well lead to broader trade between the United States and these countries. U.S. arms technology has an excellent reputation, and customers will buy from a suppplier who offers a good, reliable product. Russia is an arms marketer for all the same reasons.

However, as La Russophobe points out, the traffic in arms isn’t always so simple as an I’ve-got-’em, you-want-’em transaction. Sometimes arms marketers like to indulge a little hobby – influencing the outcome of a military conflict by cutting an ally a great deal, for example, to load the dice against his opponent. Selling him weapons that are prohibited by international agreements or even your own end-user regulations. Bout, for instance – the cretin – is said to have sometimes sold weapons to both sides in a conflict. Wow.

Well, the world’s biggest arms dealer has done that, too. It’s important to recognize here that when we talk about the U.S. as an arms dealer, we’re not talking about a network of shady bad actors in dark glasses, trailing a retinue of bodyguards. Not unless you think that describes the government, because that’s who it is. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1990), the United States sold Iraq weapons including cluster bombs (through a Chilean front company) and chemical and biological precursors such as anthrax and bubonic plague virus, although Iraq was known to be using chemical weapons in defiance of international conventions. After the war, inspectors found equipment made by Union Carbide and Honeywell that had been adapted to military use. Bell Helicopter/Textron entered into negotiations to sell helicopters to Iraq that were “not to be configured in any way for military use”, although the buyer was the Iraqi Defense Ministry – come on.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government officially adopted a posture of discouraging arms exports to Iran, through a diplomatic initiative designated “Operation Staunch”. Under this banner, the U.S. government advised other countries not to sell weapons to Iran, ostensibly in the hope of forcing a negotiated settlement to end the war. This seems a noble enough goal, and it had the effect of creating an urgent appetite in Iran for weapons…..which the U.S. government was happy to satisfy. Under the auspices of the scandal which became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, the United States government sold weapons to Iran, and used the funds realized to support anti-government forces known as the Sandanistas in Nicaragua.

Surely, though, the principals in this hypocritical about-face were severely punished, right? Not so much. Colonel Oliver North was fired, although it looked a lot more like a resignation. Oh, there were some criminal convictions – North, Poindexter; Reagan’s Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. North and Poindexter’s convictions were vacated on appeal because of immunity agreements, and Weinberger was pardoned by President Bush (senior) in 1992. Nobody went to jail. Nobody even had to write 200 times, “I will not be a party to arms deals that place American-made weapons in the hands of ideological enemies”. Quite the smackdown – I hope you all learned your lesson. If that came across as sarcastic, it was deliberate.

Viktor Bout is likely a bad guy who’s done bad things. He likely should face trial for them. But the notion that the Kremlin is “seething”, or is worried about what Bout might reveal, is laughable. No less a luminary than Robert Amsterdam, one of the two “Great Roberts” in Russia blogging according to La Russophobe, agrees that unconstrained blabbing by Bout is likely to make Washington even more uncomfortable than Russia. If he’s going to talk out loud about dirty deeds done dirt cheap during a trial in the U.S., his revelations are likely to fall on some sympathetic ears. The press, or at least some of it,  will rake up all the muck about American arms deals again. Any discussion in detail that is thereby provoked could hardly conclude other than that the United States says one thing and does another, and feels perfectly free to sell weapons -either right out of the box or through a front company – to nations that it has condemned as state sponsors of terrorism. Someone might point out that Bout might be a shady character, but at least he’s not pretending to be anything other than a greedy criminal. It might even come up that just because a blacklisted nation gets its hands on Russian-made arms doesn’t mean Russia sold them – sometimes it’s arms dealers from countries the United States considers its “special friends”. I have to say I don’t see an upside for anyone, except maybe Bout, who will get to stay in a nicer jail.

Update: As pointed out by Carpenter117 in comments, one of Bout’s customers was the U.S. government. From pg. 44; “The U.S. military and the thousands of private contractors hired to restore Iraq’s shattered infrastructure needed supplies for their mission. By the summer, Antonovs were roaring into Baghdad’s cratered airport, ferrying everything from tents and video players to armored cars and refurbished Kalashnikovs.

But to their embarrassment, U.S. officials later learned that many of the Russian planes were operated by companies and crews working for Viktor Bout. His planes were flying Federal Express shipments for the U.S. Air Force, tents for the U.S. Army, and oil field equipment and personnel for KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary.

In the months that followed, Bout’s flagship firm flew hundreds of sorties in and out of Baghdad, earning millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers….Air Force officials reacted quickly, revoking the fuel allowance and persuading Federal Express to sever its contract. But the U.S. Army and other defense agencies insisted they had no responsibility to scrutinize second-tier subcontractors. Bout’s flights for KBR continued well into late 2005, and even expanded to include flights into Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.”

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15 Responses to Mirror, Mirror on the Wall – Who Sells the Mostest Guns of All?

