What Will Viktor Bout Do Next?
When Viktor Bout was at the top of his game, he was the biggest arms dealer in the world, operating an air freight empire supplying everything from flowers to combat helicopters.
But his business evaporated after he was arrested in 2008. Experts interviewed by OCCRP disagree over whether Bout can resume his old trade and help Russia get around sanctions, or whether he has no place in the new international landscape.
Bout is a Russian adventurer who made his mark by supplying arms to bloody conflicts before his capture. He was freed last week in an exchange for Brittney Griner, the U.S. basketball superstar imprisoned in Russia last year for possession of cannabis oil.
Bout, who rose to prominence in the weapons world in the chaotic aftermath of the breakup of the USSR, was snared in 2008 in a sting operation in Thailand orchestrated by U.S. officials pretending to represent Colombian rebels wanting to buy missiles and rocket launchers.
A day after his release, the former arms dealer appeared on Russian state television. Cheery and seemingly healthy, he said his time behind bars had been difficult but that books and a strict mental health routine had helped him cope. “I am simply a happy man, anger is self-destructive,” he said, noting he would force himself to laugh for five minutes every morning to flood his body with endorphins.
The newly freed Bout wasted no time in outlining his thoughts on politics. He voiced full support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine while mocking the decay of American civilization.
Monday, he made headlines again by joining the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party. Allegedly, he also attended a meeting of a state committee on international affairs and spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Samuel Ramani, a Russia foreign policy expert affiliated with Oxford University, said Bout is a great strategic gain for the Kremlin – particularly in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the Kremlin-linked paramilitary Wagner Group has been trying to garner political influence since 2019, although without much success.
Bout was a fixture in the Congo during a series of civil wars around the turn of the century, supplying various rebel factions as well as President Mobutu Sese Seko, his personal friend. Bout sent a plane to evacuate Mobutu when rebels descended upon his palace.
Ramani suggested that Bout’s expertise could also be helpful in helping Russia evade tightening international sanctions and maintaining trade flows in the increasingly hostile international environment.
But Douglas Farah, a U.S. national security consultant and author of a book exposing Bout’s trafficking empire, thinks there is no way Bout can resume arms trafficking.
“He has been cut off from everything for too long,” Farah said, pointing out even before the fatal trip to Thailand, Bout’s empire was shrinking because of multiple international arrest warrants and Putin’s consolidation of power and he was mostly staying in Moscow. “All the players he had trusted relationships with, be it Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Charles Taylor in Liberia or Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan, are now gone and he cannot provide much in terms of actual knowledge of how things operate,” Farah added.
Moreover, he can no longer operate in the shadows. “The business was very personal. He personally dealt with Charles Taylor, Jonas Savimbi, Mobutu, flew to the countryside, took his helicopters up. But he is so well known now that he just cannot sneak into a place anymore,” said Farah.
Farah indicated that Bout is much more likely to turn to politics instead. “He is charismatic and very good on TV, calm, measured, sounding very plausible, and Putin has been consistently promoting people disliked by the U.S. to positions of power and visibility.”
Yet, Bout has beaten many odds in his life. “He is an incredibly smart and clearly very strong individual,” said Farah. “You could say it is not very plausible for him to come back but on the other hand, he had a remarkable career and none of it was plausible.”