Who is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer known as “The Merchant of Death”?

Speculation is growing that the United States may free Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer nicknamed the ‘Dealer of Death’, to secure the freedom of the women’s basketball star Britney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelanboth imprisoned in Russia.

Russian state media has speculated for months that Griner, who was detained at a Moscow airport in February on drug charges, and Whelan, sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison for spying he described as a set-up, could be exchanged for Bout, whose freedom has long been sought by the Kremlin. But the Biden administration has remained silent on that possibility.

Then on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered the first public glimpse of efforts to bring Griner and Whelan home, saying the United States had submit a “substantial proposal” in Russia.

Administration officials have not responded to US media reports that the offer on the table includes a potential prisoner swap for Bout. Bout’s lawyer also did not confirm whether his client was part of the negotiations. The Kremlin says no deal has been done ‘yet’.

Bout, a former Soviet military translator turned international arms dealer, was imprisoned for more than a decade after being lured to Thailand in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation that spanned three continents.

“Viktor Bout, in my eyes, is one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth,” said Michael Braun, the former chief operating officer of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.60 minutes” in 2010.

Russian Viktor Bout's extradition hearing postponed
Viktor Bout sits in a detention cell at the Bangkok Supreme Court on July 28, 2008 in Bangkok, Thailand.

Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images


Bout, the son of an accountant and auto mechanic, was drafted into the Soviet Army at age 18 after playing competitive volleyball as a teenager, according to a New Yorker profile published in 2012. He served for two years in an infantry brigade. in western Ukraine, then applied to the Military Institute of Foreign Languages ​​in Moscow, where he studied Portuguese. Bout insisted to The New Yorker that he was never a spy, but others, including his former business partner and a former CIA officer, said he once worked for the GRU. , the Soviet foreign military intelligence agency.

In 1995, when he was 28, he began spending time in the cargo hangars at Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, before launching his cargo airline, Air Cess, with a small fleet of Russian planes that delivered goods to Africa and Afghanistan.

In the years that followed, Bout helped fuel civil wars around the world by supplying more sophisticated weaponry, sometimes to both sides of bloody conflicts. “If I didn’t do it, someone else would,” Bout told The New Yorker.

At that time, he was on the radar of American and British officials. Peter Hain, Minister of State for Africa at the UK Foreign Office, has sounded the alarm as British soldiers in Africa have come under attack from increasingly sophisticated weapons.

“Sanction breakers continue to perpetuate conflict in Sierra Leone and Angola, with the result that countless lives are lost and maimings take place. death who owns the air companies that transport weapons and other logistical support for the rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone and take out the diamonds that pay for these weapons… helping and abetting people who turn their weapons against British soldiers Hain told the House of Commons in 2000.

The nickname “Merchant of Death” “had come to Hain spontaneously, as he had read another intelligence briefing on Bout’s activities”, according to the book “Operation Relentless: The Hunt for the Richest, Deadliest Criminal in History”. , by Damien Lewis. “It struck an immediate chord and the press picked up the slack.”

In the US, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control unveiled sanctions against Bout and his companies that froze assets and prevented any transactions through US banks. But his business was so hidden by front companies that the US government unwittingly contracted two of his companies to deliver supplies to US troops in Iraq.

In 2007, the Drug Enforcement Administration hatched a plan to lure Bout out of Russia with an arms deal that would be hard to refuse. The agency hired an undercover agent to contact a trusted associate of Bout about a big deal. This exchange led to the first meeting between the fake DEA arms buyers, who posed as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC, and Bout’s associate on the island of Curaçao, a few hundred kilometers from the coast of Colombia.

Bout’s partner, Andrew Smulian, traveled to Moscow to present the deal to Bout. Smulian met the undercover agents two weeks later in Copenhagen, telling them his business partner liked the deal.

Weeks later, Bout was on his way to Thailand, thinking he would meet with FARC officials to discuss shipping what prosecutors said was a “military-grade weapons arsenal” to attack helicopters. Americans in Colombia.

In a March 2008 meeting in a Bangkok hotel conference room, Bout told DEA informants posing as FARC officials that he could drop the guns in Colombia and acknowledged that the weapons could be used to kill Americans.

After listening to the meeting, Thai police and DEA agents burst into the room and arrested Bout.

“The game is over,” Bout said.

Viktor Bout, suspected Russian arms dealer
Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrives at a court in Bangkok on October 5, 2010.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images


He was extradited to the United States in 2010 after two years of legal proceedings and convicted of terrorism a year later.

Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Now 55, he was due for release in August 2029, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.

“They will try to lock me up for life,” Bout told The New Yorker before his sentencing. “But I’ll come back to Russia. I don’t know when. But I’m still young.”

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