Russia-US: 10 things you need to know about Viktor Bout, arms dealer turned bargaining chip

By Vincent Duhem
Posted on Wednesday, 7 September 2022 11:00

Viktor Bout in a cell at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, 11 August 2009. ©Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP

Sentenced in the United States to 25 years in prison in 2012, Viktor Bout could be swapped for basketball player Brittney Griner and ex-soldier Paul Whelan, two American citizens currently detained in Russia.  

1. Bargaining chip

Russia has been calling for his release for many years. At the time of his arrest in Bangkok in 2008 and his extradition to the United States two years later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the Americans’ “arrogance”. Why are Russian leaders so keen to get him back? At the time of his arrest, some experts believed that Moscow was concerned that Bout had some military secrets and information about the former KGB (Soviet secret service).

Throughout Bout’s career, he has also developed strong links with the upper echelons of the Russian state. He is said to be close to former deputy prime minister Igor Setchine, an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin who now heads the oil giant Rosneft. Setchine’s yacht was seized last March by French authorities.

2. Lord of war

“Merchant of death”, “the world’s biggest arms dealer”… both terms have often been used to characterise Viktor Bout. With his imposing physique, his large moustache and blue eyes, he has all the makings of a film character. His life partly inspired the character of Yuri Orlov, played by Nicolas Cage in the film Lord of War. For his part, the man himself has always maintained that he is just an ordinary businessman.

3. GRU

Born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to an accountant mother and a mechanic father, he did his military service in the Red Army, then joined the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. The institution was known for training future agents for the GRU, the Soviet army’s general directorate for foreign military intelligence. He later worked as an officer in the Russian Air Force.

4. Mozambique

“When I arrived in Africa, I had the impression I’d discovered a film in colour.” This is how Viktor Bout describes his first steps on the continent, more precisely in Mozambique. In 1987 he was 20 years old and had left the USSR for the first time. It was during this two-year mission, during which he acted as an interpreter for Russian UN observers, that he met the woman who would become his wife in 1991.

5. Business acumen

His marriage coincided with the end of communism and the collapse of the USSR. Russia then opened up to capitalism. Viktor Bout resigned from the army and founded a company importing foodstuffs.

He then headed for Brussels, where he set up a new business in 1993. The idea was to buy old Soviet planes (Antonov, Iliouchine) and rent them at three times the price. It was in Angola that he signed his first big contract, for two years: 100 flight hours per month, paid at $1,200 (€1,065) per hour. [for me the currency conversion is off, in today’s money $1200=roughly €1211. And in 1993 there was no euro, maybe just leave the figure in $]

6. Jack-of-all-trades

The Brussels adventure was short-lived, but Viktor Bout had a lot of ideas. He moved to the United Arab Emirates’ Charjah free zone. At the height of the golden age of air freight, his business exploded. “I was a millionaire at 25 and the head of an empire at 30,” he has said. His planes carried just about everything – flowers, chickens, military goods and even weapons – under the cover of Belgian or Emirati shell companies. Later, he would start transporting wild animals for zoos and private owners in South Africa.

©Christophe Archambault/AFP

7. The Bulgarian network

The slightly round face of Peter Mirchev, a Bulgarian businessman, could be seen very regularly at Bout’s side. They became friends and their families regularly took holidays together. Based in Bulgaria and in Sharjah, Mirchev started selling arms from the former Soviet bloc country in the early 1990s. He would become the Russian businessman’s official arms supplier. How much of his business was actually arms trafficking? On this point, opinions differ. Some experts suggest 5%.

8. Africa: A commercial paradise

Viktor Bout saw Africa as a commercial paradise. His plane fleet flew back and forth between West Africa – mainly Liberia and Sierra Leone – and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The alleged arms dealer could be found in many war zones, such as Angola, alongside the two opponents in the civil war, UNITA and the government army.

In May 1997, it was one of Viktor Bout’s planes that exfiltrated Mobutu Sese Seko, who had been ousted from power by Laurent-Désiré Kabila. In the DRC, he would then bet on Jean-Pierre Bemba: Bout trained and sold arms to the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). In 1994, when France launched Operation Turquoise in Rwanda, it was Bout who partly supplied troops and equipment. He then supplied the troops of the Hutu genocidaires who had taken refuge in Congo.

9. Persona non grata

Business was good and Viktor Bout felt untouchable. He operated out in the open and even appeared in the press. In 2003, he made the front page of the prestigious New York Times Magazine. Entitled “Meeting Mr Bout”, the portrait irritated CIA leaders, since the arms dealer’s name regularly appeared in the reports of Western intelligence services, Interpol and the United Nations. The turning point came with the attacks of September 2001. Already under surveillance, Bout became a persona non grata. Paul Kagame’s Rwanda and the Central African Republic ended their collaborations with him.

10. Trapped by the DEA

Viktor Bout’s downfall reads like something straight out of a Hollywood movie. The script was not conceived in a big American film studio, but in the offices of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Its agents approached the arms dealer’s former business partner with a tempting proposition. Alleged members of the Colombian FARC guerrilla group were calling on his services for a major arms shipment. In late 2008, a meeting was organised in Bangkok. It was filmed and recorded. Viktor Bout, wearing an orange polo shirt, got into a lift with the fake FARC members, then started a discussion around a large oval table before being arrested by the Thai police. Twelve years later, he could wind up free in Russia.

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