In many ways, Viktor Bout is a prototypical, modern-day, multinational entrepreneur. He is smart, savvy, and ambitious. He’s good with numbers, speaks several languages, and knows how to seize opportunities when they arise. According to those who've met him, he’s polite, professional, and unassuming. Bout has no known political agenda. He loves his family. He's fed the poor. And through his hard work, he's become extraordinarily wealthy. During the past decade, Bout’s business acumen has earned him hundreds of millions of dollars. What, exactly, does he do? Former colleagues describe him as a postman, able to deliver any package virtually anywhere in the world.
Not yet 40 years old, the Russian national also happens to be the world's most notorious arms trafficker. He, more than almost anyone else, has succeeded in exploiting the anarchy of globalization to get goods -- usually illicit goods -- to market. He's a wanted man, desired by those who require a small military arsenal and pursued by law enforcement agencies who want to bring him down. Globe-trotting weapons merchants have long flooded the Third World with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and warehouses of bullets and land-mines. But unlike his rivals, who tend to carve out small regional territories, Bout’s planes have dropped off his tell-tale military-green crates from jungle landing strips in the Congo to bleak hillside runways in Afghanistan. He has developed a worldwide network of logistics, maneuvering through a maze of brokers, transportation companies, financiers, and weapons manufacturers -- both illicit and legitimate -- to deliver everything from fresh-cut flowers, frozen poultry, and U.N. peacekeepers to assault rifles and surface-to-air missiles across four continents.
His client list for weapons is long. In the 1990s, Bout was a friend and supplier to the legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, while simultaneously selling weapons and aircraft to the Taliban, Massoud's enemy. His fleet flew for the government of Angola, as well as for the UNITA rebels seeking to overthrow it. He sent an aircraft to rescue Mobutu Sese Seko, the ailing and corrupt ruler of Zaire, even though he had supplied the rebels who were closing in on Mobutu’s last stronghold. He has catered to Charles Taylor of Liberia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Bout's customers are not exclusively corrupt Third-World leaders. He built his fortune by flying tons of legitimate cargo, too. These included countless trips for the United Nations into the same areas where he supplied the weapons that sparked the humanitarian crises in the first place. He's done business with Western governments, including the United States. Over the past several years, the U.S. Treasury Department has tried to put Bout out of business by freezing his assets and imposing other sanctions on him, his business associates, and his companies. But the Pentagon and its contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have simultaneously paid him millions of dollars to fly hundreds of missions in support of postwar reconstruction in both countries. In an age when the U.S. president has divided the world into those who are with the United States and those who are against it, Bout is both.
International officials believe that Bout's business practices -- in particular, his refusal to discriminate among those who are willing to pay the right price -- are, in fact, illegal. Peter Hain, then the British Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa, stood in Parliament in 2000 to lash out against those violating U.N. arms sanctions. He singled out Bout, dubbing him Africa's "merchant of death." But Bout's deals often fall into a legal gray area that global jurisprudence has simply failed to proscribe. It’s not for lack of trying. His peripatetic aircraft appear in little-noticed U.N. reports documenting arms embargo violations in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and Sierra Leone. U.S. spy satellites have photographed his airplanes loading crates of weapons on remote airstrips in Africa. American and British intelligence officials have eavesdropped on his telephone conversations. Interpol has issued a "red notice," requesting his arrest on Belgian weapons trafficking and money-laundering charges.
Yet Bout has managed to elude authorities over and over again. Laws simply do not address transnational, nonstate actors such as Bout. His most egregious illegal acts have included multiple violations of U.N. arms embargoes, a crime for which there is no penalty and for which there is no enforcement mechanism. Today, Bout lives openly in Moscow, protected by a Russian government unconcerned by the international outcry that surrounds him and his business empire.
INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY
Much of Viktor Bout's early history is either unknown or of his own making. He is married and has at least one daughter; that much is true. His older brother Sergei works for him. But any other personal information is clouded in mystery. Even his place of birth is unclear. According to his official Russian passport, Bout was born on Jan. 13, 1967, in the faded Soviet outpost of Dushanbe, Tajikistan. But during a 2002 radio interview in Moscow, Bout said he was born near the Caspian Sea in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. A 2001 South African intelligence report lists him as Ukrainian. He is known to carry more than one passport and use an array of aliases, including Vadim S. Aminov, Victor Anatoliyevitsch Bout, Victor S. Bulakin, and the sardonic favorite of his American pursuers, Victor Butt.
The deliberate obfuscation has made it difficult to track Bout, his partners, and his business. He says he was an Air Force officer and has acknowledged graduating from the prestigious Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow in the late 1980s. He reportedly speaks fluent English, French, Portuguese, Uzbek, and several African languages. U.N. officials say he worked as a translator for peacekeepers in Angola in the late 1980s. Several reports tie him to Russian organized crime. Although British and South African intelligence reports say that Bout was stationed in Rome with the KGB from 1985 to 1989, he has strenuously denied any intelligence background. But military language school was a known training ground for the GRU (or Main Intelligence Directorate) -- the vast, secretive, Soviet military intelligence network that oversaw the Cold War flow of Russian arms to revolutionary movements and communist client states in the Third World.