The sentencing of Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout to 25 years in New York’s South District of Manhattan Federal Court this month has, to paraphrase the old smoking joke, become a major causes of statistics, comment and opinion.
NGOs and arms-control activists – including, I should say, a great many friends, and others for whom I have huge respect and admiration – have been quick to declare the world a safer place, despite news of huge movements of illicit arms in North Africa and North Korea’s rocket test, using embargo-busting hardware bought from China, in the same fortnight. On the other side of US politics, the National Rifle Association used the occasion to thunder against arms controls, and seemingly came very close to saying the US government had betrayed the country’s constitution by hosting arms treaty conferences in New York. Meanwhile a diffuse but vociferous core of bloggers, NatSec heads, investigative journalists, ex-military types and libertarians wasted no time in joining conspiracy theorists in declaring Bout to be a pawn in a bigger game being played out by the USA, and Bout’s prosecutors and the DEA hailed his conviction and tough sentence as a victory. Just as predictably, the Kremlin began anew the sabre-rattling about the case harming bilateral relations that it had initiated on Bout’s arrest in Thailand in 2008 (a move it claimed was illegal) but had rather conspicuously left off during the trial. You had to rub your eyes sometimes, and remind yourself sometimes that it was one trial, and one man we’re talking about.
Ah yes, that man. Who was he again? In the course of researching my book Outlaws Inc., which contains transcripts of the DEA’s wire on the day of his arrest and a blow-by-blow account of the trial and conviction, I met and spoke to many associates, acquaintances, allies and enemies of Viktor Bout, and no two people seemed to agree. Nor did their stance and their background always make for an easy fit: I spoke to as many former cohorts in the gun-running air trade who thought he was a mobster, a spy, a scoundrel or a liability as I did UN staff who believed him to be on the rough end of some rather arbitrary and heavy-handed US justice. There were plenty who broadly held the same essential view as I do – that he’s a highly intelligent, amoral businessman who made a living capitalizing on and helping perpetuate human misery – while at the same time disagreeing as to exactly what that made him. Worse than BAE Systems? Not as bad as Blackwater/Xe? A terrorist himself? As bad as [name your big Wall Street arms or software corporation of choice here]? George W Bush’s independent alter-ego? Putin’s puppet? The man John Bolton wishes he could be? In the end, you go crazy. Bout became a symbol for all-purpose avarice – a yardstick to gauge whatever point anyone wanted to make about something else.
And that’s what I suppose I found (find) most interesting about his case, and his story. He is the British parliament’s Merchant of Death, a foxtrot-loving family man, Hollywood’s Lord of War, a friend to dictators in Liberia and the Congo, a supplier to terrorists in Colombia and Africa, a zeitgeist-surfing private military contractor, a gunrunner, a mastermind, a small businessman, a kingpin, a Kremlin proxy, a shabby and rather naive salesman hopelessly out of his depth, a patsy, and, lest we forget, partner and supplier to US adventures abroad, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how is this possible?
One of the reasons Viktor Bout seems to split people in this way is his own weirdly ephemeral nature. Here’s what we know from the record. Ask him what he believes, and he’ll tell you he’s just a family man and entrepreneur, and that such questions are meaningless to him. Ask him why he ran guns, and the party line is that he’s just like a taxi driver, and you don’t ask them why they take passengers, some good and some not so much. And on the rare occasion you ask him, as Peter Landesman did, who’s helped him out of some of his previous jams (having his entire crew and plane held hostage by the Taliban while supplying the Northern Alliance, for example), he points to his forehead and says if he tells you he’ll “get the red dot right here”.
In my book, I argued that this “shimmering, insubstantial” quality was part and parcel of being an arms smuggler. It’s as true of personal traits and beliefs as it is of his documentation. (He possessed seven passports, carrying wildly different names, nationalities and details.) Whatever suits you best right now, that’s the one you’ll produce. Keep the rest sketchy, that way no-one can hold you to anything later.
I suppose for a while, I thought it was going badly for Bout in that courtroom. It seemed that there finally was a narrative for him, and he didn’t look good in it. The DEA had it all on tape: their undercover agents pretending to be FARC men, Bout promising to sell them weapons “to kill Americans with”. Indeed throughout the trial Bout’s defence attorney Albert Dayan had consistently flubbed the opportunity to put his client’s side of any story. He’d focused on alleged US hypocrisy, and that was more or less it. Well, I’m not saying he didn’t try, but Dayan’s flubs – spilling a pitcher of water over himself and the dais as he drew breath to start cross-questioning; forgetting what he was saying, let alone missing opportunities to put forward some solid arguments for his client – all seemed to the casual observer to have something of self-sabotage and unpreparedness about them. And as Dayan himself (an ambitious young American and, let it be noted, a last-minute replacement for the court-appointed lawyers Bout sacked just as proceedings commenced) would hardly have wanted to go before the world’s TV cameras and into the most high-profile trial of his career unprepared, one must assume part of the fault for his seeming unpreparedness lies with Bout himself.
