Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Viktor Bout, the icon for international black markets?

Remember that image of the polar bears trapped on shrinking ice floes?

Yeah, that one. Or any of the hundreds of others that have been used to illustrate stories about global warming. Polar bears have evolved to swim long distances, but they use ice floes as places to rest, raise young and feast on the kills of seals. The shrinking of Arctic sea ice means that scientists are now seeing more polar bears on beaches, and fewer on ice floes, and that some polar bears are drowning after swimming long distances between sheets of ice. These stories are being reported on the sites of environmental organizations like the NDRC, but also in notoriously left-leaning newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. (That was a joke. The whole left-leaning bit. Actually, the WSJ piece is one of the better summaries of scientific concerns about climate change and the effects on wildlife – you need to move even further right to the Dittosphere to find commetators cavalierly dismissing stories about changes in polar bear habitat.)

It’s a useful photo because it’s iconic shorthand for a complex and frightening set of issues. Will the melting of sea ice raise ocean levels around the world, swamping nations like Bangladesh and the Netherlands? Will it destroy the habitat of charismatic megafauna like the polar bear and of other less-photogenic species? Will melting ice change the salinity of North Atlantic oceans and break down the thermohaline circulation system that carries warm ocean water towards northern latitudes, cooling and recirculating it? To what extent are these changes caused by human impact, and to what extent can humans control and reverse these changes? You can easily fill thousands of pages exploring and arguing about those questions – the photo of polar bears on an ice flow is an eloquent summary of those complex issues.

If you were looking for an icon to represent scary questions about globablization, failed states and international trade, the photo above is a good place to start. The figure in the white polo shirt is Viktor Bout, a legendary arms trader who sold guns to brutal rebels in Sierra Leone, taking payment in raw diamonds, armed both sides of wars in Afghanistan and made small fortunes shipping South African flowers to the United Arab Emirates, and South African chicken to Nigeria. The above photo, snapped by photographer Wim van Cappellen on a landing strip in the eastern Congo, was the only known photo of Bout for many years – Bout, who maintains at least five passports, was understandably publicity-shy, even before he became an internationally wanted man.

Bout is well-known to students of African conflicts – as intelligence experts in the US and Europe tracked arms shipments supporting brutal conflicts on the continent in the 1990s, they found Bout and his various companies at the heart of much of the arms trade. His trade with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan was largely ignored… until one of his planes was forced to land by the Taliban and his crew held hostage for a year… after which, the plane was allowed to leave, and analysts believe he began supplying the Taliban and, perhaps, Al Qaeda as well.

But the real kicker was when Bout’s companies began working for the US Army and Air Force, shipping equipment to Baghdad airport and refueling with US government-provided fuel… despite the fact that Bout was facing Treasury department sanctions and was wanted by Interpol and the Belgian government. The Air Force, to their credit, stopped working with Bout… the Army did not until late 2005, arguing that they had no responsibilities of oversight over the subcontractors of Kellogg, Brown and Root. There’s nothing like a situation where a wanted international criminal, who’s helped arm Al Qaeda, is working as a subcontractor to the US military to make you realize that this whole international arms trade business is kinda complicated.

I was impressed with an article on Bout, titled “The Merchant of Death“, by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun in Foreign Policy. (Subscribers only, alas.) They did an excellent job of bringing out one of the most interesting threads of the story – if Bout hadn’t been dealing in weapons that helped kill millions of people, he would look a lot like an impressive and successful international entrepreneur. I’d been looking forward to their book – with the same title as their FP article – on Bout, and hungrily read my Christmas gift copy on my first international trip of the year.

Unfortunately, it’s not great. I don’t think it’s their fault. Malcolm Gladwell reviewed Michael Lewis’s book, “The Blind Side“, with a comment about degree of difficulty: “The degree of difficulty on telling the story of Michael Oher [the protagonist of “The Bling Side”] was really really high. Trust me. It was… And if you don’t believe me, just try writing an emotionally moving. full-length account of an essentially pathologically shy, inarticulate teenager.”

