Viktor Anatolyevich Bout (/bt/; Russian: Ви́ктор Анато́льевич Бут; born 13 January 1967) is a Russian arms dealer. An entrepreneur and former Soviet military translator, reportedly used his multiple air transport companies to smuggle weapons since the collapse of communism from Eastern Europe to Africa and the Middle East during the 1990s and early 2000s.[1][2][3][4] Bout was nicknamed the Merchant of Death and Sanctions Buster for his reported wide-reaching operations, extensive clientele, and willingness to bypass embargoes.[1][5][6]

Viktor Bout
Виктор Бут
Viktor Bout.jpg
Viktor Anatolyevich Bout

(1967-01-13) 13 January 1967 (age 55)
Other namesVadim Markovich Aminov, Viktor Bulakin, Victor Anatoliyevich Bout, Victor But, Viktor Budd, Viktor Butt
Known forConvictions for criminal intent to traffic arms and conspiracy to kill

On 6 March 2008, Bout was arrested in Thailand on terrorism charges by the Royal Thai Police in cooperation with American authorities, and the United States ambassador requested his extradition under the Extradition Act with Thailand, which was eventually mandated by the Thai High Court in August 2010.[5][7][8] Bout was accused of intending to smuggle arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for use against U.S. forces in Colombia, but denied his charges and predicted an acquittal.[8][9][10][11][12][13] On 2 November 2011, Bout was convicted by a jury in a Manhattan federal court of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization, and was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment.[14][15] Since June 2012, Bout has been held at the United States Penitentiary, Marion.[16][17][18][19]


Early lifeEdit

Viktor Bout's origins are unclear, except United Nations documents and Bout himself both state his birthplace as Dushanbe, Tajik SSR, USSR (now the capital of Tajikistan), and that his date of birth is most likely on 13 January 1967, although several other dates are possible.[20][21][22][23][24][25] A South African intelligence file from 2001 listed Bout as being ethnically Ukrainian in origin.[26][27]

Military careerEdit

Bout served in the Soviet Armed Forces, but there is no definite information on his military career except that he graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages.[23][28][29] His training allowed Bout to become a polyglot and master six languages: Russian, Portuguese, English, French, Arabic and Persian. He's reported to be fluent in Esperanto, which he learned at age 12 in the early 1980s as a member of the Dushanbe Esperanto club.[30][31][32][33] Bout's personal website stated that he served in the Soviet Army as a translator, holding the rank of lieutenant.[2] He is thought to have been discharged from the Soviet Army in 1991 with the rank of lieutenant colonel to start an air freight business, but other sources state he was a major in the GRU, an officer in the Soviet Air Forces, that he graduated from a Soviet military intelligence training program, or an operative of the KGB.[1][5][20][24] Bout was involved with a Soviet military operation in Angola in the late 1980s assisting the MPLA in the Angolan Civil War, though he has stated that he was only in Angola for a few weeks.[20][23][28][34]



According to Bout's personal website, he began his first air freight business, Air Cess, in Africa around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, operating four Antonov An-8 planes in Angola as it was the only country to allow the An-8 to be used in civilian freight at the time.[22] Reportedly, Bout's companies legally provided air freight services to the French government, the United Nations, and the United States, including shipped flowers, frozen chicken, UN peacekeepers, French soldiers, and African heads of state.[1][20][27][29][35][36] Around this time, Bout earned the nickname "Sanctions Buster" due to being implicated of facilitating the violation of the United Nations arms embargoes in the western African countries of Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[37]

Bout acknowledges having been to Afghanistan on numerous occasions during the 1990s, but has denied dealing with al-Qaeda or the Taliban.[21][38][39] Beginning in 1994, Bout made shipments for the pre-Taliban government of Afghanistan which later became the Northern Alliance and knew one of its commanders, Ahmad Shah Massoud, with the CIA described Bout-owned planes as transporters of small arms and ammunition into the country.[20][34][39] In 1995, Bout was involved in negotiations to free Russian hostages during the 1995 Airstan incident.[40]

An Il 76 formerly used by Bout's Centrafrican Airlines
An Il 76 formerly used by Air Cess and Air Pass, both of which were owned by Bout

