Unable to resist the juicy morsel that is captured arms dealer Viktor Bout and the sweet lure of political opportunism, Hero Journalist Yulia Latynina once again dazzles us with her comprehensive knowledge of military weaponry, arms control or lack thereof, and the compulsive badness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Some, if not all of her analysis seems inspired by her background as a science-fiction writer – or possibly by a big bag of glue – but what fascinates me about her articles is that they almost always lead somewhere I didn’t expect. Unless you believe them without question, of course, in which case they lead nowhere. Assuming you’re a fellow skeptic, please join me in a closer look at Ms. Latynina’s latest foray to the seamy underbelly of crime and corruption.
It goes almost without saying that Latynina’s hysteria is promptly amplified by stunt-double sidekick La Russophobe, Sancho Panza to Latynina’s Don Quixote. Although Latynina’s original headline is “Bout, Sechin and a Political Firestorm”, the La Russophobe piece is entitled “Latynina on Russia’s Criminal-Loving Leadership”, and the russophobia level is boosted yet again for the content headline; “Latynina Explains Why Russians Love Criminals”. A couple of more removes, and it’d be “Arms Dealer Bout is Vladimir Putin’s Love Child”, or maybe “Putin Grooms Bout For Russian Presidency”.
Well, as much as I enjoy comedy, let’s move on and see where this takes us. Just before we start, our intention is not to exonerate Viktor Bout. Perhaps he’s an adrenaline junkie – I couldn’t begin to imagine what would make him choose such a dangerous line of work, and he must have known that getting caught was an enormous risk. Something I find interesting is the implication that if he were to be returned to Russia, he’d be greeted with a hero’s welcome and immediately set free. I doubt that would be the reaction. Canada has pressed hard for the extradition of Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr, and if successful, the intention is to imprison him on arrival. In any event, the USA is going to have some tap-dancing to do when the trial gets around to where the U.S. Army knowingly used Bout’s transport services for direct support to military logistics.
Anyway, Bout’s a criminal by choice – no argument there. The second paragraph is where things begin to go off the rails, and this is entirely due to Latynina’s unfortunate choices and unsupported leaps of logic. Perhaps that’s a reliable practice in science fiction, but it seldom works in reality. We’re informed Bout’s arrest was for trying to sell 100 MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defence System) missiles to DEA agents pretending to be FARC members. Okay so far. But then, Latynina changes course. In an attempt to highlight her military chops, she goes on a meandering tour of the U.S. government’s supply of Stinger missiles to the Mujahedin. Yulia!!! That’s exactly the same thing – in principle – that Bout is headed to trial for doing! Remember? The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), AKA The Government, invited the Red Army in to help them crush the mujahedin. The United States government covertly supplied the mujahedin – remember, that’s the resistance – with missiles to help them fight the legitimate and recognized government of Afghanistan. So they were pro-Soviet; so what? What makes it different to what Bout did? Well, Bout did it for profit, and the U.S. government gave the missiles away and then bought some of them back – thank you, taxpayers – but how is that an inspirational example? Hey, remember who was an up-and-coming young military commander back then, in the mujahedin effort to overthrow the government? Yes, that’s right: Osama bin Laden. Could you have cited a more toxic comparison? I don’t see how.
It gets worse. In her eagerness to provide a free plug for the awesome power of American weapons technology, Latynina gushes about how the “about 500” Stingers supplied to the mujahedin turned the tide of battle. Maybe so; many experts agree. But there are a couple of flies in that ointment. For one, many more missiles were transferred than she imagines – 300 in 1985 and another 700 in 1986. The mujahedin downed an incredible 275 aircraft (approximate) before the Red Army pulled out. Assuming these were all Stinger kills (unknown, but unlikely), that leaves about 725 missiles. Some of these had begun to show up in unpleasant places, such as the Pakistani Intelligence Service and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Tajikistan, Chechnya and Algeria, even before the Soviet pullout had started. Russia acquired design data from the Greek Army, and the resulting SA-14 GREMLIN (Russian designator 9K34 Strela), one of the MANPADS missiles, is “a virtual copy of the Stinger”.
