Who is Viktor Bout: The Russian arms dealer, who was called the “merchant of death,” was traded for Brittney Griner.
His look is more like that of a suburban dad than a global gun-runner. He wears polo shirts, khaki pants, has droopy eyes, and a moustache like Carlos Santana. But Viktor Bout didn’t get the name “merchant of death” for nothing. In exchange for basketball star Brittney Griner, who was being held in a Russian prison colony, a Russian arms dealer went back to Moscow on December 8. He had been in prison in Illinois for ten years. Qui est-il?
It’s hard to get a clear picture of Mr. Bout’s life. He was born in 1967 in Tajikistan, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time. He went to school at Moscow’s Military Institute of Foreign Languages. He then went to Africa, where he served in the Soviet air force for two years in Mozambique and as an army translator in Angola. Mr. Bout’s ability to speak English, French, and Spanish, and, according to reports, Farsi, German, Portuguese, Urdu, Xhosa, and Zulu, as well as his contacts in Africa, helped him get into the business of selling weapons.
When the Soviet Union broke up, Mr. Bout saw an opportunity to sell huge amounts of weapons to dictators and warlords in Africa, Asia, and South America. During the cold war, the Soviet Union helped many countries, and those countries now had a ready market. At first, America didn’t pay much attention. An official at the State Department told his biographers, Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah, that “a few planeloads of arms going to an African country just didn’t make the cut” as a priority.
Mr. Bout worked for bad people like Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo and Charles Taylor in Liberia. He did this from a base in Sharjah, which is in the United Arab Emirates. He sometimes made the two sides work against each other. In Afghanistan, Mr. Bout helped an anti-Taliban rebel named Ahmad Shah Massoud before he offered his services to the Islamist group.
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Mr. Bout ran a fleet of about 60 cargo planes for his business. So he could hide, he always said he didn’t sell guns and said he was in the freight shipping business. In 2002, when Interpol put out a warrant for his arrest, he said, “I only deal with air transportation.” In fact, he moved things that were not illegal, following the rule in the freight industry that you should “never fly empty.” Flowers from South Africa, frozen chicken, and aid for countries hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 were some of the things that were sent.
After he caught the attention of authorities in the West, he stayed in Moscow and rarely went anywhere else. But in 2008, he made a bad decision: he flew to Thailand, where he was caught in a trap by American agents pretending to be members of farc, a Colombian rebel group. He was sent back to America and was given a 25-year prison sentence in 2012 for plotting to kill Americans and helping a terrorist group.
Even before Mr. Bout was caught, people made up stories about what he did. In the 2005 Hollywood movie “Lord of War,” Nicolas Cage played a charismatic arms dealer who was based on him in some ways. In Russia, his imprisonment was seen as unfair because people were worried about what Mr. Bout might tell his captors. There are many rumours that the Kremlin was eager to get the ex-prisoner back because he knew military secrets or had ties to Russian intelligence.