At the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Ill., in a special unit so restrictive that it has the nickname “Little Guantánamo,” a broad-chested, mustachioed man nicknamed the “merchant of death,” who speaks at least six languages, is serving a 25-year term after building a gun-smuggling empire that spanned the globe.
Bout, 55, is the most notorious arms dealer of his time, accused of profiting off weapons that fueled conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had proposed to Russia “a substantial offer” to secure the release of two Americans being held in Moscow, WNBA star Brittney Griner and security consultant Paul Whelan. Russian officials have hinted they expect a prisoner swap.
There is little doubt that Bout would be the top prize for Russian officials, who have protested his treatment since his 2008 arrest in Thailand after a Drug Enforcement Administration sting. Steve Zissou, Bout’s New York-based lawyer, warned this month that “no Americans will be exchanged unless Viktor Bout is sent home.”
What is less clear, however, is exactly why Russia cares so much about Bout. When CIA Director William J. Burns, at the Aspen Security Forum this month, was asked why Russia wants Bout, Burns responded: “That’s a good question, because Viktor Bout’s a creep.”
Though Russia has complained that Bout was entrapped by the DEA, many U.S. officials and analysts believe that its anger is not linked to the merits of the case, but rather Bout’s links to Russian military intelligence.
“It’s clear that he had significant ties to Russian government circles,” said Lee Wolosky, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who led early efforts to tackle Bout’s network.
Though less famous than the KGB and its successor the FSB, Russia’s military intelligence agency, commonly known as the GRU, has a reputation for taking bolder and riskier actions. It has been accused in recent years of everything from hacking elections to assassinating dissidents.
Additionally, reports suggest that Bout could have close ties to Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister of Russia and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both Sechin and Bout served with the Soviet military in Africa during the 1980s.
Bout has denied any such links to the GRU. He has also said he doesn’t know Sechin.
But that silence could be the point. The arms trafficker refused to cooperate with U.S. authorities, even as he sat for over a decade, isolated and alone, in a cell thousands of miles from his home in Moscow. That silence could be rewarded.
“He kept his cool in prison, never exposed anything to the Americans, as far as I can tell,” said Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov.
Simon Saradzhyan of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs said that Bout could never have operated such a large smuggling business without government protection, but that he never spoke about it. “The Russian government is eager to retrieve him so that it stays that way,” Saradzhyan said.
Freeing Bout would send a message to others who could end up in trouble, said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security: “The motherland will not forget you.”
“The Russians successfully bringing [him] back would be regarded as a triumph,” Galeotti said. “And let’s face it, at the moment the Kremlin is looking for triumphs.”
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R.Politik political analysis group, said Putin wants something deeper than political gain. “We have a special word in the Russian language for people like Bout: “svoi.” It means someone from ‘us.’ It’s someone who worked for the motherland, at least in [the government’s] eyes.”
Bout, who has said in interviews that he was born in Tajikistan in 1967, studied languages at the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. He said he was pushed into studying Portuguese and later sent to Angola to work as a translator with the Soviet air force.
Military institutes were key recruitment grounds for the GRU (the more refined KGB, meanwhile, stuck to universities), experts say. And while his links to Sechin are unclear, both studied Portuguese and overlapped with the Soviet military in Mozambique.
Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout, like many others who saw opportunity to profit amid chaos, became an entrepreneur. He used a small fleet of Soviet-made Antonov An-8 planes to set up an airfreight business and was apparently willing to take risks that others wouldn’t, flying to war zones and failed states.
Bout is also believed to have access to something more valuable than planes: knowledge of the fate of the Soviet Union’s enormous caches of weapons.
“He was moving out weapons for a decade, from places like Ukraine,” said Douglas Farah, the president of the national security firm IBI Consultants and the co-author of a book about Bout.
By 2000, Bout was one of the world’s most notorious traffickers. He was dubbed “the leading merchant of death” in Britain’s Parliament, and was named in U.N. reports for supplying heavy weaponry to a rebel movement in Angola as well as Liberia’s Charles Taylor, then supporting a deadly civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.
The extent to which Bout was working for Russian military interests is debated. Farah said he believed that given the scale of military equipment being moved, such work may have been tacitly approved by the GRU.
Wolosky said Bout came to the Clinton administration’s attention because he was disrupting peace processes that the president was backing across Africa.
“In some cases, he was arming both sides of the conflict,” Wolosky said.
Amid increasing international pressure, including an Interpol arrest warrant issued in 2004, Bout returned to Moscow.
By many accounts, Bout at that time stepped back from his most intense work in the arms trade. He lived in Golitsyno, a small town outside Moscow. A friend visiting his home in 2008 later noted that it was filled with books as well as, surprisingly, a DVD of the 2005 Nicolas Cage film “Lord of War,” which was reportedly inspired by Bout’s life.
Unfortunately for him, that guest — former South African intelligence agent Andrew Smulian — was working for the DEA.
Bout was arrested later in Thailand, where he had been secretly recorded by the DEA organizing the purchase of 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 fragment grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, five tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million rounds of ammunition for people he thought were agents for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurgent group.
The elaborate sting operation got around a key problem in the U.S. pursuit of Bout: He hadn’t broken any U.S. laws. In 2011, a federal court in New York found him guilty of a variety of charges, including conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals.
Russian officials have complained particularly about the aggressive and unusual targeting of Bout.
But the recording of Bout helped make the broader argument that he wasn’t a simple businessman. When the agents posing as buyers for the FARC said the weapons would be used against U.S. Air Force pilots working with the Colombian government, Bout could be heard telling them they had “the same enemy.”
“It’s not business,” he said. “It’s my fight.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Lee Wolosky’s name. The article has been corrected.