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A foray nobody asked for How Russia’s ultranationalist LDPR party tried and failed to make arms dealer Viktor Bout a serious political figure
Late last year, the right-wing nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) held an “all-Russian convention” that featured an unexpected guest: arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had returned to Russia from the U.S. after being swapped for American basketball star Brittney Griner in a prisoner exchange just days earlier. On the convention stage, Bout was given a party membership card by Leonid Slutsky, who became head of the party after the death of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In the months since then, Viktor Bout has been traveling to regions of the country that are slated to elect new lawmakers this year, ostensibly to stump for his party’s candidates. But the LDPR has been unable to decide why and to what extent the party needs Viktor Bout, while the ex-con himself has been unable to turn his storied past into political influence. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev explains why the “merchant of death” has failed to thrive in the world of Russian party politics.
Viktor Bout became a member of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) on December 12 — just days after Moscow and Washington agreed to exchange the convicted arms dealer for American basketball star Brittney Griner. Speaking to journalists that day, Bout said that he chose the LDPR because it has “always been a powerful party.” The party’s new leader, Leonid Slutsky, promised that there would be a “worthy place” for Bout in its ranks.
Bout’s admission to the party also served to divert some attention away from another high-profile scandal involving the LDPR. On December 7, Evgeny Prigozhin’s press service published an invitation to the party’s convention signed by Slutsky that the Wagner Group founder had received. The post was accompanied by comments from Prigozhin: “Since I don’t have much time or a stable connection, I’ll respond to L. E. Slutsky’s invitation in more detail later, but I want to say first that I regard him with the deepest disrespect. I’ve spoken at length with Slutsky before and my experience has been exclusively negative.”
But Meduza has learned from two sources close to the LDPR’s leadership that Leonid Slutsky “knew, at the very least,” about Prigozhin’s invitation to the event and believed it would “interest” the Wagner Group founder as they knew Prigozhin was beginning to make more frequent political statements (Prigozhin is currently traveling around Russia on a tour that bears some resemblance to an electoral campaign.) After the death of the LDPR’s longtime leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky in April 2022, the sources said, the party needed “recognizable figures” who could increase its popularity. Slutsky and his entourage believed Prigozhin might fit the bill.
But the party’s leadership still had one other card up its sleeve: businessman Viktor Bout, who had been sentenced in the U.S. to 25 years in prison for selling weapons to the Colombian guerilla group FARC and for conspiracy to kill American citizens and officials. Western media have speculated that Bout may have had ties to Russian officials and weapons manufacturers, calling him the “merchant of death” and the “lord of war.”
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Viktor Bout didn’t disappoint Slutsky and agreed to become the “recognizable figure” the party needed. According to a source close to the party’s leadership who spoke to Meduza, Bout “owed Slutsky twice over”:
First of all, Slutsky played a very important role in the negotiations for his release. Secondly, Bout needed to be resocialized — he’d returned to a different country [that had changed over many years], lost his social connections, and had no concept of how the power structure now worked. Slutsky was willing to help him with those things, and Bout was supposed to thank him — to go to the convention and accept the party membership card.
Meduza’s source stressed that Bout’s invitation was the personal initiative of Slutsky and his inner circle, not something ordered by the Kremlin and certainly not the idea of Vladimir Putin. “Bout is not at the presidential level at all,” he said. A source close to the Putin administration confirmed this.
This isn’t the first time a Russian political party has enlisted someone previously imprisoned in the U.S. and suspected of working for the Kremlin there. In 2021, for example, the United Russia party nominated Maria Butina, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a U.S. court in 2019 for engaging in subversive activities in Moscow’s interest and trying to infiltrate political organizations, to run for State Duma.
But at the same time, a source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the LDPR’s leadership has no strategic plans for using Bout:
Giving him a party membership card is not a bad move: Bout is fairly recognizable. And it helped deescalate the situation with Prigozhin. But beyond that, they simply haven’t come up with any next steps. What Bout’s supposed to do in the party, what he’ll talk about, what he’s good for, how he’ll help the party — they don’t have answers for these questions.
On December 18, 2022, Viktor Bout and Leonid Slutsky took part in the opening ceremony of the LDPR’s branch office in the annexed “Luhansk People’s Republic.” “The Donbas is coal, the Donbas is steel, the Donbas is people, looking far afield,” went the poem he read at the event. Slutsky then spoke about the “restoration” of the self-declared “republics” and finding “solutions to difficult issues.”