Well, the degree of difficulty in writing a book about Viktor Bout is even higher. The authors didn’t get to speak to the arms trader, who is believed to live in Moscow, protected from arrest and extradition by figures in the Russian government. Most of the details of his life are in dispute, and the standard “our subject’s childhood and youth” chapter is a confusing mass of conflicting accounts. The story of his rise to prominence is at least as confusing. Farah and Braun do an excellent job of synthesizing research on his shell companies and working methods, but it’s pretty easy to get lost in a maze of similarly named companies registered in out-of the way locales.

What I took away from the book was how easy it was for an ambitious, creative and “ethically flexible” man to create an international empire. Bout benefitted greatly from connections within the Russian military and intelligence community, which made it possible for him to buy surplus military aircraft inexpensively. He took advantage of the willingness of the leaders of the Emirate of Sharjah to turn a blind eye to his activities, in the hopes of turning their dusty backwater into an international trading center. He leveraged the aircraft registry of a number of failed, or failing, states to keep his craft registered and in the air… even if the registry never reviewed the airworthiness of his fleet. And he took advantage of the fact that “nobody shoots the postman”, and that there will always be work for someone to deliver cargo, no questions asked, to difficult destinations.

What’s hard to answer is whether Bout has a unique genius for this business, or whether there are simply so many holes in regulatory systems that it would be possible for a thousand Bouts to bloom were Viktor Bout to be arrested. Farah and Braum offer support for both cases – they talk at some length about Bout’s personal charm, his gift for languages, his force of personality. But they also write about the difficulty the US government had in cooperating with international law enforcement, and the breakdown of even basic contracting safeguards in the rush to war in Iraq. (The single best quote in the book: a former marine general, talking about how a wanted criminal managed to run a company that flew hundreds of flights into Baghdad, noted, “We have an old saying in the Marine Corps: if you want it bad, you get it bad.”)

In this sense, Braun and Farah take a very different approach to the Bout story than Peter Landesman did in a profile of Bout for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. For that story, Bout met with Landesman several times, and allowed himself to be photographed. (The resulting photos are amazing. One is reproduced above – if Bout had been trying to look like a cinema villian, I doubt he could have done better.) Landesman is openly skeptical about Bout’s explanations for his motivations, and is cognistant that he’s getting only a fraction of the story. In a cloak and dagger moment, he gets a call at his hotel from an anonymous source, who asks to meet him at a McDonald’s in Pushkin Square. The source encourages him to think of Bout as the public face of a much larger, much more sinister conspiracy:

He said to imagine the structure of arms trafficking in Russia like a mushroom. Bout was among those in the mushroom’s cap, which we can see. The stalk is made up of the men who are really running things in Russia and making decisions. Looking from above, he said, you never see the stalk.

That conspiracy would likely include Ukranian arms manufacturers, the Odessa mafia, the business leaders of the Trans-Dniestra breakaway “republic” of Moldova, and senior officials in the Russian government. Lanesman concludes that Bout is willing to talk to him because he’s become the fall guy for something much larger… but stops short of investigating that much larger story.

I have no way of knowing which account is closer to the truth – an evil entrepreneurial genius with some good connections, or the fall-guy for a cold-war arms empire. The former scares me a bit more than the latter. If it’s possible for a reasonably smart guy to dominate the clandestine arms world with a few connections and a lot of moxie, that suggests that there may be a whole lot more Bouts out there, trading nuclear material, drugs, chemical and biological agents… and that there’s very little that western governments can do about it.

The problem with telling the story of Viktor Bout now is that it’s not over. He hasn’t been brought to justice, and it’s not clear whether or not he’s got any ongoing arms operations, under the heading of a new shell company. It’s unclear precisely who’s protecting him in Russia and why. The denoument of the Faran and Braun book is the least satisfying one possible – the US government isn’t especially interested in bringing in Bout, and therefore, he probably won’t be arrested. Again, not their fault, but not the most satisfying end to a narrative.