Had enough, No? In 1993, Muslim separatists shot down a Georgian airliner, killing everyone aboard. The heat-seeking missile used was widely believed to be a Stinger. Panicked, the CIA launched a buyback program that offered about twice the price of the Afghan Stingers (which, you’ll recall, the Afghans got for free) to try and recover the ones still floating around out there somewhere. Latynina says they were able to buy back about 300, although she offers no substantiation – I guess hero journalists don’t have to bother. But let’s assume that’s correct. That still leaves….how many? About 400 unaccounted for. Latynina suggests her apocalyptic example “gives you some perspective on what 100 MANPADS can do”. Well, what could four times that many Stingers in the hands of terrorists do? Quick!! Hide under the bed!!
Okay, come out from under there. For one thing, according to the Arms Control Association, “the rhetoric surrounding the MANPADS threat has become increasingly exaggerated and misleading”. For another, there are thousands of them out there, many looted from unsecured, unguarded arms depots in Iraq in 2003. Hiding under the bed won’t do any good. But it makes Bout’s puny 100 missiles look like a drop in the bucket, without excusing his conduct. Latynina’s dizzying leap of logic – that because Bout was trying to flog 100 missiles, he must “obviously” have had Russian government support – looks a little silly in that light. The U.S. Army let Iraqi insurgents get their hands on thousands of them; was that obviously a government-sponsored program? Maybe that’s where Bout got them. It makes a whole lot more sense than him showing up at the Kremlin with a requisition for 100 missiles and a couple of big trucks.
I haven’t seen what the prosecutor will throw at him if he is extradited to the U.S. to stand trial, of course. But now that I mention it, where are the 100 MANPADS missiles the DEA bought (or agreed to buy) from Bout? I’d be willing to bet they never even actually saw one; they likely have him on tape agreeing to the terms of the sale. If that’s the case, Bout can argue that he never actually had them – he just agreed to supply them. A smart lawyer (and for the kind of money Bout can pay, there are no stupid ones) would be all over that like Rush Limbaugh on a jelly roll.
In fact, the practice of supplying arms to the jihadis in Afghanistan was a decision that continues to circle and bite America in the ass. Despite bellicose rhetoric about a new Iranian-made mine being used against American tanks in Afghanistan, “…evidence from the U.S. Defense Department, Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and the Taliban itself suggests that the increased damage to NATO tanks by Taliban forces comes from anti-tank mines provided by the U.S. to the jihadi movement in Afganistan in the 1980’s”. These are mostly Italian-made TC-6’s.
We’ve got just enough time left to touch on Latynina’s breathless revelation of “international scandal” because there was some sleight-of-hand regarding the nationality of a captured aircraft that was found to be carrying weapons. So? Happens all the time. Back in the glory days of the Bush presidency, when the law was what he said it was, CIA ‘black flights” spiriting hapless detainees off to “extraordinary rendition” in countries that didn’t mind using creative violence to get answers routinely flew around Europe using the callsign of Jetsgo, a defunct Canadian airline from Montreal. Did you freak out, Yulia? I suspect not.
Stick to writing fiction, Yulia. It comes more naturally to you than analysis, and the pay is probably better.
Update: In case you missed it, the reference to CIA aircraft using bogus callsigns also contains this: “During the time the plane was in the air, USAFE changed some of the flight plan timings and at the same time the registration changed. The aircraft metamorphosed into 40112E but continued to be a Learjet 35 and was still JGO 80 and a humanitarian, government and diplomatic flight.
While the Learjet was on the ground at Tuzla, an Ilyushin 76 was loading a cargo of 45 tons of surplus weapons and ammunition sold off by the Bosnian military and destined for Rwanda in defiance of a UN embargo. The Ilyushin left Tuzla, flew over Italy and headed south in the direction of Africa. The American Learjet took off 55 minutes later.
In a report exposing arms trafficking to war-torn central Africa, Amnesty International has suggested that “US security authorities were engaged in a covert operation to ferry arms to Rwanda in the face of political opposition from the European Union”.
What’re the chances the Ilyushin belonged to Bout’s operations? Just a thought. How many other arms dealers out there have a fleet of Russian aircraft?
Further investigation of the Amnesty International allegation yields this. It closes with “The arms industry is state terrorism and while the major powers get away with fuelling conflicts, the media keeps the general public ignorant about these issues”.