The future of two American citizens held in Russia could depend on the release of a convicted Russian arms dealer, dubbed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers, whose life story inspired a Hollywood movie.
Viktor Bout, a former Soviet army officer, is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiracy to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. Bout has maintained that he is innocent.
The Kremlin has long called for Bout’s release, calling his 2012 conviction “baseless and biased.”
CNN reported Wednesday that the Biden administration has offered Bout in a possible trade for US basketball star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.
On the same day, Griner testified in a Russian court as part of her ongoing drug charges trial following her arrest in February at a Moscow airport. Whelan was arrested in 2018 on charges of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials have called unfair.
Their families have urged the White House to secure their release, including through prisoner swaps if necessary. Now the focus is on Bout, a man who for years evaded international arrest warrants and asset freezes.
The Russian businessman, who speaks six languages, was arrested in 2008 during a covert operation led by US drug enforcement officers in Thailand masquerading as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the acronym FARC. He was eventually extradited to the US in 2010 after a lengthy legal process.
“Viktor Bout has been the number one international arms trade enemy for years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the world,” said Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan when Bout was convicted in New York in 2012.
“He was eventually brought to trial in a US court for agreeing to supply a staggering number of military-grade weapons to a recognized terrorist organization committed to killing Americans.”
The trial sharpened Bout’s role in supplying weapons to the FARC, a guerrilla group that waged an insurgency in Colombia until 2016. The US said the weapons were intended to kill US citizens.
But Bout’s history in the arms trade went much further. He is accused of having assembled a fleet of cargo planes since the 1990s to transport military-grade weapons to conflict zones around the world, fueling bloody conflicts from Liberia to Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Allegations of human trafficking in Liberia prompted US authorities to freeze his US assets in 2004 and block all US transactions.
Bout has repeatedly maintained that he was operating legitimate businesses and merely acting as a logistics service provider. He is believed to be in his fifties, with his age in question due to various passports and documents.
“His early days are a mystery,” Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center who co-authored a book on Bout, told CNN in 2010.
Farah told Mother Jones magazine in 2007 that, according to his multiple passports, Bout was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the son of an accountant and a car mechanic. He said Bout graduated from the Military Institute on Foreign Languages, a well-known feeder school for Russian military intelligence.
“He was a Soviet officer, most likely a lieutenant, who simply saw the opportunities presented by three factors associated with the collapse of the USSR and the state support that came with it: abandoned planes on the airstrips from Moscow to Kiev. , no longer able to fly for lack of money for fuel or maintenance; vast amounts of surplus weapons guarded by guards who suddenly received little or no pay; and the growing demand for those weapons from traditional Soviet customers and newly emerging armed groups from Africa to the Philippines,” Farah told the magazine.
Bout has said that he worked as a military officer in Mozambique. Others have said it was actually Angola, where Russia had a large military presence at the time, Farah told CNN. He first became known when the United Nations began investigating him in the early to mid-1990s and the United States became involved.
Bout – who has reportedly used names like “Victor Anatoliyevich Bout”, “Victor But”, “Viktor Butt”, “Viktor Bulakin” and “Vadim Markovich Aminov” – is said to have inspired the arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie “Lord of War”.
In 2002, Jill Dougherty of CNN met Bout in Moscow. She asked him about charges against him: did he sell weapons to the Taliban? To Al Qaeda? Did he supply rebels in Africa and was he paid in blood diamonds? — and he denied any claim.
“It’s a false accusation and it’s a lie,” he said. “I’ve never touched diamonds in my life and I’m not a diamond dealer and I don’t want that business.”
“I’m not afraid,” he told Dougherty. “I haven’t done anything in my life that I should be afraid of.”