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Viktor Bout – Merchant of Death

Image: Spy Wars

Damian Lewis: Spy Wars sees the acclaimed star of Homeland, Billions and Band of Brothers step into the shadowy realm of secret agents, sleeper cells and ruthless mercenaries, as he delves into some of the most fascinating sagas of espionage from the Cold War to the current day.

One focus is Viktor Bout, arguably the most notorious arms dealer of all time, whose shameless exploits inspired the Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War. Born in the USSR, Bout forged his blood-soaked career from the detritus left after the fall of the Soviet Union, becoming – in the words of former Foreign Office minister Peter Hain – the world’s 'leading merchant of death'.

Bout can almost be seen as the outlandish, arms dealing sibling of the Russian oligarchs, who – like him – rose from the ashes of the former superpower. Under the post-Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin, a group of ambitious entrepreneurs – some of whom had already started making money on the black market in the dying days of the USSR – ruthlessly exploited the era of mass privatization to become unfathomably rich. In a rigged and brazenly corrupt process, men with close ties to both the government and organised crime were able to rapidly snap up shares in formerly state-owned industries in one of the biggest power grabs in modern history.

As Marshall I. Goldman, Associate Director of the Harvard Russian Research Center put it: 'Virtually all their wealth came from the seizure of Russia's raw material assets, which until 1992 had been owned and managed by the state. An oligarch's success, in other words, almost always depended on his connections to the government officials in charge of privatizing the country's rich energy and mineral deposits, as well as on his ability to outmanoeuvre or intimidate rivals.'

Just as these well-connected businessmen were perfectly placed to gorge themselves on the state’s resources, Viktor Bout was in an ideal position to become an arms dealer. Fluent in several tongues (including the invented language Esperanto), he was a veteran of the Soviet armed forces and, allegedly, the KGB. Once the Cold War ended, he was ready to take advantage of the chaotic power vacuum that ensued.

Russian reporter Simon Shuster sums up the most widely accepted version of events: 'Soon after the Soviet Union collapsed, Bout bought up a fleet of old military cargo planes and, according to US investigators, used his contacts in the armed forces to get his pick of everything from Kalashnikov rifles to unmanned aerial vehicles. He is then alleged to have sold such weapons to some of the most vicious regimes and terrorist groups in the world, feeding conflicts from the Congo to Colombia.'

It was an ascent so swift as to be surreal. One US official recounted how Bout simply appeared on the scene miraculously, “sort of like Jesus”. Yet Bout himself has always vigorously denied it all, claiming to be nothing more or less than a conventional businessman. He did indeed set up a legitimate air freight company, and it’s been said his fleet of Soviet-era planes was utilised by the UN, the French government and the US, to transport everything from frozen food to Fed-Ex parcels to UN peacekeepers.

Yet his legal business interests were simply a front for his shady dealings with a rogue’s gallery of infamous individuals, organisations and regimes. It’s been reported that Bout sold arms to former Liberian president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor (who allegedly paid Bout with blood diamonds) as well as warlords in other parts of Africa and beyond. According to one staggering report in The Observer, 'He often equipped both sides of a conflict, most famously in Afghanistan, where he supplied both the Taliban and Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance troops, often using the same flights to drop off weapons to the different combatants.'

Roaming the world, relocating whenever he needed to, Bout was able to carry on operating despite being well-known to various governments and agencies. According to Alex Yearsley of anti-corruption organisation Global Witness, 'He seemed to have a very high level of protection in Russia, living there a happy and a free man despite Interpol red notices and Belgian arrest warrants.' It’s been speculated that Bout’s sheer audacity and efficiency as an illicit trader made him a valuable and protected pawn in the dangerous game being played by the world’s various governments after the end of the Cold War.

But enough was eventually enough. A top secret operation was hatched in the United States to capture Bout – perhaps because his alleged dealings with Hizbollah and al-Qaeda affiliates put him beyond the pale. It was to be a classic sting, with Bout approached to supply the Colombian guerrilla organisation FARC with millions of dollars’ worth of rifles, missiles and mines. In March 2008, the arms dealer was lured to a meeting in Bangkok with undercover agents – during the discussion, the agents made it clear Bout’s weapons would be used to shoot down US aircraft. Bout said he was more than happy to continue with the deal, and was promptly arrested. One DEA agent on the scene was struck by how calm he was:

'Viktor was relaxed,' he told the New Yorker. 'It’s a memory that still plays out in my head. Everything that had just happened – the D.E.A. agents, his life going up in flames – and he doesn’t break a sweat. It was like he was just sitting down to read the newspaper.'

As unflappable as ever, Bout spent his time in a cockroach-infested Thai prison to brush up on his Urdu and Turkish, and develop a fondness for bestselling New Age author Paulo Coelho. Two years later he was finally extradited to the US (much to the fury of the Russian government), where he was put on trial on various charges, including conspiring to kill US citizens and providing support to terrorists.

Bout, who had years ago mocked his own legend in an interview with the New York Times ('Maybe I should start an arms-trafficking university and teach a course on U.N. sanctions busting,' he’s quipped) was sentenced to 25 years. It was the end of the line for this amoral oligarch of the arms trade, a contradictory character described by one associate as 'my gentle friend Viktor, who wouldn't hurt a cat' and who once claimed his real ambition was to 'take one of my helicopters to the Russian Arctic and make wildlife films for National Geographic'. It’s a calling that will have to wait a quarter of a century.