Bout, 55, is the most notorious arms dealer of his time, accused of profiting from weapons that fueled conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Who is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer being watched in prisoner swap rumors?
This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had presented Russia with a “substantial offer” to secure the release of two Americans held in Moscow, WNBA star Brittney Griner and security adviser Paul Whelan. Russian officials have hinted that they expect a prisoner swap.
There is little doubt that Bout would be the top prize for Russian officials, who have protested his treatment since his arrest in Thailand in 2008 after a stab by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Steve Zissou, Bouts’ New York-based attorney, warned this month that “no Americans will be exchanged unless Viktor Bout is sent home.”
What is less clear, however, is why Russia cares so much about Bout. When CIA Director William J. Burns was asked at the Aspen Security Forum this month why Russia wants Bout, Burns replied, “That’s a good question, because Viktor Bout is a creep.”
Although Russia has complained that Bout has been ambushed by the DEA, many US officials and analysts believe his anger has nothing to do with the substance of the case, but rather Bout’s ties to Russian military intelligence.
US officials hope public pressure will lead to Russian prisoner release
“Obviously he had significant ties to Russian government circles,” said Lee Wolosky, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who led the first efforts to crack down on Bout’s network.
Though less well-known than the KGB and its successor the FSB, Russian military intelligence, commonly known as the GRU, has a reputation for taking bolder and riskier actions. It has been accused of everything from hacking elections to murdering dissidents in recent years.
In addition, reports suggest that Bout could have close ties to Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister of Russia and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both Sechin and Bout served with the Soviet Army in Africa in the 1980s.
Bout has denied any such ties to the GRU. He has also said that he does not know Sechin.
But that silence could be the point. The arms dealer refused to cooperate with US authorities, even though he spent more than a decade, isolated and alone, in a cell thousands of miles from his home in Moscow. That silence could be rewarded.
“He kept his composure in prison, never exposed anything to the Americans, as far as I know,” said Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov.
Simon Saradzhyan of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs said Bout could never have run such a large smuggling company without government protection, but he never spoke about it. “The Russian government would like to get him back so that it stays that way,” Saradzhyan said.
Freeing Bout would send a message to others who could be in trouble, said Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert: “The motherland will not forget you.”
“The Russians bring success [him] going back would be considered a triumph,” said Galeotti. “And let’s face it, right now the Kremlin is looking for triumphs.”
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the political analysis group R.Politik, said Putin wants something deeper than political gain. “We have a special word in the Russian language for people like Bout: “svoi.” It means one of ‘us’. It is someone who has worked for the motherland, at least in [the government’s] eyes.”
Bout, who has said in interviews that he was born in Tajikistan in 1967, studied languages at the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. He said he was forced to study Portuguese and later sent to Angola to work as a translator in the Soviet Air Force.
Military institutes were important recruiting grounds for the GRU (the more sophisticated KGB, meanwhile, stayed with universities), experts say. And while his ties to Sechin are unclear, both studied Portuguese and overlapped with the Soviet military in Mozambique.
Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout, like many others who saw opportunities to profit in the midst of chaos, became an entrepreneur. He used a small fleet of Antonov An-8 aircraft from the Soviet Union to set up an air cargo company and was apparently willing to take risks others wouldn’t, flying into war zones and failed states.
Bolt would also have access to something more valuable than airplanes: knowledge of the fate of the Soviet Union’s vast arms stockpiles.
“He’s been moving weapons from places like Ukraine for a decade,” said Douglas Farah, the president of national security firm IBI Consultants and the co-author of a book on Bout.
In 2000, Bout was one of the world’s most notorious traffickers. He was called “the leading merchant of death” in the British Parliament and was named in UN reports for supplying heavy weapons to a rebel movement in Angola and to Charles Taylor of Liberia, then supporting a deadly civil war in neighboring Sierra. Leon.
The extent to which Bout worked for Russian military interests is debated. Farah said he believed that, given the magnitude of military equipment being moved, such work may have been tacitly approved by the GRU.
Wolosky said Bout came to the attention of the Clinton administration for disrupting peace processes that the president supported across Africa.
“In some cases, he armed both sides of the conflict,” Wolosky said.
Under mounting international pressure, including an Interpol arrest warrant issued in 2004, Bout returned to Moscow.
According to many accounts, at the time, Bout was stepping back from his most intense work in the arms trade. He lived in Golitsyno, a small town outside Moscow. A friend who visited his home in 2008 later noted that it was full of books and, surprisingly, a DVD of the 2005 Nicolas Cage film “Lord of War,” which was allegedly inspired by Bouts’ life.
Unfortunately for him, that guy — former South African intelligence agent Andrew Smulian — worked for the DEA.
Bout was later arrested in Thailand, where he was secretly admitted by the DEA, which organized the purchase of 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 fragment grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, five tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million ammunition for people he thought were agents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurgent group.
The elaborate sting operation circumvented a key problem in Bout’s American pursuit: He had not broken any American laws. In 2011, a federal court in New York found him guilty of several charges, including conspiracy to murder US citizens.
In particular, Russian officials have complained about Bout’s aggressive and unusual targets.
But Bout’s inclusion helped make the broader argument that he was not a simple businessman. When the agents posing as buyers for the FARC said the weapons would be used against US Air Force pilots working with the Colombian government, Bout could be heard saying they had “the same enemy.”
“It’s not a business,” he said. “It’s my fight.”
In an earlier version of this article, Lee Wolosky’s name was misspelled. The article has been corrected.