In January 2023, Bout went in Crimea as part of a large party delegation. In February, he traveled to the annexed “DNR,” where he took part in the opening of an LDPR municipal office in the town of Yenakiieve and spoke with the region’s Russian-appointed leader, Denis Pushilin, about the “rise in protest sentiment” in Germany and the U.S.
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Since then, Viktor Bout’s name has been appearing less and less frequently in political news coverage. Two sources close to the LDPR’s leadership called him “not a public person” and “principally not a politician.” Additionally, they said, Bout doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do in the party or how he’s meant to foster more of a public image. “He has money, but he hasn’t hired any consultants, so he doesn’t understand what he should talk about to promote himself,” one of Meduza’s sources explained.
In March of this year, the party sent Viktor Bout on a trip through various regions of Russia that are slated to hold parliamentary elections in September. The “lord of war” visited Voronezh, Smolensk, Yaroslavl, Vladimir, Kaluga, Irkutsk, Chita, and Krasnoyarsk. But a source close to the leadership of the presidential administration’s political bloc and a source close to the LDPR’s leadership both said that this mini-tour had was lacking any clearly-defined goals:
When Zhirinovsky came to the regions, everything was clear — most of the time, he led the lists in legislative assembly elections. Bout isn’t leading anything, [Leonid Slutsky will lead the party lists]. Having him stump for candidates directly would be odd, too. Why is it this person who’s campaigning? What exactly is he trying to convey? Who should he meet with? Bout didn’t understand the answers to these questions himself, and nobody explained it to him.
In some places, such as the Kaluga and Zabaykalsky regions, Bout met with governors. In others, he met with vice governors. And in Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, he only spoke with local LDPR representatives. A source from the leadership of one of these regions claimed that “exclusively electoral topics were discussed” at the meeting: “The party is prepared to partner [with the local authorities], so give us the quotas for letting LDPR candidates run in a couple of single-mandate districts.”
According to the source, the administration in question was receptive to the idea of working together with the LDPR, but it “didn’t give them a district.” “Bout was somehow unexceptional; there were other party representatives, including some State Duma deputies with more political experience,” said the source.
An official from another region said that meeting with Bout left him with the impression that the former arms dealer was “just learning the ropes” of Russian politics:
It wasn’t clear what he wanted. Or at least he didn’t say. We said that there wouldn’t be any obstacles, and that he could try to work on the regional level. He didn’t say anything in response. I think he wants to join the State Duma, but that doesn’t look likely in the near future.
Two sources close to the LDPR’s leadership told Meduza that Bout would indeed “not be opposed to becoming a federal deputy.” “Maybe [he’s trying to get] further, to the executive branch, and being a deputy is just a good trampoline,” said one of the sources.
In December 2022, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the LDPR’s leadership was lobbying to have Bout run in a special election for a State Duma seat in the Simferopol single-mandate district in Russian-annexed Crimea. But two sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the initiative is unlikely to succeed because of the head of the republic, Sergey Aksenov. One source said the following about the Kremlin’s views on the matter:
Crimea is not LDPR territory at all, and why does Aksenov need a famous figure who might be playing his own game? Slutsky doesn’t have enough lobbying resources to get him a seat in a single-mandate district in Crimea. There’s nobody from the presidential administration working to promote Bout, either. He’s not a bad guy — but does Russia have a shortage of guys like that? Regional elites aren’t going to move for him.
The same source also said that Bout has become a hostage to an internal conflict within the LDPR. Deputies from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s team, he said, don’t want to see Leonid Slutsky as the party’s leader:
He’s always been an outsider to the LDPR; he’s moved along an international line, not a domestic political one. People who have been in the party for a long time aren’t happy with this situation. They’re waiting for him to make enough mistakes that the Kremlin will replace him as the party’s leader. For that reason, they’re not concerned about everything working out for Bout — after all, he was brought in by Slutsky.
As a result, the source said, “Bout’s opportunity to have a career in politics might be lost”: “It will be three years until the next State Duma elections by party lists that Bout could run in without facing problems. If he doesn’t find some way to advance, then the feathers in his cap [from the Kremlin] might be forgotten. He’ll simply be irrelevant.”
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