Last month a New York court heard testimony from former associates of Victor Bout, they described how the Soviet born aviator had smuggled arms which had fuelled conflict across central Africa and beyond, most notably the two Congo wars of the late 90s. Bout was the most successful of a disparate group of ex-Soviet pilots, many of them veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war who set up as independent operators flying cargos around the world. Many of them purchased stocks of ex- Soviet military equipment lying around in warehouses and military bases, sold by underpaid soldiers and then smuggled to war zones across the world. Thanks to their training and experience the pilots have the skills to fly to the world’s most dangerous airstrips. The story of these pilots and their cargos is well documented in Matt Potter’s book Outlaws Inc .
In 2004 at a make shift airstrip near Goma in the DRC, Russian aircrews were shocked when UN investigators suddenly demanded to see identification and user end certificates of the cargo in the decrepit ll-76 llyushin planes which stood by the runway. The planes were importing small arms such as AK-47s made in Russia in return for coltan a mineral used in mobile phones and laptops. The Russians were surprised at the inspection because they had been shuttling cargos legal and illegal around the less well regulated parts of Africa with ease for years with little serious policing or interference. Many of the planes escaped from the airstrip taking off with the help of the Congolese military, but the UN still managed to inspect 26 planes that day.
By the mid-2000s the authorities were taking a closer interest in Bout and other arms smugglers, applying travel bans and economic sanctions such as placing Bout on a “Specially Designated Nationals” list created by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control OFAC which allows the office to freeze the assets of any company or individual dealing with him. In 2005 the Hollywood film Lord of War starring Nicholas Cage was released, the film was loosely based on this life and as a result increased his notoriety and further inhibited this ability to continue travelling and working, as a result Bout went into semi-retirement.
However there is another side to the story of Bout and the Russian smugglers. When emergency aid has been urgently required to be delivered to a war or famine zone, Victor Bout and Russian pilots were usually the quickest to deliver. NGOs were frequent customers as the conventional operators took too long and were not willing to take the risks the Russians were, once you have been a regular dodging Mujahideen SAM missiles flying into Kabul airport flying round African hotspots does not seem so daunting. The NGOs could gloss over the fact the same people they were hiring were shifting arms one week and humanitarian aid the next knowing they had to get aid to trouble spots as fast as possible.
But perhaps more shocking was that Bout owned companies registered in Sharjah UAE, were contracted by Halliburton and then other US military contractors in 2004 to fly equipment into Iraq at the height of the insurgency. The idea that Victor Bout was making money from the US military while still smuggling arms around other parts of world which would not only destabilise countries – but could directly affect US interests (for example arming FARC rebels in Colombia which the US were fighting alongside the Colombian government in the “War on drugs” ). Indeed Republican Congresswoman Sue Kelly who chairs the Congressional Anti-Terrorist Financing Task Force said she felt “a considerable degree of frustration” over efforts to end US contracts with Bout. It took six months for the list of Bout’s companies to be fully registered with Office of Foreign Asset Control OFAC and be officially sanctioned. Bout was way ahead of the authorities – he re-named and re-incorporated his companies and moved the aircraft registrations.
Eventually the US authorities caught up with Victor Bout by posing as Colombian rebels looking to buy arms in a Bangkok Hotel – the culmination of a complex sting operation well described in this Economist Article. Bout fought extradition from Thailand to the US for a couple of years, but was eventually put on trial in New York for conspiracy to kill US citizens. The trial was clouded with controversy as the Russian Government tried to protect Bout and he claimed innocence throughout.
The question remains why was Bout tempted to Bangkok, was he tricked by a sophisticated covert operation despite dodging other traps in the past or was bored of life without adventure and keen for one last deal. Bout was a sophisticated careful operator, who was politically well connected and aware of efforts to catch him. On the other hand the DEA operation was usingchee FARC as a cover, an organisation which was in the market for surface missiles to use against US aircraft, giving the deal a realistic front. However in the past Bout had sold arms to FARC via Vladimiro Montesinos the Peruvian Intelligence chief, and had never dealt with them directly, so he did not know any of their leaders. This allowed the DEA to pose as South American guerrillas in a Bangkok hotel. Bout’s guilty verdict in many ways marks the end of an era, as the ageing fleet of Il-76 is rapidly shrinking as planes go out of service or are cannibalised for spare parts, and with it the band of Russian aviators which criss-crossed Africa and the Middle East and beyond.