The life of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer jailed in the US and linked to a possible swap for two US citizens arrested by Moscow, reads at times like a far-fetched spy thriller.
The 55-year-old Bout, who has been variously dubbed the “dealer’s dealer” and “sanctions-breaker” for his ability to circumvent arms embargoes, was one of the world’s most wanted men before his arrest in 2008 on multiple counts related to arms trafficking.
For nearly two decades, Bout became the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling arms to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.
Such was his notoriety 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.
Despite this, Bout’s origins remained obscure.
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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 reputed knowledge of English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Persian to build his international arms empire, Bout reportedly attended the Dushanbe Esperanto Club as a young boy and became fluent in the artificial language.
A stint in the Soviet Army followed, where Bout claims to have attained the rank of lieutenant and served as a military translator, including in Angola, a country that would later be central to his business.
Bout’s big break came in the days following the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989-91, when he was able to capitalize on a sudden deluge of discarded Soviet-era weapons to fuel a series of civil wars in Africa, Asia and beyond.
When the Soviet Union’s huge air fleet disintegrated, Bout was able to acquire a squadron of around 60 old Soviet military aircraft from the United Arab Emirates, which he could use to ship his products around the world.
Who is the “Dealer of Death”?
A 2007 biography entitled Merchant of Death: Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun gave the following details of Bout’s shadowy trade.
From a base in the Gulf Emirate of Sharjah, he intertwined his arms trading empire with a seemingly harmless logistics company, and whenever asked he maintained that he was a legitimate contractor with respectable clients and no case to answer.
Nonetheless, Bout, who first appeared on the CIA’s radar amid reports of a shadowy Russian citizen trafficking in arms in Africa, was one of the most wanted men in the world by the turn of the millennium.
But Bout, whose clients included rebel groups and militias from Congo to Angola and Liberia, had little in the way of a fixed ideology and tended to put business over politics.
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In Afghanistan, he sold various weapons to Islamist Taliban insurgents and their enemies in the pro-Western Northern Alliance, according to “Merchant of Death”.
Bout is said to have supplied arms to former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor, who is now serving a 50-year sentence on charges of murder, rape and terrorism, to various Congolese factions and to the Filipino Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf.
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The end only came in 2008, after an elaborate undercover operation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration resulted in Bout being traced across several countries to a luxury hotel in Bangkok.
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During a spectacular covert operation, Bout was caught on camera agreeing to sell undercover US agents posing as representatives of Colombia’s left-wing FARC guerrillas 100 surface-to-air missiles, which they use to kill US troops would. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested by the Thai police.
After more than two years of diplomatic bickering, during which Russia loudly insisted that Bout was innocent and that his case was politically charged, Bout was extradited to the United States, where he faced a range of charges including conspiracy to support terrorists, conspiracy for killing Americans and laundering money.
Bout was tried on FARC-related allegations, which he denied, and sentenced by a Manhattan court in 2012 to 25 years in prison, the minimum sentence possible.
Since then, the Russian state has been trying to get him back.
How could a prisoner exchange work?
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” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the phone and urged Moscow to accept the proposal.
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Blinken declined to say what the United States would offer in exchange for Griner and Whelan. A source familiar with the situation confirmed a CNN report that Washington was willing to exchange Bout in a deal.
Lavrov suggested to Blinken that the two sides should return to quiet diplomacy on the issue of the prisoner swap “instead of throwing out speculative information,” according to a statement from Russia’s foreign ministry.
Lavrov said Bout’s extradition from Thailand was “a blatant injustice” and implied he was innocent.
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Comments from a 2012 interview with the judge presiding over Bout’s New York City trial that his 25-year sentence was “excessive” were occasionally picked up by Russian media, which argued for Bout’s return home.
Earlier this year, there was speculation that Bout would be swapped out for Trevor Reed, a US Marine Corps veteran who was jailed in Russia for assault. Reed was eventually released in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot jailed in the US for drug trafficking.
For experts, the Russian state’s continued interest in Bout, as well as its capabilities and connections in the international arms trade, strongly suggest links to Russian intelligence.
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In interviews, Bout said he attended the Moscow Military Institute of Foreign Languages, which serves as a training center for military intelligence officers.
“Bout was almost certainly a GRU agent, or at least a GRU operative,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security services at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, referring to Russian military intelligence.
“His case has become a totem for Russian intelligence agencies who want to show they don’t let down their own people,” Galeotti added.
The former arms dealer has a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his cell and says he doesn’t believe the Ukraine should exist as a state.
Reached by Reuters via WhatsApp, Bout’s wife Alla, who lives in St. Petersburg, said: “We very much hope that everything will be clarified and an agreement reached.
“All that’s left to do is pray,” she added.
https://globalnews.ca/news/9029341/viktor-bout-russian-arms-dealer-prisoner-swap/ Who is Viktor Bout? What we know about the Russian arms dealer dubbed the ‘dealer of death’ – National