Exclusive: Viktor Bout still has his eye on Africa

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After spending more than a decade in prison following his conviction in the United States, Viktor Bout is once again a free man in Russia, following the December prisoner exchange with incarcerated American basketball star Brittney Griner. As he restarts his life and business interests, Bout has cast his eyes back on Africa.

When asked about his future plans, Bout told defenceWeb, during an exclusive interview in Moscow, that as his background is centred around logistics and infrastructure, and since the Russian government wishes to enhance economic cooperation with Africa, “I’d like to apply my expertise in this field. Africa is developing very quickly, not just in terms of supplying minerals and raw materials, but also the human potential of the continent’s people. I believe that after poverty alleviation is achieved, Africa will soon take her rightful place on the world stage as the lungs of the planet and be a powerhouse towards the future enhancement of humanity on the whole.”

BRICS summit and a shifting geopolitical landscape

Bout is aiming to form a bridge between Russian companies and Africa, particularly in the fields of energy (including oil and gas), infrastructure (rail, locomotives and support systems) and agriculture (grain, fertiliser etc.). He is already working on several ventures in Russia and Africa, having recently attended the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg as a delegate, where he engaged with visiting African role players.

With the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Summit kicking off in Johannesburg on 22 August, Bout sees growing interest in the bloc as a tectonic shift in the geopolitical world order. BRICS countries are, amongst others, pushing for a new currency and looking at expanding membership as they seek to neutralise Western dominance.

“The BRICS alliance is spearheading that change as is evident by more and more countries requesting membership,” Bout said. “The scales are tipping and critical mass is shifting to the side with new ideas and fresh approaches to the challenges of the future, which will no longer be orchestrated by Anglo-Saxon domination that’s hindered true development unjustly for so long.”

“What the world at large needs is to move away from the US Dollar as reserve currency and to facilitate trade on a fairer and more balanced basis,” he added. Academic think tanks advising Russian government policy have emphasised that access to alternative funding mechanisms is sorely needed to finance critical infrastructure as the key to unlocking Africa’s potential, since traditional institutions like the IMF are too rigid, often turning developing and third world applicants down.

Leadership, legacy, and lessons from the past

 

Bout advised African leaders to act in the best interests of their own countries, especially in the face of economic and military pressures being exerted on them by former colonial powers. “Truth to one’s convictions is always the most powerful force and as long as any leader remains true to his people, this will inevitably overcome the dangers of engineered insurgencies. Just as no empire has ever been able to survive a grassroots rebellion, no rebellion (or insurgency framed as a rebellion by outside actors) can be successful against a leader who is sincerely acting in the best interests of his country,” he said.

Personally, Bout believes in following his heart, as this “is what brought me success in the first place.” He added that, “life is a learning curve and so we’ll always incorporate lessons learnt. Overall, I’m grateful for what I achieved.”

Born in 1967 in Tajikistan, Bout entered the Soviet military’s Institute of Foreign Languages before being sent to Mozambique in 1987. He developed a passion for the continent and identified opportunities that weren’t visible to many others while the dust was settling on the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he stepped in to fill the gap left by the USSR’s departure from Africa. He understood that countries would still need spare parts and replacements for all the Soviet equipment they’d acquired over previous decades and set about sourcing whatever countries needed. Bout found his niche as offering a wide product range with delivery to every customer’s doorstep, particularly in volatile corners of the continent where conventional freight companies feared to go.

Providing services without any political strings attached made his offerings especially attractive for African countries. Bout’s philosophy was to never fly empty and this, together with the view that no-one should shoot the postman, were some of the reasons for his successful airline ventures, along with his gift for languages. He was someone who would fly anything, anywhere, by any means. Apart from defence equipment, this included Tilapia fish from Africa to Europe, frozen chickens to Nigeria, peacekeepers into conflict zones and aid into areas of unrest. In 1997 Bout’s aircraft were flying refugees around the Congo and aid for the UN World Food Programme, while at the same time flying weapons around that very country – his aircraft were very busy during the Second Congo War.

“I am not an arms trader per se”, Bout has said in a previous interview. “It’s possible that I have transported arms but I’m a businessman, I have many planes and I don’t care what clients ask me to transport because that’s not my responsibility.”

At the peak of his operations, Bout had around 60 aircraft active in his fleet. “By 1996 my charter operation in Sharja, UAE, was the second largest after Lufthansa. Other airlines would often outsource their deliveries to my planes – especially in servicing regions that were hard to reach,” he told defenceWeb.