Why would he do that? Post-sentencing, I’m not sure I really think he blew it at all. On the contrary, maybe – just maybe – he’s played his hand rather smartly. Maybe going down with a whimper to what was after all a very, very self-contained US sting operation, was the best of all his options. It meant he didn’t have to talk about any of the other work he’s done; it meant that he didn’t have to talk about Africa, or Afghanistan, or any of the covert deliveries he’s been making for either Russia, or (crucially) the United States. This was the one scenario everyone could afford. Except of course, Viktor. He’s in for 25 years. Or is he?
What made me think again about the trial, and about its part in the bigger game being played out, was an email exchange I had with Russian journalist Yulia Ponomareva of the Moscow News, written up here. The starting point for the exchange was Yulia’s question: “Will Viktor Bout serve his 25 years, or return to Russia? Which is more likely?”
The day Bout was convicted back in the autumn, I’d expressed the gut belief on Twitter that he would be repatriated fairly soon; though as that was a first reaction and sentence had not been passed at that stage, I’d left open what exactly I meant by “soon”. But preparing my answers for the Moscow News, I realized that – assuming my feeling about repatriation is correct – the hand Bout has played is careful indeed. It’s about the long game: talk in court in the US in an attempt to get off, or to cut a deal, and you might succeed; but you’ll probably fail anyway, and messily, having played all of your cards and sold out most of your contacts back home and around the world. Fail on purpose, however – brief your attorney poorly, insist he witters on about US hypocrisy, blithely miss all the hints a deal may be on the cards – and you’ll go down. But you’ll be repatriated, and that’s where the real trial will start. Like a mobster who keeps schtum in jail knowing he’ll be collected outside the gates by his old cohorts the day he gets parole, Bout played the long game.
So one question now is, how soon will that happen? And for that, I’m posting below and entire my answers to the questions on his repatriation from the Moscow News. (The other, of course, is whether the bust itself was, to some extent, theatre.)
Yulia Ponomareva: So there are two options so far, the first one being Bout’s serving his 25-year sentence in the US, the second one is his extradition to Russia. Which one is more likely?
MP: I would guess that a return to Russia is highly likely – in the medium term, and perhaps even in the shorter term. The fact is that (from the point of view of successive American administrations) Viktor Bout became rather an embarrassment, and that made him the perfect ‘example’ case. What they wanted was to be seen to have stopped Viktor Bout, as they regarded him as the world’s most famous (note: I don’t say biggest, because he almost certainly was not that) international transporter of illicit small arms. However, they will now be keenly aware that Viktor Bout has not stopped being a problem for them, at least behind the scenes. And to this end I expect discussions to begin in earnest now that he has been sentenced and the media spotlight is off. (It is also interesting that right now, there seem to be more illicit arms floating around than there ever have been – so as far as public opinion is concerned, perhaps there is some amazement that stopping Viktor Bout did not lead to a sudden unavailability of illicit weapons…)
YP: Is there really anything the Russian Foreign Ministry can do to bring him back to Russia?
MP: When I say that I expect diplomacy to increase in terms of finding a workable solution, I mean on both sides. This is true of both the USA and Russian Federation, whose public diplomatic campaigns during his incarceration have been sporadic, and mostly concentrated on the short periods of time when Bout was in the news (Thai extradition to USA, verdict/sentencing). I personally think that (again, for both sides) the biggest issues now is credibility: if a return to Russia under any circumstances is on the cards (so to speak) there has to be a way for the US to credibly communicate to its public and NGOs the fact that he will not simply be taking up his business where he left it – that their sentencing and enforcement actions (and associated costs) have been effective. From the point of view of Russian diplomacy, there are also clearly two audiences: the Americans and the Russian electorate. This is normal for any country, and explains the dual tone we’ve seen so far, of quiet pressure and public outcry. (In some ways, the change of position of Dmitry Rogozin from Nato Ambassador to Russian Deputy PM should have some effect here!)
YP: Do you think he could be swapped for someone? And should we expect arrests of alleged US spies in this case?
