The life of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the US and possibly exchanged for two US citizens detained by Moscow, looks like a contrived spy thriller, according to Reuters.
Booth, 55, variously called – A “dealer in death” and a “sanctions breaker” for his ability to circumvent arms embargoes, he was one of the world's most wanted men until his arrest in 2008 on multiple arms trafficking charges.
Almost for two decades, Bout became the world's most famous arms dealer, selling arms to rogue states, rebel groups, and bloody warlords in Africa, Asia, and South America.
Such was his notoriety that his life inspired the creation of the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage as Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer inspired by Booth.
However, Booth's origins remained shrouded in mystery. Biographies generally agree that he was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, then the capital of Soviet Tajikistan, near the border with Afghanistan.
A gifted linguist who later used his command of English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Persian languages to create his international arms empire, Bout reportedly attended an Esperanto club in Dushanbe as a child, fluent in an artificial language.
This was followed by service in the Soviet army, where, according to Bout, he rose to the rank of lieutenant and worked as a military translator, including in Angola, the country that later became the center of his business.
Bout's big break came in the days following the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989-1991, when it profited from a sudden glut of abandoned Soviet-era weapons to spark a series of fratricidal civil wars in Africa, Asia and beyond.
With the disintegration of the huge air fleet of the Soviet Union, Bout was able to acquire a squadron of about 60 old Soviet military aircraft based in the United Arab Emirates, with which he could deliver his products around the world.
Business over politicsA 2007 biography by Douglas Farah and Stephen Brown entitled “Merchant of Death: Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible” provides the following details of Booth's shady trade.
From a base in Sharjah, the emirate of the Persian Gulf, he tied his arms-trading empire to a seemingly innocuous logistics business, always insisting when asked that he was a legitimate businessman with respectable clients.
However, However, Bout, who first came to the attention of the CIA amid reports of a suspicious Russian citizen trading arms in Africa, was one of the most wanted people in the world at the turn of the millennium.
But Bout, whose clients included rebel and militias groups from the Congo to Angola and Liberia, had no firm ideology and sought to put business ahead of politics.
According to Merchant of Death, he sold arms in Afghanistan Islamist Taliban rebels and their adversaries from the pro-Western Northern Alliance.
It says Bout supplied weapons to former Liberian President and warlord Charles Taylor, who is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence for murder, rape and terrorism, to various Congolese groups and the Philippine Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf.
The end came only in 2008, after an elaborate sting operation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, where Bout was tracked across several countries to a luxury hotel in Bangkok.
During a spectacular sting operation, Bout was caught on camera agreeing to sell 100 surface-to-air missiles to US undercover agents posing as left-wing Colombian FARC guerrillas that they used to destroy US troops. Soon after, he was arrested by the Thai police.
After more than two years of diplomatic wrangling, during which Russia loudly claimed that Bout was innocent and his case was politically motivated, Bout was extradited to the United States, where he faced numerous charges, including conspiracy to support terrorists, conspiracy for the purpose of killing Americans and laundering money.
Bout was tried on FARC-related charges, which he denied, and in 2012 a Manhattan court convicted him and sentenced him to 25 years in prison, which is the minimum possible punishment .
Since then, the Russian state has been seeking to get him back.
The US wants an exchange
On July 27, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Washington had made a “substantial offer” to Russia to release the WNA star ( WNBA) Britney Griner and Marine Paul Whelan.
Two days later, Blinken said he had a “frank and direct conversation” on the phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and insisted that Moscow accepted this proposal.
The US has already received a response from Russia regarding this exchange, but called the response “not serious”.
Blinken declined to say what the United States offered in exchange for Griner and Whelan. A source familiar with the situation confirmed that Washington is ready to trade Bout as part of a deal.
Lavrov suggested that Blinken return to quiet diplomacy on the exchange of prisoners, “rather than throwing out speculative information,” as the foreign minister said Russia.
Lavrov called Bout's extradition from Thailand a “blatant injustice” and suggested he was innocent.
Earlier this year, rumors surfaced that Bout was going to be exchanged for Trevor Reed, a US Marine Corps veteran imprisoned in Russia for charge of assault. Reed was ultimately released in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot imprisoned in the United States on drug trafficking charges.
The continued interest of the Russian state in Bout, as well as his skills and connections in the international arms trade, strongly point to ties to Russian intelligence.
In an interview, Bout said he studied at the Moscow Military Institute of Foreign Languages, which serves as a training center for military intelligence officers.
“Bout was almost certainly a GRU agent,” said Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, referring to Russian military intelligence.“His case has become indicative of the Russian intelligence services, which seek to show that they do not abandon their people,” Galeotti added.
According to Christopher Miller, a journalist who corresponded with neo-Nazis imprisoned with Bout in the United States Marion in Illinois, a former arms dealer keeps a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his cell and says he doesn't believe Ukraine should exist as a state.
Bout's wife Alla, who lives in St. Petersburg, told the agency Reuters via WhatsApp messaging service: “We very much hope that everything will be resolved and an agreement will be reached. All that's left to do is pray.”
As ForumDaily wrote earlier:
- After several months of internal debate, the Biden administration has offered to trade Viktor Bout , a convicted Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year US prison term, in a potential deal to free two Americans held by Russia, Britney Greener and Paul Whelan.