In addition to aircraft, “during the time before my incarceration, I had several forwarding companies involving air and sea freight. I tried trucking too but found it not to be my forte, so preferred to partner with other companies that specialised in moving goods over land whenever the need arose.”

Bout said one of the reasons for his success was that he built up a strong team of very competent people by paying them as much as he could afford, investing heavily in staff training and not allowing the company to become top-heavy. “I only had 12 people in management versus around 600 pilots and ground-crew etc. Many airlines nowadays have the opposite of this where the top management structures are littered with people, adding to the overheads instead of performing the critical tasks. When it came to my clients, I always went out of my way to provide holistic solutions to their problems, which requires a degree of open-mindedness that’s beyond the status quo,” he told defenceWeb.

In the crosshairs

In 1999 the United Nations made known that they were aware of Bout’s aircraft flying arms around Africa, but there wasn’t a legal way to prosecute him even though these flights were violating UN arms embargoes in certain jurisdictions. By the 2000s Bout’s empire was worth billions of dollars, he employed several hundred people and dozens of mostly ex-Soviet cargo aircraft.

The ability to source and deliver practically any product, without any political strings attached, started to worry certain countries and organisations, primarily in the West. In July 2004, US President George W Bush signed a Presidential Executive Order declaring Bout “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States,” and so the US started targeting him by seizing his assets.

For years, various international authorities attempted to stop Bout’s operations, with Interpol issuing an arrest warrant for alleged money laundering in 2002. Bout’s profile was further expanded in the public domain with the 2005 release of Hollywood blockbuster “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage. The movie was purported to be a screen adaptation examining Bout’s business empire, even though the script was entirely fictional.

By 2006 the United States and United Kingdom were making a concerted effort to shut Bout down. By this time Bout was described by the US National Security Council (NSC) as the world’s most notorious arms dealer, due to his ability to deliver weapons into civil war zones, with the complicity of the highest ranks of government and military in Russia. He was branded ‘one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth’ and nicknamed the ‘Merchant of Death’ by Western state institutions, politicians and the mainstream media.

Sting operation

Over the course of two years, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) set up an elaborate sting operation in a bid to entrap Bout and his associate Andrew Smulian, by posing as Colombia’s FARC rebel group (designated a terrorist organisation by the US government) that was interested in buying arms. After discussions in Curacao, Russia, Denmark and Romania, things came to a head in March 2008 when Bout agreed to meet the ‘FARC representatives’ in Thailand. By not walking out of the meeting when a DEA agent said that he’d like to see Americans killed, this was deemed sufficient grounds to arrest Bout and Smulian. The US then embarked on a further two-year process to extradite him to the United States and stand trial there, despite severe protests by the Russian government.

The US Grand Jury indictment stated that Bout was an “international weapons trafficker” who, in order “to provide cover for his illicit arms transactions…developed an international network of front companies, and used his cargo airplanes to deliver lawful goods, such as food and medical supplies, in addition to arms.” He was charged with conspiracy to kill US nationals; providing the FARC with weapons; and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles to enable the FARC to attack US aircraft in Colombia. An additional charge of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organisation was also added.

In October 2011 Bout was found guilty and in April 2012 sentenced to 25 years in a US penitentiary. Before his sentencing he said “I am innocent… If you gonna apply the same standards to me, then you’re gonna jail all those arms dealers in America who [are] selling the arms that end up killing Americans… It’s a double standard.”

Judge Shira Scheindlin, in imposing the mandatory 25-year sentence, noted that “but for the approach made through this determined sting operation, there is no reason to believe Bout would ever have committed the charged crimes.” She later said, “I’m not defending him… but he’s a businessman. He was in the business of selling arms.” After retiring from the bench, she was also quoted as saying that the sentence imposed was disproportionate.

Bout spent over a decade in the United States Penitentiary, Marion, in Illinois. After returning to Russia, he said the American prison system is “a corrupt set-up whereby middlemen get paid to facilitate government tenders for products manufactured by the prisoners. In the prison where I was incarcerated, the cables for Tomahawks and Abrams tanks were manufactured, for example. Private corporations use the prison system to manufacture their goods cheaply and since the budgets allocated are based on the number of inmates housed, there is a clear incentive to keep the prisons full.”

After years of back-channel negotiations, the Joe Biden administration agreed to exchange Bout for US citizen Griner on 8 December 2022. She’d been arrested in February 2022 for possession of cannabis oil and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. When the swap finally happened on the airport tarmac in Abu Dhabi, UAE, while the parties passed one another going to their respective planes to take them home, Viktor briefly greeted Brittney and said, “good luck” to which she replied, “you too”.