But it was the same access to rogue aircraft in growing swaths of ungoverned spaces in Africa and Afghanistan that made him useful to the governments that were pursuing him. Need supplies for U.S. troops flown into Baghdad in 2003 when U.S. forces lacked airlift capacity? Bout's planes were available. Need to fly emergency food aid into the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Bout had the planes and pilots. From gladiolas to frozen chicken to AK-47s, Bout was the deliveryman par excellence.
And as Vladimir Putin consolidated the badly fractured intelligence services again over the past several years, Bout was less a rogue agent and more a part of the rapidly expanding Russian arms network. No longer free to operate on his own, he was spotted by European intelligence services in Iran in 2005 and Lebanon in 2006, allegedly delivering Russian weapons used by Hezbollah in the war with Israel that summer.
If the extradition goes through (and under Thai law there are no further appeals allowed), what could Bout offer if he opted for a plea bargain? He could likely tell a great deal about the Russian-led networks that continue to arm jihadi movements in Somalia and Yemen. He also likely knows how the Russian military intelligence and arms structure works, including its interests from Iran to Venezuela and elsewhere. His knowledge base, although he is only 43 years old, goes back more than two decades and possibly extends to the heart of the Russian campaigns around the globe.
No matter what happens with Bout, those quasi-state arms networks will not disappear. But without his unique capabilities, acquiring large amounts of weapons and ammunition has become more difficult and more costly for some of the worst groups in the world. The full-service enterprise has become a series of boutiques, making shopping more time consuming, expensive, and vulnerable to law enforcement and intelligence.
It is unlikely he will turn on his Russian handlers. They have his wife and children, and despite his amoral sales record, he is widely known to be a family man. He endured more than two years in a Thai prison, losing more than 70 pounds and never showing any signs of doubting he would ultimately walk away. He has been, so far, a soldier's soldier. But if he turned, the stories he could tell would make the Kremlin wish it had kept an even closer eye on him.