Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as “The Merchant of Death,” is widely believed to be part of a proposed US-Russian prisoner exchange for the safe return of Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
Bout has been in US custody since 2008, when a secret operation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration captured him in Thailand.
Bout’s extraordinary reputation makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the arms dealer’s resume. Much of his early life is unknown, but it is believed that he was born in 1967 in then-Soviet Tajikistan. Bout trained as a linguist at a Moscow military institute before serving in the Red Army as a translator in Angola.
Like many of the burgeoning oligarchs and tycoons who emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Bout took advantage of the economic chaos that followed.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the military equipment belonging to the superpower ended up scattered throughout the 15 new nations created by the dissolution. These countries had neither the money to maintain a paid army, nor the infrastructure to maintain an inventory of the weapons they had just inherited.
Viktor Bout saw an opportunity.
Bout assembled a fleet of ex-Soviet cargo planes, huge Antonov and Ilyushin ships, and began shipping arms and other goods around the world.
Bout came to the attention of Americans in the late 1990s when he supplied weapons to war zones in the Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the New York Times reported.
But Western intelligence, including the CIA, had been watching him in the early 1990s as his shipping routes in Africa carried everything from flowers and chickens to UN peacekeepers and African heads of state.
In the decades that followed, his client list grew prolifically. Bout is reported to have supplied weapons to Hezbollah, according to The Guardian. He reportedly sent weapons to both the Taliban and his enemy, 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 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 arms around the world.
Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 after US DEA agents lured him there by posing as Colombian rebels. He was extradited to the US in 2010 against Russian objections and ultimately convicted by a Manhattan jury in 2011 of conspiring to sell weapons to a designated foreign terrorist group.