Catching Up with The Merchant of Death

When the Soviet Union imploded in 1989, Viktor Anatolyevich Bout was in the right spot.  As a Soviet Air Force officer he was positioned to correctly assess the outcome of political events occurring around him and work those to his advantage.

The then twenty two year old Bout has been portrayed as a translator for the former military and more notably was an accomplished pilot. It was also suggested that Viktor was a Major in the KGB, described as an individual “who could follow you into a revolving door and come out ahead”.

With an aptitude for making money, armed with his superior military training and proficient in six languages he moved into a well known 21st century occupation, smuggling guns.  His military contacts were well established and he could fly both fixed wing and helicopters, these seemed like appropriate job skills. He started his business.

The former USSR was broken.  Boris Yeltsin was elected the first President of the Soviet Federation in 1991, which was now comprised of the ranks of the previous Republics, plus Russia.  Some of these Republics were mired in their own difficulties with breakaway regions like Moldova, Chechnya and Belarus which amplified the dysfunction throughout the region.

The USSR had strategically decentralized arsenals situated throughout these various regions to be better dispense Soviet might in the satellite states and the collapse rendered these stockpiles available for plunder after the breakup.  The small arms and rifles in these locations were measured in tons, sometimes stored in warehoused heaps with no regard for the weapon.  It was just product.

With these far flung military bases amassing the weapons of the army, navy and air force, centralized authority was waning and securing the stockpiles was relegated to the local commanding officers, who eventually didn’t really have a chain of command. The Republics fell behind on salary to soldiers and police. Soldiers who have not been paid during an upheaval will begin to sell off weapons.

Boris was dealing with an attempted coup a few months after his victory at the polls; reserves were non-existent except oil, and with the Federations economy in collapse his options were quickly reduced.

It became known through the weapons underground that if you wanted a submarine, you quietly voiced your requirements in the correct circles, traveled to top secret Balaklava which is situated 10km south- east of Sevastopol in the Crimea and link up with the local officials.

The working nuclear subs were quickly bought up by a series of drug lords throughout the world who in one instance arrived at Sevastopol, on the Black Sea Coast, with a trained crew and three shrink wrapped skids of high denomination US bills. They boarded the sub, full reversed out of dry dock, never to be seen again.

Helicopters, jets, radar installations, GPS jamming devices and just about anything in terms of modern military hardware was available for tender.  The weapons guidance systems and fighter planes went quickly to embargoed foreign governments, some with documents but the majority without.

The breakaway region of Moldova established a cottage industry for counterfeit End User Certificates with over 400 fake EUC stamps which insured that the illicit arms delivery would pass moderate inspection.  Some misguided official in Minsk had mistakenly acknowledged their Republic’s autonomy at the breakup and they were in business.

Nature and smuggling abhors a vacuum and Viktor Bout stepped into what had now become the Russian business model.

Bout quickly brokered stockpiles through military officers and began moving small arms to insurgencies as well as to drug lords; he was completely ambivalent regarding who got weapons.

He owned Air Cess and initially became the key carrier from Bulgaria’s Bourgas International supplying the smaller wars in Africa.  It was rumored that his first shipments were destined for a faction in the brutal Angolan civil war. Bulgaria’s economy depends on weapons manufacturing and an ambitious young man could do well there.

Air Cess was then headquartered in Liberia in 1990 according to the UN. Viktor immediately transferred the day-to-day operations of the airline to his brother Sergei Bout who managed it as a legitimate business entity.  They carried cargo for the UN, Charles Taylor the former President of Liberia as well as the USA.  Much to the embarrassment of the US they used Bout’s airline as a carrier to accommodate odd load requirements.

As he developed a fleet of 60 rugged aircraft, Air Cess then contracted pilots. These pilots reported to the UN that they consistently delivered crated Eastern European made weapons into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Viktor was moving in bigger circles.

Bout’s dilapidated aircraft, Ilyushin Il-76, Antonov An-77s and Antonov AN-12s were acquired for Flying Dolphin Airline out of the UAE. Viktor assembled these planes using a number of cover airlines and shell companies to disguise the sale. He has linkable ties to ownership in the Dolphin Air but details are very cleverly camouflaged by mergers and holding companies one called Skylink, again a Bout company.

Swaziland officially notified the UAE in 2000 that aircraft based out of the emirate of Shajah appeared to be in very rough condition and likely had been used in arms trafficking.  They named Air Cess and Flying Dolphin Airlines amongst others. The UAE are their own law and heatedly denied the allegations.

The emirate of Shajah is adjacent to Dubai, the banking center for all of the emirates and it is speculated that the finances for the arms and planes were from a Somali warlord named Ahmed Nur Ali Jim’ale who is currently under an UN arrest warrant.  Bout was now in the big game, the eight billion dollar a year armaments black market

Flying Dolphin became Dolphin Air owned by Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al Saqr Nahyan the former Foreign Minister of the UAE and described in an United Nations report as “a business associate of Viktor Bout,  a former KGB agent”. The Sheik has undeniable ties to terrorists. The airline relocated to Dubai International Airport, closer to the essential emirates central bank.

Dolphin Air carried medium sized shipments of arms to the end destination and declared the EUC along with other cargo. The plane simply landed, off loaded the legitimate goods, refuelled and delivered the arms to the real customer.  Viktor developed the airline and established his routes from Eastern Europe to Africa and through the Middle East making contacts at every stop.

Viktor Bout imprudently emerged above the radar, outside of Russia where he has iron tight protection. Victor was directly into the sights of Interpol and the USA. Interpol issued a warrant.

With a low probability of success the US lured Bout into a sting operation in Thailand.  Bout was very experienced with this type of transaction and was enticed by the sum of the buy, twelve million dollars. Bout agreed to provide undercover DEA agents posing as Columbian rebels with an array or armaments including 5000 AK-47s, armor piercing rockets, C-4 explosives, 800 SAMS (surface to air missiles), anti personnel mines, fragmentation grenades and money laundering contacts.  One stop shopping

Viktor was arrested by Thai Police and the heated extradition struggle was underway. Bout then entreated his Moscow contacts to intercede with the Thai Government, while he languished in a Bangkok jail for two years and Russia pursued every method to block extradition to the US.  as this is not in the Russian best interest.

There is little doubt that Bout’s activities in transporting embargoed arms to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Somalis and the Afghans have cost untold lives of service men and women from many nations serving in those conflicts.

Viktor Bout was extradited from Thailand November 16, 2010 and is a federal inmate, in a solitary cell in New York.  It will be very interesting to see how this unfolds.