The life of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer jailed in the United States and linked to a possible swap for two US citizens detained by Moscow, sometimes reads like a far-fetched spy thriller.
Variously dubbed “the merchant of death” and “the sanctions buster” for his ability to get around arms embargoes, Bout, 55, was one of the world’s most wanted men prior to his 2008 arrest on multiple charges related to arms trafficking.
For almost two decades, Bout became the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.
His notoriety was such that his life helped inspire a Hollywood film, 2005’s Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage as Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer loosely based on Bout.
Even so, Bout’s origins remained shrouded in mystery. Biographies generally agree that he was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, then the capital of Soviet Tajikistan, close to the border with Afghanistan.
A gifted linguist, who later used his reported command of English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Persian to build his international arms empire, Bout reportedly attended the Dushanbe Esperanto club as a young boy, becoming fluent in the artificial language.
A stint in the Soviet army followed, where Bout has said he achieved the rank of lieutenant, serving as a military translator including in Angola, a country that would later become central to his business.
Bout’s big breakthrough came in the days after the 1989-91 collapse of the Communist bloc, cashing in on a sudden glut of discarded Soviet era weaponry to fuel a series of fratricidal civil wars in Africa, Asia and beyond.
With the Soviet Union’s vast air fleet disintegrating, Bout was able to acquire a squadron of around 60 old Soviet military aircraft based out of the United Arab Emirates, by which he could supply his products around the world.
Business over politics
A 2007 biography entitled “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 interwove his arms trafficking empire with a seemingly innocuous logistics business, always insisting when queried that he was a legitimate entrepreneur with respectable clients and no case to answer.
Even so, Bout, who first appeared on the CIA’s radar amid reports of a shadowy Russian citizen trading arms in Africa, was by the turn of the millennium one of the most wanted men in the world.
But Bout, whose clients included rebel groups and militias from Congo, to Angola and Liberia, had little in the way of firm ideology, tending to place business above politics.
In Afghanistan, he variously sold guns to Islamist Taliban insurgents and their foes in the pro-Western Northern Alliance, according to “Merchant of Death”.
It said Bout supplied guns to former Liberian President and warlord Charles Taylor, now serving a 50-year prison term for murder, rape and terrorism, to various Congolese factions, and to Philippine Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf.
The end only came in 2008, after an elaborate sting operation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration saw Bout tracked across multiple countries to a luxury hotel in Bangkok.
During a spectacular sting operation, Bout was caught on camera agreeing to sell undercover US agents posing as representatives of Colombia’s leftist FARC guerrillas 100 surface-to-air missiles, which they would use to kill US troops. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested by Thai police.
After over two years of diplomatic wrangling in which Russia loudly insisted that Bout was innocent and his case politically charged, Bout was extradited to the United States, where he faced a raft of charges, including conspiracy to support terrorists, conspiracy to kill Americans, and money laundering.
Bout was tried on the charges related to FARC, which he denied, and in 2012 was convicted and sentenced by a court in Manhattan to 25 years in prison, the minimum sentence possible.
Ever since, the Russian state has been keen to get him back.
US willing to swap?
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 ex-US Marine Paul Whelan.
Two days later, Blinken said he had a “frank and direct conversation” by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by phone and pressed Moscow to accept the proposal.
Blinken declined to say what the United States was offering in return for Griner and Whelan. A source familiar with the situation confirmed a CNN report that Washington was willing to exchange Bout as part of a deal.
Lavrov suggested to Blinken that the two sides return to quiet diplomacy on the issue of prisoner swaps “rather than throwing out speculative information”, a Russian foreign ministry statement said.
Lavrov has said Bout’s extradition from Thailand was “a glaring injustice” and suggested he was innocent.
Comments from a 2012 interview with the judge who presided over Bout’s New York City trial that his 25-year sentence was “excessive” have occasionally been seized on by Russian media making the case for Bout’s return home.
Earlier this year, speculation rose that Bout was set to be exchanged for Trevor Reed, a US Marine Corps veteran jailed in Russia on assault charges. Reed was ultimately freed in return for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot jailed in the United States on drug trafficking charges.
For experts, the Russian state’s continued interest in Bout, plus his skills and connections in the international arms trade, hint strongly at Russian intelligence ties.
In interviews, Bout has said he attended Moscow’s Military Institute of Foreign Languages, which serves as a training ground for military intelligence officers.
“Bout was almost certainly a GRU agent, or at least a GRU asset,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, referring to Russia’s military intelligence service.
“His case has become totemic for the Russian intelligence services, who are keen to show that they don’t abandon their own people,” Galeotti added.
According to Christopher Miller, a journalist who has corresponded with neo-Nazis imprisoned along with Bout at United States Penitentiary Marion in Illinois, the former arms dealer keeps a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his cell and says he does not believe Ukraine should exist as a state.
Reached by Reuters over 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’s left to do is to pray,” she added.