Who is Viktor Bout, arms trafficker linked to the exchange against Americans detained by Moscow?

  • Bout nicknamed “the merchant of death” and “the breaker of sanctions”
  • Was among the world’s most wanted men before his arrest in 2008
  • Clients included rogue states, warlords in Asia, Africa
  • Likely had ties to Russian intelligence, experts say
  • Moscow has long called for his release from a long prison sentence in the United States

LONDON, Aug 1 (Reuters) – The life of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms smuggler imprisoned in the United States and linked to a possible swap for two US citizens held by Moscow, sometimes reads like a wacky spy thriller.

Variously dubbed “the dealer of death” and “the breaker of sanctions” for his ability to circumvent arms embargoes, Bout, 55, was one of the most wanted men in the world before his arrest in 2008 for multiple charges related to arms trafficking.

For nearly two decades, Bout became the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling weapons to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.

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His notoriety was such that his life inspired a 2005 Hollywood film, Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage as Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer loosely based on Bout.

Even so, Bout’s origins have remained shrouded in mystery. Biographies generally agree that he was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, then the capital of Soviet Tajikistan, near the border with Afghanistan.

A gifted linguist, who later used his fluency in English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Persian to build his international arms empire, Bout is said to have attended the Dushanbe Esperanto club as a young boy. , fluent in artificial language.

A stint in the Soviet Army followed, where Bout said he rose to the rank of lieutenant, serving as a military translator, including in Angola, a country that would later become the center of his business.

Bout’s big breakthrough came in the days following the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989-91, taking advantage of a sudden glut of abandoned Soviet-era weapons to fuel a series of fratricidal civil wars in Africa. , in Asia and beyond.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union’s vast air fleet, Bout was able to acquire a squadron of around 60 ex-Soviet military aircraft based in the United Arab Emirates, through which he could supply his products around the world.


A 2007 biography titled “Merchant of Death: Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible” by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun reported the following details of Bout’s shadowy trade.

From a base in the Gulf emirate of Sharjah, he intertwined his arms smuggling empire with a seemingly innocuous logistics business, always insisting when questioned that he was a legitimate contractor with respectable customers and no cases to answer.

Even so, Bout, who first appeared on CIA radar amid reports of a mysterious Russian citizen smuggling arms into Africa, was at the turn of the millennium one of the most wanted in the world.

But Bout, whose clients included rebel groups and militias from Congo, Angola and Liberia, had little firm ideology, tending to put business above politics.

In Afghanistan, he sold firearms to Taliban Islamist insurgents and their enemies in the pro-Western Northern Alliance, according to “Merchant of Death”.

He said Bout provided arms to former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor, who is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence for murder, rape and terrorism, various Congolese factions and the Filipino Islamist militant group Abu. Sayyaf.

The end didn’t come until 2008, after an elaborate sting operation by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration saw Bout tracked across several countries to a luxury hotel in Bangkok.

In a spectacular sting operation, Bout was filmed agreeing to sell US undercover agents posing as representatives of Colombia’s left-wing FARC guerrillas 100 surface-to-air missiles, which they would use to kill American troops. Shortly after, he was arrested by Thai police.

After more than two years of diplomatic wrangling during which Russia insisted that Bout was innocent and his case was politically charged, Bout was extradited to the United States, where he faced a series of charges including conspiracy to support terrorists, conspiracy to kill Americans, and money laundering.

Bout was tried on the FARC-related charges, which he denied, and in 2012 was found guilty and sentenced in a Manhattan court to 25 years in prison, the minimum possible sentence.

Since then, the Russian state has been keen to recover it.


On July 27, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had made “a substantial offer” to Russia to release Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan.

Two days later, Blinken said he had a “frank and direct conversation” by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and pressed Moscow to accept the proposal. Read more

Blinken declined to say what the United States was offering in exchange for Griner and Whelan. A source close to the situation confirmed a CNN report that Washington was ready to trade Bout as part of a deal. Read more

Lavrov suggested to Blinken that the two sides return to quiet diplomacy on the issue of prisoner swaps “rather than releasing speculative information,” according to a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Lavrov said Bout’s extradition from Thailand was “a gross injustice” and suggested he was innocent.

Comments from a 2012 interview with the judge who presided over Bout’s New York trial that his 25-year sentence was “excessive” were occasionally picked up by Russian media arguing for Bout’s return home.

Earlier this year, speculation grew that Bout was to be traded for Trevor Reed, a US Marine Corps veteran imprisoned in Russia for assault. Reed was eventually released in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot imprisoned in the United States for drug trafficking.

For experts, the Russian state’s continued interest in Bout, as well as his skills and connections in the international arms trade, strongly hint at Russian intelligence ties.

In interviews, Bout said he attended the Military Institute of Foreign Languages ​​in Moscow, which serves as a training ground for military intelligence officers.

“Bout was almost certainly a GRU agent, or at least a GRU asset,” Mark Galeotti, a Russian security services expert at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said, referring to Russia’s military intelligence service.

“His case has become totemic for the Russian intelligence services, keen to show that they are not giving up on theirs,” Galeotti added.

According to Christopher Miller, a reporter who corresponded with neo-Nazis imprisoned with Bout at Marion US Penitentiary in Illinois, the former arms dealer keeps a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his cell and says he doesn’t does not believe that Ukraine should exist as a state.

Reached by Reuters via the WhatsApp messaging service, Bout’s wife, Alla, who lives in St Petersburg, said: “We very much hope that everything will be resolved and an agreement will be reached.

“All that remains is to pray,” she added.

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Reuters Editing reporting by Mark Heinrich

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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