Viktor Bout: GRU, not KGB?

Just a quick little thought. As it becomes increasingly possible that international arms-mover, hot-landing-supremo and man of mystery Viktor Bout will be extradited to the US, there is a fair amount of excited coverage about what secrets he could tell, if he were minded to do so. A common assumption is that he was a KGB officer and is thus now on at least nodding terms with its foreign intelligence successor, the SVR. I’m not convinced. If he has a secret service connection — and my wholly instinctive assumption is that he does — I would suggest that it is with the GRU, military intelligence, the Main Military Directorate of the General Staff. This is just a personal hunch, but is based on his trajectory, contacts, business and field of operation.

He trained at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, a favoured source for GRU recruits (the KGB tended to go for college graduates, instead), then served in the Soviet airforce. Again, if recruited for the KGB, unless in the Third Chief Directorate (which monitored the military), Bout would probably have either been taken out of the military or been placed in a more senior role. His surprisingly easy access to aircraft when he set up his business and then his ability to lay his hands on military hardware also sound more like GRU than KGB. He is also meant to have worked with (definitely GRU) Igor Sechin in the 1980s. Then consider where he tends to operate: Africa, Afghanistan, the Middle East. These are much more the stamping grounds of the GRU than the SVR, which has concentrated more on China, Europe, North America and similar higher-prestige areas. The GRU is still a service which doesn’t mind roughing it and getting its hands dirty.

Of course, whether GRU, SVR or some shadowy and idiosyncratic mix of the two, I can’t help but wonder whether, if Bout ends up in a US prison, he will be there for long. Is there already a list of Western spies or alleged spies being drawn up in Moscow, ready for the arrests and then an exchange. After all, the precedent for renewed spy swaps has been set…

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