Bout, 55, is the most notorious arms trafficker of his time, accused of profiting from weapons that have fueled conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Who is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer targeted by the rumor of a prisoner exchange?
This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had made “a substantial offer” to Russia to secure the release of two Americans detained in Moscow, WNBA star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan. Russian officials have hinted that they expect a prisoner swap.
Bout would no doubt be the top prize for Russian officials, who have protested his treatment since his 2008 arrest in Thailand after a Drug Enforcement Administration sting. Steve Zissou, Bout’s New York-based attorney, warned this month that “no Americans will be traded unless Viktor Bout is sent home.”
What’s less clear, however, is exactly why Russia cares so much about Bout. When CIA Director William J. Burns, at the Aspen Security Forum this month, was asked why Russia wanted Bout, Burns replied, “That’s a good question, because Viktor Bout is a bad guy.”
Although Russia has complained that Bout was framed by the DEA, many US officials and analysts believe its anger is not about the merits of the case, but rather about Bout’s ties to Russian military intelligence.
US officials hope public pressure will lead to the release of Russian prisoners
“Clearly he had significant ties to Russian government circles,” said Lee Wolensky, a Clinton administration National Security Council official who led early efforts to crack Bout’s network. .
Although less famous than the KGB and its successor the FSB, Russia’s military intelligence agency, commonly known as the GRU, has a reputation for taking bolder and riskier moves. He has been accused in recent years of everything from hacking elections to murdering dissidents.
Additionally, reports suggest that Bout may have close ties to Igor Sechin, a former Russian deputy prime minister and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both Sechin and Bout served in the Soviet Army in Africa in the 1980s.
Bout denied any such connection to the GRU. He also said he didn’t know Sechin.
But that silence could be the goal. The arms dealer refused to cooperate with US authorities, even though he sat for more than a decade isolated and alone in a cell thousands of miles from his home in Moscow. This silence could be rewarded.
“He kept his cool 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 would never have been able to operate such a large smuggling business without government protection, but he never spoke about it. “The Russian government is eager to get it back so that it stays that way,” Saradzhyan said.
Freeing Bout would send a message to others who might find themselves in trouble, said Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert: “The homeland will not forget you.”
“The Russians succeeded in bringing [him] return would be considered a triumph,” Galeotti said. “And let’s face it, right now the Kremlin is looking for triumphs.”
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis group R.Politik, said Putin wanted something deeper than political gain. “We have a special word in the Russian language for people like Bout: ‘svoi’. It means someone from ‘us’. He is someone who has worked for the country, at least in [the government’s] the 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 pushed to study Portuguese and later sent to Angola to work as a translator in the Soviet Air Force.
Military institutes were key recruiting grounds for the GRU (the more refined KGB, meanwhile, glued to universities), experts say. And although his connections to Sechin are unclear, both studied Portuguese and overlapped with the Soviet army in Mozambique.
Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout, like many others who saw the opportunity to profit from the chaos, became an entrepreneur. He used a small fleet of Soviet-made Antonov An-8 planes to create an air cargo business and was apparently willing to take risks others wouldn’t, flying to war zones and failed states. .
Bout is also believed to have access to something more valuable than planes: knowledge of the fate of the Soviet Union’s massive arms caches.
“He’s been pulling out guns for a decade, from places like Ukraine,” said Douglas Farah, president of national security firm IBI Consultants and co-author of a book on Bout.
In 2000, Bout was one of the most notorious traffickers in the world. He was dubbed “the chief dealer of death” in the British Parliament and was named in UN reports for supplying heavy weapons to a rebel movement in Angola as well as in Liberia Charles Taylor, who had then supported a deadly civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.
The extent to which Bout worked for Russian military interests is debated. Farah said he believed that given the scale of the military hardware being moved, such work might have been tacitly approved by the GRU.
Wolensky said Bout came to the attention of the Clinton administration because he was disrupting peace processes the president was supporting across Africa.
“In some cases, he was arming both sides in the conflict,” Wolensky said.
Amid growing international pressure, including an Interpol arrest warrant issued in 2004, Bout returned to Moscow.
By many accounts, Bout then took a step back from his most intense work in the arms business. He lived in Golitsyno, a small town outside of Moscow. A friend visiting his house in 2008 later noted that it was filled with books as well as, surprisingly, a DVD of Nicolas Cage’s 2005 film “Lord of War”, which was said to have been inspired by Bout’s life.
Unfortunately for him, that guest – former South African intelligence agent Andrew Smulian – was working for the DEA.
Bout was later arrested in Thailand, where he had been secretly recorded by the DEA arranging the purchase of 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 fragmentation grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, five tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million rounds for people he believed to be agents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurgent group.
The elaborate sting operation circumvented a key problem in the US prosecution of Bout: he had broken no US law. In 2011, a federal court in New York found him guilty of various charges, including conspiracy to kill US nationals.
Russian officials have complained in particular about Bout’s aggressive and unusual targeting.
But Bout’s recording helped make the case that he was not just a businessman. When the agents posing as FARC buyers said the weapons would be used against US Air Force pilots working with the Colombian government, Bout could be heard telling them they had “the same enemy”.
“It’s not business,” he said. “This is my fight.”