In 2000, a United Nations report stated, "... Bulgarian arms manufacturing companies had exported large quantities of different types of weapons between 1996 and 1998 on the basis of (forged[23]) end-user certificates from Togo",[41] and that "... with only one exception, the company Air Cess, owned by Victor Bout, was the main transporter of these weapons from Burgas airport in Bulgaria".[41] This was the first time Bout was formally mentioned in connection with arms trafficking, and the weapons may have been destined for use in the Angolan Civil War by UNITA, the opposing faction of the MPLA which Bout had aided during his military service.[41][42] Another suspected arms dealer, Imad Kebir, is said to have employed Bout's aircraft during the mid-1990s to transport weapons to Africa from Eastern European states.[43] The cargo supposedly had end-user certificates from Zaire, but the true end-user was UNITA in neighboring Angola.[43] From 1993, UNITA was covered under Resolution 864, a United Nations Security Council embargo prohibiting the importation of arms to Angola.[44]

In Liberia, Bout was suspected of supplying Charles Taylor with arms for use in the First Liberian Civil War, with eyewitnesses claiming the two of conducting personal meetings.[45]

In 1993, Bout began collaborating with Syrian-born Richard Chichakli, and in 1995 the Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates hired Chichakli to be the commercial manager of its new free-trade zone.[46] Bout began using the UAE's free trade zone and Chichakli was, at one time, called Bout's "financial manager" by the United States.[47]

Supposedly, Bout has been involved with arms dealings during the Yugoslav Wars, especially with the Bosnian government forces during its uprising against the Milošević government in Yugoslavia. Hasan Čengić, who was the former Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is allegedly one of his former contacts. Both of them came into contact with each other as they both stayed in Tehran during the 90's. The Slobodna Bosna newspaper has claimed that Čengić was a business partner of Bout, when 200,000 AK-47 rifles went missing in transit from Bosnia to Iraq in May 2006, one of Bout's airlines was the carrier.[48]


After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Bout appeared in Moscow and stated that his aircraft made regular flights to the country, but continued to deny any contact with al-Qaeda or the Taliban—instead supplying the rebel Northern Alliance.[49] He may have sold planes to the Taliban, however.[50] Soon after the beginning of the 2001–2014 war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is said to have moved gold and cash out of the country, with reports stating that some of the planes used to do this were linked to Bout.[43] In July 2003, The New York Times interviewed Bout, who stated that "I woke up after Sept. 11 and found I was second only to Osama."[51]

In 2004 Bout and Chichakli set up Samar Airlines in Tajikistan to conduct money laundering activities and protect assets from authorities.[52] Bout is suspected of supplying weapons to numerous armed groups in Africa in the 2000s, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Second Congo War, and may have employed some 300 people and operated 40 to 60 aircraft.[25] Bout's network allegedly delivered surface-to-air missiles to Kenya to be used to attack an Israeli airliner during takeoff in 2002.[53]

Bout was also reportedly seen meeting with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon during the run-up to the 2006 Lebanon War, while some sources claim he was actually in Russia when the meeting took place.[54] Records found in Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's former intelligence headquarters in Tripoli shortly after the overthrow of the Gaddafi government in 2011 indicated that in late September 2003, British intelligence officials told then-Libyan intelligence chief Musa Kusa that Bout had a "considerable commercial presence in Libya" and aimed to expand his interests there.[55]


Bout's strategy of constantly moving location, owning numerous companies, and frequently re-registering aircraft made it hard for authorities to make a case against him, and has never been charged for the alleged African arms deals to which he owes his notoriety.[1][41][56] During Bout's reported operations, he is believed to have lived in various countries, including Belgium, Lebanon, Rwanda, Russia, South Africa, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.[25][36][54][57][58] In 2000, Bout was charged in the Central African Republic with forging documents and was convicted in absentia, but the charges were later dropped.[28]

Belgian authorities requested that Interpol issue a notice for Bout on charges of money laundering, and in 2002 an Interpol red notice on Bout was issued.[35] Bout's website states that because he failed to appear in court a Belgian warrant (not the Interpol notice) for his arrest was issued but later cancelled.[2] The site has a document in Dutch to support the claim that the Belgian case against him was dismissed due to his lack of a fixed residence and because the case could not be prosecuted in a timely fashion.[59]

Executive Order 13348Edit

Bout's U.S. assets were among those frozen in July 2004 under Executive Order 13348, which describes him as a "businessman, dealer and transporter of weapons and minerals" and cites his close association with Charles Taylor.[60]


On 6 March 2008, Bout was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand by the Royal Thai Police based on an Interpol red notice requested by the United States based on conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.[7] The culmination of a sting operation set up by Drug Enforcement Administration agents,[5] Allegedly, Bout offered to supply weapons to people he thought were representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.[1][5] After months of delay, the Criminal Court in Bangkok began an extradition hearing for Bout on 22 September 2008.[61] In February 2009, members of the United States Congress signed a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their wish that the Bout extradition "remain a top priority".[62]