Lots, lots more about Bout in these four articles:
The Good Soldier Bout, by Dirk Draulans, 2001, translated from Dutch.
– “The Embargo Buster” by Mathew Brunwasser, FRONTLINE/World, May 2002
– “Arms and the Man“, by Peter Landesman, NYTimes Magazine, August 2003
– “The Merchant of Death“, Farah and Braun, Foreign Policy, December 2006

I have some questions about the conclusions of this next article, but it’s a fascinating read, accusing the US government of a good deal of complicity in Bout’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan: “Viktor Bout: From International Outlaw to Valued Partner“, by John C.K. Daly, October 2004.

8 Responses to “Viktor Bout, the icon for international black markets?”

  1. Jason Das says:

    Thanks for the great summary and update, Ethan. It’s too easy to forget about goons like Bout!

  2. quixote says:

    Interesting metaphor: the mushroom. The cap and the stalk are a tiny part of it. Well over 90% of the whole organism are the underground hyphae, the microscopic threads that support and feed the part we can see. That part of the metaphor works too, unfortunately ….

  3. Atanu Dey says:

    Ethan, thanks for the fascinating story. Upon reading the line that Bout armed both sides of the conflicts in Afghanistan, I immediately thought of how the US arms both sides of many conflicts around the world as well. Reading further it came as no surprise that the US military machine itself uses Bout.

    Some time ago I had analyzed this sort of arming both sides of a conflict as a “dollar auction” game, with particular reference to the India Pakistan conflict over Kashmir. I called it “Dollar Auctions and Deadly Games.”

  4. jacob bilyeu says:

    the man is doing a fine job.it is just the way life works.i would do the same thing having the chance

  5. Dear Sir,

    Could you describe me in a few lines the trade of Bout in diamonds in Africa?

    Le POINT is a very influential weekly newsmagazine with 2 millions
    readers, mainly decision makers, businessmen, diplomats and
    intellectuals, not only in France but also in Switzerland, Belgium,
    Western Europe, Canada, Africa, North Africa and Middle East.

    Thanks for your help,

    Waiting for your reply,

    Best Regards,

    Olivier WEBER
    Reporter, Asian Editor
    Le POINT newsmagazine
    74 Avenue du Maine
    75014 Paris FRANCE
    Phone: 00 33 1 44 10 10 43
    Fax: 00 33 1 43 21 43 07
    Mobile: 00 33 6 71 70 63 87

  6. BRE says:

    I backtracked here from your March 13th article about Paul Collier’s book “The Bottom Billion” where I noticed that you refered to Commandant Viktor as a “bastard”. I didn’t realize that you too were tracking news and reports about Viktor Bout over the years and had recently published this post about him.

    I’ll be sure to reference this post in my next rolling update on the arrest and prosecution status of Viktor B. in Thailand.

    I’m afraid that one of two things will happen with Viktor: either the Thai authorities will cave-in to Russian government pressure so that Viktor is returned to Moscow free to continue his murderous global business in weapons, drugs, and resource smuggling____ OR Viktor will remain in custody but never make it to trial, succumbing to a very sudden and mysterious illness causing his untimely demise before he spills the beans to federal interrogators from various U.S. agencies.

    Finding out the whole truth about Viktor Bout and his dubious activities around the globe with various governments, despots and warlords, international organizations and shady businesspeople will be as illusive as the man himself. You have to give him credit for one thing, he understood how the system worked and how to use it to his advantage. Gnadenlos!

  7. T says:

    death is a necessity in modern society, as well as from day one and all the time in between… he provided it… “hippies” brought him down and are trying to say ohh we shouldn’t be killing each other, peace and love man. But when we step back into the real world from that fantasy… it will never happen… not until the end times… Also, i don’t think it’s a smart idea throwing names like bastard at a man like Bout… you never know who may be reading things like this…

  8. Shawn says:

    I cant fault the guy for making a buck, However when u rip off a major player in the game (USA) you are going down one way or the other. I wouldnt be starting any of his cars for him if he gets off in thailand !!!!! :)

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