MP: Excellent question. On one hand, that would be very transparent piece of political theatre. On the other, we are used to that, no? (Also, I think it would offer both sides the “credible way out” I talked about above, if I’m being honest…) So, without gambling money on it, I’ll just say pretty soon.
YP: If he has to be extradited, will he serve 25 years in Russian prison, or chances are he’ll be released here?
MP: I believe the prospect of Viktor serving 25 years in either Russia or the USA to be very slight. Being realistic, there is almost no chance of him ever being able to go back to the business he had before (Would you do business with him if you were an arms dealer nowadays? Not me. Too notorious/hot to touch), so reoffending is not an issue. And from what I understand, he is a model prisoner in terms of behaviour. So serving the full term is unlikely, even in the US. The cynical voice in my head expects an appeal soon for repatriation, perhaps on grounds of ill health, though there is nothing currently to suggest his health or that of others is poor.
YP: If he remains in the US, could he be of any value to the U.S. intelligence?
MP: I think, personally, that his value to US intelligence is less than most of the public thinks. After all, most of his deals are known about already; even those who spent 20 years shadowing him admitted the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t prove what he did; it was that what he did (up until the controversial 2008 FARC related arrest) was not actually illegal. I have no doubt that US intelligence will be romancing him at the moment, trying to get what info they can negotiate, with the prospect of a deal. However, on balance, if I were Viktor, I would probably be less worried about US intelligence than I would be about what would happen if I did reveal something. He’s always been very discreet.
YP: Why has he been the only one of his arms trafficking network to be put in jail?
MP: Personally, I believe Viktor Bout’s big mistake was to allow himself to become a celebrity. There are bigger arms-transporting fish than him out there, and they are corporations doing the same thing illicitly as they do licitly. They are quite complex, faceless and therefore rather boring in terms of mobilizing opinion within government or law enforcement to act against them. Viktor Bout’s troubles really stem from his New Yorker photoshoots and his interviews in the early-mid-2000s, and from coming to the attention of politicians like Peter Hain who became angry at his seeming impudence and notoriety. When he was just a businessman, he was more or less safe. Once he was branded a ‘Merchant of Death’ and Nicholas Cage was acting film roles based on him, he was a living challenge to law enforcers, arms control NGOs and politicians everywhere.
YP: What about his accomplices? Do you think any of Russia’s high-ranking officials and the military have been involved and is it possible Bout will give their names away?
MP: High-ranking Russian politicians were certainly involved: the transportation and sale of arms for cash was seen, in the early 1990s, as a way for the Russian (and Ukrainian/Belarusian) state and military to liquidate assets they no longer needed, and this was all quite openly done. This was how many of the businessmen in the same field as Viktor got started in air transportation. In my book Outlaws Inc., in which I follow the former Red Army pilots who flew for Viktor and others, I interviewed former Defence minister and Commander of the Armed Forces Marshal Evgeny Shaposhnikov. I asked him the following question about one of Viktor Bout’s illicit transport operations in 1995 (on which the Russian film Kandaghar: Survive & Return” was based).
[Me to Shaposhnikov: “Later, in the mid-1990s, did you know about flights in Il-76 aircraft to supply the Mujaheddin of Afghanistan with weapons? Or rather, did these flights ever have official (or unofficial) government approval?” Shaposhnikov’s answer was: “No comment.” I make no accusation against Shaposhnikov, but clearly there was a tolerance for what needed to be done. He also said, when I asked about an order giving servicemen the right to sell military property, including weapons, back in 1992 when Bout began his business from an army base…
Shaposhnikov’s answer: “Certain steps had to be done officially in this direction: some firing and training grounds were leased to local collective farms; military trucks were used for fetching non-military goods; our men were sent to help collective farmers with crops; and extra military property were given to local businessmen.”] This is all in my book. However, it’s crucially important to realize that although there was some cooperation, or at least non-intervention, from high up the Russian political establishment, the same is true in the US and many other countries, who were at the same time reading United Nations Security Council reports into Viktor’s (and others’) activities, and using Viktor (and those others) to transport their arms, equipment and men to Iraq and so on. The fact is that these ‘illicit’ airlines give governments all over the world a discreet, private transport method when they are dropping Private Military Contractors or sensitive personnel or material somewhere. You can bet that security forces from Africa, America or wherever else don’t get dropped off in Somalia by Lufthansa.
