Home New york Who is Viktor Bout, the ‘Merchant of Death’ the US might trade...

Who is Viktor Bout, the ‘Merchant of Death’ the US might trade for Brittney Griner?

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Viktor Bout, an outlaw Russian arms dealer known as “The Merchant of Death,” is widely believed to be part of a proposed prisoner swap between the US and Russia for the safe return of Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

Bout has been in US custody since 2008, when a secretive sting operation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration captured him in Thailand.

Bout’s larger-than-life reputation makes it hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the arms trafficker’s resume. Much of his early life is unknown, but he is believed to have been born in 1967 in then-Soviet Tajikistan. Bout was trained as a linguist at a Moscow military institute before serving with the Red Army as a translator in Angola.

Like many of the burgeoning oligarchs and tycoons to come out of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Bout took advantage of the economic chaos that followed.

When the Soviet Union broke up, military equipment belonging to the superpower ended up scattered across the 15 new nations created by the dissolution. These countries had neither the money with which to keep an army paid, nor the infrastructure to keep inventory on the weapons they’d just inherited.

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout could be involved in a prisoner swap to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan back to the US.

Viktor Bout saw an opportunity.

Bout assembled a fleet of ex-Soviet cargo planes — massive Antonov and Ilyushin craft — and began making shipments of arms and other goods all over the world.

Bout came to American attention in the late ’90s, as he supplied weapons to the war zones of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the New York Times reported.

But Western intelligence, including the CIA, had been watching him in the early ’90s as his transport routes in Africa moved everything from flowers and chickens to UN peacekeepers and African heads of state.

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout behind prison bars.
Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was taken into US custody in 2008.

In the decades that followed, his client list grew prolifically. Bout’s reported to have supplied weapons to Hezbollah, according to The Guardian. He reportedly flew weapons to both the Taliban and their enemies, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Through a front company, he allegedly even won a contract to deliver FedEx packages to Baghdad.

Bout’s cinematic exploits are occasionally cited as the inspiration for the 2005 Nicholas Cage film “Lord of War,” which follows Yuri, a fictional arms dealer of Russian descent who runs a massive operation to supply weapons around the world.

Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 after he was lured there by US DEA agents posing as Colombian rebels. He was extradited to the US in 2010 against Russian objections, and ultimately convicted by a Manhattan jury in 2011 for conspiring to sell weapons to a designated foreign terrorist group.

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