  1. kovane says:

    Hey! This Bout guy is not so bad after all. He was the inspiration for Lord of War movie. The film’s box office performance was rather good, which means people found him sympathetic enough. The market has spoken, Bout is clearly innocent.

    On a more serious note, securing a major share of the world weapon market is vital for the US, so their bloated military sector wouldn’t be such a burden for the economy it is now. Unfortunately, once you’ve managed to sell your weapons, a constant flow of cash is virtually guaranteed: personnel training, spare parts, ammunition, and the buyer is more inclined to buy from the same supplier. It’s sad to say that Russia is loosing weapon markets probably for good.

    • marknesop says:

      Lord of War wasn’t really that great a movie, though: Nicholas Cage was probably the big draw, since he plays a great crazy guy. He looks a little unbalanced at the best of times, and when he’s really trying, he looks extremely crazy.

      Russia hasn’t been in a serious war for a long time. Wars are tailor-made for testing new weapons systems, and a natural for marketing those same systems as “battle-proven”. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes not. I imagine the Patriot missile system has been greatly improved over its first use in Gulf War 1, but at that time Raytheon was talking it up like it never missed, and it was a piece of garbage. On the plus side, you get to learn a lot about system weaknesses by watching it in action. Russia is the default market for countries that are ticked off at the U.S. or otherwise wish to “send them a message”. Russia might not sell as much, but stuff is more expensive. You’re right about selling infrastructure along with the weapon, though. Still, when you’re the “Death Merchant” to the world, better not build ’em too good, because you can count on facing your own weapons on some future battlefield.

  2. carpenter117 says:

    Wow. Nice pice. Well written, Mark. Also, thank you for doing all the research, compiling, linking and posting. It’s no arguing that Bout is arms-dealer (by the way – West, as usual, “confused things a bit” – he served not in KGB, but in GRU (Государственное Разведывательное Управление) – Military External Intellegence service… among other thing… as an NCO… and no connections with Sechin, contrary to elifes of one idiot russian expert from “Newsvine” board).

    What really, really ineterests me is what transpired between Bout and his part-time customer G.W Bush, Jr. in 2006-07. Immediatly aftewards Bush and his administration adopted wery negative view on Bout wich resulted in Media-hatred compaing of standard brainwashing western style.

    Mark, you have a nice blog here. Sorry, if my english is not сomme il faut – i’m workin’ on it.

    • carpenter117 says:

      Oh, and of course, famous line:

      “There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is, how do we arm the other eleven?”
      —Yuri Orlov, Lord Of War

      • kovane says:

        Despite my deep-seated hatred of Nicholas Cage, the movie is undoubtedly great 🙂

          • marknesop says:

            Either “of” or “for” will work equally well in this context. I’m afraid my reaction to the movie was “Meh”. Not great. Nicolas (I spelled his name wrong earlier) Cage is a good enough actor, but he tends to overact in a dramatic role, and Lord of War wasn’t really a very strong storyline. It kept jumping around in place and time, like they were trying to make up for a weak story with plenty of subject changes. I saw it on a long trip when we didn’t have a lot of choices, but if I had rented it I would have considered it money mostly wasted.

            Incidentally, Carpenter, you are correct – see pg. 44 of this reference;


            Stand by for post update, and thanks!

    • marknesop says:

      Thanks, Carpenter. Your English is as good as some people’s who can’t speak anything else, so don’t feel bad. We can speak French, if you’re more comfortable with that. I didn’t know anything about an earlier connection between Bush and Bout – that’s very interesting, and I’ll look into it! Thanks for the info!


  3. Alex says:

    Thanks for the interesting material, Mark. IMHO, supplying both conflicting sides with weapons is exactly how it should be done – a practical form of separation of (the) business from governments and their politics. (* when I saw the reference to Bout’s “humanitarian” operations at the beginning of one of the referenced here articles, I immediately thought that this was why his business was busted – and then saw that it indeed, it was how it happened *) Cheers

  4. marknesop says:

    As far as I’m concerned, people can do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else who wasn’t interested in being part of it, and as long as there’s no finger-pointing and shouts of, “look what they’re doing, the bastards!” when you’re doing the same or worse yourself.

    This, as I’ve always maintained, is what bothers me most about that site – all the caterwauling about how evil and greedy the Russians are, when you could gather up a suitcase of examples of greed and evil without walking far enough from your front door to work up a decent sweat. Despise others if you must, but be honest enough to say you hate them for no particular reason, and don’t pretend you’re trying to help them be better.

    • rkka says:

      Oh, that would not do at all. An integral part of the Wests psychological warfare against Russia has been the pretense that vituperative, destructive criticism is actually helpful, constructive criticism.

      Honesty about the motive would blow the whole game!

      • marknesop says:

        Perhaps some of us are no longer capable of seeing the difference. For those people, here’s a template;

        1. Research your complaint first, from the viewpoint of how the problem is handled in your own country and by your closest allies, so somebody doesn’t make you look like a complete assclown by demonstrating that you are as bad or worse.