YP: That’s even greater than I expected, many thanks. This is really funny, btw: “The cynical voice in my head expects an appeal soon for repatriation, perhaps on grounds of ill health”. Many Russian convicts dream of serving a sentence in a ‘civilized’ country like the US. Still, there are just a couple of things that need clarifying, I think. [Your phrase] “I would guess that a return to Russia is highly likely – in the medium term, and perhaps even in the shorter term.” – I assume you’re taking about several months’ time here, right?
MP: Yes. I would say we’re talking 50/50 within a year, 75% chance within 3, and I just cannot see Viktor Bout in a US prison in 5 years. Behind the scenes, I simply don’t think anyone wants him there. Out of the way/out of mischief, yes. But not there!
YP: [Your phrase] “What they wanted was to be seen to have stopped Viktor Bout, as they regarded him as the world’s most famous (note: I don’t say biggest, because he almost certainly was not that) international transporter of illicit small arms.” – Is it possible to specify how ‘big’ he was as an arms trafficker?
MP: Viktor Bout was as big as you get being an independent, is perhaps a good way of putting it. He headed his company, did his deals himself, handled clients, ran around with the planes if he had to. Now, some of those deals look impressive, and some of the clients’ names are well-known. But as Peter Danssaert of the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) in Antwerp told me in the book, this does only makes him a big fish within that bracket – of independent owner-businessmen. There are far more significant shipments being made by the state-corporates on all sides. In Russian terms, this might equate to Rosoboronexport/Rozvooruzhenie (state-owned arms producer, recently suspected of selling arms to blacklisted regimes like Omar al Bashir’s Sudan – some of which, the MiG fighter planes, mysteriously turned up with bonus-extra mercenary pilots to fly them (on their papers, listed as instructors and mechanics of course, only some later turned up dead in battle against the rebels…). But I’m not picking Russia out as a particularly bad example in all this: UK’s equipment is flying all over the place, France ended up shipping tonnes upon tonnes of illicit small weapons to the Libyan rebels, and the US is arming Somali forces to the teeth using licit corporate means right now. So really, as Moises Naim (ex-World Bank) told me, the Viktor Bouts and Pablo Escobars are somehow relics. They had a purpose in the marketplace, and that was to do the things there was no infrastructure for. But now globalization has been properly established, the arms producers are not going to allow themselves to be cut out of a money-making situation by some middlemen running around selling second-hand goods, not when there’s really big money at stake. Russian film producer Ilya Neretin made that film Kandaghar a couple of years ago. It was his movie, and he used one of Bout’s planes for the re-enactment, and of course the story is of one of Bout’s operations gone wrong. Even he laughed about it to me (again, quoting from the book): “Look Matt, I will tell you this. There are so many Mr X figures ruling this world. And Mr Bout is a prince. But there are kings.” Viktor Bout is the boss of a small business. Think of a car dealership. His name and his brand are important, which is why he did all he could do to build them up (his mistake, potentially). Against that, imagine the others. They are not independent car dealerships. They are more like General Motors or something, in size and reach. That’s how big Viktor was.
YP: And what do you mean by “not actually illegal” here? “Even those who spent 20 years shadowing him admitted the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t prove what he did; it was that what he did (up until the controversial 2008 FARC related arrest) was not actually illegal.”
MP: Well, I meant just that – until Viktor Bout was caught in the sting operation having a conversation in which he said yes, he’d give [people he thought were] FARC missiles to shoot down US-piloted helicopters, he was not committing any crimes. There were a lot of things he did that were maybe reprehensible, but part of the reason he ran around for so long was that nobody knew what they could charge him with. This was one of the key frustrations of Douglas Farah & Stephen Braun’s 2007 book Merchant of Death, a dossier from two American reporters who would later bear witness against Bout, as it was for Condoleezza Rice and the CIA. This was why it was so important for the undercover agents in the hotel room in Bangkok to get him saying the specific words into the tape about giving them ammo to kill Americans with. It was their only real weapon to go against him. And don’t forget, although there are questions as to whether (for instance) he supplied both the Taliban and Northern Alliance in Afghanistan with guns in the 1990s, well, so had the USA in the 1980s and then again (to the Northern Alliance) post-9/11. So the bust was a nice way to get him charged on a specific crime, right now in the present, with a start and a finish to it that could be captured on tape in one meeting. That meant nobody had to delve back into any uncomfortable questions about how many times they had also used this man to deliver weapons for them, and they could ignore all questions Bout’s defence might raise about their involvement and past history with him. Which they did.
So watch this space. These predictions may pan out, or they may not. But either way, in the limelight or behind the scenes, I’ve a feeling the Viktor Bout story’s got a way to run yet.