On 11 August 2009, the Bangkok Criminal Court ruled in his favour, denying the United States' request for extradition and citing the political, not criminal, nature of the case.[63] The United States appealed that ruling, and on 20 August 2010, a higher court in Thailand ruled that Bout could, in fact, be extradited to the United States.[64][65][66]

Viktor Bout in the custody of DEA agents on 16 November 2010 after being extradited to the United States

On 16 November 2010, Bout was extradited from Thailand to the United States amid protests by the Russian government, who deemed it illegal.[67][68][69]

Russian protestsEdit

Russia called the Thai court decision in 2010 politically motivated.[70][71] Its Foreign Ministry took steps to prevent Bout being extradited to the U.S.;[29] Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that Bout was innocent.[29]

On 18 November 2010, shortly after Bout's extradition to the United States, Russian President Medvedev's aide Sergei Prikhodko said that Russia had "nothing to hide" in Bout's criminal case stating, "it is in our interest that the investigation ... be brought to completion, and [Bout] should answer all the questions the American justice system has."[72][73] On 18 January 2013, Russian government officials announced that "judges, investigators, justice ministry officials and special services agents who were involved in Russian citizens Viktor Bout's and Konstantin Yaroshenko's legal prosecution and sentencing to long terms of imprisonment" would be added to a list of U.S. officials who will be denied Russian entry visas in response to the U.S. Magnitsky Act, under which certain Russian officials are ineligible to enter the U.S.[74]

It is thought that Bout was of help to Russia's intelligence agencies,[8] and he is alleged to have connections to ranking Russian officials, including former deputy prime minister Igor Sechin.[75] The language institute Bout attended has been linked to the GRU, and Bout allegedly served alongside the GRU-affiliated Sechin in Mozambique in the 1980s, although both men deny this allegation.[25][29][34][58][76] According to a 2002 United Nations report, Bout's father-in-law Zuiguin "at one point held a high position in the KGB, perhaps even as high as a deputy chairman".[25]

Prosecution and conviction in the United StatesEdit

The day after his Bangkok arrest, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Bout with conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization,[77] conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to kill American officers or employees, and conspiring to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile.[61] Additional charges against him were filed in February 2010.[78] These included illegal purchase of aircraft, wire fraud, and money laundering.[10]

Bout was convicted by a jury at a court in Manhattan on 2 November 2011.[14] On 5 April 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, the minimum sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist group.[79][80] District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the minimum sentence was appropriate because "there was no evidence that Bout would have committed the crimes for which he was convicted had it not been for the sting operation".[79] Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement denouncing Bout's sentence as "a political order".[79] During the trial, Bout's lawyers also implied that he was a political prisoner.[79] Bout's wife Alla said shortly afterwards that the judge conducted the trial in a proper way.[81] Bout himself pointed out that if the same standards were applied to everyone, all American gun shop owners "who are sending arms and ending up killing Americans" would be in prison.[citation needed]

In June 2013, a co-conspirator of Bout's, Richard Ammar Chichakli, was extradited to New York state on charges that he conspired to buy aircraft in violation of economic sanctions.[82]

In September 2013, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld Bout's conviction after rejecting his contention that he had been the victim of a vindictive prosecution and that there was no legitimate law enforcement reason to prosecute him.[83]

As of 2014, former US Attorney General John Ashcroft is representing Bout in overturning his conviction via a new trial.[84]

In June 2020, a Reuter's article highlighted that following the charging of ex-U.S. marine Paul Whelan in Moscow, Russia was exploring the possibility of a prisoner swap exchanging Whelan for Viktor Bout and a pilot named Konstantin Yaroshenko.[85]

Popular cultureEdit

The 2005 film Lord of War is purportedly based on allegations about Bout's personal history and black-market activities.[1][29][86]

The third chapter "Merchant of Death" of the 2005 book The Washing Machine by Nick Kochan is written about Bout.[87]

A documentary about Bout, The Notorious Mr. Bout, from Market Road Films and directed by Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin, received its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.[88]

In 2007, Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah published a book about Bout: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible.[34]

The 2015 TV series "Manhunt: Kill or Capture", episode 10, entitled "The Merchant of Death", details the rise and fall of Viktor Bout.

In the US documentary series Damian Lewis: Spy Wars published in 2019 by A+E Networks,[89] episode 7 titled The Merchant of Death[90] portrays the story of Viktor Bout, the sting operation, capture, extradition and sentencing.


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External linksEdit