The sentence emitted by an Appeals Court in Thailand, authorising his extradition to the US, could be the final chapter of his biography. But don’t bet too much on it, because nothing to do with Viktor Bout, the wheeler-dealer par excellence, is ever certain, everything is always clouded in a haze of mystery and legend. But let’s start from what is for the moment the end of his legendary adventures: his arrest, on the 28th of March 2008, in a luxury hotel in Bangkok where – according to the charges – he was negotiating the sale of a large quantity of arms to the Columbian guerrilla movement FARC. A fatal negotiation, because the guerrilla negotiators turned out to be undercover American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents. A banal finale worthy of a second-rate crime novel, and one which hardly does justice to a dramatically intense life that has been anything but banal.
The African “paradise”. His birthplace is unclear: Moscow, say some sources, but more plausibly Dushanbe, in Tajikistan, perhaps in 1967. His career begins in Soviet intelligence, with the notorious GRU army intelligence force, according to British intelligence: a service where the most promising young agents were given special training. Bout is an expert in using highly sophisticated weapons and in self-defence techniques, and fluently speaks six languages. By nature he is phenomenally intelligent and equipped with an uncanny intuition that permits him to always appear and disappear at exactly the right moment. He built his fortune from the ruins of the USSR. The first step was getting his hands on parts of the innumerable aeroplanes belonging to the Soviet airline Aeroflot, incapable of organising a complete inventory of its properties: for next to nothing (but oiling all the right cogs in the official machinery) he began amassing a growing fleet of Antonov, Tupolev, Ilyushin and Yakovlev airliners. Using the same methods, he got hold of an enormous quantity of arms, abandoned practically unguarded by the defunct Red Army. Initially, according to hearsay, he had dealings in Afghanistan and then South America. This may or may not be true, but there are certainly records of him setting up a whole galaxy of companies in every corner of the globe, using a jungle-like network of front-men and reams of forged documents. Some of these companies soon start appearing on the radar traces of Western intelligence services, due to suspicious goings on in Africa. A continent constellated by a multitude of micro-conflicts was just what he required to make his fortune. He was the man that everybody wanted to get help from. He’s behind the RUF in Sierra Leone, he provides arms for Charles Taylor’s gangs in Liberia, for UNITA in Angola, and via Bulgaria and Rumania sends arms to the Tutsis in Ruanda. And, naturally, in the Congo, he is one of the participants in the great banquet of a war with five million dead, simultaneously entering the diamond trade with his Great Lakes Business Company. He’s happy to sell arms to the Congolese Liberation Movement, while simultaneously arming Wamba Dia Wamba’s Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie, the former manipulated by Uganda and the latter by Ruanda…. two of Bout’s client countries, along with Kenya, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic and Swaziland, to name just a few.
Out of the shadows and into the spotlight. He may be an offspring of Soviet Communism, but at work he’s a Calvinist. His aeroplanes travel in any weather and land on any runway. Bout doesn’t ask, he acts. And contracts are his creed: there are never any problems in his dealings with some of the most ruthless organisations in the world, including warlords who enrol children and practice cannibalism… he always manages to stay one step ahead of them. He’s protected night and day by a court of ex-GRU elite servicemen, figures that inspire fear even among the brutal and undisciplined African militias. But his central role in arms dealing is due above all to his ability to procure not merely pistols and rifles, like the AK47s made in Russia or China, but also more sophisticated merchandise: attack helicopters, anti-tank mines, anti-aircraft systems, precision rifles, infrared vision equipment. However, his rapid and irresistible rise to fortune exposes him to an undesired amount of visibility. From the year 2000 onwards practically every UN report on arms dealing in Africa contains references to “companies controlled by the Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout.” Journalists start finding out about him, courting him and asking him for interviews… in 2003 he even poses for a photo-service for the New York Times Magazine. One journalist, Douglas Farah, writes a best-seller on his life and deeds, entitled ‘Merchant of Death”, which is turned into a film by Nicholas Cage, also its leading actor, called ‘Lord of War’. Bout has become a star, boasting several websites dedicated to him, and even a Viktor Bout Appreciation Society on Facebook.
A network of companies and mysteries. He shrugs his shoulders, says that he’s just a successful businessman, that he’s not responsible for the merchandise he transports… but wherever there’s a conflict, at least one of his companies is involved. There are swarms of them, springing up like mushrooms and closing down or moving elsewhere whenever local authorities start asking too many questions: to name a scattered few, Air Cess, Air Pass, Bukavu Aviation Transport (his vehicle in the Congo), Centrafrican Airlines, registered in Guinea in 2002. It’s suspected that Aerocom – used for transporting drugs and other commodities in Belize – also belongs to him. Aerocom was also involved in Iraq, where Bout worked as a contractor for the Pentagon. Other companies are Santa Cruz Imperial, Phoenix and above all Irbis, the latter serving various extremely interesting routes: connecting Sharijah – one of the United Arab Emirates where Bout is very much at home – with Balad, a city north of Baghdad which plays host to an American base, and also with Baghram in Afghanistan, site of another important US base, while also connecting Dubai with Kabul. As well as offering his transport services to the US, he has collaborated with the UN in taking aid and personnel to Timor after the tsunami, and to Somalia. Everyone needs a helping hand from “the merchant of death”.
For all these reasons, the story that Washington is out to get him on account of his dealings with FARC is hardly convincing (in the past he’s been ‘forgiven’ for doing business with Taliban forces), just as it seems most unlikely that he would have been fooled by the fake FARC emissaries. A lot of things just don’t add up. For years Bout has lived and prospered in the grey zone where secret services, armies and criminals meet and do business, and he knows a lot of things that could throw a lot of light on international politics in the last decade. He remains a controversial and highly fascinating figure. Hopefully he will have time to speak and avoid being silenced before doing so. Such an end would be unworthy of a story such as that of Viktor Bout, the world’s most famous arms dealer.