Death and a Big, Bouncy Ball
Back in 2012, I managed to get myself detained in Benghazi at the kick-off of their civil war. While the Russian authorities may be goons of a hostile power, there is a power in Moscow. Which was more than you could say about Libya at the time. The country had no practical government – Benghazi even less so: It was just a world of rival militias. If you got arrested, you just needed to pray that whoever was pointing a gun at you had gotten it from the West and not Iran– it affected their worldview. Imagine your arms dealer as lifestyle choice. Arrest under those circumstances is a strange sort of fear that you really don’t get in America. To put it mildly, it sucked.
I guess if you have a media machine behind you, it must suck less. It was still pretty awkward for the US administration: There is no way to obviously play chess with people’s lives and come out looking good. Sure, we got back a basketball player, but left an ex-marine and businessman, Paul Whelan, to continue rotting in a Russia prison. In return, we let loose a man who will likely facilitate the deaths of thousands going forward. They didn’t call him “The Merchant of Death” for nothing, although, from the perp-walk after his arrest in Thailand, Viktor Bout looked like the sort of a gas station owner who steals your credit card data. Looks can be deceiving.
The strange thing about Viktor Bout, to me, is his resemblance to an arms dealer in Yellowcake, a novel I wrote back in 2008, the year US authorities picked him up in Thailand. Bout was an ex-army guy who’d never really been a soldier who, on the Soviet collapse of the Soviet Union, took a long look at an enormous stockpile of weapons and his post-Cold War career, and carved himself a grim little niche.
Born in Tajikstan in 1967, Bout attended the Military Institute for Foreign Languages in Moscow, served in the Soviet Air Force in Mozambique and with the army in Angola. When the collapse came, the man knew enough languages, as well as Africans and central Asians in high places that he was able to set up shop as an arms dealer. Operating from his base in Sharjah, UAE he operated a fleet of 60 cargo planes which carried arms all over the developing world. You’ve almost got to admire the man because he boasted of never flying empty: The flights back were filled with more pedestrian cargo. Less admirable was the fact that he was arming people in what amounted to gang warfare on a global scale.
In 2002, Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest, so Bout returned to Moscow where the Vladimir Putin, in power just two years at the time, might take his hustle in the required good humor. The jihadists were really starting to jump then, having just scored their big win against the West, and business was good. In 2008, Bout went to Thailand to cut a deal with FARC, the Columbian rebel army, so they could run amok and displace more South Americans. He got US officials instead. In 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years, and had been sitting in prison in Illinois ever since.
There the story should wrap up, but on 8 December, he was released to go home to Moscow and come out of enforced retirement to foment bloody chaos and war. Paul Whelan is still locked up but Brittney Griner is back home to continue her career bouncing a ball, and that is a good thing.
It was not, however, a good swap.