        2. State your criticism: for example, “Russia needs to improve its adherence to the rule of law”. If you wish, give an example of this shortcoming (and they are legion, unfortunately).

        3. Explain how the problem was overcome in your country: every country in the world has had to struggle with the same problems at one stage of its development or other – no state was born with the rule of law, using this example.

        4. Suggest how a similar solution might work in Russia, remaining mindful of such things as cultural differences, cost of implementation, resources available and assessed Russian popular support for your idea. If you have a person in mind who you think would be ideal to lead the project, identify him or her.

        5. Post your completed criticism template not only on your own blog or the blog where you are commenting, but on the Russian Prime Minister’s site: http://www.premier.gov.ru
        If he can respond courteously to a blogger who called he and his government a “bunch of bitches”, I’m sure he won’t send some goons around to kneecap you for offering your ideas. At worst, you’ll get no answer, but you’re more likely to get a polite thank-you for your input. Don’t be surprised if it takes a couple of days; he’s probably a busy guy.

  5. Pingback: Hero Journalist Yulia Latynina – The Gift That Keeps On Goofing | The Kremlin Stooge

  6. carpenter117 says:

    Re: Arms trading, Victor Boute.

    1) Allow me to provide some useful quotes from Frederick Forsyth book “Dogs of War” (1974):

    “The trade in lethal weapons is the world’s most lucrative, after narcotics, and, not surprisingly, the governments of the world are deeply involved in it. Since 1945 it has become almost a point of national prestige to have one’s own native arms industry, and these industries have flourished and multiplied to the point where by the early 1970s it was estimated there existed one military firearm for every man, woman, and child on the face of the planet (see Alexi Orlov quote – c.). Arms manufacture simply cannot be kept down to arms consumption except in case of war, and the logical response has to be either to export the surplus or encourage war, or both{…}. To this end, all the major powers operate highly paid teams of salesmen to trot the globe persuading any potentate with whom they can secure an interview that he does not have enough weapons, or that what he does possess are not modern enough and should be replaced”
    “The main world arms-makers and -exporters are the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Italy, West Germany (with certain banned manufactures under the 1954 Paris treaty), Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Israel, and South Africa in the Western world. Sweden and Switzerland are neutral but still make and export very fine weaponry, while Israel and South Africa built up their arms industries in light of their peculiar situations, because they did not wish to be dependent on anyone in the event of a crisis, and both export very little indeed. The others are all NATO countries and linked by a common defense policy. They also share an ill-defined degree of cooperation on foreign policy as it relates to arms sales, and an application for an arms purchase made to any of them habitually undergoes a close scrutiny before it is granted and the arms are sold.
    {…} so, the private arms dealer enters into the picture {…} He is a businessman who may be used as a source of weaponry by someone seeking to buy, but in order to stay in business he must liaise closely with the defense department of his own country, or the department will see that he goes out of business. It is in his interest to abide by his native country’s wishes anyway; that country may be the source of his own purchases, which could be cut off if he causes displeasure, apart from his fear of being put out of business by other, less pleasant means.”
    “Down in the mud at the bottom sit the black-market, arms dealers. These are self-styled, since they hold no license. They may not therefore legally hold any stocks of weapons at all. They remain in business by being of value to the secret buyer, a man or organization who, not being a government or representing one, cannot clinch an intergovernmental deal; who would not be tacitly approved of by a Western government as desirable to receive arms; who cannot persuade a Communist government to support his cause on the grounds of political ideology; but who needs arms.”

    Victor Bout was black-market arms dealer and, no, he haven’t any license from Russian Goverment – ‘couse he didn’t need one in 90-s. He single handedly revolutionized market by not playing by rules but making profit. And now others want to make an example of him. I dare to say, in this regard he is no different from other “russian” oligarchs, like Khodorkowski and Berezovski.

    • marknesop says:

      Bout may be tried for breaking an arms embargo. We’ll see, if he ever does actually get extradited to the U.S. for trial. The last I heard, it was held up in Thailand and there was a report that he could not be extradited from there until Thailand had finished processing their own case. That could take awhile, and anything could happen in the meantime. I admit I’m not too clear on international law as it applies in this case, as I haven’t see what the U.S. intends to charge Bout with.

      As far as I know, few arms dealers have actual licenses from their governments (except the U.S., where it often IS the government, in which case it’s frequently a covert transfer by the CIA direct to the customer), because in the event the dealer was caught (as Bout has been) it would implicate the government as well.

      I completely agree there’s little difference between Bout and Khodorkovsky – both saw an opportunity, and took it. In both cases they made crazy money by exploiting an advantage. However, it will be difficult for the Russian government to maintain that Khodorkovsky is guilty of defrauding the state while suggesting Bout is just an honest businessman.

      I think the U.S. would like to get it over with quickly and put Bout in jail, because every day the case drags on puts more attention on past weapons deals between the U.S. and some of the same countries Bout did business with, even though U.S. end-user agreements sometimes prohibited such transfers.

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