Two stories in the news illustrate the close nexus between the Russian government and criminality. The first story is that of Viktor Bout. An infamous arms dealer, Bout is in custody in Thailand, awaiting extradition to the US. Russia–at the highest levels of its government, including the Foreign Minister Sergei “The Trantula” Lavrov–has rallied to Bout’s defense:
“We regret this … unlawful, political decision,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Armenia. [Though I would defer to Lavrov’s expertise in the area of “unlawful, political decisions.”]
In wording that suggested Russia suspects the United States exerted undue influence to secure the ruling, Lavrov said Moscow had information it was made “under very strong external pressure.”
“I assure you we will continue to do everything necessary to secure his return to his homeland,” Lavrov said of Bout.
There is widespread discussion about the reasons for Russia’s incensed reaction to Bout’s impending extradition. The most straightforward hypothesis is that the government, those in the government, or those closely related to the government, are implicated in Bout’s dealings.
The second story, from the New York Times, describes how hackers operate with impunity from inside Russia:
rrests in Russia for computer crimes are rare, even when hackers living in Russia have been publicly identified by outside groups, like Spamhaus, a nonprofit group in Geneva and in London that tracks sources of spam.The F.B.I. in 2002 resorted to luring a Russian suspect, Vasily Gorshkov, to the United States with a fake offer of a job interview (with a fictitious Internet company called Invita), rather than ask the Russian police for help. To obtain evidence in the case, F.B.I. computer experts had hacked into Mr. Gorshkov’s computer in Russia. When this was revealed, Russian authorities expressed anger that the F.B.I. had resorted to a cross-border tactic.
Online fraud is not a high priority for the Russian police, Mr. Zakharov said, because most of it is aimed at computer users in Europe or the United States. “This is a main reason why spammers are not arrested,” he said.
Politics may also play a role. Vladimir Sokolov, deputy director of the Institute of Information Security, a Russian research organization, said the United States and Russia were still at odds on basic issues of computer security, although the differences were narrowing.
The United States tends to view computer security as a law enforcement matter. Russia has pushed for an international treaty that would regulate the use of online weapons by military or espionage agencies. Last year the United States opened talks on a treaty, but it has continued to press for closer law enforcement cooperation, Mr. Sokolov said.
Computer security researchers have raised a more sinister prospect: that criminal spamming gangs have been co-opted by the intelligence agencies in Russia, which provide cover for their activities in exchange for the criminals’ expertise or for allowing their networks of virus-infected computers to be used for political purposes — to crash dissident Web sites, perhaps.
Again, the simplest explanation is that the “law enforcement” organs and/or the government benefit from the operations of these hackers. The benefits may be pecuniary, or arise from the utility of having hackers available to perform dirty operations aimed at foreign “enemies” that include both governments and individuals.
It is pretty amazing to see a government lionizing somebody like Bout, or protecting criminal hackers. It says quite a bit, and what it says isn’t flattering.