From ‘Lord of War’ to American bargaining chip: the life and crimes of Viktor Bout

Dramatically called the Lord of War and the Merchant of Death, the convicted Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, now sitting out a 25-year prison sentence in a US federal prison in Illinois, has been reduced to the status of a “substantial” bargaining chip. The US government has offered to swap Bout, who was scooped up in a sting in a luxury Bangkok hotel in 2008, for two Americans. While he didn’t name Bout directly, secretary of state Antony Blinken on Wednesday confirmed US authorities had “put a substantial proposal on the table” in order to secure the freedom of US basketball player Brittney Griner and US businessman Paul Whelan, both imprisoned in Russia.

Moscow has been pressing for the release of Bout since he was arrested in an elaborate Drugs Enforcement Agency sting in Thailand, trapped by informers pretending to act for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC – insurgent guerrillas who had terrorised the South American nation for decades. Bout agreed to sell the informers grenades, mortars, surface-to-air missiles and guns in a deal settled in a Bangkok hotel.

Thai police pounced and Bout’s storied career came to an abrupt halt. Over the ensuing months in Bangkok, before he was extradited to the US in 2010, Bout visibly shed a great deal of weight while maintaining his impervious demeanour and his thick moustache.

Probably born in Dushanbe in Tajikistan in 1967 in the then-Soviet Union, Viktor Anatolyevich Bout reportedly served in the Soviet armed forces, where he mastered French, Persian, Arabic, Portuguese and English and worked as a translator. Some have suggested he had connections with the KGB, or Soviet military intelligence. Leaving the air force, he acquired a fleet of surplus or obsolete planes after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and started an air transport business, largely concerned with buying, selling and transporting arms, often from Soviet stockpiles.

An Amnesty report in 2005 called Bout the “most prominent” international businessman trafficking arms to UN-embargoed nations including Bulgaria, Krygyzstan, and Slovakia. A US Treasury department report the same year said the arms trader controlled what was reputed to be the largest fleet of Soviet-era cargo aircraft in the world.

“Today, Bout has the capacity to transport tanks, helicopters and weapons by the tons to virtually any point in the world,” the Treasury report said, adding Bout made a profit of US$50 million by supplying the Taliban with military equipment when the hardline Islamists first ruled Afghanistan in the early 90s. “The arms he has sold or brokered has helped fuel conflicts and support UN sanctioned regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.”

The US in 2005 sanctioned 30 companies it said were connected to Bout’s network. The following year, US President George Bush issued an executive order freezing Bout’s assets.

The trader’s clients were said to include former Liberian president Charles Taylor, now convicted of war crimes, long-time Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, now dead, and both sides in Angola’s civil war.

Bout was apparently the inspiration for a 2005 film, Lord of War, in which Nicholas Cage played an arms dealer and the Russian’s life and times also spawned a book, Merchant of Death, written by US investigative journalists. The book claimed the arms dealers’ planes dropped weapons to Farc guerrillas in the late 90s.

For its part, Russia has been pressing for the release of Bout since he was arrested in Thailand in 2008, and the man himself has adamantly claimed he is an innocent businessman.

The possibility of trading Bout for US citizens Brittney Griner, held in Moscow on drugs charges since earlier this year and Paul Whelan, sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges, has prompted concern such a deal would give rogue nations an incentive to arrest potentially innocent American citizens. First reported by CNN, the offer to trade Bout has apparently been on the table for some weeks, but the US has declined to comment until now.

In a change of heart, on Wednesday Blinken said the two countries had “communicated repeatedly and directly” about the “substantial” offer, though he would not provide details, nor confirm Bout was part of the deal, nor describe the Russian response, saying he did not want to undermine the negotiations with Moscow. The deal has reportedly been approved by President Biden and Blinken said he planned to discuss it with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov this week.

“There is, in my mind, utility in conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us,” he said in a press briefing in Washington. “And as I mentioned, these include securing the return home of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.”